Saturday, 4 October 2008

King Kong Essay

I'm hesitant to include such a long essay (15 pages as I submitted it) on this blog; however, I am sufficiently interested in it, and am sufficiently proud of it, that I will. It's my first real foray into film criticism, and was submitted to a Literary Criticism course I took, where we studied the means of analyzing literature--a departure from most English classes, which instead study particular genres and time periods of literature, taking the means for granted. Anyway, there's a bibliography at the end, if you're interested in the readings this comes from. The essay is about audience identification with the gorilla in King Kong and what this means for our understanding of man/woman and human/animal dichotomies.

Identifying with the Other:
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.
As the first third of King Kong reinforces the colonial ‘other,’ it also conforms to Mulvey’s model, where Ann is the female object and Jack is male protagonist. Even before meeting Jack, Ann practices before a mirror so that she can impress Jack Driscol when she does meet him (King Kong, 28:10-28:28). While much of her practicing involves what she intends to say, her use of a mirror indicates her concern with how she appears to him; her selection of the dress she wears later for the occasion (28:55-28:56) corroborates this. Ann’s actions therefore indicate that she is concerned with becoming an object of visual pleasure to Jack Driscol. Her efforts clearly succeed; she is an object of visual pleasure to both Jack and the audience. When they meet in the ship’s corridor, Ann stumbles and recovers (34:16-20): as she does this, the frame switches from a portrait view of her face to a shot of her legs from below and behind (34:19). Immediately after this switch, Jack comments, “Good legs” (34:21); Jack corrects himself, saying he meant “sea legs” (34:25), but then says that her legs are also visually nice (34:29-34:30). While the viewer is watching Ann’s legs, Jack indicates that he is as well. Shortly after this conversation, Ann performs for Carl Denham and the film crew, subject to their collective masculine gazes in a form-fitting, low-cut dress (35:29-36:06). However, when Jack appears at Carl’s side, Ann switches from a general performance to one specified towards Jack, looking directly at him and breaking out of the character she is supposed to play (36:06-36:41). During this personal performance, the frame and Jack’s gaze onto Ann conflate, so that Ann is looking at the audience as she is looking at Jack (36:19-36:26). Therefore the audience, because of camera angles and costumes, identifies with Jack as the male protagonist gazing on the female object as exclusive possessor. This gazing relationship is consummated later (42:08), but the identification with Jack and his possession of Ann begin with the initial looking.
According to Mulvey’s model, the film follows the voyeuristic, sadistic model. It may or may not be relevant that Ann, in the film, never becomes the star she dreams of being. It is relevant, however, that the native islanders capture and sacrifice—“punish”—Ann (1:05:19-1:11:11), and that she seems to require rescuing by Jack and the crew—first from the islanders, and then from Kong. Thus King Kong begins by filling the gaze conventions expected by the audience of a Hollywood movie.
For the first hour and a half of the film, King Kong adheres to Achebe’s description of colonial othering through mysteriousness, lack of language, and frenzy, while simultaneously following Mulvey’s model of visual pleasure through identification with a male protagonist gazing on a female object who requires rescuing. This creates clear hierarchies of European-North American over Skull Island, male over female, with Kong acting as the rival ‘other’ to the hero, Jack, and as menacer of Ann, the heroine and object of audience voyeuristic gaze. These relationships, however, are challenged in the remainder of the film, which breaks out of Achebe’s and Mulvey’s models.
During Ann’s captivity to Kong, the film shifts from depicting the gorilla entirely as a monster or animal to depicting him as a male protagonist. Just as Ann presented herself to Jack as an object for him to watch, she also does this for Kong. Her first presentation is an attempt to placate an angry Kong after her failed escape from him (1:32:00-1:34:17), while the second is to cheer him up while he appears to be sulking because she again attempted to leave him (1:58:59-1:59:34). In the first scene, the camera often looks down at Ann from an upwards angle; in one case, Ann’s eyes follow the camera as though the camera is Kong (1:32:32-1:32:33). In the second scene, she performs again; this time, her much of her performance is made with her back to Kong, probably in an attempt to get his attention by ignoring him (1:59:07-1:59:19); because the camera is focused on Ann with Kong in the background, she is effectively performing to the audience, meaning that the audience is supplying what she wishes to receive from Kong. A few shots later (159:22-1:15:25), the audience views her from approximately Kong’s point of view, as she turns to make her performance directly to him. The effect of each scene, then, is that while Ann is performing for Kong, she is also performing for the audience. Kong reacts to her first performance with laughter (1:32:41-1:32:45), and the release of tension invites the audience to laugh as well—conflating Kong’s and the audience’s reactions. During these scenes, Ann’s performance is not strictly of an attractive or erotic nature—she is enacting routines from comedic theatre. However, in the first scene, the frequent exposure of her bare legs (1:33:53; 1:33-59) and shoulders (1:34:12) during Kong’s preferred part of the performance—where he pushes her over—indicate that she remains an erotic object to the audience while she remains an object to be controlled by Kong. In the second scene, her performance fails to please Kong, and she eventually switches to his desired activity: watching the sunset (2:00:02). She then steps into his hand (2:01:08-2:01:23), willingly becoming his possession in the ways that Mulvey observes are typical of the hero-heroine relationship. Thus the interactions of looking and being looked at that occur between Ann and Kong are exactly those of Mulvey’s model of scopophilia.
Kong’s looking at Ann is specifically the voyeuristic/sadistic version of scopophilia Mulvey discusses. At the same time that Jack is heading out to rescue Ann from the giant gorilla, Kong is rescuing her from Skull Island’s carnivorous animals (1:40:05-1:50:30). As is conventional, Ann moves through this process from a generalized sexuality, open to the myriad male consumers seeking her, to a specific sexuality exclusive to her rescuer—in this case, Kong. Revealing costuming and invasive camera angles (1:40:48-49; 1:42:45; 1:43:00-1:43:07) pervades her flight from monitor lizards and dinosaurs without Kong’s aid (1:40:05-1:44:13). Once he arrives, the camera focuses less on her and more on the battle between Kong and the tyrannosaurids (1:44:14-1:50:30); when she is shown, she is often covered by Kong’s fist or foot (1:44:39-1:44:46). At the fight’s end, she backs under his body, choosing to accept his protection and rescue (1:49:25-1:49:31). Thus Kong enacts the rescuing or forgiving convention of the voyeuristic model, and Ann enacts the movement from generalized to specific sexuality. Kong, then, is the male protagonist with which, during Ann’s stay with him, the audience identifies as an ideal self.
Identification with a character as an ideal self would seem to necessitate that that character is not constructed as an other. If the identification with Kong succeeds for the audience, this would result in the destruction of the othering established in the beginning of the film. This depends on each individual viewer’s response, but the film uses camera angle and emotional manipulation to promote an identification with Kong. As previously noted, Kong’s laughter provokes the audience’s laughter. During his rampage in New York, the music is fast, the lighting is highly contrasted, the movement is quick, the background noise is harsh and invasive, and the scenes change rapidly, making the audience feel Kong’s frenzy and agitation (2:31:10-2:35:17); when Ann appears and calms him (2:35:33), the music slows, the lighting becomes muted and diffuse, the background noise fades, and the scenes linger on single, slow-moving subjects (2:35:33-2:39:57). Thus, beyond the narrative establishing Kong as the male protagonist, the editing and directorial choices encourage the viewers to associate their human reactions with Kong’s reactions—laughter, defensiveness, tranquility—breaking down the distinction between the ‘savage’ gorilla other and the ‘civilized’ human self. During these sequences, particularly those after the initial chaos in New York, Jack, the other male protagonist, is hardly present, strengthening Kong’s claim on the audience’s identification. Kong is more than a “distant kin,” in Conrad’s sense, but an alternate protagonist, and this disallows the audience to simply categorize him as an other.
As King Kong goes some way to breaking down the othering of its eponymous gorilla, it does make some attempt at breaking down the other of Skull Island itself. This does not extend as far as making the native islanders more civilized; indeed, they disappear entirely after their monstrous sacrifice, losing any chance at redemption. Rather, Kong’s interaction with New York City renders it strikingly similar to Skull Island. Kong converts the steel girders of a construction project into the trees and vines of his home island (2:40:15-2:40-29), uses the rooftops like he uses cliff tops and plateaus (2:40:30-2:41:12), and takes refuge on the ledges on the Empire State Building as though the building was a mountain of his home (2:41:12-2:43:33). In one respect, the city consciously imitates Skull Island: Carl Denham reenacts the sacrifice of the native islanders as a spectacle for the New York elite (2:26:59-2:27:53). Skull Island itself, with its ruins hidden beneath foliage, has a sense of a distant kinship to New York in “its own forgotten darkness” (Achebe, 1785); Kong’s interaction with the city, however, makes explicit the similarities, and, by experiencing Kong’s perspective of the metropolis, the audience witnesses the destruction of the difference between New York City and Skull Island.
Despite the conflation of the human audience and the gorilla protagonist, however, the film does not transform Kong into a human. This would invalidate his status as an other, but it would not destroy the connection between other and different. Rather, King Kong emphasizes that Kong is an animal. In his moments of tenderness or joy with Ann—laughing at her routine or spinning on the ice with her—he appears most human. In his moments of triumph immediately after rescuing her, he is undeniably a gorilla, beating his chest and roaring, exposing his large teeth and acting ‘savage’ and wild (King Kong, 1:50:17-1:50:29; 2:46:12-2:46:17; 2:47:46-2:47:46; 2:52:08-2:52:39). While the audience may also experience the flush of success and enact their own success rituals—grinning, cheering, pumping the air—Kong’s is radically different from a human’s. Further, body language and facial expression carry the interaction between Ann and Kong quite a distance, but these are their only means of communication. Kong is without spoken language, and certain scenes emphasize his “inscrutability.” While Ann and Kong sit together on the Empire State Building, she tries to convey to him that she thinks the sunrise is “Beautiful” (2:42:07). Kong, however, does not respond, and likely does not understand what she is doing. The audience is left to guess what the gorilla is thinking, allowing the audience to feel sympathy, but leaving a gap between the audience’s identity and Kong’s. These details emphasize the differences between the audience and the gorilla, while other techniques—camera angles, emotion manipulation, and narrative elements—reinforce the identification. This contradiction creates a tension in the audience between treatment of Kong as an animal deserving fear or at most love and sympathy, and identification with Kong as an ideal other. Therefore King Kong’s subversion of the system of other created at the beginning of the film is not simply performed by glossing over differences, but by forcing the audience to understand their identification with a character who is radically different.
The category of other relies on the combination of separateness, difference, and residual similarity. King Kong implodes this category by directing the audience to identify with a character who the film initially constructs as an other. The narrative structure places Kong in the same position as a human male protagonist, emotional manipulation ensures that the audience often feels the same emotions Kong is portrayed to feel, and his interaction with New York city emphasizes the commonalities between the metropolis and Skull Island’s jungle; these techniques make the similarities not residual but fundamental and explicit. The emotional manipulation, combined with the use of camera angles to place the audience in Kong’s point of view, encourages identification with Kong and therefore breaks down the separation, while extended and frequent sequences that show him acting like a gorilla—which he is—simultaneously emphasize difference. By identifying the audience with Kong through the mechanisms Mulvey outlines, King Kong erodes the othering of Kong and the category of other itself.
As King Kong complicates the othering described by Achebe, it also makes headway into complicating the reduction of female characters to objects, albeit not as extensively or successfully. While Ann throughout the film remains an object of erotic pleasure, a damsel to be rescued, and a motivating figure more than an active player, she also commands gazes of her own; almost all of the male gazes toward Ann are reciprocated by her gaze towards the protagonist, and as much camera time is spent showing how she sees them as is spent showing how they see her. When Ann meets Jack in the ship’s corridor, he is shirtless and through the previous indications that Ann would be interested in him—her preparation before her mirror—presented as a possible object of visual desire for her (34:16-35:26). During the filming that appears immediately afterwards in the narrative, where he looks at her performance, Ann looks back at him; in fact, her gaze onto him is shown before his gaze onto her (36:10-36:31), giving her gaze primacy. The hero-heroine dynamic, then, is not one of unreciprocated gazing.
While Ann’s relationship with Jack contains mutual looking, her interaction with Kong is also defined by her gazing at him for extended periods of time. At the top of the mountain on Skull Island, while Kong watches the sun set, what time she does not spend trying to attract Kong’s attention she spends gazing at him (1:58:26-1:58:55; 1:59:35-1:59:47; 2:00:21-2:01:16). It is here that she first tries to communicate to him that the sunset is “Beautiful” (2:00:23-2:00:38); however, since she is indicating him with her eyes and her chest with her hand, it remains unclear whether she is actually giving the sunset, Kong, or herself this label as an object of visual pleasure. This ambiguity results in all three taking this role. The techniques of this sequence are then repeated at the climax atop the Empire State Building. The camera shots alternate between neutral shots of both, Kong’s point of view as he gazes at Ann, and her point of view as she gazes at him (2:42:13-2:43:32). As Kong is dying, the camera views the two from behind Ann; from the audience’s point of view, the back of her head overlaps his left eye, while the direction of Kong’s right eye indicates that he is looking at Ann (2:54:2-2:54:30). Although the audience sees Kong looking at Ann, the audience is looking more from her point of view than from his. Finally, between Kong’s death and Jack’s arrival, Ann is alone and the audience has no male protagonist with whom they can identify (2:54:44-2:55:24); instead, she is the focus. These scenes strengthen the audience’s identification not with a male protagonist but with the heroine. While Mulvey’s model still undoubtedly plays a role in King Kong and other films, it is limited in its ability to explain all elements of audience identification and character sexuality.
King Kong, then, begins with the conventional depiction of an othered location and people, as discussed in Chinua Achebe’s “An Image of Africa,” and establishes typical relationships of gazing between a male protagonist and a female object of visual pleasure, as discussed in Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” As the film progresses, however, the techniques Mulvey describes are used to destroy the separation between audience and other despite the clear differences Achebe notes, shattering the category of other within the film’s context. Further, Ann’s role and the portrayal of her gazing at Kong also challenges Mulvey’s model’s efficacy in explaining the relationship dynamics between characters. Achebe’s othering and Mulvey’s objectification certainly operate in this film and in others, but the narrative, editorial, and directorial choices in King Kong encourage audience identification with a human man, a human woman, and a male gorilla. Perhaps this plural identification will persist in other forms of narrative cinema and print literature, and perhaps it will move outside of fiction, through the audience’s continued plural identifications in their daily lives.

Works Cited

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.

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