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Movie Review: King Kong

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The Return of the King

Among the numerous witty, silly, and insightful epigrams uttered by Alfred Hitchcock floats this one: Self-plagiarism is style.

Although not as infamous as his cattle-actor references, or as naughty as his quip about Tallulah Bankhead’s fuzzies, it’s more substantial than either, and serves as a solid starting point for a discussion of Peter Jackson’s King Kong, which, according to it, is a prime example of style.

For the past four films, Jackson has essentially been remaking his previous films and perfecting a style he first toyed with in the fantasy sequences of Heavenly Creatures — if not earlier still. Although this was excusable (perhaps even desirable) when these films were part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, brought to King Kong the style is stale. Furthermore, no longer supported by a well-known story and classic characters, it becomes obvious.

A good example of Jackson’s self-plagiarism is the first battle on Skull Island between the main cast of characters and a swarm of ravenous orcs native savages. Not only are the baddies in both films look-alikes (dark bodies decorated with war paint and dried mud), but, more importantly, they’re filmed in the same way: close-ups of snarling, teeth-baring faces intercut with medium-shots of the blurred movement of masses of jerky bodies; armies of arms swinging weapons intercut with sound-enhanced shots of impact; “good” visually represented by individual characters and immobility; and “evil” shown as a collective character and reckless motion. Although distinct events do occur within the battle, they’re separated by this almost generic chaos-footage. Sneak some footage of the climactic battle of The Fellowship of the Ring into the scene, and it’d take a perceptive viewer to notice a difference.

Another common visual gimmick employed by Jackson in King Kong and the Lord of the Rings films is the slow-motion zoom. Used primarily to highlight scary details meant to shock the viewer — like a skull stuck on a stick or the wet snout of an orc — the technique creates a jerky kind of emphasis of its focal object or body part. It’s something that particularly bugs me about Jackson’s films.

Of course, there are also two tones in which to read Hitchcock’s statement: straight or deadpan. I think Hitch was more fond of the latter, but who knows? On one hand, King Kong may indeed be the work of filmmaker with a mature, unique style; or it may be the work of a hack whose style depends not on personal vision or technical mastery, but on the recycling of a handful of cinematic tricks and frills. Each viewer judges for him- or herself.

I believe Peter Jackson to be a highly accomplished, precise, and intriguing film-stylist. To me, King Kong is enhanced by its similarities to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I think that Jackson’s work is an ideal example of why the auteur theory is still valid. But, there are two tones in which to read this paragraph…

Whatever Happened to Baby Jimmy?

For all its typical Hollywood elements and all its inherent big-budget blockbuster shortcomings, virtues, and limitations, King Kong is still — strangely — a strange brew of a Hollywood film.

Conventional srcreenwriting teaches that nothing in a script should be superfluous and that everything should contribute to the overall plot and themes of its future-film. However, King Kong features numerous instances of superfluidity. For example, the big fight between Kong and the Tyrannosaurus Reges — besides lasting what seemed like twenty minutes — culminates in the ripping apart of one of the dinosaur’s jaws. It’s great spectacle, but wasteful screenwriting (“never fight for twenty minutes and rip apart the jaws when one word will do”). As are the scenes of Denham shooting his film aboard his ship. And the ship sequence altogether! The characters aboard ship disappear when the film shifts back to New York City, and we already know that the hot lesbian likes W. Szpilman (“don’t repeat yourself!”).

But the greatest treason is this: after spending valuable space and time developing Jimmy, his reading of Joseph Conrad’s dark innards, and his relationship with the Nigger of the Narcissus, Jackson forgets all about the lad! Hollywood screenwriting blasphemy: where’s the arc? the resolution? the vengeance? I was quite curious to see how Jimmy ended up, and if he bore any grudges toward Kong.

Some die, but no dice.

Still, Jackson’s greatest surprise and unorthodoxy is his treatment of King Kong‘s villain, the dastardly yet cunning filmmaker Carl Denham. Denham’s a special villain for two reasons: he doesn’t change by the end of the film (“you won’t ever write in this town again!”) and he doesn’t receive a much-deserved comeuppance (“it’s a bizarro script, is what it is!”).

In Hollywood, characters — not all, but all major — change over the period of a film; or “grow”, as the catchphrase says. It’s believed, perhaps based on the study of Classical drama or the teachings of the prophets Syd and Robert, that this is one of the reasons people pay money to enjoy watching Hollywood’s films. The good guy usually becomes a better guy, and the bad guy either becomes a good guy too or, more commonly, dies in a spectacular way that reinforces whatever society happens to believe in at the time. But Carl Denham doesn’t change — at all! He’s just as alive by the end of King Kong as he is at the beginning; just as determined to make new films and new entertainment; and just as jobless! How many lawsuits get thrown his way because of Kong’s rampage is grounds for speculation, but, in the worst case for him, he’ll end up just as poor and jobless as he was in Act I. In the best case, he’ll be everything he was at the beginning, and rich.

A Hollywood film that not only features a character with no “arc”, but fails to punish — nay, that rewards its villain! Peter Jackson must have had strange bedfellows indeed.

Making Nothing Out of Something

It’s not uncommon to hear one person accuse another of making something out of nothing; but is it possible to do the inverse — to take something and make it into nothing?

Even the best, most level-headed and striving-to-be-objective critics once in a while come across a film or book or album that they — for reasons uncommunicable — simply detest. They feel the hate in their gut but they either don’t understand it or can’t put it into words. Does this feeling ever turn into meditated omission or destruction? Is it fair to assume that because someone who loves a particular film is eager to find as much substance and subtext in his beloved works, someone who hates a film is equally eager to strip the object-of-hate of all its virtues — leaving it naked, broken, and battered on the floor, next to a urine-stained copy of Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark?

I have that gut reaction to King Kong; because I don’t like the film, I’m tempted to see it as nothing more than a stylistically-recycled popcorn commercial. But that’s not fair! I’ve read fantastic criticisms of the film that emphasize its theme of doomed love, take a stab at its political subtexts, uncover its hidden attack on contemporary American culture, explain its dialogue with the original King Kong, and even use it to psychoanalyze Peter Jackson. Surely, a film which allows for such a broad range of discussion isn’t bad, isn’t any worse than other popcorn flicks I’ve liked — like Sahara.

Am I taking something and making it into nothing? I want to, but I’m resisting the urge. In the back of my head, on the southern shore of Skull Island perhaps, I know that King Kong isn’t a dumb movie, and I know that it’s a fruitful film to watch and analyze.

But can you hear my teeth gritting?

Peter Jackson’s 8 ½

Not counting the film he made for television, Peter Jackson has directed 8 features and 1 short: 8 ½ films. That’s a special number because it’s also the title of a Federico Fellini masterpiece paradoxically about its own creation and about its director’s filmmaking career to that point. (I’m cheating a bit: Fellini’s 8th film was 8 ½. But let me stretch things a bit!) In either case, Fellini’s 8 ½ is one of the greatest loose autobiographies ever captured on celluloid.

I want to suggest that King Kong is Peter Jackson’s 8 ½.

After completing the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson must have breathed a small sigh of relief, before bracing himself for the potential that his project — one of the biggest and most ambitious in cinema history — could fail with critics and audiences. After the trilogy succeeded, and made oodles of money, Peter Jackson must have breathed a longer sigh of relief. The ordeal was over! But, what now? What could the great and successful Peter Jackson tackle now; what did he want to tackle now? King Kong? King Kong! But, why? Aha!

What’s greater and grander than the greatest story ever told if not the story of the story of the greatest story ever told! Kong, therefore, was never a big ape in Jackson’s eyes. Instead, Kong became the embodiment of something else — something even heavier than a big ape. Kong became the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the monkey that was finally off Jackson’s back!

In this interpretation, the trip to Skull Island and the first meeting with Kong turns into the beginning of the Lord of the Rings filmmaking process, complete with a savage tribe of Tolkien-nerds. A few people in a leaky boat against a fearsome world! Once the savages are out of the way, comes creation itself, in the film represented by the quest to save Ann Darrow and capture Kong. Jackson himself morphs into Carl Denham.

After a long struggle and many adventures, Kong is captured — the film is completed — and the remaining crew sail back to New York… for the film’s premiere! And Lord Kong smashes records, wows audiences and wins over critics. It exceeds all expectations, and becomes a runaway hit, scaling heights unimaginable.

However, like all films, its theater run eventually ends. It plummets; but not to its death! Kong has merely been fully tamed. There is no more danger to Jackson and his studio of the film failing. And, as we see Denham at the end of the film, brain bursting with new ideas, he and we think: “Why, of course! DVDs packed full of extras! All genres of video games! And the original books republished in twenty different ways! The limits are limitless!”

And all of a sudden something becomes clear: Denham can’t die. He can’t change. Denham is Jackson. Jackson’s the same Jackson. And Jackson’s making this film!

Rating: 2.5 / 4.0

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