Silverbacks, silver screens

the zen of film monkeys

As any bored sophomore English student will tell you if you threaten him with detention, there are four essential dramatic situations: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. society, and man vs. himself. Former literary agent and affable laffsmaker John Hodgman, in his book The Areas of My Expertise, suggests the addition of man vs. cyborg. At the risk of gainsaying a man who has brought total world knowledge to the humor shelf of your local Barnes & Noble as well as forever etching in the mind of the public the image of a Windows-compatible personal computer as a genial if hapless man in tweeds, I must respectfully disagree. The fifth essential dramatic situation is not man vs. cyborg. It is man vs. monkey.

The question of why mankind has always been drawn to films about monkeys is, at least at first glance, a complex one. From 1896’s The Monkey Feast, a silent short in which two pet monkeys enjoy a meal of bananas, to 2006’s Curious George, a big-budget animated blockbuster in which one pet monkey enjoys a meal of Will Ferrell’s career, we stand at the cusp of over a hundred years of ape and monkey filmography, with no closer an understanding of what so commands our attention when chimp meets camera than Edison had when he filmed his 1903 classic Egyptian Fakir with Dancing Monkey. Is it the fact that chimpanzees, as our closest animal relative, appear to us as living mirrors, casting a reflection both frightening and humorous? Is there some eternal, unreachable corner of the human soul that responds positively to the sight of a gorilla wearing a dress? Or is the sine qua non of simian cinema that these animals will work for scale, and are not subject to SAG regulations? Whatever the case, monkeys are an indispensable part of film history, and imagining movies without monkeys is no more possible than imagining westerns without horses, traumatic children’s classics without dogs, or Vietnam-era protest films without a large pack animal that gets slaughtered for no particular reason. It is not for nothing that our nation twice elected to the highest office in the land a man who had once starred in a film as a college professor who attempts to teach situational ethics to a chimp.

Just as man vs. monkey constitutes one of the five essential dramatic situations, man-monkey conflicts can be broken down into categories and sub-categories. The two major rubrics under which all monkey movies fall are the SAD MONKEY MOVIE, which contains within it such subheadings as Angry Monkey, Tragic Monkey and Doomed Monkey movies, and the HAPPY MONKEY MOVIE, to which is appended minor categories such as Funny Monkey, Romantic Monkey, and Monkey Who Plays Sports movies. (Curiously, the monkey movie need not necessarily feature an actual monkey. Though there is not time or space to go into the topic here, movies can be considered part of the film-monkey corpus even if they only feature ventriloquist’s dummies — who should be understood less as talking wooden puppets than as more sanitary but less amusing monkey substitutes — or midgets/dwarves — who are generally used by filmmakers as a sort of surreal hairless shorthand for chimps.) And as surely as Joseph Campbell spoke of the monomyth, the single narrative from which all stories ultimately spring, all monkey films must inhabit one of these two houses, if not, as we shall see, both. Below, we will examine the themes, along with a few choice examples, so that future generations of film historians can truly understand the zen of film monkeys that has thus far eluded this most modern of arts.

The essence of the SAD MONKEY MOVIE is that the lead simian must experience despair and alienation in its interaction with mankind. The essence of drama is conflict, and the essence of Sad Monkeys is that sometimes your closest cousin will dress you up like a clown or shoot you full of experimental medications. Sad Monkeys may take many forms, the most common being the ever-popular Angry Monkey subgenre (known to Europeans and the classically trained as “Scary Monkeys”), typified by Monkey Shines: An Experiment in Fear. Director George Romero, who made his reputation by showing us the horror inherent in seeing ourselves as corpses, was inexplicably overlooked when he decided to show us the horror inherent in seeing ourselves as capuchin monkeys. Still, the nearly forgotten 1988 film is everything an Angry Monkey movie should be, featuring as it does the mind-bending terror of watching an animal behave in pretty much the same way people behave. The plot revolves around that old ’man gets hit by a car while jogging and becomes a quadriplegic whose helper monkey tries to kill his bitch mother with a straight razor’ gag, and does moviegoers the service of informing us that all it takes for an otherwise benevolent and kindly animal to turn into a hideous killing machine is a few measly injections of human brain cells and a dash of genetic manipulation. Who says you don’t learn anything from the pictures? The only way in which Monkey Shines is exceptional is that the shines in question are inspired not by the abuse heaped on the titular simian, but the peevishness of the starring cripple.

Much more typical in this regard is King Kong, who lashes out at humanity because they kidnapped him from his island home, made him reenact the Middle Passage without anyone to sing with, locked him into a penurious show biz contract, and harshed his good time the first night he was able to get out and see the Big Apple. And yet Kong was not an Angry Monkey: no, he was a Tragic Monkey. He was a noble figure — royalty, even, the scion of the Kong Family, who are to gigantic apes what the Kennedys are to drunken politicians — destroyed, as are all tragic characters, by a fatal flaw within himself. Kong’s fatal flaw, of course, was his unquenchable desire to go to the top of tall buildings in the company of hot blondes, a flaw which he shared with such notable figures as Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo and real estate mogul/motivational shill Donald Trump. Neither of them, unfortunately, were shot down by passing aircraft for indulging their hobby, which just goes to show you that the man-ape double standard is still very much with us.

Although both King Kong’s King Kong and Monkey Shines’ Ella perish at the end of their stories, neither is a Doomed Monkey. The Doomed Monkey movie is one in which the monkey is sad because he knows he’s not going to make it to the end credits alive; his demise is essential to the plot, rather than incidental to it. Influential Texas film critic Joe Bob Briggs identified in the 1980s the “That Dog’s Gonna Die” phenomenon in motion pictures: the introduction of a cheery, friendly puppy, clearly near and dear to the heart of one of the main characters, whose first appearance on screen must be understood as nothing more than a precursor to its violent expiration. Likewise, the moment you see a Doomed Monkey, whether it’s in 12 Monkeys or Outbreak, you know things are only really going to get rolling when that chimp is up in Monkey Heaven, hurling its feces at God. The Platonic ideal of Doomed Monkeys is the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark: we get to know and love the little bastard’s joyful demeanor and playful antics just long enough for unidentified greaseballs to slip him a poisoned fig. Like most Doomed Monkeys, this unnamed unfortunate dies in the most arbitrary way possible just to scrape a butter knife over our heartstrings — the “bad dates” are meant for Indiana Jones, but given that dozens of people try quite openly to murder him throughout the rest of the movie, it’s difficult to see the point of the subterfuge except to jerk us around by killing a monkey.

At first glance, the HAPPY MONKEY MOVIE may appear to be nothing more than it seems: the flip side of all the pissed-off, moody and gloomy Gus gorillas that have graced the silver screen. But just as there is no such thing as permanent happiness, there is no such thing as a purely happy monkey, even in the eternal wonderland of Hollywood. Even in its purest expression, the Funny Monkey movie — by far the most common expression of primate behavior on film outside of pornography — is often subverted by shadings of darkness. While a shallow reading of the monkey-as-Method-actor might seem to reveal little more than a very expensive and time-consuming game of ’he thinks he’s people’, our test subject, the enervating duo of Clint Eastwood flicks Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can, proves that a much deeper psychosexual dynamic is at work. The movies, made by Eastwood while Burt Reynolds was nursing a hangover, feature the former Man With No Name in full-blown Man With No Shame role. Best understood, if such a thing is possible, as middlebrow predecessors to the Cannonball Run films, EWWBL and AWWYC showed the allegedly humorous travails of Philo Beddoe, a trucker/auto repairman/bare-knuckles boxer who falls in love with a country singer portrayed by Clint Eastwood’s talent-light girlfriend Sondra Locke. But the real reason the movies are remembered today is the performance of Clyde, an orangutan who was seemingly Eastwood’s comic relief but really functioned as his monstrous id. Clyde acted in ways Philo dared not: assaulting police officers, disobeying traffic laws, shitting wherever he pleased, and dressing up like a pretty lady. Clyde was the true hero of the film, the CB-drunk working-class male of the late ’70s gone berserk, farting and slapping and shooting the bird willy-nilly while Eastwood delivered his clunky romantic lines. Sure, it was funny, but was it art? It sure didn’t smell like it. (By the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, the freewheeling spirit of the ’70s had faded, and we were forced to contend, in Cannonball Run II, with Ricardo Montalban french-kissing an orangutan.)

By far the least common type of monkey movie, due entirely to the disturbing erotic possibilities it plants in the mind of the viewer, is the Romantic Monkey genre. Monkeys are allowed to act as romantic foils, interfering with the normal progress of a more standard romantic couple — as witness the cuddle-party behavior of Cameron Diaz’ separation-anxiety-stricken chimp in Being John Malkovich. But because he cannot actually be allowed to cock-block a human, even in a surreal metafiction where a possessed A-lister dances naked and engages in puppetry for public television, the film counts as a Doomed Monkey movie and not a Romantic Monkey movie. For that, we must ultimately turn to nothing less than Planet of the Apes — the film which makes up, with King Kong and the monkey-brain-eating sequence of Faces of Death, the third leg of the Holy Trinity of Ape Flicks — and see why hot monkey love will always be isolated to the fringes of our culture, surfacing only occasionally on animated programs aimed at easy-to-please stoners and Quicktime movies downloaded by 14-year-olds on a dare. Any schoolchild can tell you how traumatic it is to see actual monkeys fucking at the zoo; swap the stud silverback for Charlton Heston or Marky Mark, and make the female able to speak, feel, and portray Marina Oswald in a made-for-TV movie, and you’ve got yourself nightmare fuel for generations to come. We will speak no more of the Romantic Monkey here, but readers over 18 may pre-order my book, Our bonobos, ourselves: filmic transgression from King Kong to King Dong.

Monkeys Who Play Sports have lasting power, because they appeal to two powerful urges in the American psyche: the urge to see monkeys doin’ stuff, and the urge to tie in everything that ever happens anywhere to sports. Audiences have been grateful to surrender their suspension of disbelief that monkeys and apes could grasp the complex rules of team sports, let alone refrain from brutally attacking their opponents and teammates, in order to enjoy two solid hours of a chimp spitting tobacco or learning the Statue of Liberty play. The gold standard here is Ed, a film apparently intended to function as a star vehicle for Friends star Matt LeBlanc before it became clear that he was not licensed to pilot said vehicle. Ed is a movie about a chimpanzee who executes a triple play, immediately vaulting him ahead of every member of the Milwaukee Brewers in defensive ability and netting him a minor-league contract. LeBlanc, who gets top billing over the chimp in the credits (perhaps the only way in which he gains an advantage over the human stars of MVP: Most Valuable Primate, the movie that proved Americans don’t care about hockey even when monkeys play it), portrays a hotshot pitcher who develops an unlikely-- except for being utterly predictable -- friendship with his simian teammate despite an inability to speak to, play Nintendo with, or hunt poontang alongside him. Relying for its purported humor on how much the viewer enjoys chimp farts, Ed goes wildly astray -- even for a movie in which a monkey plays baseball -- when it chooses to focus on the relationship between the two, apparently without realizing that neither Ed nor LeBlanc have interesting personalities.

Though I hope I have done future generations of cineastes a service by delineating the main categories of monkey movies, understand that they are as infinite and varied as the men and women who choose to make them. Given enough space and a far higher boredom threshold, I could easily expound on the purest examples of recurring genres such as the Transvestite Monkey, the Time-Traveling Monkey, the Man-Monkey, and the Monkey Who Is Allowed to Drink Liquor and Eventually Plays a Role in a Stuffy Authority Figure Being Thrown Into a Body of Water. But for now, I trust I have equipped you with the tools to analyze, classify and compartmentalize the monkey movies of tomorrow. As for appreciating them, that requires no assistance: simply lie back and think of Bonzo, and nature will take its course. As a nameless but stunningly astute poster on the IMDB message boards put it, “Flight 93 would have been easier to watch if everyone on the plane was a chimp.” To that astonishingly right piece of criticism, what can I possibly add?