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THE MOVING PICTURE SHIP
PAUL ANTHONY JOHNSON
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
TABLE OF CONTENTS
L IS T O F F IG U R E S .................................................................................................. iii
ABSTRACT ............... ........................................ iv
1 IN TR O D U C TIO N ......................................................................... .... .. ........
2 KONG ON TOP OF THE WORLD....................................................................... 4
3 K O N G TH E M IR A G E ................................................................... ...................... 7
4 K O N G H O L D S A N N ......................................................................... ...................14
5 KON G LOOK S IN .................. ....................................................... 17
6 K O N G O N D ISPL A Y ........................................................................... ............. 2 1
7 AN N EXPO SED .................. ........................................................ 25
8 KON G VERSU S THE DINOSAUR ..................................... ...................................28
9 SK U L L ISL A N D ............................................................................... ....... .3 1
10 A N N 'S SC R E E N T E ST ...................................................................... ..................35
11 M ANH ATTAN ISLAND ............................................................. ..................38
L IST O F R E FE R E N C E S ............................................................................. .............. 42
B IO G R A PH IC A L SK E T C H ...................................................................... ..................45
LIST OF FIGURES
2-1. Kong stands atop the Empire State Building..................................................4
3-1. K ong seen from a distance................................................................. .....................7
4-1. K ong holds A nn over N ew Y ork ........................................... ............................... 14
5-1. Kong finds Ann ................................................ ............... 17
6-1. K ong m akes his debut ........................................................................ .................. 2 1
7-1. A nn looks up at K ong ........................................................................... .............25
8-1. K ong fights a Tyrannosaurus Rex ........................................ ......................... 28
9-1. Skull Island is spotted.............................................. ........ ......... 31
10-1. A nn does a screen test ....................... .. .... ................ ... ...... .. ........... 35
11-1. The Venture leaves N ew Y ork................................................................... 38
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
THE MOVING PICTURE SHIP
Paul Anthony Johnson
Chair: Robert B. Ray
Major Department: English
In the essay that follows, I use King Kong to examine some foundational issues in
the history of film and film studies. Kong's canonical status makes it an important film
for understanding how Hollywood functioned and why we find its aesthetic practices so
appealing. King Kong is one of only a few dozen movies from the Classical Hollywood
era that continues to resonate with contemporary pop culture. Kong can also help us
understand how Hollywood functioned.
This paper is structured around ten evocative images from King Kong. The
structure relates to the way King Kong works: less as whole and more as a collection of
several powerful, dynamic moments. The images are used as a method to confront the
value of Kong directly. Contemporary academic writing on film typically traffics in
moral and political ideas, rather than in the sensations of the film going experience. This
thesis is interested less in King Kong's ideas than its aesthetic force. The images are
intended to anchor the writing to the cinematic experience of Kong as a means of
confronting the problem of aesthetics. Each picture from King Kong inspires a short
divagation that says something about what's uniquely powerful about the movies,
particularly Hollywood movies. Each divagation tries to examine fundamental issues
about the aesthetics of the cinematic experience, thereby raising the stakes of film
Everyone knows all about King Kong, even without seeing it. The film has
achieved an instant cultural currency through the single image of a giant gorilla perched
atop the Empire State Building, holding a pretty, screaming blonde. The afterlife of
Classical Hollywood Cinema usually occurs like this: a single image, a stray line of
dialogue, an actor's peculiar mannerisms, a melody, a glance, a gesture, a single shaft of
light. In the disconnected bits of cinematic detritus that litter contemporary popular
culture, Classical Hollywood Cinema survives the way most history survives in the post-
modern era as flotsam half glimpsed and half understood amidst the cacophony of
mediated experiences. The persistence of King Kong within the faltering cultural
underlining instead of boldfacing. You must be consistent with your subheading format.
Therefore if you choose boldfacing for your first-level subheadings, you must boldface
memory signals something unusual about the way canonical images work.
Understanding Kong means understanding something vital about the movies.
In the observations that follow, I want to use King Kong to examine some
foundational issues in the history of film and film studies. I admit that this essay
originated less from the desire to answer specific research questions about film history in
general or Kong in particular, and more from simply the desire to write about King Kong,
a film I find immensely pleasurable. I will own up the accusation that much of what
follows has an essentialist character in terms of seeking to understand what is
essentially "cinematic" about the movies. Kong's canonical status makes it an important
film for understanding the relationship between Hollywood and history. King Kong is
one of only a few dozen movies from the Classical Hollywood era that continues to
resonate with contemporary pop culture. Kong, while striking me as exceptional in many
important ways, can also be used to understand how Hollywood functioned more
generally. King Kong represents Hollywood filmmaking at its most powerfully mythic.
I have structured this paper around ten evocative images connected to King Kong.
Each image was selected in part for its ability to inspire the act of writing. I also want to
use the images as a method to confront the value of Kong directly, and as a way to
eschew the usual hermeneutic travails that count as criticism in the modem Academy.
Contemporary academic writing on film typically traffics in moral and political ideas,
rather than in the sensations of the film going experience. I am interested less in King
Kong's ideas than its aesthetic force. The images are intended to anchor the writing to
the cinematic experience of Kong as a means of confronting the problem of aesthetics.
Moral and political decisions help determine aesthetic judgment, and scholarship based in
aesthetic considerations must consider those dimensions. But the specific problem of
value involves something else, a surplus left over after the conventional work of
hermeneutics is over. In S/Z, Barthes confronted the problem of aesthetic value when he
How then posit the value of a text? ... The primary
evaluation of all texts can come neither from science, for
science does not evaluate, nor from ideology, for the
ideological value of a text (moral, aesthetic, political,
alethiological) is a value of representation, not of
production (ideology "reflects," it does not do work). Our
evaluation can be linked only to a practice, and this practice
is that of writing. (4)
In my case, each picture from King Kong is meant to inspire a practice of writing
that says something about what's uniquely powerful about the movies, particularly
Hollywood movies. I want to propose asking the fundamental questions about the
movies, the "essential" questions, thereby raising the stakes of film criticism.
KONG ON TOP OF THE WORLD
Figure 2-1. Kong stands atop the Empire State Building. (Source:
l_1/King Kong_(1933).html Last accessed April 1, 2005.)
Andrew Sarris once observed that Kong doesn't really get good until the last fifteen
minutes, and doesn't get great until the last five, specifically once Kong gets atop the
Empire State Building (Sarris, You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet 97). I don't entirely agree,
but Sarris's observation points out that Kong works best in fleeting moments, not simply
at the end, but intermittently throughout the film. The movie derives its appeal from just
a few primal images. The least effective moments of Kong are acceptable because they
motivate moments of wonder.
Kong's aesthetic strategy evokes that of Chris Van Allsburg's The Mysteries of
Harris Burdick, a book that consists of a series of mysterious images, accompanied only
by titles and brief pieces of text. The book begins with a preface that creates a
fictional context for the illustrations: each image comes from a story by a man named
Harris Burdick, who delivered the images to an editor, then disappeared. Each image
inspires the mystery of the possible stories they once illustrated. Kong seems
aesthetically motivated by a half dozen or so such images: a "moving picture ship"
docked in a fog shrouded harbor; a woman staring directly into the camera and then
staring into the off-screen distance while screaming hysterically; a small island
dominated by a huge mountain shaped like a skull; a giant gorilla fighting a
Tyrannosaurus Rex; and of course, the climatic image of a girl in the hands of a giant
gorilla atop the Empire State Building.
Some of KingKong's cryptic images began life as sketches conceived by Willis
O'Brien. Merian C. Cooper recalled asking O'Brien to develop a series of sketches
inspired by nothing but the idea of a giant gorilla. According to Cooper, O'Brien
returned with the following:
The very first sketch showed King Kong on top of the Empire State Building,
clutching the girl in his hand and being machine-gunned by the planes. The second
showed Kong in the jungle, shaking the tee-trunk in order to throw off the sailors.
Then in the third, Kong was beating his breast and defying the sun, with the girl at
his feet. There were twelve sketches in all. During shooting, eleven of them were
meticulously reproduced in live action sequences (cited by Ollier, 187).
King Kong's mysterious images posed the same problem as Harris Burdick's: how
do you turn these images into a story? Fortunately, Hollywood had invented a method for
solving Burdick mysteries: the continuity system. The continuity system functions like
this: the filmmaker shoots a scene in one place at one time, and he edits it together with
another image, shot in a different space at a different time. The result produces an
apparent continuity between times and places. Conceptually, the continuity systems
resembles the common avant-garde practice of juxtaposing images from wildly disparate
contexts in order to produce a new, mysterious, and often jarring effect. Hollywood
struggled to avoid the jarring part.
King Kong seems different. Whereas most Classical Hollywood filmmaking strove
to obscure the fact there had ever been a mystery in the first place, King Kong leaves the
artifice strangely apparent. In Derridean terms, we can spot the trace of the trace.
Cooper's story suggests that Kong derives from a single image of a gorilla atop a
skyscraper. The problem of film narration often comes down to a single problem: how to
motivate particular images. The problem of Kong was how to motivate the creation of
that climatic image. Some filmmakers resolve the problem by simply making sure the
actors are interesting: hence the importance of stars. But Kong is not motivated by stars,
and the actors, with the possible exception of Fay Wray, are not all that interesting. As
any writer knows, one way out of a writing block is to make the work of writing itself the
subject of the writing, and the self-referential quality that often characterizes the dialogue
in King Kong seems born out of that kind of impasse. How do you make a movie about a
giant gorilla? By making a movie about filmmakers trying to figure out how to make a
movie about a giant gorilla.
KONG THE MIRAGE
Figure 3-1. Kong seen from a distance. (Source: http://www.16-9.dk/2004-
09/side05/02.jpg Last accessed April 1, 2005)
Roland Barthes described a phenomenon that happens in language when it becomes
sumptuous and musical. Language retains meaning, but meaning becomes a backdrop.
He called it "the rustle of language." Like the rustle of language, this image of Kong
climbing the Empire State Building places meaning "in the distance, like a mirage"
(Barthes, The Rustle ofLanguage 78).
Cooper's and Schoedsack's intent in composing the shot seems clear. Kong and
the Empire State Building comment on one another, as the symbol of the New World's
hubris and modernity dwarfs the Old World's God. The shot exemplifies the film's
pretentiousness, which isn't, however, offensive in the manner of a late George Stevens
film. Perhaps the audacity of the conceit backs up the ideas, or perhaps the sheer
strangeness of the shot makes the ideas irrelevant. King Kong isn't interesting because of
its ideas, but its ideas enable the production of certain kinds of images. Hollywood is not
usually good at analyzing concepts, but it is good at communicating the sensation of
them. Traditionally, the problem with film criticism is its focus on ideas, when what
really matter are sensations. Approaches to film that lump the movies with the traditional
arts become insensitive to the sensation of cinema. The history of film studies illustrates
Film studies became an accepted discipline in Anglo-American academic circles at
the same time that cinema began to look like literature. Art house directors like
Bergman and Fellini, Andrew Sarris's The American Cinema, and Robin Wood's
pioneering monographs on Hitchcock, Hawks, and Bergman all made film history look
like literary history. Film history was the story of exceptional men producing profound
works of art. Wood's Hitchcock's Films was especially symptomatic, filled with
comparisons to Shakespeare and Mozart that enabled him to place Hitchcock in the
pantheon of history's great artists. While Mozart and Shakespeare do occasionally
illuminate Hitchcock, they also obscure him. Thus, Wood's approach always seemed
somewhat ashamed of actually talking about movies.
The movies have only a tenuous relationship with what has traditionally been
thought of as "art." Robert Warshow observed that if film is to be accepted as an art, "it
will be a changed house-hold of art that receives it" (Warshow, The Immediate
Experience xli). Robin Wood's approach, for all that's interesting and even inspiring
about it, seems fundamentally unsound because he fails to take stock of the change
Warshow perceived. Caliban and Kong may be cousins, but relations are strained.
Formalist aesthetics traditionally defines greatness in terms of completeness, a
sense of a perfect whole in which everything hangs together. But Kong consists of a
series of privileged moments perfunctorily strung together from fairy tale cliches and
colonialist fantasies. The narrative invites comparison with the stories of The Brothers
Grimm and The Arabian Nights, as well as the writings of Doyle, Haggard, and Melville,
but any comparisons make it clear that King Kong is ersatz art.
In Tracking King Kong, Cynthia Erb connects Kong's pastiche quality to Umberto
Eco's famous essay on Casablanca. What Eco wrote about Casablanca seems even truer
about King Kong "we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and
celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the
height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to
catch a glimpse of the sublime. Something has spoken in place of the director. If nothing
else, it is a phenomenon worthy of awe" (264). King Kong represents Hollywood at its
most mercenary, pillaging from Robert Flaherty, Arthur Conan Doyle, Trader Horn, and
the Universal Studios horror film cycle. Everything's second-or-third-hand, and the
movie as a whole borders on kitsch.
Kitsch was a concept dear to the heart of Clement Greenberg, who used it to attack
the art community for over half a decade. Applying the concept of kitsch to Hollywood
is always problematic, at least in Greenbergian terms. Greenberg understood kitsch
precisely in terms of ersatz art, as attempted art created by people who didn't understand
the tradition they were working in or the medium they worked through. In Hollywood,
nearly everything was ersatz, and often the result was a movie like King Kong, where
authenticity was besides the point. The kitsch sensibilities that degrade high art often
proved essential to making movies.
Cooper's account of Kong's production history suggests that everything leading up
to the climatic image is gratuitous, in the way kitsch usually is. In fact, Kong consists of
a series of gratuitous gestures, indicative of the tendency Salvador Dali called "concrete
irrationality, that delirious, pessimistic aspiration towards gratuitousness" (65). Why
should something so gratuitous seem not only pleasurable, but essential? Oscar Wilde
insisted that art was worthless, that, in effect, all artistic expression amounted to
gratuitous gestures. Film critics like Robin Wood, however, represent the humanist
tradition that insists on a moral, utilitarian purpose to art. Thus, part of his confusion
about the movies was the difficulty of connecting the pleasures of Hollywood to any
useful end. For the humanists, art wasn't superfluous, but pop culture was. The
Surrealists indicated a third way, by which the very gratuitousness of the movies proved
their importance as moral and political examples. The humanist tradition in criticism
sought a kind of art that pointed history in the right direction. Breton valued film
precisely because of "its power to disorient." By Breton's measure, Kong is one of the
most "valuable" films ever made.
Kong is profoundly disorienting partly because it is stuck between three
filmmaking traditions classicism, naturalism, and modernism. In The Material Ghost,
Giberto Perez suggests that the history of cinema can be understood by tracing the
influence of these three conventions of representation. Hollywood cinema was, as Bazin
famously said, a classical art. But as Bazin had also argued, in "The Myth of Total
Cinema," film emerged from the naturalistic traditions of the late 19th century. Even
Hollywood classicism, with its love of artifice and convention, betrays the residual
influence of the naturalist inclination by relying heavily on the star system, which
depends on audiences being interested on the physical presence of real people. In King
Kong, the influence was more than residual. King Kong was promoted heavily as the
film of two documentary filmmakers, and the audience was familiar with the film's
generic connections to shot-on-location jungle spectacles of the era (Erb 34). The
promotion campaign connected Kong to the excitement of nature documentaries. Yet, the
central character, King Kong, makes the movie completely unnaturalistic, and by making
Kong such an awesome spectacle that he overwhelms narrative conventions, the film
violated classical norms. Like modernist art, Kong makes the audience aware of the
means of medium itself, an effect common to the science-fiction and horror film, and
probably one making them marginal genres during the classical Hollywood period.
King Kong's relative amorality also marks its modernity. The film counts on
audiences getting a thrill out of seeing African villagers, and then New York denizens,
being stomped and crushed by King Kong. Carl Denham, the human most responsible
for Kong's rampage, never gets his comeuppance, nor does the film ever really make him
out to be a heavy. But the most relevant point from a modernist perspective is that the
problem of means in Kong was not about finding the means to represent nature, or the
truth, but to achieve the climatic image. In other words, the problem of means in Kong
was how do you represent a dream?
In Hollywood, the means for representing the impossible came by mixing the
conventions of classicism, naturalism, and modernism. Thus, as an accidental expression
of Surrealist aesthetics, Kong differs greatly from the avant-garde films produced by the
Surrealists themselves, like Man Ray and Salvador Dali, in which the naturalistic
conventions of filmmaking were ruthlessly sabotaged and classical conventions didn't
exist. Giberto Perez argues that post-modernism is an American phenomenon, and
constitutes in part an American reaction against the elitism of the modernist avant-garde
theories (277). By embracing, without guilt or affectation, the spectacular and the
conventional in a single instance, American post-modernism gave popular expression to
modernist energies. Postmodernism is usually dated as a phenomenon that began in the
1960s, but King Kong, and to some extent Hollywood as a whole, is one of the precursors
of a postmodern sensibility.
While many modernist artists themselves remained committed to political and
ethical ends (particularly Surrealists), the critics who developed modernist aesthetics,
such as Walter Pater, Oscar Wilde and Clement Greenberg, considered questions of
ethical value more or less irrelevant to questions of aesthetic value. Art no longer needed
to express the moral good in order to be considered successful. Modernist criticism thus
established the conditions for a post-humanist approach to aesthetics. It is not
coincidental that these theories emerge after photography. Just as photography freed art
from needing to represent reality, it also freed criticism from believing that beauty must
coincide with moral truth. Photography thus made possible the intellectual conditions
that would enable it to enter what Robert Warshow would call the "changed household of
art," because, as Susan Sontag noted in On Photography, photographs don't possess an
intrinsic moral value. Photographs are absolutely amoral, and they make clear that the act
of representing reality doesn't need to have an intrinsically moral purpose. By viscerally
demonstrating that the beautiful can lie, photography freed art from moral constraints.
David Thomson has complained that film is basically a shallow art form, and while
I don't entirely agree, it's certainly true King Kong is a shallow film. Yet, it's surely art,
in part because the movies have created the conditions that allow art to be shallow and
frivolous. All a movie needs to achieve greatness is a few fleeting shadows of the
spectacular, the mysterious, and the sublime.
King Kong, like many films, is shallow in as much as it is not intellectually or
morally meaningful in a direct way, as the classical conception of great art demands. But
the aesthetic effect of Kong's imagery is meaningful. Like the rustle of language, the
images of Kong, such as the wavering, hallucinatory quality of a giant gorilla seen from a
distance climbing a skyscraper, have the effect of producing the experience of utopia.
There is also a rustle of images.
KONG HOLDS ANN
Figure 4-1. Kong holds Ann over New York. (Source:
http://www.shillpages.com/faywray/wrayfq06.jpg, Last accessed April 1,
Imagine for a moment that the above still was all that existed of King Kong. In
"The Art of Not Seeing Movies," Andre Bazin claimed that a single still is usually
enough to decide if a movie is worth seeing or not. A single still usually communicates
the quality of the filmmakers' imagination, taste, intelligence, and skill. A single still
communicates much of what makes King Kong exciting the juxtapositions between the
possible and impossible, the absurd clashes in scale, and the moments of perverse
sexuality. The single still above explains why King Kong is more interesting than The
Lost World, Son of Kong, or Mighty Joe Young. Any given still from King Kong should
tell us everything we need to know about the movie.
Kong's rampage through New York harks back to an earlier film O'Brien worked
on, The Lost World, which climaxes with a rampage by a Brontosaurus through the
streets of London. The Brontosaurus eventually dies when London Bridge collapses
under its weight, plunging the dinosaur into the Thames. The image from The Lost
World lacks the powerful iconicity of King Kong's final sequence, partly because a
Brontosaurus on a bridge isn't as graphically dynamic as a gorilla atop a skyscraper, but
more importantly because there's no girl in the sequence. Carl Denham was right; the
public must have a pretty face.
In his review of The Quatermass Experiment, Frangois Truffaut observed that in a
scene where a woman "runs off yelling, we don't feel sorry for her because she isn't
pretty" (Dixon 79). Robert Ray has noted that however rude Truffaut's comment may be,
it communicates something vitally true about the way the movies must function. Movies
should, above all, show us something interesting. That's an obvious enough statement I
suppose, but it gets directly at what counts as cinematic. For all sorts of technical
reasons, Charlie Chaplin's movies have long been understood to be "uncinematic," yet at
their best, Chaplin's movies are genuinely great movies, not because they work in spite of
Chaplin's lack of understanding about cinema, but because Chaplin himself, as a body
and person, was cinematic. The quality of movies isn't entirely defined by how the
spectacle is staged, but also by the content of the spectacle itself. In the movies, the most
important stylistic choice will almost always be the literal content of the frame.
The Impressionist theory of Photoginie suggested that certain physical forms were
more cinematic than others. The cinematic moments worth fetishizing expressed the
hallucinatory power of certain kinds of objects. In his famous essay, "The Face of
Garbo," Roland Barthes demonstrated how fetishism could become a proper means of
criticism. Barthes wrote that "the face of Garbo is an Idea" (Mythologies, 591). I would
add that her face was specifically an idea about cinema, given perfect expression. Garbo
expresses the intense appeal of a human presence that wavers between the ethereal and
King Kong represents the expression of yet another idea of cinema. King Kong
plays with the juxtaposition between the naturalistic presence of the flesh (Fay Wray) and
the fantastic presence of the magical (King Kong). Individually, neither Kong nor Fay
Wray are as fascinating as when they are together. Together, King Kong and Fay Wray
express a radical kind of amourfou, between shadow and substance, magic and reality,
and the dreamer and the dream.
KONG LOOKS IN
Figure 5-1. Kong finds Ann. (Source:
http://www.shillpages.com/faywray/wrayfp94.jpg, Last accessed April 1,
When we watch Bruce Cabot and Fay Wray sitting on a bed, we can say that was
what Cabot and Wray looked like, sitting on a bed in a movie set in 1933. But what
about Kong peering into reality from the outside? Yes, that was what a posed model
looked like for a split second in 1933. Yet, Kong isn't interesting as a testament to a real
model that existed in reality in 1933. He's interesting as a being that never actually
existed King Kong, the Eighth Wonder of the World. Movie Stars can be interesting
both for themselves and for the characters they portray. But "movie stars" like Mickey
Mouse, Bugs Bunny, or King Kong can only be interesting in their immediate presence
within the movies themselves, because they have no literal being outside of their moment
of representation within the medium. The appeal of movies stars is ontologically based;
for cartoon characters, the appeal is tautological.
Animation radically complicates the realist conception of film. One way to solve
the problem of animation would be to consider film and animation two different
mediums. But since CGI technology erases the visible distinction between live action
and animation, animation can't be cleaved from film history. King Kong fuses live-action
filmmaking to animation techniques in a manner that prefigures current film practice.
Of course, animation can easily be assimilated into the mainstream of film history
as long as it's understood to represent a kind of editing practice. And the classical
distinction between editing and mise-en-scene itself refers back to the origins of film, and
the divergent historical paths laid out by Pierre and Auguste Lumiere and George Melies.
By taking the possibilities of camera trickery circa 1933 about as far as they would go,
King Kong represents the apotheosis of the Melies tradition. Godard noted that the
Lumiere Brothers represent documentary while Melies represented fiction. KingKong
emerges as much from the documentary tradition as those of animation and abstract
filmmaking. By bringing together Schoedsack and Cooper (who began as documentary
filmmakers) on the one hand and Willis O'Brien on the other, King Kong represents a
collaborative effort between the heirs of Lumiere and Melies. King Kong demonstrates
what these two traditions say about one another.
Live-action filmmaking and animation longed for each other from the beginning.
Animation, beginning with Disney's work, sought the technological means to make
cartoons behave like typical Hollywood movies. Animation did not need to be mimetic,
as the work of Oskar Fischinger demonstrates. With Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,
however, mimesis became animation's destiny, a historical trajectory culminating with
computer animated works like Final Fantasy that seemingly model themselves after the
appearance of live-action photography. Animation increasing seems to strive towards the
impression of reality that the Lumiere brothers achieved in 1895.
Filmmakers in the live-action tradition often grasped for animation's freedom from
mimesis. Melies was the first filmmaker who rejected filmmaking's mimetic capabilities.
He wanted to find a way to make movies out of dreams, rather than reality. Later,
Eisenstein sought the same thing. He used montage to represent his dreams of violence
and political revolution. Editing became filmmakers' tool for getting around the mimetic
conditions of photography. CGI has greatly amplified the movies' ability to deform
reality. The ontological conditions of photography are increasingly an optional
component of the cinematic apparatus.
King Kong feels like an intersection point of these two criss-crossing traditions.
Kong used stop motion animation, which was usually directly mimetic. Kong's
interactions with the real world aren't seamless. His movements betray the conditions of
his production. The bristling fur testifies to the hands of O'Brien and his assistants.
What's more, Kong is not fully integrated into the photographic image. When Kong
stares through the window, looking at Fay Wray and Bruce Cabot, he appears pasted into
the frame. Kong often looks like a movie image projected into the movie. The multi-
plane process used for the movie, a precursor of the blue screen process, amounts to
doing just that. The effect isn't nearly as "clean" as contemporary special effects. King
Kong has to contend with the ontological conditions of photographic reality, and the
relative limitations of film technology in 1933.
Kong often looks like an absurd interpolation into the image, almost like a
Situationist stunt. Although stop-motion moves further in the direction of mimesis than
standard, 2-D animation techniques of the era, the constantly bristling hairs and the
herky-jerky quality of Kong's movements make him strange and unreal. But Kong's
apparent technical limitations are inseparable from the appeal of much of Kong's
imagery. If Kong's face at Fay Wray's window looked as if it belonged there, it wouldn't
be as interesting. The images in Kong appear estranged from one another, the way we
often feel estranged from reality when we are suddenly awakened from a dream. Dreams
and reality have different textures. CGI often effaces the dreamlike quality of film
imagery because it usually tries to make the fantastic look like a homogeneous element of
reality. Kong's technical limitations preserve a radical heterogeneity between dream and
reality, and between Melies and Lumiere.
KONG ON DISPLAY
CAW, Em .MW
Figure 6-1. Kong makes his debut. (Source:
http://www.affiches.org/schoedsack01eb/caratulasde_erest b schoedsack
Ol.htm, Last accessed March 25, 2005)
Kong's Broadway debut ends in disaster, as the giant ape breaks free of his chains
and destroys the theatre. The film becomes pure spectacle from here on out, as Kong
wrecks havoc in New York City. Immediately before the rampage begins, Denham says
Kong is getting enraged because he thinks the photographers are attacking Ann. But
Denham's explanation doesn't really make sense. Ann is standing away from the
photographers, next to Denham. A lot of the movie doesn't make sense. How do they
transport Kong to New York? Why does Kong constantly change size? Of course, the
nonsense doesn't matter. Good storytelling is only essential when the mise-en-scene is
routine. King Kong's mise-en-scene is phenomenal.
As with The Mysteries ofHarris Burdick, King Kong's hypnotic strangeness comes
from the way the images exceed the confines of narrative determinism. King Kong's
greatness only makes sense if you can develop an aesthetic that privileges intensity and
sensation over subtlety and coherence. King Kong is the ultimate movie-movie, and it is
the ideal specimen for anyone interested in understanding what's essentially cinematic
Unlike the canon developed by Wood and Sarris, King Kong wasn't directed by an
auteur figure. It lacks a strong star, besides Kong himself. Unlike the Western or Film
Noir, Kong belongs to a genre (Fantasy-Horror) traditionally out of favor with the Anglo-
American critical establishment. Yet, KingKong clearly sits squarely in the canon.
Gilbert Adair once called King Kong everyone's 11th favorite movie (221). And it might
be the greatest horror movie of all time. But unlike other contenders for that title, like
Bride ofFrankenstein or Psycho, Kong was directed by two men, Ernest B. Schoedsack
and Merian C. Cooper, whose oeuvre doesn't really have recurring themes and ideas,
except colonialist fantasies derived from Rudyard Kipling and H. Rider Haggard. In
other words, whatever King Kong may be, it's clearly not an intellectual achievement.
Having emerged from English departments, film studies often contented itself with
thematic analysis. But while King Kong doesn't lack for "thematic content," none of it is
intrinsically interesting. Most of the writing on Kong has focused on the way the movie
functions as a colonialist fantasy, but any number of films (The Four Feathers, Trader
Horn, She) traffic in similar ideas, while lacking Kong's cultural currency. One clue:
while on a thematic level, Haggard and Kipling are comparable, on an aesthetic level,
Kipling is infinitely more fascinating than Haggard.
In addition to the thematic school, a formal tradition in film studies has
emphasized the development of cinematic technique, focusing on the industrial and
technological developments that have dictated the course of film history. But dimensions
of cinematic technique may not fully account for a viewer's experience. Noel Carroll and
others have derided any attempt to go seeking after that holy grail of film studies, the
essentialist theory that would define the "cinematic." The issue comes down to a question
of aesthetics, a question of what has worked best in film history and why. The value of
film theories dismissed by cultural studies and formalism lies in the way they have tried
to raise the question of value. Hence, the importance of writers such as Jean Epstein,
Ado Kyrou, Robert Warshow, and Andre Bazin. In the case of King Kong, in particular,
an alternate approach to criticism historically forced the issue of value in a highly
complicated and deeply problematic manner.
At the same time that the Academic tradition of film criticism was developing, an
alternate tradition came to prominence: Camp. Perhaps best deployed by Pauline Kael,
but best described by Susan Sontag in her classic essay "Notes on 'Camp,'" Camp often
prized intensity and sensation above all. Camp originated in the sensibilities of gay
subcultures, but in its popularized form, as epitomized by Pauline Kael (who never
labeled her approach Camp, and would probably have recoiled at the connection, but how
else to describe the sensibility behind "Trash and Art"?), Camp became a weapon used
by upwardly mobile urbanites against high culture's aristocratic demands. Obviously,
academia has made attempts to appropriate forms of Camp for its own purposes (every
perverse reading of a text has some relation to Camp), but academia has generally been
too academic to embrace a genuinely camp sensibility. Whereas Camp "converts the
serious into the frivolous," Academia can't help converting the frivolous into the serious
(Sontag, 276). Yet journalists have appropriated Camp, many under the direct influence
For all the limitations of Camp as a style of interpretation, its attitudes and
preferences get closer to what makes King Kong vital and exciting than auteurist
approaches. In her essay "Notes on Camp," Susan Sontag listed King Kong as one of the
key works in the Camp canon. The Rocky Horror Picture .\lN,i', the cinematic apotheosis
of Camp, directly refers to Kong several times. And Andy Warhol, whose pop aesthetics
represented an expression of and commentary on Camp sensibilities, staged a screening
(in the Empire State Building) of his epic Empire (in which he filmed the Empire State
Building continuously for eight hours) on a double bill with King Kong. While the
auteurist-academic tradition has trouble accounting for the pleasure of Kong, the Camp
tradition practically founds its canon on it.
Yet Camp can also be a trap. The 1976 remake of King Kong seems infused by a
self-consciously Camp attitude towards its predecessor, and the result is a film nearly
everyone regards with disdain. (Although Pauline Kael was a notable exception: she
loved the remake.) While Camp speaks to us powerfully about the pleasure of watching
Kong, it remains mute on another of its effects: awe. Camp suggests the kind of
sensibility necessary to understand why Kong works, but sensibility isn't enough.
Figure 7-1. Ann looks up at Kong. (Source:
http://www.shillpages.com/faywray/wrayfp56.jpg, Last accessed April 1,
In Kong Kong, the camera watches attentively as Fay Wray gets caught in
various states of undress. Clearly, Cooper and Schoedsack understood the exploitive
potential of showing a giant gorilla pulling the clothes off Fay Wray. King Kong gets to
do things no human character could get away with. The scene where Kong undresses
Ann Darrow isn't at all distressing, at least not for me, a male viewer. It's intensely
amusing, for any number of reasons. If a human male character were doing the
undressing, it would be genuinely distressing. Laura Mulvey argued that classical cinema
typically attributes the active, desiring gaze to a film's (human) male protagonist.
Throughout much of Kong, the desiring gaze belongs to King Kong. The fact that the
gaze belongs essentially to an animated cartoon character and a cartoon gorilla at that,
makes watching Fay Wray getting undressed by a sexual aggressor seem innocent.
The sexual energy in Kong makes it of a piece with many pre-Code Hollywood
films. The film's narrative drive depends directly on Fay Wray's sex appeal. King Kong
is superior to its follow-ups, Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young, precisely because of its
eroticism. In Son of Kong and Mighty Joe Young, the gorillas have been neutered; they
appear childlike and sweet. Kong may be noble, but he also seems genuinely dangerous,
and the pre-Code print of the film, in which Kong fondles his captive, leaves no doubt
that his interest in Fay Wray is directly sexual.
In his essay "Marginal Notes on Eroticism in the Cinema," Andre Bazin wrote
that for the cinema, eroticism is "a major, a specific, and even perhaps an essential
[ingredient]" (Bazin, What is Cinema? Vol 2 170). Film scholarship hasn't really found a
way to talk about how important sexuality is in the pleasure of movies. Most analysis of
the importance of eroticism in the appeal of the movies has come from feminist criticism,
which has generally censured it. It is difficult to write approvingly of film's erotic appeal
without degenerating into the kind of sexist platitudes that characterize fanzine writing or
much of Truffaut's early criticism. Film studies has discovered pornography, and the
result has been all kinds of articles examining porn in terms of "intensities" and
Deleuzian concepts. But pornography is not the same as eroticism, a claim that makes
sense in aesthetic terms even if it is hard to defend in precise theoretical terms.
The pleasure of watching Fay Wray being undressed is categorically different
from experiencing an erotic passage in a novel. In King Kong, the flesh we are looking at
really is Fay Wray's flesh, a fact that can be incredibly thrilling. We can get a glimpse of
what her body looked like in 1933. The pleasure derived from that sensation isn't simply
sexual. Eroticism viscerally communicates what is so uncanny about the photographic
image. One can, in 2005, actively desire a body that existed in 1933, a self-evident effect
of the cinema, but an effect that erotic longing makes terribly powerful. The erotic desire
a person has now for Fay Wray directly mirrors King Kong's desire for her; a desire that
is physically impossible and utterly mad.
KONG VERSUS THE DINOSAUR
Figure 8-1. Kong fights a Tyrannosaurus Rex. (Source:
accessed April 1, 2005)
The moment when Ann Darrow watches Kong fight a Tyrannosaurus Rex creates
contrasting layers of reality and surreality. Despite being the work of two documentary
filmmakers, King Kong eschews any sense of naturalism privileging spectacle above
everything. Yet, the movie's power derives from the way the spectacle of the real was
juxtaposed with the spectacle of the impossible, as when Ann watches Kong battle the
The spectacles created by Willis O'Brien constitute cases of montage-en-scene.
Claude Ollier called it "in-depth montage," and likened the effect to watching a character
stand in the frame watching his nightmare being projected onto a screen (192). The use
of traveling mattes and rear projection constitutes a strange instance of deep staging. As
in Renoir's Rules of the Game, the use of deep space enables us to see "characters"
inhabit the same world. Like Rules of the Game, King Kong encourages us to feel awe,
terror, and pity as radically different and mutually uncomprehending worlds appear next
to each other. By staging some of their most incredible spectacles in congruent spaces,
Schoedsack and Cooper exploit the viewer's faith in the photographic image.
King Kong purposefully minimizes cut-aways, which inevitably betray the
artifice. We know, for example, that when Born Free cuts from a lion pouncing to the
reaction shot of a terrified woman, that the person and the tiger never inhabited the same
space. Indeed, one of the technological challenges in film history has been to devise a
means of showing the lion and person in the same shot without hurting anyone. By
meeting this technological challenge, Schoedsack and Cooper preserved the integrity of
the shot, and thus the impression of temporal and spatial continuity between the possible
and the impossible. In other words, King Kong constitutes a step in fulfilling the myth of
In "The Life and Death of Superimposition," Bazin wrote, "What in fact appeals
to the audience about the fantastic in the cinema is its realism I mean, the contradiction
between the irrefutable objectivity of the photographic image and the unbelievable nature
of the events it depicts" (73). By appealing to the experience of an objective reality to
which a photograph testifies, King Kong partially confirms the Bazinian account of
cinema's development. Bazin's argument was always phenomenological. Semiotic
criteria proved inadequate to his ideas (so that Bazinian realism corresponds to the
concept of idexicality) because they downplay the extent to which the appeal of an image
is always in its potential to exceed language, to function as something inhuman. Bazin
wrote very little about "fantastic" cinema partly because he seemed to view it as a
redundancy. Bazin recognized something morbid and paranormal in the way the movies'
automatism worked. Every actor we see walking and talking in King Kong is now dead.
Where film excited the Surrealists because it seemed to be a vision of the future;
for Bazin, part of the interest stemmed from the way film seemed to be a vision of the
afterlife. Descriptions of Bazin's philosophy that describe it as naively idealistic often
elide the degree to which his descriptions of film and photography rely on images of
death. Bazin described film as a death mask, as the shroud of Turin, as time embalmed.
All movies, as long as they represent some form of the natural world, either visually or
aurally, represent the world caught in the act of dying.
Of course, Kong himself, like all animation, is the exception to that rule. Film
catches Kong in the act of being constantly reborn. He only ever existed within the
unfolding of time within the film itself. Kong enters into "being" with the exhibition of
the movie. The film's spectacles juxtapose the living with the dead. Kong and the
Tyrannosaurus Rex are living beings, fighting for primacy in a world populated by
Figure 9-1. Skull Island is spotted. (Source:
http://18.104.22.168/film/dvdcompare/kingkong2/BW1 .JPG, Last viewed
April 1, 2005)
From a distance, one might mistake the giant gates of Skull Island for the gates of
a movie studio. The gates, and even the island, look hallucinatory. The viewer can
project all his desires onto the other side of those gates. As the Surrealists did.
In contending that Kong says something fundamental about the movies, I am
harking back to its privileged position in the Surrealist canon. Like Camp, Surrealism
was intensely interested in the strange incongruities that characterized both Kong and the
cinema itself. King Kong's privileged position in both the Camp and Surrealist traditions
suggests that these two "movements" might have something interesting to say about each
other. At the least, Kong's aesthetic amounts to a kind of passionate vulgarity,
meaningful to the Surrealists and entertaining to Camp audiences.
Surrealism's important position in film history derives from its status as one of
the first intellectual movements to become intensely interested in cinema. For the
Surrealists, film foretells a new kind of human consciousness, and thus the possibility of
a new kind of human reality. Films of the fantastic held a privileged position in the
Surrealist canon precisely because they projected the impossible in terms of the possible.
The Surrealist project was revolutionary, grounded in the radical fervor of the Twenties
and Thirties. Like other political radicals, such as the Bolsheviks and Nazis, the
Surrealists saw film as the ultimate mass communications device, which in the right
hands could mass-produce a new kind of spectator-citizen. Films of the fantastic
enabled the waking and dream worlds to appear together, a vision surrealists hoped the
Revolution would transform into the political practice of the everyday. The gates on
Skull Island were like the threshold to the dreams of the future.
The Surrealists came as close as anyone to explaining King Kong. Jean Ferry
wrote, "what gives this film value...is not at all the work of the producers and directors
(they aimed only at a grandiose fairground attraction), but what flows naturally from the
involuntary liberation of elements in themselves heavy with oneiric power, with
strangeness, and with the horrible" (161). Like Camp audiences, the Surrealists were
struck by Kong's absurdity, ostentation and hyperbole. Yet Surrealist fascination with
Kong covers the gaps left by the Camp readings. Surrealism helps explain why the gates
of Skull Island inspire wonderment.
Unlike Camp, Surrealism amounts to considerably more than sensibility. Sontag
emphasized that Camp was a depoliticized aesthetic. As such it contrasts strongly with
Surrealism, which exists in tandem with the wave of politically revolutionary
intellectually movements of the inter-war era. Surrealist interest in film stemmed from
the perception, common among both right- and left- wing avant-gardes, that the cinema
represented a new kind of art for a new kind of human. Kong's oneiric qualities
suggested a powerful dream logic that could transform the individual's consciousness of
his surroundings. Ferry praised Kong for the ability of the movie's "automata and
trickery" to produce "the feeling of unheimlich, of disquieting strangeness" (164). For
the Surrealists, unheimlich was a sensation inseparable from the "poetic." As Walter
Benjamin observed in "Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,"
the Surrealist project involved promoting the idea of living life "poetically":
... at the time when it broke over its founders as an inspiring dream wave, it seemed
the most integral, conclusive, absolute of movements. Everything with which it
came into contact was integrated. Life only seemed worth living where the
threshold between waking and sleeping was worn away in everyone as by the steps
of multitudinous images flooding back and forth, language only seemed itself
where sound and image, image and sound interpenetrated with automatic precision
and such felicity that no chink was left for the penny-in-the-slot called "meaning."
For the Surrealists, Kong's poetic quality produced the sensation of Utopia.
Surrealism, for all its sophistication, was a movement predicated on what we now
recognize as a kind of political innocence. Surrealism strives to raise the stakes, to make
everything matter. King Kong's powerful mythic sincerity relies on a similar faith that its
myths matter. Camp sensibilities involve finding the passionate intensity of the
meaningless touching. Camp often comes across as nothing more than affable nihilism.
Sontag asserted that "Nothing in nature can be campy," indicating one of the most
violent disjunctions between Camp and Surrealism. Surrealism presumed film revealed
the fundamentally irrational nature of the universe itself. For the Surrealists, reality was
constructed from dreams. Camp hides from reality, often out of fear and intimidation,
while Surrealism tries to transform reality. For the former, Skull Island's gates are
amusing as shallow artifice; for the latter, they imply access to a new world.
ANN'S SCREEN TEST
Figure 10-1. Ann does a screen test. (Source:
http://www.shillpages.com/faywray/wrayfo77.jpg, Last accessed April 1,
During the voyage to Skull Island, Carl Denham wants to take some screen tests of
Ann. The next scene is one of King Kong's aesthetic hot spots. Carl Denham directs
Ann to scream. We see Denham point the camera at us, and then the film cuts to Ann as
she stares directly into the camera. The scene recreates the conditions of filmmaking,
albeit in an absurd context. Cynthia Erb claims that other than the final scene, this scene
is the one most written about (153). It's easy to see why. The scene suggests a multitude
of meanings. From a feminist standpoint, it says something essential about how the
movies portray women, with Carl Denham, the obsessive director, prodding Ann to
scream in terror. Like many parts of the movie, the scene seems to be about moviemaking
Stanley Cavell described King Kong as "an artless confession of film: film-makers
on location discover that a thing of nature is more wondrous than any film; and when
they trap this nature and bring it back, it is displayed crucified" (152). King Kong does
seem strangely Borgesian in the way it often plays like an acting out of its own creation.
To some extent, the movie is an autobiography of its directors.
King Kong is about Cooper and Schoedsack. Both men were adventurers, having
fought with the Polish Army against the invading Bolsheviks in the aftermath of the First
World War. They met each other amidst the chaos of post-War Europe. Schoedsack was
a combat photographer, and chronicles of his misadventures in Eastern Europe involve
stories of the amazing shots he got of the devastation he witnessed. After their
experiences in Europe, Schoedsack teamed with Cooper to make a series of
documentaries. Nanook of the North had an enormous influence on both men. Their first
film, Grass, clearly emerges from the same Romantic aesthetic that had influenced
Flaherty. The key difference, however, is the extent to which the documentary isn't
simply about its subject, Bakhtari tribesman making a long trek across the desert to good
land, but about the ordeal of filming the event. In other words, Schoedsack and Cooper's
innovation upon Flaherty was to make themselves the subject of the documentary.
Hollywood as a whole flirted with the Flaherty aesthetic in the late 20s and early
30s. Woody Van Dyke had the most success with it, having risen to prominence at MGM
by directing Flaherty's aborted project, White /h/,l,,i \ of the S,,ni/h Seas. He had two
big hits in a row, Trader Horn and Tarzan the Ape Man, which again demonstrated the
influence of Flaherty, although by 1931, that influence had been considerably corrupted.
King Kong represents the last gasp of the Flaherty aesthetic in Hollywood filmmaking.
For years to come, many location shots from exotic locales would actually consist of
stock footage recycled from either Van Dyke's films, or Schoedsack's and Cooper's.
Once Hollywood obtained what it desired from Flaherty's way of filmmaking, it
discarded it and exploited the profits.
King Kong may represent the culmination of Flaherty's influence in Hollywood,
but it also represents the ultimate corruption of that influence. The set-up of Kong
suggests one of Schoedsack's and Cooper's own documentaries, but the film eschews any
natural element. Schoedsack and Cooper turned their backs on the spectacles of war and
nature and instead focused on a kind of spectacle only possible in the movies.
Jean-Luc Godard argued that the films of George Melies constitute documentaries
of the dream-life offin-de-siecle Paris. Like the Surrealists, Ernest B. Schoedsack and
Merian C. Cooper had confronted the horrors of the first World War, and over time they
turned their backs on reality in order to investigate the dreamscape of imagination.
Throughout their careers, in films like Son ofKong, Dr. Cyclops, and Mighty Joe Young,
Schoedsack and Cooper would make films that recorded the fantastic, the marvelous, and
the impossible. Schoedsack's and Cooper's oeuvre, like much of Hollywood's,
constitutes a confirmation of the imagination's ability to make sense of the world through
dreams. By moving their attention away from reality and history, and towards artifice,
Schoedsack and Cooper represent the trajectory of film history.
Figure 11-1. The Venture leaves New York.
In Kong, we have to wait over ten minutes before the Venture, "the moving picture
ship," leaves the New Jersey harbor. And we have to have another ten minutes before the
Venture reaches Skull Island. Many critics object to Kong's opening stretch because
that's where we most obviously see its age. Structurally, the opening helps create the
sense that we are slowly descending into a dream, but the opening is also important to
making the film work precisely because we see its age. The scene where Denham goes
out into the New York streets and sees destitute women lining up for shelter anchors the
film in the realities of the Thirties. It also reminds a viewer today that King Kong was
made for an audience looking for distractions from the despair of the Depression.
A recurring theme in the history of film criticism has been the connection between
the cinema's basically lower-class heritage and its aesthetic vitality. For Pauline Kael, the
essentially disreputable origins of film were part of its appeal, and for Noel Burch, the
proletarian heritage of cinema was the ultimate political justification for being a
cinephile. A major part of Kong's appeal lies in its fluency in the pop argot of
Depression-era America. By committing itself so passionately to exploiting the dream-
life of the common man, King Kong may very well tell us something more important
about America in 1933 than John Steinbeck, Walker Evans, or any other New Deal
The look of the opening is important. The hazy, foggy images of the New York
skyline, and the sometimes luminous quality of the images on the deck of the Venture,
look like examples of poetic realism. Parts of the opening resemble Jean Vigo's
L 'Atalante. From the start, the movie looks poetic and dreamlike.
In spite of its virtues, the opening does feel too long. The acting has the creaky lack
of rhythm often associated with early talkies, although Kong was actually made rather too
late (1933) to count as an "early talkie." (Most other films of note from 1933, such as
Duck Soup, Bombshell, I'm No Angel, and Red Dust, suggest Hollywood had adjusted to
sound.) And the actors are either too stiff (Bruce Cabot) or too expressive (Robert
Armstrong and Fay Wray). The movie became a favorite of the Camp crowd precisely
because of the disjunction between the mysterious atmosphere and the awkward
But the opening accomplishes what it has to, particularly in terms of mood and
characterization. The most dynamic character by far is Carl Denham, who is given all of
the best lines. His dialogue is both earnest and arch, a sensibility very much in vogue in
the Thirties. With Denham, Kong expresses the wry, off-hand cynicism of the New York
stage of this era. Carl Denham is of a piece with the kind of sarcastic, streetwise hustler
found in the works of Hecht and Macarthur. The film's sequel, Son ofKong, plays up
this aspect of Denham's persona, with the result that the film resembles a screwball
comedy. King Kong is itself a kind of screwball spectacle, like Bringing Up Baby gone
ape with Kong in the Katherine Hepburn role and Fay Wray in the Cary Grant part.
Like that film, Kong actively embraces chaos and madness over order and reason. By
moving from civilization shown in a state of decline to the adventure and spectacle of
Skull Island, Kong expresses the desire to escape modernity. The movies often catered to
One of Modernism's histories involves the saga of men going primitive, either by
seeking the common tongue of the working class, or the primordial tongue of exotic
cultures. Intellectual interest in the cinema during the first part of the twentieth century
often had the condescending, dilettantish quality of men and women slumming for
authenticity. Many of the movies produced by such men and women, like Jean Epstein
and Germaine Dullac, play like photographed things pretending to be movies rather than
actual movies. Film fascinated the Modernists, but for the most part Modernists did not
make very good films themselves. Claims have been made for various Hollywood auteur
figures as Modernists, from Buster Keaton to Alfred Hitchcock. But a more truthful
history should see Modernism as the shadow image of Hollywood, and vice versa. King
Kong produced the effects many modernists, particularly the Surrealists, were after, but
Modernist films were defined more by affect than effect.
King Kong, in its insanity and complete lack of interest in being art, achieves
precisely the kind of natural spontaneity that many of the modernist avant-gardes sought
to express. Surrealism and Dadaism were reactions against the culture that produced the
War, and a move against the entire tradition of positivism that had motivated Western
culture since the Enlightenment. The Surrealists, and particularly the Dadaists, wanted
to be King Kong, behemoths that would bring civilization smashing down around them.
Greil Marcus wrote of the Dadaists, "All they shared was the conviction that the world
that they were asked to accept was false" (241). Marcus' description of Dadaism
characterizes virtually all avant-gardes to one degree or another. It might also
characterize the viewpoint of the average American facing the Depression in 1933. The
spontaneity of a pop cultural artifact like King Kong demonstrated the method for
expressing the madness of modernity.
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Paul Anthony Johnson is a graduate student enrolled in the English Department's
film studies program at the University of Florida. He was born on August 4th, 1980, in
Jacksonville, Florida. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts in English at the University of
North Florida in the Spring of 2002. After taking a year off from Academic studies, he
enrolled in the University of Florida and began pursuing his MA in the Fall of 2003. He
is interested in Hollywood film and canonicity, and hopes to continue exploring that topic
through the UF English department's PhD program.