The James Clayton Column: In search of savage prehistoric cinema
As The Croods arrives in UK cinemas, James recommends leaving civilised society behind and reveling in the freedom of being a Neanderthal...
Remember the advert where a caveman wakes up in a modern suburban setting and only becomes a fully upstanding civilised human being once he’s eaten a bowl of Corn Flakes with milk? Watching those commercials makes me never want to eat breakfast cereal ever again. Quite frankly, Kellogg’s, I’d rather be a caveman.
I’m not talking about a caveman in the Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble vein either. They aren’t cavemen. They are identifiable contemporary types drawn into a retrofitted animated version of 1960s mainstream America. As the theme tune cheerily proclaims, The Flintstones are “the modern stone age family” and the emphasis is definitely on the ‘modern family’ part.
What I’m talking about is real, authentic prehistoric man. Bona fide barbaric beast man, unevolved and unenlighted. Pre-civilisation, pre-morality, pre-organised-society savage manbeast. This isn’t a cartoon, kids. This is epic devolution to the dawn of the species and I’m interested in people that look more like a simian than a salaryman. Corn Flakes are not the cornerstone of this fellow’s nutritious breakfast. The mammoth he slaughtered last night is.
To wake up as a ‘caveman’ - which itself is a pretty crude and patronising label - would be a dream come true for me. I’d like to abandon all the superficial emptiness of modern society and reconnect with my true dormant manhood, just like the guys in Fight Club, except I aspire to take it far further. I’m wishing for physiological and psychological regression back to the antediluvian era and Tyler Durden and his Project Mayhem acolytes are only getting a whiff of the primitive power and anarchic nihilism I’m aiming at.
Back to dawning pre-breakfast cereal man, does he (or she, because it may be a woman yet to be enslaved by cultural stigmas on female body hair) not strike you as a beatific figure of pure being? Unencumbered by consensus-enforced social conventions they are liberated, carefree and truly in touch with their true animal nature.
Fred Flintstone, on the other hand, seems to be permanently stressed and vexed by life around him which is pretty much the drain of a family man/worker drone of modern times with more boulders and dinosaurs in the background.
The same might also be said of The Croods who’ve now arrived on cinema screens, though they don’t have any social structures outside of their family unit. The Croods aren’t as boxed-in and domesticated as the residents of Bedrock, but they’re still wrapped up in some very modern iconography, values and character traits. This makes them lovable, relatable animated film protagonists but as prehistoric creatures they’re corrupted and enfeebled.
Putting my primordial drives aside and approaching it as a CG-animated family film, I had a great time with The Croods. It’s got heart, humour and a wild imaginative streak that conjures up astounding colourful environments, fantastical monsters and glorious surreal set piece moments. (A giant popcorn firework storm?!)
Nevertheless, by immersing myself in an untainted pre-ancient world of primitive beings and now extinct animals - beautifully rendered by the DreamWorks animation team - I end up returning around to sweet dreams of devolution. I aspire to become the kind of unsanitised proto-human who does not make an ideal hero for a family-friendly film. I start to dive deeper beneath the sweet premise and surface sheen of The Croods and descend into the primordial soup which is beautiful brutal broth of dirty raw nature, hardcore survivalism and untamed bodyhair.
I don’t want to wake from these fantasies to eat processed breakfast cereal - I want to emerge a fully-functioning alpha predator of the antediluvian era. I’m holding Ahm from The Land That Time Forgot up as a role model here or, alternately, if such a magical metamorphosis isn’t possibly by willpower alone I could emulate William Hurt in Ken Russell’s Altered States. Reconsidering Ahm, I realise that he and his brethren from The Land That Time Forgot and The People That Time Forgot are actually too genteel, and that one cannot cast off civilised culture simply by taking a submarine trip to long lost Caprona. Mad science, however, has more chance of successfully destroying your mind.
Hurt’s Dr Eddie Jessup ingests a psychoactive caapi root tincture, locks himself down in an isolation chamber and, hey presto, whole physical and mental devolution. What’s more, his dreams in the build-up to this greatly altered state involve sex, fire and visions of a seven-eyed goat-headed Christ being crucified. I like those sorts of fantasies, and if they’re a bonus accompaniment to the epic ancestral regression then I’m even more game to go through the process.
The-Beast-Formerly-Identifiable-As-Jessup may be a murderous monstrosity but at least Altered States gives us an authentic depiction of primitive man which is pretty rare in film. It’s frequently the case that we deal with prehistory through present day paradigms. We grapple with our ultra-ancient ancestors from the prejudiced perspective of contemporary protagonists, most often encountering time capsule troglodytes like in The Land That Time Forgot and its sequel. The People That Time Forgot provides a compelling case study as it sums up Ajor (Dana Gillespie) as a “charming souvenir” who looks like a cavewoman straight off the catwalk. (See also Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.)
The other approach filmmakers take to prehistoric humanity is full period immersion, but yet the taints of modernity remain. That’s certainly the case with The Croods, The Flintstones and Harold Ramis comedy Year One. Otherwise audiences end up with the gross anachronism of Roland Emmerich’s 10,000 B.C. which builds the great Egyptian pyramids 8,000 years too early and has the primitives mastering metalworking prematurely.
I can easily get over the fact that dinosaurs never existed alongside any human species and were in fact long, long dead by One Million Years B.C. because I’m a sucker for Ray Harryhausen stop-motion and am here for B-movie adventure spectacle. But what if I want something more? What if I want a truly deep sweep over prehistory that allows me to submerge myself in the raw authentic experience of being an unevolved hominid?
Cinematically speaking, all I’ve really got are a few hints in horror thrillers when someone goes feral (the kids in Mama are one recent example) or in films like Valhalla Rising that go back to nature and lurch into elemental savagery. Otherwise we get a touch of this stuff in tales about characters who come to civilisation from out of the wilderness or extreme isolation like, say, Tarzan and the titular oddity of The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser.
It’s sad to watch the taming of Tarzan and Mowgli and I empathise with Kaspar Hauser as he concludes, “It seems to me that my coming into this world was a very hard fall”. What if Kaspar’s right and, for all the beautiful art, music, knowledge and civilised rationality, it’s all fundamentally lacking and removed from our soul essence, original human energy and earlier pure consciousness?
The dichotomy is best illustrated by two classic sci-fi films, one of which I’ve already mentioned and adopted as a blueprint. In Altered States, the juxtaposition between Professor Jessup and Primitive Jessup is heightened by the fact that his modern self is an egotistic academic whose speciality is splurting out unfathomable pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-spiritual jargon. (I’ve swapped my glass house for a cave, so your bricks can’t hurt me!)
He’s better off once he’s tripped the physiological pathway to earlier consciousness and accessed the six billion years of memory hidden in his limbic system after his Ayahuasca experiments. Sure he may be a bestial primeval body horror phenomenon but I’d argue that it’s a better state than the current human condition.
The other movie moment triggering my genetic throwback fantasies is The Dawn of Man sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a beautiful sight to behold and I watch those ape-like hominids and wish to embrace their life of simple needs and pleasures. (Namely surviving, being hairy and beating up opposition with bones once we’ve grasped the basic idea of tools and weapons.)
The savage idyll is of course interrupted by the arrival of the monolith which propels primate evolution to an advanced apex predator stage and then, through the infamous match cut, on a great leap into the technological future beyond the stratosphere.
What I’m wishing for is an experience that reverses that match cut and sends us from the Space Age right back to the Stone Age. If a new movie can be made that does that then I could possibly avoid the potential pitfalls of the Altered States isolation chamber method.
I’m desperate to get back to the unbearable original terror at the origin of our species and devolve back to my pure, pre-conditioned, pre-civilised primordial state. I need this movie. In fact, I think we all need this movie to save our true selves from this empty, inauthentic modern existence.
Everything will be terrific once we’re in a land-before-time paradigm. While we’re waiting for the ultimate trip back, I’d encourage you to avoid shaving, avoid monoliths and breakfast cereal and enjoy The Croods as sweet aspirational mood music.
You can read his previous column here.
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