Monday, March 4, 2013

"Like a Horrible Dream:" Thoughts on the Mighty Kong

By the end the audience will recognize you. By the end
they will see you as one of them, by the end they will see
their faces in your face

The men who shot King Kong, shot King Kong.

Those two in the plane that riddle Kong with bullets and send him plummeting off of the tallest building in the world are Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, the executive producer and director, respectively, of King Kong. Now at first glance this seems like nothing more than ephemera, but for a film about a filmmaker (Carl Denham) who is directly and specifically based on Merian C. Cooper, for a fantastically risky and unprecedented film which climaxes at an explosion of animal fury and pathos during a show that a genteel New York audience assumes will be a travelogue, for a film absolutely obsessed with showmanship and the highs and lows of filmmaking, it is perhaps of some importance that the filmmakers appear to murder their leading man.

King Kong is one of those films that nobody seems to know quite what to do with. Inglourious Basterds memorably interpreted it as a slave parable. Film School Rejects astutely suggests a surrealist bent to the film. Gerald Perry draws parallels to President Roosevelt. But somehow it still seems like a nut nobody's cracked yet, an obviously symbolic film packed with meaning, a text that somehow none of our great film scholars have managed to tease into a comprehensible whole.

I'm not about to change that. King Kong is bigger than my ability to condense it, and there's something right about that. Kong should be too mighty for us. It's King.

But! I saw a 35mm print of it downtown today and there are some things that strike me about it, a few stray details and idiosyncrasies that I think warrant mentioning.

I don't think I ever before appreciated just how tightly written it is! Let's start with the first scene, in which Carl Denham tries to get an actress for his mysterious new movie. Denham, the Cooper analogue, rants and raves about the audience demand for romance:

You never had a woman in your other
pictures, why do you want one in

Because the public - bless 'em -
must have a pretty face to look at.

Everybody likes romance.

Isn't there any romance or
adventure in the world without a
flapper in it?
It makes me sore. I go out and
sweat blood to make a swell
picture, and then the exhibitors
and critics all say, "if this
picture had a love interest, it
would gross twice as much." All
right, the public wants a girl, and
this time I'll give 'em what they

All right, Denham says, always about a half-second away from breaking the 4th wall. You want romance? I'll give you a goddamn romance. Meanwhile, in the back of the scene, big dumb oaf Jack Driscoll chatters away, little realizing he's about to be a star player in the first major romance of Cooper and Schoedsack's career, as caustic and perfunctory a romance as the cinema's ever seen.

Big dumb oaf Jack Driscoll is a pretty fascinating character. The camera lingers on his big paw-like hands and holds remorselessly on him as he struggles to form half-articulate pronouncements of block-thick love and hate. He has a funny quirk of never knowing quite what to do with his hands, a quirk that Kong too possesses, always pawing and second-guessing.

That's because Jack Driscoll is King Kong.

I don't mean that in a Clark Kent/Superman kind of way - he's not disappearing behind shrubs and coming out as a gorilla - but in a very real and consistent way Driscoll, with his boyish infatuation with Ann (a woman unlike any he's seen before) and his handsy gruffness, mirrors Kong. Even Denham knows it, and there's a very telling early scene about this.

Ann is screen testing for Denham. Jack watches from a deck on high as Denham directs her. She must look up. Higher. Higher. Her eyes go wide, it's hideous, whatever it is. She struggles to scream and then finally lets out an almost orgasmic shriek.

This is of course a moment that will be repeated beat-for-beat when she comes face-to-face with Kong (dog ear this point, I'll come back to it), and it's also an arched-back wide-armed pose that's reprised after she finally kisses Jack in the heat of their sudden engagement.

But back at the screentest, Jack watches with growing horror as she pretends to be scared. The danger of whatever Denham has planned is dawning on him. After Ann leaves, he confronts Denham, and their exchange is remarkable:

Going soft on me, Jack? 
You know I'm not for myself. But
Ann -- 
Oh you've gone soft on her? I've
got enough on my hands without a
love affair to complicate things.
Better cut it out, Jack. 
Love affair! You think I'm going to
fall for any dames? 
It never fails. Some big hard
boiled egg goes goofy over a pretty
face, and bingo! He cracks up and
gets sappy. 
Who's getting sappy? I haven't run
out on you, have I? 
Nope. You're a good tough guy,
Jack. But if beauty gets you --
(he stops, then laughs a
Why, I'm going right into a theme

"You're a big tough guy, but if beauty gets you, you'll crack up like an egg," he warns Driscoll. At the film's end, he stands over the body of Kong, cracked up like Humpty Dumpty on 4th Ave. "Beauty killed the beast," he says.

Kong died of what Jack was warned of, to the word! And over the same woman!

Driscoll and Kong even treat Ann the same way - which doesn't speak much to the film's tenderness. After Kong stomps through the jungle carrying the poor woman, Jack stomps his way back to shore with her in her arms (in a classic monster pose). Just look at the death grip he's got on her in this publicity still:

They even both have a centerpiece scene where they scale a sheer cliff with Ann in tow:

As the crowds shuffle in to see Kong in New York, one woman says "Ain't we got enough gorillas in New York?" Sure seems like it with men like big dumb oaf Jack Driscoll around.

Hell of a love triangle there, by the end Kong is something like a jilted ex stuck on the outside looking in.


See in a way, between all the climbing around with Ann with an unfamiliar island, the story of the beast in love plays out twice, once with Jack, once with Kong.

This doesn't happen in isolation. There's quite a bit of repetition in King Kong. Ann, on her return to New York, shudders: "It's like a horrible dream. It's like being back on the island again." The film bears this out, and I've covered it before. Shots repeat time and again in different settings, characters are chained, stranded on towers, collapsed in heaps. Ann even literally rehearses the reaction she'll make when she sees Kong.

It's like a horrible dream, she says, and "dreamlike" really isn't a bad way to describe the experience of watching King Kong. Between the ever-present fog and the heavy silences, there's a mystical vibe through the film. Max Steiner's percussive score and the downright obsessive verticality of many of the sets and shots (even the establishing shots linger on smokestacks and ladders - hell, even the opening titles are lit from below to give a sense of looming height) all contribute to a large and ancient vibe, the feeling of a dream or a fairy tale. Or of The Movies.

King Kong is about intrusion - Denham and co. intrude on Skull Island, the islanders intrude on their boat, Kong intrudes on New York. Giant hands intrude into windows, nosy art patrons intrude in theater aisles, bloodthirsty dinosaurs intrude on Kong's cave, and - like in that moment when Ann repeats her screen test for Kong - filmic fantasy and primal reality constantly intrude on one another.

Denham's rant about romance in the first scene is the first instance of this - he realizes begrudgingly that he has to overlay a fictional romance on his Kong documentary. Later, Denham and his crew make it to the island and they haul their clunky camera on over to a religious rite the native tribe is performing.

Kong gets knocked for its racial simplicity, and it's not entirely undeserved, but this scene is significant because we're witnessing a complex and serious society undercut by some bumbling white morons. Denham and Driscoll are the comic relief here, stumbling over their hellos and failing to impress anybody.

In the center of that shot of the natives is the Bride of Kong, the native sacrifice that Ann replaces. She's one of the most fascinating characters in the film and, in my opinion, one of the best rounded non-speaking characters in cinema. The camera holds on her, and even shots favoring the Native Chief always make room for her in the second row, so that we can constantly watch her expressive face as she faces her task with calm grace and just a hint of fear and reluctance. But I digress!

Denham intrudes and ruins everything. The ship's captain translates for the Native Priest: "He says the ceremony is spoiled because we have seen it."

I've always been interested in the ceremony. The woman is dressed with flowers for Kong, and we hold on her, the camera favoring her legs and the fragility of her face. Around her, men in ape suits dance in circles. The ceremony is the film itself in miniature. It's a romance between a pretend-ape and a real woman, it's beauty and the beast. But it's ruined because Denham and big dumb Driscoll spoil the illusion.

Things go further south when the natives try to purchase Ann Darrow. When this fails, they steal her away onto their canoe at night.

This is a woman that Carl Denham found on the streets at night and swept away onto his boat because he liked her look and thought she'd make a good foil to his pseudo-fictitious (it's not really clear how straight Denham's movie will play it) Kong. The natives like her look, so they sweep her into their boat and give her up to the real Kong.

Denham's film is undercut when his plot happens for real. He probably should have anticipated this. It was anticipated in King Kong's most obvious and unabashed descendent, Jurassic Park, a film in which Dr. Ian Malcolm passing under the Skull Island-like doors of the Park asks, "What do they got in there, King Kong?" After seeing the miracle of the dinosaurs, Ian Malcolm unforgettably warns that:

Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers, painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh... well, there it is. Life finds a way.

Driscoll crashes through the barrier of the Skull Island doors and gets Ann back, but then Kong crashes right back through the same barrier.

Life has found a way, painfully and dangerously, and it has destroyed Denham's plans for a film. But the man's a fighter and he's got ambition, so he knocks out Kong and puts him on a slow boat back to the Big Apple. This always strikes me a very sardonic moment - Denham stands over the wrecked body of this great animal and declares:
We'll give him more than chains.
He's always been king of the world.
But we'll teach him fear. 
(his voice rises
We're millionaires. I'll share with
all of you. Listen, boys a few
months from now it'll be in lights
on Broadway -- Kong, the Eight
Wonder of the World.
and we smash cut to:

We've rocketed past the months of transit and set-up and are here at Kong's Broadway debut. Something terrible has happened to the King. He's in chains and Denham casually, coldly assures Ann (and by extension, us): "We've knocked some of the fight out of him since you saw him."

I find this moment really fascinating - Kong is positioned just like Ann was, in the center of a vast crowd of gawking strangers with arms shackled to a podium:

Ann, seeing him, says "it's like some horrible dream." She must be seeing something of herself in him.

What do we know about Ann? She's poor and seems understandably wary of slimy men pawing after her. She used to act but the studio in Long Island closed. We meet her in New York as she tries to steal an apple from a street vendor. She faints and is whisked away by Denham to a diner, then, immediately, out to sea. She's a desperate woman who is practically Shanghaied by Denham one night on a trip to a big dangerous island where she's put on display. She wants to be an actress but becomes - literally - The Queen of the Jungle.

What do we know about Kong? He lives alone and is constantly harassed by slimy creatures. He's gas-bombed and faints. He's whisked away by Denham to sea and put on display on a strange and dangerous island full of serpentine El trains, planes which buzz about him like the constant chatter of birds on Skull island, and huge dangerous cliffs. He wants to be King of the Jungle but becomes an actor.

Some terrible things happened to Kong in those missing months, something raw and engineered to "take the fight out of him," and I believe Ann Darrow experienced a similar passage of time in New York before she encountered Denham.

We all interpret the Ann/Kong thing as a love story, but what if it's simply a bond of shared pain and degradation?

At any rate, Ann sees Kong and seems to restore some of the "fight" back into him. Real-life and cinematic unreality slam headlong into each other in this final sequence, beginning with the surreal backdrop on the stage behind Carl Denham.

Look at that - this real-life man is standing in front of a painting of a curtain. He tells the audience that they're not about to see a motion picture, but living proof of the adventure he experienced. A god turned captive, the painted curtain raises to reveal the special effect King Kong with an actual fabric curtain as his backdrop.

Denham points to Ann moments before Kong breaks free and insists that "she lived through an experience no other woman ever dreamed of." But in the face of such an abused and disrespected beast, I do not believe that's true. It's just like a dream, she says.

This is a bizarre and powerful moment and we're relieved when Kong breaks free. Unlike, say, Godzilla, with its harrowing and unjust carnage, I don't know anybody who doesn't root for Kong during this whole New York sequence. 

Nobody cheers when Kong dies.

And Kong does die, of course. The fictional Eighth Wonder of the World climbs to the top of the real Eighth Wonder of the World, the newly built Empire State Building:

and his real-life director shoots him to death, while his fictional director, in that unforgettable final line, tells us that the plane carrying Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack didn't kill King Kong, the love we audiences demanded killed him.

Whatever it was that killed King Kong, it took a bit of us all down too.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful, wonderful analysis. I cannot commend you enough.