“No one cry when Jaws die,” Dino says, his voice rising in passion as he develops his theme. “But when the monkey die, people gonna cry. Intellectuals gonna love Konk; even film buffs who love the first Konk gonna love ours. Why? Because I no give them crap. I no spend two, three million to do quick business. I spend 24 million on my Konk. I give them quality. I got here a great love story, a great adventure. And she rated PG. For everybody.”
Stomping all over your shit this December is noted hobbit-wrangler Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, set in the time period of the 1933 original. But how will it compare, artistically and politically, to the last major remake — the King Kong of our bicentennial year, 1976, set in contemporary New York? Derided as the campy failure of producer Dino De Laurentiis, the disco Kong now looks like a mirror of the folly of the modern metropolis where he rampages. That, as 43 documentaries about punk have told you, was the New York of the 1970’s: like the great ape, violent and out of control, and, like the film, a disaster of mismanagement, a costly wreck.
So what will Peter Jackson’s Gotham be like? The question again recalls his 1976 predecessor and its striking new star: Kong’s new roost was the recently completed World Trade Center, replacing the Empire State Building. But in embracing the 1930s, Jackson’s beloved escapism sidesteps the potential of our messier post-WTC New York, with its frankly weird landscape of post-traumatic, crime-free luxury, repeatedly under the disfiguring knife of developers catering to one end of the ever-widening income divide.
Not that King Kong need be a spokesmonkey for our political moment, but remakes are undeniably fun control experiments for observing the political terrain. Using the screenwriter of The Parallax View, De Laurentiis got his topical nod to the energy crisis: an oil exec looking for black gold finds Kong instead. But that’s overshadowed by a contorted reply to feminism and a less-than-indifferent return to colonialism. Jessica Lange’s Zodiac-dippy ingénue encounters Kong after surviving a yacht-wreck because — no kidding — she refused to watch Deep Throat below deck with her producer.
And the natives? Still up to their human sacrifices, and still willing to trade six maidens for one luscious white woman. But the most relevant image is the grotesquely phallic redwood-size black bolt that secures the gate to King Kong’s half of the island. The natives even lubricate it with buckets of oil. The thingie binds up the sexual-racial menace of Kong’s human handlers with Kong’s far more insidiously than the original.
That stench of colonialism can’t help but cling to Jackson with this story, and his 30s nostalgia is dubious cover. In a way, the new Kong is just another in a series of cynically defanged remakes like The Stepford Wives. But something interesting can always peek through: witness how the ’76 oil exec-turned-showman echoed the trend of conglomerates like Gulf + Western gobbling showbiz entities. And given Jackson’s imagination there’s hope for a remythification as eloquent as urban reality, à la Tim Burton’s Batman.
But we’ll first see a lot of “Return of the King” headlines feting Jackson, the latest larger-than-life showman after Merian Cooper and De Laurentiis. And for the powerful director, whose plans for King Kong originally fell through before The Lord of the Rings made him rich as Croesus, one evergreen message of Hollywood definitely comes across: money talks.