Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Sleeping With The Monkey

One of the more interesting differences between Jackson's Kong and the original is sexualizing of the story.

(there will be further spoilers in here, so Jill, you decide if you want to know more)

In the original, Fay Wray's body is presented front-and-center for the audience's appreciation. She is displayed in a near-explicit sexual fashion from the get-go (and she's reaching for what? An apple. Hm. Forbidden fruit, anyone?). Her initial encounter with Denham is handled in such a manner that their conversation could be interpreted (and indeed is interpreted by Darrow herself) as negotiation for sexual favours, and her presence on board the ship is marked by the display of her body.

Even an audience that isn't paying attention to these details is going to react to a beautiful woman standing around almost naked. She is vulnerable, she requires protection, and even more to the point, she is AVAILABLE. She's a mare in heat, and we are given the expectation that at some point, this filly will require mounting.

Not to be too crude about it.

But the voyage to Skull Island, in Cooper's film, sets up Ann not so much as a romantic partner for Jack (although that happens, of course, in one of my favourite 30's lines of all time: "Say, I guess I love you."), but as a sexually unfinished figure, as desire embodied without fulfillment.

Naomi Watts is not nearly so sexualised in Jackson's film. She is instead romanticised. Where Fay Wray reacts to Denham's pitch with stuttering confusion and uncertainty, Watts simply walks out on him. It's not at all clear that Wray's Darrow wouldn't have gone along with Denham even if he WAS a pimp. Watts is not subjected to hostility from sailors who distrust her sexuality; instead she partners up with them to perform vaudeville shows.

Once the monkey shows up, however, things are quite different.

Not in presentation; Wray is still relentlessly sexualised and her undressing by Kong probably ranks as one of the least likely stripteases in cinema. Not on the level of Saffron Burrows in Deep Blue Sea, perhaps, but still it's pretty silly. We don't see anything that anthropomorphic in Jackson's film, as his Kong is as fully a gorilla as can be. Willis O'Brien's creation is honestly a very large, uneducated man with communication difficulties. And he undresses Fay Wray with the curious wonder of a boy learning how to unhook a bra for the first time.

But what actually happens in the story at this point flips the sexualization meter the other way. Now it's Jackson's film that gets all sexified. Wray is undressed by the ape, but then before Kong can (and here the mind fairly reels, as they say) consummate his burgeoning lust, she is snatched away from him by Driscoll's courageous rescue.

Watts' Darrow, however, finds a very different relationship with the big guy: she actually sleeps with him.

In Jackson's film we see Darrow and Kong in fact consummate their relationship. Well, we don't ACTUALLY see that happen, as this is a PG film (and the anatomical difficulties are, to say the least, intimidating), but they fall asleep together and she awakes in his embrace. Were he a human being, there would be almost no question that these two characters have become one overnight.

And big props to Naomi Watts for communicating this in the scene where Driscoll shows up to rescue her; we can see in her eyes that she's not immediately convinced she wants to leave. Kong has protected her, he's been an enthusiastic audience and he's shown her beauty and tenderness. That's frankly more than she's gotten from anyone else. She's found a real man at last.

Cooper's film does provide Wray's personification of sexual need with the fulfillment so desperately required -- she is engaged to Jack and so that story is all wrapped up. Phew. Filly has done been mounted. That sexualization that was so important to the early part of the film is withdrawn from the latter, and all that is left is the acting out of the rage of the jealous monkey. Jackson, on the other hand, maintains Kong as someone with a real connection to Ann. The only someone with a connection to her, who can draw her out of her hopeless life.

The original doesn't provide this interpretation. Kong is not a desirable mate in the 1933 film. He is an angry, jealous, 30-foot-tall stalker. He's a gigantic two-year-old throwing a tantrum because his toy has been taken away, and although we feel a connection to him, and even admire him for his unwillingness (or inability) to bow to necessity, we are not horror-stricken at his death. Cooper did not make a tragedy.

Jackson is trying to. It's a tough sell, because, you know, giant monkey fighting dinosaurs just isn't classic tragedy. And I'm not sure it works. Ann can't end up with Kong, and we can't feel too terrible that he's finally destroyed.

Because monkey love, ew.

And it just might be that the old standby of holding off on the consummation until the END of the story is the right choice, cinematically. When Kong plunges to his doom in Jackson's film, we can think, "Hey, at least he got to sleep with Naomi Watts." But in Cooper's film Kong is decidedly unfulfilled. He never acquires the civilizing relationship he needs, and somehow that makes his end MORE satisfying.

It's like John Woo's Mission Impossible: 2, the first part of which is a remake of Hitchcock's Notorious, with the exception that the spy sleeps with the girl right at the start of the film. I think they did this in MI:2 because they thought it would strengthen the bond between guy and girl, but it has the opposite effect, and I think you could argue the same is true in King Kong. Once our heroes get it on, a big part of the reason we're watching goes out the window.

The Moonlighting effect, you might call it.

And monkey love is still ooky.


  1. Sorry... long comments coming:

    Wow, that's an ...interesting interpretation of both King Kongs. I kept expecting you to throw in the 1976 remake, since in my mind, that was the only overtly sexualized one. I guess I'm not sympathizing very well with your view. Although a case could be made for a sexual undertone or symbolism with the whole Ann Darrow sacrifice thingy; that its some kind of marriage ceremony and that Kong carrying her off to his cave on the mountain was a "honeymoon" of some kind, the idea is frankly so hoaky that I have a hard time believing that we're meant to take that seriously, in either Cooper's movie or Jackson's. In fact, because of that, I always thought the strip scene in Cooper's movie was very out-of-place; it didn't work, and it felt forced and strange, rather than something flowing naturally from the rest of the movie. If Cooper was looking to cut scenes for pacing, in my opinion, that would have been a better scene to axe than the spider scene which actually did get axed.

    And rather than upping the stakes and having Watts "sleep" with Kong as a symbol of sexual oneness, it seems to me more a step away from that; a de-sexualizing of the relationship. A symbolic gesture that two individuals can connect intimately without "connecting intimately" if you know what I mean. The whole "bride of Kong" aspect is put behind them when they come closer. As close as Watt's Darrow and Kong are, there's never a vibe of boyfriend/girlfriend between them; there's no sexual tension. The relationship reminded me of an older brother lovingly protecting his naive little sister, while at the same time often frustrated with her. When Kong comes to New York, the roles are somewhat reveresed; Darrow is the one who knows her way around, and she makes a brave but tragically insufficient effort to protect Kong.

    You seem to be saying that that makes the movie less compelling than it otherwise would be, but I disagree. Jackson, who I think is a bit of a hack who's movies carry themselves through the strength of their original source material in spite of what he does to it, in many cases, got one thing absolutely right about the King Kong story; something that I don't know if even Cooper realized. That is; Kong is the most sympathetic character in the entire drama (with the possible exception of Darrow.) In his typical ham-fisted style, Jackson bludgeoned us over the head with that fact; turning Denham into a sleazeball, making Driscoll a boring cypher, etc. but even in Cooper's movie that was the case too. By strengthening the platonic relationship between Darrow and Kong, the audience is pulled in to the inate tragedy of what's doomed to happen to Kong; if there had been an element of sexual tension, it would have been creepy and we'd all be cheering the death of the monster. That's certainly the case in the 1976 movie (although we're also cheering the end of the movie, which was kinda embarrassing to sit all the way through anyway)--Kong is like a mean little 12-yo who just found his dad's stash of Playboys when he finds Ann Darrow again in the bar.

    Not conducive to a movie that folks really want to see, in my opinion.

  2. I realised the ending of that is kinda incoherent; I was still rambling about defects of the 1976 version of the movie there. Sorry!

    Still, my point is that putting much of a sexual undertone to the relationship between Darrow and Kong makes the whole thing really creepy, and the movie is certainly not strengthened by having a vibe of creepy, IMO.

    The more platonic vibe of Jackson's movie makes it work, and makes Kong much more sympathetic, and makes what is ultimately doomed to happen to him that much more tragic, IMO.

  3. I don't think the points of view are mutually incompatible.

    And I agree that Jackson is trying to de-sexualize the girl/monkey relationship -- I just find it very interesting that in doing so, he has them sleep together.

    Had Kong been a man, there would be no doubt that in movie shorthand, he and Ann just made whoopee.

    And just to make my point clear, I'm not at all suggesting that Cooper or Jackson WANT us to consider these possibilities -- but rather that the iconography they choose implies those possibilities. THAT'S what I find interesting.

    And finally, I'm not sure that trying to make Kong into an outright tragedy is the right choice. I think part of the great power of the original comes from the ambivalence of the ending. Of course we're GLAD this destructive force has been put down and the world made safe, but we're also saddened that a safe world can't include such powerful individuals.

    Hm, here comes another post.