Thursday, December 29, 2005

Off to Skull Island: Part the Fourth (and penultimate)...

It's amazing what audiences will and won't suspend when they (we) are actively suspending disbelief -- and what is elevated, deified even, or quickly damned in the process.

Critical faculties are applied or ignored opportunistically, and the individual experience is rarely (if ever) the communal experience. Simply put, what works for one viewer doesn't work for another viewer; what one audience member gleefully embraces is emphatically rejected by another.

All this is going on, consciously and unconsciously, between heartbeats, eyeblinks, as the film unreels.

It's astounding that we can even communicate about "our" experience afterwards. First of all, there is little agreed-upon vocabulary when it comes to conversing about any vicarious experience, be it music, art, cinema, comics, whatever. But most of us accumulate a workable enough arsenal of catch-phrases and terms over the years to not only stumble through the process of articulating "our" experience (usually distilled into a utilitarian opinion, and nothing more), but of asserting "our" experience/opinion as being innately "correct." (It's even loopier when one is struggling to communicate about an experience others have refused to participate in, whatever their reasons; I'll leave that for the comment threads and the exchange with 'HB3', which speaks volumes.)

Everything is realigned again after the experience of viewing a film. We'll talk (or write) with a tone of 'common sense' candor that makes "our" view sound the most "of course" sensible, pragmatic, and thus "correct." Our value judgements are stated as fact more often than not, and the presumption is that the individual experience and communal experience are somehow aligned or permeable: that is, what Peter Jackson's King Kong was or was not for me must of course have been the same for you, or somethign is amiss -- with me, or with you (the unstated assumption being, of course, that "I'm" always right and "you're" always wrong, unless we are in full or acceptedly partial agreement).

That said, I am not saying my views stated herein are "correct" in any way. They're just my views, which I've gone to some lengths to detail in hopes of communicating what I experienced while getting thouroughly intoxicated on Peter Jackson's Kong. For my money, this Kong was sheer pleasure, as engaging, entertaining and marvelous an experience as I've had in a movie theater in quite some time. It was worthy of the beloved original, which itself was and is a creature of inspiration, compromises, and opportunistically-applied suspension of disbelief as any other film.

Ah, but the 1933 King Kong has also been deified, elevated like its titular iconic monster into a form of Godhead, a thing to be revered, savored, worshipped perhaps. Thus, it has become somehow critic-proof, impervious to whatever pitiful slings and arrows were, are, or might be fired against it. It is, in the mind of many, mythic, a totem, "perfect" -- and thus, idealized in a way few films are or ever will be.

The original King Kong is a truly great film, but it harbors its share of anachronistic cultural presumptions and assumptions, errors and missteps, adsurdities and impossibilities. For some, stop-motion animation is inherently a flawed technology, and they've never been able to accept Kong or his fellow primordial inhabitants of Skull Island as anything but shoddily animated, herky-jerky puppets, and when that is the case, King Kong remains forever a puzzlement. (I have my own theories on this, being a die-hard lifelong lover of stop-motion animation: the 'persistance of vision' illusion inherent to cinema that makes stop-motion animation work for much of the populace may not biologically function for another portion of the populace: that is, the frame-to-frame movement doesn't 'read' as it does to most viewers, and is thus rendered clumsy and 'refused' by the eye/mind -- but enough on that.) But those of us who love Kong not only 'ignore' those flaws -- we embrace them.

I can't tell you how many times I've heard Kong devotees rhapsodize over how Kong's rippling fur is "more lifelike," when it is in fact the handling of the animators that caused the original Kong's pelt to shift and move erratically, with neither rhyme nor reason according to any sense of anatomical versimilitude. But it's part-and-parcel of "the one and only true King Kong," hence sacred and sacrosanct.

The original King Kong is a great film, yes, but it's a load of horseshit, too, steaming and bubbling, served with shameless vigor and garnished with piping-hot fresh neck-deep blarney.

As I read various online critics, writers and bloggers tearing into the new King Kong on this point or that point -- the cartoonish excess of the Apatosaurus stampede, the further escalating action of Kong vs. the trio of T. rex, the show-stopping blight of the spider-pit, the decision not to show Kong's passage (identical to the original), Anne's flimsy non-winterwear, the lack of wind on the top of the Empire State Building, etc. -- it becomes laughable that the contemporary yardstick is so different from that applied to the 1933 original. Is any of this nonsense valid? Check your credibility at the concession stand if you're one of those who embrace the 1933 and use such circular illogic to damn the 2005 remake.

I mean, let's get real. Once I've accepted (a) a 25-to-50 foot gorilla where no gorillas or gorilla-like primates of any kind reside on Planet Earth, (b) the very premise of Skull Island, complete with all manner of incompatible prehistoric specimens living and breathing, and (c) the impossibility of any importation of an outsized primate into the heart of Manhattan (if, in the first place, you can swallow the export of a homeless blonde ingenue and lone female on a shipload of male salts), let's face it -- in the words of Cole Porter, anything goes. If you argue otherwise, you're full of as much shit as Kong before he drops his morning load.

Now, being a fantasist and storyteller myself by profession, able over my career to swallow and projectile-vomit among other risible conceits that of a man reborn as a spud-man and living in the swamps in and about Houma, Louisiana circa 1983-86, I absolutely accept the 'internal logic' necessary to make any quantity of horseshit float, for the duration of either a reading or a viewing, perhaps more. But it is, nonetheless, a conceit, a fabrication, an agreed-upon tapestry of lies and trickery we are all indulging for the pleasure of a story being told. Within that tapestry, one sets up certain groundrules, and works with them -- and by necessity (including, in the case of a film, what a 90-minute-to-200-minute running time will or will not permit) we all implicity agree to suspend the rest.

"Suspension of disbelief," some call it, so I shall, too.

Now, by any measure, the original King Kong required a healthy few swallows of horseshit if the film was/is to be enjoyed. In fact, many 1933 critics (including The New York Post reviewer) at first ridiculed King Kong, even as the Depression-burdened audiences were lining up around the block for their 15-cents worth of escapist/confrontist entertainment. Seems like most of the 1933 audiences, and those of every decade thereafter (including those blessed by the daily rebroadcast of Kong on The Million Dollar Movie in the 1950s), were able to swallow what some 1933 critics couldn't and wouldn't.

Let's see, Skull Island -- even if you can swallow the geological absurdity of a 'skull' shaped landmass, that's some name, particularly for a Dutch East Indies isle off the coast of Sumatra which was shunted back and forth between colonial countries for centuries (and extensively explored and charted by the 19th Century). Scientific study of the area can be charted in part by the extensive telegraphed reports pre-and-post Krakatoa's volcanic eruption, if you're seeking some bearings on the matter.

Gorillas in this hemisphere are less than unlikely. In 1933, gorillas, per se, were arguably as recent additions to the pop cultural menagerie as dinosaurs: the first gorillas were lowland gorillas, discovered and announced as such around 1846. Still, it took Paul du Chaillu plunging into Africa to begin shooting them a decade later to really elevate the beasts into the pantheon of fearsome zoological curios. It was du Chaillu who referred to his quarry as "hellish dream creature[s]... half-man and half-beast," inhabitants of "the infernal regions." The first mountain gorillas -- inhabitants of Eastern and Central Africa -- were shot in 1902 by a German named Oscar von Beringe (hence the latin name for the species, Gorilla gorilla beringei), with many more falling under the gun before 1925 -- but all in Africa. Most of what we now know about gorillas, particularly their behavior and true nature, we owe to George Schaller, whose studies began in 1959, so I won't diss the '33 Kong in light of those discoveries -- after all, if it is the mythic primate over-sexuality Kong's creators were seeking to conflate or exploit, the male Orangutan would have been the way to go, and we now know chimpanzees are by far the most aggressive and potentially homicidal of the great apes -- but still, as gorillas made their way into the circuses of the world, their peaceful, slow-moving nature was becoming recognized. Note, for instance and purposes of context, my previous post on Gargantua.

So, the conceit of an easily-angered big gorilla living on a remote isle in the Dutch East Indies, far from Africa, was pretty silly shit circa 1933. Good thing Merian C. Cooper's original plan to have his big ape battling Komodo Dragons didn't wash.

Instead, Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack supplanted the Komodo Dragons with neodinosaurs -- that is, living dinosaurs, still living and thriving in sequestered seclusion on Skull Island -- inspired by efforts of Willis O'Brien, whose the stop-motion animation footage created for the planned RKO project Creation, which Cooper scrapped, prompted O'Brien to pitch Kong being done with the same technique, including dinosaurs. Neodinosaurs, much as I and every other child who loves or loved dinosaurs wishes otherwise, remain a pretty remote bit of speculative fantasy, whatever lake monsters and sea monsters may or may not actually exist. The discovery of living coelocanths once lent tenuous credibility to the fantasy of prehistoric life being extant on the planet, but a tenacious fish is still many rungs of the ladder from dinosaurs -- so, much as this writer loves the notion and always had, its sheer foolishness to buy into the premise of any patch of ground, however remote, still nurturing a menagerie of neodinosaurian giants.

Then there's the issue of Kong's existence at his given size, the same stretch of credibility all 'giant monster' fantasies require. The entire premise of a 30-to-50 foot ape, or ant, or whatever, is by and large invalidated by the square-cube law (publicized in the context of the genre thanks to an excellent 1953 Saturday Review of Literature review of the giant ant classic Them!, which is where I first read about and understood this scientific principle as a wee lad scouring the dusty magazine stacks of the Waterbury Public Library, reading up on old movies). In short, the square cube law of geometry maintains that the surface area of any given form increases proportionally to the square of its linear dimensions; however, its volume increases as the cube of its dimensions. In the case of a giant monster, its size and relative strength may be proportional to the square of its height or length, but its mass (in terms of sheer weight) is cubed: thus, the larger a given monster, the less likely it will be capable of sustaining its own weight. Its legs won't function, it won't be able to breathe, etc., if it's capable of eating enough to sustain any life at all.

I know, that's no fun at all. Never had been, but thus the rarity of giant apes, radiation-inflated insects and arachnids, and lack of real-life kaiju eiga in our banal day-to-day world.

Furthermore, if you can roll with all that without your skull imploding like Skull Island at the end of Son of Kong (so, was Kong a female? A primate lesbian with the hots for the blonde dish?), there's the conundrum of an ape that we later see climbing all over Manhattan's skyline being 'kept at bay' on Skull Island by comparatively puny walls and a double-door he pushes open when provoked.

Then there's the issue of getting Kong from an Indonesian isle and into Manhattan without, oh, I don't know, passing through Ellis Island or alerting customs, much less setting off an international incident with Indonesian authorities or whatever. Even in 1933, there were laws governing the trafficking of animals and alien species, and by any stretch of the imagination, Kong (however docile and/or drugged) is a pretty tough-to-hide 'bring 'em back alive' acquisition. Besides, such a voyage would take (per the film's own narrative) at least six weeks. How to keep Kong drugged, chained, and fed (not to mentioned, uh, the waste disposal issues)? How, exactly, is that accomplished?

So, with a deft quick-cut (emulated, properly, by Jackson and his creative partners), we leap from Kong konked on the Skull Island beach to debuting in downtown Manhattan. OK. (If you maintain, as some do, that Jackson dropped some sort of narrative ball emulating that canny cut from Skull Island to Manhattan, consider, constant reader, the always maladroit "en route to civilization" scenes of Kong sequels and imitations, including the Toho 'sequels,' the Dino remake, et al -- it's rare when a flick like Eugene Lourie's gem Gorgo has a reason for the sequence, and pulls it off with any measure of believability. Sometimes, narrative shorthand like that jumpcut serves a plethora of purposes, including sidestepping the kind of running-time-devouring necessities of dealing with logistical issues even going there invites.)

Thereafter, we are supposed to buy that Kong indeed finds Ann -- finds and recognizes and recaptures Ann -- by climbing on buildings and peering into windows. Itty, bitty, what's-the-chances-he'll-luck-on-that-apartment's-particular-window windows. With New York City's population already in the millions, the odds are certainly stacked against this, however sharp his eye, nostrils, or just dumb luck.

The Empire State Building was pretty spiffy and new in '33 -- construction having been completed only a couple of years before -- so incorporating it into the narrative was a stroke of genius by any cynic's or naysayer's standard. Still, would its structure have borne up under the weight of a 16-ton or so gorilla? Would its summit's structure have carried that weight? Wouldn't the winds have simply blown Kong -- and if not the ape, the girl -- from that 1,200+ foot height?

And when he fell -- barring issues of wind velocity, air resistance, and the impact the bounces on the way down might have -- it seems fair to guesstimate his less-than-ten-second fall to street level bringing that mass of primate flesh into the pavement at better than approximately 270+ feet-per-second, which means (given the laws of kinetic energy: kinetic energy=1/2 mass x velocity squared) the fall should impact at over 39 million foot-pounds of force, which will either (a) plunge Kong's karcass into a very deep crater of sub-street destruction, including perhaps a crevass through the subway and all such veining of civilization below, or (b) pulped primate soup with a splatter of hair and central stock of splintered marrow and bone, in the unlikely event the street sustains any measure of support when the mega-monkey pancakes.

Not much to eulogize, in either case.

So, let's take it all in: we've got a savage great ape of indeterminate gender and variably size (sometimes shot-to-shot), by all evidence the lone or last member of its species, living on the wrong continent in the wrong hemisphere of the planet, scrapping with neodinosaurs (which themselves wrecklessly mixed species geography, not to mention incompatible spans of geological time, without any regard for any semblence of 'realism), falling in love with a female of a dwarfish, hairless, completely incompatible species. And then, like, being towed into New York City and displayed on stage for a paying audience to see, after clearing said importation and display with relevent authorities. After which, having somehow maintained his footing atop the summit despite high winds while making sure his frail little plaything Ann Darrow didn't blow off either, Kong was shot down by planes and subsequently plunged from the top of the Empire State Building, though he neither plunges through the tarmac into whatever is under the street below, nor turns to primate puree on the pavement. Riiiiiiiiiiiiight.

What a vast and brimming, steaming crock of shit.



Still, Kong is magic, and we accept magic when we wish to fall beneath its spell. Kong -- in all his incarnations -- is a fairy tale, the best two versions (1933 and 2005) dreams. They function solely on that level. That is their power, their charge, their importance, the be-all and end-all. Tear at the fabric of either, and they dissolve. That's not a flaw, that's the nature of dreams.

But let's stay with the cultural elevation of the 1933 version, 70+ years hence:

Furthermore, when a film (or any creative work) becomes thus culturally sanctified, its elements become similarly deified. Thus, the characters, however shallow, anachronistic, or reprehensible when analyzed with the same critical faculties we bring to bear on a contemporary work (such as, for instance, the Jackson Kong), are already "blessed" as being identifiably themselves. We have long since qualified/rectified/amplified them into proper alignment with the sanctified work.

Case in point: Carl Denham, as played by Robert Armstrong.

[To be concluded, as the conjunction of Armstrong and Black's Carl Denham's brings all this to a head, tomorrow...]