Wednesday, December 28, 2005

King Kong, or Hot Monkey Love


Dir: Peter Jackson (Dead Alive; Bad Taste)

It seems I am the last person on this blog (although not the last in the country, that box office yeesh!) to see the film. So straight to the comments with responses to my colleagues.

I start with criticisms, not to diminsh the film but to free me to gush later on unencumbered. The film has editing problems in the first half, with far more time devoted to side characters than is warranted by their eventual contribution to the story. In LOTR, the myriad of supporting characters could unfold narratively over the course of 9 hours (almost like a series of books, huh). They are not distractions, but their own complete stories. Here, the boat captain, the father/son thing with the castaway, the crew of the film, are all leading up to something and then essentailly disappear. The slowness before the dinosaur stampede is the direct result of character development that has no payoff. This movieshould be about Kong, Watts, Black and Brody; everything else ends up being a distraction. In the untold hours of footage on Jackson's editing room floor, the other folks get their stories resolved more satisfyingly I wager; but not here.

I also found Skull Island to be a bit gratuitous, one action sequence too many. It is the stampede. That's the only one that does not develop character, but is included purely for titilation. I do think that they all are quite thrilling (especially the bugs), but I want them to do narrative work as well. Kong in the vines absolutely does this. The stampede is a sore thumb, and derivative of Speilberg anyway.

Ron wonders how much of Jackson is in Jack Black (whose performance is mediocre). I think scores, the glaring physical similarities between the two aside. Black is caught between the dual desire to produce great and original art and to provide spectacle for the masses. He destroys those around him and his own product in a selfish bid to acheive this dream. For Jackson, the tension is between loading up the film with chase scenes and explosions, or telling the real love story, and art versus spectacle tradeoff. After the stampede, I was reminded of Russell Crowe chasitsing the virtual crowd in Gladiator "Is this what you wanted ?" after a violent and narratively pointless gore fest. I suspect Jackson knows the CGI is for largely specatcle alone, that it detracts from the art, and in that respect he is very much like Black, providing glitz for the ignorant audience's approval. Not that he does the CGI poorly, but that this movie is mnore than a popcorn movie. Jackson knows that, but is caught within the genre.

But oh what bliss are the scenes where Jackson gets it right. Those points above melt away with one raised eyebrow of Kong. Jackson has accomplished what at my first gloss is the best remake ever made, by my personal standards for that genre. "Take something good, and make it better. If you cannot improve it, then don't remake it" He has both improved the film politically and narratively. Those in order.

Max critiques the film's savages (no other word), and rightly so, I guess. No matter how you slice it, those have to be blood thirsty tribespeople, unless you punt that whole chunck of the original or make them green. Jackson, though, employs his horror movie skills to make them not so much people as zombies, otherwordly creatures who bare little resemblance to real humans. Sure, they resemble Africans more than anyone else , especially in costume. But I prefer to give Jackson credit for trying to work his way out of that. As a director, he made choices to diminsh a possible interpretation of racism.. Compare that to Gibson in The Passion of the Christ, for example, where every possible moment of artistic choice was anti-Jew. That film was anti-semitic, I don't support that reading of King Kong.

Not only that, but Jackson has completely eliminated the more general racism of the original film. There, Kong was a savage plucked from the jungles on a sexual pursuit of an unwilling white woman, destroying civilization in the process. The original was a rape narrative, but this has no such implications. By having us sympathize with the ape, and allowing tenderness between him and the woman, Jackson has tremendoudly improved the story's politics. We are the simpleton's in this iteration, and the love story is consensual. That fact gives Jackson the benefit of the doubt in the savages scene (in my mind).

This long post (sorry) has been building up to the transcendent parts of the film. I knew people had been praising the love story. But I had no idea just how brilliant it would be. Jackson has managed to boil operatic, undying love down to its essence. He has tapped into a centuries old story, retold it in a fresh and fascinating way, and done so entirely in pantomime and facial expression. This is really a one word romance: beautiful. Everything else is inferred by the audience's interpretation of Kong's sacrifices. Thank God, oh praise Jesus, that Jackson did not resort to having Watts continually say things like "Oh, you killed those dinsosaurs for me!" or "But you are going to die if you don't get off this building!" Jackson respects his audience enough (see the Jack Black dualism here) to provide a complicated love story even amidst all of the action sequences.

Several choices by Jackson in this love story were truly inspired, but let me single out one. Spoiler here. Allowing Kong to die in Watts' arms, rather than from the fall, and shielding his impact from our eyes is so sweet and respectful of that character that it moved me deeply. Kong exits with grace and dignity, something that he deserves after his continual demonstrations of love through self sacrifice. What could have been the best effect in the whole movie is omitted becuase the story dictates the direction at that point. Brilliant movie making.

Jackson has made King Kong greatly better through his reinterpretation. The technology available to him opens the door to telling a love story that could not have been done with clay, masks, or animatronics. Facial expressions of this kind for a 25 foot ape are reserved for CGI. He has also cleaned up the movie's politics, and put the focus on what really matters, the archetypal love story. At times Jackson is distracted, and he struggles with the tradeoff between spectacle and tenderness. But he plays the right notes at the end.



Blogger ronvon2 noted on 12/30/2005 01:10:00 AM that...

I agree.

What is the best way to get out of the racist rape narrative? Make Ann Darrow fall in love with Kong.


Blogger maxwell noted on 1/06/2006 05:13:00 PM that...

I dunno MAP.

Is it worse to cover up an act of racism or make it obvious.

Tuskegee experiments. Which is a worse crime of racism -- the initial infection of black men with syphillus or the false treatment that gives them hope.

I think Jackson gets to punt a lot of the old stuff he doesn't like, and do some fun things like dinosaurs. Perhaps he or Fran could have whipped up something a bit less blatant.

But Okay -- I like PJ. I ain't calling for a boycott. We own & continually watch the 3 LOTR movies. I like his stuff & liked this movie.

But I think it is important to call our racist sh*t when we see it. Peter Jackson makes movies in a racist world. Suprise! Sometimes his movies contain racist elements. The important part is seeing & thinking about the racist crap -- you don't need to believe that the director is bad intentioned or anything.

And I don't think this movie is all that anti-semetic. *grin*

You think it is better that the tender love story between the epitome of the natural world and an attractive white woman come out than the rape narrative of the first one.

I don't think he "cleaned up the movie's politics" all that much as open up a bunch of funky new ones.

Check out my review at Maximum Wisdom  

Blogger ronvon2 noted on 1/06/2006 11:31:00 PM that...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.  

Blogger ronvon2 noted on 1/06/2006 11:48:00 PM that...

We are talking about the film's racism in the abstract a bit too much, I think, to cast the film as racist.

Yes, the original King Kong is quite racist on two counts. First, the depiction of the natives as uncivilized and barbarous. Second, and for my money the most racist element, is the original's metaphoric qualities: a large ape from the jungle is brought to the US in chains, on a ship, by a white man. This ape also falls in love with a victimized white woman (hey, where'll the white women at?) and because his love goes unrequited, he destroys the mecca of western civilization.

So, Jackson, as I see it, has two choices when it comes to combatting the original's racism: do not remake the film at all, or isolate the original film's racist elements and actively attempt to move away from such subtexts. Given his desire to remake the film, we can only judge him on the latter. And I think he succeeds in two respects. First, the Skull Island residents, as Marcus says, are much less "natives" as they are derivative of Jackson's orcs. And unless he wants to so radically change the story, there must a "sacrifice" of Ann Darrow by the island residents who are so fearful of Kong (both are plot points necessary to develop Kong as an intimidating yet loving character). So, Jackson's "out" is to depict the island inhabitants in ways that are so unrecognizable as humans (of any race), but are familiar with Jackson's other work (I have never heard any racism charges against LOTR, but I definitely could see where this argument can come from...although I think it might be too much of a stretch). Max, I read your comment about the lack of a backstory of the island residents, but I am not certain a lack of a backstory is sufficient evidence to charge racism. Yes, directors make choices, and those choices of whose story to tell can invite racism charges. But, if we use this criteria to determine racism, the brightline seems rather fuzzy. I believe there is a great deal of backstory for those on Skull Island, and it comes in the non-verbals and settings. Not certain you need dialogue for expressing emotion, humanity, etc. I'll admit, my argument is weakest here (and this is not considering the untimely deaths of the two minorities as the first two killed).

The stronger argument, however, is Jackson's decision to develop the Kong/Darrow relationship as a mutual love. Unlike the original, where the strongest feeling Darrow had for Kong was pity, Jackson's Darrow truly loves Kong. She is not grabbed from the apartment unwillingly, she goes with Kong and is prepared to sacrifice herself for her love. For my money, that is a conscience and thoughtful effort to combat the racism of the original.

Again, just my opinion.  

Blogger maxwell noted on 1/10/2006 06:24:00 AM that...

I hear what you are saying about the love story between Kong and Darrow. I actually think their relationship is based a lot more on mutual respect and amusement than romantic love -- but I see how this mitigates some of the racism of the original animal/black man-escapes-chains-and-kidnaps-white woman story. Her care for Kong is closer to pity -- and righteous anger at how badly he has been treated.


I don't think you are hearing what I'm saying about reading racism. It isn't necessary to decide that this movie is *racist* or not. We should honestly look at the racist parts of movies and call them out.

Like I said, I love Peter Jackson, and I loved King Kong the movie. But his portrayal of the savages is 100 percent classic crack-tastic racism.

The savage animal nature of these primitive people who live by sacrificing their own and guests to the giant ape monster. No names, no chief to get a speaking role. They are primitives who have long since given up the value of life. Oh yeah, and their skin is black.

Imagine riding home from that movie with your black child answering her questions?

The racism of the ape is more complicated but tied to hierarchy. The barely-savage nature of kong is held in check by his curiousity about Ann Darrow -- her white skin and blonde hair.

Check out Donna Haraway's Primate Visions -- she points to the "established" hierarchy of the natural world -- one presented to us with white men on top, white women above black men, black men above black women, and under all of them animals.

Haraway, Carol Adams and perhaps most persuasively Marjorie Spiegel all document the ways that animals are used as the central justification for the oppression of humans. For slavery to *make sense* to people blacks needed to be thought of as animal-like. In order for slaveowners to break up families they had to see the black bodies as nothing more than cattle.

What is interesting is that Jackson is able to humanizing an animal without ever disturbing the fundamental hierarchy.

Even though Kong is smart and a compelling lead character, in the end white people kill him and the woman falls in love with her man. The order is restored despite the momentary (and insistant voice) of animal ethics that threatened to disturb the hierarchy.

In Badass they talked about how revolutionary it was in 1971 that a black man would survive it to the end of a movie. I'd like to see the animal lead bound off to survive at the end of a monster flic.

The great comedian Paul Mooney points out who really gets dissed in monster movies like Kong -- women. Mooney points out that in movies like the Fly, Beauty and the Beast, and Frankenstein, women fall in love with and have sex with monsters. Proof positive that white directors would rather see a white starlet having sex with swamp thing than Denzel Washington.

Ron, I love your opinion, and I think that the best thing is to talk about the film. Thanks for your comments and the forum to discuss this stuff.