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A problematic view of colonialism

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This is a problematic view of colonialism and its attendant application to the Kong myth, to put it mildly. It’s a highly romanticized perspective, in fact, one that serves to deny and obfuscate the agency and the complicity of conscious human and state actors in the large-scale, purposeful economic, physical, and cultural destruction that characterized colonialism in Africa and elsewhere. It’s a reading that characterizes the historical crimes and continued deprivations of colonialism as having been initiated by an instinctual and even brave drive towards pushing our own boundaries, a fundamental human impulse against which we can offer little resistance. Even if Hayes and Jimmy both agree that Heart of Darkness, and by extension their own voyage, is “not an adventure story,” this quotation uncritically reinforces the “lost world” myth that Denham is so fond of falling back upon.


Furthermore, the quotation apes (no pun intended) the pernicious colonial doctrine of terra nullius, from the Latin for “land belonging to no one.” A dubious legal principle descended from Roman law and mostly employed by the British Empire in justifying the settling and/or occupation of territories populated sparsely by indigenous peoples, the concept would surely not be an unfamiliar one to Jackson and his writing collaborators, who otherwise demonstrate ample historical and cultural awareness. The concept was used to justify the settlement of the South Island of Jackson’s home country of New Zealand in 1840, to say nothing of its centrality in the dispossession of the Aboriginals of neighbouring Australia.


The characterization of the outer reaches of Skull Island as a ruin (Denham himself refers to them as such) is strengthened and even legitimized by the Conrad quotation, and serves to justify, if only discursively, the exploitation of Skull Island and its denizens. Although Conrad’s measured outrage at the horrors wrought by colonial powers would have been the more useful aspect for the filmmakers to appropriate, they instead choose to ventriloquize the author’s philosophic and paternalistic view of the colonial project.


The use of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Jackson’s Kong is fraught, to say the least, and its aims are not entirely obvious. Boyens says in the commentary that Denham’s progressive descent into immorality mirrors Marlow “proceeding up the river” in the novella, but the darkness he’s proceeding towards is left more ambiguous. If Denham is Marlow, then is Kong the film’s version of Kurtz, the grizzled old lord of the interior, subordinating the natives to his authority by worshipful fear? Or does Denham represent both figures, entering the eternal jungle and meeting a darker version of himself who is stripped of ethics and moderating reason? Or is our Marlow not Denham at all, but the romantic Driscoll, the no-nonsense Hayes, or even the boyish Jimmy? The cinema is always more adept at posing questions than it is at answering them, but the deployment of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in this version of King Kong raises infinitely more questions than it even attempts to answer.


Another inherently problematic element of the Kong myth follows fast on the heels of this one, as Denham’s party has their first contact with the Skull Island natives. They are a twisted, emaciated, terrified people, hungry, paranoid, and shamanistic in their outlook. They reside in the ruinous tombs of the island’s vanished civilization, and are described by Boyens, with no apparent irony, as living a “parasitic” existence. They are driven to sheer, naked terror at everything, which should perhaps not be surprising on an island fair teeming with hyper-aggressive predators. Jackson reveals that the production’s conception of them was that they were not native to Skull Island, and since being shipwrecked in such a nightmarish place have “descended into something approaching madness.”


Coming immediately after the invocation of Heart of Darkness, it is exceedingly difficult not to associate the tomb-dwelling natives with the shadowy tribal devotees of Kurtz with their “wild glances and savages movements.” Mind you, they also echo the brutish, wraithlike locals that surround the woman-god Ayesha’s chamber in H. Rider Haggard’s bizarre Victorian adventure novel She. The Skull Island natives are surrounded by images of unspeakable brutality that echo the horrors described by Conrad: bound and impaled skeletons, skulls, mummified bodies, dried fish hung through the eyes. They wield clubs and spears and wear bones through their nostrils, and unlike in the previous films make no attempt at reciprocal communication with the white intruders.


After Denham arrogantly offers a chocolate bar to the first native child he sees (a sly joke at imperialism’s expense, cocoa being one of the prototypical products of mercantilism) and runs afoul of the girl, the tribe assault the film crew and begin stoving in the heads of their victims in a ritual slaughter. Briefly discouraged by the guns of the sailors who arrive just in time to save Denham from an ignominious end, the natives sneak onto the Venture that night to abduct Ann as an offering to Kong, who has been lead to expect a gift after hearing Ann’s screaming during the island attack.


The depiction of their captive’s subsequent “wedding” ceremony is not a staged widescreen spectacle like Cooper’s, nor is it ritualistic foreplay like Guillermin’s. It’s the most primitive of them all, a nightmarish shamanic ceremony of frenzied terror, a ritual less concerned with the worship of Kong than it is about providing a release valve for the natives’ state of constant fear. It’s all rain, drums, and fire, visually echoing Jackson’s Helm’s Deep battle sequence from the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers.


The comparison of the island’s natives to the thoroughly wretched and Othered orcs of Jackson’s famous film trilogy is an instructive one that illustrates the folly of his approach to one of the thorniest issues around the Kong myth. So much narrative focus and audience empathy is directed at the symbolic noble savage Kong that the actual colonized indigenous people in each one of the films are marginalized and forgotten, denied any voice or agency once they’ve fulfilled their limited purpose.


Pauline Kael bemoaned the lack of a more progressive depiction of the natives in her review of the 1976 Kong, but also suggested that such a representation couldn’t be accomplished without badly damaging the established narrative, which cynically relies upon the scary primitives to deliver beauty to the beast. Still, it seems like Jackson could have tried harder than he did to conceive of a new trajectory, especially when it becomes apparent from the commentary and the supplemental documentaries included on the DVD that thin and emaciated extras from places like Sudan were sought out to depict the natives. Reminiscent of the overrepresentation of Maori actors and stunt people in orc roles in The Lord of the Rings, this seemingly minor technical choice only serves to further identify the natives with colonized and discriminated peoples.


That said, Jackson does rehabilitate himself on this point by including a sharp criticism of the casual racism and thoughtless exploitation of the original film’s cultural milieu in Kong’s over-the-top Manhattan stage debut. In a similar vein to the shiny commercial overkill provided by Guillermin and Semple in their version, Jackson has the spotlight-hungry Denham transform the presentation of Kong to the world into a “cheesy,” “slightly Vegas” showcase that is also, fundamentally, a lie.


After unveiling the beast chained in chrome steel onstage, Denham steps into the wings while faux-hero Bruce Baxter and dozens of “primitives” in blackface dance and cavort in a choreographed performance of exotic indigeneity. These stage natives’ appearances and attire are direct reproductions of those of the jungle island natives in Cooper’s original film and thus quite different from the desperate tribe we have seen earlier in this version. The costumes and props in this scene were based on the original props from the 1933 film, many of which the avid film memorabilia nut Jackson has collected over the years. The choreography is also very similar to that of the original’s Kong-summoning ceremony, and, to top it off, the pit orchestra accompanies the spectacle with an arrangement of Max Steiner’s famous score.


Thus, the imagery of Cooper’s film is recast as a commentary on America’s inaccurate and racist attitudes concerning the primitive cultures of the “lost world” opened up by colonialism. The bona fide cultural display of the Skull Islanders in the 1933 film therefore becomes a (literally) staged performance of primitivity based on discriminatory assumptions in the 2005 film. Jackson acknowledges in the commentary that this sequence was his attempt to face up to the inherent racism of Cooper’s vision, although he couches it more in terms of the passage of time shifting “social convention” and “acceptable stereotypes.” Still, this moment cuts to the discriminatory heart of Carl Denham’s (and Merian Cooper’s) supposedly democratic ideology.


In case we missed the garish mockery that Denham was making of the once-proud Kong, Jackson cuts to Driscoll and the long-suffering Preston in the audience, discussing how Denham possesses the “unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves.” This could be a fitting epigram for the productive excess of American democratic capitalism, a system whose boundless energy and thirst for the new carries the seeds of its own downfall, much like Denham.


Unlike America, however, Denham’s downfall comes swiftly. Although Kong is initially lethargic on stage, he is roused by the climactic appearance of a blonde woman that he (as well as the viewing audience) is lead to believe is Ann Darrow. The girl is a stand-in, however, as Ann herself rejected Denham’s lucrative offers to be part of his staged farce (in a sneaking meta-joke, Ann’s stand-in for the show is played by Naomi Watts’ stand-in for the movie). This infuriates Kong, and his rage is further inflamed by the press’ flashbulbs. Though his chained arms are raised by metal winches into a Christ-like pose (mirrored by Not-Ann, a visual metaphor for their mutual victimization by the harsher side of civilization), he has no trouble breaking free and immediately wreaking righteous havoc on the Broadway theatre as well as upon wintry Times Square.


More than in any of the other films’ versions of the New York rampage, Jackson’s Kong exerts the force of his savage will upon the great metropolis. Cornered in unfamiliar surroundings, he lashes out at a street trolley that threatens him as if it’s another prehistoric foe, then chases Driscoll’s commandeered taxi cab, eventually flipping it over and beating his chest in triumph over his putative rival. But Ann, who has taken a position in the very chorus line she judged to be “depressing” at the start of the film to assuage her guilt over what happened on the island, arrives to divert his violent impulses back into their shared safe harbour of aesthetic appreciation.


Kong and Ann’s final fleeting escape to the top of the Empire State Building is thus constructed as a retreat into peaceful beauty in the face of a harsh, grasping, commercial-industrial world where unabashed exploitation of the less fortunate is the only way to survive. This world, for all its modernity and high-flown rhetoric of liberty and civilization, is not fundamentally different from the wild Darwinian melting pot of Kong’s island home, and indeed is more powerful and less tameable for the powerful ape. Just as the high sanctuary above the urban jungle serves a similar purpose for Kong and Ann as the mountain on Skull Island did, the frantic and dangerous world below seeks to destroy them in equal measure.


In both cases, their tranquility is shattered by buzzing airborne antagonists: enormous bats on Skull Island, machine-gun-equipped biplanes in New York. In the latter case, atop the skyscraper that Jackson calls a “monument” to man’s “victory over the natural world”, Kong makes a closing, doomed show of strength, pounding his chest with his woman before him. But much as the avid aviator Cooper envisioned it, American air power overmatches him, cruelly delivering the final, wrenching coup de grace in the form of multiple shots in the back. Ann weeps (Watts is incandescent in this scene) as Kong slips from the building’s pinnacle and vanishes into the deep morass of civilization below in a long, mournful slow-motion shot. A moment of flamboyant spectacle in the original film and of gruesome, blood-soaked outrage in the 1976 version becomes a tragic elegy through Jackson’s lens.


But his take on the material is not quite complete. Unlike Guillermin, who turned Kong’s demise into a protest against the establishment’s myriad abuses, Jackson reinstates Cooper’s famous closing line and places it in the mouth of the directorial proxy, Carl Denham. The concept of beauty killing the beast has been almost directly inverted from Cooper’s film to Jackson’s, however. While Cooper conceived of enlightened modern civilization as the source of beauty that was overcoming the savage darkness represented by Kong, Jackson repeats the assumptions of the post-Sixties counter-culture that industrialized capitalism is the hegemonic source of ugliness and destructive tendencies in the world. When Robert Armstrong’s Denham says that beauty killed the beast, he means that the cultural superiority of American democracy has done its job well. When Jack Black’s Denham says the same thing, we’re meant to understand his pronouncement as pinpointing the desire for the fleeting natural sublimity represented by the sunrise as being the proximate cause of Kong’s demise.


This choice by Jackson and his team is a microcosm for the issues plaguing the whole of his passionate, memorable, messy, and contradictory King Kong. This is clearly intended as a moment of self-aware realization for the heartless imperialist Denham, and is played as such by Black. The problem with those words coming from this man at this moment is that nothing that he’s said or done for the previous three hours of film suggest that he has earned any right to such an insight. Better for the line to be delivered by Driscoll or Ann, the bohemian dreamers who had just reunited in an embrace atop the Empire State Building and who could properly appreciate the transcendence that poor Kong sought on top of the world (harkening back to the film’s opening song). Indeed, Jackson had originally hoped that an elderly Fay Wray would make a cameo to deliver the line, a hope dashed by the original Ann Darrow’s passing while the film was in production.


This deathbed conversion-style moment for the vilified Denham typifies the evident struggle at the centre of Peter Jackson’s remake of his formative film experience. Torn between his deep and abiding admiration and love for Merian Cooper’s classic film and his cinematic impulses towards emotional integrity and progressive intelligence, Jackson crafts a King Kong that reconstitutes and expands upon the exotic spectacle and exhilaration of the original film while simultaneously steering the tone of the narrative into the realm of tragic lament.


And yet despite displaying an obvious awareness of the ideological trappings of the Kong myth and taking palpable steps to address them onscreen, Jackson also perpetuates many of the discriminatory elements of its imperialist perspective in his heartfelt aspiration to pay homage to Cooper’s enduring vision. Combine these cleavages with the director’s noted habit for magnificent visual excess, and you have a film that is as unwieldy and difficult as it is gripping and moving.


At the tail end of his DVD commentary with Boyens, Jackson shows that he’s aware of the manner in which the purely cinematic Kong myth reflects the social, political, economic, and cultural anxieties of its time. He speaks of past versions as well as potential future versions as “incorporating” the “contemporary philosophy” of the times in which they are made, and expresses his hope that the tale is remade again in his lifetime in that vein.


Although his King Kong crystallizes many of the operative concerns of the mythos, it is also representative of a gradual shift in perspective as concerns the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World. What once was a spectacle has, through the migration of cultural opinion and the divergent visions of disparate filmmakers, become a tragedy. What it is yet to become, if Jackson’s expressed wish to see another version of King Kong comes to fruition, is still to be determined. There could be many new and fascinating ways that beauty can kill the beast, and we patiently await their revelation.

Ross Langager has been contributing music reviews to PopMatters since early 2008. He has a BA (Honors) in English and a MA in English, both from the University of Alberta in Edmonton. He lives in Toronto, Ontario. He also writes a blog at http://rosslangager.com/ .


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