Tuesday, May 16, 2006

James Snead on Kong

On Son of Kong (1933), specifically, which I have not yet seen myself:

"The [titular] ape's services to Denham late in the film compensate for the trachery of a group of whites defined as the "other" earlier in the film--namely, Captain Englehorn's crew, which has mutinied and sent the "bosses ... where all captains belong, over the side" in a single rowboat, with which they eventually reach Skull Island. The contemporary political overtones of this confrontation (when they approach Denham with their grievances, he says "We must be in Russia: here comes a committee of the workers"), unique among the three "Kong" films, might have something to do with a certain sentimental preference in the thirties for what was considered "faithful" black labor, seen as potentially less dangerous than the unruliness of agitated white Northern working classes. It is not impossible that the film is suggesting that if the Northern white entrepreneur of the thirties would only atone for the "harm" of American racial history, he might have a more obedient and loyal labor pool than the white Northern labor force, demanding equality, would provide."

--from Snead, White Screens, Black Images (Routledge: NY & London, 1994), pages 31-32.

Snead tends toward somewhat straightforward, plot-centric, and monolithic readings of the films in his material (maybe more willing to accuse the film of 'incompatibility' than to express such negative capability in his own work), but this itself could very likely be the function of this book's being an unfinished, and posthumously published, work. The flaws, though I do see them as flaws, still comprise one of the things that I like most about this book: that they feel almost like drafts, and we see certain bold interpretations or theoretical formulations before they've been as tempered and nuanced as they likely would have been had Snead lived to finish his book. (He died young, but with prolific publications and a great deal of manuscript material--scholarly and fictional, as the book's two editors and separate foreward writers, Colin MacCabe and Cornel West, attest.) Overall I like the assertions he's working out in his material, trying to achieve a balance in seeing/understanding what popular films reflect and what they project. Some questions remain as raised by the quoted paragraph above. For instance, why consign the 'white working classes' to the North, or otherwise suggest without references that the film might have done as much (despite a strong anti-union [no pun intended] history in the American South, the labor movement did exist there)?

4 comments:

Brian said...

I'm unfamiliar with Snead and Son of Kong but am very glad to have read this fascinating post. What does it say about me that my first instinct is that I now want to watch Son of Kong ASAP, as opposed to read Snead ASAP?

Zach Campbell said...

Well, regardless of what it might say about you, it's either to Snead's credit (because of his fascinating description of the film) or his demerit (because of his failure to write in such a way to make you want more of his ideas right away)!

Brian said...

In the past I've wavered back and forth on this point, but I think there's a limit on the amount of ideas about a film I want to be exposed to before I see it for myself. I don't think it's just an excuse to watch rather than read. Of course if I lived in a prior era when everything didn't seem so goddamn available I might be more enthusiastic about diving in and learning everything I can about a film never seen. Is the proliferation of home video possibly making people dumber?

Peter Nellhaus said...

I saw Driven as a DVD with the commentary track by Renny Harlin. I thought it was hilarious that Stallone wrote a, ahem, vehicle, for himself, and Harlin edited Stallone to almost a supporting role.