Sympathy for the Beast
Peter Jackson’s King Kong
There is a Marxist theory that there are two kinds of monster movies, reactionary and revolutionary. The reactionary monster film portrays the monster as a foreign menace threatening the traditional order who must be destroyed. The revolutionary monster film sympathizes with the monster as a creature made monstrous by the established order. The classic dichotomy is, ironically, perfectly illustrated by the two literary pillars of cinematic horror: Frankenstein and Dracula. Peter Jackson’s King Kong is unquestionably a revolutionary monster movie. To the extent that it embraces this tradition it outdoes its predecessors in terms of emotional impact and surprisingly effective sentimentality. The fact that the film is also a total failure must therefore be blamed solely upon the inability of its director to reign in its overwhelming adoration of its own spectacle.
There is a long history of directors going mad. It seems to occur at the precise moment when total creative control meets a surfeit of resources. Francis Ford Coppola managed to retain control of the Godfather films through hustling, bluff, and raw force of personality. It was only when he also met with complete access to unlimited resources, in the hugely overrated Apocalypse Now, from whom only Vittorio Storaro emerged unscathed, he went, by his own admission, insane. Michael Cimino’s debacle Heaven’s Gate is probably ground zero for the phenomenon, and George Lucas’s megalomaniacally bloated Star Wars prequels have brought the tradition into the present day. Film is such an extraordinarily expensive paintbox, as Orson Welles put it, that when a filmmaker truly goes mad the results are always extraordinary, if only in the epic fantasmagoria which is the inevitable product of cinematic failure.
King Kong is not a bad movie in the classic sense. It is beautifully made, expertly designed, and obviously in love with the possibilities of cinematic spectacle. It may also go down in history as the quintessential example of a filmmaker completely out of control of himself and his film. Put simply, this film rules its director, rather than vice versa, and the results are not particularly pretty.
The original film, which was, ironically enough, the first special effects extravaganza of the sound era, is hampered by the crudity of its technology, but it nonetheless grips the viewer in the way that only the most brilliant B-movies can do. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did not invent the art of high/low cinema. King Kong was already there in 1933. I can personally remember staying up until midnight when I was eleven in order to see the original film on television. I didn’t find it particularly scary, but the elementary simplicity of its story cannot help but appeal to children once it has been married to the unabashed visual excess possible only in cinema. The original King Kong is both limited in its ambitions and utterly grandiose in its visuals. The result is a film which, however badly dated it is, remains eminently enjoyable.
How Peter Jackson, who managed to avoid the horrendous reverence for source material which typifies Tolkeinian fandom and create a Lord of the Rings which was both true to its origins and thankfully lacking in portentiousness, ended up treating this monument to the possibilities of high/low cinema as if it were holy writ is impossible to fathom. Perhaps, as I have said, it is simply the result of infatuation. Jackson has a child’s nostalgia for the original King Kong and a genius’s flair for expanding endlessly upon it. What in the original is merely window dressing is here blasted into irrelevant subplots, elaborate action sequences, and the kind of pacing which can only come from the unwillingness of a director to part from a single foot of film. The movie’s running time has already been mentioned as an issue, but the problem with making a three-hour epic out of King Kong is not so much length in and of itself, but how slight the source material upon which it depends actually is. There is, in fact, very little going on in King Kong. It is, ultimately, a monster film which is sympathetic to its subject. Beyond that, it is utterly conventional. There are, of course, hidden archetypes galore should one wish to find them. The virtue of genre films is that they can deal obliquely with issues which a normal film cannot address at all. It is not necessarily an exaggeration to say that King Kong is the only blockbuster film about bestiality. All of this, however, is effective because it is not explicit. Once it becomes explicit, rather than simply evoked, genre becomes drama and turns simultaneously to the absurd.
To say that Jackson’s King Kong is absurd is an understatement of enormous proportions. The very fact of foisting 200 million dollars and three hours of running time on a story so shallow is inherently absurd, mainly because it is utterly unnecessary. Nor does the plethora of backstory, literary reference, and cinematic homage which Jackson has grafted on to his film add anything to what is, fundamentally, a story about an enormous ape who falls in love with a hot blonde and proceeds, as a result, to tear New York to pieces. Everything that may elevate or lower this idea is contained in its original form. As soon as one expands it, one is turning something wonderfully simple into something woefully complicated, rather like remaking The Maltese Falcon as though it were Hamlet. There is, quite simply, nothing good that can come from it.
Still, every artist has to be allowed to go off the deep end at least once. Perhaps next time cooler heads will prevail and Jackson’s ambition will be prepared to serve the genre and its virtues, rather than attempting to elevate it into the cinematic stratosphere and thus, reducing it to banality.