Thursday, April 06, 2006


Writing in Slate, Stephen Metcalf offers some reasons why the new King Kong bombed.
Cooper's original isn't simply racist. In fact, the opposite could be argued: Where Ingagi played upon white America's deep fear of racial mixing, King Kong took that race fear and converted it into an allegory for civilization in all its discontents. For Cooper, Kong wasn't a surrogate for black people, with "black" as a virtual synonym for savagery and uncontrollable sexual urges. No, Kong was a symbol—a clunky one, but a symbol nonetheless—for the anti-social alpha male, with all his animal desires and animal jealousies, residing in each of us. Thus Cooper made the death of Kong a tragedy and converted a degrading fear into an ennobling pathos. Now, to the degree this conversion worked, it worked because in 1933 memories of the Victorian world of gentlemen adventurers were still living memories, gorillas had been exhibited only scarcely in the West, and because white people still primally feared black people. Racial and sexual fears may still be depressingly persistent, but they no longer lie so near the surface of American life. Without those fears to play off, Jackson appears lost.
Ignoring the question of how a movie that grossed a half billion dollars world-wide could be called a bomb is Metcalf's analysis of the original accurate? No, not even close. Accodring to Metcalf, the movie only worked because of the period it was released. By that reasoning, the original should bomb today and the remake would be a hit in 1933. We will never know about the latter but the original still resonates today.

I first saw the original around 1974. at that time, I did not fear black people nor did I remember Victorian adventurers but the movie still worked for me. It also worked for Peter jackson who grew up in New Zeland and first saw it in 1969. The parts up to Kong's first appearance are dated and a bit silly but once Kong takes over, the movie is timeless.

Metcalf does have one good point. In the original, the Carl Denham role was directly inspired by the director, Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was an adventurer who made animal pictures. when Denham talks about needing a girl in his pictures or being his own cameraman, he is releating incidents from Cooper's own career. In the original, Denham is larger than life, willing to take chances that often turn out badly. In the remake, Denham is more con-man than director, bringing down anything he touches.

But that's only one problem with the remake. Another problem is the fight with the bugs. It goes on far too long and it doesn't move the plot. A similar scene was cut from the original. Jackson should have taken that advice.

The biggest problem is that the original is not a love story. Ann Darrow feels nothing but fear of Kong. She's still suffering Post Tamatic Shock when Kong is revealed to Broadway. As Kong tears his way through New York we feel shock as his victims pile up. We don't feel much sympathy for Kong himself until he is pitted the against the airplanes - a foe he cannot touch. Instead of trying to save him, Ann escapes to the arms of her human lover.

Note - this was a recurring theme in the classic monster movies. The monster pursued an unwilling heroine, often to him doom. Looked at this way you can see why Kong was so popular. Where Dracula flits arounds as a bat, Frankenstein's Monster lurches, and the mummy shuffles, Kong goes out in public. Not only is Kong unafraid, he kills anything that gets in his way, even an elevated train.

Jackson transformed Kong from a monster in the city to an endangered species trying to get back home. That's why one showing was enough for me.

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