Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Eighth Wonder of the World

I was going through some of my old notebooks earlier this week looking for the review I wrote of King Kong when I was 14. I won't inflict my juvenilia on you, but suffice it to say, that kid was absolutely convinced that she had written the definitive overview of Kong, one that would never be surpassed by future film scholars. It was the kind of hubris only a 14 year old kid can have. You can probably see why I'm not going to share it with you, right? Right.

I've been avoiding writing about King Kong ever since. Not just because I did the definitive job of it when I was 14, mind you, but because over time, Kong just overwhelms everything. How does one summarize something one loves so, so deeply? There's simply too much. People write books about Kong. It's a film that's bottomless. I was reminded of this this week in the course of prepping an introduction for the film at my local art house (I've been curating/introducing a series of pre-code horror films at my local art house this month). I had 14 minutes in which to summarize Kong and that doesn't even account for the comments we made on the short film we chose to go with it (Disney's "Lonesome Ghosts," if you're curious). Here are the notes I took before the show as my collaborator and I sussed it all out over dinner:

For those who can't read my chicken scratches:

Cooper & Schoedsak--Kong as autobiography
Willis O'Brien--Kong as anti-auteurist collaboration
Boy's Adventure--The smurfette principle, The He-Man Woman Hater's Club
Fay Wray--cinema's all-time greatest screamer
Kong as Colonialist narrative vs. Kong as anti-colonialist narrative
Is Kong Racist?
Kong as Rapist--Note pre-code elements removed on re-release
Kong as disenfranchised suitor
Kong as depression escapism
Kong as kaiju--fantasies of destruction as escapism
Kong as pulp fiction--Jungle adventure

There was NO way we were getting to all of that in fourteen minutes, or even in the discussion at the bar afterward, and my erstwhile partner in this enterprise had his own notes. He and I disagree on significant points, too. So it was a fools errand, trying to summarize Kong for an audience. Plus, we improvised a bunch of stuff. My collaborator had a bit of schtick he wanted to perform about meeting Fay Wray, and I was to be the straight person for this, as it were.

We saved the question of whether or not Kong is racist for near the end of our talk, because that's a question that will suck all of the air out of the room. I kinda think it is racist, myself, but I'm sympathetic to the idea that it's anti-racist. I think at one point I suggested that the end of King Kong is the thirties equivalent of Sweet Sweetback's Badasss Song, which got a pretty good laugh. I didn't mention that I think the first half of Kong is more akin to Heart of Darkness, and that that part of the film tends to infantilize the natives and place the problems of white people against an exotic colored background. I wish that I had, because I think I got some eye rolls when I suggested that there's some problematic stuff in the film. Problematic, by the way, doesn't mean "bad." And Kong is certainly an ambivalent film on this point, unlike, say, the pernicious racism in Gone With the Wind.

Not in my notes is the idea that Kong is a Lovecraftian narrative, one duly appointed with an ancient, fallen civilization and a god-monster that dwarfs humankind. Carl Denham is a rough hewn version of Lovecraft's obsessed scholars, but he's equally dogged in his pursuit of the forbidden. He's the Mythos scholar as filtered through a Warner Brothers wiseguy con-man.

Kong remains an absolutely magnificent entertainment, and the pleasure of watching it is greatly amplified when watching it with an audience. Some of the jokes that fall flat when you watch the film at home on a television work splendidly when you're surrounded by a bunch of people who are having a good time. And Kong is big. Even on the largest of televisions, the scale of Kong suffers, though even on television, it's a film that compels the viewer to watch it. The audience was really into it last night, but I've never seen a bored audience at Kong. The number of kids in the audience was gratifying, too. Kong is best discovered when you're a kid. It was for me, anyway.

This is, I think, the fourth time I've seen Kong on the big screen. It's a kind of pilgrimage for me. Is this the sort of thing that other people get out of church? Maybe. I'll take the movies, instead, though.


Lee Price said...

Question from the audience (over here!): What's the Smurfette principle?

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Lee. So glad you asked. You can read about it here (I recommend watching the video).

Mykal said...

Vulnavia: Great post. I loved those 14 year old notes. Quite socially aware for one so young. I remember seeing Kong at about that age and being completely knocked out by Fay Wray. There was just something so womanly about her, so timeless and forever modern. She was hot as hell, and I was so amazed that an old-time actress could nail me like that.

I believe Wray is one major reason the film appeals to generation after generation. She works sort of behind the film, behind its bombast. There was just something so timelessly moral and human about her performance. She creates the center of the film. Have you ever seen her in the Most Dangerous Game? Simply amazing.

Barry P. said...

Despite your stated misgivings, I think you managed to take a new spin on an old classic. Nice job! Now that you mention the Lovecraftian overtones, I'm thinking of The Call of Cthulu.

I can only imagine how this must have played to a packed theater audience.

crow said...

Your fourth time? I'm jealous.