Friday, January 06, 2006
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.