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Quantum entanglements

Tuesday, 18 November 2008 — 6:30pm | Film, Full reviews

Watching Casino Royale was like witnessing the restoration of a rejuvenated monarchy. It restored the name of James Bond to a credible position of leadership in espionage cinema when the genre needed a capstone to its brief renaissance, with Munich arriving the year before and The Bourne Ultimatum and Lust, Caution hot on its heels—and while all four are destined to be spy classics, Casino Royale had the further distinction of being an old-fashioned popular action flick when blockbusters as a whole were sorely lacking in grit. It wasn’t merely a great Bond film: it was an admirable piece of cinema by out-of-franchise standards.

I spent most of Quantum of Solace missing Casino Royale.

I missed the absolute clarity of the wide-angle view we had of the action, stitched with a pulsating tandem of escalation and diminuendo that pervaded the showpiece sequences with a shot-to-shot rhythm rivalling the finest fruits of Steven Spielberg’s longtime collaboration with editor Michael Kahn. I missed how Bond was constantly and seriously endangered on all sides. I missed the dutiful preservation of Ian Fleming’s greatest balancing trick: the ability to draft characters that look like comic-book figures on paper and still make them belong in a milieu of hard-boiled, no-nonsense realism.

Nowhere in Quantum of Solace will you find anything to match the tension at the poker table, the tics of Le Chiffre, or the topping of Daniel Craig’s devil-smile when the airplane sabotage sequence finished with its controlled-explosive kerplop.

This isn’t to say that Quantum is a bad time at the cinema. It’s good fun, it’s technically accomplished, and it retains the brains, topicality, and calculated coarseness of its predecessor. There is even a shocking homage to Goldfinger‘s most iconic image that literally drips with the post-9/11 ethos, capturing the essence of the new James Bond in a single frame. And I know it’s a cosmetic trifle, but the locational title cards are superb.

But they borrowed the right Fleming title, for this film is a quantum indeed: discontinuous, and in need of a unified theory.

Continued »

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Based on a true swindle

Monday, 6 October 2008 — 4:05am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

So I’ve succumbed to curiosity and watched The Da Vinci Code. This may surprise those of you who mention Dan Brown in my presence at parties for the sole purpose of provoking me into entertaining you with an explosion of cleverly phrased invective against what is surely one of the worst novels I have read. All the same, I tried my best to see it with an open mind; good films have sprung out of bad books before, and I respect Ron Howard as a reasonable director of mainstream Hollywood pictures. This is, after all, the same Ron Howard who gave us the excellent Apollo 13 (a study in how to do a straightforward “based on a true story” dramatization well) and the admirable, if conventional A Beautiful Mind.

The Da Vinci Code is inherently an interesting case study in film adaptation, since the “novel” on which it is based is so incompetently written that the most charitable thing a reader can do is think of it as the first draft of a screenplay proposal by a ninth-grade kid who once got molested by a priest. And then there is the further gamble of handing it to the most erratic screenwriter in Hollywood—Akiva Goldsman, who wrote two of Ron Howard’s better films (A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man) but also has his name on the likes of Batman & Robin and I(saac Asimov is rolling in his grave), Robot.

Ron Howard, at least, has a track record that assures us he is literate in the art of cinema, which is not something we can say for Dan Brown’s grasp of written English (grammatical enough to be published, but only that). To film The Da Vinci Code in a manner that reflects the quality of its prose would require a handheld camcorder and a monk costume from the corner shop. That the adaptation is in the hands of professionals at all is enough to assure us that the delivery is an improvement—and it is.

Less expected is how the film manages to expose some of the serious defects in The Da Vinci Code‘s story structure that the book’s breakneck pace sweeps under the rug. Dan Brown’s novel is many execrable things, but one thing it is not is boring. (It’s like Sarah Palin that way—fitting, because Dan Brown’s America is Sarah Palin’s America in so many respects.) Ron Howard’s film is boring, and it is Dan Brown’s fault.

Continued »

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Alas, poor Iorek

Saturday, 8 December 2007 — 2:58am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews, Literature

Pay attention, because I’m about to coin a new word: amberpunk. It refers specifically to the aesthetic of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, much of which carries on in the steampunk spirit, but in the absence of steam.

Thanks to the promotional stills and trailers for the film of Northern Lights/The Golden Compass, the visualization of amberpunk was the least of my concerns going into the film. The moment I saw that New Line had commissioned a cinematic adaptation, a list of Reasons to Worry flickered into being, and the visual design was the first item I crossed off the list.

Among the other, more pressing items: 1) In the novels, shapeshifting daemons like Pantalaimon retain a coherent identity before the reader because they are identified by name. How might one adapt that visually? 2) Lyra Belacqua is a role so ludicrously challenging that casting her appropriately could make or break the movie. Could Dakota Blue Richards convincingly fill her shoes? 3) Pullman’s writing consistently appeals to non-visual senses—touch, for example, as in the highly tactile experience of using the Subtle Knife. How might this work on film? 4) Will Pullman’s stridently anti-dogmatic message (which is finally poking the church in the eye with as sharp a stick as he intended, albeit twelve years late) survive commercial pressures for the filmmakers to self-censor? 5) Who is Chris Weitz, and should I be as worried as I am about his very limited directorial experience (About a Boy, Down to Earth and a co-credit on American Pie), or will he surprise me like Mike Newell did with Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire? 6) Are the angels in The Amber Spyglass still going to be naked?

Now, I regret to say I’ve only read Pullman’s marvelous trilogy once and therefore don’t know it backwards, forwards and upside down the way I (used to) know The Lord of the Rings, but my initial impression after seeing the film tonight is a very positive one. The adaptation adhered to its source with the utmost respect, but not slavishly or religiously (how ironic would that be?) to a fault. Devoted readers need not worry. In fact, I had myself a jolly old time right up until the credits rolled.

Unfortunately, the end credits are precisely where a very serious problem with the film appears. (Spoilers follow for both the book and the film.)

Continued »

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Caution: Automatic Lust

Monday, 29 October 2007 — 11:04pm | Film, Full reviews

Or, as they say in the London Underground: mind the gap.

Lust, Caution is now playing in select theatres. I had the opportunity to see it a few weeks ago at the Edmonton International Film Festival, and although my impressions of a film are never wholly reliable after only seeing it once, my initial judgment is that it is the very best film I’ve seen with Ang Lee in the director’s chair. Mind you, I’m far more familiar with his recent films than I am with his works in the early 1990s, but this is still a strong statement of praise on my part when you consider that I’m suggesting comparisons to the likes of Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—excellent films both, but not as consistently tight in pacing. Highly recommended.

Is it just me, or are we in the middle of a spy cinema renaissance? In the last two years alone, we’ve seen Munich, Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum—and I don’t hesitate to append Lust, Caution to the list. Be it the franchise blockbuster or the historical assassination thriller, the standard of achievement in the espionage genre, with respect to both brains and execution, is now at least comparable to the Hitchcock oeuvre without being completely outclassed.

And Lust, Caution begs to reach for the Hitchcock benchmark anyway, regardless of whether or not it succeeds. Even beyond the explicit allusions to films like Suspicion, it’s a film about the manufacture of a woman into a femme fatale, a theme that occurs time and again in Hitchcock’s best work— Vertigo, North by Northwest, and perhaps my personal favourite, Notorious (to name a few). Like Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, the femme fatale put in the position of using her sexuality as a tool of entrapment (Wong Chia Chi, played by Tang Wei) is the heroine who guides us through the plot, and not someone whose side of the story is concealed, as is often the case in classic noir driven by male protagonists of variable moral righteousness.

Naturally, how much of that “sexuality as a tool of entrapment” you can actually show has changed dramatically since 1946, which is why Lust, Caution is rated NC-17 in the United States, and where my discussion of the film becomes a tad more involved.

Continued »

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Of affairs and hockey clubs infernal

Sunday, 8 October 2006 — 12:50am | Adaptations, Film, Full reviews

So while I was watching Calgary’s victorious home opener tonight, a few conveniently placed intermissions and commercial breaks permitted me to regale the resident kid brother with storied knickknacks of the franchise’s history.

The exercise demonstrated, once again, that one of the best ways to notice new things about a story is to tell it. Here’s tonight’s curiosity: isn’t it odd that at the team’s inception, they christened it the Atlanta Flames? Were they proud of Union soldiers burning their city to the ground – or did they, frankly, not give a damn?

[Edit: According to these guys, that was a very good guess.]

Insert clever transition here.

It’s a strange experience to watch a cinematic remake immediately after the original film. It is not unlike reading a book right before you see its adaptation. When it comes to books, I know that for some people, it’s hardly ever a pleasant experience: they get all worked up about adaptation issues and never manage to get over them. For me, there is usually something unsettling that results from how the absences and changes are just as visible as what actually ends up on the screen, but this is typically outweighed by my attention to the use of film language in negotiating the inevitable gulfs. See my piece on The Phantom of the Opera for details.

Remakes, however, are a different matter. I think we often have a tendency to think of them as “new versions” of a story rather than “adaptations” in the same sense as books and stage plays. Gus Van Sant’s Psycho aside, our expectations typically extend as far as a reimagining of the holistic story and characters, and not shot-for-shot, plot-for-plot replication.

So it’s delightful when Naomi Watts steals an apple and Adrien Brody carries her down a vine in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and it’s especially entertaining to us film nerds when the original film is hypodiegetically embedded in Jack Black’s film shoot on the ship; and then there’s the spider sequence, which is (oddly enough) a homage to a scene explicitly not in the original; but we see these as luxuries, and we could have done without them just the same.

That brings us to this weekend’s big release, The Departed.

A brief primer for those of you who don’t keep up with such things, and expect me to do it for you: Scorsese’s latest film is a remake of a 2002 Hong Kong cop thriller, Infernal Affairs, which quickly became Hong Kong cinema’s biggest phenomenon this decade not involving the farcical antics of Stephen Chow. The premise is deceptively simple: a police spy embedded in a triad (Tony Leung or, if you prefer, Leonardo DiCaprio) and a triad spy embedded in the police department (Andy Lau or, if you prefer, Matt Damon) attempt to fish each other out in a meticulous demonstration of what game theorists refer to as a simultaneous game of incomplete information.

If you haven’t seen Infernal Affairs, I highly recommend that you do. I revisited it last night, heeding a warning from a fellow film buff that it doesn’t hold up as well on a second viewing, only to discover that – while the shock value is gone, and there are two or three leaps of logic that arguably qualify as plot holes – the film is every bit as intricate as I remembered on the levels of direction, editing, performance and general craftsmanship.

A wise choice, then, for Scorsese and screenwriter William Monahan to adhere very, very closely to the sequence of actions in the original. Sure, the locales and actors are different, a few supporting characters are split and merged, and I’m told there are elements from the two sequels that emerged within a year of the original’s release. (Mark Wahlberg’s character is allegedly grafted from Infernal Affairs III.) I don’t want to spoil anything, but stack one film atop the other, and they mesh in an alignment I’d even call homomorphic.

But because the two films are so similar, and differ primarily in execution, I do feel compelled to compare them. I think my renewed familiarity with Infernal Affairs tempered my enjoyment of The Departed somewhat, and I suspect the latter deserves a second chance on a clean slate. I highly recommend them both, but neither one is free of imperfections. In that sense, I almost find that one complements the other.

Here’s what The Departed does better: onscreen violence, cinematography, verbal humour, the exchange of contraband, Jack Nicholson, clever visual motifs (I’m thinking of the final shot in particular), the budget, Catholicism, spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to flesh out the motivations so nobody is left questioning why X knows/trusts/kills Y.

Here’s what Infernal Affairs does better: offscreen violence, editing, pacing of the opening act, sting operations, Morse Code, Buddhism, not spoonfeeding the audience every step of the way to beat it over the head with clues and motivations until it resonates with the guest appearance of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”.

Draw: stellar lead performances, use of cellular telephones, plot holes.

On balance, I prefer the original. I’ll concede that it is sometimes too subtle for its own good, just as The Departed is a bit heavy-handed when it comes to trying to explain everything (and still falling short in completely new ways). It doesn’t wave clues in your face like its American sibling, but it does indulge in the occasional redundant flashback to slap you twice with a revelation after it has been made. The two films tell the story from opposite directions, and different problems surface.

What The Departed doesn’t preserve about Infernal Affairs is its acute sense of perspective.

One of the core principles of film language is that while the audience is receiving visual data in a blinking rectangle, that does not mean films inherently work in a third-person objective point of view. Framing, blocking, the sequential ordering and timing of reaction shots – all of these elements contribute to a sense of omniscience and empathy, leading us inside a character’s point of view even as we see her face. Hitchcock played with this to no end. Hell, Scorsese plays with this to no end… just not up to his usual standard here.

It’s almost certainly an editing issue. There’s a big moment in both films that I won’t spoil, but it involves, er, gravity. In Infernal Affairs, it happens behind Tony Leung as he walks towards the camera, and it’s as much a punch in the gut for us as it is for him. (It says something that it still worked the second time through the film, even though I saw it coming.) In The Departed, the audience sees what happens long before Leonardo DiCaprio’s character; the eye level contributes to this, too. Something about it just doesn’t work: the timing and cutting feel off.

The Departed consistently opts for the visceral over what makes the most sense, perspectivally speaking. Mind you, Scorsese is still a master of the visceral; but that doesn’t always fit, especially in a film built on a concept that is all about the limited perspectives of the main characters progressing in blind, meandering baby steps.

Watch them both, though. I can’t think of a better exercise to teach yourself about the differing conventions and values of Hong Kong and American cinema, even if you presume that you’re already familiar with one or the other.

(The likely scenario is that you’ll only manage to see The Departed, which is playing in “theatres everywhere”, while Infernal Affairs is not. In that case, enjoy the element of surprise. I think that may have been missing in my experience, as there is very little in the Gotcha Department that Infernal Affairs doesn’t already do.)

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Spelunkings of a Geisha

Monday, 16 January 2006 — 4:19pm | Film, Full reviews

I saw Brokeback Mountain before Christmas, but my review was held off until last Thursday, since the paper was on hiatus. The problem with being one of the last people to write 500 words about Brokeback is that there is very little to say about it that has not already been said, to the point where one could probably devise some kind of systematic indexing scheme for stock criticism about how it’s not just a gay cowboy movie, but speaks universal truths about forbidden love. The claim is true enough, but so much of the movie’s assets lie in nuance and subtlety – specific scenes, and specific gestures in specific scenes – that to haul it back to the level of capsule summary and holistic judgment is like restating the parallel postulate for everybody’s benefit when what you really want to do is examine transformations on hyperbolic surfaces.

The film is likely to pick up a whole heap of Golden Globes tonight, which I’m not watching thanks to Scrabble. I’ve never been suckered into the faux prestige of the Globes. The Hollywood Foreign Press has received a lot of undue attention by fortuitous statistical correlation to the Oscars alone – occasional, at that. And this year, they shafted both Munich in Drama and The Curse of the Were-Rabbit in Comedy. I remember when they had the class and courage to shower quality animation on an equal level with live-action.

I usually don’t do a year-in-review of film until about February, and this will probably be the case again, though the only exciting omissions on the list of movies I watched in 2005 are Crash and Walk the Line. I’ll catch up soon enough.

But first, a few words about Memoirs of a Geisha.

Now, one might wonder why I’m drawing attention to such a middling melodrama of no great consequence. Indeed, I found Geisha to be terribly underwhelming, though only rarely outright terrible. (To its credit, it sports pretty pictures of cherry blossoms and a lush musical score that is unique in the John Williams oeuvre, though in the general case the instruments and pentatonic melodies of the Far East are nothing new.) I want to talk about it because it is receiving a lot of undeserved hostility from folks on high horses who haven’t earned their spurs.

First are the postmodern other-thumpers who wave their Edward Said in the air and dismiss offhand the validity of a story about sexualized foreigners told in the mode of western romance. I contend that this is a misapplication of Orientalism.

Orientalist critique serves to reveal unexamined prejudices that are specifically not contained in the text, and calling the artist on it. In Geisha there are many. That’s fair. But the danger that Orientalism counteracts is the possibility that some secluded bloke might take mythologized falsities for historical fact.

Orientalism is not a blanket injunction on all works of tourist’s-eye-view fiction. We make allowances for factual inaccuracy in fiction all the time if it contributes to good fiction. Once contextual correspondence is out of the way, and those inaccuracies have been identified, it’s the textual system that counts. I find it far more patronizing for western audiences to be prematurely offended on the behalf of other cultures without an understanding of the difference between inaccuracy and offensiveness. As a romance, the Geisha story as presented in the film is weak for a number of reasons, but its western perspective isn’t one of them.

Then there are those who are deeply offended by the casting of three high-profile Chinese actresses as the principal players in a story set in idyllic fascist Japan, whose soldiers were off raping and pillaging in Manchuria at the time. There’s no other way to put it: the claim that actors of one Asian ethnicity can’t play characters of another is flatly ridiculous. Nobody complained when House of Flying Daggers starred a Japanese actor – and that was in no less romantic a role (martial arts expert, passionate lover, you get the idea). Were Polish Jews offended when a big-nosed American named Adrien Brody was cast as the lead in The Pianist?

Heck, Canadian actors play Americans all the time, and we hate Americans. At least, that’s what the Liberal Party tells me… some of the time.

To defer to one of the greatest film directors of all time: if Anthony Quinn can play Auda Abu Tayi and Omar Sharif can play Dr. Zhivago, all bets are off. Does Auda Abu Tayi serve? No!

If there’s any hump to get over at all once we’re past the biggest one (appearances), it’s not cultural consciousness or genetic heritage. It’s language. Sure, you can play it safe and genuine and go with an all-British cast for a British film, as was done to great effect in the Harry Potter films. But even Audrey Hepburn pulled off Eliza Doolittle the guttersnipe flower-girl and Eliza Doolittle the fair lady. Dialect coaching works wonders.

That’s probably the one aspect where the Chinese/Japanese discrepancy actually comes out in Geisha – language. Apparently, English in a sufficiently Asian accent was enough, and nobody took the care to note that there are actually noticeable differences between a Chinese accent and a Japanese accent. (It’s generally, but not always, in how they handle the Ls and Rs.) At any rate, it’s not a discrete either-or proposition, and if you listen carefully, even a Mandarin accent sounds different from a Cantonese one. Michelle Yeoh speaks in a sort of nether region that actually serves to make her character one of the more regal ones in the film. Gong Li, on the other hand, just sounds uncomfortable. But it’s not her fault she got horrible lines. “I will destroy you!” Yeah, whatever.

Here is a legitimate reason to subject Memoirs of a Geisha to endless mockery:

“Did Mother ever tell you about the eel and the cave? Well, every once in a while, a man’s eel likes to visit a woman’s cave.”

I’m told it’s straight from the book.

And you can stop giggling now.

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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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