Monday, 19 December 2005

Review: King Kong

Naomi Watts (to the right) endures another "Darrow escape" - or does she? - as the peril-prone Ann in Peter Jackson's three-hour epic, King Kong.

The T.S. Review is reluctant to offer this film - as a sort of jungle-drum sacrifice, bound and heaving - its highest review, Four Quartets (out of four) - but must do so, for reasons to be proffered below, in less robust circumstances, and with fewer blazing torches.

King Kong - the idea and the beast - like cinema itself (and this allegory is one that Jackson belabours like a man attempting to give birth to a Welles) - is a titanic and at times self-defeating thing - compromised by trying to be two things at once: massive (in appeal and profit) and tender. It is hard to hold nuances in an ape's gigantic fist, but a blonde girl's sweet face can sometimes be stroked profitably in such a grip.

All this to say, Jackson nods to the contradictions in his subtext (firstly, by referencing Conrad's Heart of Darkness, hardly a novel filmic homage; secondly by constantly using the word subtext in his script, in reference to the love between Watts and Brody; and thirdly, by actually having a character say, at about the first hour mark, "this isn't an action movie anymore" or something to the same effect) without actually confronting the two big ones:

1. King Kong is a film that purports to expose the callow "savage" in the concrete jungle of Western man's cities, like New York, who would destroy what is sacred, mystical, and mysterious, just for a fast nickel - doing so in terms, and within the medium, of, the most developed industrial process for creating and selling (false) images known to capitalism: the movie; Jackson's only semi-witty self-referencing of cinema history and practice via a few of his venturesome characters (the earnest bespectacled "Preston" who is no doubt Sturgess being one). In Jackson's defence, he loved the original on which this oversize love-letter is based, and so, even as he rakes in the billions, he can claim a certain sincerity amid the Barnum.

2. The second contradiction is more ideological still. Kong, as a film, may be a classic, and even represent Jungian depths of male turmoil, but it also dishes up, well, a blonde dish who tames a typical inarticulate male bully by showing a bit of leg and fainting a few times - and nothing in the film, aside from a veiled critique of "live animal capture" and lantern-jawed flying aces, really questions the male-dominated patriarchy. The question remains: why did Kong never fall in love with one of the (shall I put this delicately?) less-than-American-looking indigenous women of Skull Island? There is something in the gyrating ugliness of the "savages" on the uncharted isle that are less innocent in Samoa and more unruly in Alabama, and a sort of punitive put-down seems part of what the camera fails to gaze upon with admiration.

*

All serious politics confronted, let us admit, and admit it with a chest-thumping grunt: this is a superb piece of film-craft.

There are many sequences in the film (the ship running aground on the rocky shoals of Skull Island; the sacrifice scene; Kong's struggle against three dinosaurs to save Ann; Kong's heart-rending defeat at the hands of far lesser men; the Kane-like Theatre scene, leading to Kong's id-swelling smash-out from his massive chrome manacles; and of course, Kong's futile stand-off on the top of the Empire State Building, without a doubt one of the most memorable moments in all of cinema, here less reimagined as burnished by time) that stand very strong comparison to the best work that Steven Spielberg has ever managed - which is saying a lot.

On the evidence of this film, and the previous Rings trilogy, Jackson is the new major popular film-maker of the century. He also has some virtues Spielberg lacks (as well as the vice of thinking a creepy-crawly or a dinosaur can swell a scene or keep it moving when simple motivation might do): he is less obsessed with childhood as a trope, so lets adults steal the show - and is, in general, and perhaps for not being American, more subtle, or at least neutral.

But what of Kong and Watts?

Well, she is slinky sexuality with a next-door tang par excellence, and Kong is the next level of Gollum-goes-to-Hollywood.

Together again for the first time, as the saying goes, Jackson teases out subtleties of desire, and a profoundity of commitment between the zoologically-thwarted pair, which is truly moving. One glimpses, in the elegiac last moments of the picture, when the truly vast and mysterious presence that is Kong is literally slipping away, from life but also off the screen and the tower, down to the street-level and its indifference crassness below, a note as sad and true as at the end of Middle Earth.

Jackson's theme, or at least, leitmotif, seems not to be childhood's end - but more universally - the decline of wonder itself. Such a loss of appreciation for the magic in the heart of darkness every poet knows, as we long ago slipped from the radar, knocked off the tower by the sniping bullets of a prose-worn media that might as well be bi-plane pilots.

There is a majesty of loss in this film that, like a mini-Vertigo (also about the gaze and sudden plummeting), will break the heart. If there is a consolation, it is that the lonely beast found love at least once in his mighty life, even if having to go to New York to die, in order to taste its sweet destruction.
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