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September 2002
 
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Films
by Kathi Maio

Paradise Lost, Gone, Kaput

Although he is oft remembered for his adventure stories about Mars, Venus, and the center of the Earth, for most citizens of this world, Edgar Rice Burroughs means one thing: Tarzan. One of the most potent popular culture characters of the last century, Tarzan has been featured in over forty films; silent, live-action, and animated.

On a personal level, I've never understood what all the fuss is about. Oh, as a kid watching old flicks on TV, I responded to the sexual chemistry between buff Johnny Weissmuller and saucy Maureen O'Sullivan—at least until the Hays Office made them tone it down. But I never really embraced Tarzan as a cultural icon. (And as for the novels, I've always found them unreadable.)

Intellectually, however, I get the appeal. As humans have become more and more civilized and tethered by their technologies, conveniences, and social conventions, the allure of the primal man as a fantasy figure has only intensified. Even so, such a fascination is certainly not new to the computer age.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, as philosophers and scientists kicked around ideas like Rousseau's "natural man" and Darwin's evolutionary theories, Europeans and North Americans were fascinated by tales and public displays of African "anthropoids," and even more with examples of the Homo Ferus, or wild men. Victor of Aveyron (the case Truffaut explored in The Wild Child) was a sensation at the turn of the 19th century. So was "The Wild Girl of Champagne," and a hirsute Laotian child called Krao.

Freak shows featuring monkey-men, ape-men, and femmes a barbe (bearded women) became popular. Theatricals featuring ape-like antics, like the comic ballet "Jocko, the Monkey of Brazil" became the toast of major cities. And human curiosity and dread surrounding our close cousin, the "Orang-Outang," was rife in 19th century culture (as evidenced in Poe's famous story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue").

For the past three hundred years, Westerners have been fascinated with the savage inside. How far have we come from our primeval past? And how much of it is still within us? Is our primitive state representative of something monstrous, or something ideal? We've never quite been able to decide. And although Joni Mitchell admonished us all to "get ourselves back to the Garden," the last I heard the singer herself was living in a mansion in Bel Air.

For most of us, the "missing link" has less to do with formal scientific study, and more to do with our approach-avoidance feelings about our animal selves. Pulp writer though he was, Burroughs understood this. Although, to his mind, human beings (at least the eugenically superior Anglo-Saxon variety) were endowed with a natural nobility and intelligence that made civilization an almost biological imperative, even if your adopted mama was an ape.

In the first novel he says that "Tarzan of the apes, little primitive man, presented a picture filled, a once, with pathos and with promise—an allegorical figure of the primordial groping through the black night of ignorance toward the light of learning." But is the lesson worth acquiring? Burroughs, despite his literary and real-life love of macho adventure, believed that it was.

Others are not so sure. They believe, like Burroughs, in the inevitability of civilization. They just question whether it's a good thing. Which brings me to the movie of the month, an anti-Tarzan fable called Human Nature.

Penned by Charlie Kaufman, of Being John Malkovich fame, Human Nature is a tragicomic tale that centers on another primitive hero brought back to the civilized heritage to which he was born, this time with less than happy results.

As the film opens, a raven hunts two white mice, and a male human body is found on the forest floor. The body belongs to a behaviorist named Nathan Bronfman (Tim Robbins). How he came to be dead meat in a woodsy paradise, and, concurrently a rather befuddled inmate in a surrealist white "heaven," is what this odd little movie is all about.

Nathan had been raised in a highly civilized household by a Mr. and Mrs. Manners-from-Hell (Robert Forster and Mary Kay Place). The Bronfmans were the type of parents who'd send their young son to his room, without supper, if he dared to use the wrong fork on his salad. Warped for life, but oh-so-proper, Nathan grows up to be a social scientist who sincerely believes that his (federally funded) project to teach table manners to lab mice offers some real hope to humanity.

Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette) was raised in a slightly less gothic version of suburban America. But she, too, is obsessed with controlling the animal in herself. In her case its not about social ritual, its about the light brown fur that started covering her body at puberty. Haunted by her hirsutism, Lila retreats to the woods where she lives happily as a nature writer (of best-sellers like Fuck Humanity!) until her desire to find a mate brings her back to the city.

It is her kindly electrolysist, Louise (Rosie Perez), who hooks Lila up with the still virginal Nathan. Lila, who is trying to keep secret her hairy problem, is happy to find someone to bed down with, even if it is an anal-retentive type with "a little pig penis." It looks like two lonely people have found someone to make do with, until two other players enter the picture.

One is Nathan's coquette of an assistant, named Gabrielle (Miranda Otto), a woman who so revels in feminine wiles and other forms of duplicity that she represents the completely societal organism. And the other is a man that Gabrielle is invited to name. In remembrance of her little dog, she dubs him Puff.

Puff (Rhys Ifans, Hugh Grant's grody roommate from Notting Hill) is feral man, raised by his father as an ape, who is discovered by Lila and Nathan during a hike in the woods. Lila loves that he is "uncontaminated by civilization," but Nathan simply sees another lab animal he can "teach" and "save" from wallowing (as his mother used to call it) "in the filth of instinct."

Ifans' Puff is the perfect anti-Tarzan. He is pale and scrawny, and inclined to flee from any danger. In retrospect, he later tells a Congressional hearing that he thinks he was a pygmy chimp. But as a peaceable creature who's favorite social interaction is humping, I'd say he's something closer to a bonobo. But whatever he is, he is an absurd savage, with little interest in polite society. That is, until Nathan fits him with a shock collar and his two choices are to humanize or fry.

Before long, tucked in a plexi-glass cage, Puff is listening to opera, developing a talent for wine tasting, performing Broadway tunes, and reading Moby Dick beside an artificial fire. But is he ready for the "real" world—a social environment where nothing is honest or instinctive? Nathan gives him a little fatherly advice: "When in doubt, don't ever do what you really want to do."

Human Nature is chock full of more ideas, social commentary, and general ruminations on human identity and animal urges than just about any movie you can name. If you want to leave a movie with lots to think about, than this movie is definitely for you. Unfortunately, as film comedy, it is only moderately successful. The tragic implications of how humans torture their minds and repress their sexuality is never far from the surface of the story. And Kaufman sadly concludes that once we've been indoctrinated into civilization we are tainted forever. Adam can't really go "back to the garden." Our paradise is lost. And I do mean forever.

Bummer, that. And not the most lighthearted message for a movie to deliver, Since most folks want their farcical fantasies more upbeat and uncomplicated, Human Nature did not exactly storm the box office. Kaufman, and director Michel Gondry took an uncompromising—perhaps too uncompromising—view of their bizarre, yet brooding, subject matter. Gondry, who is well known as a very creative director of music videos for everyone from Bjork to the Rolling Stones, uses old-fashioned filmic techniques like obvious soundstage sets and rear projection shots to create, in his feature debut, an artificiality that borders on hyper-realism. It's all very arty and intellectual, but possibly jarring to most contemporary moviegoers.

Likewise, with his fine cast of actors, Gondry encourages them to abandon the expected cheap laughs for a tone that approaches melancholy. Oh, there's a few humping and hooters jokes and an occasional touch of traditional sex farce. There's even a bit of fantastical whimsy, as in the closing shot of the lab mice. But the overall effect is of one somber, thought-provoking movie experience.

I appreciate the fact that Human Nature tackles more subject matter than it can coherently explore in one movie. Ambition is good. And so is not talking down to your audience. I enjoy movies like George of the Jungle. And I think that weird, wacky flicks like that dubious kung-fu classic, Lady Iron Monkey (aka Ape Girl) are a hoot to watch, as well. I even enjoy Johnny and Maureen doing there Tarzan-Jane routines on late night television from time to time.

Still, a film that explores the metaphysical relationship between the Rousseauan natural man, a side-show monkey-boy, and the compromised masculinity of twenty-first century homo sapiens, now that's a movie that doesn't come around every day!

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