Friday, December 02, 2005

Camera Obscura - I Am King Kong

With a new version of the classic "King Kong" on the way from Peter Jackson, a new documentary about the man who made the original Kong is a treasure trove of a seldom-celebrated innovator. Turner Classic Movies aired the documentary last week, "I Am King Kong: The Exploits Of Merian C. Cooper," and it is part of a new DVD set. (And not to forget, there's an East Tennessee connection to King Kong lore, but more on that later.)

Merian C. Cooper did far more than create a lasting iconic image of a Beast stuck atop a city skyscraper - he was an old-fashioned explorer and adventurer, a bomber pilot who even years after Kong became a Brigadier General, who helped turn Hollywood into a Technicolor marvel and that's barely the story. During World War 2, he and director John Ford met and returned to Hollywood to make movies that created another enduring American Icon - the cowboy. The two paired up for some of Ford's best work, from "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon" and "Fort Apache" to "The Quiet Man" and one of the best Westerns ever made, "The Searchers."

Why does Kong endure? It is a brilliant bit of insight into the collision of the old and the new, and modeler Willis O'Brien also made an excellent and articulate creature - the nuances of character are vivid and funny and almost human. There are also insights into Obsessions and Mythmaking in an America on its way to becoming a World power. The movie leaps from Hollywood to the Prehistoric and then back to the modern city and never misses a beat. The Great Beast, as was said in the film, was killed by beauty -- but to me it was the Ape's encounter with Greed which led to his demise. (And yes, I know there was a re-make in the 70s but it has all the power of a broken light switch.)

Here are some excerpts from TCM's profile of Cooper:

Before he fell under the spell of the movies, Cooper served as a bomber pilot in WWI. While flying in a mission over German lines, his plane caught fire. Though he succeeded in landing it and saving the life of his wounded gunner, he was taken prisoner by the Germans. Thinking him dead, the military sent an official death notice to his family. After the war, Cooper joined a group of American volunteer fliers committed to defending Poland against Russian aggression. He once again became a war prisoner, this time of the Russians. After being sentenced to death, he managed to escape, walking 400 miles across hostile terrain. After refusing honors from a grateful Poland, Cooper embarked on a life as an adventurer. He joined forces with cameraman Ernest B. Schoedsack and went deep into Persia to record the migration across river and mountain of the Bakhtiari tribe. Never before witnessed by westerners, this event became the landmark 1925 documentary Grass and led to a contract with Paramount. For their next project, 1927's Chang, Cooper and Schoedsack lived for a year in the jungle of Siam, filming the story of a family's struggle to survive amongst the marauding animal life. The way they photographed animals in the wild broke new ground, especially when it came to the climax, an astonishing sequence in which a massive herd of elephants stampede through a native village. Their third film, 1929's The Four Feathers, interpolated their trademark location shooting, this time in Africa, with the telling of a classic adventure yarn.

With Europe at war once again, Cooper was convinced it was only a matter of time before the United States joined the conflict. In June 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor, he once again put his film career on hold and left his family to return to active duty. When war was declared with Japan, Cooper was posted to the legendary Flying Tigers in China, where he became chief of staff to General Claire Chennault. Despite his age, Cooper was determined to see action from a cockpit and not just a desk. This fighting spirit may have impressed those who served around him, but it caused problems with those above, who consistently blocked his promotion. It would not be until several years after the war's end that he would be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General, but by then he was back in Hollywood. Cooper had joined forces with John Ford before the war, and with the war now over, they could revive their production company, Argosy. Though Ford could be the most difficult of people, he had enormous respect for Cooper.

As a fitting cap to his career, Cooper produced and co-directed the film that would launch the widescreen revolution:
This Is Cinerama. It was Cooper, the daredevil adventurer, who startled audiences with the thrilling rollercoaster ride that opened the show, and it was Cooper, the patriotic aviator, who stirred their hearts at the climax, as the camera soared in a plane from coast to coast

Cooper also had to place himself in the Kong movie as he pilots the plane that fired the fatal shot and left the Beast to tumble to the ground.

Sequels followed, and as mentioned, a massive remake was released in the 70s, and here is where East TN joins in on the Ape Legend.

"King Kong Lives," the sequel to the 70s film, was shot in Fall Creek Falls State Park - 2009 Village Camp Road, Pikeville, Tennessee, and in Pigeon Forge. And it is really, really awful. I mean really. Although, I should also mention the very odd and funny "King Kong vs. Godzilla" (1962), which is like watching a bad wrestling match, the kind you might find in some odd and forgotten roadside attraction late one some summer's night, when the workers put on weird outfits and play games -- only Japan could have made this one.

Kong's story is also a part of "Gone With the Wind". When the city of Atlanta burns, filmmakers burned tons of old sets around the movie lot, including that massive wooden fence from Skull Island which was supposed to keep Kong at bay -- but as has often been noted, why did they build a huge wall and then put a door in it big enough for Kong to walk thru?

Thursday, December 01, 2005

A Very Un-Scientific Survey

I want to know more about you, dear readers, and what burning (or at least piping-hot) issues tumble through your thoughts. Back in Ye Olde Radio Days, I used to conduct what I called a Very Un-Scientific Survey and today this event lands smack dab in the middle of your Cup of Joe.
Answer as many or as few as you wish - if you want to explain your answer go ahead and do so or just add your comment and go about your business.

Remember - This is Very Un-Scientific.

Questions For Readers:

1. On a scale of One to Ten, with One being lowest and Ten being highest, what score would you give the changes and reform in TennCare or Medicare?

2. Which issue would you say should be the top priority for state government funding - Education or Health Care or another issue?

3. Again on a scale of One to Ten, what score would you give the success of President Bush in leading the country?

4. Name at least three politicians, state or national, under ethics or criminal investigation. Is this normal, abnormal or unheard of?

5. Where do you get most of your news/information - Television, Internet, Radio, Newspapers, Friends, Blogs, etc etc.

6. What news story or recent information you've read and or heard in the last month made you angry?

7. What story made you happy?

8. What has been the best movie you've seen this year?

9. What has been the best music you've heard this year?

10. If you were fortunate enough to have a Thanksgiving feast with friends or family, what food made you happiest to eat?

Okay, that's it. That wasn't too bad, was it? I may try this type of survey again or I may not, depending on what you, dear readers, tell me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Not So Much A Secret in the Secret City

The proof of the power of words continues to swirl in the "Secret City" over the infamous high school editorial. According to the Knox News-Sentinel, (reg. required) the offending (and accurate) information about birth control has been replaced with an Editorial about a play being performed at the school - Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Earnest". Now that's just too funny!

The censorship and outrage and the publicity have likely made the student's comments become much more widely read and discussed than anyone may have imagined possible.

Say Uncle has some good points on the issue - as well as mentioning that the issue will be debated on WBIR-TV this weekend.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Shocking News! Teens Talk About Sex!!!

Over in the "Secret City", aka Oak Ridge, the state and national media has been alerted!! Teenagers talk about sex! And birth control!! And how NOT to get pregnant and NOT get diseases. Outraged school officials immediately seized copies of the school's paper (The Fig Leaf? no, wait, The Oak Leaf) and promptly ended any further student discussion about sex.

Riiiiiiight. Sure they did.

You can read the "horrifying" (and factual) editorial by a student on birth control and how to get it (thank God children never see these items in a store or anything) via this page from Whites Creek Journal.

More information is at Tennessee Guerilla Women, who notes that here in America, teen pregnancy rates have dropped to 34% -- which according to a 2004 study is the highest rate among developed countries. (Thank God we're developed!)

Juliepatchouli also blogs her views on the topic, as have others in Tennessee and beyond. In the "Secret City", there's fear the ACLU may appear on the horizon like Satan on horseback, probing the mystery of the Censored Student News.

Of course, I also heard the obligatory parent complaint that they did NOT want schools to be involved with communicating information about sex to THEIR kid. I hate to rain on that illusion, but teens and pre-teens (and even adults) learn about everything from each other all the time. Teens and adults alike just won't shut up - kids talk about their parents' divorces, and ask questions and generally talk about everything.

Thank God most teens can come home to watch the TV in their room while surfing the internet and talking on cell phones. You know, safe stuff like that.

The State Tax Turmoil

With projections of as many as 4,500 new pieces of legislation headed for the next session of the state's upcoming legislative session, one or two issues are once again getting some discussion including one debate sure to return with renewed energy -- the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR).

Other states as well are trying to create ways to limit the rapid growth of government spending while coping with growing demand for more increases to handle the ballooning costs of health care and education alone. However, the state has so many court orders on just how to fund these agencies, the legislature is operating under pressures from beyond the ballot box.

Truth is, the state already has language in the law to limit spending growth based on population and revenue growth, however the courts have made decrees about teacher pay and school funding and health care that step outside those boundaries.

And we are hardly alone in this maze of taxation -- Colorado, which has been the poster-boy for TABOR saw voters agree to changes in TABOR for a five year period, essentially limiting any potential state tax refunds in order to insure the state can provide a fully funded budget. The argument that TABOR is in fine shape in Colorado is made here by the Colorado State Treasurer.

Another view of whether or not TABOR is beneficial to states and taxpayers can be found here.

Other states are also in conflict over what to do and how to do it.

If you ask most residents of Tennessee, you'll find there are two key issues on their minds - jobs with better pay and consistent availability, and the nightmare of health care costs. Who should set the priorities of spending and at what levels of funding they receive are being stacked and prepared for the next election-promise cycle, but will any real changes occur?

Monday, November 28, 2005

No Sunshine On Tennessee Secrets

How often do your elected city, county or school board officials meet in secret to make decisions?

Keeping track is nearly impossible. Many meetings are held when the public is least able to attend, and many times officials meet in small groups to make decisions prior to any public debate or awareness.

The vast majority of Tennesseans have been kept in the dark for so long, they have no concept of how much their rights are violated. The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government's most recent report shows secrecy is increasing.

One story on that report is here.