Wednesday, December 21, 2005

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

It’s ironic, given the decades of rumors and obits of/for men who claimed to have “played Kong” in the 1933 original, that 21st Century movie-making magic has come back to -- an actor “playing Kong.” As my friend Michel H. Price, co-author (with the late, great George Turner) of the definitive book(s) on the making of the 1933, had occasion to remind me when I sent him a photocopy of an obit of yet another pretender to the throne, “no one played Kong, ever, in any shot.” The original Kong was a fusion of stop-motion animation (by Willis O’Brien and his crew) and ‘life-sized’ live-action Kong animatronic mechanics: that huge grinning face, the iconic simian hand Fay Wray spent so much time in.

Andy Serkis is the 2005 Kong, converted by calculated CGI magic into the most vivid and heart-breaking primate character in cinema history. Building upon the venerable tradition of the Hollywood ape actor, from Charles Gemora to Bob Burns to Rick Baker (who, BTW, is piloting one of the planes that bring down Kong at the end of Jackson’s remake: Dino’s Kong shoots down Jackson’s Kong, not quite up there with Divine raping him/herself in John Waters’s Female Trouble, but still a nifty conceit), Serkis honors those-who-came-before with a performance of remarkable intensity, majesty, and uncanny fidelity to primate behavior. By design and necessity, Serkis’s Kong is a conflation of all things simian, wedded to a depth of heart and expression superceding any and all previous celluloid or CGI outsized monsters: he is indeed King.

The most convincingly ‘real’ cinematic gorillas to date remain Rick Baker’s creations for Gorillas in the Mist (1988), with Baker’s slightly stylized simians for Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) and Ron Underwood’s engaging remake of another O’Brien stop-motion simian Mighty Joe Young (1998). In fact, both versions of Mighty Joe Young (the 1949 original is strongly recommended, and just out on DVD) are as heartfelt a balm as I can recommend to parents seeking to soothe the savaged hearts of their little ones moved to tears by the old or new Kong -- though in both cases, King Kong is by far the superior film. Baker, of course, also “played Kong” in the inflated, ill-fated 1977 remake, and he remains the sole asset of that opus worth revisiting. Despite the limitations imposed upon him by the misguided entirity of Dino DeLaurentiis’s enterprise (which, it must be remembered, included Dino’s bid to purchase all extant prints and negatives of the 1933 original and have them destroyed, a ploy that thankfully proved impossible), Baker gave the film his all, and Baker’s Kong is an honorable ode to the iconic Kong we all know and love, even if the film he is trapped within is not. That Baker would dramatically refine and perfect his art -- in terms of both performance and makeup-effects versimilitude -- to create the far more convincing and personable primates of Greystoke, Gorillas in the Mist, and the Mighty Joe Young remake is no surprise. After all, the young Rick Baker who “played Kong” wasn’t that far in years from his breaking-into-the-biz ape suit John Landis wore for Landis’s spoof Schlock!, or those Baker constructed and donned for Kentucky Fried Movie (another early Landis gem, the one that landed him the directing gig for Animal House) and The Thing with Two Heads (a double-decker gorilla, natch), or even Baker’s mutant baby for It’s Alive and the risible Octoman. Baker’s own affection and devotion to Kong punctuates his stellar career, and his involvement with Jackson’s project, however peripheral, only enhances the integrity of the current venture.

Serkis builds upon Baker’s primates in particular, lending the new Kong the utterly convincing, beguiling presence of a true outsized silverback. Serkis first struts his stuff in the brief sequence in which Anne (Watts) extracts herself short-term from the fate of all previous ‘brides of Kong’ by removing her ceremonial spiked ‘bride’s collar’ and plunging one of its thorns into Kong’s paw (a neat bit of environment-as-storytelling here, as Kong’s first stop with Anne is the site of the evident death-by-battering of all who preceded Anne); thus, Anne survives Kong-as-wife-beater, elevating their relationship a notch above domestic abuse writ hideously large.

The film’s pivotal sequence follows this, as Anne truly saves herself from potential death-as-frail-plaything when she startles Kong with further unprecedented “bride of Kong” behavior by doing the unexpected: applying her vaudeville skills, Anne entertains Kong (she has, after all, made ‘gorillas’ laugh in the off-Broadway theater performance glimpsed in the film’s opening). What could have fallen flatter than Jessice Lange’s ‘70s feminist-caricature prattle elevates the enterprise to a new level as Serkis’s Kong reacts with appropriate simian reactions. He is startled, angered and fearful, and his immediate instinct is to aggressively grimace, bare his fangs, roar, and basically carry on like Bill O’Reilly, while his eyes reveal more than he intends: a child-like merger of fear (what is this?), outrage, and wonder. Anne coaxes simian hoots of amusement from Kong, who then escalates Anne’s ‘act’ into dangerous turf by first knocking a stick out from under her (as satisfyingly primal a bit of slapstick as can be imagined) and then poking, prodding, and bullying her, trying to get this blonde ‘doll’ to extent the performance that has so unexpectedly delighted him. Kong-as-domestic-abuser rushes to the fore anew when Anne insists “no” means ”no”, and his subsequent destructive whirlwind of rage is both apt for a silverback and for the frustrated human male. By this juncture -- and without missing a beat thereafter -- Anne has won both Kong’s heart and our own, and in doing so giving us fresh insight and access to Kong as a character.

Now, this moment is as much the fruits of the script and Jackson’s canny conception and direction as it is Serkis and Watts’s performances: it is brilliantly conceived and executed, the point at which this King Kong shifts into a new realm of inspiration and excellence. While remaining faithful to the 1933 wellspring, all involved understood the task at hand, and rose to the occasion. The further evolution of their relationship is communicated by Serkis and his CGI collaborative creators of the character, and Watts as Anne, with similar economy of intent, effect and consequence. The second pivotal turn in the relationship between Anne and Kong comes amid the heart-stopping, floor-stomping, pulse-racing Kong-vs.-Tyrannosaurus rex (in triplicate!) tour-de-force, which further demonstrates Jackson’s skill as a storyteller and a filmmaker. Where most 21st Century action directors would be satisfied with a fraction of the kinetics generated by this dynamo sequence, Jackson the storyteller knows if it does not serve the tale, it is all useless noise. After the sequence’s initial giddy escalation of the classic 1933 sequence, culminating in a breathtaking participants-on-the-ropes extension of the battle into a dangling entanglement of vines, the moment Jackson brings us back to the iconic confrontation between Kong and the last T. rex standing -- at last, we are back where the 1933 Kong stood -- it is Anne’s realization that Kong is her protector, and her acting upon that realization, and Kong’s reaction to her action, that sends our hearts soaring to match our already racing pulse. All this occurs without bringing the confrontation between Kong and the snaggle-toothed T. rex to a halt: it in fact intensifies the showdown, and we are more fully invested in the action that follows than we perhaps believed possible.

Jackson, Serkis, Watts and their creative partners only build further upon this for the duration of the film. The immediate wake of the battle -- Kong refusing eye contact with Anne, turning his back her (further believable simian behavior, unexpected but ringing absolutely true); her slow ‘presenting’ herself to him as he labors to keep his eyes from her, culminating in his casual ‘acceptance’ via plucking Anne from the ground and tossing her onto his shoulder -- sets up the exquisitely-played moments between Kong and Anne outside his lair. Since seeing the film last week and now, I’ve read a few reviews and online critiques; some argue the sexual dimension of the Kong of yore has been taken away, but I can’t see that. The courtship is as ferocious as before, its culmination (Kong offering Anne his open palm, their ‘first’ -- alas, only -- night ‘sleeping together’ with Anne cradled in Kong’s hand) as affecting and sexualized as ever. True, gone is the inferred primal rape fantasy of the 1930s (coming as it did on the heels of genuine scientific research into cross-breeding humans and apes: see “Kissing Cousins” by Clive D. Wynne, The New York Times, Monday, December 12, 2005; thanks to Rick Veitch for sending this tear-sheet to me!): this is indeed a courtship, and all the more moving for being one. Jackson and his creative partners have wisely brought Kong, Anne and ourselves beyond the parameters of the original’s potent but shallow uncanny biological urges -- Kong sniffing the clothing of the unconscious Anne (which evokes the rude comment of Brian Cox’s character in Rob Roy: “Ah, nothing like a sniff of quim in the morning!”). This is indeed an interspecies romance of fresh depth and dimension, and the new Kong is the better for it.

The payoff in the final Manhattan-set act is profound, from Kong’s initial look of revulsion when confronted with Denham’s stage faux-Anne to Kong and Anne’s reunion to the revelation of Anne's empathic bond during her showgirl act on another stage (effectively drowned out by the lyrics of "Bye, Bye Blackbird"); from their playful interlude on Central Park ice (a lovely, unexpected delight) to the inevitable, iconic tragic finale atop the Empire State Building.

That the King who asserted his dignity and dominance by refusing to make eye contact with Anne on Skull Island now cannot take his eyes off Anne lends heartbreaking urgency to the whole of Jackson’s recreation and slight reinvention of the remarkable finale.

This is brilliant filmmaking on every level -- and it is the chemistry between Serkis and Watts, the fusion between Serkis and the CGI team, that brings Kong to such affecting life.

[An aside: One of the primary moments in my own education as a comics artist and storyteller came from my mentor Joe Kubert, who once effectively dissected a pragmatic but critical misstep in the final panel of a story I was drawing for Heavy Metal while still a student of Joe's school. "Eye contact is very important," Joe patiently explained from over my shoulder, while pencilling onto tracing paper an alternative approach to the last panel of "Curious Thing". "Eye contact between characters, eye contact with the reader -- this is one of the greatest tools you have as a storyteller." I never forgot Joe's lesson, and it always played a vital role in each and every panel or piece of art I ever drew thereafter. Jackson knows the primal power of that tool, too, and few fantasy films have used it as dramatically, appropriately, or effectively as Jackson did in his work, including the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy -- and King Kong.]

This brown-eyed, scar-visaged, broken-jawed, tooth-jutting Kong is also patterned after the 20th Century’s most renowned and beloved gorilla, Gargantua. Gargantua was once as famous as Elvis, but just as P.T. Barnum is no longer a known quantity to 21st Century audiences, Gargantua has faded (with his partriarch circus-proprietor) into vague cultural memory; it is entirely appropo that Jackson and his creative team resurrect Gargantua via/into Kong.

The associative link is strangely apt: the real-life Gargantua’s career trajectory roughly paralleled reel-life Kong’s. The maimed little gorilla orphan West Key Bar Captain Arthur Phillips delivered to caring foster ‘mother’ Gertrude Davies Lintz aka Mrs. William Lintz (I’m not being a chauvanist, just adhering to the standard of that era) about this time of year in 1931 had reportedly been scarred by a vengeful sailor, who ‘avenged’ himself on his captain after being discharged for misbehavior by the cowardly act of spraying a nitric-acid-filled fire extinguisher into the infant gorilla’s face. Working with an adventurous dermatologist (who repaired the extensive facial damage as best as 1930s medical procedures allowed), Mrs. Lintz personally nursed the wounded gorilla back to health, though Gargantua was never able to close his eyes. “I had to put drops in [his eyes] three times a day,” Mrs. Lintz said, “It is a tribute to the gorilla’s intelligence that after the first panic, he cooperated in his own cure.” A devoted animal lover, Mrs. Lintz indeed nursed Gargantua -- then named Buddy, short for Buddha -- back to health with such tenderness that the primate not only recovered from the trauma, but remained (despite the fixed scowl of his striking features) one of the most affectionate primates to tour the circus circuit. Richard Kroener and Anthony J. Desimone also worked with Mrs. Lintz and Buddy aka Gargantua in his formative years, nursing him back to health again in 1936 from a second mean-spirited scarring (a North Miami Zoo employee fed Buddy chocolate syrup laced with a potent cleaning disinfectant, internally burning the gorilla’s stomach lining and intestines).

After sheltering and caring for Buddy for six years, the near-adult size, strength, and potential for her 400-pound adopted ‘son’ to inadvertantly injuring someone prompted Mrs. Lintz to find a new home for her beloved primate. Already renowned among circus and animal trainers, Buddy/Gargantua was a desirable acquisition for any circus, and his sale to John and Henry Ringling North in December of 1937 placed the primate in the menagerie of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily Circus. Wintering in Sarasota, Florida and touring the US thereafter as Gargantua the Great: "The Largest Gorilla Ever Exhibited -- The World’s Most Terrifying Living Creature!", the benevolent Buddha was world-famous for over a decade. When Gargantua died in November of 1949 -- coincidentally passing while Mighty Joe Young ‘toured’ movie theaters across America -- his death was front-page news. (If you want to learn more, check out the two books I referenced for this writeup -- Animals Are My Hobby by Mrs. Lintz, 1937, Robert M. McBride & Company; and Gargantua: Circus Star of the Century by Gene Plowden, 1972, Bonanza Books -- or google Gargantua and check out the photos.)

Thus, Kong and Gargantua were already simian brethren throughout the late 1930s (Gargantua’s world tour began in 1938; King Kong was re-released throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, still bailing out RKO’s dwindling studio fortunes with a boxoffice-busting 1952 rerelease that earned a writeup in Time magazine). The decision of Jackson and his creative collaborators to revamp Kong with a Gargantua-stylized ‘facelift’ -- evoking the scars of a life lived amid the deadly saurians and primordial inhabitants so abundant on Skull Island -- is as true to the great ape’s era as every other component of this 2005 masterwork.

Except, some argue, for Jack Black’s incarnation of Carl Denham.

[To be continued...]