the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, November 03, 2007

King Kong (2007)

The Kong Show

I am old enough to remember the last attempt. Mr. DeLaurentis, the larger-than-life producer, took advertisements out in the NY tabloids asking people to come down to the World Trade Center for a reaction shot of Kong’s death. I recall there was a hullabaloo about him breaking up the concrete at the base of one of the Trade Towers where they placed Kong’s body. Jessica Lang, the new Hollywood ingĂ©nue, played Faye Ray’s part. Aside of Ms. Lange and trying to see my friends in the closing sequence (none appeared) the 1970s “updated” Kong was forgettable. Mr. Jackson seems to have shared my reaction. This “Kong” is a homage to the original 1933 production.

It is interesting that Jackson marks this work as a primary influence. Being close to Jackson’s age I remember my first viewing of the original Kong left me cold. Sure it was exciting to watch the iconic ape in action but the scratchy dialogue and stop-action stuttering made the film difficult for 70s New York kid to fully appreciate. We were children of Star Wars and the black & white monsters from the Depression era seemed hokey. Yet Jackson saw something profound beneath the musty scenery. One can imagine this young New Zealander hunched before a pre-color TV or riveted to a fold out chair in a school gym watching a 16mm print of the giant ape battle the forces of modernity in pre-VHS Kiwiland.

What sparked Mr. Jackson’s worship of this weatherworn classic? Why did the man who could choose anything decide to remake this particular beast? Given Mr. Jackson’s beginnings as a low-budget horror film creator the idea of tackling the granddaddy of cinematic monsters is natural. But a look at Jackson’s roots reveals that “the plays the thing” rather than the beast itself. The story of King Kong revolves around a self-created meglomananical filmmaker. In fact Jack Black, the film’s rakish villain, might consider Jackson a benevolent fellow-traveller. Jackson, a small town film-buff working in a camera shop, marshaled armies of friends and neighbors over weekends to create his first feature (titled Bad Taste) which revolved around aliens abducting a small town to be the main course in their inter-stellar fast food chain. This was followed by Braindead in which a mother turns into a cannibal that even George Romero might consider “over the top”. Jackson might not share Jack Black’s lack of morals but they are certainly kindred spirits whose beginnings lurk in the neitherworld of showbusiness.

Jackson found his “Kong” in the film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ fairytale masterpiece. Kudos to the film executive who recognized in Jackson’s early work an ability to create fantasy “by any means necessary”. C.S. Lewis can worry about highbrow elements of story and references to history and ages past – Mr. Jackson was there to put on a show. His abounding spirit combined with heretofore unlimited resources produced the block-buster of blockbusters. Jack Black, on the other hand, never found a way to tame his monster-hit and created a real-life blockbuster. This monster not only destroyed New York City but Mr. Black’s new found respectability.

In a sense Jackson’s King Kong is two separate films: one is a pyrotechnical display of Jackson’s ability as a horror/action-adventure filmmaker; the other film is a meditation on the blinding price of success. As an action film Jackson certainly delivers the goods. The director has taken fight scenes to a new plane – literally. Whereas traditional protagonists battle back and forth – Jackson’s fight up and down as well. This has become a popular device in kung fu movies and although Jackson might not be the first to employ this technique – he certainly knows how to use it. Kong is literally all over the place - slaying scores of never-ending monsters from ALL DIRECTIONS. The backdrops are always breathtaking and sublime – whether at the pinnacles of the mountains or the nadir of the valley. The natives, however, were a problem – not that they weren’t restless. They were too restless. As a New Zealander Mr. Jackson probably shares a European sensibility regarding race relations. Its not that people across the pond are more racist but they consider American’s to be hysterical with regards to cultural differences. Call me over-sensitive but the group of black-as-night, spear-throwing, bone-threw-the-nose savages were too reminiscent of vile stereo-types of native cultures. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been more discussion of this depiction. It probably lies in the fact that Jackson genuinely meant no harm and the root of this portrayal lies in a hyped-up version of the original. Given the fact that this was the age of Stepinfechit I think Mr. Jackson should have come up with a different approach. This, however, does not take away from the over-all success in portraying a fantasy world of natural monster demons. Even before arriving on the Island itself the “sturm and drang” of the boat against the rocks showed Jackson the director fully in control of his game.

The meditative sections of the film are in a sense the heart of the matter. We know Jackson can juggle and spit-fire but how does he tackle heart-felt drama without C.S. Lewis’ breadth of knowledge regarding the human condition? Is Jackson merely a technician/showman or can he make us think? The key test lies in the feelings towards the monster. Were the bullets flying out of the fighter planes striking something more than Kong? I found myself thinking about human’s relationship with animals and felt genuine sorrow at the death of Ann Darrow’s companion. Jackson’s Kong, more than the ancient original (certainly more than DeLaurentis’) rose above being an icon of terror and became a tragic love-struck anti-hero. This Kong didn’t merely exist – he lived, loved and died. The re-creation of Depression-era New York was flawless. The human actors were all strong. So when the giant ape hits the pavement all is in place for Jack Black to deliver his famous camp line: “Twas beauty killed the beast”.

The message struck a cord because you know in your heart of hearts Jack is lying. The beast wasn’t a beast and beauty certainly wasn’t the cause of his demise. Jackson is pointing at – Jack Black/himself. It is ironic that the character Jack Driscoll, the writer, played by a very talented Adrien Brody, disappears into the scenery. This is not a film about writers and this really isn’t, despite the many action sequences, a film for children. This is a film about doers. The kind of people who come out of nowhere from some down-under part of the world and make their mark in the big city. This is Jack Black’s movie. This is a man at the top of his game looking at the world and realizing that fulfilling your dreams without regard to an understanding of the more fundamental laws (of nature, of God…) is pure folly. Business is business but business is NOT everything.

The word is that the film is not living up to the monumental financial expectations. But I’m sure Jackson isn’t really thinking about the other entertainment moguls and money men. He made a labor of love and I’m sure he’s more concerned with the natives on his small island and his wife – whom has co-wrote all of his films. It’s a wonderful thing to create a monster – it’s more important to know how to control him. If Jack Black only knew. I get the sense that the man who made this film still stays in touch with the people next door who carried the scenery for his first feature. That is surely something Jack Black would never do.

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