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

This film is keenly aware of the myriad meanings embedded in its cinematic myth and sets about re-contextualizing and commenting upon the implied politics while offering extravagant thrills and tragic, classic romance.

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.

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