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Tuesday, 27 December 2005

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference King Kong: The Sum of Its Ideological Failings or Grist Your Mill Can't Refine?:

» Mistah Kong, He Dead from Chrononautic Log
Now that everyones exhausted the subject, I come across this post Scott Eric Kaufman put up a couple of weeks ago, which among other things, as it happens, captures my initial reading of the ideologically suspect Skull Island natives: ..&n... [Read More]

» Mistah Kong, He Dead from Chrononautic Log
Now that everyones exhausted the subject, I come across this post Scott Eric Kaufman put up a couple of weeks ago, which among other things, as it happens, captures my initial reading of the ideologically suspect Skull Island natives: ..&n... [Read More]

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MT

How was the popcorn?

MT

(Not that that wasn't interesting.)

Jodi

Scott,
It seems clear that Jackson is well aware of the racial context of the original and is trying to address that. The conversation over Heart of Darkness is just one example of his effort here. I also thought his 'savages' worked well, especially as they were contrasted with the stereotypic view of 'natives' in the show version of King Kong.

So, I don't think the film is only the sum of its ideological failings. It is a film that is aware of its context. But, doesn't it then let us as an audience pass them off or enjoy them? So that we can say, oh sure, the movie relies on a fundamentally racist narrative structure (civilized white women threatened by savage, wild, nature) but, the effects were great! Kong was the best ever! and, Jackson knows what he's doing. There is a weird way where the film implicates us in justifying or excusing Jackson's use of the Kong story.

Why this story now? Are there racial anxieties in Australia and New Zealand that make the Kong story somehow relevant or pressing?

dawn

Ah the curse of academia. Can't ever enjoy what could be a mindless, action-packed, special effect filled blockbuster.

Like you commented on, at first the portrayal of the indigenous (is that the p.c. word these days?) people on the island made my stomach churn. Also, I couldn't help but cringe at first at the archetypal Damsel-in-Distress, and the homosocial undertones of the Kong/Brody relationship. But after I got over that and really looked at the film, my reaction was much more in line with yours.

I believe that there was a genuine effort, in the "made for mainstream audience" way, on Jackson's part to offer a thought provoking twist to the typical explosive action movie.

Good post. I as well thought i was reading too deep into the film and was questioning whether academics were actually thinking these things.

MT

It's audacious to call the movie racist just because the femme fatale is fair and the islanders are dark. The most ungenerous thing you could reasonably say about the choice of skin colors is that it panders to stereotypes. But as our host alludes, to make the islanders white would be implausible to anybody with an inkling of knowledge of the history of human migration. The movie only barely escapes from heavy handedness in it's efforts to be PC and right old wrongs, but to make Kong's lover dark skinned would be totally over the top in this regard. Plus, is it unreasonable for an American film to try and evoke damsels of English lore? Leave the artist his or her friggin freedom. If you want to make a giant snake movie that echoes the Mahabharata while offering rich roles to Latino and Latino actors and spotlighting the perils of globalization while inverting conventional gender roles, you go girl.

Matt

Hmmm..yet as we all know, the original film was merely a terrorist plot in disguise (or was it the other way around...best ask someone who's seen "The Power of Nightmares" I suppose). In short, this film should be carefully scrutinized for providing imaginative fodder for Terror. That's the message I take from it.

Honestly, I thought it was a piece of pure crap, and if anything Jodi does this sort of knee-jerk, unapologetically facile poking at the easily-bruised PC police too much justice by even remarking on it.

No, I haven't seen it, and don't really plan on it.

"PC police" are today somewhat impotent, tired straws, hung up on superficial, token gestures of diversity and patronizing tolerance, sure, but then it's hard to stay fashionable fighting racism in a society where everyone is de-facto racist...whether they acknowledge it or not.

But really, there are more effective ways of undermining knee-jerk, operatic racism...(that would actually be my FIRST thought, Scott) than by simply provoking those those who would (perhaps necessarily) jerk their knees at unapologetic, historical revisionist, operatic racism. I don't buy it, Scott. Are you saying this film succeeds as self-conscious over-the-top kitsch? I don't see the lighthearted undercutting (and if so, it's certainly neither artful, creative nor courageous); I think that's just an excuse, a formulaic ready-made gesture to ward off vague popular anxieties (obviously not anxious enough) about pandering to present-day zenophobia

Ok, I'm off to watch "Le joli mai" now...But at some point one has to wonder about the proper place for these modernist, operatic myths and fantasies.

Alternatively, I thought the film was hilarious, Lenny Bruce and Andy Kaufman-like; I laughed the whole way through, went home and promptly shot myself.

TB

I respectfully disagree with you here.
Can't we just enjoy media for what it is anymore? The film is just a film. The onus in on each of us to educate ourselves and teach our children the evils of racism, capitalism, et al, not Peter Jackson or any other media mogul.
I appreciated the movie for its entertainment value because I'm a huge fan of the genre. In my mind, everything doesn't have to have a "message" beyond the superficial.

Kenneth Rufo

I'm sorry, but I'm not sure I understand. Is your claim something along the lines of "one shouldn't read the film as X because X is a naive and insipid reading, not that anyone is actually reading the film that way"?

Kenneth Rufo

Indeed, I'm rereading the post trying to see if I misunderstand its composition, and what I find most fascinating - and disturbing - in it are all the odd ascriptions about the "average academic" and the "knee-jerk academic criticism" that serves as the bizarre and unsourced foil to your post, especially the part where you ask the "difficult questions those who will condemn the film outright will never ask." You didn't think this bit of rhetorical posturing a bit odd when you were writing? Why not just make the claim that you think the film somewhat interesting and/or positive in its racial politics, and quit with this whole "I'm a better critic than my phantom opposition" approach?

Matt

No, it doesn't "have to." But it always does. Do you see the distinction?

Kenneth, meanwhile, has latched on to it precisely, methinks. The film is saying, or rather provoking exactly that, maybe little more. Why genres are predictable failures, generally.

One could posit that anyone who thinks their pleasure is purely uninvested and innocent is also missing Jodi's more nuanced point.

(To continue this conversation, I suppose one could ask: And what "is" media, exactly, according to you?)

MT

If this is a Turing test, then somebody's algorithm is on crack. Who's talking about what to whom?

Scott Eric Kaufman

Jodi,

The conversation over Heart of Darkness is just one example of his effort here. I also thought his 'savages' worked well, especially as they were contrasted with the stereotypic view of 'natives' in the show version of King Kong.

Damn, I completely missed that. It's as if my mind instantly turns off 1) when a character reads a book (too dissertationy in its intertextual implications) and 2) the author/director turns to a play-within-a-play to artificially inflate the work itself with dramatic irony and/or a patina of self-consciousness. But as you point out, Jackson deploys both devices for maximal polemical/political effect.

But, doesn't it then let us as an audience pass them off or enjoy them?

I don't think we should allow the movie a pass or merely enjoy it. I think it accomplishes that particular affective response, but it does so only after assuaging what would bother us about an un-self-conscious version of the same film.

There is a weird way where the film implicates us in justifying or excusing Jackson's use of the Kong story. Why this story now? Are there racial anxieties in Australia and New Zealand that make the Kong story somehow relevant or pressing?

The historicist in me demands I remove this from the realm of personal or cultural psychology, since there is a simple answer to the question "Why now?" Namely, that he's been actively trying to make this film since the late '80s but only had the clout to do so after the success of The Lord of the Rings. Now, we could ask why Jackson felt so motivated to re-make this particular movie, but if there is a cultural politics to that motivation we would have to push it back at least into the late '80s and probably into the late '60s when Jackson first became entranced by the film. I could riff on what its significance in America in the '50s and '60s would be, but I don't know, um, "much" about NZ history.

I should also add that films like this and the original perilously toe the racism/anti-racism line. One interpretive twist and a patently pernicious film about racial essentialism becomes a progressive film about overcoming racial essentialism. Jackson skirts this issue by avoiding racial essentialism altogether, partly on purpose, and partly on the context alone: in the age of PETA and radical environmental movements, witnessing the extinction of a species could easily compel Watts' character to her actions; her commitment could be read (given the film's a period piece) as a proto-animal rights position instead of an object lesson in the dangerous attraction of miscegenation. My point is that simply that movies like this breed salutory discussion about the limitations of American racial thinking, and that that's a good thing.

Dawn,

I as well thought I was reading too deep into the film and was questioning whether academics were actually thinking these things.

There's no such thing as reading too deeply, but there is such a thing as reading too wrongly. So wells are one foot in diameter but delve deep into the earth; whereas some lakes are so shallow they are blown around Utah by the lightest breeze. I would no more recommend diving into one than the other without first determining whether it can accomodate you.

Matt,

But really, there are more effective ways of undermining knee-jerk, operatic racism...(that would actually be my FIRST thought, Scott) than by simply provoking those those who would (perhaps necessarily) jerk their knees at unapologetic, historical revisionist, operatic racism.

I think that's a perfectly valid way to confront an absurd reaction: anticipate and demonstrate its absurdity before it becomes a position in an argument one feels obliged to keep for consistency's sake. It's provocation as a pedagogical tool: I make an absurd argument, its absurdity is established, and from there the class considers the issue with quiescent knees. In much the same vein, on the first day of class I yell "FUCK FUCK FUCKITY FUCK!" (And much more. It's quite a show.) I denude the word of its potential to offend if it arises in an actual debate by creating a temporary reference point which amuses the students. So long as we're in that classroom, the rules of engagement hold steady; people can argue vehemently but they can't lose their cool because as soon as the profanity comes everyone, including the enraged student, starts giggling. I see this as a similar move: demonstrate the movie both explicitly (in terms of script, cast, and narrative updates) and implicitly (different era, different context) defeats the simplistic logic such a reading would entail.

Kenneth,

"one shouldn't read the film as X because X is a naive and insipid reading, not that anyone is actually reading the film that way"

In a way, yes. I don't believe anyone would read the film that way, but at the same time, I'm often shocked beyond speech by the way people do interpret stuff; at a certain point one need not know someone has read a film/novel a certain way to posit that they would if presented with the opportunity. This sounds terrible, but we do it all the time: for example, when I cook for my wife I don't cook the food I want to eat so much as approximate the food she would. How do I accomplish that? I know what she thinks of certain foods, how she reacts to certain combinations and what her ideal portion is. From those I can estimate with near certainty whether a dish I'm cooking will be acceptable or not. Similarly, I have friends who have certain intellectual predilections and a penchant for dramatic dismissal (esp. when the object dramatically dismissed is an artifact of popular culture); I can approximate their reactions to the film with relative certainty . . . in fact, as I watched the film I actively construct the conversations I will have with them about it in order to find ways to overcome the argumentative impass certain to arise. If I short-circuit that ahead of time, we can drink wine and either discuss the issue politely or drop it without stirring resentment. The self-deprecation in the above post--the fact that I stuff a straw man with the straw of myself--forces my friends into a conversationally productive direction: disagreement about a particular interpretive moment of mine which will depend not on different interpretations of distinct sections of the film but concrete discussions about the validity of my characterization.

the "average academic" and the "knee-jerk academic criticism" that serves as the bizarre and unsourced foil to your post

I actually meant myself here engaging in a bout of meta-cringing. Cringing at the actually cringe-worthy moments and meta-cringing at the how those moments will be spun into a more damning condemnation of the films racial and/or sexual politics. As you note by omission, my posited reaction to the film isn't outlandish, is in fact probable in certain circles. As for why I didn't write a more direct "its racial politics are deceptively complicated" post is that 1) I wanted any debate, even with myself, to quickly move beyond the first rattling of sabers because 2) I didn't think I'd find the thought of discussing an already considered position all that entertaining. Sure, there is some rhetorical flightiness there, but it's mostly aimed against the caricature in my head, not an actual interlocutor. If I'm superior to anyone, it's the idiot in my head who entertains ideas without cognizing their consequences.

Also, I did explicitly identify that position as a straw man whose usefulness begins and ends with his ability to help me think past the few opening volleys in any potential exchange.

Scott Eric Kaufman

If I missed a comment or sound like I haven't slept in two days, well, I didn't mean to and I haven't.

MT

There's no such thing as reading too deeply, but there is such a thing as reading too wrongly.

There's also arguably such a thing as reading too often, or too soon, or with so much enthusiasm that you fail to appreciate whether a piece of entertainment works...or without sufficient lip service to the principle that simply working is important, such that by failing to pay such lip service one leads impressionable young humanities students to forget it.

Ancrene Wiseass

I've got to disagree with you, I'm afraid.

The references to Heart of Darkness had me hopeful, but the film never used the book as a way of critiquing the dynamic between white capitalists and non-white natives. The racial dynamics of that novel are, of course, both complex and troubling, and I was eager to see Jackson follow through on the references, but he let them drop after allowing the (admittedly black, but noticeably lighter-skinned-than-the-natives character Hayes) make some rather hollow commentary that sounded pretty.

As for the depiction of the island's native people, well, it was just plain repulsive.

I can't understand the references in this post and the comments to the idea of depicting the natives as light-skinned at all. Has anyone seriously suggested that as an alternative? And even if they have, that's surely neither the only nor the best way Jackson and the other writers could have chosen to add more nuance to the depiction of these people?

And don't tell me they didn't have the time for that kind of character development. They sure had plenty of time to include such idiotic and unnecessary moments of character development as Ann Darrow/Naomi Watts practicing her introductory speech to Jack Driscoll/Adrien Brody in front of the mirror--which is, by the way, about as hackneyed a device as one could possibly manage.

Yes, it's a film that critiques capitalism. Yes, it critiques mindless masculine bravado as an ill-considered stage act. But the original had that going for it, too.

Yes, it's a film with a somewhat more independent female lead. But, honestly, folks: juggling and pratfalls as a mode of self-preservation, along with a bit of hitting and kicking, doesn't come close to winning my feminist heart over. She still spent a hell of a lot of time running away, fighting with splendid ineffectiveness, being tearful, and screaming, after all.

The racial dynamics of the film are predominately unchanged and offensive, with no real leavening of self-reflexive commentary. And that troubles me.

The 1933 "Kong" is a much better film, in my estimation, in terms of pacing, characterization, and even use of special effects (if you're going with the idea that it's not how much technology you can muster that counts, but how you use it).

And, at the risk of being branded a "knee-jerk academic," I have to say that depicting native peoples as both versions did is inexcusable. It is however, a bit more understandable in a 1933 film than in one made in 2005.

MT

I have to say that depicting native peoples as both versions did is inexcusable.

If you were only to tell us what you're talking about, I might be unable to excuse it too. I lean pretty left and academic myself, but still I can't guess.

Ancrene Wiseass

Well, Scott put it pretty well in his post, really (and notes that the depiction made him squirm, too): Jackson's natives look and act uncomfortably like the Uruk-hai of his LOTR series. They are, by far, the darkest-skinned people in the movie, and they're portrayed as terrifying "savages" straight out of something by H. Rider Haggard.

In every shot, they're either attacking people or in a religious ecstasy which looks like something out of cannibal/zombie movies, eyes rolled back almost entirely into their heads, etc. Their shelter is barely more than rags, and the landscape where they live is strewn with skeletons and half-mummified corpses of all kinds, often on pikes. The holy woman--who's lighter-skinned than the others--is made up to look like a hideous hag, and all she does during her on-screen time is gleefully single out and prepare the Ann Darrow/Naomi Watts character for the sacrifice.

There's a figurine on sale of two of the natives featured most prominently in the film here:
http://www.allmoviereplicas.com/store/files/images/small/t_589.jpg. (Sorry I haven't figured out how to hyperlink within comments yet.)

In the original, the natives are, if I remember, white people in blackface who wear grass skirts and coconut bras. The depiction is actually somewhat less lovingly graphic. For whatever reason, I can't seem to find a still shot link to post here.

And the "Beauty" who "kills the Beast" is still a porcelain-skinned, blonde, blue-eyed white woman, of course. (Don't even get me started about the whole "woman-will-be-the-death-of-you,-sonny" closing moral, or the "a good/beautiful woman can tame anyone or anything, no matter how violently inclined" subtext. Both of these portrayals are unchanged in Jackson's version.)

A.R.Yngve

What strikes me is that the 1933 version is LESS racist than the 2005 remake.

Watch that scene in the 1933 version, where the Skull Island natives and Denham's expedition work together to block the gate that keeps Kong out. It shows, without the need for lofty speeches, that the natives and the "whites" are in the same boat.

But in Jackson's version, the natives ARE monsters - mindless, vicious murderers, totally without redeeming features, barely human - and so Jackson tacks on an idiotic, phony "message" bit just at the end, and thinks he's taken a stand against racism.

MT

These savages live on an island of dinosaurs that's underwent it's own history we know nothing about and the movie makes it seem doubtful that any of them have ever migrated. For all we know they're a parallel species that independently evolved from Homo erectus. If you think human culture and grooming habits would never be as depicted in this movie, be offended as a human. But it still makes no sense to me that you would be offended on any other group's behalf. Who is this group? So what if two million ignorant Americans draw a wrong headed inference about modern Papuans? This movie is not a religion that will take over the minds and turn them into racist Manchurian candidates who will turn a blind eye to the disenfranchisement of African Americans and the destruction of the rainforests abroad. Art doesn't hold your hand. People will draw wrong headed inferences. But it's not the end of the world. There's other art out there, not to mention news, non-fiction books and documentaries. Not even a five year old is going to be relying entirely on King Kong for his or her theories of anthropology and ethnography.

Scott Eric Kaufman

You're welcome to disagree with me so long as you remember I'm always right. About everything. Why else would President Kerry have withdrawn our troops from Iraq in December '04?

That said, as you acknowledge, the natives made my skin crawl, and were largely responsible for the internal dialogue (between me and my straw man) recorded in this entry. It's a matter of wanting to give the benefit of the doubt to a director like Jackson who, in films like Heavenly Creatures, has shown an ability to muster sympathy for characters who, because they don't belong to their era, become increasingly unsympathetic as the movie progresses. In other words, is HC a movie about murderous lesbians or about lesbians driven to murder by a society which considers their homosexuality a sign of mental defect? If we don't afford Jackson the benefit of the doubt, it's the former; if we do, it's the latter. That initial interpretative move determines how we work through the rest of the film.

But that's something we all understand. The initial conditions of an interpretative stance will overdetermine the content of the interpretation. Given that I'm intimately familiar with the initial position of so many of my fellow academics, I could spin their criticisms out in my own head. That doesn't mean they're invalid, only that they may 1) compel critics to overlook certain details, 2) generate readings of a familiar sort, one which will be instantly dismissed by the very people academics hope to teach, and 3) give the impression that the film definitively means something, that those representations mean something consistent both now and then despite the quite different contexts in which they arrive. (My computer wants to crash so I'm going to post this now and continue in another post.)

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