Devolving Apes

It would be difficult to overestimate the effect the movie Planet of the Apes had on me as a child. Raised a biblical literalist, evolution was, naturally enough, anathema to me. And yet here was a movie based on the idea that evolution had taken a different course. It was a transgressive film, but the screenplay had been written by Rod Serling, so well known for his trusted work on The Twilight Zone. I was utterly fascinated by it. Until the most recent iteration, I’d seen every sequel, spinoff, and reboot ever made. So important was this story line that as a child I found a copy of the book, in English, of course. Pierre Boulle told the story somewhat differently. Spying the book on my shelf after some four decades of my own evolution, I decided to read it again.

We all evolve. I noticed the improbabilities more this time through. The fact that, unlike the movie, humans wore no clothes at all must’ve scandalized my young eyes. I would’ve agreed, however, with Ulysse Mérou’s sentiments that humans were created in the image of God, not apes. In fact, there is an undercurrent of a somewhat conservative theological outlook here. Humans may experiment on animals, but when it’s reversed, it’s evil. In many ways, the cinematic version improves the story, but Boulle’s telling grows in intensity as the novel unfolds. Mérou develops a moral sense that includes the apes as well as human beings. The story, of course, is largely about prejudice and its evils. In that respect, it’s timeless.

As a child I realized that we lose something if we accept the fact of evolution. We lose that special feeling of having been intentionally created by a deity that made us God-shaped. Ironically, I also came to realize that those who rejected evolution often treated their fellow humans like animals. They held onto prejudices against other “races.” They castigated the poor for being lazy. They wish to remove healthcare from those made in the image of God. The contradictions and cruelties simply don’t comport with the Good Book they adore and ignore. Evolution, with the realities of nature impinging on our security, is far less dangerous than what biblical literalism has evolved to be. I can’t say why this book and its cinematic renditions became so deeply embedded in my young mind. But having read the book again, it’s pretty clear that the ideas have remained there, even as they have modified, with descent, over time.

Human Race

PlanetOfTheApesMythFor reasons no one fully understands, Planet of the Apes touched a deep level of responsiveness in American society. I have to admit to having fallen behind a bit; I need to see Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to be back up to speed, but nevertheless, I remember the television releases and airings of the originals, and even have gone through the entire series in the form of home theater offerings. One Saturday long ago on a visit home, I sat through a marathon of the entire five-movies sequence all in a day. It should be no surprise, then, that as soon as I saw Eric Greene’s Planet of the Apes as American Myth it went on my reading list. Race and Politics in the Films and Television Series, the subtitle read. I admit that I grew up in a conservative, but sheltered environment. Having friends who were African-American, although, admittedly, they were a small fraction of the demographic in my small town, I never realized that there was a problem. Not until I took history and social science classes in school. You have to learn things such as racial distrust.

Struck by Planet of the Apes when I first saw it, I had no idea that it was a racial tale. It makes sense now, in the light of Greene’s analysis. To a child fearing evolution as much as Hell itself, the movie was a kind of forbidden fruit, and by making it science fiction, there was no reason to suppose there was a message here. It was a powerful kind of captivity. I have watched the movie, and current adaptations, many times over. Greene does an excellent job of demonstrating that the movies came at a time of great racial distress. Civil rights, the Vietnam War, the fear of the Communist—xenophobia was perhaps at an all-time high when the apes invaded our planet. As the series goes on, the identifications become clearer and clearer.

But more than that, Greene pointed out some very obvious—in retrospect—religious symbolism in the movies. Some of it was so intentional that it was written into the script. Among the scenes from the life of Jesus, the movies borrow most heavily from Exodus. Moses figures abound. Even Charlton Heston, in his role as Taylor, was following up on the Ten Commandments. Holy families and sacrificial victims mark just about every stage of this dystopia, a world where trust is always far from any relationship with someone physically different. It’s about time that I watched Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. And after that, I need to go back to the beginning, and watch them all with renewed eyes. In the light of current events, also with the hope of a more just future.

Once and Future Ape

Battle_for_the_planet_of_the_apesThe original pentalogy of the Planet of the Apes franchise began a slow decline with Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Producing a movie per year from 1970 to 1973, the series died with Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Given that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has been compared with this original final installment, it seemed time to reacquaint myself with it. The early seventies, as I recall them, were tense times. Social unrest both at home and abroad, coupled with a maddeningly increasing nuclear arsenal, seemed a recipe for disaster. Indeed, the world does end with the second installment of the pentalogy, a scenario set up in the final episode as the Alpha-Omega bomb, guarded by mutants, is declared worthy of reverence. Only through the magic of time travel do Cornelius and Zera travel back to the paranoid 1970s to start the whole series over again. The Battle for the Planet of the Apes, apart from its preachiness, does overflow with religious language and rhetoric. Indeed, it begins with a reading of Scripture from the Lawgiver. Pentalogy or Pentateuch?

Caesar is said to be the savior of apes and, like in the current Dawn, the sympathies of the viewer are with the apes. Gorillas, the frat boys of the ape universe, do indeed cause troubles, with Aldo becoming a kind of Cain who slays a fellow ape, Cornelius. (They even got the initials correct, if reversed.) Religion, and prejudice, it seems, have brought this fictional world to a crux, caught in an endless loop of new futures. As Virgil says, there are an infinite number of lanes on this highway. Presumably, traveling back in time opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Despite the number of reused shots in the film—the first ten minutes or so are simply a recapping of the previous two films—and the unfortunate pacing (how could a climax of two angry apes climbing a tree have possibly dragged on for so long?), the movie does have a message. Race tensions, high at the time, are overtly and covertly addressed. Disarmament is praised. The only future that seems not to exist is for one more movie. Interest moved on to science fiction’s apotheosis in Star Wars just four years later. Once again we would find ourselves in a world of black and white, with simple choices. There was no ambiguity among the Jedi. Still, for all that preaching, equality never did reach its goal. So even with its faults (didn’t we see that same tree-house bombed four times?) it is worth dusting off the Battle for the Planet of the Apes once in a while and pondering better possible futures.

Forbidden Zones

Dawn_of_the_Planet_of_the_Apes

I grew up with talking apes. Well, I was actually about six when Planet of the Apes was released, but it quickly became one of my favorite movies. With a screenplay co-written by Rod Serling, and that very unorthodox conceit of evolution playing visibly on the surface, it was the forbidden fruit. Since, according to our fundamentalist doctrine 1) animals can’t speak, 2) evolution never occurred, and 3) the world was going to end long before 3978, we were not prevented from watching what was obviously fiction. And watch I did. There were spin-off cartoons, not to mention the following movie and television series. An unsuccessful reboot by Tim Burton was followed by Rupert Wyatt’s intelligent, if somewhat sentimental version. And I’ve seen them all. Finances being what they are, and, since my family does not share my enthusiasm for the apes, I’ll probably have to wait for the home-viewing release of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes to enjoy the latest offering.

In the meanwhile in a nearly glowing review in this week’s Time magazine, Richard Corliss has indeed whetted my appetite. The original series of Planet of the Apes movies had, like many films of the late sixties and early seventies, a strong, underlying social critique. Yes, one can see only so much of Charlton Heston’s bare chest, but there was something more going on here—something to which we needed to pay attention. The Burton version went for a parsimonious special effects extravaganza, but the storyline was devoid of much underlying reflection. Good ape, bad ape, all the way. Now, as we are moving into the third major incarnation of Pierre Boulle’s dark vision of our distant future, we see that the apes are maybe the real humans here. Maybe they were from the very beginning.

Perhaps because of its ability to slip beneath the Moral Majority radar in the guise of science fiction, the talking apes have been part of American culture for almost my entire life. The original movie introduced the idea of the Forbidden Zone, that region where the truth lay buried, waiting to be discovered. There was a not-so-subtle jab here at a world where politics was continually being revealed as just another human bid for power, and a Cold War was threatening our very existence. We survived and continued to evolve. Still, we find a kind of social catharsis in the apes, and I worry just a little bit at Corliss’s use of the word apocalypse. The apes have always been remarkably prescient. For some of us, they were more than mere entertainment. And so I’ll patiently wait until I can watch the apes alone in the privacy of my home, to learn what the future might hold.

Monkey See, Monkey Do

ConquestPlanetApesThe year was 1972. In the continuing saga of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth installment, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, addressed the civil rights movement directly. Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, is the last speaking ape left in the past to which his parents had escaped. Inexplicably, the other great apes have all suddenly evolved by 1991—the year in which the story is set—into large sized, almost upright creatures whose population matches than of humans (almost). Initially purchased as pets since the cats and dogs had died off in the late 80’s, apes have been imported as slaves. They are given menial tasks and beaten mercilessly if they make errors. A deep fear pervades the establishment that these apes will try to take over. Breck, the governor of California, decides to find and kill Caesar, at any cost, while his deputy MacDonald tries to save him. When Caesar reveals himself to MacDonald, an African-American, he states that he especially should know what it means for a people not to be free.

Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only four years earlier and although civil rights had made progress, there was still a long way to go. Still is a long way to go. As an affluent culture, we remain reluctant to share. We still see disproportionate numbers of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans forced to live in areas that the amorphous “white” population has fled. Xenophobia is one of the less noble traits with which evolution has endowed us. Even so, the classes we devise aren’t always helpful in determining who people really are. “White” can mean anyone from the southern tip of Chile to the tundra of eastern Siberia. On job applications now “Hispanic” is classified as “white.” I get the feeling that there’s a few unresolved issues here. The sense of entitlement did not begin with this generation. Those who have naturally suppose that they deserve. Caesar observes the unfair treatment and, down to the detail of the weapons the apes stockpile, leads a plantation-style revolt that overcomes a heavily armed command post. Gorilla warfare indeed.

In classic 1960s-70s style, Caesar grandstands after his victory. He was about to order Breck’s execution, but stays his hand in the recognition that even humans deserve to live. We do have to wonder where he might have learned about God, being raised by a circus trainer and in what is an otherwise completely secular society in the film. In any case, his final words in the movie place the apes on a higher moral plane than humans. “But now… now we will put away our hatred. Now we will put down our weapons. We have passed through the Night of the Fires. And who were our masters are now our servants. And we, who are not human, can afford to be humane. Destiny is the will of God! And, if it is man’s destiny to be dominated, it is God’s will that he be dominated with compassion and understanding. So, cast out your vengeance. Tonight we have seen the birth of the Planet of the Apes!” Maybe it’s all the dead bodies around, but I’m still having a little trouble with the “Destiny is the will of God” part.

Theology of the Apes

“Alter what you believe to be the course of the future by slaughtering two innocents, or rather three now that one of them is pregnant? Herod tried that and Christ survived.”

“Sir President, Herod lacked our facilities.”

So the conversation between Dr. Otto Hasslein and the President goes in the 1971 continuation of the saga, Escape from the Planet of the Apes. Few probably pondered the weighty theological significance of this dialogue; it is not represented on IMDB’s quotes page from the movie. In fact, many critics aver that the Planet of the Apes movies devolved as they went on becoming less and less original. Nevertheless, the number of serious issues thoughtfully addressed in Escape made it one of the most well received pieces in the series. The world was a scary place in the early 1970’s, as I experienced it. It was easy to believe that we were on the brink of our own destruction—there were enough nuclear warheads to assure mutual destruction, and even a little boy in Rouseville, Pennsylvania could believe that his small town was significant enough to be a target. That message I’d heard as early as the final scene of the original movie.

The Planet of the Apes series is profoundly theological. I rewatched Escape from the Planet of the Apes recently, and was struck by just how many social issues were addressed. Consumerism, abortion, racism, espionage, the arms race, and even eugenics. In each instance the humans are inferior to the apes who had not even developed the combustion engine before learning to fly a spacecraft back through time. The conservative fear of Dr. Otto Hasslein drives the plot; he is ambivalent about the apes and what they portend. It is the destruction of his own comfortable way of life. He suggests quietly killing the apes, succeeding where Herod failed. (Think through the implications!)

“Before I have them shot against the wall I want convincing that the writing on the wall is calculably true,” the President biblically insists.

“How many futures are there? Which future has God, if there is a god, chosen for man’s destiny? If I urge the destruction of these two apes, am I defying God’s will or obeying it? Am I his enemy or his instrument?” Otto Hasslein does not know. His science which tells him there is no God also worries him that he is the very enemy of the non-existent deity. No, the Planet of the Apes movies are not the most profound films ever to escape the camera, but there is, as in any good theology, the raising of questions. And like any theology worthy of latter-day Herods, there will always be far more questions than answers.

Digging Deeper

A propos of apes, I’m not sure whence derives the draw of Planet of the Apes on me. I watched the movie with fascination as a child—since the obviously satanic delusion of evolution was impossible this had to be pure fantasy (and perhaps just a little dangerous). The movies just kept on coming, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, each with their new twist on the theme that we are the beasts. Recently I watched the second installment, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It had been years since I’d seen it, although I remembered the terrible mutants and their possession of an atomic bomb. Although the geography is badly distorted, it is made amply clear that the church where the bomb is stored is St. Patrick’s Cathedral on (beneath?) Fifth Avenue. As Brent makes his way into the partially intact cathedral he finds a priest praying to a missile with the letters alpha and omega inscribed on one of its fins.

Since last seeing the movie I spent a lengthy stint among the Episcopalians. Naturally I became thoroughly acquainted with the liturgy and therefore could appreciate subtleties in the movie I had missed before (nothing is ultimately wasted, it seems). As the mutants prepare to set off the doomsday bomb that will obliterate the entire planet—both apes and humans—they recite many prayers from the mass, substituting the word “bomb” for “God” and “Holy Fallout” for “Holy Spirit.” Okay, so maybe “subtleties” was the wrong word. Of course, back in the early 1970’s this was a very real concern, the arms race was well underway. Despite the overacting and forced script, the movie did offer considerable social commentary. Ironic and iconic Charlton Heston condemns the unadulterated praise of such a lethal weapon (or was it just missile envy?), even as he falls, shot, onto the controls, accidentally destroying the earth.

The fascinating aspect of this social critique is that the players may have changed, but the drama remains the same. Those who protest evolution praise the build-up of native strength so that the true Christians might obliterate their enemies first and better than they will obliterate us. One gets the feeling that destruction is not so bad a fate as being proven wrong. Somewhere along the millennia religion slipped its mooring from being an ethical way of life to become an extreme way of believing. And yet people are still the same. And the Planet of the Apes movies continue to appear, ever evolving. When it comes down to the final scene, however, it is not the evolved apes who destroy us. No, it is the utterly self-righteous humans who decide that if they can’t have it all, nobody will have any of it. In the name of the bomb, and the holy fallout, amen.

The Times they are a’Chanin

Across from Grand Central Terminal in Midtown Manhattan rises the Chanin Building. Named for Irving S. Chanin, the tower is no longer easily picked out among Manhattan’s dizzying skyline, but the building is a monument to the humanistic spirit that was beginning to flower in the 1920s between the harsh realities of the world wars. Outside the building, above the ground floor shops, runs a bronze frieze that still catches the breath of visitors who stop to stare for a moment or two. Interestingly, the frieze is a monument to evolution, showing the development of “lower” life forms among the water flourishing into birds and fish. Although prosperity gospelers would object to its inherent Darwinian message, they would appreciate a huge monument to the triumph of capitalism in Chanin’s dream, as much of Manhattan reflects.

Antipodes are a fact of geography and human understanding. It would seem that they are also a paradigm for those who “want it all.” Perhaps it is ironic in coming from a Disney movie, but I’ve always found Mary Poppins’ maxim apt: “enough is as good as a feast.” Indeed, leaving the table after eating more than I need I feel miserable and disgusted. There is only so much that people can have, and this is a matter of physics as well as biology. If God wanted us to be wealthy, why didn’t he make us that way? (Surely the God who promotes personal wealth must be male.) Evolution and capitalism could be a dangerous mix should we forget that evolution is not goal-oriented. Natural selection works by trial-and-error, only the trial isn’t planned or intelligent.

This dialectic reminds me of that old chestnut, Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Ursus, the gorilla warlord, gives a jingoistic speech concerning the Forbidden Zone. “It is therefore our holy duty to put our feet upon it, to enter it, to put the marks of our guns and our wheels and our flags upon it.” Of course, this second, lesser installment of the Planet of the Apes movies raises the entire specter of nuclear war to a disturbingly sacred level, but that’s a topic for another post. What I notice is the full circle of evolution here—not just human to ape, but human to capitalist ape. Apes that wish to own and control their entire world, including that region where, in the original movie, both ape and human fear to go. It should not surprise me to see talking apes in Manhattan, but then again, it might just be the bright sun reflecting off the bronze of Irving Chanin’s monument to economic growth.

Bleak Visions

The day was leaden and rainy. Hopes for seeing the sun over the next several days dim. I had been warned about this, but once my mind has settled on vampires, they’re hard to resist. The reviews said Priest, as a movie, was full of cliched dialogue and predictable outcomes. This is true. But still, it is perhaps the most religious vampire movie ever made. While some have doubted my analyses of Underworld and other vampire films, Priest is set in a Pullmanesque world dominated by a church that has lost its belief in vampires. In fact, the civilized world, in scenes reminiscent of Blade Runner, owes ultimate allegiance to the church. Based on the graphic novels by Hyung Min-woo, the post-apocalyptic world of Priest presents an over-industrialized society where humans live in walled cities (ironically, Jericho has no walls). Vampires, more fierce than any Count, even by fifteenth-century standards, rip humans to shreds, but have been forced into reservations by the warrior priests. Their weapons are cross-shaped, but there is otherwise no reference to Jesus in the movie—only an amorphous “God.”

Despite the endless tropes, “a vampire killed my brother,” “the Priest is her father,” and endless chatter about the nobility of sacrifice, the movie is strangely compelling. Visually it maintains the appeal of a place somewhere between Planet of the Apes and the Book of Eli. And something appeals about priests who are willing to fight evil rather than sit around arguing about whether women should be allowed to join the movement or not. Keeping with modern proportions, we see only one female priest and none among the Monseigneurs, but she is the one who actually stops the vampires. And these are vampires that have evolved into the blind, naked denizens of the night who kill, apparently, for the sheer joy of it. The only article of faith the church can muster is, “if you go against the church, you go against God.”

I wonder if anyone in the world of religions is tracking how society perceives them. Religions once stood for our noblest aspirations, and our humblest weaknesses. Like bad caricatures from the movies, religious organizations don’t shy away from the desire for ultimate power. In His Dark Materials and in Priest, the church is content with nothing less than total domination. This is not missionary zeal, but good, honest power-lust. Not all religions are like that, of course. Still, there are those who perceive them that way. Maybe it is my own insecurity, or maybe it is the fact that I’m seldom convinced I have the answers, but I can’t help but feel the thrill of justification at the rebel who maintains conviction to the ideals s/he holds deeply. It takes no backbone to enforce obedience when might is on your side. But only those who have faced the vampires personally know who the real enemy is.

Sh*t Apes Say

Knowing from experience that when I stay alone in a hotel, despite my best intentions, I will get bored and end up watching Mudcats or Dual Survival until my brain feels like a boiled egg, I anticipated my trip to California. I packed Planet of the Apes, the original and best of the lot, hoping for some intellectual stimulation. Having grown up in an anti-evolution household, we were curiously allowed to watch Planet of the Apes, a kind of forbidden zone of the mind. It remains one of my favorite movies of all time. It is also a manifesto of science besieged by religion. Note what Dr. Zaius says, “There is no contradiction between faith and science… true science!” And he is the Minister of Science, and Chief Defender of the Faith. The trial of George Taylor, a thinly disguised parody of the Scopes Trial, has Honorious (read William Jennings Bryan) stating, “It is based on our first article of faith: that the almighty created the ape in his image, that he gave him a soul and a mind, the he set him apart from the beasts of the jungle and made him lord of the planet,” and turning on his fellow apes Zira and Cornelius, he accuses them of being “perverted scientists who advance an insidious theory called evolution!”

Dr. Zira, as one of these “perverted scientists,” asks Cornelius (incidentally, the name of the first non-Jewish Christian, according to Acts), “How can scientific truth be heresy?” This is echoed by Dr. Zaius in the trial where he states, “It is scientific heresy that is being tried here.” Indeed, the entire simian culture is based on the blurring and blending of science and religion. Throughout the film various characters make barbed statements about the human propensity to ignore the obvious. Landon, challenging Taylor about the time change they experienced in space, says—in a line that could come straight from Answers in Genesis—“Prove it! It’s still just a theory.” The exact rhetoric currently used by creationists in school board meetings around the country. To which the most apt reply seems to come from Dr. Zaius, speaking of humanity: “his wisdom must walk hand-in-hand with his idiocy.”

Occasionally even the gun-toting humans get the picture clear. In his opening monologue George Taylor wonders about the world seven hundred years from now, “Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely. That’s about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?” This seems to be the true measure of heresy—a religion that puts fellow humans on the same level as animals (and even animals deserve far more credit than we are willing to give). Among my favorite lines is Cornelius’ response to Taylor shaving his beard; “Somehow it makes you look less intelligent,” he opines. Endlessly remade, Planet of the Apes is a movie that still answers some of the issues that plague our society nearly half a century later. Perhaps the last line should go to the apes, adjusted of course, for gender sensitivity, “[hu]man[ity] has no understanding.” Well said, Dr. Zaius, well said.

A piece of childhood

Fall of the Planet of the Apes

Perhaps it is being under the influence of a head-cold that just won’t go away, or perhaps something deeper, I decided to watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Raised in a fundamentalist household, I was enamored of Planet of the Apes (the original one) and watched it and all its sequels repeatedly back before VCRs made owning such chestnuts possible. Perhaps it was that taste of forbidden fruit—evolution—that left such an exotic buzz in my head, or perhaps it was the unforgettable climax. The message that we’ve done this to ourselves. I once even missed seeing a high school friend after several years’ absence on a visit home because an all-day Planet of the Apes marathon was airing on TV. Perhaps it was the subtlety, the Rod Serling feel to it, or the deep level of empathy it evoked, for whatever reason, that original movie remains one of my personal favorites. In Rupert Wyatt’s slick new backstory, something was missing.

The CGI of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is pretty remarkable, except for the occasional jerkiness of violent scenes intended to pump up the testosterone. The subtle emotions visible in Caesar’s every glance conveyed the sense that animals share rights to this planet with us. I’ve been reading about animal intelligence again, and it saddens me that we’ve reached this far in our development only to continue the fiction that homo sapiens are unique among the tree of life. It’s not much of a tree when one of the branches is not and never has been attached. Our animal cousins have much to teach us, and perhaps that’s why I keep returning to Planet of the Apes, despite Charlton Heston. Even the new movie makes several nods to the original with naming the main family Rodman, Caesar building a three-dimensional puzzle of the statue of liberty only halfway complete, calling his mother “Bright Eyes,” spraying Caesar with a hose in his cage and calling the primate center a madhouse, and the cheesy repetition of “Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” It simply can’t rise to the level set by the writing of Rod Serling and Michael Wilson.

The box-office success of the film tells us something about ourselves. Ironically, and perhaps intentionally, Wyatt’s version neuters the evolution. The apes don’t rise from an unspeakably long evolutionary track from us, but we create them with the nemesis of twenty-first century humans, the virus. Caesar and his friends are genetically engineered by humans, and God has nothing to do with it. In the original, a theological subtlety lingered as a religious court of orangutans condemned Taylor for religious reasons. His claim of human primacy was heresy to primate sensibilities. The new version takes itself too seriously for that. We can’t jangle the evolution keys anymore because of our own national schizophrenia concerning the raw power of nature. Just when we think we’ve evolved beyond petty superstition masquerading as righteousness, yet another state attempts to guillotine the entire scientific enterprise. It’s a sure thing that if the apes don’t get us, we’ll take care of it ourselves. That was the message already in 1968.

Terror Able

Saturday afternoons were made for B movies. After a hectic week, nothing soothes like grainy picture quality and poor dialogue. This weekend offered a chance to view The Terror. This 1963 Roger Corman film won its bad marks the honest way – by earning them. Nevertheless with Jack Nicholson playing against Boris Karloff and a plot so convoluted that I had to draw a chart to figure out what I’d just watched, the movie lived up to its grade. Throw in Francis Ford Coppola as an associate producer and it’s party time. Corman’s legendary cheapness and fondness for disproportionate claims of scares that never materialize only add to the charm. After watching the opening sequence one gets the distinct impression that Franklin J. Schaffner had watched this film before setting up the climatic scene of Planet of the Apes.

In keeping with a recent trend on this blog, the plot involved a witch. An old woman from Poland resettles in France to avenge her murdered son. The crone casts a spell transforming a bird into a beautiful young woman. The first words of the spells sent me fumbling for the “rewind” button. “Tetragrammaton, tetragrammaton,” the old woman intones to begin her spell. In a movie fraught with dialogue problems, this might be considered simply a choice of foreign-sounding, mysterious syllables to be uttered for an audience not expected to know that tetragrammaton is the title of the sacred four-letter name of Yahweh. By this point the plot was so convoluted that making God the agent behind a pagan curse seemed almost natural.

The analog with the Bible soon became clear. The Bible holds its sway over many because of its often beautiful rhetoric. Sparing the time to study what the rhetoric might have meant in its original context is an exercise few believers can afford to undertake. Our world has become so full of things that taking time to explore the implications of one’s religion must compete with ever increasing Internet options, thousands of channels of television, and plain, old-fashioned figuring out how to get along. Religion is a luxury item and, as experience tells us, it is best not to look too closely at luxuries – their flaws too readily appear upon detailed inspection. Allowing religion its exotic sounding mumbo-jumbo preserves its mystery and power. And if a witch says a theologically freighted word we can just chalk it up to entertainment. We are too busy to examine what our religions really say. Roger Corman may have unintentionally discovered a real terror in a movie that will keep no one awake at night.

Hate, in the Name of Love

I knew I was in trouble when I looked up the concept “codependency” on Wikipedia this morning and read, “This article has multiple issues.”

I was reminded of an article my wife pointed out to me on MSNBC earlier this week concerning Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church. My thoughts about religious freedom clash with my outrage over what may be legally classified as a religion. I’ve mentioned Phelps before, but the deeper issue here is whether freedom of religion can truly be free. Westboro is being sued (rightfully, imho) in a case that is going to the Supreme Court. His codependent hatred is causing excessive grief to the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. Phelps claims it is God’s will that he spread his Gospel of Hate.

Reading Frans de Waal’s Our Inner Ape, it quickly becomes apparent that empathy is what makes human society possible. Without our ability to feel for another, nature would lead us on a selfish rampage that would not be satiated until everyone but the alpha male was ruthlessly butchered. This seems to be Phelps’ idea of Heaven. It should be a stark warning sign when apes have better bred manners than a pastor.

Hatred and religion may form a codependent bond. Each feeds off the fear and distrust of the other, striking blindly at anything that is different, challenging, or unclear. Religion does have its noble children – those who in the name of their faith try to make life better for others. If the world were run according to Phelps’ religion, however, I would opt for life on the planet of the apes.