Kong & the monkey business
So who is the monster in the new King Kong? I submit that it's not the gorilla but the girl.
was nine when I first saw the big monkey tower over Fay Wray in a dingy Chicago cinema. The 1933 original had everything: sex, horror, even social comment. Kong quickly became a folk-hero, a popular archetype who appeals to the child in us all. If he's lived in my head since the 1930s, he's had as much impact on generation after generation of kids. Now Dino de Laurentiis, with aS24 million budget and a hip, up-tothe-minute script, gives him his late 'seventies incarnation. He's forty feet tall, product of the best technology and most advanced psychology. But the lumbering, genuinely fierce adolescent of forty-three years ago has grown up into a real loser with a neurotic sex hangup for on-the-make bitches.
In Merian Cooper's old movie, Fay Wray was a demure, soft-spoken waif whom the brash film-producer picked out of a Depression breadline to supply 'flapper interest' for his wild-life picture. Fay's southern accent underscored her death-before-dishonour aura. She'd sooner leap to her death, like the pale heroine in Birth of a Nation cornered by a black rapist, than submit to the lust of man or Beast. I remember sitting for hours on the kerb outside the cinema speculating with my pals about the sexual possibilities between oversize ape and fragile heroine. It was exciting because it was all left to the imagination. In the strictest sense, the original King Kong was a romance about an unattainable love.
In contrast, the de Laurentiis film is explicit about sex. Heroine Jessica Lange, a would-be movie star wrecked en route to Hong Kong, is fished out of the Pacific by the Petrox Oil Company's exploration ship on its way to penetrate fog-shrouded Skull Island. Finding Kong instead of oil, Petrox resourcefully decides to export the ape back to the States. Lange is a sexually liberated Beverly Hills chick perfectly capable of twisting Kong around her little finger even when she's clutched in his vast hairy hand. And clearly she's getting a turn-on from the big brute. When kindly Kong blows her wet, scarcely clad body dry in one scene her response is almost orgasmic. And she thoroughly enjoys being caressed as Kong's immensely phallic finger pulls down her dress. After Kong she'll never be satisfied with a mere man like boyfriend Jeff Bridges.
Lange talks liberated—'You goddamn male chauvinist pig ape!' she screams at the perplexed beast. But the 1976 film is far more hostile to women than the original. Under her softly blonde sex-symbol exterior, the heroine is the New Woman—ambitious, thrusting, selfish. Kong can make her a star, and she'll exploit him in the interests of her show-biz future. She breaks the heart of her gentle, caring boyfriend and Kong—that is, the male in his most wild and tender state— is brought to his knees and destroyed. And why ? The woman he loves wants a career.
With such careful updating and probably the smoothest special effects ever, why doesn't this Kong grip us? The pathos and power of the old Kong had psychic roots in a rich popular tradition dating back into the nineteenth century. The early ape movies were able to draw on the naive, comic-cruel showmanship of P. T. Barnum circuses and freak shows, and on the sensationalism of pulp novels and stage melodrama. Most popular monsters — Frankenstein, the Mummy, etc — reflected uneasiness and excitement about scientific advances; the ape was a folk expression of fascinated dread of the Darwinian theory about the way we evolved from the primates. (One of the very first ape movies, in 1908, was called The Doctor's Experiment: or, Reversing Darwin's Theory.) Almost from the start there was an odd sympathy for the great dumb brute who doesn't even know his own strength. The ape on the screen is like a distorted mirror-image. He is our primitive shadow, more destructive but also more purely good. Uprooted from his native jungle and taken to the city where he's exploited for gain or used by the villain as an instrument of evil, the ape as often as not revolts. He acts out our hidden rage, smashing the city that frustrates and disorients us too. If he's a rapist—flimsily attired girls caught up in great hairy arms are a staple of the genre—he usually falls quite tenderly for the girl. It gives the fairy story the ending we always suspected and feared : Beauty kills the Beast.
I remember that more than any other movie monster—the vampires and werewolves that haunted the early 1930s screens
—Kong embodied the contradictions that somehow went to the roots of the way we were. His clumsy yet pathetic attempts to communicate with the sensual, dimwitted Fay Wray exactly expressed our groping pre-adolescent sexuality. (I never understood why Shirley or Sharon got so hostile when I came near.) Feeling as lonely and crude and out of place as the love-lorn ape, I slouched through the unromantic alleys of my neighbourhood emitting grunts and swinging my hands close to the ground— until Shirley spied me and snitched to my mother. Imitating Kong raised our growingpain awkwardness to epic, almost tragic proportions. When crossed or humiliated he exploded—pure Id, black and destructive. In his last stand atop the phallic tower of the Empire State Building he was MY every gangster hero blown up to monstrous, mythic size. And if he, like them, ended up dead in the street, at least he'd smashed up the city first.
The ape's unique power survives all attempts to camp him up (Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus masquerades not as a man but this time as a gorilla); or to play him for laughs (the ape meets every comic from the Bowery Boys•to the Ritz Brothers); or to spice up his sex life (a 1940s Universal series changed him into her and I hear there's a Queen Kong in the making). Planet of the Apes and its successors gave an effective Swiftian twist by presenting the animals as didactic and anti-Darwinian Victorians, refusing to believe they could be descended from man. When I saw Morgan—A Suitable Case for Treatment, David Warner's Morgan seemed like my blood brother; his angry rampage in an ape suit took me back to the Chicago alleys. Morgan can only express his longing for total freedom and his sexual-political frustrations by liberating the ape within himself. He's crazy, of course —or is he sane?
Though the latest Kong is moderately faithful to its famous predecessor, though it's been expensively got up, though it's determinedly 'relevant' in its gibes against the oil company's exploitation of the Third World, I wouldn't be surprised if de Laurentiis hadn't dealt a death blow to the fantasy. The picture falls back on good visual gags and one-liners. The heroine confides excitedly, 'My horoscope told me I'd cross the water and meet the biggest person of my life.' If he's not gonna eat her,' one of the sailors asks with lewd naiveté, 'why'd he take her ?' Some of the best jokes are at the expense of the oil company. 'If Exxon can hit big with a tiger in their tank, think what we can do with him,' smirks the chief executive.
But however much we laughed, I resented the film's tendency to nudge and wink at US. 'The trick,' claimed the screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr, 'was to walk a delicate line between screen romance and high camp.' Maybe. But I think the better trick would have been to trust the audience more. Spelt out and sexed up, King Kong loses his potency.