You were hopeful, weren’t you? No babbling on about Apes! Apes! Apes! for weeks now, so you thought, Maybe he’s finally done with all this monkey business.
You, my friend, thought wrong.
TRUE confession time here: I intended to post this many moons ago. After a feverish afternoon of typing (and reading the half-comprehensible manifesto I’d vomited onto the page), I wanted to take another stab at my making my point before inflicting it upon the rest of the world. I kept saying I’d get to it tomorrow.
That was August 19.
Oh yeah…and I know the burning question in your head right now. The answer is “yes.” It’s still a long-ass post. As if that’s not enough, I see your long-ass post and raise you endnotes, even! I do so uncharacteristically unapologetic. You can’t change the stripes on a panther, people. TRUE LIFE it or lump it, says I. So…it’s still kind of a manifesto (isn’t it strange that the simplest points often require the most involved arguments?), but hopefully it’s more than half-comprehensible.
During the recent unrest in Ferguson, I was kinda surprised some pundit didn’t draw a parallel to DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The thematic connection was clear to me. In the throes of discord it seemed there was something to be gleaned from the cautionary tale that DAWN bespoke.
Okay…before I continue, here’s a warning. This post may contain mild SPOILERS. If you have’t seen the movie yet, you might wanna stop right here, pardner. If you’re a brave soul and want to continue, I promise to keep my references relatively vague, so as to not spoil the whole thing for you. That said…why the hell haven’t you seen this freakin’ movie yet?!?
Over and over again, people (including me) have hailed the DAWN story as “Shakespearean.” On one hand, it’s an over-used trope that’s meant as a compliment, right? Like being an “Einstein” means you’re smart, “Shakespearean” means people identify it as a quality work. And DAWN has the street cred to back this up. It got pretty great reviews across the board, word of mouth was strong and it was heralded as this summer’s “thinking person’s action movie.” It’s important to note this because the implication is that, unlike other movies chock full of 70s hits, feisty raccoons and talking trees, which are meant to be enjoyed in the moment and then “phffffft!,” DAWN is a movie to ponder. We sense there’s a life-impacting message in there that begs for deeper consideration.
So what is that message? I think the first stop in figuring this out is back at the “thinking person’s action movie” designation. Now, one could look at flicks like INCEPTION or THE SIXTH SENSE and say they’re also “thinking” movies, but they’re far from Shakespearean. Aside from puzzling over their Sudoku-like plots, neither of these movies has much else to offer. DAWN, on the other hand, isn’t a mere brainteaser. It’s heft isn’t in unpacking the logic, it’s in unpacking something even more complex: emotion. It challenges audiences’ emotional intelligence and plays on their feels. If you have any doubt about that, just try and keep a dry eye as Blue Eyes, drowning in guilt for turning his back on his father, falls over himself to apologize to Caesar after learning of Koba’s betrayal.
It’s in this feeling space that the connection to The Bard of Avon is realized. Shakespeare was no Nolan or Shamylan. The entertainment value in his work didn’t hinge on some shocking reveal at the climax. Like those of the Greeks before him, Shakespeare’s tragic characters were fated. Most of the time we knew exactly what was in store for them from the get-go, and the fun was in the clusterfuck journey through emotional and gut-wrenching terrain in the course of reaching a final destination that was already foreshadowed, if not foretold. Moreover, the magic was in the Shakespeare’s keen observations and commentary on fallibility and the frailty of the human condition. And the guy was known to spin a cautionary tale or two.
You want to take it one step further? Consider this…a general is dispatched to the wilderness in order to save his people. There, he discovers a noble, but savage tribe. Though war between the general’s kind and the savages is pre-destined, the general has compassion for the savages. The savage king returns the general’s compassion. Thus, the two push through their individual biases and see past their differences in order to achieve a win-win and avoid a deadly confrontation between their peoples. Misinformation, misinterpretation and revenge-fueled malice, however, rule the day. Each side is whipped up in a hysterical frenzy. The war is coming in spite of the general’s and the king’s best efforts. In the end, all our tragic heroes can do is part friends. As they say their final good-byes, they’re sadder but wiser in the realization that the voice of reason drowns in the cacophony of hysteria.
Kinda even sounds like the plot of one of them Shakespeare plays, don’t it?
There you have it. Our comparing DAWN to Shakespeare means we view is at a quality work that deserves our attention. Further, we get that, through all the monkey business, a light is shone upon ourselves. It’s revealing something about our human experience, and we should pay attention to it.
If you’re still with me and saying “Get to the point, already!” here it is: I interpret the core message of the movie as in order to stave off doom, reasonable people need to do a better job at making their voices heard.
Okay…here’s where I could get into some hot water by wading into the whole Ferguson issue. To be clear, this isn’t a post about Ferguson, per se, and I am not trying to tie what happens in the movie with what happened in Missouri this past summer. The Ferguson experience does, however, bring into sharp focus something that DAWN has a lot to say about. As mentioned above, that something is hysteria.
Before anyone pounces, I’m not making an argument that there wasn’t a justification to protest. For the purposes of my argument, in fact, I am specifically NOT taking a side. What I want to highlight is that, as in DAWN, voices in all quarters during the Ferguson unrest whipped up a tempest (unnecessarily, in my opinion…obviously) that threatened to wipe out an entire town and rip through the fabric of our society to boot.
If you don’t want to talk about Ferguson, then let’s talk about Washington, D.C., shall we? Talk about whipping up hysteria!
Of course, neither Ferguson nor D.C. created the problem. It was already there. The hullabaloo is an acute symptomatic manifestation of a much larger cultural affliction, which is that we, the people, seem to be caught up in an epidemic of hysteria. Even worse, our hysterical reactions dull our empathy and amplify the radical, angry voices at the fringes of the spectrum. As a result, the voice of reason is cancelled out, and we break down. Or at the very least we lose ground on the “savage versus civilized” scale. It’s likely I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, and I’m guessing you sense the same thing I do: it’s not getting better; it’s getting worse.
Though DAWN is a cautionary tale, we root for Caesar and Malcolm because their personal journeys are that of seeing beyond themselves to achieve peace. It’s an admirable lesson that says if you really listen, you’ll hear the voice of reason. Again…it’s all about compassion. But in the end, it’s not enough. It’s two voices amid the bedlam. Caesar’s and Malcolm’s voices never even register, so fear, panic and vengeance are all there is. That, and the inevitable war, death and devastation to follow.
So we, the audience, leave the story with a truly tragic realization that the simian flu epidemic wasn’t the real apocalypse. Hell! You can see it in Caesar’s eyes in the final shot! Despite the relative calm as Caesar is reunited with his family and tribe, this is the moment everybody’s screwed.
Caesar and Malcom’s example is a beacon for the rest of us. When we’re lost in the fog of our self-centeredness, we don’t have to crash into each other. Avoiding a devastating of collision in the heat of the moment, requires us to will ourselves to be calm and see beyond ourselves. We must be guided not by our hurt or fear, but by our compassion. We must do the difficult work of both trusting and being trustworthy for the sake of everyone. That is the virtue extolled in DAWN. That is the real evolution. But again…it falls short. In order for this virtue to take root, the voice of reason must be heard.
Two things occur to me as I contemplate all that. First, conventional wisdom suggests that the loudest and most radical voices (hence, the most hysterical ones) from the fringes scream so loudly because, in fact, their numbers are few. That means the vast majority of folks are largely compassionate and reasonable people. They want to be uniters, as opposed to dividers. Second is that somewhere along the way we’ve equated being compassionate and reasonable with weakness. It’s not exciting or sexy. We rarely shout our calls for reason and compassion from the rooftops or exalt the most reasonable and compassionate among us. What a paradox it is that we live in the middle, yet celebrate the extremes.
Of course, I know I’m grossly oversimplifying things. It’s a tangled web we weave* when it comes to why are are the way we are. Why “type-A” personalities, misbehavin’ Kardashians and reality shows like NAKED AND AFRAID are things we revere. Why “loud” and “busy” are the only things that seem to cut through lately. Why we seem to be addicted to hyperbole. Why, though we are supposedly more advanced and “civilized,” civility seems to fall be the wayside. I have my own thoughts on the why, which I suppose could take up an entire book (you can breathe…I’ll spare you that). One is that as we sought to master the basics of feeding and sheltering ourselves, we simultaneously overdid it (think Agent Smith’s speech in THE MATRIX, where he talks about the first matrix. It was scrapped because humans couldn’t deal with being too comfortable) and created an overly complex machine we can’t effectively manage, which leaves us stressed-to-the-max and bored at the same time. Another is that the pursuit of leisure has supplanted good works a primary an ambition in our culture (don’t get me started). Yet another is our misguided belief that passion and impulse are more attractive and innately indicative of the core human condition than is discipline (and I don’t mean spanking your kids here, I mean the zen thing). The bottom line is it’s big and pervasive, and no one’s completely immune to these hysteria-inducing effects. I’m sure not. I struggle with it every day.
By the way, I’m talking to myself as much as I’m talking to anyone here. Like many, I’m just trying to figure out what exactly the hell “virtue” is in the face of tectonic shifts in our radically changing social landscape. It’s like this is the moment the gods decided,” Hey! Time pick apart the cultural tapestry thread by thread.” And they’re weaving it back together in ways virtually unrecognizable from when I was a kid, even. Okay…talk about hysteria? That’s not only confusing, it’s scary. No wonder we’re all a little panicked. And I don’t know about you, but when I’m stressed I tend to pull inward. The trick is to not stay inward and shut down. We gotta figure it out, or…I don’t know…
That said, there is good news in all of this swirl, I think.
The first bit of good news comes from legendary economist Peter Drucker, who, in his prophetic 1993 book, Post-Capitalist Society, pretty much called it. He said we’re straight-up in the middle of an apocalypse. Wait…that’s good news? It is when you consider how Drucker defined apocalypse, which was drawn from the Greek root and means basically to “lift the veil.” He talked about it in terms of society coming into a new realization and said that the process is generally a pretty rocky one. He also said it’s not the first time we’ve been through something like this. In fact, Drucker asserted Western Society sees similar “apocalyptic” events every 300 years or so, with the most recent one being the Age of Enlightenment around the end of the 1700s. Anyone know what happened then? Was there some kinda turbulence? The gist of Drucker’s message is that all this tumult isn’t a harbinger of our demise; it’s a nexus.
The second bit of good news is there is one virtue that’s stood the test of time. It’s withstood apocalypse after apocalypse and remains as potent today as it ever was. Even better, it seems to be the once, constant virtue. I’m talking about compassion, of course. Even in the haze, when long-standing social contracts and constructs are in upheaval, compassion is still the constant. The Golden Rule is still golden.
Okay…I gotta stop myself for a moment here before everyone rolls their eyes. Trust me, I’d be right there with you. “He’s going there?!?” Yes. I am going there. Of course, I get that we live in a big, complicated world with big, complicated problems. People are hurting people; People are crying out for help–real, tangible help right now. I get that mere compassion doesn’t get the job done. Or does it? I mean, compassion is the first step in reaching out to others just for the sake of lifting them up. Compassion is the first step in seeking justice–not vengeful justice, but TRUE justice–for those being oppressed. Compassion is the first step in reaching outside our personal bubbles, even when there’s no profit to be had. Even when it costs us. You may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…some other guys said “All you need is love” long before I did.** And some other guy, about ten apocalypses back, said, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”***
Because that’s what compassion is, isn’t it? It’s the engine of love. In fact, if you subscribe to M. Scott Peck’s love as a verb philosophy****, it’s a pretty short hop to saying compassion and love are synonymous.
The bottom line is that, everything else considered, compassion is the key. I mean it certainly was the foundation of Malcolm in Caesar’s relationship, wasn’t it? It was the heart of their virtue. What makes them tragic is their failure to translate their compassion into meaningful social change. So they threw up their hands, gave up and accepted the world was screwed. And ending worthy of the man from Avon, himself.
What I am saying is that maybe it’s time embrace the work we need to do turn our world around before it’s too late. I’m saying that if we really view Caesar and Malcolm as virtuous, maybe it’s time we inject a little WWC&MD (What Would Caesar & Malcom Do?) in our cultural experience and speak up about that. Cultural tumult be damned, maybe it’s time for the silent majority to stop shaking its collective head in silent dismay (it’s not working, by the way), put its money where its mouth is and sing in unwavering chorus for a change. Maybe it’s time to get radical…about compassion. About love.
This. This has been the most pressing thing on my mind for I-don’t-know-how-long now. Even so, I can’t say that I’m particularly good at it, either. I’ve been putting my money where my mouth is a lot more lately, though, and I’ve been working every day to be a more compassionate and actively loving individual. It’s not always easy, especially when I come face-to-face with others’ insecurities. It’s even more difficult when I see people knocking other people down. I get mad, and I want to lash out. Sometimes I do. But I’m getting better at taking a deep breath and asking myself, “What’s the compassionate, loving move here?”
I’m not necessarily talking about the, “What’s gets me and everyone else walked all over here?” move, though there was that thing that one dude from Nazareth***** said about turning the other cheek. There’s something to that.
It takes real thought and real contemplation–and real courage–to practice compassion. It’s the simplest thing and the most difficult thing at the same time. Yet, we have to do it. Now. And loudly. And proudly. We must intentionally and deliberately engage in compassionate interaction. We must demand it from ourselves and from others. We must be disciplined about being patient with each other, especially in times when we disagree or our respective self-interests are at odds. We must love each other, even as we stumble along, until the lessons of our apocalypse (read: social evolution) finally sink in, and the human spirit can embrace them as a matter of course. But the next step isn’t up to the fringe.
It’s up to the middle. It’s up to you and me.
That’s the rub, isn’t it? We can’t wait for others to go first. It’s not up to the fringe; it’s up to us. We have to hold it together. Even more important, we have to bear the burden and save the world. We can do it, people. We have the numbers. We just need to take the first step. And keep taking them. If we don’t, the fate of the Planet of the Silent Majority is the same as the one in DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Okay…BIG spoiler alert (if you haven’t already guessed): it doesn’t end well.
Are we already screwed? Personally, I don’t think so. I see hints of this evolution every day, in moments that restore my faith in humanity and give me hope that we have a brighter collective future. But moments aren’t enough. Listen, evolution is a messy business, but if we really want to move forward and thrive, much less survive, we really do need to try something different. There are worse plans than practicing compassion and just loving each other.
Will there always be radicalism, malice and hysteria in the world? Probably. Maybe I’m idealistic, but I believe these are the exception–even today. I firmly believe in the inherent good in the human heart. Malice and hysteria and radicalism are just loud. When we, the no-longer-silent and reasonable majority decide to come together and make our collective, compassionate and loving voice heard above the noise is when we’ll make TRUE progress toward the peace that has alluded our species for as long as we can remember. And, you know, it might just stave off our own apocalyptic demise.
And to that I say, “Ooo! Ooo! Yah! Yah!”******
*Yep. I know Shakespeare didn’t say/write this. It was Sir Walter Scott, and it is commonly (and mistakenly) attributed to William. For some reason, only half-known to even me, it seemed ironically humorous to use this quote here. I dunno.
**If you don’t catch this reference, there is no hope for you. Or you’ve been in cryogenic sleep for the past 50 years.
***Corinthians 13:12-13. Paul said that. He’s pretty much my favorite biblical figure. Also, it’s always good for writers to quote Scripture in their work, especially if they are agnostic, like me. Not only does it make you feel cool, but it shows the world that, though you have risen above (see what I did there?) the fiction of myth-based theology, you still glean meaning from the metaphor and underlying philosophical lesson. It also helps you feel relevant, edgy, superior and clever. You basically can’t lose with it.
****Peck talks about love in his groundbreaking book, The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. In the book, he defines love as such: “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” That definition blew my mind and changed my life when I read it [muffle, muffle] years ago. It seemed the perfect antidote to the disturbing existential truth encapsulated in the first sentence in the book: “Life is difficult.”
*****Don’t quote me on this, but I think the dude from Nazareth’s name was Jesus. His take on hitting and cheeks can be found in Luke 6:29. I also think that after his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, Jesus gave his followers a new commandment that cancelled out all the other commandments. It was something like, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (John 13:34) And, you know, that’s just stuff about love from the Christian tradition, which I grew up in and with which I am most familiar. My understanding from pals who’ve grown up in and/or practice other traditions is that their dudes pretty much say the same thing.
******Vocalization that accompanies the “Simian Step,” invented circa 1975 by Michael Arthur Popham and Wilmont Jame True III. This primitive dance was intended to convey joyful excitement, particularly as it related to all things PLANET OF THE APES. The dance consisted primarily of Popham and True jumping up and down on someone’s bed and shouting “Ooo! Ooo! Yah! Yah!” at the top of their lungs, much to the dismay of parents and siblings, or anyone within a half-mile radius. Over time, the dance, itself, diminished in prominence, leaving only the call remaining. Today, the call is used in moments when the caller wants to convey a general feeling of joy, excitement or approval.