Sunday, July 21, 2013

I love King Kong

Not the laughably flawed and preachy 1976 remake.  Nor Peter Jackson's bloated and over-directed 2005 remake.  I mean the original.  It ranks on my top twenty list with no problem, and on my better days, it ranks in the top ten.  It has problems, and I'll admit it's been a while since I watched it because of those problems.  Not problems really, but what Kong did to me as a youngster watching it on TV.  And not the problems that our hipster, enlightened and morally superior post modern neo-puritans have with it today.  Nonetheless, I love it. It is awesome in every way that awesome can be, warts and all.  And here's why I think this.

"Did you ever hear of ... Kong"?  So the commercials heading toward Thanksgiving on WUAB, Channel 43, Lorraine/Cleveland would open, anticipating the annual tradition of King Kong and Miracle  on 34th Street on Thanksgiving night.  Don't know how it happened, but it did.  From as far back as I remember, this was a staple, and a sure sign that Christmas and my birthday were just around the corner.  Fan of monster movies that I was, and in the days before VCRs and DVDs, I set aside each Thanksgiving night to watch Kong, Fay, Robert, and the rest of the hapless cast take us through a roller-coaster ride of thrills, chills, and terror.

And that's what it was.  In all of motion picture history, there are few films that move at such a pace as Kong.  Once the action starts, it never stops.  From the moment we meet Kong, about forty minutes into the film, to the finale on the streets of New York, it is almost non-stop excitement and adventure.

I won't waste time with the plot.  If you don't know the story, then go watch the movie.  Instead, the reason I love it is because it captures a moment in time like few other movies before or since.  Much has been written about it's meanings, messages, and Merian Cooper's own ideas about what it stood for.  But in the end, it captures the twilight of the pre-techno age, when parts of the world were still mysterious, America was emerging as a super power, and technology and industry were changing the world forever.

The lost island, the fallen civilization, the ancient wall.  The jungles and prehistoric creatures, not the least of
which is the title character himself.  And on the flip side, New York City, fast on track to surpassing Paris and London as the center of civilization, airplanes, motion pictures, radios, and the icon of America's industrial might and ingenuity: the Empire State Building.  Everything came together to make this a movie that could present its story without doing what movies do today, and that's bludgeon the audience with the points being made.

When I would sit in front of our old manual dial television set and watch this, I was almost shaking by the time the first break in the action happened, shortly after Kong's fight with the T-Rex/Allosaurus.  It was at times disturbing.  Though not because of a "message". There was no overt moral sermonizing, other than the obvious story: Carl Denham just doesn't know when to quit.  Even then, Denham is not 'the bad guy'.  Not like he would be today.  Nor were
the natives altogether bad.  Sure they did bad things.  Sure Denham did wrong.  But it wasn't as if the movie was trying to say 'there, serves them right.'

When the sailors rush into the jungle, it's to save Ann from the clutches of Kong.  They meet terrible, horrifying deaths.  Not because they deserve it.  But because that's what happens.  The dinosaurs aren't 'evil.'  They're there, in their world.  And the sailors have run into these primal forces of nature they're ill-prepared to deal with.  But they don't have to die because.  They aren't killed because.  They're killed because they run afoul of creatures too horrible for them to handle.  There is no scene where they spout off some diatribe about how inferior the natives were, or
how they love killing puppies, or how they would love to rape the land for resources.  Nope.  They die because the dinosaurs and Kong are too big for them. They're actually just trying to do the right thing and rescue a girl.

Kong is also sympathetic.  Sure, the goal is rescue the girl and eventually kill Kong.  But it isn't as if there is a moral force in his actions.  He's just doing his thing.  When he shakes the sailors off the log, it's because he's defending what's his.  He beats dinosaurs and airplanes for what's his.  He's doing all he knows to do, and the film never says otherwise.  People in New York who die aren't evil, or spouting bigotry or anti-progressive ideals.  They are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And when Kong is dead at the end (sorry for no spoiler alert, but if you didn't know that by now, you didn't
deserve the warning), you feel a little pity for him, and yet you don't feel that you should pull a Zimmerman on Carl Denham.

Ah, that was movie making.  Today, of course, in the age of Political Control, all things have to advance the Cause.  The sailors must shoot first.  The natives must be some bizarre androgynous race deserving no more sympathies than marching zombies.  Kong and Ann must psychologically connect, and we must be shown that it's evil men and their wicked machines who are the bad ones.  And whoever is Denham or the Denham character must be stripped of sympathy and shown to be the force of evil that he is for toying with nature and the march of progress.

And the characters?  Derided by some hipsters today as shallow in 33, in our version they would be caricatures, types.  They would represent things.  The evil corporate mogul.  The sadistic hunter.  The racist white guy.  The religious fanatic.  And when they were trounced, eaten, trampled, shaken, crushed or whatever, you would know not-too-deep-down that they deserved it because of who, ore more important what, they were.

In 1933's Kong, the characters may not be deep - but it was 1933.  Watch those movies then and see how quick they were.  Movies were new, and they didn't feel the need to bring out Freud's couch and analyze every action and idea for hours on end.  Ann was a girl duped into following Denham's crazy ideas.  The skipper an old, crusty sea veteran.  The sailors, described at the beginning as rough and threatening, were sailors.  Yes, some old racial stereotypes like the Asian cook or the dastardly island natives. or at least natives doing what an American ideal of what natives did in 1933.    But have you ever watched non-Western movies that depict things in America and Europe? Watch 1963's Salladin the Victorious, and you'll stop forever beating up on American and European cinema for being uniquely racist.  The natives in Kong come off as angelic compared to how the Europeans are portrayed in much of that film (if not all of it, in parts - but then, the Natives in Kong aren't always bad either).

If Kong was racist, then it shows that bigotry is a part of the ages then and now.  In 2001, a made for TV movie version of The Lost World was released.  Injected into the story, and not part of Arthur Conan Doyle's book upon which the movie was based, was the character of Reverend Theo Karr.  Played by the late, great Peter Falk, he is the religious fundamentalist determined to keep proof against his laughably outdated biblical views a secret.  How?  He strands the heroes on the plateau, sentencing them to almost certain death.  Why?  Well because, he's a Christian fundamentalist!  It's what they do!  They're all killers, all of them, killing and murdering to defend their bigotry and idiocy!  So if you think unfair portrayals of people are limited to 1933, you're not paying attention to 2013.

Anyway, the story.  Why did it bother me?  Well, for that reason.  People died because they died.  There was no reason for it.  Shallow as they might have been, they weren't cardboard cutouts representing 'a point of view.' When Kong breaks into an apartment and grabs a sleeping woman, thinking she is Ann, he pulls her out  the window.  Bewildered and terrified, the woman screams for her life, helpless in Kong's grasp as he examines her dozens of stories above the streets.  Then, satisfied that it isn't Ann, he turns his hand and drops her to her death.  Horrifying.  I used to lose sleep over that.  Over the sailors, too.  They didn't die because they were bad guys.  Today, of course, critics are quick to point out their sadistic killing of a charging stegosaurus.  I guess that's supposed to mean they got what they had coming.  But I get the impression that in the mind of the 1933 movie goer, killing a charging stegosaurus was not grounds for capital punishment.  Nonetheless, they died.  And they died for the same reason the Natives died.  They died because they were killed.  By Kong, dinosaurs, whatever.

And that left an impression on me.  Something I think is missing today, and one that makes me wonder.  Being a fan of old movies, I notice something.  Often times, no matter how bad the people, there is a sense of 'that's horrible they died.'  When Scarlet kills a ransacking Yankee in Gone With the Wind, there is a moment of near horror as she and Melanie Wilkes realize what she has done.  Of course then their minds turn to more practical matters, but at least there is a moment.  When Fritz dies in Frankenstein, he may have provoked the monster, but there is still remorse.  And in Kong, Carl Denham emphasizes that "twelve of our party met horrible death." Yes, there are times when the odd extras die, or in the more overtly racist moments, a native dies and nobody cares except that he was carrying the supplies.  Again, bigotry then and now.  But there was usually a sense that dying was bad.  No matter the genre.  No matter how bad the villain.  When Guy of Gisbourne dies after the legendary sword fight with Robin Hood, there's not a 'cool! look at how gruesome that was!'  There is a sense of 'wow, he's gone, he's paid the price'.  It's a moment of gravitas, to use the popular term.

Today, and for some time, killing has become rather cheap.  Almost comic. And often deserved.  I purchased a movie a while back, Villa Rides.  I wanted it because it made me think of the current approach to the sequester cuts.  More on that later.  Anyway, I watched it, and was taken by how the killing was almost done to comic levels.  At some point, you got the impression you were supposed to laugh at Charles Bronson gunning down a radio operator questioning the mission.  By the 1976 Kong remake, you have no doubt that most who get killed have it coming.  When Charles Grodin ends up at the business end of Kong's footprint, you know that the movie's message is that he had it coming.  By the time the eighties are around, killing is mixed between the horrific and the cool and the justified.

Even movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark seem obsessed with 'how can we make the death more gruesome.'  Though in those cases, deaths are still seen as bad (swordsman notwithstanding).  Indiana Jones doesn't look at the man in front of the propeller blade and say 'ha!  serves you right!'   He turns away.   But when people die in Jurassic Park II, it's clear each and every one of them gets what's coming to them.  And you know what?  Generally, I don't care as much or am not as bothered by these deaths as I am the deaths of Sir Guy, Fritz the lab assistant, or a sailor on a tree on Skull Island.

And maybe that's part of the problem when we think of violence and movies.  Not that Kong was a racist movie and we're so enlightened because we know the right people to hate.  Not that the special effects aren't up to our awesome standards. FWIW, I can't even believe that people say that today.  Some day I'm going to write a post on how the Internet seems to have telescoped our perspectives rather than broaden them.  I watched this movie all the way through the eighties.  My friends watched it on VHS when it came out.  Star Wars had come and gone.  Huge leaps in special effects had occurred.  And guess what?  We never felt we needed to justify Kong's effects.  It was 19 freaking 33.  In terms of proportionality, those effects make Avatar appear made by Crayola by comparison.  And we understood that in the 80s when we considered this one of the best special effects movies of all time, post-Star Wars and all.  And for my money, the battle between Kong and the Rex would not shame most undertakings today.

So the problem I have with Kong?  I can't watch it because it was intense, it was true to itself, and it was what it was.  There was no sermonizing.  There was no preaching.  No PC.  No anything.  You were just taken on a whirlwind adventure, not to judge, condemn, or cast aspersions on this or that person or creature.  Like Larry Talbot, the Frankenstein monster, or even Senator Joe Paine, you almost sympathize both with Kong and with Carl Denham, with the natives of the island and the natives of New York.

In its odd way, it's more equal and inclusive than movies today, that see everything in black and white, red and blue, right and left, pro-this and anti-that.  When death comes Kong, no cheering is intended.  No celebrations.  No feeling that those sunsabitches had it coming.  You feel as horrified as you should in any good horror movie then and now.  And to be honest, more so than in many movies today that use death as the ultimately deserved punishment for those who have fallen from the modern faith.  Shallow though they may have been in 1933, they weren't caricatures.  And maybe that's what makes it so tough to watch even after all these years.  Why when Carl Denham utters that most famous of movie lines in 1933, you feel a touch of pity for all the victims, for Denham, and for Kong.  But when Jack Black butchers it 72 years later, you don't care, Kong was the victim, and everyone else got what they had coming.

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