Pop Culture Gadabout
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
      ( 1/10/2006 11:38:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"JUST TRUST ME AND KEEP YOUR CHIN UP!" – Riding With the King – Part One: Decided to hold off on seeing Peter Jackson's King Kong remake 'til I'd had the chance to first re-watch the original. So part of last weekend was spent playing with the new two-disc DVD set and reminding myself just how much I love this movie. I know, for many modern viewers, the 1933 film's dated aspects get in the way of their enjoyment of this flick – the simple fact of black-&-white photography, the relatively primitive film technology or the cultural attitudes on display (c.f., the casual racism of the movie's white characters, whether it's toward Skull Island's native population or the Chinese cook on board the ship) – but to my eyes they all add to my enjoyment of the movie since they're all part of the world that created it. Would I want to live in the Depression Era that produced the original Kong? No more than I'd want to die young in Elizabethan England, but that doesn't mean I'm not attracted to the popular art produced in both periods.

And the original Kong is so naked in its thrill-a-minute ambitions, so willing to try practically anything to excite and appall its audience (the giant ape stubbing out the lives of two native victims – or thoughtlessly dropping an innocent city woman to her death when he realizes she isn't the woman he's been seeking) that it's arguably the nearest thing to Barnum-esque entertainment that the movies have ever produced. (It's no accident that showman entrepreneur Carl Denham's name is so close to the pride of Bridgeport, Ct.) I've read a lot of criticism over the years that has put different thematic spins on this movie – it's a metaphor for slavery; it's a catalog of potent surreal dream imagery, and so on – and the movie has held up to 'em all because its core material is so potent. The fanciest conceit that the movie holds – and it's drummed into us with at least one more exchange than it needs to be – is the Beauty and the Beast theme.

Then there's Willis O'Brien's magnificent FX work, which never ceases to provide megatons of pleasure. At this stage in the game, only the very youngest viewer could be deceived by a bunch of jerky dolls with thumbprints on 'em, but that's not the point. What matters is the visual and dramatic imagination on display throughout: the gloomily nightmarish Skull Island setting (totally trifled with in the negligible sequel Son of Kong), the non-stop display of raging dinosaurs, the endlessly expressive figure of Kong himself. Watching King Kong in regards to the last, in fact, I began seeing the movie as a dramatic battle between differing acting styles. Kong and his leading lady Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) represent the more physically emotive type of acting that saw its heyday in silent films (check out that foreshadowing screen test sequence – with Wray doing her best emotive heroine-in-distress for director Denham); male human leads Denham (voluble Robert Armstrong) and Jack Driscoll (taciturn Bruce Cabot) carry the torch for a whole new style of movie performing. When the big ape gets shot, elegantly gesturing on top of the Empire State Building, it's as emblematic of the death of silent moviemaking as Al Jolson's "You ain't heard nuthin' yet!"

But, there I go, playing my own critical games with the movie – it's just so hard to resist. Will Peter Jackson's Kong prove as rich a subject? At this stage, I suspect it's well nigh impossible to craft a remake like this with the same disingenuous ripeness as the original (reading that the remake's script adds allusions to "Heart of Darkness" does not bode well, methinks), but now that I've happily delved into the source material, I'm eager to see how the Eighth Wonder fares in the 21st Century Movie World . . .

(To Be Continued)
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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