Sunday, December 18, 2005

King Kong (1976)

I didn't go see Peter Jackson's King Kong this weekend. The whole family wants to see it together, and holiday schedules preclude that from happening yet, so we're going to see it on Christmas day, which gives me an extra Christmas present to look forward to.

So instead, I watched the 1976 version produced by Dino DeLaurentis and directed by John Guillermin. I was about 8 when this came out, and it was fucking HUGE. You couldn't look anywhere without seeing this rather deceptive poster:

It was really an insane level of hype. The film bombed, and was embarrassingly overshadowed by Spielberg's low-budget Jaws. Of course, this was all invisible to me. I heard one or two of my friends aping their parent's claim that the original was better, but as far as I knew, the movie was a huge hit.

I can't say this movie didn't deserve it. The original King Kong is legendary for it's special effects and it's action and adventure. The 76 version got cheaped out. Much of the pre-release hype centered on a giant robot gorilla that had been costructed for the film, but the robot ended up only being used for one close-up or something. Mostly it's the Godzilla approach of using a man in a monkey suit (there's even a shot of Kong breaking through powerlines that looks straight out of a Godzilla movie). There's not much action either, compared to the original. There's no t-rex, no pteranadon, no spider pit. The only monster Kong fights is an incredibly bad looking giant snake. We forget how much Star Wars changed things. If Kong had been made two years later, would it have been a completely different movie?

Peter Jackson comes from the same school as Lucas and Speilberg. They all see Kong as the ultimate in fantastic adventure for the young at heart. DeLaurentis and Guillermin apparently saw it as a Freudian parable about a young woman who is abducted by a savage, horny ape who seduces her, then places her atop a huge phallus where they reach an explosive climax as biplanes spurt their loads out. Then he rolls over and goes, permanently, to sleep. At the very least, Dino, John and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr. had sex very prominently on their mind. There's hardly a line in the whole film that doesn't have some kind of sexual implication ("What do you have, crystal balls?"), and phallic symbols seem to "pop up" all over the place. In an early scene, Charles Grodin says something like "Here's to The Big One," and the camera cuts to the tower of the ship jutting up against the horizon. Grodin extends his Manly Pointer throughout his slide presentation. The pole is greased before being slid through the lock of the great gates. And Jessica Lange's character, Dwan, shows up in the most vaginal-looking rubber lifeboat I've ever seen.

The backstory on Dwan: she was traveling to Hong Kong with a producer who promised to put her in a movie. The boat blew up, but she survived because she was up on deck while all the others were down below watching Deep Throat. Lange looks to be in her late-20's, so it seems far-fetched to suppose this girl is a virgin, but this story at least provides a sense of innocence to the character. Although it's never addressed, we get the feeling this "movie" she had been cast in was less than legitimate, and she seemed to be hanging with a sleazy crowd, at any rate. So let's say she was just dipping her feet into the waters of sexuality, deciding whether to take the plunge. In other words, the perfect heroine for our parable.

Kong, of course, represents the male libido, and his title of "King" pronounces him an absolute alpha male. The moment Dwan arrives on his island, she begins striking sexual poses on the beach for Jack's camera, presenting herself to her mate. Later, back on the boat, she flirts with Jack, and arranges a rendezvous. The moment Jack steps away, she is abducted and brought back to her wedding with her true suitor (or perhaps the whole adventure with Kong on the island is a symbolic stand-in for her adventure in Jack's bedroom--either reading is fine by me).

In this version of the story, there is no doubt about what the natives expect to happen on the other side of the great gate. The shaman, wearing a gorilla mask, does a lewd, sexual dance in front of Dwan. Lots of thrusting. She seems to have been drugged prior to the ritual, which can't hurt. Then Kong comes for her, and the look in her eyes seems to suggest nothing so much as "it's too big." She screams in Kong's palm, but from the angle, it's hard to tell if it's from fear or ecstasy.

As I said earlier, most of the action and monsters is left out of the Skull Island adventure. But what's left? Kong hurling his rivals into the pit with his giant log. Kong choking a huge serpent that's wrapped around him. Kong staring at two unnaturally tall and straight rock formations.

Back in New York, they go from Freudian to Jungian during a scene between Jack and Dwan after Kong has cut the power. "Remember that blackout, and all the babies that were born 9 months later?" asks Dwan. "Here's to all the future sons and daughters of Kong," she concludes, revealing that Kong is a fertility god who Haveth Childers Everywhere.

The two subtexts always looked at in the Kong story are sex and race. Cooper's Kong was made in a world with very different ideas about race, colonialism, white supremacy, and the conquest of nature, and America, in particular, had a psychotic obsession with the idea of savage, black men raping pure, blonde women. Kong '76 defuses all the civilization vs. wilderness crap by changing the adventurous movie producer Carl Denham to greedy corporate oil weasel Fred Wilson, and making him the villain of the story. Building on this, Jack becomes a hot environmentalist hippie who wants to protect Kong. As for race, the depiction of the natives is definitely an improvement. The ritual looks much more like an authentic ritual you might see on the Discovery channel. But they do go out of their way to underline one of the more disturbing notions of the original, the idea that Ann/Dwan is inherently desirable to Kong (and/or the natives) on the basis of her whiteness or blondeness. The shaman offers to trade 6 black women for one blonde.

There are two scenes near the end that I remember liking a lot when I was a kid. One is when Kong is attacked atop the WTC by soldiers with flamethrowers, and runs and jumps from one tower to the other (the poster fucking lied, he never straddled them like the colossus). This doesn't look as cool as I remember it, but it's neat, mostly because you rarely see flamethrowers in movies (the only ones I can think of are Saving Private Ryan and Aliens, which is strange, because it's such a visually striking weapon). What I do like is when Kong kills the soldiers by throwing some kind of fuel tank at them, mostly because of the insane reaction shot of Jeff Bridges, cheering like an idiot for Kong.

The other scene that stuck with me was the slowly descending heartbeat as Kong dies. I liked the idea that he was so big, you could hear his thundering heartbeat through the city, although watching it now, I don't think that's what they were going for.

All in all, it's not a bad movie. The effects are lousy, the action and adventure nothing to write home about, but it's an enjoyable script, and it's well shot. All three leads are good, too. Lange is does a great little update of Marilyn Monroe's schtick, and Bridges is certainly an improvement over that stiff that plays Jack in the original. You gotta love any movie with The Dude as an action hero. And Grodin is fucking hilarious. I can't define what makes him funny, but I laughed at every scene he's in. He has a certain smarminess, a certain transparency, and a sense that he's playing way out of his league. I like it, even if I do think that poster is a greater work of art than the movie it's advertising. This one, too:

The Residents w/Snakefinger - King Kong (Frank Zappa cover)

Fred Lane and his Hitite Hotshots - White Woman


Blogger Unknown said...

Dude- that's not just any guy in the KONG suit, it's multi-Oscar winning makeup FX legend Rick Baker.

He hated this movie.

He has a cameo in the new KONG, btw.

12/19/2005 10:39 PM  

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