Film

The Beauty and the Horror: Peter Jackson’s King Kong - Part 2

Jackson's film is as unwieldy and difficult as it is gripping and moving, expanding upon the exotic spectacle of the original while simultaneously steering the tale into the realm of tragic lament.


King Kong

Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Naomi Watts, Adrien Brody, Jack Black, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Kyle Chandler, Jamie Bell, Colin Hanks
Length: 187 minutes
Studio: Universal
Year: 2005
US Release Date: 2005-12-14
Trailer

In Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong, the most determined pursuer of the titular beast is Carl Denham, the indefatigable imperialist with a movie camera. Denham drives his filming expedition forward with desperate zeal, subsisting on promises and credit like many self-involved American dreamers before and after him. When Denham’s dishonest scheme threatens to collapse en route to Skull Island and he pleads that he’s risked everything he has to make his film, the gruff Captain Englehorn (a genuine rugged individualist, that one) replies, “No, you risked everything I have.” Englehorn later likens him to a cockroach, a scavenging and indestructible insect living off of the refuse of others. This is a far more cynical critique of the domestic and global effects of American cultural power than the rosy bootstraps-up confidence that Denham represents in Cooper’s film, and it is borne out exhaustively as the film goes on.

As both Denham’s actions and his self-justifications become more and more extreme, his obsessive pursuit of fame and immortality, always already filtered through the medium of film, begins to exact a greater and greater cost. Back in civilization, he was able to drive the project forward by the sheer force of his hucksterish personality, trumping the objections of others with glib inspirational phrases like “Think like a winner” and “Defeat is always momentary.” In the harsher milieu of Skull Island, however, such irresponsible hubris can (and does) cost lives.

When Denham’s sound man is killed by the island’s fearful natives on the film crew’s first expedition there, Denham (now beginning to drink regularly) changes the timbre of his bluster, promising to dedicate the eventual film to his fallen comrade, who he says “died believing there was still some mystery left in this world, and we could all have a piece of it for the price of an admission ticket.” Denham’s (and Cooper’s) lofty view of the imperialist cinema could not be given a better summation than that. He also vows to donate part of the grosses to the deceased’s widow and orphans. Laudable as his philanthropic promise seems to be, it loses some of its lustre when he later repeats it verbatim after his cameraman is devoured by dinosaurs.

When Ann is kidnapped by the natives and given to Kong, Denham is the first to see the great beast, and capturing it and the island’s other wonders on film very quickly becomes the focus of his cinematic imperialism. To photograph and to document is to conquer in imperial discourse, and the motion picture camera becomes the instrument of dominion. Consequently, Denham wields it constantly and perilously, filming a pack of brontosaurs even as they begin to stampede his way. He also protects the camera before even his own crew members, valuing the precious filmed images it contains even more than their lives.

At the tail end of a sequence cut from the theatrical version but included on the extended DVD version, the film and ship crew are attacked by various aquatic monsters while crossing a swamp on makeshift rafts (the 1933 film included a similar scene). Even as the demolished rafts sink and the men are picked off by ravenous carnivorous fish, Denham exhorts his assistant Preston (Colin Hanks) to keep the camera safe and dry. He takes it from Preston as the latter exits the swamp and sets to testing it immediately. Relieved to find that it still works, he unwittingly films one last unfortunate sailor being snatched from the shallows by the swamp creature, but continues cranking the film through anyway. “Did you get that?” another sailor asks him in contempt. Committed to his film beyond all accepted boundaries of morality, Denham makes no reply.

Though he is driven to the point of sociopathy, Jackson and Boyens discuss Carl Denham in the commentary not as a straight villain but a man who “loses his moral compass.” Indeed, although his film satirizes Denham’s naive cinematic romanticism, Jackson seem torn about running down a figure whose views on the magic of film are similar to those of his filmmaking hero Merian Cooper and, consequently, of himself. But then Denham can also be seen as the deranged flip side of the creativity represented, in various ways, by Driscoll, Ann, and Kong, a hint of the bitter taste that creativity can take on when it is spiked by that classic American cocktail of fame, commerce, and ideology. Denham has given himself over so whole-heartedly to the myth of the mystery and power of the cinema, so central to the self-denying ideology of American imperialism, that he cannot fathom it ever being destroyed.

When he and his camera finally encounter the great Kong, however, the technology of his chosen medium fails him. Even as he cranks his fragile device frantically to capture an image of the great beast, Denham and the few surviving expedition members are thrown from a huge log into a deep chasm, where a nightmarish menagerie of creepy-crawlies awaits them (Cooper’s version of this so-called “spider pit” scene was removed from the original film and eventually lost). Some of the adventurers do not survive the fall and are mourned by their compatriots, but Denham is left to mourn his camera. The extension of his ever-striving psyche was broken open as it fell to the bottom of the canyon, the priceless images on its film strip exposed and, like Cooper’s original version of this scene, forever lost.

The failure of his filmmaking technology snaps the last moral thread that linked Carl Denham to the idealistic values that underlie his chosen art. As scavenging insects swarm towards the survivors in the pit, Jack Black lets himself go, lashing out at the computer-generated bugs with a crazed look in his eyes. The men are rescued at the last moment by Englehorn and his crew, and in another DVD-only moment, Denham speaks about his life flashing before his eyes like a movie: “if you’ve lived your life as a true American, you get to watch it all in color.” As he emerges from the pit (a visual metaphor for the dark valley of his film’s final failure) Denham, like the foiled oil baron Fred Wilson in Guillermin’s King Kong, hatches a new scheme: capture the mighty Kong and show him to the world.

At this turning point, Denham’s distinctly American imperialism, predicated as it was on economic hegemony rooted in the symbolic impact of industries like the movies, takes a sharp right towards a more traditional 19th-century-vintage exploitative colonialism. Always an active subtext in the Kong tale, Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens tackle the ghosts of colonialism in a much more direct manner than in previous tellings, an approach that leads into the inescapable implications of the film’s tragic conclusion. And they do so by openly invoking the potent and divisive text that, for better or for worse, towers over all other works of literature on colonialism: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Conrad’s seminal novella concerns the colonialist horrors of the Belgian-administered Congo of the late 1800s, but also considers the inherent darkness in the human character revealed by terrible endeavours like the colonial project. As an exposé of white European exploitation in the “lost world” of Central Africa, the text shares obvious thematic elements with the Kong myth, but it cannot be rightly called a total denunciation of the colonial project as a whole. While Heart of Darkness expresses outrage at the abuses of Force Publique and the barbaric practices of the rubber trade in the Congo, its author hardly held an anti-imperial view as a matter of course; indeed, Conrad was a firm believer in the righteousness of the empire of his adopted Britain, whose moral authority he considered beyond reproach.

The way in which Conrad’s most (in)famous work is used in Jackson’s King Kong is similarly problematic, and generally echoes the philosophical, romantic, and paternalistic tone of Conrad’s text. Heart of Darkness enters the narrative through Jimmy (played by Jamie Bell), a rough-around-the-edges young crewman on the Venture who is being mentored by the steamer’s no-nonsense African-American first mate, Hayes (Evan Parke). The Jimmy-Hayes subplot was one of the elements of the film that was most fervently criticized by fans on the internet (who never do lack for fervency). Many critics, professional and otherwise, considered it a meandering distraction in the midst of an overlong voyage to Skull Island that weakened the pacing of the film, and seized upon it as being emblematic of the overflowing excess that characterized Jackson’s vision of the story.

It is true that, where the larger Kong-centric plot is concerned, the interactions between Jimmy and Hayes serve little to no purpose. They also feature troubling suggestions of Hollywood’s pernicious “magical negro” archetype, the wise, vaguely spiritual African-American character who acts as guide and mentor to the eager, talented white hero. Although the imposing war veteran Hayes is thoroughly modern and hardly a mystical romantic, he does encourage Jimmy, a mysterious shipboard stowaway who knows little beyond the Venture itself, to educate and improve himself.

Jimmy follows his advice, checking out a copy of Heart of Darkness from the New York Public Library "on long-term loan." Initially intrigued by the familiarity of the cover’s promise of “adventures on a tramp steamer,” Jimmy soon begins to understand that the protagonist Marlow’s journey upriver resembles their own quest for Skull Island in much more sinister ways than he had imagined. He’s reading the book at his post in the crow’s nest when the Venture enters the fog bank around the island, penetrating the outer reaches of the film’s own dark core.

With the ship pinned on the rocks just off Skull Island’s jagged coastline, the unconscionably intrepid Denham leads his film crew in a lifeboat to shore, filming possessively as he goes. The expedition comes ashore and wanders through dilapidated ruins and tombs strewn with human skulls, imagery that suggests the decapitated heads on stakes surrounding Kurtz’s compound as Marlow approaches it in Heart of Darkness (itself based on a similar macabre sight reported in the Congo). Jackson cuts between these visual conjurings of the ghosts of colonialism to the Venture, where Jimmy looks up from the pages of Conrad’s book and asks Hayes why Marlow continues up the river, why he doesn’t turn back.

This, essentially, is why the lamented Jimmy and Hayes are here: to act as conduits for the awareness of colonial abuses that Jackson, Boyens, and Walsh wish to demonstrate. Boyens discusses their intentions in the commentary for this sequence, confirming that the African-American Hayes, with his experience of racist discrimination and cultural memory of slavery, is attempting to pass these ideas on to the naive white kid, to convey to him the weight of the mission they are involved in. But when Hayes answers Jimmy with his own reading of Conrad, it is hardly an interpretation that emphasizes colonial horrors.

Gazing at the dulled carven rock likeness of Kong that the ship is wrecked upon, Hayes tells Jimmy that although part of Marlow “sounds a warning,” another part of him wins out: the part that “needs to know”, that needs “to defeat the thing that makes him afraid.” Hayes then lapses into an extended quotation from Heart of Darkness, recited over shots of Denham and his crew moving deeper into the island’s outer ruins. Hayes (and, thus, the screenwriting trio) chooses a portion of Conrad’s florid Victorian prose concerning the faded outlines of civilized history that haunted the supposedly “barbarous” Dark Continent. The words match the onscreen imagery to a tee, and the coda anticipates the coming encounter with Kong: “We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there you could look at a thing monstrous and free.”

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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