King Kong Merian Cooper Earnest Shoedsack (USA 1933) Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot
Viewed Star and Shadow Cinema: 4 Sept 2011, ticket price £5.00
Retrocrit: From King to slave an American journey
King Kong (KK) is a spoof mythological epic that gave Hollywood and American culture this new synthetic genre. KK exploits some of the expressive elements of the literary myths of European culture and overlays them with a exteriorised detached cool stylistic gloss. KK is constructed in such a manner that engrossment in and detachment from the material are interspliced, a structure that allows the film to commit to and follow the lines of action and simultaneously step aside from and comment on the action with contemporary externalised parentheses.
What we see in KK is the present taking control of the past. After KK, contemporary American culture led by Hollywood, is no longer in awe of the traditional mythologies of the European forebears. The dynamic Hollywood entertainment industry took the heroic components of these ancient stories and fashioned them into statements of American cultural and social values: democracy, embracement of change, can do attitude. Transforming the elements of these myths through a stylised and structured filmic detachment enabled the viewers to laugh at and detach themselves from their historical origins. Becoming American: a synthesis of engrossment and detachment.
For KK is surely fashioned from mythologies such as Beowulf and Siegfried both in content and expressive style. In the second section of KK the boat approaches the island. But as in the Niebelungen the place of destiny is fog ridden, and the boat has to negotiate a path through a defensive mist. Once on the isle a barrier separates the terrified people from the monstrous past that is sealed off behind it, the mountain has the shape of a skull, and when Kong is tracked he is finally, like Grendel. traced to his lair in a cave. Without being specific these are all classic elements of hero myths. Kong isn’t one mythic entity but is synthesised out of the components of different mythic strands. Kong can be seen as a primal force, an ancient God, a monster. Mythically Kong is doomed because his time is over; a new race of dynamic people have arrived, unafraid and who want to capture his image.
Unlike Cortes and the old colonialists the new invading ‘heroes’ don’t seek conquest. They seek power through the image, the symbolic camera that they carry everywhere. They come to capture images in order to exploit them. For the new colonialists, the image is a critical aspect of their power, enabling their manipulations and control. In fact in the movie they capture Kong himself, at which point the film takes on another lamination. As captive, Kong elides into a different image, he becomes another deterritorialised other. Kong is transformed from a God into black slave.
The curtains open in the Broadway theatre to reveal captured Kong standing mid stage on a platform. As in the illustrations of the restraints and manacles used on Africans in the slave trade, Kong’s arms are pinioned back by chains to a metal bar across his shoulders. Kong becomes African slave. From a God in nature to black slave, an American journey. And his escape and flight is an old time Southern manhunt in which the escaped slave is hunted down and killed by white men, Of course the man hunt is a lamination as the affect of the killing, the expressive despair of the Kong model, is attenuated by the spoof nature of the action.
I think that the spoof form adapted in Kong is made possible by the ‘30’s technology that used ingenious models to animate Kong and his Jurassic pals. One element of spoof is for the expressive elements to take seriously what is self evidently flawed to the external viewer. The investment of emotion and intellectual analysis by players on phenomena that are clearly representations creates space for both the scenario and the players to adapt distancing mechanisms from their engagement and involvement in the action that is legitimised by this structured component of the form.
The players have to respond to the material by adapting an acting style that is dedicated to surface gestures and malleable allowing them to move through different keys of relationship and commitment to the script. Using CGI makes it far more difficult to spoof epic heroic genres, and has unleashed an endless output of ponderous forgettable movies that are trapped within their own rigid logic. Steven Spielberg obviously watched KK up close and in his Lost Ark techno archaeological epics brought the Kong ethos up to date.