Friday, April 07, 2006

Camera Obscura - The Monkey's Melancholy

I admit here at the beginning - I've loved adventure and fantasy and science fiction movies since my first experience in a movie theatre. I was four and the movie, as hokey as it sounds, the movie was "Mary Poppins." But to my wee eyes and barely-begun brain, I was transported to a world where you could jump into and through a chalk drawing on a sidewalk and dance with the fantastic. The movie half-terrified me, as simply everything and every influence of that nefarious nanny took the children into and through worlds of imagination and adventure. But I was hooked.

Back in the early 90s, I found a few movies from a director out of New Zealand named Peter Jackson and in each of his weird and twisted comedy-horror-sci-fi adventures, I saw a filmmaker who soon would no longer be an obscure oddity, but a an international hit. I was right - or rather, he was right, about all his instincts of filmmaking as he showed in the mammoth worldwide hit adaption of the "Lord of the Rings" novels.

But even I was skeptical of his plan to redo "King Kong." And this week I finally saw it. If you haven't and especially if you think you wouldn't like this kind of fantasy, then I highly recommend it to you. Jackson manages not only to reveal how inspirational the original was to his imagination, he draws you into a story about the brutal and poignant struggle for survival in both breathtaking and heartbreaking scenes.

Wisely, Jackson starts his version in the heart of 1933, the New York streets filled with homeless and the starving as Al Jolson sings "I'm Sitting On Top Of The World." In a skeezy vaudeville hall, aspiring actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) a battered and beaten crowd barely applauds, and backstage, her only friend, an aging performer, speaks to the fact that this theater is dying off, and when it closes the next day, he gently informs her, she's on her own and must figure out survival on her own.

Much at the same time, producer/director Carl Denham (Jack Black) is fighting with studio heads for the survival of his latest movie. He is all bluster and showmanship and short-tempered, refusing to accept defeat. His decision is to escape from his backers aboard a ship as yet unpaid, steal some movie cameras and force his way into making SOMETHING, some new product that will attract paying customers. When he sees the famished actress Darrow (first shown in a window along with his own reflection), he spins a wild tale to talk her into taking the journey for his mostly imaginary project.

The reason Jackson begins his movie with these scenes is to begin laying the groundwork for the real center of his new version - the search for more than subsistence survival.

Even the crew of his mostly hijacked ship "Venture" have vivid characterizations, unspoken intentions and fears and likely, judging by the weapons later hauled up from the ship's storage, they are gunrunners. One shipmate is reading "Heart of Darkness" and at one point notes to his friend, "This isn't an adventure story, is it?"

Using an ancient and dubious map detailing the location of "Skull Island", the producer and crew are literally hurled upon fog-shrouded, giant jagged stones which threaten to tear the ship to shreds. From here on, this movie unleashes a fury of action-packed sequences as they enter an unknown world populated by islanders who themselves seem to be on the verge of extinction. Who knows how many generations of these rocky cliff dwellers have witnessed horrors hidden by a mammoth wall running across the island - though an apparent shaman woman points to the blonde and fair Darrow with designs of using her for ... something.

Certainly the original and the 1977 remake imply a sexual tension between the Actress and the Beast called Kong. However, in this version, almost immediately the two connect on a more emotional level - they are abandoned in hostile worlds with no friends, no help and small chance of survival. It's when the Actress tries to distract Kong with some of her old funny vaudeville scenes that the massive creature laughs and something very much akin to friendship in a deadly world of imminent extinction emerges. This is made more evident as the Actress stumbles across the remains of other giant apes, implying Kong is likely the last of his kind, a subtle sign that this Beast is utterly alone and without hope - much the same feelings of the Actress view of herself.

While the Producer hauls his camera in hopes of capturing something he can sell, the crew attempts to rescue the Actress. Jaw-dropping action follows as Kong battles creatures drawn from the original film and from many pulp adventure stories most common in the 1930s. Lost in a maze of murderous creatures and savage horrors, Kong and the Actress do survive, and seek refuge on a cliffside where Kong, despite his animalistic origins, seems to find both beauty and peace. That same moment is shared more tragically again as the pair find themselves stuck high atop the Empire State Building.

But you don't need a degree in film studies for this movie to sweep you up and carry you away. If you allow Jackson to take you on this voyage through imagination and loss, you'll find a movie you'll want to see more than once.

Also of note, a major difference in the original and this version, Ann Darrow does not participate in the public humiliation and exploitation of the captured Kong. The literally both flee their trappings in the booming city and seek each other out as common souls, lost souls who have no other bonds of friendship.

A review by Carina Chocano in the L.A. Times sums it nicely :

A travelogue through popular movie genres, it passes from socially conscious drama to comedy, romance, horror, adventure, science-fiction fantasy and doomed love story, cleverly quoting the styles and tropes to which we've become accustomed along the way. A movie about the movies, and specifically an exploitation picture about exploitation pictures, Jackson's "Kong" is also a witty comment on the darkness at the heart of adventure stories, a bazillion-dollar spectacle that reserves the right to question the morality of spectacles, and, mostly, a tender love story about a melancholy girl and her tragically misunderstood monkey."


  1. I hate myself for missing this in the theater.

    I heart Peter Jackson. You've seen Dead Alive, right? Right? Brilliant.

  2. Oh yes - not sure which i liked best: the kung-fu bishop who "kicks ass for the Lord!" or that astonishing use of a power mower thru a roomful of zombies!

    Also worth a note - in "King Kong", down in the hold of he ship is a rickety crate with some creature inside labeled "Giant Rat of Sumatra". heh heh

    I oonce taught a film class at the local college on horror films and Dead/Alive nearly cleared the room!

  3. The lawn mower scene is hands-down the grestest zombie death scene ever captured on film. Those college students were pussies.

    Thanks for the heads-up about the Giant Rat of Sumatra in King Kong. That's a hoot, and I'll totally keep my eyes peeled for it. Thanks also for linking to me. I'll return the favor!

  4. The lawn mower scene is A+++ for most arterial spray in a film.

    I cried for an hour after Kong died.
    Arterial spray I can handle. Giant primates dying is what makes me a pussy...

  5. I swear to God if I lived near you guys, I would beg you to come over for Movie Night (there is usually some alcohol involved.) One of our biggest nights was several years ago when we screened Dead Alive.
    Kicking Ass for the Lord was one of my favorites too.
    Ironically, I just watched King Kong last weekend, and I was quite mesmorized by it.
    And Editor, I was all teared up too, because King Kong was misunderstood, and I'm a geek and feel that way constantly.
    But Dead Alive. To quote Tits, I heart Dead Alive.

    I love zombies.

  6. Cinemonkey4:21 AM

    Even though 99% of remakes are sub par, if we didn't have them, we'd be stuck with Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan. The new Kong illustrates the fact that if someone with talent & vision is in charge of the project, miracles can happen.
    And to the (since)contrite mutual friend who declared, "Then let him make his own giant ape movie!", I give a hearty "thpbbthhh!"