An old Cyberian proverb

Wednesday, 14 December 2005 — 5:20pm | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

And lo, the slacker looked upon the face of deadlines. And it stayed its hand from blogging. And from that day, it was as one dead.

There’s been a lot to say lately – busiest movie month of the year, after all, plus a somewhat amusing election campaign and about an hour a day catching imaginary fish, planting imaginary flowers and arranging imaginary furniture in my other, more rustic life. (By the way, if perchance you have the game and your town’s starting fruit is something other than apples, get ahold of me and we’ll discuss a trade.) Only now am I compelled to post, though what I have to say is closer to the shallow end of the trivia-analysis continuum.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong is a model remake. Never does it entertain pretensions of burying the 1933 original: far from it, Jackson’s film is a loving tribute, in every way made by a cineola for his fellow fans to cherish. It’s not The Lord of the Rings, but then again, he’s working off a story that doesn’t have quite so much meat on the bones, and it shows as soon as the embellished human relationships constructed before we get to Skull Island wear out and fade away. There’s no doubt that the Kong story is one of the Great American Legends and a piece of our cultural history, even speaking as a Canadian – but for all its poignancy, nobody could mistake the story for being materially complex.

But at its core, the new Kong isn’t so much a remake as it is a faithful adaptation of some of the most iconic moments in cinema. Kong rolling the sailors off the log, Kong unhinging the jaws of a tyrannosaur, Kong reeling in the vine that Ann and Jack are descending – it’s all something to behold this day in age when special effects have reached the saturation point where we can take them for granted as reality and direct our attention to how they advance the story. Merian C. Cooper’s original, as dated as the model work looks today, still holds up because of what the animators made the models do. They didn’t just stomp around trampling and devouring – they had mannerisms.

And then there are the overtly tributary moments, as lovably indulgent as Uma Thurman wearing the Bruce Lee track suit in Kill Bill. I don’t want to spoil them all, but at the same time, I can’t let them go unmentioned. When Carl Denham is escaping in the taxicab, he queries his assistant about which actresses are available as an emergency replacement. “Fay is a size four,” he suggests – but alas, he is told Ms. Wray is doing a film over at RKO. Snicker, snicker. Then there’s the scene he films on the ship between Ann and the actor Bruce Baxter (played by Kyle Chandler, who is wholly new to me and at the same time one of the highlights of the movie). It’s note for note the same scene as the one between Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot, down to the way either Bruce turns his head to the right as he mutters, “And I’ve never been on one with a woman before.” And then there’s the Broadway marquee the night Denham opens his show – an exact reproduction.

It’s very much the same approach that Jackson took with his Tolkien adaptation. The source material is not only treated with reverence – it’s taken as historical fact.

There’s no shortage of movies in the past twelve years that have wanted to be the movie that this King Kong is, chief among them The Lost World and Ang Lee’s Hulk, but as recent as bits and pieces of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. A lot of people have likened it to Titanic: a landmark spectacle that obscures a human element that pales in comparison. A fair comparison, sure, but only if we consider on top of it that the Naomi Watts’ take on Ann Darrow and Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance as Kong make for what I think is clearly one of the great screen romances. In fact, I prefer the relationship between Ann and Kong here to that of the original film. When you see them skate in Central Park, you’ll know what I mean.

But enough praise for now. What I was most interested in going into the movie was how Jackson’s film would address the primitivist, and perhaps even racialistic assumptions inherent to the the 1933 version’s worldview.

To me, the most curious thing about the ’33 Kong was its morally ambiguous position – indeed, its refusal to comment on what to make of Kong’s ultimate demise. Is it a triumph or a tragedy? We’re never told: the Robert Armstrong Carl Denham enunciates the immortal last line as if it were a proud declaration of his own cleverness, tickled by how conveniently the fall of Kong fit the beauty-and-beast theme he had envisioned all along.

The answer to the triumph-or-tragedy question is left to depend on the attitude of the audience. Is it sympathetic with Denham and company? Or does it plead for an absent mercy when Kong, atop the Empire State Building, cowers in self-defense and wishes the airplanes would just go away so he would be left alone (and alive) with his terrified little Ann? Do we applaud when the monster falls – or is man the monster?

The answer is immeasurably complex, and I’m not going to repeat seventy years of film scholarship to establish my own thesis on the matter – at least, not on this particular December evening. But here’s a primer: it is a distinct possibility that the interpretation of the Kong myth has, since its initial release, been completely turned on its head.

King Kong ’33 presumes a chain of command between all living things, an ordering of the world from the barbaric to the civilized. In a sentence, Kong beats dinosaurs, Kong beats hooting and hollering natives, but the civilized man beats Kong, or does he. The sights to behold on Skull Island are, to quote, things “no white man has ever seen.” Denham treats the island and its inhabitants – first the natives, then the creatures – as subjects of entertainment for developed places where entertainment exists.

You can talk all you want about King Kong as purely escapist spectacle (it is) and heck, even one of the greatest films ever made (it is) – but I can’t fathom how it would be possible for anyone to ignore that its presumptions are inherently colonialist. Being a proud son of the colonies myself, I’m not passing judgment – I’m just telling it as it is. At the extreme, King Kong is spoken of as a metaphor for the black man that steals a blonde beauty, and doesn’t discard her as a human sacrifice like those inadequate native-girl offerings. It’s really not at all a stretch.

The damsel-in-distress archetype is colonial discourse, and is reflected in spades in the pulp adventure fiction of the early twentieth century, most prominent among them the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs. (It’s also deflected in the anti-adventures of Joseph Conrad, which you’ll notice Jamie Bell’s character reading in the Jackson remake.) Back in March I wrote a post about how this comes to the fore in A Princess of Mars, when John Carter travels to the Red Planet and beats back the brutes with the force of compassionate love, which he is capable of and they are not.

Or, to put it in filmic terms – it was beauty killed the beast.

So Kong’s defeat is a triumph to those who see themselves atop a ladder of civilization (or an Empire State Building, for that matter), a position worth defending against the invasive pretenses of an ascending monster. But as a tragedy, the one we sympathize with is Kong, a creature who consistently acts in defense of himself, and in defense of Ann Darrow. The central question, then, is whether or not he has the right to protect Ann so vigourously; whether it is an act of care, or an act of possession. It is, moreover, comparative: how does Kong’s right to Ann compare to that of Bruce Cabot’s Jack Driscoll, who in his initially misogynistic gung-ho masculinity makes him a microcosm of the same beauty-beast dichotomy?

The movie winds up back in New York with Kong a captive, Driscoll a hero and Ann his fiancée. But the last time we see Jack leaves him defeated in much the same way. Nobody really gets the girl, but the girl sure got the ape.

A civil rights movement, a global postcolonial backlash and a Peter Jackson remake later, I posit the modern audience that watches the 1933 King Kong almost invariably errs on the side of tragedy. When Denham announces to his audience that Kong, once a king, comes to the civilized world a captive, there is something deeply ironic about it. Kong cannot be held captive, and he dies on his feet. (Okay, so he dies on his back. But he is on his feet when they shoot him.) In that sense, King Kong is as useful an exposé of primitivist attitudes as it is a celebration, and the work itself tips the balance neither way.

It is the modern sensitivity to the civilized subduing the savage that dominates Jackson’s version, a sensitivity that puts a limit on whether or not it can be done. Observe how the new film differs.

Now the natives aren’t just a scantily-clad ritualistic tribe that lives in huts – they’re snarling, mace-wielding murderer-folk with bad teeth. Like the orcs in The Lord of the Rings, they demand no sympathy because they do not resemble anything like what we would call a human society – they’re clearly monsters, and the sailors have nothing to feel guilty about when they gun them down.

But not so with King Kong. In this one, his love goes requited. (A good thing, too, because nothing takes the taste out of peanut butter like you-know-what.) Maybe it’s Stockholm Syndrome – who knows – but the Naomi Watts Ann Darrow is thoroughly sympathetic and thankful for a creature that, by the end of the movie, turns out to be probably the most human character in the story.

Not that it’s an indictment of man, though, because the same change occurs with the new Jack Driscoll as played by Adrien Brody, now no longer such a man’s-man beast-among-men but a meek playwright thrust into romance and adventure quite against his will. And so this film, like its precursor (let’s not even bother acknowledging the 1976 one, which doesn’t fit into this comparative study), refuses to point fingers and say, “He’s a villain.” There are monsters, yes – the now-inhuman native folk, the tyrannosauri, the arachnids from the Legendary Missing Spider Sequence – but no villains to whom we can assign a face.

Denham is still in many ways reprehensible, yes, but he’s far from villainy: as in the original film, he’s more of an architect of circumstantial misfortune. And Jack Black’s delivery of the last line is telling. Unlike Armstrong, he isn’t smug about it. He says it with awe, wonder and perhaps a tinge of regret. It’s like Fortinbras surveying the bloodbath in Elsinore: the observer in the drama, and the audience outside it, are left with a characteristic aftertaste of terror and pity.

Beauty kills the beast, but man doesn’t really rescue the beauty. It’s the hero who dies, simian as he may be.

Great film, and Wellington Santa Claus has delivered a worthy Christmas present once again. I’d feel very comfortable putting the new King Kong next to my generation’s monster classic, Jurassic Park, for reasons that are not solely alphabetical.

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