Friday, January 20, 2006

The Beast: A Personal Argument - 1

Main Entry: ar·gu·ment
Pronunciation: 'är-gy&-m&nt
Function: noun

4 : an abstract or summary especially of a literary work [a later editor added an argument to the poem]

It may be apocryphal, but I remember hearing about a study that explored children and their fascination with all things much larger than they were; I'm talking about dinosaurs, Godzilla and, quite predictably, King Kong.

The study ostensibly reached the following conclusion: The reason we, as kids, are fascinated by and identify with these filmic beings is due to the fact that they embody both our desire to be big, tall (tall = having power), and our own clumsy relationship with the world around us (think of the destruction wreaked by Godzilla in any given film).

Makes sense.

All I know is that I was six years old the first time I saw King Kong (the 1976 remake), and that it moved me beyond tears. I remember feeling violated when the press and military corps climbed his body at the end of the movie, and wishing that Kong had landed on them when he fell.

Needless to say, the story has huge personal meaning for me, it's just one of those stories that hit me at the right age and time. (Much like Roxanne, or The Princess Bride; which if you love the movie, do yourself a favor and read William Goldman's's simply the movie x 100.)

It also explains why I have spent about 10 hours in the last month and a half watching the various versions of this movie. (For the stat-inclined, it went in this order: 1 hr. 45 on the original; 2 hrs. 30 min. on the '76; and, 6 hrs. 14 min. on the '05 Kong , meaning I saw it twice*.)

I love the new version, and after having my analytical mind active through the first viewing, I quickly shut it off for the second viewing and was as richly moved as I was when I was a kid. (Yes, people, I wept copiously throughout the third act. Dino Delaurentiis, the producer of the '76 version, when asked why he was remaking the classic, answered, "when monkey die, people cry." I am an example of the person he's describing.)

I have to say, though, by this point I feel like I know this fucking story. And let's get this straight, I think of it simply as a story. I do not read any cultural bias (beyond archetypal filtering) into it at all, unlike this person. Or, for a more comic viewpoint, McGruder.

A note on the cultural reading into the film: It's a way to look at that story. I, personally, don't buy it. To me, the story is about a hell of a lot more than a big black monkey, who is shipped to the US, is in lust with a pure white blonde woman, and will use his savage strength to take and have his way with her.

But, I don't want to talk about this aspect too much (having had that instinct sated elsewhere, ahem). I guess I'm looking to justify the films/stories themselves, in a deconstructive manner. An argument, if you will; an exploration of the progression of the story; from the jittery and stilted 1933 original through to the intricately explored and epic 2005 remake.

Enough yadda, now for more yadda:

King Kong (1933)

Much like its clone 72 years later, the original is simply groundbreaking entertainment, in just about every way imaginable. About the only thing that hasn't dated well is the acting/dialogue, and, well, the treatment of the savages, which reflect the mores and tastes of 1933 Hollywood.

Director Merian C. Cooper, at the time largely known for his nature movies, spends more time focusing on aspects dealing with the ape, such as the innovative special effects, than he does with the story.

But the story, what a doozy. Your classic nature v. machine set up, with some primal emotion thrown in. The ape is pure aggression, though, and you can't help but feel terror at Ann Darrow's predicament. The relationship between ape and woman is so brutal and forceful, that it's easy to understand why people assume there's racial-sexual tension in the story.

Beyond this, I think part of the reason kids relate so well to the 25 ft. ape is that his behavior is so purely instinctual, and it does nothing but yell and rage, as if it's the only way it knows how to communicate...Also, the human exaggerated response to these aggressions is not unlike that of how grown ups react to a kid's actions: Heightened alarm and over-reactionary in nature.

And yes, special effects are an integral part to this movie, and why it plays one in the subsequent remakes. For an example of how big a leap this was in movie-making, remember that the French silent film A Trip to the Moon (which featured the iconic spaceship in the moon's eye image) was still the height of special effects until about five years before King Kong was released.

Without the special effects in this movie, Ray Harryhausen (he of Clash of the Titans, the Sinbad movies, etc.) wouldn't have found inspiration.

King Kong (1976)

You know how it is when you have an unrequited crush on someone you once talked to, and everything about that person was the shit? Their jokes were the funniest, their clothes the most fashionable, and every single thing about them were the bee's knees...and then, a couple of years later, you see that person again and you wonder just what the hell it was you were thinking?

Yeah, that was this movie to me, when I recently saw it.

Oh, man, what an awful flick.

I mean, with the '33 version you could ascribe the script/acting to being of the time...In this instance? Not even Jessica Lange's jiggle factor plays well. (I'd completely forgotten just how skimpy her tribal outfit is, which, okay, that does appeal.) Jeff Bridges sleepwalks through the thing; only Charles Grodin has the chutzpah to ham the thing up, and uh...let's move on.

Okay, the savages? I'm wondering if Debbie Allen got some credit for their choreography, and if so, if she was on a luridly menstrual hormonal overload, because the only thing missing from the costumes is a giant black phallus for them to slap each others' asses with.

Then, you have an Ann Darrow that may be overdoing the valium, and an ape that, if you get beyond the special effects, is a little too human for the story's sake.

Well, you can't talk about the ape without dealing with the special effects's a line from the script:

Prescott - I mean, did you see that thing? That wasn't a guy in a gorilla suit you know.

Funny line, but that was exactly what it was. Another problem with the ape is the huge amount of anhropomorphization going on. This Kong behaves and looks like a 3 yr. old, down to oooh-ing at the pretty lady. It's also pretty slow.

It should be noted that this production was overrun with problems (Grodin's autobiography It Would Be So Nice If You Weren't Here has a chapter dedicated to lightly discussing this); over budget, behind schedule, filled with special effects nightmares.

For example, Grodin talks about an ape they built to scale. The director (John Guillermin, odd career) was promised, by Dino De Laurentiis - a notorious big talker, a giant ape that would be able to walk, pick things up, etc.

Well, needless to say, it didn't happen. They spent a ton of money building this thing, and it was only used for one shot: Towards the middle of the third act, Kong is being displayed to the thrill seeking American crowd, and he loses it. The shot is taken from far away; Kong is supposed to be screaming in rage and, his arms...raise...ever so slowly. He's standing still while his arms are coming up. The scream overwhelms the soundtrack, the crowd is panicking below and he...continues to raise his arms.

That mechanical ape cost them over a million to build.

I give this version a hard time (I'm sure the pacing felt fine in the 70s, it just feels slow now), but there is one thing it got right, and it's an important one: The Story.

True, they updated it needlessly (an oil expedition instead of a film crew, for example), but the basic elements are there: 25' ape in love with a blonde woman. Ape dies.

This version is still a lot of people's favorite, something I just won't get, but there it is.

Okay, I figure that's enough for right now. Next installment will focus on the '05 version, and I'll probably get all meta and shit.

Until then...

*Unfortunately, this isn't unusual behavior for me. For example, I watched Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut three times in seven days.


At 7:54 PM, Blogger Missuz J said...

Have never seen any King Kong film. Don't really want to. Can we still be friends?

At 11:04 PM, Blogger JJisafool said...

Okay, the savages? I'm wondering if Debbie Allen got some credit for their choreography, and if so, if she was on a luridly menstrual hormonal overload, because the only thing missing from the costumes is a giant black phallus for them to slap each others' asses with.

Hmmm, could it be that the producers of the remake had some inklings as to where some of the appeal of the original lay?

I'm sorry. You didn't want to get into this. I retract my question.

At 12:10 PM, Blogger Stine said...

I gotta say the savages in 05, were friggin scary.

Agree with much of what you say, except there's a part of me, that despite the trite excuse of a movie the 76' version was, will always hold a place in my little white girl's heart.

Maybe it should be King Kong vs. Yojimbo.

At 12:38 PM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

Jessica Lange was the first childhood crush I really remember. For that reason alone, I will always remember that "Kong" fondly.

At 3:53 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

can we still be friends?

Nope, you're cut off. Out of the blogroll, too, unbeliever. Blasphemer. ;^)

Could it be that the producers of the remake had some inklings as to where some of the appeal of the original lay?

[le head shake]

I'll accept it as commentary on the original, but as such, they went much further in perpetuating the stereotype, in my head.

...[it] will alwasy hold a place in my little white girl's heart.
...I will always remember that "Kong" fondly

That's fine, no denying that appeal...It may be that the '76 version's camp factor was too much for me to digest during that sitting.

At 4:04 PM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

Oh, I'm pretty sure I'd find the '76 "Kong" embarrassing if I actually saw it now, especially after being so moved by Jackson's version. BUT the image of Jessica Lange in the skimpy, tattered dress haunted my dreams long before I knew what such haunting meant.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger soicanrant said...

It benefits the viewer of the 1976 version to drink heavily...and I'm not sure that starting right before the movie will be enough.

Haven't seen the new one yet but I will as soon as possible, based on your review.

Now that I know where to find you I will try my best to make a general nuisance of myself...

At 5:23 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

welcome, soicanrant, though it'd be handy to know just who you are...your profile doesn't even exist.

care to shoot me an email, bubbah? you can find mine in my profile.

At 11:22 AM, Blogger patrice said...

I....I....I didn't see any of the king kongs. it's not because I don't find the story interesting, it's because I can't knowingly watch a movie where I know an animal dies. I'm weird that way. in fact, I prefer to think that king kong fakes his death and is somewhere chilling with elvis.

At 11:50 AM, Blogger JJisafool said...

Part Two! Part Two! Part Two!

C'mon everybody, chant it with me!


At 3:07 PM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

Yeah, I'm with JJ. You promise chapters like that, you'll have to deliver sometime (said the pot to the kettle).

At 5:49 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

yeah, gotta love how the two most verbose, yet un-postingest motherfuckers are the ones calling me out to finish this.

At 6:41 PM, Blogger JJisafool said...

I've got a toddler and am working on my MA. What's your excuse?

At 1:56 PM, Blogger thelyamhound said...

Hee, hee.

All right, all right. But you DID promise us a review of the 2005 version of King Kong, so I'm anxious to see it. That's all.

At 3:11 PM, Blogger the beige one said...

also, you just posted something, so, you're off the hook.


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