King Kong

The latest film from Peter Jackson is monstrous. I know that when we’re talking about a monster movie, it’s natural to qualify it as monstrous. But here, the monstrosity is not just the prerogative of the creatures populating Skull Island, it defines the film as much in its themes as in its style. Consequentially, those who swear only by measure, accuracy and economy will see in “King Kong” nothing but an indigestible and overblown film where each detail refuses to be just a narrative beat or a piece of a whole, instead coming into its own as a moment of glory. In fact, as is often the case in Jackon’s cinema, “King Kong” includes more than one film (have fun counting down all those included in “Heavenly Creature” and “The Frighteners”). It is simultaneously a romantic comedy, an adventure film, a disaster movie, a creature feature, a horror flick, a tragedy, an intimate story and a metaphysical drama.

Let’s not be mistaken, I’m not saying that the film contents itself with evocating here and there, in specific moments, the spirit of the aforementioned genres, but that these eight genres coexist, not always harmoniously, but always fructuously in spellbinding paroxysm. Hence, whoever, when buying his ticket, was only looking for one of two of those things, inevitably finds himself overwhelmed by the others. Imagine how perplex someone who comes for a disaster movie will be when he’ll have to sit through not only a conventional romantic subplot but a whole bona fide opening half hour of romantic comedy. Nonetheless, since some of these films within the film will certainly be spotted, negatively or positively, it seems justified to me to devote myself mostly to the intimate story and the metaphysical drama, the parts that will assuredly go over the heads of the critics, who seem unable to recognize that spectacle in no way excludes a form of self-expression, and of the audience, who simply doesn’t give a squirt about metaphysics as long as their popcorn satisfying drips with butter.

The Two Monsters

The film in its entirety is held together by two monsters: the first is human and is named Carl Denham, the second is animal and it’s Kong. Between the two is a woman or an angel (it’s hard to decide), Ann Darrow. One can’t be sure, but it’s possible to state that Denham is the soul of the first hour and a half and that Kong constitutes that of the second, the movie running over 3 hours and 7 minutes. These two characters are different in many aspects, but Jackson tackles them in sensibly the same way, i.e. by enscribing them directly on screen as full-on myths and also as receptacles for his own doubts and feelings as a megalomaniac creator. This dual function of Denham and Kong is expressed through both the screenplay and the mise en scène. Yet, whereas its obvious to the viewer that when a filmmaker depicts a director character on screen, it’s because he’s willing to talk about himself in his film, it’s not as evident when he’s shooting a giant gorilla. But, in my opinion, it wouldn’t be presumptuous to say that Jackson, in the manner of Flaubert with his Bovary, could cry out: Kong c’est moi!

The myth incarnated by Denham is undoubtedly that of the adventurer-filmmaker, in the tradition of Huston, Herzog, Coppola, Friedkin, Stone and, of course, Welles. By adventurer-filmmaker, I mean those ambiguous artists who, when making movies, are after exciting experiences in various corners of the world more than simply putting their visions on screen or, more exactly, can’t conceive obtaining something powerful on screen without a shoot accomplished in more or less the same conditions that what they aim to represent. They are obsessed with the idea of blurring the limits between reality and fiction, unafraid to have blood or mud splash unto the camera lens during a take. It’s not surprising that, during a production in which he might have never set a foot outside a studio, Jackson attached himself with such fury to painting this myth, in a way to remain connected to his subject: an adventure tale on an unknown island. Otherwise, he seems to have poured into Denham a vast residue of guilty conscience. The character inspires serious ethical questions. How far can we go in the pursuit of an ideal? At what point does the ambitious artist transform into an insane demiurge? Is a masterpiece worth the price of a human life? For, all through his obsessive quest, where lies, treason, manipulation and deadly accidents succeed each other, Denham never ceases to raise those questions in the viewer’s mind. You can bet that, when you’ve gone from your backyard in New Zealand, where you had to build rails to do travelings, to the reigns of the Hollywood adaptation of one of the greatest Heroic Fantasy novels, you had to gather a few little cases of conscience on your way up.

As for the Kong character, he represents the myth of might and loneliness: sole survivor of his species, he reigns with fury over Skull Island. His power will be perfectly illustrated during slices of bravery (the confrontation with the three T-Rex), where the strength and the agility of the gorilla is only equaled by the virtuosity of the camera that captures it. Yet, if Jackon is assuredly interested by this dimension of the myth, the other dimension might fascinate him even more. To this regard, the first glimpse we get of Kong clearly confirms this intention. Indeed, it’s by a close-up on his (angry) stare and not by an establishing shot revealing the amplitude of his height that he is introduced. As is, this means that the singularity of his soul will occupy the screen as much as that of his appearance and his spectacular actions.

For Jackson, the 1933 “King Kong” was a decisive cinematic shock, like the revelation, blinding and intoxicating, that the impossibility of fantasy could be attained through the miracle of cinema, to a degree of realism unequaled by the other arts. However, the character of Kong imposed itself in his imagination as much as an object of identification as an artistic aspiration. In other words, if Jackson recognized himself in the loneliness and the feeling of exclusion of the giant ape, the possibility of concretizing fantasy on screen also made its impression through the traits of that beast. On that basis, in all of his trajectory as a filmmaker, through every of his major characters: the killer couple Pauline/Juliet, Frank Bannister, even Aragorn, king of Gondor, hidden under the modest clothes of Stryder the ranger, and through each of the fantastic creatures: the clay figurines of “Heavenly Creatures”, the Grim Reaper from “The Frighteners” and the entire bestiary from “Lord of the Rings”, it’s always the shadow of the big gorilla from Skull Island that’s being sketched, as much in the loneliness that he symbolizes that in the dream that he incarnates. Then, how can we be surprised that Kong is at the same time the most realistic and the most moving creature ever directed by Jackson? Be it in the stunning reflections of soul in his eyes or in the wounds and scars that cover his body and reveal the struggle that has been his life, Kong never ceases to express Jackson. If that isn’t intimate cinema, I don’t know what is.

The most dangerous island of all time

Skull Island: the most dangerous island of all time. To fully grasp Jackson’s goal in creating this island, which is at the heart of his tale, one has to understand the poetic candor of the two hyperboles: the most and of all time, as a child would hear them, eyes bugging out, as he’s being told of the adventures of the sailors of the Venture. In short, he tried to put into images once upon a time on the most dangerous island of all time. And he succeeded at it, down to every skull in the background, every cyclopean tree and, especially, every creature bursting into the frame. On Skull Island, the senses of the moviegoer like those of the heroes are never allowed to rest, they are solicited until exhaustion (as some have criticized the movie for, incidentally). But Jackson, with the excess that we associate to him, also confines this visual invasion by a hungry Nature to pure metaphysics. Hence, when the heroes are about to be slaughtered by the natives (close relatives of the Orcs in “Lord of the Rings”) or when they’re literally assailed by insects as big as mammals in the bottoms of a crevasse, the mise en scène stops treating these events as thrilling dangers (“Will they get out of this one?”) to instead approach them as ineluctable phenomena (“Here is how things are.”).

Consequentially, the fate of the characters doesn’t relate to their adventure but to the human condition, as it was before the rise of civilization. In this case, the question isn’t Shakespearean like the famous “To be or not to be?”, but strictly animal: devour or be devoured? The viewer witnesses speechlessly, maybe even inhabited by a certain malaise, the representation on film of the inhuman cycle of Nature, as it acts beneath the comforting mask of society (a man dying from cancer would be the most exact example). Basically, the metaphysical drama addressed above is our moral blindness in its face. But thanks to Jackson’s instinctive talent (this theme might not be intentionally developed by him) and the transcendental acuity of cinema, this blindness is partially overcome.

Review by Jean Carlo Denham Lavoie (translation by K.)

dem·i·urge, n.
A deity in Gnosticism, Manichaeism, and other religions who creates the material world and is often viewed as the originator of evil.