The Beauty and the Horror: Peter Jackson’s King Kong – Part 1

2005-12-14

Although Kong’s triumphant return to the multiplexes would follow the 1976 film by three decades, the first seeds of the latest iteration of the cinematic myth were sown years before John Guillermin’s version had even begun production. On a Friday night in 1970, in a small coastal town just north of Wellington, New Zealand, a nine-year-old boy is in tears in front of the black-and-white family television as he watches a proud, doomed creature plummet from the zenith of a skyscraper. From that moment on, Peter Jackson was fascinated by films and filmmaking, and dreamed above all to mount his own remake of the film that ignited that fascination, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack’s seminal 1933 King Kong.

Jackson made his reputation as a cult director with anarchic splatter comedies like Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles in the late 1980s before shifting gears with the haunting Heavenly Creatures, which earned arthouse acclaim and an Academy Award nomination in 1994. While completing Heavenly Creatures’s follow-up, the breathless supernatural action-comedy The Frighteners, in 1996, Jackson and his Wellington-based production team began design and pre-production work on a new Kong film commissioned by Universal. With his near-lifelong ambition so close to fruition, Jackson’s hopes were dashed when the studio cancelled production in the face of the competing big-budget monster film remakes of Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young.

One can’t pretend that Peter Jackson didn’t eventually land on his feet, though. The burgeoning film mogul would vault into big-budget Hollywood prominence and film history with the massive critical, commercial, and artistic success of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which would gross almost $3 billion worldwide and win 17 Oscars. Soon after the release of the first of the three films, Universal came knocking; any doubts the studio may have had about Jackson’s blockbuster bona fides had been laid to rest, and King Kong was his to remake as he saw fit.

Pivoting immediately into Kong after the completion and release of The Return of the King, Jackson and the formidable production team that had emerged from the Rings trilogy envisioned a new take on the classic tale that would combine modern technology and contemporary film sensibilities with the showman’s bravado and spectacular entertainment that thrilled so many fans of the original film (Jackson included). Indeed, the script of the ill-fated 1996 version written by Jackson and his long-time life and writing partner Fran Walsh suggested a classic popcorn adventure movie reminiscent of the Indiana Jones movies and Stephen Sommers’ 1999 remake of The Mummy (perhaps not coincidentally produced by Universal immediately after it had pulled the plug on Jackson’s Kong).

Although Jackson’s finished King Kong is more complex than your average whiz-bang Hollywood blockbuster, it retains the rousing cornball spectacle of the Cooper/Schoedsack original. As the stunning battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings demonstrated, extravagant, tension-ratcheting action sequences are what Jackson does best, and he constructed his Kong around those thrills, as Cooper did. From its gleaming Art Deco opening titles, this Kong operates both as homage to the original and as an act of furious imaginative one-up-man-ship, but it’s also a passionate counter-reaction to the central role of ideological meaning in Guillermin’s film as well as to its overarching tone of detached, knowing cynicism.

Like the film Jackson grew up loving and unlike the 1976 remake that he barely acknowledges (even as he borrows liberally from it), his Kong’s meanings are in the subtext; ideology is once again entirely subordinate to spectacle. But the screenplay penned by Jackson, Walsh and Philippa Boyens is keenly aware of the myriad meanings embedded in this cinematic myth and sets about re-contextualizing and commenting upon the implied politics of Cooper’s film. That this Kong is able to amplify the tragic romance element of the tale and lose itself in that romance with abandon, while also musing intelligently on the past costs of cultural imperialism and capitalist exploitation, makes it the most difficult to pigeonhole among the three canonical Kong films.

Jettisoning the ripped-from-the-headlines topicality of the 1976 film, Jackson’s film immerses itself in the milieu of 1930s Depression-era New York from its opening frames. Although Cooper’s film did not shy away from the harsh social realities of its time and place, incorporating a brief glance at a breadline and introducing its poor and hungry heroine as she steals an apple from a fruit stand (a scene reproduced faithfully by Jackson in his film), the newest Kong expends much more time and effort in depicting the details of its historical setting.

Jackson opens his film with a touch of visual thematic foreshadowing, showing various primates in cages in the Central Park Zoo both as an anticipation of Kong’s eventual captivity and as an establishment of the zoo culture of America. But these captive animals are contrasted immediately with the makeshift shantytowns of the poor and unemployed in the Park, suggesting that the higher primates are no less imprisoned by socio-economic circumstances than the lower ones are by human whims.

These contrasting images segue into an elegant montage of contemporary life in the city, featuring vignettes of congested traffic, evictions, arrests, soup lines, homelessness, and protest marches. Ironically accompanied by Al Jolson’s recording of “I’m Sitting on Top of the World”, this sequence carries with it the suggestion that the exotic adventures to come are not only an escape from the harsh economic realities of a deprived time, but also an unavoidable consequence of the relentless competitive demands of American capitalism. In order to avoid being exploited by such a ruthless system, you must be prepared to do some exploiting yourself. It’s survival of the fittest in civilization as well as in the jungle.

The focal point for the 2005 Kong’s critique of American capitalist exploitation is the figure of Carl Denham, the indefatigable huckster filmmaker who exploits the ineffable Otherness of the great ape for the basest of selfish aims. Played by comic actor Jack Black (channelling Orson Welles, Merian Cooper, and, slyly, Peter Jackson), this version of Denham is an exploded caricature of Robert Armstrong’s original character. As a consciously fictionalized sketch of himself, Denham was understood even by Cooper as being the personified American id. But the more liberally-minded non-American Jackson, despite his enormous admiration for the film pioneer he dubs a “genius” and for his much-loved film creation, doesn’t view the fundamental drives of the American male in the same positive light that his filmmaking hero did.

A striver, a dreamer, and above all a deceitful crook, Denham uses not only Kong but every human being around him to achieve wealth and fame entirely for him and him alone. He fancies himself a rugged individualist entrepreneur with artistic vision, but in the hands of Black and the screenwriting team, he’s a compulsive hack and a serial leech, an immoral grifter with no sense of personal accountability. This differing approach to Carl Denham is probably the most important thematic distinctions between Cooper’s film and Jackson’s. As played by Armstrong, Denham was not a hero, exactly, but he was an amorphously romantic figure who certainly came in for no overt blame for the symbolic death of that primitive powerhouse from the deepest jungle. Seven decades later, however, such a figure can no longer occupy movie screens without judgement, nor, arguably, should he.

The version of Carl Denham played by Black (and, more vitally, scripted by Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens) is the villain of the piece, and it is he, more than the airplanes or even beauty, that kills the beast. There is no other marker in the latest version of Kong clearer than this for the shift in social, cultural, and political sensibilities between 1933 and 2005, that the romanticized witness to destructive spectacle is transformed into the selfish author of a grand tragedy.

Our introduction to Black’s Denham comes in a darkened screening room, where he nervously unspools interminable footage of jungle life for his impatient investors, hoping to secure further funding to finish his ambitious, unnamed film. When he steps out of the room afterwards, we hear that the investors have him pegged: he’s a “preening self-promoter”, a “washed-up”, “ambitious no-talent” who “can’t direct”.

Realizing that his paying audience is slipping away, Denham lets loose with a fantastic tale of a “lost world” never before seen (or filmed, certainly) by man. In his desperation to save his flagging film (and his inflated sense of identity along with it), Denham buys wholesale into the romantic “empty land” myth that undergirds colonialism in all of its incarnations. Trying to sway the doubtful crew of the ship he later commandeers for the purpose of his film, he returns to this rhetorical line, referring to Skull Island (after two previous versions, it is finally named onscreen) as “the last blank space” on the map, reinforcing this dangerously thoughtless imperial attitude.

Jackson approaches this issue, so central to Cooper’s crafting of the origin story of the Kong myth, in an interesting way. Although both his films and his statements about them leave little doubt that he shares Denham’s (and Cooper’s) belief in the grand transformative power of the cinema and its escapist myths, Jackson’s status as a progressive, open-minded artist from New Zealand, a country with a knotty colonial history, prevents him from subscribing to the same naive and arrogant justifying mythos that drives Denham (and that drove Cooper as well).

In the commentary for the extended DVD version of Kong that he recorded with Philippa Boyens, the amateur film historian Jackson talks about the “titillating and exploitative” documentaries of Cooper’s time (some of which Cooper himself made) that focused on so-called “primitive” cultures, depicting “shocking tribal initiation rites” and the hunting of animals, all to give contemporary American audiences what he refers to as a “cheap thrill”. Although the romance and adventure of such films would seem to appeal to the primal film fan inside of him, the underlying racism and brutality of such imagery repulses him as well. One has to wonder, does Jackson feel the same way about the original Kong film that he so adores, a film which features many of those things and, indeed, for all of its vision, could be reductively described as a mere “cheap thrill”?

Jackson chooses to express his ambivalence about the smarmy exploitative instinct that undercuts the Kong narrative’s implied “lost world” myth in the dialogue of his film. As Denham wraps up his grandiose introduction to this mysterious island location, a moustachioed weasel of an investor asks glibly in response, “Will there be boobies?”, punctuating his lechery by sucking creepily on a cigarette. At once laying bare the exploitative heart of imperial hegemony and providing a sly modern satire of the supposed corporate necessity of female objectification, Jackson uses this humorous moment (Black quite obviously relishes the opportunity to utter the word “boobies” in a major motion picture in response) to comment on one element of the cinema that has not much changed in seventy years.

To his credit, however, Denham rejects the idea of inserting “nudie shots” into his putative masterpiece for titillation’s sake, grandly comparing himself to Cecil B. De Mille and demanding that this “cheap lowlife” of an investor “show some class”. Although this reply is positively marinating in Denham’s trademarked hubris and constitutes the final straw for his doubting producers, it establishes a measure of moral (or at least artistic) integrity in a character that will demonstrate diminishing levels of integrity as the film progresses. As we will see, Denham will stoop very low indeed for the sake of success on many later occasions, but naked sexual objectification is a bridge too far for him.

But perhaps he speaks more for Jackson and for the film as a whole than strictly for himself. Unlike what Pauline Kael called the “lewd” and “queasy” sexual innuendo of Cooper’s film or the lascivious, post-Code push-button sexuality of Guillermin’s version, Jackson’s Kong shows little interest in sex, privileging tragic romance over primal eroticism. This is an underappreciated point of departure from the previous versions, and reflects shifting attitudes towards interracial relationships in the modern Western world in general. But it is also a conscious choice by Jackson and his female co-writers, a choice most clearly evident in their version of Ann Darrow.

In the commentary track, Jackson and Boyens discuss their objections to the constructions of Ann as the innocent victim and Kong as the brutal monster in the original film, and the intentional effort they made to proceed in a less clear-cut direction. Presumably, the screenwriters of this newest Kong also wanted to distance themselves from the overbalancing inversion of the relations between beauty and the beast in the 1976 film. But it is also clear that Walsh and Boyens in particular craved a heroine at the heart of this tale who was more in line with notions of modern feminist independence.

Ann Darrow As Modern Feminist?

Played by the feisty and versatile Naomi Watts, this Ann Darrow is a seasoned performer like the previous platinum blondes in the role, and her survival instincts are derived from that sense of performance. However, her wiles are not purely feminine in the generally sexist way that her predecessors’ were; they are directly related back to her stage experiences. Watts’ Ann is an actor in a sparsely-attended vaudeville theatre, and we first see her performing acrobatics and pratfalls while in male drag, a classic form of theatrical retreat from the assumptions of female sexuality. As a woman of her patriarchal time, she is still subject to the male gaze, however: at the end of the performance, Jackson cuts to a hefty simian gentleman in a suit laughing uncouthly, deftly anticipating Ann’s later encounter with an even heftier and more simian gentleman.

But Ann is independent and self-defining beneath this gaze, whose demands the previous heroines either failed to gird themselves against or coquettishly submitted to. She aspires to act in the serious theatre of respected playwright Jack Driscoll (about which more later) and sniffs at the “depressing” objectification of chorus line girls. When the unsuccessful vaudeville theatre goes belly up, Ann harasses Driscoll’s theatrical agent in hopes of gaining an audition. He suggests a little ruefully that she “use what (she) got” in a less reputable stage show (“take the money and forget you was ever there”, the hard-bitten New Yorker tells her, his own disgust telling us all we need to know about the nature of the gig). But even her desperation and implied starvation can’t induce her to debase herself in such a way.

Due to either her brief consideration of such debasement or her summary rejection of it, Ann is noticed by Carl Denham. Desperately seeking a replacement for his departed female lead (Denham bemoans his assistant Preston’s inability to “look her in the eye and lie” about the production’s uncertain course, evidently not a problem for Denham himself), the director fancies that he sees something of himself in Ann, though perhaps what he really sees is his opposite. Appealing to her as a fellow dreamer on the surface, Denham’s wooing of his new potential starlet is the first of many times in the film that the chronic dissembler manipulates the credulity of earnest individuals to achieve his grand aims.

The diner scene between Ann and Denham further establishes the latter’s one-tracked willingness to do or say anything to advance his film just as it hardens the resolve of the former’s refusal to be objectified by her culture’s dominant female stereotypes. In a witty callback to a similar scene in the original film, Denham indelicately probes Ann for her dress size (she must fit into the departed female lead’s costumes to make the film work). She balks, assuming the worst, and he backtracks, trying to put her at ease.

Then, in a meta turn, the filmmaker describes the arc of the fragile dreamer of a young girl she would play, unwittingly (or observantly) describing Ann herself in the process. But then she takes over his description and makes it her own, both figuratively and literally assuming control of the path of her own narrative. She refuses to be cast in the feminine cinematic clichés that Denham, despite his earlier resistance to the selling of sex appeal in the screening room, relies upon. When he plays at obvious, diminishing flattery, labelling Ann “the saddest girl I’ve ever met”, she replies that she makes people laugh, not cry. And she’s about to assert her independence further by walking away from Denham’s open-ended offer when he mentions that a certain Jack Driscoll is writing the screenplay to the film.

The man who convinces her to join Denham’s journey into the unknown is the film’s third key human figure, and represents one of the most important shift in sensibility from the previous Kong to the current one. Unlike the stoic sailor of the same name and only a bit like the daring, principled hippie academic Jack Prescott, Kong’s latest human rival is a man of culture and refinement. Played by Oscar winner and native New Yorker Adrien Brody, this Driscoll is a respected artist and, like Kong, an effortless romantic.

A social realist playwright that Boyens admits was based largely on New York theatre giant Eugene O’Neill, Driscoll writes serious Federal Theatre Project plays with ponderous titles like Isolation, and is (accidentally) described by Ann as a “self-obsessed literary type” with “his nose in the book”. The screenwriters employ Driscoll to comment on the vagaries and compromises of the creative process, especially when money is involved (and it inevitably is).

Indeed, a specious offer of payment is Denham’s method to trick Driscoll into staying on board the Venture to finish the film’s script when it casts off on its fateful journey to Skull Island. Driscoll’s frustration when he realizes that the gap from the ship to the shore is too wide to leap underscores not only his foremost commitment to art, but Denham’s contrasting commitment to the accruing of fame and wealth. The equally-wide gap between aesthetics and commerce is further elucidated by Denham, who tells Driscoll that the real money is in film and not in the theatre (because what other reason would anyone want to be creative if not to profit by it?). Driscoll, the consummate bohemian, replies, “I happen to love the theatre.” “If you really loved it,” Denham chides him, “you would’ve jumped”.

Jackson, like Guillermin, is a big-budget Hollywood-funded filmmaker who uses his multi-million dollar tentpole release to suggest that capitalist greed limits human agency. In the case of the 2005 Kong, however, artistic creativity is the major product of that agency being curtailed. This critique is imparted through the image of Driscoll typing away on the script in an animal cage below decks, a witty visual gag that suggests a certain kinship between him and the soon-to-be-imprisoned great ape. There is also a self-reflexive scene on deck featuring Ann and Denham’s male lead Bruce Baxter (a very funny Kyle Chandler) acting out a scene straight out of Cooper’s film. When Driscoll implies that Baxter’s modifications to his dialogue are stilted and corny, the vain actor smears the sarcastic writer as a humourless Bolshevik. Flanked by avarice and political differences, the artist seemingly cannot win.

He does, however, win the girl. Despite initial awkwardness, Ann and Driscoll fall in love on the Venture’s voyage, providing the impetus for his transformation into a robust (and a little boring) man of action in the midst of the rescue mission he leads, after she is gifted to Kong. Theirs is a chaste, classically Studio Era romance with none of the suggestions of intercourse that typified Prescott and Dwan’s shipboard relationship in the 1976 Kong. More than representing a simple sexual liaison, Ann is a muse for Driscoll, inspiring him to write a comedy for her (a production of which we see back in New York in the film’s closing act, the dialogue reflecting the playwright’s regret at losing the source of his inspiration).

This artist-muse dichotomy prefaces the film’s further-evolved take on the interactions between Ann and Kong, which becomes the soul of the film through its last half. Breaking completely from the implied threat of erotic violation that the powerful alpha male gorilla poses to the helpless, beautiful blonde, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens make Ann into a muse for Kong as well, and Kong into a kind of artist in the field of survivalist violence.

This Kong is lovingly, painstakingly rendered (through Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance and the exquisite computer-generated imagery by Jackson’s New Zealand-based effects house WETA Digital) as the polar opposite of a mere destructive monster. This is the most animal of the Kongs, the most biologically convincing. His appearance, movements, behaviour, and vocalizations are based on in-depth research into wild gorillas by the production team and special effects artists, who consulted hours of video of the creatures, including raw footage from Gorillas in the Mist provided by its filmmakers. In addition, Serkis made a clandestine, uninsured trek to observe mountain gorillas in their natural habitat in Rwanda, taking in-depth thespianic research to a new, Daniel Day-Lewis-rivalling level in the process.

Although this particular enormous silverback is very much capable of ample destruction (he lays waste to much more of New York than either of his predecessors), he only resorts to it when threatened, cornered, thrust into unfamiliar surroundings, or, of course, when deprived of his blond muse. But his violence, especially in his Skull Island kingdom, is choreographed by Jackson as an impressive, gymnastic display of deadly power. Kong’s battle with the three modified Tyrannosaurs who are pursuing Ann with baffling gusto is the film’s bravura action centerpiece, a massively rousing and entertaining sequence whose spectacle is as impeccably crafted as it is wild and exhilarating. But it ultimately serves the story and the bond between Kong and Ann, a story that is, in the final analysis, a tragedy.

With the near-total erasure of the sexual angle, Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens turn the interactions between Kong and Ann into a well-observed exploration of gender relations. Although Kong does finger Ann’s blond locks with curiosity when he first encounters her during the native gifting ceremony, he seems otherwise non-plussed by her dissimilarity to his usual native “brides”. After she narrowly escapes the grisly fate of those previous women, Kong confronts her on a cliff-side, all masculine power and wild menace. Watts’ Ann, however, does not react with helpless feminine terror as Fay Wray’s Ann did, nor does she resort to bubbly babbling about astrological signs like Jessica Lange’s Dwan. When this woman, a product of the Depression, goes into survival mode, she treats a remote island cliff-top as her stage.

In one of the film’s most surprising and delightful moments, Ann performs a truncated, impromptu vaudeville act for the loutish Kong, complete with dancing, juggling, and acrobatics. Initially puzzled, then astonished and amused, the ape proves to be as tough an audience as the theatre of crusty New Yorkers in the film’s opening scenes. Like many a simple-minded rube, the beast demonstrates a particular enthusiasm for pratfalls, and takes to scooping up and knocking down Ann to get his jollies. Bruised and exasperated, she slaps away his massive hand and tells him emphatically, “There isn’t any more.” Denied an encore, Kong flies into a demonstrative alpha male rage, uprooting trees, smashing ancient ruins, and hurling boulders (one of which drops painfully on his back). Shamed by his violent and impotent petulance, he stalks off, but Ann recognizes his lonely frustration and long-suffering existence as mirroring her own similar feelings, and both pities and empathizes with him.

Though Ann has been constantly trying to escape his clutches before this episode and attempts to do so again immediately afterwards, it has a definite effect on her view of Kong. After playing the role of hot potato throughout the knock-down drag-out bout between Kong and the dinosaurs, Ann makes a fateful choice at its climax, purposely choosing Kong’s protection. The choice is all about self-preservation, but she has also developed a grudging respect and sympathetic regard for the proud besieged beast, a perspective that has been shared by audiences since they first glimpsed Kong in 1933. After performing his power for her by killing the final Rex and beating his chest boastingly, he gives her a deliberate cold shoulder and turns to walk away, making her follow him and therefore admit that she needs his protection in the harsh realm of Skull Island. Faced with a wilful and independent woman, the alpha male Kong can only accept her once he’s established his patriarchal mastery beyond doubt.

But this Kong is not all male pride and pure brutish power. He’s a grizzled old warrior, certainly, and there is a touch of May-December romance to the chaste mutual appreciation between himself and Ann. But, more importantly, he’s also secretly an aesthete, valuing the simple beauty of the world around him. When he retreats to his lair high above the dangerous jungles of Skull Island, it is not for absolutely safety (he’s attacked by giant vampire bats there at dusk, allowing Driscoll to help Ann to escape him), but he considers the highest point of his realm to be an aesthetic sanctuary. He and Ann gaze at a gorgeous, painterly sunset and he lightly taps at his chest, as if this motion will slow his heart’s palpitations and draw out the sublime moment as long as possible. “Beautiful,” she says to him, and it’s clear that he agrees.

This is the daisy-chain that links these two lonely survivors of societal and natural traumas: not sexual fascination but shared joy, laughter, and beauty. Jackson repurposes, inverts, and thematically expands Cooper’s original “beauty and the beast” formulation; both Ann and Kong represent beauty, and the true beasts are the myriad forces of an aggressively rational civilization that would deny them the admiration of it. Boyens acknowledges in the commentary that this element of the film was strongly influenced by Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which the grotesque, doomed Quasimodo and the beautiful outcast Esmerelda retreat to the lofty roof of the titular Paris cathedral to escape and transcend the stifling conservative conventions of the society below. This is not the only classic literary work to influence this version of Kong, as we will soon see.

When these two lonely dreamers encounter each other again in New York, Ann soothes Kong and stays his confused destruction of the intrusive modern world, coming to him deliberately instead of being forcibly abducted as in previous instalments. The short, pure respite of laughter and delight that they share on a frozen pond in Central Park reinforces their connection, a connection that serves a further storytelling purpose as well. In this Kong, the titular ape has a powerful motivation to climb to the top of the soaring skyscraper on which he meets his doom (the previous instalments were both a little weak on this point). It is his final sanctuary, a chance to experience a fleeting transcendence with a kindred spirit once again.

Both of these escapes into the sublime are cut brutally short by militaristic aggression: first by ice-shattering shells in Central Park, and then by the arrival of the biplanes, his final nemeses, around the pinnacle of the Empire State Building. But Kong is beset by relentless exploitative forces long before these climactic attempts to achieve his physical destruction. These forces shall be explored in the second part of my examination of Peter Jackson’s King Kong.

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