The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Thursday, December 15, 2005

King Kong (2005)


It is impossible to discuss Peter Jackson’s staggering, beautiful, heatbreaking, exciting, overlong, magical and wholly successful remake without touching on the social aspects of the film, but I’m telling you right now that I give it an “A.”  Blasphemy it may be, but “Kong” improves upon the original in every respect save brevity, and reveals the 1976 version for the hollow travesty it was.

I remember saying to Larry Niven that the 1976 Kong failed for multiple reasons, but looming large among them was the fact that there were no dinosaurs.  Because of that omission, Kong was merely a big bully, not a king among creatures his own size.  I also remember that Larry, in his uniquely Niven-ish way, grinned and said “they couldn’t have put dinosaurs in the movie.  If they had, everyone would have forgotten about the big monkey, and taken a T-Rex back to New York.” 

Very funny, and while it’s curious that no one really mentions the dinosaurs once they are off the island (in much the same way they never tell you HOW they got Kong onto the ship!)  I don’t think its true.  Kong is a thinking, feeling creature, even back in the original 1933 version, and therefore it would be infinitely easier for audiences to be fascinated, to see a reflection of humanity in the simian that they would never have glimpsed in a raptor.

Let’s get it out of the way for the two people left in the world who don’t know the story: Kong is the story of an ambitious movie producer, Carl Denham (Jack Black), who talks an unemployed actress/vaudeville performer named Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) into traveling to an uncharted island to make an adventure film.  Along the way she falls in love with a playwright (Andrian Brody).  Oh, yeah, she meets a tall, dark stranger.
     Of course, with the dancing black natives, the offer to trade several of their women for one blonde, dark-furred Kong’s endless fascination with Ann, his removal to New York in chains, and even his end atop the phallic Empire State Building have triggered endless essays on the racial subtext of Kong, and it would make sense for me to comment on this, but before I do, just let me say: Wow.  Probably the best time I’ve had at the movies this year.  And yes, it’s too long.
     I think that the original Kong would have been made even had black people not existed, even if the unfortunate history of slavery had not created the tensions we deal with to this very day. 
     On the other hand, I think that part of the reason for Kong’s enduring success DOES have to do with that racial tension…but that that is only one of the major aspects.  From time to time a story emerges from the unconscious of a writer that strikes deeper chords.  Did Miriam Cooper intend a racial metaphor?  I’m sure he was at least partially aware of it, but there are other important aspects, and director Jackson obviously read every essay on this film he could get his hands on: what we see on the screen strongly suggests a director aware of his project’s history.
Evolution of man.  Zoos and circuses are popular at least in part because the natural world used to be (in part) a place of horror.  The sight of lions and tigers balancing on balls, where once they were the terrors of the night, triggers awe and laughter.  How far we have come!  How mighty we are as a species, ruler of the planet!  The fact that mere humans could conquer any beast alive, including the “King” of them all, speaks to something within that ancestral memory.
We see ourselves within Kong—unevolved mankind.  The sight of the most powerful primate who ever lived come face to face with “his descendants” has resonance.
Yes, there is inevitable racial subtext.  (And yes, the black First Mate in Jackson’s film dies spouting Spiritual Guide twaddle, trying to save a white woman, and protecting a young white boy. 
Wonderful.)  But Jackson has made the natives racially indistinct, and there is a self-aware quality to the scene of black dancers onstage in Jackson’s utterly phenomenally re-created New York that says that the director was aware, and using aspects of that tension to his advantage. 
The aspect that Jackson worked hardest was the ancient pull between men and women.
There’ a guy who used to teach relationship seminars.  His theory: “Men are gorillas, and women are gorilla tamers.”  And that attitude is a powerful ingredient in this particular cinematic mix.  Ann is given to Kong on the island, but after seeing the deadly nature of the other creatures there, she gladly accepts his guardianship, dancing and juggling to amuse him, to catch his attention. 

The fact that that bond leads to Kong’s destruction devastates her, as well it should.

The use of Adrian Brody as the sensitive playwright who becomes an action hero to save his beloved is fascinating.  He is so thin and “sensitive,” his eyes so wounded that I almost wish it had been Brody, and not Andy Serkis, who enacted Kong’s facial expressions—on the other hand, that would have been seriously on-the-nose.

I would consider myself a sexist, but not a chauvinist.  In other words, yes, I think there are important differences between men and women.  No, I don’t think one gender is superior to another, or that either gender has the right to control or dominate the other.  That said, I think that women can be, and have been, a seriously civilizing influence on men.  Marriage from one perspecive is much like hooking a race-horse to a plow.  I’ve always had the lingering sense that young girls are better prepared for the realities of life than   young men.  Boys are playing cowboy, secret agent, space man, explorer, whatever…none of which will they ever be.  At the same time, girls are playing nurse, mommy, throwing tea parties and inviting the neighborhood boys.  However limiting that may be, at least it actually prepares them for the lives they will live.  I think that men are stunned by how much they want and need women, and the degree to which they abandon their dreams of wildness and freedom for a steady supply of sex.

Sure, there’s more to it than that, by a long shot.  But sex opens the doorway to love, and to an entire type of spiritual awareness, the continuance of life, the birth of hope in the form of a child.  Women are the doorway to this, and men are both repelled and hypnotized by that mystery.

“Kong” is that aspect of the male-female relationship, writ large indeed.  One reviewer says that Ann teaches Kong to understand beauty.  Wrong.  She teaches him the word or symbol for beauty, but he already understands.  Already watches the sunset every day, and when Ann touches her heart, saying “Beautiful” she is not only teaching the word, she is also associating herself with the sunset.  “I am beautiful” she is also saying.  “I am valuable.  Protect me.”  And so Kong does.  She gives him a gift, a doorway into his heart.  The first gentleness he has ever known since the death of his mother.  And it is quite probable that Kong would consider the loss of his life worth this contact, however brief, with another being.

The sensitive Brody and the Brute Kong both love Ann. Brody must win, or all of civilization, all of society devolves and dies.  The wonderful Jackson teased out that theme, developed it far more powerfully than in the original, and around it has created a fantastic entertainment, with the thrills and chills one might ordinarily find in five good movies.  Is it too much at times?  Yes.

But so was the natural world.  I’ve seen human beings living very, very close to that edge, and it’s not pretty.  I look at the glittering cities we have created, and felt a sense of loss along with the sense of accomplishment.  And I know that one of the forces driving that development is the desire to keep more of our children alive.  The urge to provide our families with everything they need. The ancient tug of war between man and woman, each trying to make the world in their own image.  Survival.  Sex. Power. Love. 

When Kong climbs the Empire State Building in his futile, courageous stand against technology, he is the primal male animal that must be subsumed within the intellectual, the artist, to survive and evolve.  Yes, he represents native cultures.  Yes, he represents the black man…but only insofar as either of these things represent deeper, more primal conflicts and struggles within us.

We have won so much.  We have lost so much.  Men and women love each other so dearly, and are locked in mortal combat for meaning and freedom.  It is sad, and it is wonderful, and it is us, our species, our history, our destiny.

The original Kong is arguably the most mythic Hollywood film.  Jackson has done it proud.

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