Monday, August 29, 2011

Hail, Caesar!


Rise of the Planet of the ApesI'll spare everyone the suspense and tell you upfront that I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  But that was almost a foregone conclusion.  For months now I've been pestering friends about going to see it -- and meeting almost universal skepticism.  To which I responded with something like, "Apes running through the city, attacking helicopters.  Do you understand?  Apes.  What's not to love?"  As someone who has watched Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong at least twice a year since it came out, I was going to love this movie, even it was just a bunch of CGI scenes spliced together with no plot or substance to support it.

Fortunately for all of us, that's not the case.

Battle for the Planet of the Apes [Blu-ray]The first Planet of the Apes movie came out in 1968, when I was five years old.  The final movie of the original series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes came out in 1973.  In between came Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.  There was a short lived television series in 1974(which starred Roddy McDowell and Mark Lenard, Star Trek's Sarek) and an even shorter lived animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes in 1975.    For geeks of my generation, it is impossible to overestimate how big a part these movies played in our lives.  In a time before Star Wars, when the only Star Trek was the original series in re-runs on television, and when big budget science fiction movies were almost unknown, Planet of the Apes loomed large.

And for me, at least, the two that loomed the largest were the last two (possibly because I was a little older when they came out).  I've never been overly fond of the first movie, with Charlton Heston, or the second, with it's weird underground mutant bomb worshiping cults.  But starting with the third movie, when the Chimpanzees Cornelius and Mira return to earth in the 1970's, I began to get really interested.  "Conquest" tells of the revolt of the enslaved apes -- all of whom are Mira's descendants, we must assume -- and "Battle" picks up about ten years later with Apes in control and Caesar trying desperately to find some way for them to co-exist with humans.

You can't re-watch the movies now without seeing the heavy-handed racial allegory everywhere. The various directors were determined to make their relevant political statements at the time, and the result is that the old moves feel dated in a way that has nothing to do with their basic ideas.  Only "Battle", which is mainly a full out action melodrama, escapes this overt politicizing.

Even as a kid, I knew enough about apes (I read about Jane Goodall, and Diane Fossey, and Washoe and others in National Geographic, for instance) to know that the portrayal of the different ape species was all wrong.  Gorillas were the heavies, the military complex.  In the real world, of course, gorillas are peaceful vegetarians who's aggression is mostly bluff and bluster.  Orangutans, bearing almost no resemblance to their real ancestors, were the administrative class -- Church and State, which didn't seem to be very separated in the first movie's world.  And the Chimpanzees were the counter culture -- scientists, hippies, war protestors -- naturally, in the late nineteen sixties in the United States, they were the heroes.

The reality of course is that chimpanzees are Machiavellian political animals who scheme and deceive and go to war almost as well as humans -- capable of the full range of goodness and badness that we are.  In any multi-ape society they would most likely be on top -- the gorillas would be the hippies.  But of course, the old Planet of the Apes movies weren't really about apes at all.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes", directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is a whole different species.  Being a creature of its time, it has its axes grind as well, but it does so for the most part subtly, letting the characters and the story carry the message.  And it is (oh frabjous day) that rarest of mass media beasties -- The Well Written and Scientifically Plausible Science Fiction Movie.

And in this movie, the apes really do take top billing.  (Despite the heavy hitters in the "human" cast -- James Franco, Frieda Pinto, and John Lithgow) it is Andy Serkis -- behind the motion capture and CGI -- as Caesar (along with the other apes) that carries the film.  A couple of chimps in the movie show the battered old faces you see in sanctuaries and Nature documentaries -- the Orangutan Maurice is cool (he has a background in the circus, and like Caesar, he knows how to sign) and the one gorilla in the film -- perhaps a little too Kong-like despite his normal size -- is very impressive.  Some of the films more moving scenes -- and important points -- are carried in the non-verbal interaction of the apes.  Serkis, who was grossly cheated out of Oscar recognition for his role as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings", again deserves the highest accolades for this performance.  (In an interview with NPR he explained how much the technology of motion capture has advanced since he played Gollum.) 

Director Wyatt and the rest of the team behind "Rise" deserve the loud praise for their decision not to use any actual apes in the film.  They recognized that the issue of apes in entertainment is a serious ethical problem, and they made the humane choice.  The film doesn't suffer from it at all.  This is a fact that other filmmakers should take note of.  (I wish the makers of Water for Elephants, Zookeeper and "The Hangover" had made similar kinds of choices.)

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is not a perfect film.  I'm not overly fond of the "there are some things science is not meant to delve into" trope.  (Interestingly, it is Frieda Pinto who gets to voice those sentiments in "Rise" -- perhaps so her Indian beauty and exotic accent can lend them portent).  I would like to see a serious movie that tackles the question of Uplift -- to borrow David Brin's term -- in all it's implications, without resorting to disaster/horror movie form.  I'm also not fond of end-of-the-world stories.  I would rather see stories about how we might grapple with and even solve our problems -- about the possibilities of the future -- than about how we will inevitably destroy ourselves.   In this case, though, those are minor quibbles about a very good film.

 It seems that I seldom see movies any more -- no matter how much fun they may be while I'm watching them -- that can stand the weight of serious thought.  "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a movie both to enjoy in the moment, and to ponder afterwards.  That is a pleasure too rare to take for granted.

(Attentive viewers, who are familiar with the original movies, will see that the filmmakers have subtly set the table for the sequel.  If it rises to the same high standards as this film, I can't wait.)

On the question of animals in entertainment, interested readers might like to check out my previous postings Tears for Elephants and A Sad Digression

Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Chimpanzee in America

Washoe (photo courtesy of Friends of Washoe website)
 A few years ago I had the opportunity to travel over to Ellensburg, WA and visit the Chimpanzee and Human Communications Institute.  The remarkable center, founded by Roger Fouts, is the home to a very special family of Chimpanzees.  Their matriarch, Washoe, was the first non-human ever to learn a human language -- American Sign Language.  (Other language experiments had been done with chimps -- but those had all used some form of invented symbolic language, not a real human language like ASL.)  Even more amazing, Washoe and her companions passed on the language to her adopted son, Louis.

Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees
Next of Kin by Roger Fouts
The center is not open to the public on a daily basis, but they have special educational events called Chiposiums where visitors can come in and learn about chimpanzees and see the chimps who live there.  Washoe had been one of my heroes for many years, and I can say, without any exaggeration, that Roger Fout's book Next of Kin changed my life.  So it was an enormous pleasure to finally see her, in the flesh (and fur).  The day I visited it was Louis who was most active, displaying for the guests.  But Washoe was seated high up in the common play area, watching everything that went on like the dignified matriarch she was.  The whole afternoon I had a hard time speaking to anyone without crying.

That experience became even more poignant the following year, when Washoe died.  (Not long before another of my non-human heroes passed on -- Alex the Grey Parrot).  I think it is safe to say that Washoe's death affected me more than that of any "celebrity" I can remember.  If it had been up to me, she would have been given the Nobel Prize, or at least the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  (I can hear the howls of protest from less enlightened primates even as I suggest it.)  The medal is supposed to be given to those who "have made an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."  It is hard to imagine who deserves it more than Washoe who, despite having to live most of her life in one form of captivity or another, stepped across the species divide in a way unprecedented in the history of life on earth.  Not honoring her with our highest award only shows the intellectual poverty of our species.

 The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A True Story of Resilience and Recovery

So I come to a book like The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary by Andrew Westoll with certain predispositions.  I've read a lot about chimps, both in the wild and in captivity, and I know how tragic their stories can often be.  Fauna Sanctuary is in rural Quebec, and it is run by Gloria Grow.  It is home to chimpanzees rescued from the biomedical industry.  Actually "rescued" is a little too kind a word -- most of them were retired by companies that had exploited them for decades and no longer had any use for them.  Fauna Sanctuary was created to be a home for them, and hopefully to help them heal. 

Binky (photo Copyright 2011 by Frank Noelker)
 "Binky stares at me, and I stare back.  I am immediately, hopelessly entranced ... the only chimps I've seen before have been in zoos, where they do everything they can to ignore their human visitors.  But Binky holds my gaze.  What's more, he returns it.  With most primates, looking an individual in the eye is seen as a threat.  Not so with the chimpanzee ... We are simply two great apes considering each other, sizing each other up, perhaps wondering what the other is thinking, much like two perspective roommates...."

This is Westoll's first encounter with one of the chimps at Fauna, as he arrives on his first day of volunteering there.  A trained primatologist turned full-time writer, Westoll is drawn to the chimps for many reasons.   He "is surprised at Binky's beauty, his lack of any visible signs of distress."  Gloria Glow explains:

"Binky is the luckiest one here," she says.  "He had three whole months with his mother before he was taken."  Gloria reaches up and gently strokes his enormous fingers.  Binky keeps he eyes on me.  "He's only recently started pulling out his hair."

And so begins the terrible and beautiful story of the chimps at Fauna Sanctuary.  Of:

·         Binky -- tough on the outside, but sensitive and funny underneath. 

·         Regis, who loves to paint and listen to music, and suffers from anxiety that only his friend Jethro can calm. 

·         Jethro, the peacekeeper.

·         Rachel, abandoned by her owner when she became too old to keep, she enjoyed wearing filly dresses and taking bubble baths -- "now she is very fragile". 

·         Yoko, intense, passionate and loyal.

·         Petra, highly intelligent, watchful, always learning. 

·         Spock, raised as a human child, prefers female companionship, likes to drink out of a hose. 

·         Maya, Spock's foster sister, spends hours peering into treat bags and investigating their contents.

·         Chance, nervous and cautious, "doesn't like peppers on her pizza".

·         Tom, Fauna's most famous resident, "can fit five apples into his mouth at once".

·         Sue Ellen, the elder of the group, creates very intricate nests for herself to sleep in.

·         Pepper, who lived a lab, barely seeing the light of day for twenty-seven years, loves to eat kale and pick tomatoes in the garden.

·    And Toby, who loves to groom his friend Rachel and wear a scrunchy on his wrist like a bracelet.
Along the way, Westoll gives us a good (albeit, tragic) history of chimpanzees in America, and the horrific uses they've been put to.  But it is ultimately these chimps, so beautiful and damaged and individual, that stay with me and haunt me.  

Like Billy Joe.

Billy Joe (photo Copyright 2011 by Fauna Foundation)
 "Of all the chimps that lived at Fauna, Billy Joe had the most difficult time rediscovering what it meant to be a chimp.  Before he was sold to research, Billy was forced to work in the circus, and when he was under the big top he taken on car rides, fishing trips and regular excursions to Diary Queen ... Billy was dependent on humans for all his social and emotional needs.  According to Gloria, Billy thought he was more human than chimp.

In the lab, he was hostile, uncooperative, and aggressive.  One day, while recovering from surgery, Billy chewed both is thumbs off.  At Fauna, his troubles continued.  He rejected the other chimps, much preferring to interact with humans, and eventually the other rejected him ... they severely beat him a number of times.  That is why he chose to isolate himself."

Billy was a very large chimp, and could be frightening to humans when he displayed aggression.  His teeth had all been knocked out when he was young.  But

According to Gloria ... Billy had a heartbreaking way of negotiating with his human caregivers in lieu of violence.  "He would start doing handstands or lips flaps, just like in the circus ... As if he were saying 'If I entertain you, will you not hurt me?'"

Experts diagnosed Billy as suffering from a recurring depression, "the result of a species-identity disorder" resulting from his fostering by humans as a baby.  During Billy's last days, Gloria's responsibilities forced her to leave him.

"I stayed with Billy as long as I could," says Gloria ... "I held him, hugged him, gave him a kiss goodbye.  Then everyone told me I had to leave."

That was the last time she ever saw Billy alive.

If wise beings survive on Planet Earth, we will someday look back on the human treatment of Great Apes -- and especially, I'm afraid, of chimpanzees in North America -- as one of the most terrible crimes in history.  Equal to the Genocide of Native Americans or the African Slave Trade or the Holocaust.  But we will also remember the people who stood against that evil -- Roger Fouts, Jane Goodall, Gloria Grow and others -- the way we remember Oskar Schindler or Harriet Tubman.

If you are not fond of books that you have to read through tears -- tears of sadness, tears of rage, tears of triumph and gratitude -- then The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary is probably not for you.  This is book filled with darkness with and light. With suffering and redemption. With cruelty and compassion and incredible courage.  It is a book filled with many heroes.

And a few of them are human.


Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.


Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What the Barn Swallows Know

Bird Brain Genius
Bird Brain Genius by Ken Korczak
As a bookseller (and as a writer) I have watched the changes sweeping the publishing industry with interest.  The rise of ebooks, and of readers like Kindle and Nook, have not been kind to small sellers, but I still find myself excited by the whole knew frontier opening up for online publishing.  No one seems to know exactly where it's going, and that is always thrilling.  And scary.  As the old Chinese proverb/curse says, we live in interesting times.

The upside of the new formats is the rise of independent publishers, many of them aimed at very specific niches -- erotic paranormal romance or zombie apocalypse fiction -- with their own enthusiastic audiences.  Those who don't spend a lot of time online, or haven't really looked at what's out there, might be surprised.  A new publishing industry is sprouting up, full of diverse voices and perspectives.

The down side is that this new zone, as yet, has very little structure and often lacks the experience, quality control, and filtering that big traditional publishers provide.  In many cases, authors are publishing themselves -- something that has always been an option, but which online sales and marketing, and now ebooks, have made incredibly easy.  The problem is that these books may never have benefited from professional editing and the kind of feedback that authors traditionally receive on the way to print. (Or its electronic equivalent.)

A really good example of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this new paradigm is Bird Brain Genius by Ken Korczak.  The book is available on Amazon Kindle, which is where I stumbled across it.  Korczak provides a little back story -- he says that he witnessed the central events when he was working as a newspaper reporter in 1984, and that it was so unbelievable that neither his editor, nor any of the non-fiction publications he sent it to would publish it.  Finally, he decided to expand it into a short novel.  He makes a point of saying that he no longer cares whether anyone believes it or not, "It's just a great story."

And that, at least, is true.

Bird Bran Genius, set in the farm country of Minnesota, concerns two eccentric, white-trash twins, Cadmus and Buford Dziekonski, who own a failing farm and who happen to be mathematical idiot-savants.  The brothers are not good farmers, and their farm, like most of the farms around, is in trouble.  None-the-less, Cadmus becomes obsessed with a pair of barn swallows -- who he names Sabik and Bellatrix -- who have built their nest across from the brothers' front porch.  Watching the birds -- and "contemplating complex temporal-spatial equations based in chaos theory" -- Cadmus begins to create a bizarre intellectual game. 

... he visualized a three-dimensional grid in the large yard that opened east of the farm house. To that he added four-dimensional space-time continuum factors, which only he could grasp effectively. Cadmus' imaginary grid was rectangular, some 75 yards wide by 50 meters high. It was about 50 meters deep. Within the grid, Cadmus further visualized internal cubical sections, and assigned numerical values to each one of them. He also gave them colors to add more variables. After some practice, his powerful imagination could easily and automatically project this mental grid out into the wide space east of the farm house. Sabik and Bellatrix spent much of their time passing through the imaginary grid as they hunted for insects and returned to their nest where the hungry offspring eagerly swallowed the insect victuals. Cadmus soon became absorbed in his game. He noticed that each time Sabik and Bellatrix passed through his mental grid and intersected the individual values assigned to it, they returned to the nest with a specific score. Sometimes Sabik flew through the grid in a way that earned a very high score. At other times, his score was low, at other times middling. Bellatrix did the same.

And so, Tumulus is born.  A game based on keeping score of the bird's passages through the imaginary grid.  When other people from the town find out about it, they flock to the brothers' farm each evening to listen to Cadmus call the game, complete with its own arcane lexicon and dramatic flourishes. 

"Here comes Sabik ... OH! He enters warbling into Purple Sector 9! MOOLTANNA! A good one! He's down, flicks-back, an astro-turn ... WAIT! YIKES! He flickbacks DOUBLE and comes in for a brood roost vigorous! Terrific score, Sabik!! 389 debens!"

The game becomes such a hit that the townspeople begin betting on it, and soon hundreds and hundreds of dollars are changing hands over every round, even though Cadmus and Buford remain innocent of the gambling.  Cadmus is concerned only with calling the games, keeping his statistics, and with his growing unease at what the statistics suggest.  For the scores of the two birds are steadily increasing.  The birds' performance at Tumulus is improving -- as if the birds understand the game, as if they are deliberately competing.  Buford, for his part, totally rejects that possibility, and becomes obsessed with finding the hidden mathematical artifact that must be skewing Cadmus's data.

Around this story is the bleak picture of traditional farm life dying.  Family farms are being foreclosed, and generations of tradition are disappearing.  There is also a sweet, remarkably innocent and romantic love story between the brothers' niece Minerva and the Farm AG agent, whose job it is to foreclose on the Dziekonski farm.

This is a very compelling story, with something of the flavor of Mark Twain's "What Stumped the Blue Jay".  It is in the sketching of the colorful characters, the description of the town, the playing of the sentimental and wistful romantic subplot -- and most of all in describing the intriguing mystery of the game of Tumulus -- that the book's strengths lay.

But, unfortunately, it has flaws too.  What this feels like, more than anything, is the first draft of a good story by a good writer.  I mentioned earlier the lack of structure and feedback that comes from self-publishing, or publishing outside the traditional mold.  And this book definitely shows that lack.  It has all the kinds of mistakes that every writer makes in early drafts -- punctuation, grammar, shifts in tense, slips in point-of-view, awkward phrasing, and elements of the story that haven't quite jelled.  The kinds of things that a few good readers and a good editor help whip into shape.  It's a testament to the strength of the story, and the author's raw talent, that the book is still engaging despite these problems.

As it stands, Bird Brain Genius is fun, interesting little story whose lack of polish will, unfortunately, stop a lot of readers from getting through it.

With a little editing and little development here and there, it could be a very good book.