Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Musing Pictures: King Kong (2005)

Ok, Ok, Peter Jackson can finally count me as a fan.

There are potential spoilers below, but come on, you KNOW what happens!

As you may recall, I was half-hearted in my appreciation of each of his "Lord of the Rings" films, especially the first one. This had mostly to do with certain techniques that Jackson employs (slow motion, "flickering" images (it has to do with doubling certain frames and eliminating other frames in a regular pattern if you want to get technical about it), and an uncomfortably close dance along the edge of the "too much happening on the screen" line (which is one that Lucas, for example, crosses religiously in the recent "Star Wars" additions.))

Jackson used the same techniques here, in his carefully wrought re-make of the 1933 Cooper and Schoedsack classic, "King Kong", but the film tells a much smaller story than the one he had to tackle with his "Rings" films, and that makes a huge difference.

What made the original '33 "King Kong" such a lasting success wasn't the special effects, and it certainly wasn't the camerawork (which tends to be very static and plain). What gave the original film the right to call itself a classic was the efficiency and effectiveness of the story.

"King Kong" is not only a near-perfect three-act narrative (Going to/confronting Skull Island, Adventures on the Island, Adventures in New York), but it also incorporates very strongly those necessary points along its narrative arc that give it direction -- The incident that incites the action is straightforward and believable, the parallel narratives of Darrow/Kong and Everyone Else/Island Creatures are crisply interwoven, and the twist at the end of the second act that slingshots us in to the third act is absolutely perfect.

It is with this moment that I would like to begin my musings.

The third act of a (good) film is not merely resolution. It is often an escalation that follows what looks like it should be a resolution -- and it's an escalation that leads to a new, often more extreme result.

If King Kong had been a bad film, it would have gone like this:

Carl Denham goes to Skull Island to get footage for his film. Ann Darrow gets kidnapped by the Ape. Rescue party formed. Adventures in Jungle. Ann is rescued. Everyone goes home.

Clearly, this would be a fairly mundane, uninteresting story. The brilliance of King Kong is that in order to make this an excellent story, NOTHING IS CHANGED, but something is added. It's the 2nd act twist:

Denham's intentions (but not his motivations) change. He thought he would make a movie, but oh no, now he can do something better: He can capture Kong and bring him back alive.

This twist launches us beautifully in to the third act, which shows the bitter consequences of Denham's ambition, with Kong famously ripping up New York.

I was pleased to see that Jackson knew where the Kong story's effectiveness lay. When the Ape is finally put to sleep at the end of the 2nd act, Denham remarks that in a few months, Broadway will be lit up by the words "Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World". Fade to black, and up comes the third act, with the Broadway sign, and patrons clamoring at the theater entrance for a ticket. It is line-for-line, shot-for-shot the transition that Cooper and Schoedsack employ in the original film. Jackson made no attempt to bring us back on to the ship, to show Kong being transported, to show Darrow telling her story, or any of that stuff that we are left to imagine in the original film. He knew, without a doubt, that the strength of "King Kong" lies deep within that transition, that elision of time which allows us to complete our film's journey.

Jackson knew some other things, too.

He did not only borrow moments, shots, lines and transitions from the original film, but he made sure to incorporate some of the music, as well.

Few people realize that "King Kong", in 1933, was the first film to have an underscore -- music that plays along underneath certain scenes. The music, by Max Steiner (famous for his scores to "Gone with the Wind" and "Casablanca") makes an appearance (very appropriately) during the New York "premiere" of King Kong -- it is played by the theater's pit orchestra.

And that leads me to something fascinating about both the 1933 and the 2005 versions of the film.

They both seem to be simultaneously praising and putting down their own medium.

"King Kong" is a film. In it, there is a character who sets out to shoot a film. That film which he shoots includes King Kong. He decides, though, that oh no, film is grand and all, but you know what would be better? THE REAL THING. In this way, he becomes a theater producer in an instant. So, theater is all well-and-good, but do you know what happens next? In theater, the Monster doesn't stay stuck in two dimensions, on a canvas screen. In theater, the monster CAN EAT YOU. And it does. And aren't we all just so reassured that we're not watching a play right now?

This is a subtlety of the 1933 version of the film which Peter Jackson openly challenges.

Ann Darrow wants to be an actress in the theater. Denham's film canisters break open, leaving him with no useable footage (which gives him a stronger motive to decide to bring Kong back). Jackson introduces a new character to the story -- a playwright named Jack Driscoll (played by Adrien Brody) who is recruited to write Denham's film. Driscoll doesn't seem to like movies much, and says so on at least one occasion.

Most interestingly, Jackson adds a scene in which Darrow, at a loss for what to do as Kong's latest captive, begins to pull tricks out of her vaudeville routine, slowly discovering that Kong finds her amusing -- it is their first real interaction, and as such, it is a testament to the power of the theater -- or, at least, to the interpersonal, direct nature of the theater.

I don't have anything against the theater, but I'm not so sure I like the way Jackson balances things out here. It's a (very slight) deviation from the simplicity of the original story, and although it's interesting to think about in its own right, I wonder if it really works for the film.

But these are all details! Details!

For those of you who want to know if I liked the film -- I did. Quite a bit, in fact. It was a thoughtful adventure, much slower than modern adventures (but modern adventures are impatient and deceptive -- this is not a modern adventure). And it was very genuine.

One more digression: Communication.

It is amazing how many movies there are about communication and miscommunication.

It seems as though every major cinematic conflict could be resolved if people knew how to talk to one another. If Kong could talk... or if Vader and Luke had only spent some time around a coffee table... There's a lot of anxiety when people talk to each other but don't understand each other... especially when we seem to understand both of them. I think that's where a lot of the suspense in "King Kong" comes from -- that and the fact that we KNOW what will happen next (and as such, we know we can't avoid it).

It's interesting how much more conscious we can be of Destiny when we're watching remakes...



Anonymous said...

The 1933 King Kong was not the first movie to have an underscore, it was the first film to have an ORIGINAL underscore. Previously,existing classical compositions were used.

AzS said...

Thank you for the specification.


Arnon Shorr said...

I'm reading this over, seven years later, and I'm astounded at what I wrote. Although I haven't seen "King Kong" since writing this, I only remember it as an overwrought CGI slug-fest that misses the subtlety of the original film while spending way too much time trying to out-do it. Why is it that I've changed my opinion of this film so radically over the years without having seen it a second time?