The Dilettante


Why did Peter Jackson’s King Kong fail at the box office?

King Kong DVD cover

Dark, subtle, complex, wicked—if only Hollywood movies were half as interesting as Hollywood accounting. What does it say about the state of the medium that film buffs are more likely to debate whether King Kong bombed than why it sucked? (The Official Wife of the Dilettante is an entertainment lawyer, and for the first 15 minutes of the Kong DVD, we argued about whether Peter Jackson’s deal was on the gross or the adjusted gross.) The worldwide box office for Jackson’s remake now totals more than half a billion dollars, and yet, relative to wildly inflated expectations (and its wildly inflated budget) Kong was considered a commercial letdown. The conventional wisdom regarding “King Bomb” was that multiplex owners found it overlong—at three hours and counting, they could cram only so many showings into a day, limiting their take—and that audiences found it overmuch: It pounded them with CGI spectacle, until their appetite for its many Jurassic battles did, in fact, sicken and die. The suggestion has always been that, had Jackson exercised the same portion control as a director as he did as a dieter, the movie might not have tanked. The Kong DVD, just out, is reportedly selling quickly. But on second viewing, this kitschy ape tragedy is a considerably emptier failure than the conventional wisdom credits it for being.

King Kong suffers for being less a love story than a self-love story, an homage to Peter Jackson’s infatuation with his source material and the art of film directing. As the publicity touts never tired of repeating, the original 1933 King Kong is the movie that inspired a 9-year-old Jackson to become a filmmaker. Less often mentioned is what a potential career deathtrap any King Kong remake is: an FX orgy aimed at the 9-year-old boy in all of us, intertwined with a love story to make your inner 9-year-old go “blech.” Any version that follows the original Merian C. Cooper storyline must survive two major laugh tests. The first is: Does that really look like a giant ape? And, if yes: Is she really falling for that giant ape? On this score, at least, Jackson’s version is a triumph. The gorilla looks entirely credible, and Naomi Watts, her little toque perched above a piercing blue-eyed stare, looks heavenly. Now if only they were the stars of the movie.

The first third of Jackson’s Kong is a period piece, replete with bread lines, vaudeville, and men in old-style hats, carried along by the rumored charms of Jack Black. Black plays Carl Denham, a rogue who is piecing together financing for a movie to be shot on a voyage to Singapore. This, though, is merely a ruse for getting cast and crew out on the high seas and making for the South Pacific and “the last blank space on the map.”

But the map has no more blank spaces; the world precious few Coopers; and where once there was swagger, now there is camp. The original Denham was patterned by Merian C. Cooper on Merian C. Cooper, and it was Cooper’s own bio, as a World War I flying ace and jungle explorer, that gave the first King Kong much of its swagger. Jackson, meanwhile, is a film geek’s film geek. He started out a Kiwi adolescent, toiling over a spring-loaded Bolex, then worked his way up, through puppet movies and gore-fests and art-house gems, to become the A-list director he is today. Black has claimed his portrayal of Denham is patterned on Peter Jackson, and Jackson, in turn, has claimed he wrote the part with a young Orson Welles in mind. With dialogue like, “It’s not the principle of the thing—it’s the money!” and “I’m someone you can trust—I’m a movie producer!” the first hour of Jackson’s King Kong comes off less as an homage to Cooper’s Kong than as a coy homage to itself.

For a King Kong remake to rival the original, it takes more than kitsch; it takes more even than Cooper’s considerable swagger. It needs, like the original—a movie so successful it single-handedly rescued a failing RKO—to tap into some of its audience’s less savory anxieties. And what anxieties did the original Kong tap into? In addition to being a self-styled jungle swashbuckler, Cooper was a shameless magpie. He stole elements of his Kong from the “lost world” genre epitomized by Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard * (and later in America by Edgar Rice Burroughs) and popularized by the English Victorians, who couldn’t get enough of the idea that somewhere, in the most benighted recesses of the globe, the sun did in fact set on the British Empire. But these weren’t his only sources. He made Kong a thoroughly American icon by borrowing heavily from a bogus documentary called Ingagi, a grotesque relic of pre-code Hollywood that had sold itself on the promise of sexual union between native African women and wildapes. Ingagi had been a massive hit in 1931, and its success is one of the principal reasons RKO greenlighted Cooper’s odd jungle fantasia.

Cooper’s original isn’t simply racist. In fact, the opposite could be argued: Where Ingagi played upon white America’s deep fear of racial mixing, King Kong took that race fear and converted it into an allegory for civilization in all its discontents. For Cooper, Kong wasn’t a surrogate for black people, with “black” as a virtual synonym for savagery and uncontrollable sexual urges. No, Kong was a symbol—a clunky one, but a symbol nonetheless—for the anti-social alpha male, with all his animal desires and animal jealousies, residing in each of us. Thus Cooper made the death of Kong a tragedy andconverted a degrading fear into an ennobling pathos. Now, to the degree this conversion worked, it worked because in 1933 memories of the Victorian world of gentlemen adventurers were still living memories, gorillas had been exhibited only scarcely in the West, and because white people still primally feared black people. Racial and sexual fears may still be depressingly persistent, but they no longer lie so near the surface of American life. Without those fears to play off, Jackson appears lost. A voice-over solemnly recites from Heart ofDarkness; and in the movie’s silliest misfire, Denham and his landing party are set upon by the natives of Skull Island, a tribe of National Geographic crag people so bug-eyed in their hoodooed weirdness as to be downright comical.

Jackson’s gift as a filmmaker has been an exquisite control over the great, plunging sublimities of heights, and he uses this gift to staggering effect in the final sequences atop the Empire State Building. But aside from dazzling spectacle, what is this movie really about? With no half-buried race panic to animate it, we’re left to examine the central romance somewhat more literally. Where once there was blackness, now there is only a kind of blankness. Look closely at this Kong and, prodigious and finely detailed as he is, you’ll discover nothing between his legs.

Correction, April 4, 2006:The article originally misspelled H. Rider Haggard’s name. ( Return to corrected sentence.)