Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney
rozk

Tori Kong! Tori Kong!! TORI KONG!!!!!!

I'm feeling profoundly conflicted the more I think about Peter Jackson's 'King Kong' and I have to say, before I start, that I was blown away by it when I was actually in the cinema. I had my hand in my mouth during some of the action sequences; I chortled with delight at some of the sentimental scenes; and my eyes were appropriately moist.

But . When I talk about the implicit racism of remaking the original so closely, I am not, let us be clear, saying anything about the alleged racial subtext of Kong himself.

Kong is not black - he is a gorilla. He is vastly more a gorilla here even than he was in the original. Of course there is a long tradition of racial slurs against people of African descent involving pseudo-science based on evolution and this goes on to this day. ( There also used to be a similar tradition of slurs of the same kind against the Irish). I do not feel that in any meaningful way those slurs are being used here and, if I did, I could not have enjoyed the film.

Kong is clearly old and tired and almost certainly the last of his kind. (At at least one point, we see half-buried skeletons of other great apes.) Jackson's vision of him is as a tremendously sad being, filled with enormous rage and a capacity for tenderness that he has never had a chance to explore for a very long time. His obsession with Ann Darrow has less to do with her being blonde and Caucasian than with her standing up to him and entertaining him - she is something new and shiny and so he doesn't kill her out of boredom. This is probably the least sexual portrayal of the relationship between Ann and Kong - it is not about lust. It is about his attaching to her all his inchoate yearnings and her compassion for a creature that is courageous and has saved her life repeatedly. I do not think that any of this has a racist subtext.

The racism is primarily in the handling of the people of Skull Island. They are ecstatics and fanatics; and they are Pacific islanders who act out most of the stereotypes of murderous natives that are embedded in the literature of dealings by people of British descent in the Pacific since the Maori drove Captain Cook away from their shores and the Hawaiians killed him. Jackson does not engage at all with what the Skull Islanders might feel about these whites who have turned up on their shores - they attack peaceful movie-makers with spears and clubs and have to be shot down. They kidnap Anne and sacrifice her to Kong and then, interestingly, they disappear from the movie never to be seen again. In other words, they are a plot function as well as a set of stereotypes, and it would have been interesting to make them so much more.

The thirties film is racist in the same way, but the islanders are shown marginally more sympathetically there. A mother rescues her child from Kong - they are not all fanatical worshippers.

One of the reasons for objecting to racism in art is that it is a cheap and lazy solution to artistic problems, as well as having terrible consequences in the real world.

Nor is the charge of racism entirely answered by the presence in the film of a classically noble African-American first mate (Evan Parke) who talks intelligently about Conrad. Apart from anything else, though he is far from the only crew member or member of the movie crew who gets killed, he is the first of them to actually killed directly by Kong. It is never a good idea for a black character to be a red shirt in a film that was always going to be found problematic.

Jackson already has form on this - he does not think about consequences and he does not cover his arse. Just because the corsairs in Tolkien are clearly thought of as vaguely Arab in appearance, does not mean that he had to open that particular can of worms in the LOTR films.

I certainly would not convince him of anything worse than insensitivity, but it is an issue that worries me when so much else in the film is quite wonderful.

And in spite of all of this, I do love the film, and that probably means it is very good indeed for me to get past these issues.



Jackson's film is, far more than the original, a movie about the making of movies and the making of spectacle. Carl Denham is a moderately vicious portrait of a man so focussed on getting the perfect shot that he puts himself and anyone around him in jeopardy - the reason for casting Jack Black is to ensure that we never hate him. He is a moral imbecile with his own roguish charm, and you go on being entertained by him even when he gets those close to him killed. Part of the point is that he is physically courageous - he climbs on a rock at the risk of being left behind by the boats and cracks a bottle of chloroform over Kong's head to stun him.

If he is a statement about America as well as about the movies, and I rather think he is, he is not an entirely negative one. Kong has destroyed the film project for which Denham has risked jail, and so in Denham's mind, Kong owes him a replacement spectacle; this is entirely inappropriate, but it is not without its own warped sense of justice. At one point, his estranged assistant says that Denham is compelled to destroy the things he loves and this is a part of the truth. There is more to him than the sociopath artist and tyrant - when Jackson sticks to the original and gives him the line 'It was beauty that killed the beast', Black gives it a plangency that reminds us that Denham has the soul of a poet as well as the heart of a cockroach.

Denham wants to hit audiences with shock and awe; Anne Darrow wants to make them laugh and cry. She is a hoofer and a juggler and a comedienne - she is too proud to strip, but not too proud to flirt. She is an all-round family entertainer who wins our hearts as well as Kong's. Naomi Watts is quite wonderful in this part and she deserves to be a major contender for Oscars. And if Denham is the mercenary ambition of America's greatness in the world, Ann is those better angels of wit and razzmatazz and compassion and kindliness. She stays with Kong at the end - there is no language that expresses this except Watts' moving expressions and body language - not because she loves him but because she does not want him to die alone.

Brody as Driscoll, the man she loves is pretty good too in a part that has less intrinsic interest to it than Denham's. In a way, the interesting version of Kong would be the one in which Anne loved Denham.

All the action sequences - the whole Master of Kong-fu aerial ballet with tyrannosauri swinging from creepers, the brontosaurus stampede, the disgusting penile mollusc things - are fabulous beyond the telling of them. I was in love, I have to say this, with the bit where Kong, in Central Park, discovers ice and he and Anne play. He skids around on his side and bottom and has the bright eyes of a child, and she laughs at him, and loves him. Until their idyll is shattered by the US Army's howitzers.

In a sense, Kong is America as much as Anne or Denham. He does tremendous damage and kills a number of women for resembling Anne and not being her, and would kill Driscoll out of jealous spite if he could. He lumbers around a world he cannot understand, and is brave, and doomed and dies - he is not a nice ape, because he has a mean streak, but he is a tragic one.

+++++++

Fannishly, I find myself reflecting on the back story and what comes next. Skull Island has vast cyclopean architecture - the ruined city where the tribe live and the wall that keeps their barren part of the island safe from dinosaurs and Kongs - and you wonder what it is for and why people live there. My own personal view is that the dinosaurs and Kongs are there as part of a prison for something quite incredibly vile - and the penile mollusc things are part of my feeling. Skull Island is R'yleh and under it lies sleeping Great Cthulhu, or Nyartholoep, or something else Lovecraftian.

I would, incidentally, pay good money to see a Jackson Lovecraft film.

I have also had a very very silly bunny which someone ought to have had lo! these many years before me. I am almost tempted to write the story of how Denham decides that he is not going to let a simple thing like being shot to bits and falling off the Empire State free Kong from his obligations to him. So he calls in a mad scientist - maybe Herbert West of Miskatonic U, the Reanimator - and the result is the creature they called 'Frankenkong'...

+++++++

Congratulations to all those who have entered into civil partnerships or are about to. Given everything I hate about Blair and Blairism, it is nice to be able to point to something positive they have done.

Oh, and can someone explain to me how badgers are supposed actually to communicate TB to cattle? If we are going to risk the extinction of a delightful creature, could someone actually spell out the science for me? I really want to know - do badgers spit on the grass or do something with a different consonant. or what?
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