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The re-return of Arbitrary but Fun Friday

Over the break, I took Jamie to see a very weird, postmodern kind of movie.  To begin with, the whole movie was about movies—about the spectacle of movies, about the flimflammery of movies, and most of all about the fetishization of the female leads of movies.  In fact, the female lead was played by an actress who starts out in the movie as a struggling actress who’s not the female lead but who has dreams of being the female lead.  In the course of the film, the actress—one Naomi Watts—offers a convincing version of the wide-eyed ingenue swept up by forces beyond her control; and at the very heart of the film, appropriately enough, she auditions.  It’s a dazzling performance—basically, a performance about performance—and it utterly wins over her audience.  After Watts’s stunning audition—which nothing up to this point has led us to expect—the very premise of the film changes.  Thereafter the film becomes increasingly fantastic, even surreal, and increasingly self-referential at the same time, until it all comes crashing down in the end.

No, I didn’t take Jamie to see King Kong!  I’m talking about Mulholland Drive here. 

Well, OK, actually it was King Kong

Now, I’d planned for a while to devote a Fun Friday to King Kong, not least because the movie’s treatment of the original is so bizarre.  It’s not really a re-creation, not a homage . . . it’s more like an eerie contextualization- and- slight (deliberate)- misquotation.  At moments I felt like I was watching a cross between Billy Bathgate and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  And I wanted to know what you all thought of the various meta- aspects of the film.  (One obvious point: this version effectively unmakes the 1976 version with Jessica Lange, both by bypassing it and by refusing to “update” the original.)

But then I learned that while I was busy traveling to MLA, Scott Eric Kaufman beat me to the punch.  Damn you, Scott Eric Kaufman!  Damn your post, which opens by suggesting that Jackson’s movie “will cause your average academic to explode in hyperventalitory fits about evils like crass capitalism, American imperialism and racialized sexualities.” And damn the nuanced discussion that follows!  Damn all the great comments, too!

You know, I just wanted to make a couple of nice formalist points about the film’s staging of film, and inevitably, one of those Valve people drags in all this theoretical/ political/ postcolonial stuff.  I really hate it when that happens.

But although I am mightily vexed, I will go ahead and address one of the pertinent questions Scott raises: the question of the “natives.” As I sat through their ululating and their spear-chucking and their eye-rolling, I was moved to wonder—not why we have to sit through this again in 2006, albeit with Jackson’s various attempts to ameliorate (while reveling in) the entire spectacle, but what the hell King Kong was about in the first place.  You know, back in 1933.  Of course, you can’t ask that question without dragging in Tarzan, which was, after all, one of the most popular English-language narratives of the entire twentieth century (over fifty film versions can’t be wrong!).  Racism and colonialism, check.  “Modern” primitivism, check.  Imperilled white women, check.  Inchoate fears about evolution, check.  Overwhelming fear (ultimately assuaged, and with a vengeance, shall we say) that white Westerners are so “civilized” that they couldn’t hack it in prehistoric times (see, e.g., Professor Porter in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ original), check.  And, having checked all that, check also the fact that the latest Disney Tarzan simply excised Africans altogether, figuring there’s just no way to touch the subject at all.  (Now if only future Disney movies would excise Phil Collins from the soundtrack!  No way to touch that subject, either.) Now, then, to Scott’s questions:

Then I asked myself the difficult questions those who will condemn the film outright will never ask:

What else could he have done?  Created an ostensibly uninhabited island actually peopled by a race of “white” “natives”?  How would they have gotten there?  Proto-European imperialism anyone?

I asked myself precisely these questions, and I do have a suggestion.  The next time a movie takes us to a tiny primitive island populated by feral natives, it should be a tiny Caribbean island where terrifying savages like Kenneth Lay, Dennis Kozlowski and Bernard Ebbers live in squalid luxury, draining the pensions of workers in civilized countries.  They will worship strange and brutal gods, like Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay, and they will perform hundreds of human sacrifices while feasting on the flesh of widows and orphans.

That would be scary as shit.  Worse than chanting aborigines, worse than a giant ape, even worse than seeing someone eaten alive by humongous worms.  And definitely too terrifying for younger viewers.

Posted by on 01/06 at 12:41 PM
  1. Wait. Maybe I missed the bit where you changed the A-b-F-Friday rules, but where’s the question for your gentle readers? Is this (What else could he have done?) it?

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  02:05 PM
  2. I quite liked this version, but maybe that’s because I’d been reading Donna Haraway the week before and was quite ready to see certain things.  The key difference between this version and the 1933 was the new relationship between Kong & Darrow --- less shrieking Fay Wray, more Dian Fossey, and the rest of the relationships fell in line around that center axis.  I could have done with one less half hour on Skull Island, though.

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  02:23 PM
  3. it had BIG giant dinosaurs in it...i liked it.

    but as to your question (if that *is* your question,) i was not made uncomfortable by Jackson’s choice. why should the theme of the “natives” be treated any differently, or more delicately, than the rest of the themes in the film?

    i’m trying to recall if this line was before or after that freaky first village scene, but it was near it, anyway:

    “This is not an adventure story, is it?”

    i think he was pushing the audience at that point to stop treating the whole story like a quaint, cute little bit of Hollywood fun, while ALSO bringing us right up against our own unexamined assumptions about what it means to be “human.” and, he very deftly pulled *back* right at the edge of what would have been Going Too Far (i thought.)

    how’s THAT?

    also, he made me cry at the end.

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  02:27 PM
  4. I hope the director’s cut excises about an hour’s worth of dinosaurs.

    My family discussed the “feral natives” issue, and thought it would be interesting to have a lord-of-the-flies scenario, with a bunch of shipwrecked westerners having descended into superstition and human sacrifice.  They could offer up their sacrificial virgin on a giant crucifix.  Not subtle enough, though.

    Posted by John "East African Plains Ape" Costello  on  01/06  at  02:36 PM
  5. I just wanted to make a couple of nice formalist points about the film’s staging of film, and inevitably, one of those Valve people drags in all this theoretical/ political/ postcolonial stuff.

    Which is unusual, given how anti-theoretical us Valve people supposedly are.  I’m shocked I was even sensitive to such issues. 

    Also, I’m fairly certain Tarzan was about Americans leaving the city for the suburbs.

    Posted by Scott Eric Kaufman  on  01/06  at  02:36 PM
  6. Also, I’m fairly certain Tarzan was about Americans leaving the city for the suburbs.

    OK, so it’s about that too.  And about leaving the city for Jane’s farm in Wisconsin.  But then that means King Kong is also about Americans leaving their suburban homes to go see Jurassic Park at the Multiplex.

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  02:55 PM
  7. I haven’t seen King Kong and probably won’t have time, but I agree with Scott’s reading that dismissing the film makes little sense. 

    I think that a version of Michael’s imagined film may have already been made with Joe Dante’s Homecoming (IMDB).  Not quite the same thing, but Bush and the gang are clearly the villains/monsters.  I’ve heard that George Romero’s Land of the Dead (IMDB) has a similar premise, too.

    Posted by Chuck  on  01/06  at  03:07 PM
  8. Ooh! On your Caribbean island you could have Richard Scrushy as Emperor ruling the place, because he got off!

    Posted by Linkmeister  on  01/06  at  03:25 PM
  9. check also the fact that the latest Disney Tarzan simply excised Africans altogether, figuring there’s just no way to touch the subject at all.

    Possible Disney Tarzan script, scene one.

    SFX: cars honking, small boombox playing Chopin. Frederick walks into an open-air cafe where Thomas is tending the espresso machine.

    Frederick:  Thomas! Good morning! How is your family!
    Thomas:  We are good, thanks be to God. And how is your family?
    F:  We are blessed with good fortune, and with better friends.

    T:  That’s wonderful to hear, my friend. May I offer you some coffee?

    F:  You are most gracious. (Sips coffee.)

    T:  I understand your melon crop is quite healthy this season!

    F:  It is the best I have ever been privileged to raise. Still, I fear I will lose to you yet again in the Kisumu competition this fall.

    T:  I can take no credit for that. I had the good fortune to wed a graduate of the Agricultural Research Institute.

    F:  Philemona is brilliant indeed. Has she returned from Paris?

    T:  Not yet. She will still be lecturing there for another week.

    F:  Then you must eat dinner with us this Friday. We cannot have you dining alone.

    T:  You are too kind, Frederick. I am fine. No need to worry.

    F:  It would really be our pleasure. I’ve been experimenting with the new Tuscan cookbook Daniel gave me. Did you know that coarse-ground mealies make a wonderful polenta?

    [Enter Daniel]
    Daniel: Did I hear my name spoken?

    F: Daniel! We were just talking about the cookbook you gave me!

    D: Have you used the tapenade recipe?

    F: Yes, it’s wonderful. And I’ve been meaning to ask if you’ve tried the prosciutto and melon idea with your canteloupes!

    D: (sighing) I’m afraid I don’t have much canteloupe left after my little problems with… you know.

    T: Has he been raiding your gardens again?

    D: Yes, I’m afraid so. Of course, one must be charitable in one’s interactions with a person who is obviously, well, emotionally disturbed, and it is not as if we will go hungry.

    F: Still: what an imposition! We looked the other way when Tarzan began squatting in the wildlife preserve, and even when his howling awoke our children on school nights. But stealing food!

    D: It’s such an unfortunate circumstance. I feel badly for him, I really do.

    T: Agreed. If only the poor soul would ASK for help.

    (etc.)

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  01/06  at  03:50 PM
  10. Remember that the “This isn’t an adventure story, is it?” line came from Jimmy (hackneyed stereotype), who was waking up from an at-this-point stereotypical misreading of “Heart of Darkness” (which is of course the natural text to reference when dealing with any colonialist sea voyage to distant lands and people), which took place just as we were getting into an almost obscenely and stereotypically racist treatment of the shrieking, subhuman “natives” that, let’s be honest, we kind of expected.

    I kind of felt like Peter Jackson knew a lot of people were thinking about the racist treatment of the island’s inhabitants in the original and just threw up his hands and said, “Screw it, I’m just going to make it so over the top that they can’t possibly take it seriously.” He made the racism (or whatever’s wrong with it) so blatantly obvious that it’s hard to point it out as a bit of criticism. Seriously, what’s someone going to say if you point out that it’s offensive? All I can think of is “Well, duh.”

    If that is the direction he was going in, then one alternative I can think of would have been to have the island completely devoid of humans when they get there. As the crew members wandered around, they could mutter over and over “Where’d everyone go?” so that the audience would find themselves demanding the aforementioned “natives,” if for no other reason than one of the distinctive features of the older version was its racist treatment of the “natives.”

    It could even get really absurd. Maybe they have entire conversations about how there should be “primitive natives” on the island, and they could talk about all their stereotypes (Jack Black could say “Shouldn’t there be people running around with spears and bones through their noses?"). Or maybe Jimmy dies before he ever gets to the part where he realizes it’s not an adventure story, even saying something stupid like “But this isn’t how Mister Conrad say it would be.” Or maybe at the end of the movie, instead of that stupid line about beauty killing the beast, Jack Black could just say “Mistuh Kong, he dead.”

    Oh, and I agree with John--less time on the island. Though it was weird to see those wormy things in the crevice. It reminded me of some David Cronenberg, only in the biggest Hollywood movie of the year. How weird is that?

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  05:32 PM
  11. Thanks so much, Chris!  That’s a great start.  Is it OK if I call William Hurt to play Frederick?  And how do you feel about Peter Gallagher as Thomas and Kevin Kline as Daniel?

    Posted by Michael  on  01/06  at  05:32 PM
  12. Or maybe at the end of the movie, instead of that stupid line about beauty killing the beast, Jack Black could just say “Mistuh Kong, he dead.”

    Oh, once you get the Conrad intertext in there, the possibilities are endless.  I vote for Jack Black, with a shaved head, reading “The Hollow Men.”

    Posted by Michael  on  01/06  at  05:35 PM
  13. Is it OK if I call William Hurt to play Frederick?  And how do you feel about Peter Gallagher as Thomas and Kevin Kline as Daniel?

    Sure, except make it Don Cheadle, Cecil Zilla Mamanzi, and (as the obligatory musician breaking into film) John Chibadura, respectively. And Sibongile Nene as Philomena.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  01/06  at  05:45 PM
  14. Wait. Forgot Chibadura had died. Make that Kamau Wa Mbugwa instead.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  01/06  at  05:53 PM
  15. Better to set HOD in a South Central tenement-nightmare zone with Berube as like Marlow, doing his best leftist-enabler schtick

    Posted by X.  on  01/06  at  05:57 PM
  16. Sorry, but researchers at a place called Penn State recently released a study that quashes any lingering hope of finding white skinned human populations on tiny islands forgotten by time. The study suggests that the human white skin genetic mutation occurred 20,000 to 50,000 years ago making it highly improbable that the genome of Skull Island inhabitants would be tainted. I think this same gene suppresses the natural human gag response to Scotch whiskey.

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  06:06 PM
  17. Sure, except make it Don Cheadle, Cecil Zilla Mamanzi, and (as the obligatory musician breaking into film) John Chibadura, respectively. And Sibongile Nene as Philomena.

    Wait. Forgot Chibadura had died. Make that Kamau Wa Mbugwa instead.

    Details, details.  I tell you, Hurt needs the work.

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  06:18 PM
  18. The horror...the horror.

    Posted by DocMara  on  01/06  at  06:35 PM
  19. damn—so now we all know what happens next season to the feral natives of Lost. I was wondering how those plotlines got developed.

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  06:55 PM
  20. I liked the part where Jack Black said as soon as he got off the island, he was going to institute a pony giveaway program for white actresses.

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  07:36 PM
  21. I tell you, Hurt needs the work.

    And if anyone can pull off a sensitive blackface, it’s Hurt. I’m just afraid they’ll cast Ted Danson opposite him.

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  01/06  at  07:40 PM
  22. Aha,a phil collins reference.

    Loved, loved, loved his drumming style and chops in the 70’s.

    What a michael bolton- john tesh wanker he turned out to be.

    Posted by  on  01/06  at  07:48 PM
  23. Ah Kong’s a lot less racist than the NBA or the hip hop racket.

    As for Al Jolson, he’d be quite an improvement on a cheap pimp such as flavor flav

    Posted by 818  on  01/06  at  08:48 PM
  24. Welcome back, Jason/ X./ 818.  If that is your real name.  You can comment here for as long as you make some semblance of sense.

    Posted by Michael  on  01/06  at  09:07 PM
  25. You can comment here for as long as you make some semblance of sense.

    Damn, Michael, are you raising the bar on us again?

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  01/06  at  09:13 PM
  26. Only for Jason.  For everyone else, it’s all Bakhtinian carnival all the time!

    Posted by Michael  on  01/06  at  10:58 PM
  27. Oh hell. I just got back from Kong, going in wondering how else the island thing could be done.

    Lo and behold, a black first mate. So noble! So perfect he’s goddamn porcelin. That’s how you do it. Put a lotta black people in positions of authority.

    Except then they got to the island, and, ooooo, the natives aren’t African. They’re Polynisian. I guess. So if the First Mate’s meant to counterbalance the friggin scary natives (and they were friggin scary), it’s just reinscribing white people at the center who get to balance out brown people against each other, Charles Murray-style.

    Oookay, that’s a bit over the top.

    But it’s still a (little?) bit of a problem.

    Posted by  on  01/07  at  01:18 AM
  28. Kong, schmong. Here’s what’s really important: Michael used the most excellent phrase, <a href="http://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q="mightily+vexed"&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8">"mightily vexed"<a>. Everyone, your assignment for the weekend is to work that phrase into your conversation no fewer than three times. Here, I’ll start you off: I don’t want to see King Kong, and I am mightily vexed that Roger Ebert liked it so much.

    Posted by Orange  on  01/07  at  02:53 AM
  29. Sure, except make it Don Cheadle, Cecil Zilla Mamanzi, and (as the obligatory musician breaking into film) John Chibadura, respectively. And Sibongile Nene as Philomena.

    Wait. Forgot Chibadura had died. Make that Kamau Wa Mbugwa instead.

    What?  No room for Chiwetel Ejiofor? 

    P.S.  Hello, Michael.  I’m a long-time visitor and commenter but I have a new anonymous blog name, so I’m using that...god, I suddenly feel like I’m in an episode of Get Smart. Anyway, just wanted to introduce myself as myself without...oh, fuck it. I’m just going to get back in the Cone of Silence now.

    Posted by Violet Socks  on  01/07  at  07:08 AM
  30. The question isn’t whether Jackson as an individual auteur “could have done anything different.”

    The question is what happens when movies go to Africa (or the Caribbean).

    This difference is often forgotten, especially in debates over the legacy of minstrelsy, for example.  There is no problem with black clowning.  There is a problem when the only images of black folk are of clowns.

    There’s no political difference, for example, between one-off images of chanting black natives or a one-off movie about “hoodoo” in the islands and images of well-dressed 18th century white folk dancing some complicated group dance (a la *Casanova*).  They are both cliches or conventions.  The problem enters when it’s as if every dark person outside the US is a “native,” as if every white person in ye olden times was a well-off courtly sprite.  Isn’t this what Barthes referred to as “myth”? 

    Let American cinema (Hollywood *or* cinema) begin adapting Ngugi or Ayi Kwei Armah or Sam Selvon or George Lamming novels with the same fervor attending to Jane Austen novels.  Then I’ll stop worrying about cliched images of chanting natives.

    Posted by  on  01/07  at  12:18 PM
  31. Well, I am mightily vexed that I didn’t think of that, Luther.  And hello, Doc Socks.  Great pic!

    Posted by Michael  on  01/07  at  12:24 PM
  32. I’m for a remake of Birth of a Nation.

    Posted by 818  on  01/07  at  12:24 PM
  33. A response might be to compare the Japanese journey along this path. The confusion of the Western intellectual conceit underlying Jackson’s vision as Michael discusses here might mirror parallel Japanese imaginings.

    In the original Ishihiro Honda ‘Gojira’ (1954) (tampered with and marketed in the U.S. as ‘Godzilla’wink and his subsequent ‘DaiKaiju Mosura’ (1961)(’Mothra’wink, aside from the metaphor of Nature’s revenge/B-29-san/A-Bomb,there were astonishingly similiar depictions of the nativist island environment and the ‘civilized’ Japanese reaction.

    Of interest:

    a) the Japanese just lost their self-styled war of Asian liberation against Western imperialism;
    (b) the interesting question of how much of the Japanese mind set was merely mimicry of Western imperial conceits post-1868 Meiji Restoration;
    (c) perhaps the films were trapped in creative prism of the 1933 ‘Kong’ template anyway, albeit with a stronger anti-capitalist critique.

    (We also note in passing the Japanese are famously racially tolerant. As, say Bull Connor high on mescaline and Absinthe).

    But the Japanese overt abandonment of those images later in the 1960s might offer one path or trajectory for our imaginings today.  I.e., when cultural and military hegemonic subtext is traded for commercial opportunity, the savage is transformed from a cultural and military object. 

    Now, the savage is an untapped, under utilized consumer.  In the current time, the savage would be those who lack ‘bundled multimedia services’, ‘interactivity’ and sufficient maximized transactional consumptive ‘opportunity’.  The critique would not be the simple modernism/primitivism view, but the how the savages interact with—or don’t—with business models.

    An alternative, darker path would the logical flowering of the ongoing militarization of American society.  Here, Jackson’s confusion (he is ‘merely’ a Kiwi in any event, an important factor here) would be re-invigorated by the ‘Moral Clarity’ (tm) of the 1933 Kong vision.  Although perhaps ‘Now in 3D!’. 

    “Mr Savage, meet ‘War of Civlizations’”.

    Of course, the Frankfurt School might say this is a false choice of paths.  In this view, all thought is commodification, etc.  Just marketed in different ways.  Have not been partial or kind to that critique of the West. Although the sorry state of cable ‘news’ makes one have to wonder.

    P.S. A related theme might be whether descontruction of ‘broadcast’ mass marketed entertainments will be a good barometer in the future for accepted social semiotic messaging. 

    Perhaps that age is passing, and Kong’s confusion an example of that.  A question perhaps is whether the future will be in the ‘narrowcasting’ of messages and ideologies for niche audiences based on ‘intensity’ and ‘activation’.  Much like blogs today.

    Posted by Leo Strauss  on  01/07  at  01:29 PM
  34. That should have read: “Let American cinema (Hollywood or *independent*) begin adapting Ngugi or Ayi Kwei Armah or Sam Selvon or George Lamming novels with the same fervor attending to Jane Austen novels.  Then I’ll stop worrying about cliched images of chanting natives.”

    Posted by  on  01/07  at  02:26 PM
  35. …a tiny Caribbean island where terrifying savages like Kenneth Lay, Dennis Kozlowski and Bernard Ebbers live in squalid luxury, draining the pensions of workers in civilized countries.

    From the report commissioned by the International Society for the Suppression of Sleazy Customs, a kind of note at the foot of the last page: “Extradite all the brutes!”

    Posted by  on  01/07  at  03:00 PM
  36. I dunno, maybe the intrepid white explorers could have arrived at the island to find their fellow Homo sapiens, though less technologically advanced, had, through the combination of abstract thought, cooperative hunting, and physical stamina, risen to the top of the local food chain like they did everywhere else and were busy muching Kong burgers at the potlatch as they took a break from their four-hour work week.  The special effects wouldn’t have been as impressive, though.

    Posted by  on  01/07  at  05:12 PM
  37. If you must have someone reading The Hollow Men, I vote for Giorgio Agamben.  He’s a lot skinner that some.

    No, actually that wouldn’t be very funny.  Nevermind.

    Posted by Matt  on  01/07  at  10:03 PM
  38. Or a lot bald-skinnedier, if you prefer.

    Posted by Matt  on  01/07  at  10:05 PM
  39. I don’t know if this is a faux pas being very much a new visitor to your neighborhood, Michael. If this is a transgression, please accept this mea culpa in advance.

    But I wanted to let folks know that I discuss Michael’s point of view along with Jim Pinkerton’s take on Kong in Newsday as mirror for America at war today <a href = “http://www.stiftungleostrauss.com/bunker.php?itemid=79">here</a>.

    The coda, a warning for ‘Realists’ seeking to emphasize ethnic complexity as an antedote for neocon inverted Trotskyism, reflects my pessimism about ‘Realist’ cohesion and understanding of our current context. It would be both ironic and not improbable that their use of ethnic complexity to blunt neocons could very well end up merely fanning the flames for future darkness.

    Posted by Leo Strauss  on  01/08  at  12:43 AM
  40. The next time a movie takes us to a tiny primitive island populated by feral natives, it shouldn’t be a tiny island at all, but Tuscany. And the natives wouldn’t be natives at all, but pensioning American baby-boomers. They would worship strange and brutal gods like Dr. Wayne Dyer and Oprah and feed on the flesh of “lazy” Gen Xers.

    On a related note, I rather enjoyed LOTR but noticed that all the “darker” humans were on the side of evil. Some of them even had turbins and rode giant elephants.

    Posted by Roxanne  on  01/08  at  02:14 PM
  41. On a related note, I rather enjoyed LOTR but noticed that all the “darker” humans were on the side of evil. Some of them even had turbins and rode giant elephants.

    That was troublesome, wasn’t it? And the way the Nordic-Saxon types kept referring to the “Age of Men” ending when there were still going to be plenty of men around, just swarthy ones.

    Also, as Becky asked me after the marathon viewing of the 3-volume Extended Version DVD set she gave me for Kwanzaa last month: “why didn’t Gandalf just put Frodo on an eagle and fly him to Mount Doom in the first hour?”

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  01/08  at  02:27 PM
  42. A trio of thoughts:

    1. My thirteen year old read the natives as orcs--and I think the disturbing implications of the natives in Kong can be read back to the enemies of all that’s good in LOTR. It’s in the books as well, BTW--the men from the south allied with Mordor are described as dark by Tolkien.

    2. KK is a pro-animal movie if your belief grounds animal rights in anthropomorphism. I suppose there’s an analogy to the process of arguing against racism by suggesting that a character is a better “white person” than any of the other white people in the movie--for example, he understands Joseph Conrad’s writing really, really well.

    3. In the end the movie succeeded mostly in creeping me out. (My son wept at the end.) I think Jackson was aiming at a subversive reworking of KK that honored the fimmaking of the original and evaded its ideological flaws from a position of “common sense” liberalism. That didn’t work for me. (You couldn’t remake Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will either.) What I decided was that the best thing Jackson could have done would have been to work with a difference text. My suggestion would be this: read Chinua Achebe’s critique of Heart of Darkness and then devote his considerable narrative talent and technical skill to Things Fall Apart. I suspect that any number of African and African-American actors, male and female, could do great work with that story.

    Posted by  on  01/08  at  07:42 PM
  43. And I don’t always want to be the one who brings up the disability angle, but hell, somebody’s gotta do it.  In LOTR, the more deviant and depraved a species is, the greater the degree of its facial disfigurement.  That troll might not be dark-skinned, but it is exceptionally butt-ugly, even uglier than Saruman’s orcs.

    why didn’t Gandalf just put Frodo on an eagle and fly him to Mount Doom in the first hour?

    Oh, Grendel’s mother on a stick, Chris.  Where’s your sense of needless complication?  I bet Becky is also wondering why Hogwarts just didn’t expel the House of Slytherin, too.

    Posted by Michael  on  01/09  at  12:37 AM
  44. In LOTR, the more deviant and depraved a species is, the greater the degree of its facial disfigurement.  That troll might not be dark-skinned, but it is exceptionally butt-ugly, even uglier than Saruman’s orcs.

    Of course, the obvious counter-cites are the utterly beautiful Nazgul - and the lyricallly lovely fell-beasts they ride - and the disturbingly repulsive Orlando Bloom.

    I bet Becky is also wondering why Hogwarts just didn’t expel the House of Slytherin, too.

    On the contrary. I asked her, and she pointed out to me in a very patient manner that not all Slytherins are either evil or in the service of Ille Qui Non Nominandus Est, and that instead what she wonders is why - as she’s read so far - the simplistic assumption that the other Houses are devoid of stain? Where is the Joe Lieberman of Griffindor?

    Posted by Chris Clarke  on  01/09  at  01:05 AM
  45. Oh, Grendel’s mother on a stick

    Right, I’m stealing that.  Hmm, perhaps as part of a larger theme of putdowns and observations based upon Beowulf; e.g., “I’d rather hang out at Heorot.”

    What?  No room for Chiwetel Ejiofor?

    Watts: I don’t murder highly symbolic giant apes.

    Ejiofor: I do.

    (I know, I know, I should have invoked his role from Amistad, or Love Actually, or Red Dust.  I have a brown coat at home, too.  It’s pathetic.)

    Posted by  on  01/09  at  12:54 PM
  46. The LA Times Sunday Calendar had an interesting take on the origins of King Kong as a racist-sexist tract. 
    Check http://www.calendarlive.com/printedition/calendar/suncal/cl-ca-ingagi8jan08,0,5858327.story?coll=cl-suncal

    Posted by  on  01/09  at  07:44 PM
  47. why didn’t Gandalf just put Frodo on an eagle and fly him to Mount Doom in the first hour?

    Easy: Nazgul with wings.

    I like the idea of Kong without natives - especially if the temples etc are still there. The question then arises “what happened to them? Where did they go?”

    Or you could run the “Lost World” idea. Which, if you remember, has two sets of ‘primitive tribes’; the brutal, human-sacrificing, pale-skinned, red-haired Neanderthals, and the friendly (if outmatched) South American Indians that our heroes eventually ally with.
    I assume someone’s written about “Race in the Lost World"…

    Posted by  on  01/10  at  07:54 AM
  48. why didn’t Gandalf just put Frodo on an eagle and fly him to Mount Doom in the first hour?

    Easy: Nazgul with wings.

    Well, except that the Nazgul didn’t initially have winged mounts at their disposal.  That’s why they headed to the Shire on horseback.  Now, perhaps by the time the Fellowship set out from Imladris, the winged mounts were ready to go, but the Wise didn’t know about their existence yet.

    Plus, in the battle before the Black Gate, the Eagles seemed perfectly willing to engage the Nazgul in the air.  The Nazgul suddenly had more pressing concerns, so we don’t know how that would have worked out.

    (And here I was worried that the browncoat reference made me seem pathetic.  It seems I was just warming up.)

    Posted by  on  01/10  at  01:32 PM
  49. What makes you think that one of the eagles wouldn’t enjoy a nice Frodo snack and slip a talon through the ring?

    But back on topic, sort of.

    For the NEXT remake of Kong, they can people the island with the descendants of the 34th season of Survivor, which will run over budget and be cancelled, leaving the contestants to fend for themselves.  The natives will have bizarre rituals to win immunity from being voted into the ape’s belly.

    Posted by  on  01/10  at  03:46 PM
  50. Cool.  I say we get Jared Diamond to direct.

    Posted by Michael  on  01/10  at  05:15 PM
  51. In “The Fellowship of the Ring,” ALL the heroes were not only white dudes, whether they were humans, hobbits, elves, dwarves, what have you, but they all had blue eyes, every damned one of them. (I may be wrong on this, but I don’t think so.)

    Plus, all the villains sort of looked like Maoris who had survived a disfiguring epidemic.

    I like the Kiwis and Australians I’ve met over the years, but in terms of racial consciousness, they’ve got a way to go.

    Posted by sfmike  on  01/11  at  04:56 AM
  52. Well, mds and I will just continue on our death spiral into patheticness.

    Fair point, mds, but - the eagles would probably have been seen coming by the Great Eye from a long way off. Very difficult to fly unobtrusively if you have a fifteen-foot wingspan and a hobbit on your back.

    And then you have to deal with Mordor’s air defences, and the fact that anywhere you look like landing will suddenly be covered in horrible orcses. Rather a hot LZ, to put it in modern terms.

    Maybe a Nazgul could take an eagle in a dogfight; maybe not. But it’s a bit of a risky gamble with the fate of Middle Earth.

    Anyway, we don’t know that the Nazgul didn’t have winged beasts as an option; they may just have picked horses as less obtrusive than shrieking pterodactyl monsters when they were doing their detective work around the Shire.
    ("Rosie, one of the Big Folk is outside the door, all in black, asking for a fellow name of Baggins, and there’s his huge fell winged beast parked on the Green, and it looks like it’s just eaten Gaffer Heathertoes.” “Oh dear.")

    Plus, all the villains sort of looked like Maoris who had survived a disfiguring epidemic.

    Okay. I haven’t met any Maoris who looked like Christopher Lee yet, for one thing. And the Orcs -short, stooped, pale, livid skin, beaky noses, large triangular ears and fangs. Your typical Maori - tall, heavy-set, dark brown skin, broad nose, normal-shaped ears and no fangs.
    (A lot of them actually were Maoris; the extras were all NZDF.)
    If you think Orcs look like Maoris, you have a lot of things to sort out about your perceptions of Maoris.

    Posted by  on  01/11  at  08:15 AM
  53. On the Winged Nazgul/Eagles Dropping Off Frodo Thing

    I believe Tolkein himself answered this in one of the books his son published with his drafts and revisions, etc.

    IIRC, Sauron indeed had the Winged Nazgul but was keeping them east of the Anduin.  Their unveiling across the River was a clear token of war, and until the attack on Mina Tirith he was unwilling to show his hand.

    Gandalf apparently knew this and the existence of the Winged creatures because he realized immediately what the implication of the Winged Nazgul overflying Isengard was.  Hence his sprint to Minas Tirith before the attack.

    IIRC Tolkein explains why the Nazgul went on horses to the Shire (they couldn’t see well by themselves, and there were rivers and water they would have to cross).

    On The Inherent Fascism or Counter Enlightenment Elements of LOTR

    The entire work has elements that can be seen as a paen to fascism or at least anti-Enlightenment authoritarianism.  Tolkein is Spenglerian in theme—the devolution of the world from the sublime and Fall to mundane.  Moreover, his “progress"/anti-industrial sub-text mirrors many on the Right’s concern about “Taylorism” or “Americanism”.  As is the adoration for the more pure buccolic link to the land - from Mussolini to his comrades to the North.

    The entire concept of a fallen superior Master Race, “ruined” by intermingling by “lesser” beings is the Aryan myth. The authoritarian worship of birth right and nobility by inheritance, etc. The deformed orcs, etc. already noted here not too far afield from the cruel and crude depictions of anti-semitic propoganda prevalent in Europe.  The explicit Manichean zero sum theme, “Forward or Defeat”, “Last Stand”, the worship of Men of Action over reasoning.  All redolent with the ideologies on the Continent.

    I have long thought that the movie release of LotR , 9/11 and the irrationality during the Run Up to the War were linked. And fed off each other.

    What saves Tolkein for me at least is (a) it is just a good tale, regardless; (b) the corpus of his work regarding the Silmarillean and other drafts suggest his thinking was indeed more rooted in Norse myth and linguistics rather than the above.  But it is all there, nonetheless.

    Posted by Leo Strauss  on  01/11  at  11:37 AM
  54. That’s a very silly thing to say.

    You’re probably trolling, but here goes:

    fallen superior Master Race, “ruined” by intermingling by “lesser” beings

    No, ruined by their own arrogance and weakness in the face of temptation, which led to the downfall of Westernesse. Interbreeding has reduced their lifespan, but not their ‘nobility’.

    The deformed orcs, etc. already noted here not too far afield from the cruel and crude depictions of anti-semitic propoganda

    Wait, now the orcs are Jewish Maoris? How does that work? Also, orcs = cruel, stupid, warlike, violent, subservient, keen on torture and machinery of war. Those aren’t Jewish stereotypes. (Strange Hebrew-sounding language, big beards, clannish, proud, fond of gold - sounds more like the Dwarves.)

    The explicit Manichean zero sum theme, “Forward or Defeat”, “Last Stand”, the worship of Men of Action over reasoning.

    Actually, it’s a negative-sum; whoever wins the war, the world is worse off. THAT point is made explicit.
    And if you think that the books worship Men of Action over reasoning, you can’t have been paying attention. The whole story is about giving up power. And as for denigrating reasoning… Tolkien was a don, for heaven’s sake. Think about all the characters described as ‘wise’. Gandalf, Elrond, Cirdan… they’re almost demigods. The Men of Action like Aragorn defer to them continually.

    Authoritarians don’t necessarily worship birthrights - the Prussian nobility were one of the main groups opposed to Hitler, for example.

    And the books are full of nobly-born characters who let the side down (Boromir, Denethor) and humbly-born heroes (Samwise, Gimli).

    Posted by  on  01/11  at  12:30 PM
  55. Ajay, I don’t recall reading you before, so I will ignore your gratuitous That’s a very silly thing to say. You’re probably trolling, but here goes:.  And chalk it up this once to mutual unfamiliarity. 

    I will not be so kind the next time.

    First, your point about how Tolkein treats pure bloods and Westernesse would benefit from other read of the books.  It is also factually wrong.  Tolkein very carefully emphasizes that intermingling of blood with “lesser” Men did more than diminish the lifespan given to Eros’s line when he founded Numenor.  Although that happened and the fear of Death is what led to the Downfall.

    Tolkein makes clear that pure bloods are genetically and spiritually superior beings. He notes where the Blood of Westernesse runs ‘true’ such as Denethor and Faramir.  Denethor is granted powers of foresight (Palantir aside) and in the case of Aragorn and the House of Elendil, healing power.

    Second, regarding orcs, please re-read what I said. Take another deep breath and actually read it. 

    What I said is that the depictions of orcs as fallen or twisted or evil are not dissimilar to propaganda on the Continent from the turn of the century, Vienna and elsewhere to depict, unfortunately, Jews and other as subhuman.  We are talking about the meta Form for the subhuman depiction, not the explicit analogy.

    Third, you are confused in your reply.  I noted that the notion of declinism in Tolkein is very much Spenglerian.  Rather than ignore that point, I underscore it.  But you need to understand that context within the philosophical currents of the period at Oxford and on the Continent.

    In addition, a Manichaen world view, ‘forward or defeat’, and action are all elements of the general fascist critique of liberal democracy from 1918-45 in Europe and then in Argentina and even elsewhere. LotR celebrates these same elements.

    Again, I am talking about meta themese and similarities with Tolkein and the general fascist (or Counter Enlightenment Authoritarian) critique. Not direct analogies.

    Your concluding asides about Prussians, the Regime, and social mobility in two sentences are suggestive. Perhaps we could elaborate on those points later.

    Cheers!

    Posted by Leo Strauss  on  01/11  at  01:08 PM
  56. "I will not be so kind the next time.”

    Do not meddle in the affairs of Literary Theorists, for they are subtle and quick to anger.

    “Second, regarding orcs, please re-read what I said. Take another deep breath and actually read it. What I said is that the depictions of orcs as fallen or twisted or evil are not dissimilar to propaganda on the Continent from the turn of the century, Vienna and elsewhere to depict, unfortunately, Jews and other as subhuman.”

    Yes, I know. And then I said that the words used to describe orcs are not the words used in anti-semitic propaganda. Except, I am willing to concede, for extremely vague and general terms like “evil”, “brute”, “cruel”. (Not “subhuman”, a term which Tolkien never uses about orcs.)

    In fact, I would speculate that a British reader of the mid century, seeing “orcs = cruel, stupid, warlike, violent, subservient, keen on torture and ingenious at inventing machinery of war”, would instead form an association “orcs = Germans.”

    “We are talking about the meta Form for the subhuman depiction, not the explicit analogy.”

    Oh, well, in that case, your argument is perfectly cromulent.

    Are you saying “orcs are depicted as ugly; so were Jews in propaganda; therefore LotR is a paean to fascism”? That’s a very odd conclusion to draw. Having the villain or monster looking ugly is not a new idea. It’s probably the oldest idea in fiction.

    “In addition, a Manichaean world view, ‘forward or defeat’, and action are all elements of the general fascist critique of liberal democracy from 1918-45 in Europe and then in Argentina and even elsewhere. LotR celebrates these same elements.”

    I understand the point you are making here; I just think you’re completely wrong. You said that LotR elevates Men of Action over reasoning. I pointed out that, in fact, the most respected characters are described as ‘wise’ more than anything else, and the Men of Action are continually shown to be deferring to them.
    The book is about the primacy of knowledge and the importance of giving up power. These are not fascist themes. If anything, they are the antithesis of fascism. Remember that victory, in the end, is not achieved through superior strength or racial superiority; as all the characters are well aware, the army of the West are on the road to certain death at the Black Gate if the Ring is not destroyed.

    Now let’s address your confusion between the idea of racial purity and the idea of the ‘blood of kings’. Tolkien, was entirely behind the latter - not a new idea in the 20th century, and not one favoured by the Continental dictatorships, as you may know - but was very scornful about men who prided themselves on their pure blood - who spent their days in high towers and counted the names of their ancestors more important than their children, as I think he described the Numenoreans. And we know what happened to them.

    For JRRT, it’s entirely right for the West to be ruled by a hereditary king, but not for the Numenoreans to lord it over everyone else because they have better blood - that’s arrogance.

    Posted by  on  01/11  at  02:15 PM
  57. Is the “king” who “returns” Aragorn or Samwise Gamgee? I’ve always thought it was the latter, given the mid-20th C. context. But maybe I’ve been projecting.

    Posted by Roxanne  on  01/11  at  02:26 PM
  58. Ajay,

    No need to anklebite for attention. I am happy to give it to you without all your formulaic WWF-esque rituals.  Somewhat thin skinned, though, isn’t it, to launch a conversation labelling someone a troll, and then decry when called short?  Do you always interact in this message board so contentiously?

    Ajay some of your confusion I suspect is that you may not be familiar with the general fascist critique of liberalism (not the American kind), and the similar but not identical Counter Enlightenment Authoritarian critique.  As I have said, LoTR I think uses images and motiffs from both.  You say you understand, and that you see the comparisons to Spengler, etc.

    I will sidestep your strawman regarding orcs, and restate the premise.  That the orcs and their morphology, racial threat and deficiencies are in parallel to depictions of Race Enemies as popularized on the Continent from the late 1800s.

    That was all the point was.  Any efforts on your part to claim more than that are rejected. 

    Moreover, your labors to turn orcs into mere common place common monsters is refuted by the books.  LotR as well as Silmarillian make clear the eugenic aspects of orcs.  First, who they were created—whether by Melkor capturing first elves, etc.  Or by Saruman later using eugenics to “improve” the orcs.  (The stranger at Bree having orcish blood, mixed orcs, 1/2 orcs, I will leave to the reader here to draw a parallel to a famous set of laws).

    Second, regarding your theme, Tolkein himself in the works his son published makes clear that in fact, those you celebrate here as “The Wise” are largely impotent and mere voyeurs.  Tolkein himself notes that they lacked the capacity to act.  They were spent. Done.  They were of the dying past. The emphasis on “Man of Action” I think remains.  You would do well to read “War of the Ring”, “Return of the Shadow”, “The Treason of Isendard” and others to see how deeply Tolkein felt that they were yesterday’s news.

    As for your assertions of what “Lord of the Rings” means—well, let us say that interpreting this text is not simply yours by fiat. And your following statements about what would comprise a fascist conclusion (or Counter Enlightenment Authoritarian conclusion) suggests some confusion there as well.

    And Ajay, lest your enthusiasms for spirited debate confuse matters here on this blog, I am going to underscore that I do not nor have I ever said “LotR” is a “fascist” (or Counter Englightenment) work, but that it has elements, themes and images from those movements in it.

    Posted by Leo Strauss  on  01/11  at  03:03 PM
  59. But it’s a bit of a risky gamble with the fate of Middle Earth.

    As compared to nine people, four of whom have only spunk in their armamentarium, setting off on foot, in winter, to walk all the way to Orodruin?  Regardless, at the end of the day, I freely admit that the story is way more interesting Tolkien’s way.  Well, except for Book IV.

    Meanwhile Leo Strauss continues to “school” ajay, who has never commented here before wink, about how if one defines fascist themes as those that invoke “nobility,” “purity,” “authority,” and “ugly = villainous,” then Tolkien’s writings contain fascist themes.  Of course, the same is true of Malory, etc., etc.

    Oh, and “Man of Action who disdains booklearning” = Boromir.  Aragorn liked the company of elves, was familiar with ancient lore, and preferred to defer to Gandalf.  To say nothing of how Frodo fits no such “man of action” stereotype at all.

    And actually, though mingling of bloodlines is sometimes noted as part of the decline of the Dunedain in Middle Earth, it played no part at all in waning lifespans in Numenor, which were purely the result of rebellion.  And even the Middle Earth case wasn’t cut and dried.  The unbroken line of descent from Isildur was more important than who had married into it, or else Aragorn would not have had any better a claim than the Ruling Stewards.  It was also made out to be a bad call that Gondor rejected King Arvedui’s claim, even though Earnil was clearly of high Numenorian blood.  There was also the case of the Kin-strife, where Eldacar was unequivocally the hero, even though Castamir could be considered to have purer Numenorian blood.  Tolkien makes explicit mention that being a half-blood did not seem to diminish Eldacar’s lifespan, but that such diminishment proceeded apace due to the swift years of Middle Earth and the slow withdrawal of the Gift after the fall of Numenor.  So sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  But a good cigar is a smoke.

    Posted by  on  01/11  at  04:34 PM
  60. Good lord!  You folks with the Tolkien hermeneutics—my burning question is:  when in your lives did you have the patience to actually read those books?  It’s an interesting mythology Tolkien constructed, I’ll give him that, but the man couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag.

    Posted by Violet Socks  on  01/11  at  04:57 PM
  61. mds - good point re Numenor. I have no idea if you are right or not, but you sound like you know what you are talking about, and that’s good enough for me.
    But don’t knock covert infiltration on foot - it’s very effective. I know. Unless you get lost (what most of Book IV is about).

    I think we may just have to let Leo have his own interpretation. He now seems to be convinced that I am a Dwarf:

    “No need to anklebite for attention.”

    See what I mean?

    “Somewhat thin skinned, though, isn’t it, to launch a conversation labelling someone a troll, and then decry when called short?”

    Short? SHORT? Why, you…

    Posted by  on  01/12  at  06:36 AM

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