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Kong, Fullerton, and the Pursuit of Beauty

By Chet Betz | 27 December 2005

A movie about a giant primate crushing shit is something like my favorite film of 2005.

This is because I’m not counting Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 or Park’s Oldboy as those aren’t technically 2005; and because I admire Cronenberg too much to consider A History of Violence one of his best; because I live in Ohio and can’t in good conscience pretend to have seen Tropical Malady; because Me and You and Everyone We Know is a horrendous abortion of character logic in the name of self-conscious Quirk, the whore of indie comedy; because Batman Begins is a seriously great origin story with a psychological arc that kills American Psycho but has Cillian Murphy’s chill Scarecrow getting tazered by Mrs. Cruise; because War of the Worlds is about as fun/dour as Signs, and Spiel-berg leaves its major thematic through-line unfinished, then goes back to making “important” movies; because Crash is an Oprah Winfrey joint; because the last act of 3-Iron was so good I forgot what happened in the second; because Good Night, and Good Luck’s best supporting actor is Joe McCarthy; because Capote could be a one-man theater show with Hoffman and not lose a thing; because I’m waiting for the right time to take the kids to Brokeback Mountain; because given that Soderbergh = penis, Gaghan has penis envy; and because, as much as I adore Junebug and The Squid and the Whale and will own the hell out of them when they hit DVD shelves, they didn’t feature the thrill of a giant primate crushing shit. Plus, King Kong is more than just a giant primate crushing shit. It’s a giant primate crushing shit in the pursuit of beauty.

CMG readership, hi, check out Film Freak Central —- more specifically the insightful, intelligent reviews of Walter Chaw, and even more specifically his review of King Kong. Chaw is awfully good at the mysterious art of “getting it right.” Excerpt:

“With this film, Jackson has three different characters (including, through a learned gesture, the ape—it’s just as corny as it sounds, but not as unbearable as you might fear) intone the word “beautiful” as though they were happening in its utterance upon the holy incantation of Keats’ ode: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/Ye know on Earth, and all ye need to know.” For these three characters (Jack, Ann, and the CGI ape Kong (modeled on movements performed by Andy Serkis)), at least, they’re playing for the sublime in an unfussy equation—that idea that the only truth is in an ideal of beauty held with white knuckles and teeth and sinew. And, man, is that simplicity, well, beautiful.”

Chaw later mentions Carl Dernham’s use of the word “beauty” in King Kong’s most famous line, and while some may find the line too much, its inclusion is important. Up until the arrival of the shit-crushing giant primate, Dernham is effectively the film’s protagonist, and his motivation to get his film made is what drives the story forward. Film is Carl’s ideal as much as it’s the ideal of Jackson, in this case especially the film King Kong, and Jackson’s remake is in many ways an ode to filmmaking and the filmmaking example of the original. Dernham is such an avatar for Jackson into his own cherished King Kong world that King Kong becomes nearly as self-reflexive as 8 ½, and I’m typing that with nearly a straight face. But throughout the entire Skull Island portion, Jackson and Black subtly shift the dynamic; Kong becomes the undeniable hero of the film and indirectly destroys Dernham’s hard-earned footage.

There’s a brief sequence in the bug pit where the characters each mourn their personal losses at the hands of the beast while Dernham hunches over the ruin of celluloid that was going to affirm his worth as a filmmaker to the entire world. From that point on, Carl’s defeated, and he gives up his dream, submitting to crass opportunism. It’s an archetypal representation of the forfeiture of idealism, the artist left with nothing to accomplish but the satisfaction of commercial demands and a bit of spiteful vengeance against the beauty which would have none of him. It becomes especially interesting to see the twinges of guilt coming through in Peter Jackson’s vision; as Chaw points out: “It’s one driven, obsessed director channeling another: Denham the showman, never failing, as Jack observes, to hurt the things he loves the most just as Jackson, in resurrecting this beloved talisman from childhood on the gaudiest stage $200 million can buy, is doomed to murder him again.”

What separates Jackson from Dernham is that Jackson’s King Kong is a film that still aches for beauty, and its tragedy is beautiful because it is tragedy for the sake of beauty. And what exactly is beautiful? That which is inherently so, by virtue of a revelation of inward grace that could only be a divine gift, and that which is beautiful by virtue of its desire for beauty. What made Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings effective was that it was so close in spirit to Tolkien’s book. In the world of art, there are elves and there are hobbits (quaint of me, I know). Elves are those who have that rare possession of a tap into the transcendental. Cate Blanchett is one hell of an elf; when I met her in person, I realized how little of an aura Jackson had to manufacture for her. She literally glows; PJ need merely point the camera and awe. Keats, Donne, Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Gould, Hollis, these are elves, owning and owned by an inhuman elegance in their craft. Tolkien considered himself a hobbit, a simple creature, but one that could be utterly enraptured with that same divine beauty reflected by elves. It is that passionate response to beauty that results in big, human, flawed, bare-hearted works like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, like Peter Jackson’ Lord of the Rings, like Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Indeed, beauty is truth and truth beauty because it is a summation or a distillation or an explosion of human experience, transcending the mundane. Elves are removed enough to sum and distill. King Kong explodes off the screen.

To disregard real beauty in favor of more appetitive desires (i.e. repeatedly listening to “Laffy Taffy”) is to fatally cripple one’s own development; to indulge one’s self with the menial and ignore offered fragments of God is, as C.S. Lewis might put it, acting the child content to muck about in the mud even while the parent calls for a trip to the beach. By the very surrender to a higher inclination, one steps a few inches off the earth. Since youth I have admired literary or filmic characters that were “noble.” With a couple decades under my belt, I’ve realized that nobility doesn’t come from posing with the right carriage, speaking the right words, thinking the right things. Nobility comes from dedicating one’s self completely to a quest for beauty. Ann Darrow, by providing that ideal of beauty for King Kong, ennobles the brute. This is especially heartening for me, personally, because I know myself to be worse than a beast, the only beautiful quality of my soul being its insatiable desire for that which is beautiful.

Superficially, Robert Rodriguez’ and Frank Miller’s comic-book-cum-film Sin City would seem to offer not one but three King Kong stories, its heavies driven by that one good thing that each has found in a place ruled by filth. The problem with the flick is that its blood is black. It’s an engrossing example of thoroughly realized style and world-making, but at its center rests a heavy lump of indigestible bleakness that makes it kin to Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible. Because Goldie was a one-night affair, it’s tempting to view her as less of an ideal and more of a Helen of Troy, an excuse for Marv to wage a homicidal war. Still, Rourke’s anti-hero is the one that comes closest to Kong. The character of Dwight’s an addled one; he seems to function primarily on some anachronistic notion of chivalry, but in the end he’s reduced to a slave of cool lust, lust for blood and lust for women that kiss like they want to draw blood. The major flaw in Hartigan’s storyline is that he’s unreasonably, impossibly good from the get-go, and so there’s no arc; additionally, Jessica Alba’s abdomen stars as the beauty to his beast.

Peter Jackson had me the moment he cast Naomi Watts as Ann Darrow; the almost too clever promotional photo of Naomi wearing a Velvet Underground & Nico t-shirt (because of that Andy Warhol banana, you know) didn’t hurt, either. The first time Dernham sees Darrow, it is her reflection in the door to a burlesque; though desperate to satisfy basic needs, Darrow walks away from that place, and Dernham follows her. What Peter Jackson understands that Rodriguez and Miller neglect is that, yes, you must first show the degradation, the dark to give contrast to the light, but to adequately show the light you must have a proper conception of its nature and qualities, of how it is that light reveals beauty. Goldie isn’t a character or concept, she’s a sexual encounter, and Jessica Alba is Jessica Alba. Jackson and Watts’ creation of Ann Darrow is something different altogether, and she’s imbued with a sanctity that has an effect on almost every other major character in King Kong. She’s the film’s One Ring, but she’s also the One Ring’s antithesis.

The simple brilliance of the King Kong story, that which elevates its theme over the likes of Beauty and the Beast, is that Kong is nothing more than an animal, but the realization of beauty gives him a soul. It has a deific power. I’m not making that statement with the subtext, “Oh, isn’t that a nice thought?” I firmly believe in it, and it is that worship of the beautiful that draws me to film and literature and music. Now this’ll appear terribly hierarchical of me, and that’ll be because it is terribly hierarchical of me, but I hold the highest order of art as that which has inherent beauty yet is desirous of more, of the Source. For me, the peak of this “beauty yearning for greater beauty” in film is the work of Tarkovsky and is perhaps most stunningly realized in the closing shot of Nostalghia. The same moon-searching-for-sun’s-light quality can be found in the last two albums of Talk Talk (but that’s its own massive Old Favorites piece in the making). And, certainly, various ratios of inherent beauty and desire for beauty exist in any given piece of beautiful art. No album I heard this year had an abundant amount of both, but there were certainly a few that had plenty of one or the other. With all this in mind, I will now use my article as an excuse to further gush over my top five albums of 2005, and I’m sure to keep the relevancy extra tenuous.

File this under “Chet Betz is too predictable.” Apologies to the Queen Mary is indie rock’s King Kong. Like Peter Jackson’s movie, Wolf Parade’s album is simple and far from perfect, but it is also intensely visceral, conventional yet subtly unique, huge yet nuanced, filled with unapologetic poetry and mournful of beauty’s prostitution by society and industry. The album’s lyrics read like a jeremiad for humanity, but they contain a hope not far beneath the surface, like Peter Jackson’s film. That hope: no matter what, we can always grapple for beauty, even if it brings us falling from a great height. As one entity, Wolf Parade is a beast given soul by beauty, and Dernham’s final line could just as easily apply to the band. Plus, like Kong, Wolf Parade crushes shit.

Edan’s Beauty and the Beat is titled Beauty and the Beat, so I don’t really need to draw many connections there, do I? And Scott wrote like ten pages about it already.

The beauty of the DJ Muggs vs. GZA album is its nostalgia, its desire for the beauty of Wu-Tang. Yes, Wu-Tang Clan is beautiful. Their camaraderie, their mission, their sacrifices and courage, their swords and lore… Wu-Tang was the Seven Samurai, the Fellowship of the Ring of rap. So when they started breaking up, and then one of them died, it was all pretty sad. GZA kinda fell off. But I’ve got no qualms with calling GZA Wu-Tang’s Gandalf, and, to my ears, Grandmasters is the sound of him back in power, paying tribute to those fallen and slaying orcs and, okay, geeky analogy over. There’s more beauty to Grandmasters than its nostalgia, though, and it goes back to the idea of distilling or summing up or exploding human experience, which the Genius has done pretty well in the past with his verses on “B.I.B.L.E.” and “Silverbacks” and now does on the likes of “Exploitation of Mistakes,” “General Principles,” “All in Together Now” and “Smothered Mate.” He makes it sound effortless, too, his forward dissection of scenes and memories into blunt, casually rhyming poetry.

Rap affords a playfulness with language, a towering slew of internal and external references, and a streaming delivery of storytelling and topicality that most other genres can’t so easily get away with; so rap can work like Joyce, be it The Dubliners or Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man or Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake (a.k.a. Aesop Rock bed-time reading), in that it mixes first and third person narratives within a definite cultural environment, all told with an omniscient, excruciating subjectivity that determines what is fictitious and what is true. Rap can be the ultimate personal documentary, but that’s a potential it rarely realizes; few emcees lay out the stories and details and inner thoughts because they get so completely caught up in the overriding force of their egos. Great rap delivers lines from every part of the emcee’s psyche, and GZA is one of the few to do this. Dial 281-330-8004, ask what it is about rap that’s beautiful, and the answer will come: “Mike Jones!” The pitiable fellow’s actually on the right track, but two capitalized syllables and an exclamation point don’t equal full disclosure of self. Not that anyone truly wants that when the “self” belongs to Mike Jones.

Meanwhile, Eluvium and Keith Fullerton Whitman are on some straight elven shit. I mean, listening to the former’s Talk Amongst the Trees is like getting hit on the head with Lothlorien, and for all four of you who never saw the first LotR movie, think hazy, slow-motion, twinkly thoughts. Because this music is instrumental, it’s tough to determine whether it’s a beautiful work desirous of greater beauty, but it certainly is beautiful in and of itself, sounding like the virgin, un-brutalized sample resources for the best El-P album ever. The effect that occurs when the shifting bass tones slip in under the warping backward sound streaks of the first track approaches sublimity. This is aural beauty unfettered and self-evident. Removing words and familiar forms, finding pure depths in the minutiae of sound, Talk Amongst the Trees hums like an encounter with the unknown. A more discursive analysis would be grasping at wind.

Keith Fullerton Whitman’s work is a little more cerebral, its intentions more academic and studied. Also, it’s no beautiful work desirous of greater beauty; Whitman makes the plea and then answers it himself. It’s 2001: A Space Odyssey: The Album. The first four tracks, starting with that cymbal ballooned into a dense morass of textural harmonics, are like the amino acids of the electronic music that Whitman whittles into doctorates. It’s some harsh going, but Fullerton coaxes prototypes through evolution, and then suddenly envisions the next link with his last four tracks, blending the natural and the synthetic. Those first four CMG’s Clay Purdom aptly called “badlands.” It is there that the need for beauty is made clear, beauty the destination of progress. Keith Fullerton Whitman’s immediate answer is track 5, the album’s peak. A key repetition is joined by another, but Whitman continues to delay gratification until the washes reticently coalesce somewhere around the 6:40 mark (although foreshadowed by the low-end at 4:20), giving a similar effect to that of the first track on the Eluvium, but the much longer wait making the epiphany all the more heightened. The magnitude’s increased steadily in all directions, the sonic fluid crystallizing outward as if Keith let drop a speck of ice-nine, and instead of just adding up, the parts multiply each other into an overwhelming whole. The beauty Whitman inflicts upon his listeners is coolly assured and self-contained. Follow track 5 with “My Humps” on a mix, and temporal lobes will cry foul play, then shrivel up and die.

I’m betting that most of the Glow’s readers can offer me some understanding, but I’m conscious that a few of you might be too chic, too experienced, too deliberately po-mo to stomach this Keatsy, namby pamby bullshit about the absolute truth of beauty and the absolute beauty of truth, this vague and vaguely religious assertion that beauty is the substance of God and the greatest thing that art can have as its object. A few of you are so well-read and so thoroughly tutored, you immediately perceive my folly; you know that the value of art is culturally relative and that is all, that qualities of vulnerability, earnestness and universality add little and, in fact, usually just serve to embarrass the artist. Well, damn it all, I’m over a quarter of the way into my expected lifespan, and the human race is half a decade into a new millennium. Being hip just doesn’t cut it any more. Quite the opposite: it seems to me that much of “cultured” opinion has resigned itself to vainglorious promotion of one’s own media literacy and one’s ability to intellectually contextualize anything and everything, arbitrarily assigning merits and demerits for the sake of saying something witty and because no one can actually function on the grounds of all things being equal. For example, half the content of that first full paragraph up top. So fuck it.

Give me a giant primate, a fair blonde and a setting, rising sun. I’ll try to leave myself alone with what those images reflect.