Mulvey and Achebe in Light of King Kong
Peter Jackson’s King Kong begins with shots of monkeys, and then other exotic animals, in a zoo. The grey and brown colours of the enclosures themselves, the run-down appearance of the buildings, the leafless and twisted trees, and the matte-like New York cityscape background ties the zoo’s inmates to the poor shanty-town denizens nearby in the following frames. This animal-human conflation appears repeatedly in the film; unlike similar movies, there is little discovery of the bestial nature within the human soul, but instead the discovery of a human soul within at least one animal. Through Skull Island’s creation as a radical other in a manner strongly reminiscent of Heart of Darkness as explored by Chinua Achebe in his “An Image of Africa,” and the confirmation of human male dominance through the protagonist’s gaze, in the manner described by Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” King Kong at first confirms the conventional hierarchies the audience expects. The intervention of the ape Kong, however, and the film techniques and narrative details that portray Kong’s interaction with the heroine Ann Darrow forces the audience to identify with a non-human animal as though he were a typical male protagonist. While the first third of Peter Jackson’s King Kong reinforces the other-ness of a Congo-like atmosphere and the human male dominance through gaze, as the film progresses, growing identification with the gorilla Kong collapses the othering initiated in the beginning of the film.
For the first hour and a half of King Kong, the film constructs Skull Island and its inhabitants as ‘other’ in ways similar to those Chinua Achebe describes when discussing Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in “An Image of Africa.” It is quite possible that these were deliberate choices on the part of Peter Jackson, who placed Conrad’s novel repeatedly and prominently in the film, including multiple dialogue sequences in which characters talk about the book. However, this could instead be an allusion to similar themes in both Heart of Darkness and King Kong, specifically dangerous environment and daring adventure. Regardless of authorial intent, Skull Island becomes a clone of the Congo, or at least Achebe’s articulation of Conrad’s Congo. According to “An Image of Africa,” novels such as Heart of Darkness represent Africa as an other because of “the desire—one might indeed say the need—in Western psychology to set Africa up as a foil to Europe, as a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar, in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” (Achebe, 1784). Thus Africa is constructed to be different—“remote”—but also containing latent similarities, by comparison with which the colonizing European can examine his own existence. Elsewhere, Achebe describes this relationship as the following: “Africa is to Europe as the picture is to Dorian Gray—a carrier on to whom the master unloads his physical and moral deformities so that he may go forward, erect and immaculate” (1793). Achebe outlines a few ways that Conrad accomplishes this. First, as Achebe quotes F. R. Leavis’ observation, Conrad is obsessed with the “inexpressible and incomprehensive mystery” (1785) of Africa. Achebe quotes such adjectives as “implacable,” “inscrutable,” “incomprehensible.” Second, Conrad animalizes the African people, going so far as to deny them language and reducing them to grunts (1787-1788) and “frenzy” (1788). Third, in spite the differences, Conrad worries about a lurking “kinship” between the Africans and the Europeans, noting the existence of a distant but shared ancestor (1789). In Heart of Darkness, according to Achebe, Conrad uses mysteriousness, lack of language, frenzy, and common origins to construct the Congo as an other, or a warped mirror with which Europe can examine itself.
King Kong echoes the techniques used by Conrad in the creation of an other. In the film, the other is not the Congo—though there is a striking similarity between the word ‘Congo’ and the name ‘Kong’—but Skull Island, uncharted in the Indian Ocean. Its uncharted nature indicates both its mystery and its lack of language—it cannot be expressed on a map. The island itself is never seen in its entirety; instead it is happened upon in fog and occluded by a great wall on the coast (King Kong, 51:45-52:19). As the characters explore the cluttered and angled ruins on Skull Island’s coast, the camera moves both left-to-right and bottom-to-top, so that the many layers of foreground, background, and middle ground move over each other at different angles and speeds, creating an effect of confusion and frenzy (56:00-56:07). The confusion and frenzy is heightened by the quick-moving and fragmented shots, distorted sound, and the frequent lack of focus used in both the crew’s initial exploration of the ruins, prior to first meeting the native people, and their battle with the native people (56:52-57:10; 59:30-1:01:22). The sacrificial ritual of Skull Island’s denizens is marked by convulsing bodies, unseeing eyes, whooping chants, and jumbled bodies cluttering the frame (1:05:51-1:06-44). The denizens of Skull Island act with the frenzy and chaos Achebe notes in Conrad’s Congo. Thus Skull Island operates as an ‘other,’ similar to Achebe’s understanding of the Congo in Heart of Darkness.
As it constructs Skull Island as an other, the film also portrays Kong as an other in the first hour and a half. Until his first visible appearance at 1:10:10, Kong is a mysterious figure, contained in legends as “a creature, neither beast nor man, but something monstrous” (39:03-39:07), an undecipherable smudge on the map (45:02), carvings in rocks (51:03), and a roar from behind the wall (59:08-59:15). Ostensibly to create suspense, this mysteriousness also helps generate a sense of ‘other.’ When Kong appears from the forest in 1:10:10, he is mainly obscured by dust and low under-lighting, emphasizing his hands, hairiness, size, and shoulders, and by connection his animal nature (1:10:10-1:11:52). Kong, like the other of the Congo, cannot be articulated: when Jack asks Carl what he saw, Carl cannot answer (1:12:22-1:12:36), and Captain Englehorn wonders, “What in God’s name was that?” (1:11:05-1:11:07). Kong, then, by connection with the frenzy and chaos of the native peoples, and in his own obscured animal incomprehensibility, acts as an other from which Jack must rescue Ann.
As the film upholds colonial conventions in the first third of the film by creating Skull Island and Kong as ‘others’ against which the crew of the Venture can define themselves, the film also upholds patriarchal conventions of masculine gaze. Laura Mulvey, in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” develops a model to explain how films satisfy the visual pleasures of looking and being looked at, using psychoanalytical methods. Mulvey examines two forms of pleasure: scopophilia, or the pleasure of erotic looking, and a narcissistic pleasure which “comes from identification with the image seen” (Mulvey, 2186). One necessitates separation from the object seen on the screen, while the other necessitates connection with the object. In a patriarchal society, male viewers separate from—and thereby control—the female objects and connect with the male protagonist (2187). The male protagonist, in fact, becomes a manifestation of the more powerful “ego ideal” of Lacan’s mirror stage (2185). By associating with the male protagonist who eventually ‘gets the girl,’ the audience also experiences this possession and control vicariously (2188). However, the female always, in Lacan’s and therefore Mulvey’s model, signifies castration, and therefore castration anxiety must be combated for the pleasure to succeed. There are two ways, according to Mulvey, that male viewers deactivate the threat of castration:
preoccupation with the re-enactment of the original trauma (investigating the woman, demystifying her mystery), counterbalanced by the devaluation, punishment or saving of the guilty object (an avenue typified by the concerns of the film noir); or else complete disavowal of castration by the substitution of a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous (hence overvaluation, the cult of the female star) (2188).
Mulvey calls the first stratagem “sadistic” and well-adapted to narrative (2188). Thus Mulvey’s model of patriarchal looking in film is defined by the audience’s erotic gaze at the heroine as a sexual object, identification with the male protagonist—who gazes at the woman—as an ideal self, and the punishment or rescuing of the female object to reduce castration anxiety.
Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 1783-1794.
King Kong. Dir. Peter Jackson. Perf. Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrian Brody, Thomas Kretschmann, Colin Hanks, Jamie Bell, and Andy Serkis. DVD. Universal Pictures, 2006.
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent B. Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 2181-2192.