Especially when the lovers aren’t
Me Cheeta, James Lever’s spoof autobiography of Hollywood’s most famous chimpanzee, takes aim at a wide range of creaturely weaknesses — all of them, as it turns out, distinctly human. Not so crudely as to spoil what’s gone before, it ends on a fashionably downbeat note; meanwhile, it has an economy of style that occasionally produces some hauntingly beautiful prose. From its publication in 2008 — and while still in a period when many of us are glad of a laugh — this unexpected bonus isn’t the one most emphasized in Blurbland. Indeed, having commissioned a relatively unknown author, the publisher’s most daring claim so far is that we may be dealing with a new Jonathan Swift. So, while conceding from the start that this isn’t War and Peace, as we zoom in on a Man Booker entry that earned just one star when more earnest rivals received comparatively galactic billings, I’ll briefly try to show that Me Cheeta delivers more down-to-earth value for the general reader than anyone, especially its author, dared to hope.
So — what exactly is Lever attempting here? Taking that switcheroo ending first, was he simply sharing the zeitgeist with, say, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen 2008), which also shows what a silly species we are and no danger of changing our ways either, lord bless us. In Allen’s case it hardly matters if a too mechanical pessimism doesn’t get my own benediction; but when did Americans making idiots of themselves abroad start looking like a fresh idea again? Certainly the laughs were mostly lost on this European, though that might have something to do with my unreciprocated passion for Penelope Cruz. And to show I’m not down on all directors with forty-year careers spent making intelligent and entertaining movies, I have to mention Claude Chabrol, whose Girl Cut in Two (2008) also keeps us in mind of Cheeta’s Hollywood, inhabiting as it does the same materially over-comfortable, emotionally shallow world of Barcelona. Meanwhile, the man who consolidated his early reputation with dark masterpieces like Le Boucher (1970) isn’t suddenly trying his hand at romantic comedy. But, by contrast with the cliché-inverting downward tug of Allen’s finale in which the perfect matches of rom com are not achieved in the last reel, with help from the marvellous Ludivine Sagnier, Chabrol gives us a cliché-defying end in which the female psyche, so recently threatened with being torn apart, regains her sense of wholeness. Gabrielle, then, is not actually coupee en deux by her two contrasting but equally impossible male lovers; and this happy outcome is shown by means of the classic stage illusion with which the film ends. At least one big-name British critic refused to be taken in by such chicanery; but, in response to the latest effort from a director often referred to as the French Hitchcock, I swear I heard an approving chortle or two from one generously rounded, watchful spirit.
These examples of artistic independence help underline the fact that, even as an untried author, James Lever was always expected to do more than follow the blueprint of his sponsors. On the other hand, HarperCollins obviously had some back-of-envelope themes in mind: Me Cheeta is going to be about the golden era of Hollywood, so this might lure a few film fans; it’s about our love — or lack of it — for animals, and that could hook some ecological interest. But these are the memoirs of a seventy-five-year-old male primate, so we’re aiming most of all, it seems, at an aging human demographic — or, at least, at those with a taste for reflection, a sense of history, and a concern about mortality. Come to think of it, that’s actually a huge potential market, going well beyond crude divisions based on age. All the same, for many young readers Tarzan, Jane, and Cheeta will evoke all the romantic nostalgia of a media studies course — always supposing that the axe hasn’t already fallen on a lecturer near you. Meanwhile, there might be a few for whom the Edenic couple and their amusing pet still conjure up memories of innocent escapism. Yet as long as their minds can swing from the vines, even such fine folk know deep down that, originally barred from Eden as we are, our attempts to get back in are frequently more desperate than innocent.
For now I’ll just say that in this particularly wide area of moral ambiguity — the one Bob Dylan calls Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door — Lever seizes his best creative chances. At the same time — and refreshingly enough — his idea of artistic freedom and integrity doesn’t amount to splattering readers with endless supplies of moral gunge. References to constant masturbation as a caged creature’s only comfort are, in fact, carefully rationed. So, too, are passages playing on Cheeta’s sense of smell. Just as impressively, dilations on Alpha Male psychology aren’t overdone, either. But when exploring the closely associated idea of The Strong Man, Lever loosens up to interesting effect. As an archetype, scholars have traced this one five thousand years back to Gilgamesh (above); and, today, every educated modern Iraqi — if he has somehow managed to escape the murder epidemic in his homeland — could tell you we’re talking now about the world’s first great literary epic. Of course, Lever wouldn’t be stirring much interest just by doffing his cap to world literature. But his Strong Man does happen to be Johnny Weissmuller; and so — despite obvious differences between a clean-cut, 1930s working-class American sports hero and a rather spoilt, out-of-control Sumerian prince — Lever also offers the portrait of a vulnerable big guy whose life story somehow inevitably draws us in.
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As part of his research for Me,Cheeta, the author got to know Weissmuller’s son, which could have led, I suppose, to a certain mushiness in the text. And there is a lot of entirely non-satirical sympathy for Weissmuller here; but, for me, this stands near or even at the core of some of Lever’s best writing. I’m thinking now not just about the appeal of Weissmuller’s gentle personality to an orphaned and abducted young ape who has, until now, received less than patient attention from his captors. This is emotionally significant; but its impact is muted by the fact that, despite all the cruelties of captivity, young Cheeta has already seen enough to know that — with or without his beloved Tarzan — he’ll probably survive longer in the Hollywood jungle than in the real one. What’s more, while things are going comparatively well, he suspects that all human beings are somehow involved in The Project, which is — of course — to save all animals from extinction. (From here we do eventually go on something of a learning curve.)
But the Weissmuller/Cheeta tandem takes us on other journeys, and not just into the fate of bosom friends doomed by the facts of mortality — that other dramatic Gilgamesh archetype. A less obvious but equally poignant revelation is the shared status of Johnny Weissmuller and Cheeta as Pampered Prisoners — a cruel enough fate that beset more than a few Hollywood stars of the period. But what interests me here especially are Lever’s subliminal hints at that dream of middle-class security for which more and more of us outside of Hollywood now yearn. It might be the case that, in this wider Eden, the most pampered of us share something with those who are simply seeking relief from the threat of imminent extinction. But if the Strong Man who could help all of us achieve our dreams is actually rather weak as well as gentle, what then? In our own moment of historical crisis, when early Tarzan films all too easily evoke the breadlines of the 1930s, Barack Obama’s recent comment on Africa — that it needs not strong leaders but strong institutions — takes on an almost surreal relevance. Continuing with the Strong Man thesis and its place in interwar history, I recall a recent DVD viewing of King Vidor’s Our Daily Bread (above) from 1934, which grapples with many of the issues we’re trying so hard to mitigate this time around. Back then, where we would expect to find whole gangs of economic prisoners both in real life and in any serious scenario, few outside of Tinseltown would have been especially pampered. Indeed, given its dangerously concerned social vision, when we delve into the background of Vidor’s production we might be surprised to discover Hollywood connections of any kind. Amazingly enough, though, one studio was ready to risk its money and reputation on this “communist” tale of a successful farming commune.
The unlikely saviour of the hour was Charles Chaplin, founder member and leading light of United Artists. This is the same Chaplin who, in Me Cheeta, provides some of the book’s most darkly funny moments — not as genius-clown but as impromptu savant whose glittering house parties were designed to facilitate the serial seduction of “starlets.” So, here’s more evidence of the little big man, or weak strong man who can still be found doing his bit — and more. At any rate, it seems clear that in Vidor’s scenario Chaplin instantly recognized the big-hearted ordinary guy chosen by all those tired, hungry people as their natural-born leader. Possibly he also noted that Tom, the Strong Man of the commune, had an eye for the ladies — a weakness that could threaten marriages and egalitarian social projects. Coming back to our own era and the film’s reception today, all but the most soul-dead will still be moved by the renewed faith and energy with which Vidor’s very human collectivists finally save their harvest. As passionate propaganda, the entire community’s hand-digging of an irrigation channel across bone-dry fields to their dying crops can scarcely be distinguished from the best of Soviet Cinema. And yet — remembering again Obama’s presidency — it will strike more of us today than it did in 1934 that, in the proudly multi-ethnic cast of Our Daily Bread, there’s not one black family.
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Up, up. to the escarpment! Particularly in his less than pampered younger days, this little thought is one that occurs quite a lot to Cheeta. Even in his seventies, as a bored and blasé “great artist” ( just look at those amazing abstracts in the suitably illustrated autobiography! ), he still sometimes yearns for that first and best place of safety. Stronger, then, than the vulnerable Strong Man and, for me, playing the funniest and most gripping role in Lever’s book is the original tree-dweller’s urge to escape upwards, always upwards. Meanwhile, if the (Weak) Strong Man calls up something as old as Gilgamesh and his journey on The Bumpy Road to Wisdom, we know that there must have been a much more ancient oral tradition coming before it. And if that whole tradition could be reduced to the story of our Fight against Fate, just as timeless is the tale of Fugue and Flight.
For me, though, the most resonating element in Me Cheeta is the connection between this other primal instinct and something that happens to be one of the central devices of film narrative. In fact, cinematically speaking, The Story of Desperately Fleeing Upwards begins early. One thinks, for example, of climactic moments in the young Raoul Walsh’s Regeneration (1915); and from as early as 1913 one could cite Louis Feuillade’s French film serial, Fantoma and the slightly later Judex. Of early British films with rooftop climaxes, probably the most famous is Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929, above). By the way, at this stage of film history I’m not suggesting that the fleeing parties are usually Nice Guys — they’re not. And it’s fair to say they don’t improve much for a while; though by North by Northwest in 1959, decent (and almost decently-clothed) chaps like Cary Grant are also zipping up to the escarpment, albeit one disguised quite convincingly as Mount Rushmore.
For more recent contributions to the great art of fugue, from Scandinavian cinema I find myself veering serendipitously towards O’Horten, (Bent Hamer, Norway, 2007). Despite the best efforts of The Fugitive in the mid ’60s, even today the fleeing party can’t quite escape all Goodie/Baddie dichotomies. Yet, mysteriously enough, Odd Horten, the steady, pipe-smoking train driver now entering the tunnel of retirement, is driven by unnamed forces to wander eccentrically through an almost equally eccentric peoplescape. This is, after all, Scandinavia; and despite the fact that 20th-century egalitarian utopias are no longer top of the 21st-century hit parade, bolstered by an aptly weird performance from Baard Owe, the film’s message (yes, under all that meandering it does have one) is that the Universe, at the best of times rather a hit-and-miss affair, nonetheless rolls on.
In the end, for all the surreality and satire, with differing degrees of optimism, Hamer and Lever seem determined to explore these twisty, humanistic routes to higher ground. Lever, for example, has just translated Croc Attack, a black comedy from Israeli novelist Assaf Gavron, due out in March 2010. After Kitchen Stories (2003) and O’Horten, I have no idea what Hamer’s planning next; but if my own survival-oriented fugues continue, I’ll keep scouring the escarpment for both these guys. To stay a bit grounded, if I do find them again I probably won’t jump into their arms like Cheeta. Then again, there’s no risk of their mistaking me for Tarzan, which, as I see it, really does make us equal.