Sunday, December 18, 2005

Off to Skull Island... (Part the First)

Forgive my crowing a bit, but before I get into Kong (thought I'd never get to it, HB3?), a heads up for the top ranking a DVD I had a little hand in (guest interview subject in one of its delicious extras) just earned. Check it out --
  • Diabolik Laughs Last!
  • "moo-oo-ha ha hah HAH HAH!"

    [PS: If the Diabolik link doesn't work for some reason, cut-and-paste the following:
    I've corrected the link three times, but for some reason it doesn't seem to be functional. Sorry!]

    It's an honor to have been part of this sterling resurrection of one of my favorite Mario Bava films, one of my all-time fave comics-to-cinema adaptations, and bigs thanks to Kim Aubry of Zeotrope-Aubrey Productions and to my long-time Bava-lovin' amigo Tim Lucas for suggesting to Kim I be involved at all. Great to see Kim and Tim's faith, devotion, and hard work pay off thus, too.

    I've held off writing this until I could get the time in place and thoughts in order. Here we go:

    Spoiler Alert/Warning: I'm not holding back! If you don't want to know details about Kong, stop reading ang go see it now!

    The coincidental excavation of my "where did I put those?" collection of Budd Root's 1990s run of Cavewoman comics series (amid the setting up of my new workspace/studio) the very day my son Dan and I took in the early morning matinee of Peter Jackson's marvelous King Kong was a pleasant omen. No one in the remaining self-publishers circle I've stayed in touch with has been more eager about the coming of the new Kong then Budd has been; so, Budd (along with Willis O'Brien devotee Myron Mercury's occasional emails) kept my enthusiasm bouyed even as I diligently avoided reading anything on the upcoming remake. The sole exception to this tactic was my purchase of the DVD restoration of the original Merian C. Cooper/Ernest B. Schoedsack/Willis O'Brien classic King Kong, which unavoidably placed Jackson and his creative team on my screen, lovingly "recreating" (some would argue "creating for the first time") the long-lost, long-cut and almost mythic 1933 spider pit sequence. More on that later...

    The most heartening evidence, though, came the morning of the new Kong's debut, when my son Dan called me early in the AM to ask if I was ready to go see Kong with him. He'd caught a midnight show the night before (he'd plugged into the local theater staff showing), and was eager to immediately share the experience with his ol' Pop! Dan is a pretty discerning viewer, and this was a great sign. Later that same day, my amigo Chas Balun rang up out of the blue to alert me to the glory that is the Jackson Kong, and again, this carries a lot of weight for me: Chas, you'll recall, was the man who alerted most of us in North America to the joys of Jackson's very first feature, Bad Taste, having in fact provided me with my first viewing of that gem waaaaaaaay back in the day. Chas wrote up Bad Taste for the newsstand in the pages of Fangoria and moreso in the pages of his own zine Deep Red, thus launching the Peter Jackson US cult before anyone else recognized the mad wet glint in Jackson's bloodshot eye as the lunacy of genius. Thus, when Chas called to say all the hype wasn't a lie and Jackson had come through with flying colors, on the immediate heels of Dan's "Hey, Dad, we're going and that's all there is to it!" call -- well, I at last permitted myself to harbor some expectations.

    So, Dan, Chas, and Budd, here's to you.

    A thing of primal beauty and surprising majesty it is, Jackson's Kong (a shorthand reference I use but hope not to abuse for the sake of convenience, as this Kong was forged by a remarkable collaborative effort lead by Jackson, prominent among that number Jackson's sterling New Zealand-based effects crew Weta Workshop and Weta Digital and his credited screenplay partners Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens). First off, Jackson and his confederates in cinematic crime were true to the time, tenor, intent and content of the original sans devotion to anything but the narrative meat and core spirit of the 1933 Kong. Passionate fidelity not unquestioning fealty, inspiration above mere imitation reigns: Jackson was devoted to making a Kong for the 21st Century rather than simply retrofitting and rebooting the 1933 model with 21st Century technology. Thus, we're spared the tarn of, for instance, Gus Van Sant's Psycho (which replicated its source beat-for-beat with the unfortunate grace note 'enhancements' of greviously miscasting its two leads, overt masturbation added to Bates's scopophilia, color and a gaping wound to its shower murder, and the utter trivialization of its crimes amid the context of the post-Manson/Lucas/Dahmer et al reality of the 1990s). In every detail, this rethinking of Kong is rigorous and faithful and, in most cases, correct.

    One can quibble with "I would have preferred this" alternative notions, but there's no denying the clarity and crystalline follow-through of every decision Jackson and his creative partners made. There are few missteps and no missed opportunities, and even with the 'spider-pit' sequence, the urge to recreate (or, in the case of the 'spider-pit,' create for the first time for audiences) is addressed and embraced only when it fits and/or amplifies the narrative drive of Kong itself. Therefore, where a lesser filmmaker with all the CGI toys at his or her disposal might have simply amped up classic 1933 sequences customized with unfilmed passages from the Delos W. Lovelace 1932 novelization (such as Kong's confrontation at the tar pit with a group of Triceratops, a spectacular bit including Kong tossing boulder-sized shards of solidified tar at the ceratopsians), Jackson and his team instead reinvigorate the narrative by passionately reinvesting themselves in the characters -- and by doing so, reinvesting ourselves in this resonant pop-culture myth, from stem to stern.

    They did so with renewed attention to Kong's era -- absolutely wed as it is to the myth and its tenacity -- thus immediately eschewing the dangers of making Kong more 'contemporary' by setting it in the present. The early 20th Century era of high adventure that Kong emerged from is instrinsic to its mythic power; that Kong was the creation of restless, aggressive adventurers, fighters, cowboys and dreamers is fully acknowledged and honored, as are the desperate times Kong both personified and promised, however romantically, escape from.

    Thus, we meet Anne (a radiant Naomi Watts) playing a faux-Chaplin-Tramp in a failing vaudeville production, clinging to a beloved father-figure as the entire troupe is on its last legs. This rethinking of Anne stills brings us to the meeting place of the 1933 original -- Anne's desperate theft of an apple -- but her deftly scripted, played and directed backstory isn't superfluous, attuned as it is to both the realities and fantasies (how many Busby Berkeley scenarios began this way?) of the early Depression years. This setup also slyly introduces the chops, skills and tools necessary to Anne's initial survival of, and eventual winning of, Kong himself -- very sharp writing, this.

    We meet Carl Denham (played by a perhaps-too-youtful but eager and utterly shameless Jack Black) at his most furtive, his eyes narrowing and darting like a cornered scavenger. He is, in fact, 'cornered' by the failed screening of footage from his latest opus, met at the moment of his imminent demise as an up-and-coming filmmaker, as the bored producers assess their cut-and-run alternatives to further indulging Denham's latest hare-brained exotica. This passage is cannily true to its era in ways most audiences are blissfully unaware of (the crass query of the most bored of the producers as to whether Denham will include "titties" is dead-on, as lurid & sensationalist early sound era exotics like the gorilla-mating-with-women confection Ingagi and breasts-in-Bali Goona Goona had eclipsed the respectable pioneering adventure documentaries of Martin & Osa Johnson and Cooper & Schoedsack). Denham's flop-sweat followed by his off-the-top-of-his-head pitch for something more and his foot-in-mouth confrontation and blow-up at the "titties" query synchronistictly plops Denham into Anne's shoes: shit out of luck, out of work, and desperate for any alternative still in accord with his/her path. Again, very tasty scripting.

    However, some devotees of the original may already find themselves at odds with the film. I put it to you that the original Anne (Fay Wray, beautifully evoked here -- along with Cooper -- in Denham's cab-ride dialogue with his flunky perfectly played throughout by Colin Hanks) was as much a shorthand product of her era as the original Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong, natch). To 1933 audiences caught in the grip of the Depression, they needed only to lay eyes on willowy Anne as she reached for that apple to identify fully with her plight; 2005 viewers would make no such leap, not this side of the Atlantic, anyways (we're still too fat and complacent as a people to so immediately empathize and identify with poverty, hunger, and need). To 1933 audiences still close enough to the reality of P.T. Barnum as part of their own lives, Denham (an overt projection of both real-life adventurers/creators Cooper and Schoedsack, but particularly the outspoken huckster Cooper) was an immediately recognizable and alluring archetype; again, not so for 2005, when few remember who Barnum was and fewer still have ever brushed, much less experienced, the kind of old-school carny bluster Denham embodied in '33. There was still an electricity and validity (a cultural investment, if you will) in the 'White Queen' narrative in 1933, too; it had informed silent jungle films and serials, best-selling adventure stories and countless pulps, and was essential to MGM's monumental 1931 hit adaptation of Trader Horn. That colonial-era archetype was old-hat and already disposed-of when it was last trotted out in failed anachronistic jungle films of the 1980s, from the mainstream bomb Sheena, Queen of the Jungle to various cheapjack Jess Franco and Italian cannibal and zombie retreads. So, any allure or stock 2005 audiences might have lent to the mere sketch of 'a blonde white queen' by nature taming the big, black ape was nothing to be counted upon. Nor do the partriarchal precepts, prejudices and presumptions of '33 carry the day -- anachronisms all, risible at best, offensive at worst -- hence the wisdom of this meticulous character reinvention.

    Jackson, Walsh and Boyens properly (and literally) slow the juggernaut rhythms of their Kong time and time again to place us in privileged empathic moments of meditation with both Anne and Denham, and this lends surprising cumulative weight to the proceedings. They -- and, once he assumes center stage almost 75 minutes into the film's running time, Kong -- are the only characters afforded these communal moments, and this is the film's keystone. Thus, we share/experience Anne's decisive moment in which she steps onto the platform of the steamer (and Denham's anxiety that she may not); Anne's experience of being borne away by Kong in all its pulse-racing immediacy, and her eventual realization that she must act in order to save her life; Anne's gradual awakening to Kong as more than just a beast, and the tentative stages of their nascent bond forming, its (believably) blossoming into something extraordinary; the arc of Anne's reaction to her rescue, and the conflicting emotions (relief, confusion, reassessment -- not just of the rescue, but tellingly of Denham and of her rescuer Jack -- outrage and ire); the almost telepathic moment of empathy with Kong, many streets and a stage away, in NYC; etc. We also share/experience Denham's emotional life with similar reveries, arriving at Denham making eye contact with his right-hand man (Hanks) amid the hoopla of Kong's impending show opening in Manhattan. This is a great and telling moment in the film: Denham is a user, and for a fragile moment the burden and shame of that -- of all the lives he has derailed, destroyed and altered in reckless pursuit of goals he cannot articulate, only seize -- is felt, by Denham and by the audience. A lesser filmmaker wouldn't have known, much less cared, the moment was there to be conveyed.

    In the original King Kong, Anne was a waif and a cipher, invigorated primarily by the cinematic appeal of Fay Wray in the part and then by Kong's devotion to her, which we (the audience) come to share; Denham was an arrogant, reckless showman and braggart, a man's man in that he was fearless in the face of any danger (hence worthy of our emotional investment rather than rejected a villain). Neither would wash in 2005, any more than they would have in 1977, but Jackson and company thankfully avoided the revamps Dino DeLaurentiis, Lorenzo Semple Jr., and John Guillermin brought to bear: Anne (Jessica Lange) as feminist showgirl, Denham (Charles Grodin) as greedy capitalist/oilman. In fact, if there is any contemporary spin to these characters, it's Jackson and company's slight nod to none other than our current president in Denham's character (in fact, one fleeting dialogue exchange involving Denham, the ship's first mate, and the cabin boy played by Jamie Bell resonates in this context, citing the foolishness of equating "I'm not gonna cut & run" bravado with bravery, particularly when the alternative leads to the death of almost everyone in the search party).

    But that's subtext, not text: Denham and Anne are fully-fleshed characters in all their appeal and foibles, and throughout Kong this investment pays off in spades.

    As is, and as does, I am thankful to say, the characterization of Kong.

    And it is this that elevates not just the film, but makes abundantly clear why Peter Jackson is among the greatest filmmakers of this or any era.

    [Part the Second on Monday. See you here...]