February 19, 2006

King Kong (2005)

directed by Peter Jackson
screenplay by Fran Walsh, Phlippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson
after a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

I mean, really, they should say
based on the film King Kong (1933)
directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoesdack
screenplay by James Creelman and Ruth Rose
after a story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace

because it’s not as though Peter Jackson read the original story notes and then re-interpreted them. This is as fannish a remake as you’re likely to see; it’s assertively based on the actual editing and performances of the original. And beyond that, it’s based on the actual iconic stature of the original, which, come to think of it, is sort of an odd attitude for a remake to take. You’d think that a remake would want to act like it invented the wheel rather than admitting off the bat that it’s an imitation product.

But no, at least, in this post-The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) era, that’s definitely not the case. Remakes, like TV-show movies, are just another form of comic book adaptation wherein the comic book just happens to be another movie. So many movies willingly lower themselves to the status of sequels: only fully functional when they’re plugged into some other movie, like someone on one of those breathing machines that must have a name but I can’t think of it. I’m not even talking about Psycho (1998), which was just a half-baked stunt. I mean stuff like Fat Albert (2004), which wasn’t a movie about Fat Albert; it was a movie about what would happen if the characters on that TV show Fat Albert came out of the TV, which is only a viable plot concept if you’re already versed in the Fat Albert universe, the inherent entertainment value of which is the ostensible justification for the making of a Fat Albert movie in the first place. Why would they do that – cripple their movie by making it dependent on a TV show, and then sabotage it by taking the focus off the subject and putting it on the meta?

In that case I really don’t know what they were thinking – but only because it’s such a grotesque example. I mean, really, like there’s enough Fat Albert love in the world to support a straight movie, even less a meta? And no, of course I didn’t actually see it.

The rest of the time, though, I would say it’s all part of a general tendency in the entertainment industry to cater to nerdy behavior, I guess because obsessions are more consistent, and thus more profitable, than curiosity. No entertainment property is truly inexhaustible*, but cult-devotion is forever. It’s smarter to bet on being able to sucker people into a fetishistic commitment than it is to try to keep appealing to them over and over with new actual content. For some reason, this is only being discovered now. It took TV Guide decades to stumble into the fact that if they print four covers and say “collect all four,” they will sell more copies, especially if they put pictures of Star Trek characters on the covers. It is not coincidental that nerds and fetishists are overlapping genera.

Maybe American society is getting more nerdy, or more fetishistic, or maybe commercial culture is just getting savvier/more cynical/more shameless about exploiting it. I dunno. I don’t have a thesis here. I’m just trying to talk about King Kong.

So. It all relates. I don’t think Peter Jackson is the next Spielberg, or whatever they’re saying. BECAUSE… he’s too much of a fetishist, or a nerd, or something. He’s miles above Attack of the Clones, mind you, but watching his movies I still feel a hint of that sense that I’m at some little kid’s tea party, playing along, and that it’s not really for me, per se. Or rather, it’s only for me if I’m a co-conspirator in the tea party and am thus willing to play along. Peter Jackson, for concrete example, has shown time and again that he thinks a chunky low-framerate slow-mo effect is fun and exciting. Maybe it’s just me, but I think it looks like crap. I don’t just mean that it reminds me of crap, that it’s too lowbrow a technique – I mean, it actually looks bad. It’s not a good thing to do with your film; it’s hard to watch and it tends to break the spell of whatever alternate reality has been created by somehow making everything look much more like props and sets and actors in makeup. It’s just not effective, but Peter Jackson loves it. He thinks he’s offering it up like junk food, like a guilty pleasure, but he’s actually offering it up like a kid showing you how cool his toy car is by going “vroom” and making it ride up the side of the wall and then along the tabletop and then down the table leg and then along the floor, while you have to watch, wondering whether he still even remembers that he told you to watch.

Obviously, Peter Jackson is far from a distractable kid. But the things I admired about The Lord of the Rings and King Kong – the spectacle, the effects, and I suppose the durable old-fashionedness of the characterizations – these weren’t exactly Peter’s doing. He has a very clever special effects group working for him (those behind-the-scenes documentaries on the Lord of the Rings DVD’s were really cool, I thought) that manages to turn his overblown visuals into entertainment – a fine counter-example to the doofuses who managed to make those Star Wars movies so cluttered and garbagey. And his wife and her friend seem to be mostly quite smart about the big scripting decisions – the relationship they constructed for Kong and the woman was a very well-calibrated solution to the assignment of writing a love story for a giant special-effect-monkey and Naomi Watts. Except that I personally didn’t buy or want to see their moment of peaceful bliss sliding around in Central Park. And I really didn’t need to see as much pre-Kong stuff about anyone – the whole first hour could have been cut way way down. But otherwise, good.

But anyway, Peter Jackson’s actual directorial style is not those things; it’s something nerdier, less thought-out, that gives form to those things. The spirit that motivates those low-framerate effects (there’s a particularly ridiculous one in this movie where Adrien Brody types each letter in the word S K U L L while the camera careens clumsily toward him) seems to lurk everywhere – an undiscriminating fondness for things that seem like they’re much cooler than they actually look. And only his fellow nerds in the audience are there rooting for these things, because, as participants in whatever fetish is being indulged at the moment, they are already at the tea party. And I’m torn, watching these movies, in the choice between thinking, “but this just doesn’t come off, for me,” and thinking, “whoa, dude!” Unless I’m really and truly uncomfortable, I choose in favor of the latter because it’s more fun. But I still know inside that it’s just not the highest quality, sharpest fun around – it’s fun that we’re kind of hyping up to ourselves as we go, to cover the gaps. Spielberg, by contrast, has, or at least had, a great visual sense and a great pacing sense, and always attuned to theatricality. Jackson is simply more of a nerd; he’s doing it in his world. I want my escapism brought to me, not played out in front of me.

I’m talking here only about his crowd-pleasing megamovies. Heavenly Creatures was a whole other animal. Somehow his craftsmanship there was both recognizably the same, and also much richer in effect. Though perhaps that was a one-time-only affair. It’s interesting to note that Heavenly Creatures was a movie about the darkness that lurks behind nerdy obsessions. It’s a depiction of childish escapism that’s meant to be disturbing in its insularity; maybe that’s why the childishly insular slant to Peter Jackson’s direction happened to strengthen the effect of that movie. I think it may have been a sort of serendipitous coincidence. It’s just not clear to me how much control he has.

And who even knows about his early trashy splatter horror comedy whatevers. I’m never going to watch them. I guess what I’m saying here is that his origins as a purveyor of cult-interest-only exercises in gore are still apparent, and I don’t think that spirit serves the fantasy escapism genre quite as well as it could; it transmutes it into something less communicative, less whole. Just like remakes that resort to fandom and fetishism. Right. I’ve said this all ten times. But no revision! Let’s keep moving forward.

The music by James Newton Howard was undistinguished in both the action and melodrama categories. I know he had to write it really fast because Howard Shore was mysteriously dropped from the movie at the last minute, and it sounded that way, like the most reflexive, fastest possible solution to every problem. There were a few gestures toward 30s Hollywood, as with the title cards, but like the title cards, the gestures weren’t memorable or forceful enough to impart the actual tang of “vintage” to the movie, which would have benefited from it. Why couldn’t the whole score have been all old-fashionedy and classically symphonic (as opposed to slick-synth-symphonic, the way everything is orchestrated these days)? Oh well. Just like Lord of the Rings, an opportunity to do something cool was wasted on forgettable blandness.

All the complaining about Peter Jackson above is an attempt to articulate the difference between the movie and some higher standards I would have preferred it to meet. But, you know, roller-coaster overkill was the point of the movie and pretty much whenever it was on the tracks, I was having a great time. The gross-out sequence was my favorite part. Again, it speaks to Peter Jackson’s strengths. It was like a kid holding a bug in your face and watching you squirm. The kid nailed it! And when those dinosaurs were all running at the camera, it didn’t look perfect but I was still smiling because the movie’s sense of delight at having so much dinosaur onscreen at once was, again, so overblown that it became accessible to me. A-plus, kid!

And seriously, that’s worth something. It’s a rare and ticket-worthy thing, to get grossed out and overwhelmed. I knew Peter Jackson would do it well, it’s why I went, and I got it, and I had fun. On those counts, he definitely beats Spielberg – this movie’s bug scene was far, far better than the one in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. But the movie wanted to be at least a little bigger than just the thrills, and I don’t feel altogether safe with Peter out there beyond the amusement park. You must be taller than this sign etc.

* Well, maybe some are, I don’t know, sake of argument, work with me here.


  1. Just a quick note about remakes: I think the reason remakes of stale, third-rate TV properties often indulge meta conceits — think of the Bewitched movie* — is because the writers:

    (1) Are embarrassed, and/or

    (2) Are lazy, and can’t think of a way to make the absurd characters and plot actually

    (a) relevant to modern life and

    (b) bearable in a two-hour rather than a thirty-minute chunk.

    King Kong is a different animal. (Ha, ha!) I thought King Kong was ideal material for a remake, because most people haven’t actually seen it, and yet virtually everyone is familiar with its rough plotline and its signature image. You might say they are familiar with King Kong not as a movie but as a meme. There’s room for the writers to enlarge and enhance the story while preserving the satisfying oomph of the monkey on the skyscraper. In that sense it’s less like Fat Albert and more like a history picture — think Troy. (The thrills! The passion! The dudes in that wooden horse!)

    * I am, personally, a huge fan of Bewitched, but I acknowledge the limits of my own taste here.

    Posted by Adam on |

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