Disclaimer: This is a continuation of a collection of my thoughts for a personal film portfolio; ideas deriving from Karen Beckman’s Animating Film Theory (2014) and Julian Murphet’s ‘King Kong Capitalism’ in Animal, Life and the Moving Image (2015).
“It was Beauty who killed the Beast” is the final line of dialogue as King Kong (1933) closes off its monstrous adventure tale, and it becomes clear that the film transforms into a magnificent beast and disintegrates, like the film’s gorilla itself. The impossibility of glossing over animation as an inferior type of cinema is illuminated in King Kong – a film which challenges yet encapsulates modernity, showcasing the potential of human capitalism to both create and destruct.
The significance of animation stems from its ability to push the boundaries of the mediated real, asking its viewers to take a “leap of faith” into an unrecognisable world. King Kong is one example of such a parallel world; where Denham’s travels onto the island of Skull Island sees the re-creation of extinct dinosaurs, and most essentially – a giant gorilla of the name Kong. In the words of Beckman, nature becomes “remolded”, transcending the shapes and lines of the ‘natural’, and instead defamiliarises live-action time and motion, to shape itself as a traumatic reanimation of the living. In this way, it invites its own audiences to think about the constructions and reconstructions of the medium itself – an examination that is not uncommon amongst the animated genre.
Chuck Jones’ Duck Amuck (1953) is a prime case, a short film that is self-reflexively aware of itself as a hand-made product, playing with technical aspects of cinema, such as sound. But it is concurrently conscious of the power of the artist to manipulate bodies and objects within film, suggesting that control lies in the hands of the filmmakers/animators.
While Duck Amuck is relatively apolitical and good-natured, Murphet contrastingly emphasises King Kong as a commentary on capitalist ideals. Animation, in this instance, creates a language to take hold on modernity, placing itself as an industrial template to tackle the tension between capitalism and the primitive.The technological developments of the era saw the rise of production and labour, creating seemingly useless specialisations which derevolutionised men into unintelligent machines.
But Murphet suggests that the tension between advancement in science and brute labour cannot be compromised, similar to a way naturalising capitalism is futile. The visual juxtaposition of Kong and the Empire State Building serves as a symbolic reminder of the preexisting strains between monopoly capitalism and primitivism – also epitomizing how both cannot coexist – where the devastating death of Kong by technological machines sees his downfall onto the grounds of New York.
Ironically, it is King Kong‘s construction as a stop-motion animation that reinforces its argumentative point; the film itself embodies the labour-intensive process of capitalism. Kong’s gestures are literally derived from human motorial functions, shown through the artificial and staccato-like movements, which self-reflexively exposes its fabrication by humans. However, while Cooper & Schoedsack aim to use the very mechanisms of animation to interrogate the building blocks of capitalism, the act of creating such a large spectacle to audiences (attracting a box office figure of $2 million) paradoxically contributes to the commercially-driven film industry. In this way, it embraces its own status as a bi-product of the Hollywood capitalist enterprise.
Despite this, King Kong illustrates the way the ‘animal’ of animation can subvert traditional fairytales often seen in live-action films (Beauty killing the Beast), opening up the possibilities of a romantic dreamworld only seen at the hands of human handicraft.