Sunday, August 10, 2008

King Kong 1933

The killer inside me

As my belated contribution to the 12 Grand in Checking's New York in Movies Blogathon, an old article (plot discussed in very close detail) about perhaps the most famous New Yorker (well, he did stay maybe all of a few days, a month at best--but isn't that true of many of us?) of all time:

King Kong revisited

Saw King Kong again after--ten? twelve?--years and better still, recorded it. Crummy VHS copy, but that's better than staring wistfully at the Netflix link to the Jessica Lange remake (good luck to the Peter Jackson production--he has huge shoes to fill).

What can I say? It's a thriller, built to tell its story as fast as possible. The first few scenes keep hammering home the several plot points that the expedition's destination is "mysterious," that the crew is "tough," and that they're armed with rifles and plenty of "gas grenades." Only the scenes with Ann (Fay Wray) really stand out (almost in contrast)--that haunting fog-shrouded moment when she reaches out for an apple (is she stealing or buying it?), and the extended scene where, decked out in her Beauty costume, she receives instructions from Denham (Robert Armstrong) to look terrified, so terrified that she can't scream, and if she covered her eyes maybe she can let one out. She covers her eyes; she screams (as only Fay Wray could); and then (delicious, delicious touch) Driscoll flinches, not out of fear, but out of fear for her (two character details, one of them an important plot development, revealed in a single moment).

I love it that they gradually learn that the native ritual they stumble into is a wedding, the girl in the middle the bride, and left it at that; I love it that Ann keeps saying she's glad to be on the trip, that she's glad Driscoll couldn't keep her on the boat; and when she finally is the star of the night, the look on her face is as much pleasurable thrill as it is terror. Kong's subtext is kidnap and rape (and wild, bestial (and interracial) sex), and that's what gives much of what happens its lurid charge (that was the mistake of the 1976 remake; it put everything in romantic soft-focus). This was a big family hit back in the '30s, right? Can you imagine all the young boys (wonder if it was as popular with the girls?) being exposed to stuff like this?

And when the monsters finally come out--okay, forget that herbivores shouldn't just charge without provocation (I'm looking at you, Stegosaurus), but Kong's struggle with the various animals are actually well thought-out battles. When he faces off with the T-Rex, it's two wide-stanced wrestlers angling for the best leverage, the T-Rex trying to reach with its long neck over Kong's thick back to catch a hold with its razor teeth, Kong continually trying to push the Rex off-balance by grabbing at one of its powerful feet (at one point he uses a judo throw) and landing bone-crunching punches. Kong finally uses his definitive advantages--his arms--climbs on the Rex's back, and...did I mention how violent this movie is? Less elaborate but even more ingenious is how he deals with the whiplike Plesiosaurus, by cracking him like a whip.

And of course, there's all the little after-battle details we love Kong for--cradling his latest conquest in his arms, examining their limp necks for signs of life, he drops the corpse, beats a tattoo on his chest and roars his triumph and approval. "I am Kong! Hear me roar!" he is undoubtedly saying, but he could as easily be saying "This is the life! Man, this is the life!"

Then there's his private session with Ann--it isn't just that he sniffs her clothes, tickles her and she can't help but respond, kicking out her shapely legs; he brings his fingers to his nose and sniffs his fingers (Kong has a scent fetish!). Did I mention wondering how all the boys in the audience must be taking all this?

Finally there's the finale atop the Empire State: Ann is at the base of the domed top, and Kong is hanging on to the dirigible docking post, wondering why he's so hurt (he hasn't quite comprehended the problem with bullet wounds). He picks up Ann, puts her down, then looks (the ambiguity is thrilling) as if he's nuzzling her affectionately; if you hadn't been conquered by his frowning at all the blood on his chest, you must have succumbed to this (either that or you just ain't looking). It's perfect that Ann never reciprocates, never returns his affections; this is Kong's tragedy, not hers (Jessica Lang is a good actress, but that her character can grow to love a monster like that is not just a huge stretch on credibility, it's soft-headed).

His final gesture just before he falls--why, he's hamming it up, raising his arm in the air like Caruso about to sing a final aria, or Hamlet about to take a final bow. Cut to a long shot of a patently fake dummy plummeting to its death. That it looks fake is immaterial; you need that plummet, because that's exactly what you feel like doing in response to Kong's fate; that sexist, brutal, murderous bastard has committed the final, unforgivable crime of stealing your heart.


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