King Kong

Kong will save your soul, and not merely in the tawdry biblical sense: I mean that he will put his body between you and the powers that want to squash you like a grape.
If you don’t believe me ask Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts), a depression-era bimbo who faces the onslaught of the capitalist machine. Before Kong she begged on the street, stole, and nearly turned to a life of prostitution. She is Kong’s Mary Magdalene, evidence of both his power and his forgiveness.
King Kong is class warfare masquerading as kitsch, or kitsch with artistic aspirations. Weaving Kong back into the fabric of American history, director Peter Jackson has created an unlikely Grapes of Wrath with what has been often been dismissed as a simple story of bestiality. Reattaching the beast to his historical situation – that is, 1933 social Darwinism manifest in the Great Depression – Jackson constructs a powerful and odd morality tale without detracting in any way from the original King Kong.
In a strange reversal, it’s Ann who becomes the star of King Kong; Ann whose covering shadow eclipses the behemoth, even as she hides behind him; Ann who is the central figure of Jackson’s film.
Ann is “rescued” from the streets by producer Carl Denham (Jack Black) when she’s hired as an actress in his adventure film, but he doesn’t have altruistic intensions. When she boards the Venture – as in Venture Capitalist, in case you don’t get it – she finds herself mainly acting as Denham’s puppet. Always willing to please, she obeys his every wish, secretly hoping that the film’s moody writer Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) will save her.
Ann knows that the film will exploit her, as the system has exploited her, leaving her poor and broken in the end while men like Denham somehow succeed. Denham, however, doesn’t merely want to use Ann: He wants to sacrifice her first to the film, which also coincidently kills four poor men, and later to Kong, who represents pure capital to the producer.
Unfortunately for Denham, Kong don’t play that game. In his world the beast rules absolutely, not by virtue of his value within the complex and arbitrary matrix of capitalism, but because he is strength and goodness incarnate. He is as swift and vengeful as the Old Testament, but he is also just. He does not accept Ann as a sacrifice, isn’t bought off by Denham’s petty bribe, instead transforming her into an object of love.
Ann is ecstatic with the relationship, too. When big lizards try to eat her, Kong destroys them. When she’s scared she hides behind the giant, secure for the first time in her life, happy to have finally found a man big enough to guard her against the brutalities of the world, her one certain thing. Sure, she still dances for the man, but this man won’t abandon her to the not-so-tender mercies of capitalism.
But Driscoll skulks into Kong’s liar and steals Ann, who had fallen asleep literally in the monster’s hand. Incensed, the monster charges after them and directly into a trap, but not before Ann breaks down into tears, not for the 17 men destroyed by Kong, but for the beast itself. Because although Kong is king in his jungle, he’s just another lazy ape in New York City and she knows that his brute power can’t match the march of the capitalist machine.
Back in the steel and concrete jungle, Denham begins the magic trick of turning the real-life mystery that is Kong into hard currency. Cashing in on Kong is as easy as selling tickets to the best crucifixion in the world, and I don’t mean this as an idle reference: Jackson very deliberately evokes the image of Christ on the cross with Kong. In any case, after he breaks free of his shackles Kong rampages through the city, eventually finding Ann (of course), and the two frolic in the autumn mist like lovebirds.
It looks as though Kong still can protect Ann, as though his power has somehow remained intact even away from Skull Island, but he begins to fade when he tries to scale the Empire State Building, the day’s symbol of economic power. Ann steps out in front of Kong as biplanes circle them, trying to protect the big ape, but the beast is already dead.
Denham’s final judgment that “it was beauty that killed the beast” is grandstanding of the worst order, of course, but it’s also an alibi to protect capitalism. No, it wasn’t beauty that killed Kong, it was guns, stupid. Beauty is what kept him alive even within the heart of the machine.


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