Monday, December 1, 2014

Orangutan, Gorilla, Chimp, Human: Which role are you playing?

Speaking of movies in which the crew of interstellar spacecraft descend into an Osiris-like sleep, and in which time passes more rapidly on earth than it does for the intrepid space-travellers, it should be pointed out that the original Planet of the Apes explored some of the exact same concepts back in 1968, and in the process delivered a message that was as mind-bending in its own way as the message of the much more recent Interstellar.

As with Interstellar, the very prominent Osiris-imagery and Christ-imagery suggests that the film may actually be more about an individual journey of "waking up" than it is about some imagined future in which apes run the show on earth. Below are two images from the beginning of the film which clearly establish the possibility that the film is about Taylor's own "journey," one showing Taylor -- played by Charleton Heston -- about to descend into a long sleep within a high-tech "sarcophagus," and the other  showing Taylor framed against some kind of a starburst which resembles a radiant halo or nimbus behind his head, as well as the vaguely cruciform front control area of his spaceship:

While Taylor's journey of "waking up" may involve deeper themes on an esoteric level (and the journey of Cooper and Brand in Interstellar almost certainly does), the most obvious "waking up" that Taylor must accomplish during the film is his waking up to the fact that his country has been taken over by oppressive orangutans, backed up by gorillas and enabled by the compliant chimpanzees. 

For most of the movie, he convinces himself that he is actually on some far-distant planet, and somehow ignores the evidence that he is in fact right back on his home planet of earth -- evidence such as the fact that all the apes speak English and that the planet is full of humans just like himself (including one who becomes his new girlfriend). The fact that the apes can read the letters he scratches in the sand with a stick might also have been a tip-off to someone who wasn't stubbornly refusing to consider the possibility that the planet that the apes are now controlling is actually his former home, now dramatically changed.

It isn't until the movie's famous final scene, when Taylor is riding up the beach and the ruined Statue of Liberty looms rises into view, that he breaks down and realizes that the nightmarish ape theocracy he has been struggling against is actually now in charge of the land that used to be called the United States of America!

Taylor then utters the movie's final lines, in which he shouts out, "You maniacs! You blew it up!" while pounding the sand with his fist. And so, the film can clearly be seen as a warning against those who would consider nuclear war as a political option (and the film's opening soliloquy from Taylor certainly establishes that as one of the movie's themes). 

However, it is also clear that the film may be delivering powerful social commentary about the state of society as it is right now (whether in 1968 or 2014) -- in other words, while it most certainly delivers a powerful warning against the madness of war and especially the madness of a possible nuclear war, it may also be delivering a "wake up call" about the powers in control of society right now, analogized as a takeover by apes in the distant future but actually trying to convey the message that the scenario it depicts is actually the state of affairs today

As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness (1987):
The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future -- indeed Shcrodinger's most famous thought-experiment shows that the "future," on the quantum level, cannot be predicted -- but to describe reality, the present world.
Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive. 
In other words, according to Ursula K. Le Guin, science fiction is always much more about exploring the present world than exploring some imaginary future world. The future world it imagines is used in order to not predict but rather describe.

If this assertion applies to the 1968 Planet of the Apes, then what is the film describing?

We might, using a little bit of metaphorical language, "unpack" the film's message this way: something alien has usurped control over not just America, but the entire planet. These usurpers are represented by "the apes" in the movie, but the orangutans who are running the show are quite human, and no doubt the film means for us to understand that the orangutans of the film are representative of the rulers who have taken power. 

It is quite notable that the film depicts the orangutans as exercising control over society through the use of some very specific mechanisms:
  • They appear to have gained and maintained control through the propagation of a deliberate lie about history -- in fact, a deliberate lie about history going all the way back into "ancient history." For more detail on this particular point, please see the previous post on the subject entitled "Paging Dr. Zaius."
  • They appear to have gained and maintained control through the propagation of a literalistic, scripture-based religion, which is used to quash dissent and imbue their autocratic dictates with the appearance of legitimacy.
  • They are also in control of Science, which they use in much the same way that they use religion: as a means of control, and as a source of borrowed legitimacy.
  • While they prefer to employ tools of "mass mind control" such as appeals to scripture, appeals to science, appeals to the legitimacy of their autarchy, and if necessary the use of impressive-looking court cases and court hearings, they are also not above the use of brutal violence in order to quash dissent and maintain the illusion of the legitimacy of their regime.
The orangutans are assisted in their oppression by the complicity of two other important groups: the gorillas (representing a combination of the military and the various layers of law enforcement: those who carry weapons and use physical force to support the ape regime), and the chimpanzees (representing the intellectual classes, the academics, the actual scientists, and perhaps by extension the various layers of business management and other members of the "educated classes" of society who generally make their living through research and analysis and commentary and bureaucracy: we would probably have to include journalists and the media in this category too).

The film depicts the gorillas as basically unquestioningly obedient to the orangutan rulers, all too happy to break some heads whenever it is necessary, and the chimpanzees as overly solicitous of the orangutans, and always apologetic and ready to back down whenever their research leads them into an area in which they discover evidence which contradicts the lies which form the supporting pillars of the artificial world-view the orangutans are foisting upon the rest of society.

In other words, both the chimpanzees and the gorillas are "enablers" to the suave, self-assured, and utterly ruthless orangutans. Without the compliance of the chimpanzee intellectuals and the gorilla "muscle," the orangutans would not be able to control society as they do.

But there is one more "class" depicted in the film, and one that is actually very important: the humans. The humans in the film are mercilessly herded by their ape overlords, shot by the gorillas at the slightest provocation, and generally live a miserable, pathetic, animalistic existence. The most salient aspect of the humans in Planet of the Apes, of course, is the fact that they cannot speak. It's not that they are physiologically unable to speak, we are told (by the sympathetic chimpanzee doctor, Zira): it is simply that they do not, or perhaps that psychologically they can not. 

Clearly, since all the apes also represent humans, the humans in this film represent the rest of humanity besides those who are lording it over the rest (the orangutans) and those who are actively enabling them to do so (the gorillas and the chimpanzees). They are the voiceless groups in society, marginalized and brutalized and herded about at the whim of those at the top, but denied any say in the process.

By its very plot line, and Taylor's inability to perceive the true situation until the very end, the film seems to be saying that this takeover has already taken place, but that it is very difficult to comprehend that it has happened. It is only in the film's final scene, when the torch and crown of the Statue of Liberty come into view of the camera, that Taylor fully perceives that his country -- in fact his very planet -- is no more.

The orangutans, of course, know the truth: the cynical Dr. Zaius already knows that ancient history is very different from the way he and his fellow religious leaders have been telling it. 

The gorillas don't really seem to care: the obedience is unquestioning, and their readiness to apply violence in defense of the status quo is amply demonstrated. 

The chimpanzees are the most problematic, in that they should know better, but they resist confronting the lies that support the system in which they themselves participate, even when their own research demonstrates those supporting assertions to be erroneous or false. They are too ready to defer to the perceived "higher authority" throughout the film, until the final confrontation in the cave in which Cornelius dares to bring up evidence that Dr. Zaius cannot actually refute -- and so he orders it to be dynamited instead, to the horror of the chimpanzees in attendance, who themselves are undergoing their own process of "waking up" (and doing so a little faster than Taylor himself, it might be noted).

The messages in the 1968 Planet of the Apes might seem to belong to another age, almost another planet, so far away does the society of 1968 seem to us today. But the "present reality" that the creators of this film were striving to depict through the medium of their imagined post-apocalyptic future is one that may in fact have more resonance with 2014 than many people are comfortable in considering. 

If the above reading of the film is correct, we might each ask ourselves: "Which role am I playing?" or "Which 'ape category' am I acting like?" 

If we are playing a role in one of the categories that the film seems to describe with its chimpanzees, what are we enabling with our work? What lies are we, like the compliant chimpanzees, failing to confront, even when we see them? What evidence would it take for us to, like Cornelius, finally wake up to the fact that the worldview itself that we have been deferring to, is fatally flawed?

If our life's path has taken us to a role analogous to that of the gorillas in the film, what are we supporting and defending with our application of physical force? Since most of those who enter into this particular path do so at a fairly early age, those of us who have been in a "gorilla role" for some time now can perhaps ask whether or not the actuality has been in accordance with the ideals that we had at the outset, and whether we want to be as unquestioning as the gorillas who are portrayed in the movie in our support of what we see going on. Do we find our use of force being directed in accordance with natural law, or in violation of it? Do we find ourselves, like the gorillas in the film, viewing those we face as being mere "animals," reducing them in our eyes to the status of a "thing"

If we happen to be playing a role as an orangutan, are we -- like Dr. Zaius -- doing so in full knowledge that our societal position is sustained by a tissue of lies? Or, are we, like some of the other orangutans in the film who seem to still be "true believers," deliberately adopting a policy of "see no evil" (with "evil" in this case defined as anything which threatens the "religion" or ideology that perpetuates the orangutan regime).

And finally, are we perhaps playing the role of the humans in the film, who are simply herded around without much comprehension of what is taking place? If so, it would seem that those who are "still human" (so to speak) and who are not actively running or enabling the autocratic usurping regime, are the most innocent and least blameworthy of the four categories. But the question for them, of course, is what it will take to get them to actually break their silence? If the movie Planet of the Apes is a metaphor, then in this metaphor they are physically able to speak, but for whatever reason they do not

The possibility that the situation depicted in Planet of the Apes is, in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, not predictive but instead descriptive, is not a pleasant one to consider (which is of course why Taylor in the movie resists this possibility for so long, against all evidence).

If, however, the creators of the movie in 1968 were accurate in their assessment, and the situation they were depicting was not a prediction but instead an actual description which "describes reality, the present world," then the solution will involve "waking up," even if (as in Taylor's case) the act of waking up is very difficult to experience. It will probably also require "waking up" from at least some of those who are currently acting in one of the every roles portrayed in the film: chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and "human."

At the very least, the possibility that the creators of the 1968 Planet of the Apes somehow knew what they were talking about when they crafted that film should cause us to go back and examine very carefully each of the areas outlined above that the "orangutans" used in order to cement their control over society, including a false version of history, the levers of religious authority, their ability to define what is "Science" and what is not, and their use of raw violence when the first three methods fail.

If we find evidence in "our world" that these things have been going on, then depending on the degree to which we determine that they have been taking place, we might begin to suspect that (like Taylor) the scenario he is witnessing is not something that happens on a distant planet, or in some imagined distant future.