Saturday, December 31, 2005

Monster Kid in Heaven: KING KONG (2005)

Plot: Adventuring filmmakers find a giant gorilla on an island. The gorilla falls in love with a blonde girl. Then they take the gorilla to New York.


Spoilers: This happens in the first scene!

For me, the most moving moment in Peter Jackson's overflowing remake of King Kong is when a search-party of wayward sailors are shaken off a mossy log by the giant gorilla... and then it cuts to the survivors on the floor of the canyon where they have fallen. Any kid worth his weight in issues of Famous Monsters will feel his toes curling, and whisper a breathless "Omigod, they're gonna do the Spider Pit scene!"

It's a scene notoriously deleted long ago from the 1933 film, and the footage likely destroyed. The unclear reasons (it either slowed down the picture or was so horrific it stopped the movie cold), promise of unseen Willis O'Brien animation, and tantalizing surviving stills have made the scene legendary in monster enthusiast circles. Heartrending to me, was knowing that Jackson has dreamed about this scene since he was 12, and now he gets to make it happen. Now King Kong has a Spider Pit scene. And this time around, the director certainly does not care about slowing down the picture in the name of 12-year-old thrills.

King Kong '05 looks at King Kong '33 with favorite-movie reverence, with the bottomless, awed, muddled, perfect-making memory of countless childhood viewings, and mythologizes every frame. This Kong barely plays like a normal movie. It's weird and overwrought, it's obsessed and hyperbolic, and most confounding, the movie is both a feverish nightmare and religiously respectful. Take a moment in the film in which Carl Denham (Jack Black) drops the now-unneeded map to an island into the sea. It doesn't matter what happens to the map. There is no real reason to show salt water soaking into the paper before it floats into the drink, lost forever. But because he's been fetishizing every Kong prop for decades, Peter Jackson wonders what happens to that map. There is no pressing practical reason for the original 100-minute cracking adventure tale to be hyperextended to more than three hours. But if you busted open that shaggy Kiwi head, this syrupy, love-addled King Kong, a lifetime in the making, is the dream that would pour out. Very few of us are allowed to expound on our favorite movie for 3-plus and have others to sit and watch. This is self-indulgence in the most wonderful sense. "Self-indulgent" barely covers Kong.

There is a lot of talk of Destiny early in this film, nowhere to be found in the Cooper movie. Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) gets an inexplicable far-away look in her eye as Denham briefs her on the overseas acting position she is about to take. She launches into a trance-state monologue about her predestination to love and lose. Frankly, this has nothing to do with the latent themes of the story. King Kong was never a meditation on the nature of fate. Ann's strange speech is there because every moment of this story is of Biblical import to Jackson. Likewise, I grinned through a drawn-out scene where Denham reveals the name of Skull Island as Jack Driscoll (now a playwright, Adrien Brody) types each letter in sloooo-mo. It's portentous (in the weighty, foreboding sense) to no one but Kong fans.


Naomi Watts meets King Kong in "King Kong Movie"

"What happens to the map?" is basically how Jackson's King Kong works. If the Map previously had one minute of back-story, it now has 5. Every plot point, character, and tiny element of the '33 film is hoisted up, isolated, and subjected to questioning. Everything is expanded, inflated, deepened, widened, sexed-up or made scarier. Below are the questions, and my assessments of the answers.

"What if we really felt the Depression? / What if we knew Ann better?"

The story opens with a great metaphor for, er, itself. Or, rather, a shorthand reminder of the joys of escapist entertainment: after swiftly establishing the misery of poverty (a guy eats garbage!), we meet Ann Darrow as she performs an old-timey vaudeville number (albeit in a dumpy theater).

[Sidebar fun!: although he is usually a smart - if cranky - guy, J. Hoberman revealed in his Kong review that he doesn't know what the word "Hooverville" means, as he used "Hooterville," the town from "Green Acres," in its place. This mistake has sadly since been corrected, but was on the Voice website for weeks.]

A fast and thick series of vignettes about Ann's failing theater revue may seem like padded-out back-story. A cheat, order that we'll feel something besides instinctual woman-in-peril panic when dinosaurs threaten her? No: Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens are determined that the Character Arc Payoff is the most unbreakable of screenwriting rules. Not only will her vaudeville clowning skills come in handy, but so will her starry-eyed love-hate relationship with "high art." Most tellingly, Ann is given an artist father-figure, the troupe manager losing his failing theater to foreclosure. Please pay close attention to how all the men in Ann's life - "nice" or not - are ineffectual, destructive, casually cruel, indecisive, whiny, arrogant, or vain, and all failures or churls. None of them can protect her.



Naomi Watts, glowing like she's lit from inside, plays Ann Darrow with a deep yearning - for success, for artistic fulfillment, for romance, for poetry, for economic relief. She's a cryin' on the inside kind of clown. Fay Wray's Darrow was sweet and naive, and a blank enough slate to project yourself into the hairy paw, but that's about it.

There is a secret locked into all the characters in King Kong '05, which unites them all. They all badly want something romantic, and they will have it within sight for a few glittering moments, and then they will lose it.

"What if Jack Driscoll convincingly fell in love with Ann?"

See, in Kong Mark I, Driscoll constantly tells Ann how much he hates women, until apropos of nothing he announces "Say! I think I love you!" The first step to remedy this is obviously to change Driscoll from a drippy sailor into a New York playwright.

Adrien Brody, as a de-politicized Barton Fink, is a more convincing match for a depressed actress than Bruce Cabot's abrasive and unlikable seaman in Kong '33. Don't worry, folks: there will be no shortage of sailors in Kong '05. Besides, it's fun to see theoretically smart people as action movie heroes (see under Dr. Jones). However, it's unclear if the terrible passages of Driscoll's work we hear are supposed to be hackwork, or the best the screenplay can muster.

Though it is not the story the impatient 12-year-old wants, Ann and Jack's burgeoning relationship is astutely observed: two smart people trying hard to impress each other, trying to convey their feelings cleverly, but too stupid to just say how they feel. His creative pursuits and intellectualism are Driscoll's prime motivators. Your desires and ambitions will be your triumph and undoing in Kong, and Driscoll's draw him into Denham's movie production, draw him and Ann together. To woo the blonde actress, the writer gives her compliments on her performance in Denham's movie, and re-writes scenes for her, and drafts an entire play as an Ann Darrow vehicle. So Jack sits in a little cage in the hold of the Venture, like a captive animal, trapped by his own erudition. The competition, however can not only sweep her off her feet, but hoist her to the top of the city. So much for the theater.

"What the hell kind of movie is Carl Denham making?!"

Observation: movies are generally untruthful about how movies are made, because it's hard work. The moviemaking portrayed in Kong '33 is ridiculous: Denham's plan is to go on location on with one actor, no script, props, or crew, and shoot whatever he finds. In the meantime he busies himself by shooting bizarre screen tests of Ann looking at the sky and screaming. Perhaps this isn't too far off from how Cooper made his middling nature documentary Grass, but it's nonsense for a narrative film.

So Jackson's movie gives Denham a film crew and another actor (Kyle Chandler as Bruce Baxter, a serviceably funny pompous stereotype). Since the production is portrayed as equally ridiculous by having Ann and Baxter performing the goofiest flirtation dialog from the original film (it's the only gentle ribbing Jackson gives Cooper, and very welcome), it probably cancels out the effort. The cast and crew of Denham's movie are just more people to get chased by dinosaurs.

"What if we knew and cared about the Venture crew before they die?"

Captain Englehorn (Thomas Kretschmann) is now rugged, handsome and German instead of twerpy and British. Driscoll's replacement first mate is Evan Parke as the deadly serious, curiously didactic Mr. Hayes. Hayes has a troubled orphan charge, Jimmy (Jamie Bell, sans tutu), a character last seen in The Matrix Revolutions, where he was more honestly named "The Kid."

Sadly, while there is a Chinese fellow onboard, but he is not funny like in the original. Instead, Andy Serkis plays Lumpy the cook, making a Popeye face the whole time, and theoretically serving as less offensive comic relief. He's not as funny as that Chinaman in '33 though. The crew as a whole behaves more reasonably (i.e. - balking at everything Denham demands) than in the '33 film, but ends up in the same situation. Does this make it more, or less fun when monsters smash them?

Both performances are sincere, but the story thread regarding Hayes and Jimmy, which rarely intersects with the Kong story is very strange. Hayes protects the wayward boy, and is teaching him to be a responsible, well-rounded man. On one hand this hackneyed subplot simply stops halfway through the movie after being payed a lot of baffling attention. On the other hand, it seems so very much like Hayes and Jimmy are in their own movie that it's interesting to consider: what if you think you're in a story about being a father-figure to an orphan, and suddenly there's a goddamn giant gorilla in front of you?

In a startling scene, Jimmy and Hayes discuss Heart of Darkness, which the boy is reading for the first time. Hayes knows it all too well, and recites a section from memory. Heart of Darkness, frankly, has nothing to do with King Kong. It might have something to do with The Creature from the Black Lagoon, though. The parallel is labored; the recitation of a long passage by a tough-mug sailor is unlikely. Only Hayes' thematic assessment of Heart of Darkness - regarding why we pursue our own fears - makes any sense, and that is less an explanation of why the Venture is at Skull Island than of why audiences see horror films. Kong is, of course, about the human love of globetrotting adventure, not of our mettle-testing inward pursuit of our own dark corners.


Heart of Glow-in-the-Darkness?! What?!

"It's not an adventure story, is it?" asks Jimmy (Jamie Bell). And Hayes says "No, Jimmy. It's not." I can't deny that is a chilling moment, a boy realizing the soul-deep potential of art. The scene doesn't work perfectly for me because it seems to be one of several grand statements about the narrative itself, but Kong a) already has its allegorical parallel of choice - "Beauty and the Beast" - and literary inspiration up the banana-hole (from Adventures in Equatorial Africa to Tarzan novels), and there's no need to superimpose another if it only partly fits; and b) Kong itself is already a metaphor of infinite possibility.

If there is any way to argue that Kong is not an adventure story, it's because it is a love story. (Shh: It is an adventure story!)

"What if the Skull Island natives were actually scary?"

Everything with the island tribe works like gangbusters for me, which I cannot say for the '33 film. From the queasy pacing to the horrifying set design and makeup, the shocking human murders and the jaw-dislocating ritual sacrifice to Kong, it is one big masterpiece horror sequence.

The Kong '33 tribe doesn't fail for me because it's "racist," but simply because I don't feel their relationship with Kong is very well realized, and their made-up culture is hokey instead of threatening or interesting. Jackson rectifies all of this, including - I'm not kidding - solving the problem of race issues on Skull Island '05. The natives are black because people who live on islands are black. They're backward, degenerate and nearly subhuman because they have to deal with appeasing a 25-foot monster, and live in constant terror. Sorry folks, I don't think it's racist: I think it's kind of cool and a great logically reasoned fantasy-world idea.

Well, logically reasoned for the most part. I got spine-chills during a sequence in which Ann is kidnapped off the boat (also a scary highlight of the '33 film), but what call would the tribe have to develop a method for pole-vaulting onto boats?

"What if Kong were actually scary?"
And more importantly,
"What if you love Kong because you actually know him?"

A friend of mine says "E.T. is 80 minutes of making you love E.T., 10 minutes of making you think E.T. is going to die, and 3 minutes of telling you E.T. is okay."

Kong '33 works a little differently than E.T.. Why do we even like Kong when he is dying? Somewhere a Monster Kid is sad every time Christopher Lee gets shoved into a shaft of sunlight, but why do we cry when Kong dies? Is it because an innocent animal has been hurt for acts for which he can't be held responsible? Is it because we recognize that we do stupid, destructive things for love, too? Those are nice ideas. But I don't think they're in the text, and I don't think it's how people actually watch King Kong.

What gets me is when Kong touches his chest, and looks at the blood on his hand. Ain't nobody in the house remembering that guy is a gorilla at that moment. You have been hurt and confused and felt lonely, misunderstood and under attack. And I don't know a metaphor for this in the movies more simple, primal, and strange.

But for the rest of Kong '33, the ape is scary. Objectively, he's just acting like an ape, but hey: the Alien is just acting like an alien. It's part of what makes the finale so magical, that we suddenly empathize with a character that has so terrified us. For me, the most frightening part of the original is a scene in New York after Ann and Jack have fled the rampaging Kong, and run up into their hotel room. Suddenly Kong peeks in the window, and I jump about 5 feet off the chair. There is no logical way or reason Kong could have found Ann in this window. The film's power is in its dream-logic and kid-rule storytelling.

***B o n u s w e i r d n e s s ! - Here is a review by a woman who seems to think Andy Serkis wore "a gorilla suit with digitally manipulated facial expressions"! ***

Jackson's Kong, motion captured and mime-performed by Andy Serkis is the most beautiful computer generated creature in the art's brief history. Serkis' performance is meticulous, complex and fantastic - but that's what everyone is generally saying. What Serkis and his tech support do specifically is balance observed, naturalistic animal behavior with stylized character work, and that is the toughest balancing act in animation. Kong's size, power, superior intelligence have also chemically reacted with his isolation to made him petulant, impatient, and prone to outburst. It's a great idea for a character, someone with a sensitive heart and a longing for companionship, but whose physical realities make it too easy to indulge base instincts to take, destroy, and show off.


He's all like, "Do me, baby!" Grow up, Kong!

That's what works. What doesn't is that in a non-stop effort to make audiences like the character, Kong ends up defanged. A consequence of reinstating the gloriously nasty Spider Pit is that Kong doesn't kill as many people by knocking them off the log. In a rare sequence not expanded from the original, after breaking through the Skull Island wall, Tall Dark And Gruesome is not allowed to put natives in his mouth or smoosh them with his foot. Kong scouring the streets of New York for his lost blonde is transformed into a comic sequence (he repeatedly nabs the wrong dame) and gone is the disturbing shot of a woman flailing and screaming as she plummets to the crowd below. Likewise, instead of decimating the elevated train, Kong walks past it without batting a 5-foot eyelash.

It's crass to imply this problem could be fixed if Kong killed more people. It's an equation that can't be balanced. If we understand Kong too deeply, we won't be afraid him. The best that can be done is to keep his power and menace in the forefront, and avoid preciousness. You wanna make a monster movie, don't have the monster take his date ice-skating. Er. Well. Um.

"What if instead of falling into the ocean, Jack rescues Ann and they glide down from Kong's cliff top on a giant bat?"

Uh... Why did those bats start attacking Kong, anyway? Regarding dinosaurs and monsters:

This is the most rip-snorting, crazy-ass, sugar-cereal-and-Chiller-Theater addled monster rally since Destroy All Monsters! Because it's some sort of respectable "classic," it's easy to forget how madcap pulpy and bizarre Kong '33 gets, as a building-sized gorilla (that's weird enough) fights a Tyrannosaurus, largely with wrestling moves ("What?!" shouts Selznick, goggling at the script. "What do you mean?!"). So for sheer invention, Willis O'Brien has Jackson's arms pinned.


Kong basically slaps other animals for 3 hours.

But Kong '05 knows a secret that few modern action pictures remember: it's funny and breathless when the situation just gets worse, and worse, and worse and oh-shit-what-now? worse. And it's a tough trick, as you have to be smart enough to invent surprising and clever ways for gags to multiply and problems to mount exponentially. Exemplary in Kong '05 is the pumped-up "V-Rex" battle, which is simultaneously the most giddy and most precisely constructed set piece. The first thrill for Kong fans is realizing it'll be simian-vs.-entire-dinosaur-pack. And from there the game is on, with a whirl of gags built around plausible/possible physics (dinosaurs suspended in vines!), character behavior (they have better things to worry about, but keep trying to eat Ann!), geography and space, and audience expectation. The fight builds steam with hare-brained mechanical perfection, like a great Tex Avery cartoon. Don't worry. It all ends with a character behavioral joke courtesy of Willis O'Brien.

"What if the film analysts essays of the past 70 years regarding Kong and Ann's dynamic were not subtext but text?"

My high school girlfriend had this enormous golden retriever, named Indi, which she doted upon. One day we were in the park, and she got a mouthful of water from a drinking fountain, and started spitting it into the dog's mouth. I felt myself getting jealous, and asked "why am I feeling this way?" And I realize: she might love me, but she'll never love me like she does that dog.

On one amazing episode of "The Sopranos," ("Employee of the Month"), Dr. Melfi finally understands the uncomfortable truth about why she continues treating a domineering, violent thug who desires her: he'll be there if you need him. You see what I'm getting at?


I'm reading a lot of critics saying that Ann and Kong, they have a "mutual respect," or she understands him like as a wild animal worthy of high regard. I'm calling "bullshit." Ann Darrow falls in love with Kong in this film, and she doesn't fall in love with Jack Driscoll. Because one is a scrawny writer, and one is a big strong man who can protect her from a world that's trying to beat her down. All the artists in her life have failed her, endangered her, or been corrupt. When Jack shows up after the finale, he may carry Ann down from the tower as Kong carried her up, but it's not fooling anybody.

I'm ambivalent about how this makes me feel. But I don't think it's dishonest. It's how people are.

"Why do people go along with Carl Denham's plans?"

The most common fan complaint has been over the perceived reworking of the Denham character. It's easily the most interesting character in Kong, after the big gent himself, and I say: Jack Black's Carl Denham is not too far removed from Robert Armstrong's. It's essentially the same character plus ironic distance. Consider, after all, how much of the original dialog has been retained.

I propose that the slight reworking that makes Denham a showbiz huckster instead of the most successful filmmaker in Hollywood is multipurpose. A) Successful filmmakers have vast resources in compare to a man running from his financers, thus ratcheting up the stakes for the film crew. B) View Kong '33 and try to figure out why these sailors, actors, reporters - anybody - will have any part of Denham's dangerous, absurd plans. Kong '05 solves this slight logic-gap by having Denham lie and trick people into doing what he wants. C) Scoundrels, dreamers and inept artists are more fun to follow than blowhard movie princes. It seems the problem is that while Jack Black starts the character's arc as a lovable ne'er-do-well, but the singular drive of his passion, amoral methods and self-destructive streak are gradually revealed to have grand-scale repercussions.

That more unsavory implications of Denham's behavior are made explicit in Jackson's film doesn't "make him the villain." Everything in Kong '33 is Denham's fault as well; the film just doesn't judge him for it.

And maybe I just like Denham because I relate to him. It's how I feel about Daffy Duck: morally imperfect characters with recognizable drives are easier for me to love than heroes. Denham's final judgment, by beleaguered assistant Colin Hanks, is a touch too on the nose, but for me also the most shattering moment of character observation: "Carl has the unfailing ability to destroy the things he loves." That's my biggest gut-punch moment in Kong. Jackson, Boyens and Walsh don't demonize Denham. They understand his tragedy. Carl Denham, at first seems to cling to his movie camera even while being chased by a flood of brontosaurus, even while wiping off the blood of his film crew, because he needs money. But it's not that, it's something else. Carl Denham loves the movies. Denham's the only one to recognize where the misguided pursuit of beauty has gotten everyone in the film. It's why the last line is Denham's, has to be, must be. The last line isn't Denham denying blame: it is his acceptance of what he's done.

Denham loves the movies.

Like Capt. Englehorn loves the sea.

Like Jack Driscoll loves theater.

Like Hayes loves Conrad's prose.

Like Peter Jackson loves King Kong.

Like Ann and Kong love each other.

And for a minute, he had her in his hand. And then, like a sunset, it all slipped over the skyline, and was gone.

I miss there being a huge mountain shaped like a skull on Skull Island. Because it was cool how Kong lived in one of the eye sockets.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Destroy All Kinetoscopes!: Welcome to the Parlor

In 1891, when the first prototype motion-picture viewers were unveiled, to watch a movie you looked through a slot in a wooden cabinet. You viewed the film in a public kinetoscope parlor, and probably talked about it with your friends afterwards. But while you were watching it you were utterly alone and engulfed.

And you sit isolated in your car at the drive-in. And you are careful not to use both arm-rest drink holders at the theater, because it breaks the illusion for the spectator next to you. It reminds you that you are part of a collective audience.

So ask: is this a social action or a private art interface?

I say: even in your living room, by yourself, on your own sofa, turn on your Betamax machine, you are still in that audience. The reason I read film critics isn't to assess if I will like, or want to see a film, or want an empirical weighing of its merits. I read magazine/newspaper/web critics because what I really want to know is what some stranger next to me thought of the picture.

The mission statement here is: Should the kinetoscope explode, should the drive-in burn down, should the DVD player melt, should the theater balcony crumble to the floor, I'm going to tell you what I thought of the picture.

And the poster. And the paperback novelization. And the composer's career. And the theater's concession stand.





This is my battered, yellowing ex-library copy of Magic in the Movies: The Story of Special Effects, published in 1980. For all intents and purposes it is the first film book I ever owned. Not the first I read (Ian Thorne's "Monster Series" for Crestwood House), or one that made me particularly love movies. It is certainly the book that made me begin to understand what a film director's job is, in practical terms. But I want to talk about more nebulous ideas first sparked in me because of this book.

It is a strange book, far too ambitious in trying to explain historic and modern special effects, and chart their historical development in about 140 pages. It overreaches sometimes, as it tries to explain in child-friendly vocabulary what "hydraulic pressure" is, and how it was useful in Superman ("The idea of hydraulics is, very basically, that a little bit of pressure connected to a hydraulic system can lift a great deal of weight"). This stuff is impenetrable sometimes. The book is organized into chapters covering the history and practice of specific effects disciplines — miniatures, makeup, opticals, et cetera — but more or less starts fresh from the beginning of film history for each subject, thus thoroughly knotting the timeline for young film buffs.

The book contains this photograph, in the chapter "Mechanical Monsters: Full-Scale Effects."

It shows the construction of the enormous gorilla head for King Kong. It's an impressive behind-the-scenes photo, and there aren't many from the film's production. Someone in 1933 took this photograph, and now I can see it in a book 50 years later. That happened because a monster movie was important to someone, as more than just fun. It's the book that gave me a notion that film has a dynamic history. I was so immersed in Universal's Golden Age monster movies that I didn't realize the movies were "old." That they don't make them like that anymore.

Not only that, but there are passages such as "It's hard to know whether [Jack] Pierce [head of the Universal makeup department] was being completely honest or was protecting professional secrets. Other sources conflict with Pierce's own version of how he mummified Boris Karloff." In a book that purports to tell us How They Did It, this tells us a) historians have to sort through weirdos and liars and unreliable primary sources, and b) there are secrets locked into the fabric of movies.

Magic in the Movies also contains this still, from the relatively difficult-to-see Méliès film, Conquest of the Pole:

I saw this when I was maybe 10 years old. It looked cooler, scarier, stranger and more alien than any movie I'd ever seen. It looked beautiful. It looked like it had been made for me. I realized that I was not likely to stumble across a silent movie made in France in 1912, and certainly no one was going to show it to me unless I sought it out myself. Suddenly there were unknown, unbelievable, life-changing adventures in cinema out there. And I was going to have to chase them down myself.

I'm going to try to chase them on this journal.

Don't forget to remove your speakers from your window before driving out.