King Kong — a few belated comments

King Kong opened three days ago, and I’ve been sitting on my comments because I’ve been pretty busy with other stuff. But since the industry pundits are concerned that this film may be underperforming at the box office, I figure I should toss my thoughts out there while they’re still quasi-relevant.

The feeling I had after watching the film was that I had just sat in on someone else’s romance, someone else’s special dinner date, or something like that. A couple months ago, I quoted Chuck Jones and Arvo Pärt to the effect that an artist must love every frame of his film, every note of his music, every stroke of his brush, and — unlike the rather dull Narnia movie, which felt like an imitation of other movies — it was abundantly clear to me that Peter Jackson had that kind of love for this material and these characters. But I didn’t feel that I had been wooed into loving them myself.

I found it interesting how, just as Narnia is set 60-70 years ago and begins with gratuitous bomber-plane footage, King Kong also feels a need to insert some “realistic” opening scenes that have almost nothing to do with the rest of the film. I say “almost” because, okay, they do explain Ann’s desperation. But I’m not sure the film needs to start by looking at all those other homeless and poor people first. Certainly it never returns to that subject.

The “realism” also underscores certain problems that were easy to overlook in the original film because, well, it was “only a movie”.

Those planes shooting at Kong when he climbs the Empire State Building? They sure fire a lot of bullets over downtown Manhattan, and Jackson lets us see those bullets slam into the building’s glass and steel; but expending so much firepower over a populated urban centre never made sense to me, and Jackson’s “realistic” approach makes you wonder where else those bullets might land. (When Kong throws one of the planes down to the ground, I was surprised that Jackson didn’t follow the plane’s fall to the bitter end, the way that, e.g., he followed the fall of those Gondorian guards that were dropped by the Nazgul in Return of the King.)

Also, I didn’t buy the sudden romance between the Adrien Brody and Naomi Watts characters for a minute. I bought the sudden romance between those two characters in the original film because it was handled with a humour and an economy of words and a nudge-nudge-wink-wink it’s-only-a-movie,-folks attitude that is pretty easy to swallow. But in the scene where Brody and Watts come together, it’s like Jackson is trying very hard to be deeply moving, except there’s nothing there to move.

The film also heightens its “realism” in other ways, by taking dialogue and costumes from the original film and turning them into the clearly artificial spectacle that the Jack Black character tries to produce; these include a scene from Black’s film shot on the boat, where the first officer complains that women are a nuisance, and the ape costumes and coconut-shell bras worn by the dancers at the theatre when Black shows off Kong to his audience. What passed for the real story in 1933 is now just the obviously-fake made-up-in-the-1930s stuff in 2005 — and I’m still processing what sort of comment this makes about the original film and the culture that produced it. Jackson loves the original film, but he also seems to be critiquing it. And yet some critics have complained about Jackson’s own purported “racism” in the Skull Island scenes. In a way, the cheesy 1930s version of native islanders gives them more dignity than the new film does.

I will say, though, that I do like the choreography around Kong when he makes his appearance on the New York stage; it always seemed a bit lame, to me, that Carl Denham would sell tickets at $20 a pop — in 1930s dollars! — and then do nothing but raise a curtain and let people gawk at a giant gorilla. Surely there would have to be something a little more to it than that…?

On the other hand, the film ruins the “realistic” spell it’s trying to cast in the scene where a Really Nervous Guy uses a machine gun to shoot a bunch of insectoid pests off of somebody else’s body … and he never hits the person, just the pests. If the “spell” hadn’t been broken for me by then, that scene did it. From that point on, I was not “in” the action; I was just looking at the pretty pictures.

And indeed, there are some moments of tender beauty in this film, and I was struck by how whole stretches of the movie go by without dialogue (an aspect of the film that was ruined for me by the moron sitting behind me who kept blurting out what he thought Kong was thinking — “Where is she?” “Beautiful” and so on — hey buddy, they don’t put silent moments in the movies just so we can hear you talk! arrrgh). Kong himself is wonderfully rendered, and the dinosaur fight is fantastic, too (and surprisingly funny!). On the other hand, the foreskin-with-teeth monster was just plain weird — where the heck did that come from?

I was actually a little dismayed by the way the characters (especially Brody) kept saying “Jesus” and “Christ”. Four-letter words I can handle any day, but these words just mar a picture for me, especially when it really doesn’t need that sort of thing.

Jackson’s efforts to give the sailors individual personalities are iffy at best, considering he either abandons these characters after Skull Island or feeds them to the monsters — and, as someone else has observed, the Heart of Darkness references are pretty heavy-handed — although I did like Andy Serkis’s cook quite a bit.

Finally, I thought James Newton Howard’s music was pretty good, considering it was written in, like, two or three weeks as a last-minute replacement for Howard Shore’s score. The funny thing is, I have been thinking of the Batman Begins score (which JNH co-wrote) almost non-stop since I saw King Kong — but I can’t say I remember any of the King Kong themes!

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  • Hmmm..I had idiots doing a play by play when I saw Kong too. I hope it’s not the sign of things to come.

    I agree…I liked the film. I didn’t have a lot of expectations other than screaming girl and big ape, so I imagine I was easy to please. I was bothered by the machine gunning the bugs, but he giant monkey fighting the dinosaurs more than made up for that though. I’m really in love with that period of time, so seeing all the “extra” stuff was just candy to me. I was pleased to see the poverty of that time presented..usually it’s just glossed over.

  • redhawk

    I agree with all of the above, but my bone to pick has much to do with the lack of a substantial enough premise to send us into the tensions of the human beings to cause to suspend our disbelief/create belief in the psyches of the characters who are about to take the trip, and us with them. I’m willing to go anywhere a storyteller wants to take us–other worlds, galaxies, middle-lower-upper earth, narnias, bizarro worlds– if they create a strong enough “slingshot” with enough energy and thrust to catapult us into the world.

    Perhaps in brief, it comes down to Denham not being a substantial enough nemesis for Kong, like Moby Dick’s Ahab. But because Denham is so obviously a reckless jerk whose ambitions and perceptions don’t seem rooted in anything reconizably human enough to magnetize us, there’s no counterbalance. At least Ahab’s manic charisma is motivated by an elemental need for vengeance, which, if irrational, is understandable, and creepily attractive, at least to Ishmael.

    The premise slingshot is what David (Hillstreet Blues, NYPD Blues, Deadwood) Milch calls the relative moral universe which, even if repulsive, allows the characters to contain and project the motivations for their actions, which in turn draws us into them, in spite of our resistance to their language, choices and behavior. (If you want a primer on this, see the special features of Deadwood Season One Extras DVD, in which he eloquently holds forth on this for the characters and the period.)

    Anyway. Unless a storyteller invests in this, invites us into the matrix of motivations and the domino of actions which create the momentum to carry us along, no amount of special effects can overcome this.

    Ahh, that feels so much better.

  • Anonymous

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  • As if the assholes in the theatre weren’t bad enough…

    It’s always somewhat fascinating to see how an easily-offended person can take two sentences out of a much larger piece and then blow them way, way out of proportion while accusing other people of being easily offended and blowing things out of proportion.

    I’m not in the habit of deleting posts simply because they disagree with me, Anonymous, but pompous arrogance of your sort is simply uncalled for — on a level with spam. That said, when you’re brave enough to attach a name (or, better, a Blogger ID or similar URL) to your thoughts, I may consider letting you re-post them.

    Redhawk, I agree that the Jack Black character is one of the film’s key problems, though I don’t think I said much (if anything) about him in the post above. I may have to rectify that some day.

  • Anonymous

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.