It’s been a very useful film for me in so many corners of my research, as well as being a childhood favourite of mine, so it seems natural to turn to King Kong (1933) for the latest of my Randomised posts. Randomly selected frames provide a point of entry for discussing aspects of the chosen film. What could be simpler?
The random number generator is requesting 38, 47, 61 and 80. Yes, four frames this time. Kong is special. Holy mackerel, what a blog…
Fay Wray could never get away from the legacy of King Kong. With over 100 screen credits, some of them pretty damn good, such as Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Most Dangerous Game (shot after hours on the Kong sets), the most common publicity photographs show her cowering in terror at the sight of some offscreen horror, or dangling like a ragdoll from the big ape’s fist. One might get the impression of a passive figure, prostrate and helpless, and to some extent this is true – Ann Darrow needs rescuing, and screams her way through most of her later scenes, showing little in the way of fleeing ability. She is a beautiful object at the centre of a four-way contest, between film-maker Carl Denham, who wants to use her to attract dumb, slavering audiences to his documentary film, Jack Driscoll, who wants to domesticate her, the Skull Island natives, who see her as an invaluably exotic sacrificial artefact, and King Kong himself, who wants to keep her and stroke her and smell her on his fingers. She is subject to a multi-pronged attack of desires, into which her own impoverishment has led her to blunder. Where is the space for her desire? I’m pulled between chiding the film for its objectification of its leading actress, and acknowledgement of how it lays those processes of objectification completely bare, showing her complete disempowerment amidst the pull and push of rampant masculine exploitation. This particular shot tilts me in favour of the latter interpretation. Ann has just been kissed by Driscoll, and their romantic bond is forged: for the rest of the film, it is his duty to rescue, protect and eventually marry her. Everything else in the plot is an obstacle to that union, but their connection is never in doubt. But check out the look on her face. Holding up her hand in the same swooning gesture that accompanies her helplessness in the face of Kong-sized threat, she is overwhelmed by a sexual thrill that leaves her not defenceless, but wanting more. The camera doesn’t follow him offscreen, but lingers on her lascivious look of erotic desire. The blank blackness of the night sky behind her, the diagonal perspective and the straight line of the side of the ship (plus the instructive lighting that makes her glow), all lead the eye to her face. That is a look of lust. Everything that follows is a catalogue of male ignorance of that desire, and her simple wish to select a man to gratify her gets lost amidst their inflated battles to use her for their own fulfilment.
Kong is ready for his close-up. The camera pushes in to a full-frame view of the monster’s visage as it breaks through the trees. It looks to me like they’ve got some three-point lighting going on the big guy, like any other star being introduced. The facial expression is meant to be fearsome, but the raised eyebrows make a little quizzical. If you didn’t know the context of the film, and I told you this was a shot of a big monkey who’s just seen something terrifying through the bushes, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe, I bet. There are only a few shots like this in the film, using a large-scale mechanical model of the beast’s head (they also made a giant hand for shots where we see Fay Wray sitting in his palm), and the technique doesn’t really blend effectively with the more nuanced physical performances given by Willis O’Brien‘s stop-motion miniature version. This shot attempts to impress with its sheer scale, while O’Brien’s modelwork tends to emphasise Kong’s gait, his pugilistic skill and his proud but sometimes reluctant responses to threat. Everytime I see Kong this effect is jarring, like they’ve used an inappropriate stunt-double or overdone the soft focus on a homely lead. But it is a big reveal, so whatever makes it happen, it at least has an eye-opening impact. The push-in close-up, emphasising Kong’s massive teeth (for the rest of the film it is usually his arms that do all the damage), is a good way to mark him out as the monster of the piece, but it is at odds with the film’s reception and legacy. Who doesn’t sympathise with Kong? There’s little in the film’s construction to show him as anything other than a mortal threat – he abducts a woman and destroys all who try to take her back. He stomps on innocents and trashes public property, and there’s little ceremony about gawping over his smashed corpse on the street. It is only in the emotional clues and complex mannerisms given to Kong by Willis O’Brien that the spectator can come to see him as a fully-rounded character, an aspect that was probably not built into the script, which keeps referring to him in the bluntest, most fearful terms. The big scary head of the giant Kong model is residue of those original intentions, fixed in a rigid expression, captured in a conventional monster mugshot, and unable to fully communicate his plight to the audience.
One of the aspects of King Kong that will always remain extraordinary is the creation of a complete, enclosed fantasy world on Skull Island. This dreamlike space, a fantasy imagining of a lost world rather than a geographically specific location (the position and ethnic constitution of the place is obfuscated in the plot, hybrid in the visuals), is rendered with immaculate set design: see how the backgrounds extend into a dense, misting distance as one layer of jungle gives a glimpse into the next and so on. The variations in vegetation create an overwhelming sense of vivacious biodiversity: vines, trees, leaves, moss, fronds all growing in different directions. It’s easy to imagine all kinds of creatures hiding in those complex pile-ups of shadow and foliage. The visual effects are masterful (must stop gushing, sorry…), precisely combining the elements to make it look as though Kong can really reach out and clutch Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot), even though they are filmed as separate elements in separate time zones. Lacking a snappier term for it, I’ve referred in the past to this as “transphotographic” contact, one of those moments where an illusion of co-existence is reinforced by having figures, photographed separately, appear to touch or interact. By playing on the awareness of their essential difference (one live, the other animated), yet flaunting their apparent proximity, the spectacular effect is heightened, even as it purports simply to depict a narrative event. Cabot, though, is reduced to the status of a scuttling pest, a little thing to be grabbed and squashed. Kong is not predatory, in fact he is contrasted with the more insidious dinosaur attackers that share the island with him – he is consistently aggravated by disturbances of his peace.
I didn’t recognise this shot at first, perhaps because of the unusual perspective, which looks down on the scene as from Kong’s-eye-view. It is a view of the village on Skull Island as Kong pounds on the doors (I’m sure there’s a good proverb along the lines of “those who do not wish to be visited by giant apes should not put giant-ape-sized doors on their property”). It is from the top of this gateway that the shot is taken. The villagers are rushing to the barricades in defence of their homes while, in the centre of the frame, Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray are walking away: you can just see him in pale shirt and dark trousers, his arm around her shoulders. The battle is not over, but they are already leaving it. With Ann rescued, Jack wants no further part in the scene. It could almost be the end of the film, with the lovers’ unity encapsulated in their movement against the stream of bodies, setting off into a metaphorical sunset, from the darkness at the bottom of the frame, to the light at the top, but of course, there is much more to come. Their isolation from the action might also say something about the visitors’ attitude towards the island: they show up, cause mayhem, then walk away. For a film of ballyhoo, bluster and big boasts, there’s a remarkable sensitivity to subtleties of shadow in King Kong, with deep dark areas in so many frames punctuated with outcrops of architectural or natural scenery, all of it potently artificial and nightmarishly inescapable: there is only temporary flight from one danger to the next.