Sunday, April 22, 2012

Great Ape


(originally published in The Outreach Connection in December 2005)

I haven’t devoted this entire page to a single film since August, and the film in question was (of all things) The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (although I spent about half the space on digressions of various kinds). Since then I’ve been playing catch-up with festival reviews, the vast fall movie agenda, and then the year-end bonanza. But confronted with the granddaddy of them all, the rebirth of one of cinema’s founding icons, I force myself to stop and marvel and reflect more deeply. This is all about Kong. King Kong.

It Takes a Blonde

 The new film, as I’m sure you know already, is directed by Peter Jackson, his first since winning an Oscar for the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is (as I’m sure you know already – sorry, I’ll stop with that) a remake of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s (still wonderful) 1933 original, although with a much fuller concept of the central relationship, and is probably not influenced at all by John Guillermin’s 1976 remake (about which I remember nothing except Jeff Bridges’ wild hair, Jessica Lange, and the considerable publicity devoted at the time to the giant hydraulic arm). Naomi Watts plays a struggling Depression-era actress fast-talked by producer Jack Black into boarding a ship on which he’s filming his latest project. Little does she know he’s heading not for Singapore but for elusive, perhaps mythical Skull Island; little does he know that Skull Island, once they find it, is home to incalculable layers of peril – cannibalistic natives, giant insects, dinosaurs, and towering above all, the giant ape Kong.  Watts is quickly taken by the natives as a sacrifice to appease the monster’s rage, but instead of chewing her up like countless predecessors, Kong decides he likes having her around. He’s surly, jealous, hotheaded, but with increasingly revealed inner sadness and capacity for tenderness. All of this is best revealed by handing him a blonde.

Well, almost no one's been able to write about the film without cracking the occasional line, and I'm no exception. But the film grows heavily in my mind, the more I think about it. In particular, the central love story – and it’s not stretching a point to call it that; by the end of the movie Watts has done everything for the ape short of taking it all off – although easily enough dismissed by its very nature, becomes more resonant. Watts is a wonderful actress, but is allowed no real character traits here except sheer empathy. At the start we see her in vaudeville, losing herself behind make-up and deft but silly routines; the film establishes an older actor as her long-time father figure who, finally beaten down by the Depression, departs and leaves her unmoored. She’s drawn to playwright Adrien Brody before even meeting him, sensing in his plays a sensitivity that, it appears, might serve for her as a catalyst for further self-definition (when she and Brody meet, the film dallies briefly with some friction based on clumsy misunderstandings, but then plunges them into romance with a dispatch bordering on shorthand). Once the exposition is over and they’re on the island, she barely talks again – she runs, reacts, stares, weeps, performs for Kong, but barely gets to speak. The portrayal amounts to little more than a blank slate, but one that through Watts’ expressiveness (worthy of a silent screen queen) establishes all the clichéd evocative possibilities of femininity.

Male Traits

This is then matched against a male protagonist who, by virtue of being a big gorilla, obviously taps an even more primal gender-based characterization (!) As virtually everyone has pointed out, this evocation of Kong surpasses anything previously seen in giving life and “character” to a digitally created beast (much of the performance was derived from actor Andy Serkis via motion capture techniques). The climax on the Empire State building is surely as emotionally affecting as it possibly could have been. But if this were all there was to it, it would likely seem more perverse than anything else. The film’s first third spends much time establishing a variety of male traits and stereotypes – the selfish blowhard Black, the sensitive Brody, a subplot about a young sailor and the older hand who’s his father figure, much rowdiness and man-of-action exertion. It’s appealing to see a distinct symmetry in the film that posits Kong merely as the synthesis of all this.

 Many have described the first third as laboured and overlong, and the second third as being almost as excessive in how it abandons all reflection, plunging into a perhaps unprecedented succession of dazzling action sequences. But it seems more rational if you view the first third as belonging to the world of males, messy and sometimes tedious and bungling for all their scheming, whereas the second belongs to that of Kong, the ultra-Male, by his strength and sheer presence sweeping aside these human idiocies, to be replaced by almost pure motion and spectacle, which nevertheless proves as effective in causing the submission of the female. This segment ends of course with male mankind’s most egregious idiocy, capturing Kong as a commercial trophy, leading to the destructive comeuppance in the excellently rendered New York climax (of course, it isn’t a spoiler in the circumstances to reveal that Kong dies, but the victory is too compromised even to be termed Pyrrhic).

Vision And Intent

Maybe that all seems over-analytical, but I don’t know how else one would make sense of the movie. Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was never really my thing, although I did like each of the movies more than the one that preceded it. King Kong seemed, when he announced it, like an odd follow-up, but now it all seems to make much more sense – the endlessly sprawling canvas of the Rings movies gets replaced with something possessing as much cultural prominence and possibility for transcendent technique and spectacle, but with an almost infinitely more concentrated inner core. The end of the third Rings film was widely criticized for going on forever, adding endless elaborations and epilogues, and I got as tired of it as anyone else, but along with the apparently self-reproducing extended versions, commentaries and other sideshows it speaks to the impossibility of bringing easy closure to a project that so consumed the director.  King Kong by comparison was a much more discreet endeavour for him, and exhibits an almost gleeful concentration of vision and intent.

The film's a hit of course, but not on the level of the Rings films, and some have divined a lack of appeal to female audiences. I find this ironic since women were seldom more than a pictorial, ethereal presence around the edges of the trilogy, but I suppose the female interest in those films was far from political. If audiences think about it though, the gorgeous perversity of King Kong is surely more rewarding. And I haven’t even mentioned the film’s ecological themes, or even made much of its immense logistical prowess and visual skill. You know, far from being another easily ignored big budget Hollywood product, it may even be worth a second visit.

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