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ROBERT TORRY "You Can't Look Away": Spectacle and Transgression in King Kong RiTics have long noted King Kong's status as a Depression film firmly embedded in the economic and political context from which it arose. Indeed, Noel Carroll's "King Kong: Ape and Essence," perhaps the best overall essay on the 1933 film, admirably combines a recognition ofKingKong's several entwined discourses while thoroughly exposing what it sees as the film's predominant ideological basis.1 Observing the connections between the ill-fated, desire-laden Kong and the film's Depression audience, Carroll explains both the film's sympathy for Kong as a "tragically heroic" victim of brutal social and economic processes while at the same time noting its concomitant purpose as a "cautionary tale as regards social behavior" (241). This cautionary purpose, Carroll notes, is particularly apparent when we discern in Kong a parallel to the doomed, overreaching gangsters common in films of the period: In [gangster films] . . . thirties' audiences were treated to an ethnic warning about the dangers of leaving one's own place in society for the sake of ambition. As soon as gangsters don ritzy airs . . . they are headed for their downfall. . . . Likewise, once Kong leaves his domain and penetrates . . . the boundary between nature and culture, he is doomed. . . . On one level, Kong warns: stay on your own turf or the bastards will drag you down. (241) Carroll, like several other commentators, also recognizes King Kong's self-reflexive elements.2 He cites for example the film's use of the Arizona Quarterly Volume 49 Number 4, Winter 1993 Copyright © 1993 by Arizona Board of Regents issN 0004-1610 62 Robert Tony "screen test as metafilmic gesture," its employment of "the hysterical cadences and hyperbole of Hollywood advertising," the "film-within-afilm conceit" that organizes the narrative, and the devotion to spectacle that "[turns] native dances into the kind ofexotic, ethnic extravaganzas . . . popular in the thirties" (229). Yet by asserting that "for all its references to cinema and show business ... it seems mistaken to identify the film as a significant example of reflexivity" (229), Carroll errs in underevaluating the significance of the material he indicates. In doing so he insufficiently explores the vital connection between King Kong's overt reflexivity and the reflexive pyrotechnics ofwhat is perhaps the most ideologically significant film genre of the Depression era: the Hollywood musical. In both King Kong and such backstage musicals as Forty-Second Street, the main characters' involvement in the glamorous world of show business and the narrative progress toward the achieved plenitude ofspectacle manipulates audience desire for relief from the economic deprivations of the Depression. At the same time, the "show within the show," structure of the films, equating form and content, signifier and signified, evinces Hollywood's self-recognition as the Depression era's most powerful source of vicarious satisfaction of desire. This feature ofboth King Kong and the Hollywood backstage musical is crucially important in that it can serve a much more politically aggressive purpose than the mere production of escapist fantasy predicated upon a short-lived identification of audience and screen characters. Underscoring and exploiting that alternate feature of cinematic spectacle, the ineluctable distance between viewer and spectacle, between activated, constrained desire and its inaccessible object, such films were capable of employing the very structure of the cinematic experience as a vigorous constituent of their "cautionary rhetoric." Additionally, to explore King Kong's dedication to the maintenance of a socially and politically "justifiable" interval between mass desire and its objects in precise historical context allows us to augment Carroll 's analysis of the film's ideological intentions. There is, as we shall see, an instructive ideological equivalence between Kong's tale of inappropriate , untimely desire punished by the armed force of the state and an essentially coincident actual event: the traumatic dispersal by the U.S. Army of the Bonus Expeditionary Force in Washington in the summer of 1932. Since King Kong was released just when Hollywood's King Kong63 potential as a source of escapist fantasy and vicarious satisfaction began to acquire, in the midst of an era of profound economic distress, a particularly significant ideological relevance, the film, I will...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 61-77
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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