Much has been made, even by those expressing affection for Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, of the “miscasting” of Jack Black as Carl Denham.
This is being perceived/received as ‘found wisdom,’ a given, and has been for some time. It’s my belief that part of this ‘problem’ is the misperception of Denham as a character, whose stature has been conflated into something quite apart from the Denham of yore. It is also to my mind indicative of a false cultural and individual expectation of any remake of a cinematic original (as opposed to an adaptation of a novel or work from other media; there, I can see the argument and allure). If it’s replicas we are seeking, there’s no reason to experience anything but the original, is there?
[This is true in all media, not just film. I recall the process that led to John Totleben and I embracing Taboo as a worthwhile venture after Dave Sim extended the invitation to subsidize any project we wished to pursue in comics. It was apparent to both John and I how shallow and empty horror comics had become, in large part due to the slavish regurgitation of the EC Comics template of the early 1950s. Even when creators we felt were innovative had their shot at really reinvigorating the genre (horror comics), the damned EC mold was embraced with such slavish fidelity that it inevitably strait-jacketed the most ballyhooed resurrection: thus, when writer Bruce Jones, who had scripted some of the most imaginative and transgressive horror comics stories published in the 1970s Warren black-and-white zines Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, had his shot at editing and writing his own horror comic for Pacific Comics in the early ‘80s, he helmed Twisted Tales -- which, with only a couple of precious exceptions, demonstrated anew the EC formula was dead, dead, dead. What was transgressive and provocative in 1951-54 was toothless three decades later, however ballsy the gore or language; conceptually, it was the same ol’ O. Henry twist-ending claptrap. To be true to the real spirit and wellspring of the EC tradition, it seemed obvious to John Totleben and I, one had to be as bold, imaginative, reckless, innovative and daring as the EC creators, editors, and publishers had been in their time. It was fidelity to the spirit, not acolyte devotion to the narrative templates, that was needed to reinvigorate and reinvent horror comics -- thus, Taboo, moles and all. In comics, music, movies, sculpture, art, etc., it’s all the same -- imitation is a dim echo by definition. Emulating a beloved artist, creation, movement or philosophy can only honor, sometimes transcend, its wellspring by remembering that wellspring has power because it broke molds in its day and redefined all that came before and after. Thus, the truest reinventions emulate the spirit, not the specifics; embrace transformative change, rather than merely replicating the original.]
As with every other character in the new Kong -- including, dare I remind everyone, Kong -- the new Denham is not a carbon copy of the old. Part of the nimble effectiveness of Jackson and his collaborators’s revamp of Kong is their attention to rethinking each of the key players: this is, after all, a 2005 production, not a pale simulcrum of the 1933 original. As I noted in my first installment, Jackson’s King Kong is not what Gus Van Sant’s Psycho ended up being, apparently on purpose: a recreation, not a reinvention, of its respective wellspring. What’s the point? Here, at least, I can understand the decision of those who simply are avoiding the new Kong: if you can only conceive of Kong as being the 1933 original, by all means, cling to it like a precious bit of driftwood in a storm.
Fortunately, Jackson and his compatriots could concieve of Kong as something else -- true in spirit to the original and its time, but as full-bloodedly of-its-time (2005) as was the Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack/Willis O’Brien classic. That is the only way to be true to the original, in my mind. Slavish imitation is too often mistaken for ‘being true.’ When something is as unique as the 1933 Kong was, slavish imitation is neither the way or means of remaining true to the spirit of the film or its creators. In the broad sense of the 2005 Kong and its genres (romantic action/adventure/fantasy/horror films), the seven+ decades spread like a Skull Island chasm between Cooper/Schoedsack/O’Brien and Jackson and his creative partners is wide and deep: in every way, those genres have been stripped down, revved up, and juiced beyond recognition. To think that anything truly resembling the 1933 Kong could be made anew in the contemporary corporate studio dominian, in the wake of everything from Lucas, Spielberg, Cameron and Verhoeven to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Die Hard and Titanic, and the current movie-as-video-game mentality, is unthinkable. Still, Jackson was canny enough to identify both the seams and the junctures between the ‘33 original and the contemporary mode of action/thriller and dance the dance between with skill and agility and nary a hint of cynicism.
Curiously, the inflation of all action/thriller requirements circa 2005 has adopted an accepted level of casual brutality and primal emotion that’s oddly attuned to the pre-Code ferocity & lusty drive of the ‘33 Kong. As countless film historians have detailed, once the regulatory Code grew teeth (a mere year or two after Kong debuted in March 1933), it would have been impossible to make such a film again until the emergence of the MPAA Ratings in 1968. In the meantime, Kong was indeed given a haircut, losing its blunt matter-of-fact unblinking depiction of violence -- reflecting an adventurer’s acceptance of the casualties of sailors, natives, and citizens alike -- along with its more overt sexuality, including Kong’s “whif of quim in the morning” scratch/peel-and-sniff tableau with Ann. By the time the original Kong salvaged RKO’s fortunes anew with its 1952 rerelease and its debut on television three years later, the restrictive environment of theatrical filmmaking and television broadcast had ‘cleaned up’ the old boy and his antics extensively: still, there was no neutering Kong himself.
[An aside on the original film’s power: I still recall, in my first theatrical viewing of the original Kong at a University of Vermont “Lane Series” college revival in 1969 or ‘70, feeling and seeing rippling waves of energy washing over the rapt audience from the screen as Kong battled the T. rex. It was a phenomenon I observed again and again in theatrical showings of the ‘33 Kong; as primal a spectacle as any I’d ever imagined possible, casting a strobic spell as vivid as that of the ‘pure cinema’ underground film The Flicker (1966) by Tony Conrad, composed only of patterned alternating black and white frames of film, which I saw a year later on the same campus. In the case of Kong, of course, those ‘waves’ moving over & through the audience were invigorated by the dramatic context of the film, but also radiating from the personal power O’Brien and his crew had infused into the film, frame by frame. I confess to feeling a similar rush in Jackson’s Kong at the moment, after the giddy battle between Kong and the trio of T. rex in the vines, when the film at last arrived at the iconic confrontation between Kong and the last rex standing: arriving, at last, where the first Kong’s confrontation began. Like a Sergio Leone western, that showdown had now been reinvigorated and effectively recontextualized, not merely restaged. The moment galvanizing the cumulative weight of the film’s narrative thrust -- almost two hours! -- and its dream & nightmare imagery & movement to that point, emulating and honoring as it does not only O’Brien before, but O’Brien’s inspiration Gustave Dore and Boecklin and Charles Knight, and all who came after O’Brien and between then and now: Ray Harryhausen, Al Williamson, Zdenak Burian, Rudolph Zallinger, Frank Frazetta, William Stout, Phil Tippett, Mark Schultz, Budd Root -- need I go on? In the staging of the one-on-one showdown, and the charge not only between giant beasts but between Ann and Kong, and the film and the audience, I also felt a rush evocative of my first exposure to Frazetta, specifically his wonderful One Million Years B.C. cover painting for Monster Mania, his best Kong paperback cover painting (for the 1977 Lorenzo Semple, Jr. screenplay), and that -- ah, I’ll stop now.]
The rethinking of Kong as a character in the Jackson remake is marvelous, and in its way utterly true to the original -- the spirit, not the specifics, of the original. As noted in my previous posts on the film, much has changed in our cultural perceptions of primates: in short, the sketchy caricature and behavior patterns of the 1933 Kong simply wouldn’t wash today, given all we’ve learned since field biologist George Schaller began his observations of true mountain gorilla behavior in 1959 (first published in 1963). Given all that followed from then to now, including Snowball and his kitten and Diane Fossey and her life’s work, our cultural perceptions of what constitutes ‘genuine’ primate behavior has been irrevocably altered. On an unconscious level, the average 2005 viewer would reject as simplistic a Kong as was palatable and believable in 1933. Hell, if all one ‘knew’ had been superficially absorbed via the scantest osmosis -- cursory glimpses of National Geographic photos or TV specials, or Rick Baker’s dramatic evolution of the cinematic primate over the past three decades -- a slavish recreation of the 1933 Kong still would seem archaic, anachronistic, false, laughable.
The same is true of Ann, Jack and -- yep -- Carl Denham. Why wouldn’t it be?
As a viewer, the first time Black registered for me was as a teenage actor, a supporting player in an effectively understated episode of The X-Files and in the underrated rollerblade coming-of-age flick Airborne, which I saw with my kids at a matinee in Bellows Falls, VT. Black was playing essentially the same role in both: the belligerent, slightly overweight outsider teen (is there any other kind?) who is a bit of a fringe-dweller, a bottom-feeder, and an adrift opportunist, as most of us were at that age. That Black lent a charge and charm to these characters became emblematic of his charisma and energy as an actor, and though his range expanded and feral intelligence came to the fore, the validity of those initial perceptions still rang true. That these characteristics were increasingly offset/enhanced by his anarchic spirit and further experience was what elevated Black to his current level of celebrity and relative stardom, in part because he reflected something recognizably contemporary, alive, and utterly American.
For me, from Black’s first second onscreen in King Kong -- a moment I specifically referred to in my first installment of this analysis -- his Carl Denham was a character I instantly understood and recognized.
Was it ‘the’ Carl Denham that Robert Armstrong played? No. Is Jack Black in any way a Robert Armstrong of the 21st Century? No. There are affinities, but the gulf of age, demeanor, and range is self-evident (and I must add, Black has the greater range, though both Armstrong and Black are character actors defined largely by their respective ‘type’). Still, this new Denham works for this viewer, for a number of reasons.
First, let’s not conflate the original Denham. He was as much of a scoundrel as the new: a braggart, a carny, an opportunist, a user of people, and yes, an adventurer and filmmaker. One of the reasons the sequel, Son of Kong, failed then and still malingers in the shadow of its ‘father’ is because it’s harder to ignore Denham’s nature from the first scene to the last: he’s still a bottom-feeder, working an angle on another waif ‘frail’ and another big dumb ape. But the resonance of Kong’s forever-quoted last line -- “’Twas Beauty killed the Beast” -- always was Denham’s deftest sidestepping of responsibility for all the horrors he’d wrought, despite the romantization of that line over the decades (particularly by Forrest J. Ackerman and Famous Monsters of Filmland, which inflated its resonance for two generations). Having seen the film for the first time after reading about it in Famous Monsters, I remember being a bit disturbed and pissed off at that immortal line spoken by Denham: it was another con, pure and simple, and I didn’t buy it at age 10, and I don’t buy it now.
As Americans, we once loved our con-artists, particularly those of a previous generation (after all, we can tell ourselves, we’re not one of their suckers, are we?). As I mentioned from the get-go, though, the con-artist/showman archetype is no longer a living part of our cultural memories: I mentioned P.T. Barnum, but how many kids have ever heard of him? William Castle and Evel Knievel were the most beloved flesh-and-blood incarnations of the archetype in my lifetime, and they were the last of their breed -- again, unknown quantities to contemporary audiences by-and-large, dim memories at best but most likely simply nonexistent to those born after 1970. Sans the patina and mythic umbrella of the real McCoys, Denham’s boisterous chicanery is only further exposed, the incompatibility of his true culpability vs. his aggressive avoidance of any personal consequences -- done with enough swagger and bravado to still be amusing -- laid bare.
What flew as a recognizable, even endearing, ‘type’ in 1933 no longer harbors such innate charisma -- and that, I fear, is what undid Denham for 2005, regardless of what actor inhabited the role. It’s become harder to indulge or forgive, much less ‘love,’ our cultural con-artists, wearing as they do these days the faces of passionless corporate CEOs and pious politicians. In the seven decades since the first Carl Denham so shamelessly spirited Ann away to Skull Island, the archetype has irrevocably shifted into darker terrain -- and that’s the cultural orientation and ‘new reality’ Jackson and his collaborators were facing.
Much as the original Denham was Cooper & Schoedsack’s (particularly Cooper’s) self-aggrandizing peon to their self-images as shameless hucksters and adventurers -- a love letter to themselves writ large, a feat screenwriter and Cooper spouse Ruth Rose managed in spades -- the character also exposed some truths about the archetype. Denham is working on that last line from the time we first meet him (just as Cooper & Schoedsack set it up with the pre-narrative intertitle “Old Arabian Proverb” quote, another canny bit of smoke-and-mirrors flim-flam). From the get-go, Denham is a sexual predator, knowing he has to “sex up” his new film as the boxoffice has dwindled on his jungle pix. He kidnaps Ann because he needs a pretty bod and face, a hook: he isn’t interested in her one whit (that becomes Jack’s narrative imperative, in both Kongs), and in the end, with his final line, he makes her the patsy. There’s never a reason to trust Denham for a second in the ‘33 original -- he’s out to cover his own ass every step of the way; it’s only his male comraderie with those he’s suckered into his hare-brained death-defying scheme that fleetingly lends him some measure of dignity, though he’s playing that for all it’s worth, too (knowing if anyone can bail his sorry ass out of having lost the film, the sailors, the girl & the gorilla, Jack’s his only bet). From stem to stern, Denham plays his compatriots, employees, lackies, stooges, and his blonde patsy by spinning myths, fairy tales, and romances -- and enough of ‘em fall for Denham to function (as a showman and as a catalyst for the film’s action).
The irony here is that Jackson is as fully aware of the mythic grip of fairy tales, romance, and hooey as the original Denham was. But he and his creative partners are also savvy enough to know it doesn’t “sell” as it once did: there’s no actor alive I can think of who could “sell” that iconic line in 2005 with a straight face. We don’t fall for the Denham’s of the world any longer (no, we fall for the Ken Lays, Dick Cheneys, Condi Rices, and George Bushes of the world -- or some of us do, anyway).
Jackson knew exactly what he was up to with the character of Carl Denham, like it or lump it.
My son Dan told me his best friend Sam was 'with' the film -- till "Twas beauty killed the beast." “I dug it until that last line,” Sam said, “that really soured the cream in my coffee.”
I think that’s the point, you see.
No, it’s not Jack Black’s fault or Peter Jackson’s that Denham comes across as the manipulative, self-justifying, opportunistic weasel, huckster and people-user he always was. It’s the times, they have a-changed, and I might add while we Americans are still capable of lying to and about ourselves, the world doesn’t fall for that line of horseshit and hooey any longer. Jackson is a New Zealander, not a Californian, and he’s never been under the spell of America’s vast capacity for self-deception. (I mean, really -- did you think we were the hobbits and heroes of The Lord of the Rings in the eyes of the rest of the world? Look upon Sauron’s realm, allies, armies and entourage, and shudder.)
No mistake, Jackson meaningfully cast Jack Black as Denham, and the very character elements so many who bristle at this King Kong are citing as litany and verse are the components that expose Denham -- and, by proxy, his fellow Americans -- as the scurvy cur he is (we are).
The new King Kong fully inhabits its dream, and that’s its terrible power and beauty.
But it fully embraces the fall from glory, too -- not only the great ape’s fall, but our own -- that, after all, is part of the dream, too.
Sadly, it’s part of our cultural reality as well, a mirror, if you will, of who we no longer are, of how far we’ve wandered astray since 1933; of what we’ve done, how we’ve changed, and what we’ve become and how we look to the rest of the world.
It’s a mirror we reject and resent, whether or not we choose to fall for or from the dream.
We made all our choices. If we didn’t chart the boat, we willingly went along for the ride.
It’s our Kong, damn it.
But it’s Denham’s fall that is ours, as much as -- more than -- Kong’s.
It’s a long. long fall.
And it never, ever was the blonde’s fault.
- New Year’s Eve, 2005, The Mountains of Madness, VT
Happy New Year, one and all.
May it be a better year for us all.