Even a big ape can enjoy a sunset, can’t he?
1st Blonde: “What is this thing, anyway?”
2nd Blonde: “Some kind of gorilla.”
1st Blonde: “Ain’t we got enough of those in New York already?”
Sadly, but predictably, those classic lines from Merian C. Cooper’s 1933 masterpiece are absent from Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. The bad news is that today’s Hollywood is too fat, too rich, too sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, to quote some asshole who never met a payroll, to serve up the raw, red meat of Coop’s shameless scream machine. The good news is that Hollywood still loves money.
So Pete’s Kong is 90 percent in-your-face, over-the-top, balls-to-the-wall thrills and 10 percent “art.”1 So suck up your gut, go to the show, feast on the thrills, and gag on the mush!
Kong 2005 begins with some serious irony — elaborate, computer-generated shots of Depression-era Hoovervilles in Central Park, accompanied by Al Jolson singing “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World” on the soundtrack.2 After proving to us that capitalism doesn’t work,3 Jackson cuts to a vaudeville house, where the seriously adorable Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts)4 is having a moustache pasted on her face in homage to the ultimate entertainer’s entertainer, the once, future, and forever king of show business, Charlie Chaplin.
The brief act that follows is delightful — light, airy, and charming. But as it ends, we suddenly cut to a monstrous close-up of “Mr. Audience,” a fat-bellied oaf who all but farts his disapproval of the shimmering fairyland to which he’s been transported. A wide shot shows us the crowd — bored, ugly, lame, and, most of all, sparse. Fucking losers! Don’t they realize that we’ve just given them the greatest gift of all? The gift of art!5
We cut to backstage and we’re knee-deep, nay hip-deep, nay, up to our ears in roar-of-the-greasepaint, smell-of-the-crowd sentimentality, which to my mind gets old in about 0.03 nanoseconds. Vaudeville folk are just one big happy family, all for one and one for all, but Ann has higher aspirations. She wants to work in the legitimate theater, preferably in a play by the dreamy Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody). He’s such a talent!6
But capitalism, alas, doesn’t give a shit about show folk. The suits close down the theater, Ann’s happy family breaks up, and when Ann inquires about a job in Jack’s latest show, a kind/callous producer suggests that she take up stripping. Meanwhile, filmmaker Carl Denham (Jack Black) is catching his own kind of hell from the suits. His latest epic is over budget and incomplete. Worst of all, no tits! The money boys aren’t happy, and they’re ready to shut Carl down. Denham, the sort of egomaniac that film folk love to hate,7 absconds with the footage8 and pours forth a steady stream of lies to try to keep production underway. He goes to a burlesque house in search of a new leading lady just in time to see Ann decide that starvation is better than stripping.9 At first she turns him down — she can tell he’s “bad” — but when she learns that the great Jack Driscoll is writing the script — hey, why didn’t you say so!
And so we get the picture (and if we don’t, we will soon): Ann & Jack? Good show business! Carl Denham? Bad show business!
This is far more back story, and far more insider showbiz jive than we need, but the wonderfully ominous score10 lets us know that the pieces are falling into place — more slowly than necessary, for sure, but it’s happening. We’re off to see the big guy.
Once we’re on board ship, the pace doesn’t really pick up speed. Jackson very self-indulgently writes himself into the script as Jimmy (Jamie Bell), the dear sweet cabin boy who hangs with Mr. Hayes (Evan Parke), the black first mate, reads Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,11 and dances with Miss Darrow.
Finally, finally, we reach Skull Island, and Jackson starts showing us what we can do. The Skull Island “natives,” who, in the 1933 original were pretty peaceable folk when they weren’t appeasing Kong with a virgin, are turned into near demons, with hideously pierced flesh, whose whole civilization is a monster death cult. Instead of somehow trying to finesse the absurdity (and racism) of the original, Jackson amplifies it. These aren’t people! These aren’t our brothers! They’re monsters of the id! They’re everything we aren’t!12
One of the great joys of the 1933 King Kong was the presentation of Skull Island as a sort of Darwinian madhouse, where the struggle for survival was so fierce that one would expect the entire population to consume itself in less than a week. Although Jackson pushes the edges of credibility at times, for the most part he takes advantage of modern computer graphics to give us the thrill ride that Merian C. could only dream of.13) Yes, Steven Spielberg did pave the way, but Jackson shows himself to be a worthy follower.
What’s problematic, if not downright lousy, is the Kong/Ann relationship. In the original Ann was Kong’s woman. That was that, end of story. He saw her, he took her. End of story. Today, of course, we can’t have that. Ann understands Kong. She sees that he’s suffering from that most civilized of sorrows, ennui. And Ann has the antidote, the only antidote: show business!14 After a couple of minutes of indifferent soft shoe, they settle down to watch a sunset together while we in the audience can only groan.15
The rescue of Ann episode doesn’t seem terribly well thought out to me. The giant vampire bats are thrown in at the last minute. Where were they before? And if there are thousands of them, how can Kong get away? The giant pterodactyl in the 1933 film was more fun. Similarly, the “Kong through the gates” scene, when Kong crashes through to recapture Ann, played better in 1933.16
Once we’re back in the Big Apple, Kong 2005 threatens to fall apart entirely. Both Ann and Jack are sick of Denham’s lies and greed. We see Ann working back up for a top hat, white tie, and tails dude obviously intended to suggest another entertainer’s entertainer, Fred Astaire. Jack, meanwhile, has a new play on the boards. Yeah, it does look an awful lot like Charley’s Aunt, but how many plots are there?
Denham doesn’t miss their holier-than-thou attitude. If Jack and Ann won’t say their lines the way he wants them to, he can find actors who will. But he forgot one thing: Kong don’t take dictation. In two shakes of a lamb’s tail, the big guy shatters his unbreakable fetters and starts giving the crowd more show than even New Yorkers can handle.
Jack arrives just in time to “distract” Kong — distracting him from killing other people to killing Jack — but we all know that there’s only person who can tame this beast. Ann shows up in an elaborate slo-mo, soft-focus, softly glowing lights17 sequence, and she and Kong head off together for a Christmas reverie in Central Park, a painful, painful act of self-indulgence on Jackson’s part.18 The score, which had been top-notch up to this point, turns into the sort of tinkly-piano mush that gives me hives. Worst of all, in a touch of unconscionable cuteness, Jackson shows us Kong with his right lower canine projecting over his upper lip, making him look for all the world like Disney villains Peg-leg Pete and Lumpjaw.19
Of course, this reverie must have an end. In a capitalist society like America, there’s just no room for a blonde and a 25-foot gorilla, and Kong heads for his art deco date with doom high atop the Empire State Building. Once again, Jackson shows us what he can do when he sticks to the script.20
As human beings, our abiding fascination and affection for animals is one of our most engaging and even noble qualities. But as human beings we also have an incurable knack for taking an engaging and even noble quality and turning into a drooling banality, and in the notion that gorillas have a thing for blondes, drooling banality hath made its masterpiece. Surely, it’s no accident that two outrageously entertaining films have been based on this conceit. Hollywood, it seems, speaks to the beast in all of us.
- Not to piss on Peter Jackson’s parade or anything, but his notions of “art” have the intellectual and aesthetic content of a Harpo Marx harp solo. [↩]
- This bit — at least, the use of Jolson’s voice — was probably inspired by his 1931 film Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!, in which he plays “the mayor of Central Park,” the king of the New York bums. The script for this curious film, which almost rises to the level of “interesting failure,” was written largely though not entirely in heroic couplets by Larry Hart (of Rodgers and Hart), who failed to make anyone forget about Alexander Pope. Silent film comedian Harry Langdon appears as a communist bum, and Hart gives him some pretty coherent ideology to spout. Among other things, Langdon accuses Jolson of being a “parasite of the parasites” because he charms Wall Street bankers with his “man of the people” wit. They give him a quarter or a ride in the limo and they think they’ve washed their sins away. Large sections of Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! had to be reshot as Hallelujah, I’m a Tramp! for English audiences because “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!” pretty much means “Hallelujah, I’m an Asshole!” in Brit English. [↩]
- In fact, with unemployment running at about 30 percent, capitalism wasn’t working in 1933. [↩]
- Seriously adorable hell! She’s inhumanly lovely! [↩]
- For a similar outburst of cynical/sentimental self-pity see the “Maybe This Time” number from Bill Fosse’s Cabaret, where dear sweet Liza Minelli pours out her heart to a handful of catatonic saps. [↩]
- Can we just stop having movies with writers as leads? Show me a writer, anywhere, who would mess with a 2-foot ape, let alone a 25-foot one. [↩]
- See the “John Hammond” character in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, for example. Although Hammond’s vanity and egomania are responsible for numerous deaths, Spielberg can’t help identifying with him. Jackson rather compulsively makes Denham’s character “darker” and shallower as the picture goes on, as if to say “I’m not him!” but he isn’t fooling anyone. [↩]
- A number of directors, including Charlie Chaplin, have done this. [↩]
- Ann is starving in a custom-tailored, full-length camel-hair coat, which, if she hocked it, would buy her a nice wool coat and a month’s groceries. Yeah, we’re in Hollywood. [↩]
- Howard Shore did much of the score, but then departed on the basis of “differing creative aspirations” with director Jackson. James Newton Howard finished the job. [↩]
- Naturally, chunks of Conrad’s masterpiece of imperialistic obsession and existential horror get quoted in the film (shades of Apocalypse Now!). Doesn’t it ever occur to people that quoting a great writer doesn’t make you a great writer? [↩]
- Perhaps most stunning is the film’s implicit endorsement of the “idea” that white women make better virgins — that Kong prefers them — even though, if you want to take the film literally, it’s most unlikely that either the natives or Kong have ever seen one. Oh, yeah, I love white chicks! They make so much noise! [↩]
- It’s hard to believe, for example, that anyone could survive being in the middle of a Brachiosaurus stampede for more than about ten seconds. And the bit where Ann and the T. Rex are swinging from vines like twin pendulums, the dino snapping at Ann at each pass, is a bit too studied. (Also, where are you going to get a vine that’s going to hold a five-ton dinosaur? [↩]
- Ann’s act here is so far beneath what we saw at the beginning that I’m guessing Naomi was spelled by a ringer for the vaudeville sequence. Acting and dancing are rarely complementary skills. When my old dance instructor felt he had too many actors in his class (i.e., more than one), he would say “We’ve replaced Robert’s class with actors. Let’s see if he notices.” [↩]
- I actually had a script that took the Ann/Kong relationship to a higher level. Ann would pleasure the big guy by performing a pole dance on Kong’s prong. But would Mr. Jackson return my calls? No. [↩]
- We also miss the great scene where the natives push that long, thick, black bolt in place to secure the gates, perhaps the best phallic moment on celluloid. [↩]
- “Shooting light” is the ultimate affectation of the “great” director. Francis Ford Coppola tried to blind us with sunlight in Apocalypse Now. In E.T., Steven Spielberg more or less invented the buttery, Thomas Kinkade light that Jackson uses so heavily here. In Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick had oceans of “pristine,” heavenly white light pouring in the windows of the Marines barracks, and Robert Altman used the same technique in Gosford Park. [↩]
- I’m so literal minded that I was afraid Kong would go through crashing through the ice. I mean, wouldn’t the lake have to have frozen solid to support a ten-ton gorilla? Wouldn’t it require a week of constant sub-zero temperatures to freeze the lake? Wouldn’t the friction of Kong’s body melt a thin layer of water that would then instantly refreeze, tearing the hair from his body? Just wondering. [↩]
- Peg-leg Pete tormented Mickey Mouse in the early cartoons, before early-thirties political correctness transformed him into the two-legged Black Pete, a very real loss to Disney animators, who had a lot of fun with Peg-leg’s higgledy-piggledy ambulation. Lumpjaw, a brutish grizzly, menaced the cute little circus bear Bongo in one of those odd compilation pics that Disney released in the late forties, when, presumably, he was desperate for product. [↩]
- Jackson hoped to have Fay Wray (right) deliver the classic final line “It was beauty killed the beast,” but unfortunately Fay died while the picture was still in production. [↩]