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 most 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 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," that they're armed with rifles and plenty of "gas bombs." 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?), and the extended scene where, decked out in her Beauty costume, she receives instructions from Denham (Robert Armstrong) to look terrified, so terrified 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 can); and then (delicious touch) Driscoll flinches not out of fear but out of fear for her (two character details, one an important plot development, revealed in a single moment).

I love how they learn that the native ritual they've stumble into is a wedding, the girl in the middle the bride, and left it at that; love how Ann keeps saying she's glad to be on the island, glad Driscoll couldn't keep her on the boat, and when she finally is star of the night the look on her face is as much illicit 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 follows 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 boys (wonder if it was as popular with girls?) being exposed to stuff like this?

And when the monsters finally come out--never mind that herbivores don't just charge without provocation (I'm looking at you, Stegosaurus)--but Kong's struggles with each creature are actually carefully choreographed battles. His confrontation with the T-Rex involves two wide-stanced wrestlers angling for 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 tip the Rex off-balance by grabbing at its powerful legs (at one point he uses a judo throw) and landing bone-crunching punches. Kong finally resorts to one of his definitive advantages (his arms) clambering atop the Rex's back and--did I mention how violent this movie is? Less elaborate but even more ingenious is how he later deals with the snakelike Plesiosaurus, by cracking him over the rocks like a whip.

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

Then there's his private session with Ann--it isn't just that he plucks at her clothes, tickles her, provokes her into kicking out her shapely legs; he brings his fingers to his nose and sniffs. Did I mention wondering about all the boys watching?

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 in so much pain (he hasn't quite understood the problem with bullet wounds). He picks up Ann, puts her down, appears to be (the ambiguity is thrilling) 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 moment (or you just ain't looking). It's perfect that Ann never once reciprocates or returns his affections; this is Kong's tragedy, not hers (Jessica Lang is a good actress, but that her character can grow to love the monster is not just a huge stretch of credibility, it's soft-headed).

His final gesture just before he falls--why, he's hamming it up, sweeping his arm to encompass the world, or preparing (like Caruso) to perform his final aria, or taking (like Hamlet) his final bow. Cut to a long shot of a patently fake dummy plummeting to its death. That the dummy looks fake is immaterial; you need that plummet because it mirrors exactly your emotions in sympathetic response to Kong's fate. That sexist brutal murderous bastard has in effect committed the unforgivable crime of stealing your heart.


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