On Thursday, March 3, 2005, a Los Angeles man, St. James Davis, and his wife, LaDonna, were visiting their former pet, a chimpanzee named Moe, at Animal Haven Ranch in a canyon 30 miles east of Bakersfield, when two other chimps got out of an adjoining cage and lunged for the couple. Some reports state that the monkeys, in addition to taking swipes at Davis’s genitals and limbs, chewed off most of the man’s face, while other sources reveal that before the chimps were shot dead by a park official, they managed to bite off Davis’s nose and take out his left foot. Whatever the state of Davis’s injuries, we wish him a speedy recovery, and though this event has traumatized the chimp-loving editors at Slant Magazine, we maintain that we’re still willing to work out a deal with anyone who can arrange some quality time between our staff and a chimpanzee, preferably one with a diaper and their baby teeth still intact. Now, for anyone who’s been left scarred by this awful incident, let us recommend five films that will remind you that not all monkeys are rabid psycho killers—most would rather throw shit at you than eat your face, and most like to be acknowledged as coy little drama queens with highly evolved aesthetic impulses and senses of humor. Our apologies to King Kong, gorillas in the mist, the monkey from Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman, and the countless simians who’ve appeared in Weezer videos and cellphone commercials in the past five years, but we’ve decided to limit this list to chimpanzees in motion pictures only.
Babe: Pig in the City (1998)
When director George Miller took Babe out of the farm and put him in the big scary city (you know, the real world), children under 10 couldn’t take it and their parents cried bloody murder. Yeah, Babe: Pig in the City is pretty fucked up, but it’s still the very best kiddie picture I’ve ever seen. In this sequel to the considerably more harmless (read: family-friendly) original, Babe negotiates death and grapples with the cynicism of showbiz while trying to help a small population of furry friends escape incarceration at a local animal shelter. Disenchanted and jaded, a stately orangutan finds joy when Babe reunites a chimpanzee father and his snappily dressed wife with their newborn babies. More so than the moment Henrietta “Mama” Bazoom and Al Torres visit Nomi Malone at the Stardust in Showgirls, this is the most adorable reunion special you’ll ever see in your life. For a film that pays so much lip service to family togetherness, the controversy it courted is simply baffling.
In Paul Verhoeven camp trash masterpiece, the beautiful Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) leads the scantily clad women and muscle queens of Vegas’s Stardust show. Before her young upstart Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) discovers that the only way to push your way up the professional ladder is by pushing people down it, a group of performance chimps arrive on the scene and send everyone into an emotional tizzy. Though we don’t get to see how the chimps are incorporated into any of the show’s routines, the monkeys (and their fecal matter) figure prominently as agents of chaos, both on stage and off. When Julie’s (Melissa Williams) annoying brats want to see the monkeys, Annie (Ungela Brockman) understandably blows a gasket, and when a showgirl trips on stage, Nomie’s best bud, Molly (Gina Ravera), responds to the incident exactly the same way audiences did back in 1995: “Shit!” Thank you Joe Eszterhas.
Being John Malkovich (1999)
Spike Jonze’s Kafkaesque romp Being Jon Malkovich grapples with the nature of celebrity and idenity and plumbs the deepest depths of subconscious desire using a surrealist vernacular that owes plenty to Luis Buñuel and Jan Svankmajer. John Malkovich’s head substitutes for Alice’s rabbit-hole: 15 minutes inside and you’ll emerge not only enlightened but also hungry for more. When puppeteer Craig (John Cusack) locks his wife Lotte (Cameron Diaz) inside her chimpanzee Elijah’s cage, this perpetuates all sorts of separation anxieties. Elijah’s recollection of his parents’ kidnapping is at once devastating and hysterical (truly it’s the only flashback of its kind) but it’s no non sequitur…Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay is a rich tapestry of interconnected wavelengths, both conscious and subconscious, and this monkey is very much part of its complex existential formula. Or, more accurately, the monkey seems to be part of the script’s existential solution. If it looks safe inside Elijah’s cage that’s because the monkey’s relationship to Lotte is the only one in the film that’s pure…it neither hinges on sexual gratification nor is it permitted by an altered state. While everyone is contemplating ways of transcending the reality of their mortality via infinite tunnels of existential highs, you may ask, “Why doesn’t anyone try Being Elijah?”
In Phenomena, a young Jennifer Connelly cultivates a mystical relationship with the insect world around her. The film’s awesome ’80s-style soundtrack alternates between synth-heavy pop and metal, a strange brew that adds to the film’s already dizzying tableaux, which includes insects at the beck and call of Connelly’s Jennifer Corvino, a deformed killer, a reclusive scientist, his pet chimpanzee, and a slew of shrill bitches. Phenomena’s opening set piece is a stunner and one is tempted to think the chimp is responsible for the string of fabulous killings, but when the monkey is locked out of his home and is forced to watch the slaughter of his master from outside, Argento evokes an ostensibly simple-minded creature being able to tell right from wrong. Forget what they say about a woman scorned…you haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a monkey scorned. Or maybe we have. Gulp.
“Once upon a time there was a country…” So begins Emir Kusturica’s sweltering, morally inquisitive work of political narrative fiction. When Hitler’s bombs pummel Yugoslavia, a retarded zookeeper, Ivan (Slavko Stimac), tries to free the animals under his care. A baby monkey desperately attempts to flee his cage, clawing at the lock but to no avail. Outside, a lion and a goose cuddle side-by-side amid the rubble before the lion—suddenly and shockingly—lunges for the goose’s neck. The Bible envisions a redemptive return to Eden, an archaic vision of harmony Kusturica seems to simultaneously herald and challenge throughout the opening scenes of the film, during which animals and humans freely interact. This is the pretext to the director’s study of the collapse of a nation and its human spirit. Ivan is told at one point to “fuck the monkey, help the man,” an absurd demand because it ignores the purity of Ivan’s relationship to a chimpanzee seemingly unwilling to participate in the Great Lie the zookeeper’s profiteering brother, Marko (Miki Manojlovic), perpetuates when he keeps his entire family locked inside the basement of his mansion. Unlike many of the film’s human characters, Ivan’s monkey is up to the spiritual challenge of unifying his people, freeing Ivan’s family from their underground prison. When the monkey abandons Ivan, the zookeeper’s heart breaks into a thousand pieces (so will yours!), and, in effect, the animal acknowledges that perhaps the goodness of their relationship is impossible in a world this cruel. Maybe next lifetime.