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.


Walk the Line

Most of us don’t see a line until we’re buried under it.
The new biopic Walk the Line documents the life of musical legend Johnny Cash. Essentially a story of salvation and the power of love, it is also a survivor’s manual for would-be rock-and-roll gods, and it’s difficult not to think of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love’s tumultuous marriage and how the line rolled right over the spokesperson for Generation X.
When people of my generation were cynical about music, we still accepted Johnny Cash’s authenticity. The man in black had burrowed into himself and come back with dark diamonds, valuable because of their flaws rather than despite them. Bands such as the Meat Puppets covered “Ring of Fire” not only because it was a kick-ass song, but because it seemed to cut into the raw nerve of rock and roll to show the twitching live spirit within. 
Sneering his way through songs about salvation and love, Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) is a contradiction in terms. Battling his demons on the stage as well as off of it, he helped create the clichés we live and die by today.
Growing up poor white trash on a cotton farm in the middle of nowhere USA in the 1940s and ’50s, Cash marries too young and seems torn by the decision. Seeking creative freedom beyond what he can truly imagine, the twenty-something Cash is that type of fifties organized man we’re all familiar with, dividing his time between an ever-expanding family and parental responsibilities and a desire to break free to who knows what?
Life is a prison for Cash and he’s chained to his domesticating wife Vivian through his children, forced to go door-to-door to try to sell appliances while nurturing dreams of fame in secret. Cash is an utter failure as a working stiff and sees any possibility of escape evaporate when his father-in-law’s offer of a job begins to look like his last best option. In desperation he pushes his way into a recording studio where he and two mechanic / musician friends try to woo a record executive with gospels songs.
The executive listens without much patience, then tells the band he’s not interested in cookie-cutter gospel, that the times they are a changing, and what sells now is rock and roll, music that’s raw and honest. Cash makes the decision on the spot to play “Folsom Prison Blues,” a song written while he was in the Army serving overseas that serves as much as a metaphor for the frustrations of organized man as a story of prison blues. 
From there it’s a swift kick up the charts, where Cash shares the spotlight with the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and – of course – June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). Cash is unexpectedly torn between life with true rebels (madmen like Presley, who introduces him to a colorful array of prescription pills on the other side of the line), authentic love with fellow musician June, and his societal obligations to his family.
Trying to assimilate all these elements leaves him feeling fragmented and broken. On the stage he and June flirt and Cash is able to channel some inner spirit of rebellion, but off stage his marriage falls apart and his drug-fueled mania ultimately leads to depression and addiction. When the dust finally settles the only thing he can still count on is his love for June and the music, but she refuses to be drawn into a man so unstable. 
Cash the star, in some sense, a counterfeit Cash, something constructed in pop culture’s imagination, and celebrity feeds this beast inside him. Like Cobain, the battle for authenticity is as much a war against fan worship and media saturation as a battle to rediscover the potential of music. For Cobain, as for Cash, the real search is for is way to speak that closes the gap between what is true and what is said.   
What saves Cash, according to the film, is a combination of love, nerve and luck. Stumbling across the house of his dreams after a night of heavy drug use, Cash seems to understand that his chances are dwindling. It’s only by accepting June’s friendship – which she offers unconditionally, challenging him to get beyond his demons – that Cash is able to walk a thin and narrow line to sobriety, stability and salvation.   
Walk the Line only provides us with a small glimpse of Cash’s life, but uncanny and excellent acting allows viewers to get lost in what might be one of the sweetest American love stories. Perhaps the reason the man in black is so appealing to younger generations is that he symbolizes how the lost and disaffected can find salvation through authenticity.
Cash tamed the beast inside him by revealing it to us as what it was on the stage, right before us. His swan dive was a public performance – as was Elvis’ and Jim Morrison’s and Cobain’s – but somehow he found something pure in the wreckage of his life, and rose where the others fell.
On the other side of self-destruction he became a true legend; a man who didn’t flinch.

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