Should I save my erudition for the time that the original King Kong and I will intersect again? Will the things I’ll be talking about here redundant with what I’ll be writing about in the original film? Should I be totally snarky for this post? Do you want to see Adrien Brody body check a dinosaur? To all those things, maybe. Every economical moment in the independently produced (an indie film before Cassavetes? I know, right) original film is expanded in Peter Jackson’s remake, whether that’s a good thing or not.
A fanatical 1930’s film director Carl Denham (Jack Black) and his film crew sail towards the South Pacific without telling all his crew that they’re looking for Skull Island, bearing a name that no Draper Daniels advertising should attract. Skull Island is exoticism manifested in cinema in the most stereotypical yet self-aware ways. When they actually get there they check off Stefon’s list – savages with ‘tribal’ body make up (there’s no way that their skin color is natural. It’s like the white native kid in “Giligan’s Island.”), King Kong (Andy Serkis), dinosaurs and giant insects. There are a lot of forested valleys sheltering at least the animals in this film, making me wonder why a place with this many inhabitants is as small as an island and hasn’t been officially mapped yet. But then I’m not a geographer. And of course, the two boat crew who will gather footage/rescue Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) will go through a process of elimination, the bit players eventually getting killed off.
I might also save my veneration of Watts for my inevitable by undrafted post on Mulholland Drive, so I’ll keep to talking about her presence in the film. I’ve seen this movie at least twice now, and her story is the one I remember instead of Fay Wray’s rendition of the same role. Unlike the modelesque or Manic Pixie Dream Girls today, he slightly button nose and small but thick lips make her look like a 1930’s beauty, elastic both to that decade’s glamour and poverty. Despite looking like a Ziegfeld/Busby girl, her more refined voice mixing in with her vaudeville colleagues make me think of what Katharine Hepburn’s character in Stage Door would have been like had the film shown her story for a longer time period.
One of the points of this film is to watch if she can scream like Fay Wray, but there’s a physical aspect to her role. Ann’s first steps towards the ship on the Big Apple’s docks look very much like a brave decision, being the first of many daring jumps she makes when she traverses through Skull Island’s dangerous terrain. She instinctively entertains Kong through the same flips and juggles that she performs on the New York the-a-ters. Who knew that vaudeville had practical uses? Running out of tricks, she eventually tells him ‘no,’ a simple word that she layers with defiance, crying out for Kong’s respect.
Most of the mythology within the original King Kong deal with ‘humanizing’ the eponymous animal. Yes, the first close-up we see of Kong shows a wound on the right side of his face, showing his vulnerability, but this remake enhances his ‘humanity’ as he learns it from Ann. He lets her live. He gets captured and chained, allegory of America’s history within Atlantic slavery, overreading of Kong’s provenance from the South Pacific as locus of post World War I American imperialism, yadda yadda yadda.
As he terrorizes New York, he grabs any blonde he sees as if obsessed by it but is able to differentiate between those paler examples to Ann than with the real thing. And since I’m running low on my word count, I’ll overread that the platonic union is Ann the oppressed woman and Kong, oppressed because he’s ‘different.’ She also teaches him another word, ‘beautiful,’ referring among things to her, to Skull Island, to the sunrise. Teaching Kong ‘humanity’ isn’t just about boundaries between persons as it is teaching him to appreciate what one experiences with others.
The movie’s fictional world also shows theatre, film and freak show as interchangeable, that there are no hierarchies between the three. The first sequence shows stages with diverse of stage acts in a city that is discovering ways to entertain itself. The film also shows these acts constantly change and the actors leaving one job for another only to find that next opportunity closed, just as what happens to Ann. New York’s players and playwrights have to move from one thing to another to survive. We’ve already seen Ann’s transformation, but playwright Carl practically kidnaps Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and both have to go along and keep writing and creating along the ride.
Later in the film, Carl’s blockbuster show plays blocks away from Jack’s replaceable comedy which is down the street from Ann’s dance revue. The more strange part about Carl’s show is the audience, paying an admission ticket only to be repulsed, decked out in furs as if watching Eugene O’Neill or a Balanchine. I shouldn’t have underestimated Skull Island earlier, since Manhattan Island itself has a lot to offer. And yes, the dangers within both islands are like oranges and stolen apples.
Gotham does have its advantage. Robert Osborne remarks that Kong’s size changes throughout the original. I can never train my eyes to detect those discrepancies, but I’m sure that Jackson makes his size more consistent in his remake. Being the big man on Skull Island, he’s dwarfed by the Empire State Building, a mammoth he has to climb and will unfortunately get him cornered.