Blondes and Beastsby Layla Leiman / 09.02.2011
The King Kong formula doesn’t change: a blonde in virginal white is whisked off into the primordial jungle by a giant gorilla gone ape for her beauty. It’s a sacrificial maiden offered up to the primal beast kind of story. In the mysterious hinterland of Skull Island, the lady and the beast kind of fall in love. There is a rescue, betrayal, and capture. Back in ‘civilized’ New York, the beast escapes, and our lovers reunite atop the Empire State Building. Like so many love affairs across species, it ends tragically.
This delirious epic was first screened in 1933. Audiences shrieked as the giant ape emerged from the jungle in primitive stop-frame glory. Close-ups of the beast’s face confront us with a vacant rubber grimace, a constant and immobile leer. Pure id. The gal screams on cue and terror paralyses her lissom body.
Fast-forward to the 1976 version. A petroleum exploration vessel picks up a strange blonde adrift at sea on a life raft. She turns out to be naïve yet overtly sexual (this being the seventies). Era-intoxication and cheesy throwaway lines characterise this damsel’s run in with the beast, right up to the bloody and excessive Nam-esque flame-thrower ending.
Then it’s 1933 again, in 2005. Peter Jackson’s big summer popcorn CGI spectacle insists we admire the way expensively rendered hairs on Kong’s body ripple as he crashes through the jungle, pounding his mighty chest. His eyes soften as he falls in love with the eternal blonde. Here is Kong, thanks to the expressive physical genius of Andy Serkis, who so convincingly embodied Gollum, at his most brutal and human.
Now what happens when you mash all three versions together? You get Fong Kong!
Joburg-based musician and video artist, Joao Orecchia, incorporates multiple exposures, split-screens and spliced dialogue to play the three canonical versions of this iconic classic off against each other. The dazzling outcome engages with the evolution of cinematic representation, taking in impressive developments in special effects, while exposing different ideological uses of imagery and narrative traditions.
Fong Kong is also really funny and smart. We see a primitive Kong lumbering along at one point through a thatch village, raining down havoc in jumpily disjointed gestures, then he’s leaping across ruins with the automated silky smooth finesse of any modern-day CG superhero. The disconnect speaks volumes about the technical leaps Hollywood has taken while reminding us that narrative complexity hasn’t exactly deepened.
Each version of the film occupies a distinct historical moment but Orecchia opens this timeline out into 3 dimensions, skilfully suggesting mirror effects across versions as particular images and scenes are repeated almost exactly. This creates a suggestive temporal compression that draws vivid attention to the dynamics of cultural change and the continuities of film form and social reception. He then breaks through these associations with incongruous disjunctions like rare key changes in a punk song.
Fong Kong brilliantly resituates image and dialogue, overlapping and juxtaposing once discrete elements, recycling representation into something new. The original version and the most recent suddenly speak to each other across seven decades.
The colour-saturated 1976 version refuses to meld. Its overt sexuality and then-contemporary urban and style markers make it impermeable – becoming a commentary on the possibilities of an aesthetic unavailable to remixing. As the films fuse (or refuse to) the original narrative (maiden in peril) dissolves into new possibilities. An American classic re-made.
We see the different incarnations of that imperilled blonde overlaid at one point. They vary distinctly and seem to depict quite different characters. Yet mashed together, they portray the same archetypal helpless female at the mercy of overpowering male dominance, the gorilla. Orecchia genders our awareness of the imposed passivity of cinema reception where we are all to often carried away by the narrative as the blonde is by Kong.