Thursday, December 15, 2005

King Kong

Seeing the first King Kong, for me, was a formative experience in much the same way it was for Peter Jackson; I was about the same age, though he saw it on TV while I watched it in my elementary school gym, where one of my teachers was playing a print of it he actually owned, projecting it onto a screen. The film secured my love of cinema like no other (it helped that I was a big dinosaur fan). I had a delightful experience during the summer stumbling across the Monsters in the Meadow projection of the film in Stanley Park, and since then, I've been much looking forward to seeing Jackson's remake. My first reactions to the movie follow; I've only seen it once thus far, may see it again, though I don't think the film entirely succeeds:

1. To get this out of the way, I liked some of the special effects, but I have mixed feelings about CGI. Filmmakers tend to get overambitious with it; the dinosaurs and Kong move at such speed in certain scenes that it gets dizzying. I guess the point is to really push the audience into a state of high stimulation, and sometimes it works -- the tyrannosaur fights are pretty intense -- but sometimes the speed of the animals' motions serves to underscore their completely virtual nature; any illusion of actual embodiment is erased by their apparent weightlessness as they zip about the screen. I found myself wondering why Jackson couldn't restrict himself to only doing things that really looked good -- it's his ambition that reveals the limitations of the technology (or else the CGI needed more work). Sometimes I actually miss stop-motion; people were always aware of the limitations of the technology, so they seldom exceeded them, while CGI seems to have ushered in an age of unparallelled cinematic excess, at least as far as spectacle films are concerned...

2. I greatly liked the relationship between Kong and Ann Darrow. One understands Kong, and understands why Ann is moved by him; Jackson's elaborations on Kong's personality are marvelous, as are Andy Serkis' facial expressions, "playing" Kong. At times, we feel very fond of the big ape indeed. Kong ultimately is an enormous bullying sulking proud difficult "man"; if you can see through his tough exterior (and thick coat of fur) you realize he's got a pretty good heart, really, and that he'd go to the limit in his defense of Ann. Her admiration of him mirrors our own -- we see him through her eyes and can actually believe the "love story" that unites them. (I'd like to see a feminist reading of the film -- in ways Kong is a symbol for all the most problematic aspects of patriarchal power, which the film has no small bit of nostalgia for; Ann wants a "real man" who she can believe in, and no one can be more of a real man than a giant male gorilla.) All of this productively develops stuff contained in the original, too, though looking at it from a far more modern perspective. Watching their relationship develop and thinking about it's significance is one of the great pleasures of the film -- women with father issues will probably find it fascinating.

3. Though they're parenthetical to the main drive of the film, the Heart of Darkness references resonate disturbingly with the fact that the (black) "savages" are played as brutal and evil-looking to the point of being demons, and it's strange that a black man is given the job of interpreting Conrad as he applies to the film -- a black man whose, um, narrative is resolved in a way that isn't quite satisfying, as if the film isn't sure if he's a character we care about or not, though clearly his blackness is meant to be significant (as apologia for the racism elsewhere?). Though the point of any of this is unclear by the end of the film, there's something weirdly excessive about how savage Jackson wants these savages to be; if their savagery, along with the Heart of Darkness references, are meant to be underscore primal aspects of the human condition (thus perhaps connected to the primal masculinity of Kong), then we're left with something more than a little politically suspect, which will leave audience members with a nodding acquaintance with postcolonial theory (or, say, Chinua Achebe's essay on Heart of Darkness) feeling a little less than comfortable. One wonders what Jackson was thinking. (More can be read on this topic here, or on IMDB, where people are busily discussing the racism of Kong, though with the usual mediocre 'net-level of discussion one finds on really public forums).

4. The film's criticisms of Hollywood are milked quite successfully for much of the movie, but ultimately it is on this front that the film fails badly; though we're allowed at various points to like the Jack Black character, Carl Denham -- a ruthlessly manipulative (but somewhat comical) director/producer who doesn't care much at all about risking the men to get his movie -- there is something very very wrong about the fact that he is allowed to issue the final lines in the film, and that he ultimately has no comeuppance for his role in bringing about Kong's demise. Yes, Jackson is being faithful to the original -- Denham's final lines are pretty much the same -- but in this version of the film, it is so clearly Denham's crass willingness to exploit and use and manipulate, his desire for profit and glory and so forth, that lead to the tragic end, rather than Kong's love for Ann, that you really don't want Denham to be able to get away with milking the events for cheap sentiment, in the classic Hollywood manner. Yet he does; he dodges any accountability whatsoever, and you're left wanting someone to step in and hit him -- for Ann to slap him, say; the film screams for an explicit rejection of the ethos that he represents. Since there is none, we're left implicated ourselves in the pain and exploitation, sharing in Denham's guilt to the extent that we accept his authority to interpret the meaning of the story for us; he ends up a sort of entextualized author, Jackson's stand-in, and this is none too pleasing. The film could have been far more satisfying if Jackson had had the courage to continue his departure from the original to hold Hollywood and Denham to account for the ways they use us; in criticising Denham's ambitions earlier in the film, he awakens desires that he doesn't end up satisfying.

Of course, given the fact that King Kong IS a Hollywood spectacle film, you'd be left with a very contradictory message if he really held Denham to account; the film would be rejecting the very logic that produces it (Jonathan Rosenbaum, always ready to note these sorts of things, talks about the film's "hypocritical exploitation"). This contradiction is something you find in the first two Jurassic Park films, which reject corporate exploitive entertainment while embodying it, but... it still would have worked better narratively, would, for all its logical inconsistency, still have produced a feeling of closure more satisfying than what we're currently left with.

5. One of the reasons that one really wants to see Denham "get his" at the end of the film is that what happens to Kong is ultimately pretty painful to behold. Given how much more we are allowed to care about him, and Ann, and their relationship, it's very, very difficult to watch Kong being slowly picked off by airplanes at the top of the Empire State building. Anyone with a heart in the audience is ROOTING FOR KONG, wanting him to pull planes out of the sky, wanting him to escape somehow. Why make us love the big ape if only to kill him for our entertainment? But we're trapped in a story that can't end any other way, and that leaves you feeling pretty helpless, like Kong or Ann; we have no choice but watch a virtuous, beautiful animal being tortured and killed. (By the way, I'm not the only person who reacts that way; reading negative reviews off Rotten Tomatoes, to see if I'm alone in my perceptions, I note that Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey phrases it thus -- "the finale is less about tragedy than cruelty, a scene about torturing an animal to death against a spectacular setting.") Maybe Jackson, in leaving this crime unrevenged, wants us to feel complicit in what we consume, I don't know -- he casts himself as one of the fighter pilots shooting at Kong, just as apparently Mel Gibson provided the hands that nail Christ to the cross in his Jesus pic, but... there's nothing guaranteed to leave you feeling crappy than to see a movie where the bad guys win, and King Kong ends up being just that; Kong's demise doesn't feel so much tragic as criminal, and the lack of justice afterwards is a major narrative flaw, which leaves us feeling like Kong's blood is on our hands.

But I guess that's Hollywood. Maybe if Kong had fallen on Denham and crushed him...?

Anyhow, a buncha previews here. It's worth seeing, I suppose, if one is hungry for this sort of entertainment. I wish I could recommend it more enthusiastically, actually. I'd really like to like Peter Jackson's transformation into a major player, given how much I enjoyed his early work... I somehow have doubts I'll ever unreservedly enjoy a film of his again.

Post-script -- Yep, second and third viewings bear it out: the first two acts of the film are beautiful, intense, and engaging, and we truly come to care about Kong and his relationship with Ann. The pain we're left with at the close of the third act, though, makes the film into a bummer, and there's something really unsatisfying about Denham getting the last word (I gather from IMDB's discussion boards that the original plan would have been to have Fay Wray utter this line, but she died before filming began; a lot of people seem displeased with this line, though mostly it's Jack Black's delivery of it that comes under fire). Not many other people seemed bothered by it - the crowd, walking away, seemed more than pleased -- a big spectacle is enough for them -- but I just felt grief that the big ape had to die... It ends on a pretty somber note, for me.

Anyhow, it was cool to discover that Andy Serkis, who "plays" Kong, is also Lumpy (the French-looking, smoking, coarse mate on the ship -- the one with the Kiwi accent). He works for Weta Digital, the company that did the special effects (and the big cricket-things in the pit, by the way, are based on weta, a unique NZ critter that grows up to 8 inches long -- a cricket longer than my penis!). He also "played" Gollum, of course. What I'm wondering, tho', is that if that was really Forrest J. Ackerman in the crowd in NY when Kong busts loose -- if anyone knows, please tell me!

Not that anyone ever comments on my blog...


A new thread has been started on IMDB about whether Denham should have been killed...

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