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4th of July Eye Candy: The Spirit of ’76 in Bicentennial Advertising

This Independence Day we’re taking a trip to 1976 in the Village Voice Wayback Machine. Among other questions: Why was a donkey climbing a skyscraper in an ad for Korvettes department store?

Less than a year after President Gerald Ford told New York that the federal government would not bail the city out of its fiscal crisis (which led to the infamous Daily News headline “Ford to City: Drop Dead”), Gotham gussied itself up to celebrate not only America’s Bicentennial but also the 1976 Democratic National Convention, which would nominate Jimmy Carter. (Who, with the help of New York State’s 41 electoral votes, would go on to defeat Ford in a close election.)

It was a unique convergence of events in the city — first the Bicentennial hoopla, and then the convention from the 12th to the 15th. Of course, New York was — even more so than now — the media capital of the world, but anyone who has ever researched cultural history knows that advertising can be as revealing about the times as editorial content. With that in mind, behold some choice samples of Independence Day carnival barking.

America might have won the Revolutionary War and gone on to invent rock ’n’ roll, but, judging by the holiday playlist of one of the city’s behemoth FM radio stations, the British were beating us at our own musical game. That relative Jersey newcomer Bruce Springsteen was indeed tearing up the airwaves, but DJs were still loyally spinning such stalwarts of the British Invasion as the Beatles (together and solo), eminences such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, and Seventies hitmaker Elton John in heavy rotation. This was the advent of “classic” rock — if you wanted to hear real pioneers, such as Elvis, Jerry Lee, or Little Richard, you’d have to find an “oldies” station.

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Jazz was more thoroughly homegrown, and the graphic-design team at Atlantic Records found a way to tie the music to America’s biggest political idols. (Although Richard Nixon played the piano in the White House, it would not be until 1992 that a presidential candidate would capture the spirit of Atlantic’s equating “cool” with American-born music. Bill Clinton wasn’t blowing jazz, but “Hound Dog” — a twelve-bar blues written by two Jews and first turned into a minor hit by a black female blues singer before becoming a monster chart-topper for the Southern white king of rock ’n’ roll, Elvis Presley — embodies an ethnic mix that represents American ideals at least as well as “The Star-Spangled Banner.”)

For those whose tastes ran to symphonic music, the Sheep Meadow in Central Park was the place to be, as America rang in 200 years of being “the last best hope of earth,” President Lincoln’s characterization of the country at the height of the Civil War, when Northern victory was far from certain. The Union survived, and in 1939 the Manhattan-born composer William Schuman wrote American Festival Overture, which he called music for “a very festive occasion.” New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein took him at his word, and included the piece in a patriotic extravaganza. Also featured was Aaron Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, which incorporates text from a number of the Great Emancipator’s speeches, including these lines from an 1862 address to Congress, as the Civil War raged on: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”

On the night after the Philharmonic spectacle, celebrators could really kick out the jams — at Shea Stadium. On July 5, 1976, you could hop the 7 train to see comedian Dick Gregory joined by his “running mate” Muhammad Ali, for the conclusion of his “Bicentennial Run Against Hunger in America.” Gregory, who was a long-distance runner, had run from Los Angeles to New York to “awaken a Sleeping America to the plight of the American people who remain poorly fed, poorly housed, and poorly clothed — while America basks in its glory of affluence and bounty.”

Oh, and the musical guests were the Jackson 5.

One of the nonmusical highlights of the Bicentennial was Operation Sail, which brought tall ships from around the world to New York Harbor. Radio personality Don Imus gave the World Trade Towers the fish-eye treatment from a traffic helicopter to welcome the international fleet.

Those who wanted nothing to do with America’s big blowout could head for the movie theaters, where a major British rocker was starring in, as one critic described it, “a spellbinding ‘head picture.’ ” If that wasn’t enticement enough, another critic compared director Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth to “a Picasso painting or novel by Joyce; it should be left to the observer to assimilate.”

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Once the Bicentennial was done, New York City had to prepare for the arrival of the Democrats who were anointing Jimmy Carter as their presidential candidate. The Democratic National Convention took place at Madison Square Garden from July 12 to July 15. Along with coverage of the Dems and an article on the ever-newsworthy Billy Martin, in his first full year as Yankees manager, the Voice cover teased an essay on patriotism by cultural surveyor Greil Marcus.

Korvettes department store was one of many New York City outlets offering convention visitors printed guides to local restaurants, nightlife, and tourist attractions. It was too late, however, for out-of-towners to have witnessed the second coming of a unique bit of Gotham’s fictional lore: the death of King Kong, this time falling not from the Empire State Building — as he had in the original 1933 film — but from the Twin Towers. According to the June 22, 1976, edition of the New York Times, “a horrified crowd of more than 5,000 New Yorkers surged past police lines at the World Trade Center last night on cue and fought its way to the spot where a giant gorilla lay dead after a 110-story fall from the North Tower.” The paper further reported that these unpaid extras had to stage their charge “again and again — and again,” because they were blocking the camera crew’s view of Jessica Lange, who was updating the role, made famous by Fay Wray, of the beauty who killed the beast.

It was certainly a mixed metaphor to have the symbol of the Democratic Party re-create that moment in an ad welcoming delegates. But Korvettes assured the visitors that, although finding gifts for those at home could be tougher than picking a candidate, they could confidently purchase “a flacon of perfume to bring back for the wife, a skateboard for your son, or those studded jeans your daughter warned you not to come home without.” Welcome to the big city.

Brooklyn retailer Abraham & Straus sought to lure conventioneers across the East River by appealing to their patriotism, with ad copy that read, “The Battle of Long Island was fought by Washington’s army against the British under such generals as Howe and Cornwallis on August 27, 1776,” and then promised, “Many of the sights and sites suggested here had a share in that battle.”

And here’s a closer look at A&S’s nifty outerborough map:

And finally, what would the Bicentennial have been without a reference to the Watergate scandal, which proved that democracy is bigger than those who seek to undermine it. In an ad for a comedy record by the comedians Burns and Schreiber, “that great iconoclast from Baltimore,” who we assume to be H.L. Mencken, is quoted: “It is the duty of the satirist to be outrageous and to offend. It is the duty of the government to be responsible.”

Those were the days!

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New York Plays Itself: Touring the City’s Celluloid History

If you squint hard enough at the Museum of Arts and Design, you can almost make out the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering up Broadway, across Columbus Circle, toward Central Park West. At least, that’s how it felt on the TCM Classic Film Tour. Over three hours, across a route spanning the Upper West Side through the park to the East River, this journey by bus past the cinematic landmarks of New York City references more than a hundred movies (Ghostbusters among them), dating from 1898 to 1998.

New York City, the birthplace of the American film industry (OK, along with New Jersey), is a massive, if unintentional, pop culture time capsule. Location scout Nick Carr’s blog Scouting New York appraises every nook and cranny and bodega of the city with an artist’s eye, documenting in photographs how famous film locations have changed throughout the years. And, unsurprisingly, there’s a thriving breed of tourism specifically devoted to pilgrimages to TV and movie sites, whatever your taste: Sex and the City, Gossip Girl, Seinfeld, superheroes, Real Housewives, or — if you don’t mind traveling beyond the Lincoln Tunnel, to the hinterlands of the Garden State — The Sopranos. This TCM-flavored expedition, offered through On Location Tours, specifically limits its purview to classic films shot in Manhattan.

TCM bus tour
John Cassavetes and Mia Farrow outside the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

Actor and producer Sarah Louise Lilley served as tour guide on a recent Sunday morning. Lilley, who moved to the United States from England as a teenager, speaks with the slightest glimmer of a British accent — which, as she enthusiastically expounds on movie legends of yore, it’s easy to reimagine as a Katherine Hepburn mid-Atlantic lilt. (I’m not sure if this effect would hold true on On Location’s Sex and the City Hotspots tour, which Lilley has also hosted.) At times, there was an almost virtual reality–like quality to the experience, when Lilley’s commentary and film clips, cued up to play on overhead monitors when we passed the real-life locations within them, transformed the present-day city seen from the bus windows into a long-lost version of itself. As we passed through Columbus Circle, we saw a tour bus packed with bumbling out-of-towners in 1950’s Ma and Pa Kettle Go to Town, the political rally in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle plots to assassinate a senator, and the apartment building where Lois Lane resides in Superman. A little farther north, the Dakota’s facade had recently been cleaned, looking much less dark and foreboding than it did in Rosemary’s Baby. Had Lilley not pointed it out, the subway grate at 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue where Marilyn Monroe famously posed in The Seven Year Itch could have been any one of the city’s thousands and thousands more just like it, unglamorously trod on every day by locals and visitors alike. I wasn’t the only New Yorker on my particular tour, which also hosted a family of tourists from South Africa. Lilley and her fellow TCM guide Jason Silverman report attracting movie fans of all ages, from newborns up to Lilley’s own grandmother, then ninety-six. “I’ve had kids who were ten years old completely clean up in the trivia contest,” says Silverman.

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Marilyn on 52nd and Lexington, in Billy Wilder;s The Seven Year Itch (1955)

Lilley and Silverman, residents of Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem, respectively, have been guides for TCM since this tour was first offered in 2013. (The tour’s blueprint has largely remained the same in that time, although movie-related news and anniversaries bring certain films and their associated landmarks to the forefront.) On January 30 at 8 p.m., they’ll appear on the Turner Classic Movies network to introduce four perennial New York–centric favorites: King Kong, The Producers, On the Town, and North by Northwest. As a lifelong movie buff, Lilley calls the experience of shooting with host Ben Mankiewicz a “dream come true.” Lilley, whose acting credits include The Mysteries of Laura, was “indoctrinated” into loving classic film by her father. She suffered from colic as an infant, and he discovered that the only way to stop her screaming was to pace back and forth with his daughter on his shoulder, old movies playing on the television. “He said by the time I was three months old, I’d seen Casablanca hundreds of times,” Lilley recalls. Silverman’s cinematic education began only a little later. “At the age of six, instead of watching whatever the latest cartoon was, my family was like, ‘Great, it’s time to watch Gone With the Wind,’ ” says the Chicago-native actor, seen in The Wolf of Wall Street as a quaalude-buying teenager. “I remember distinctly at the age of ten, on holiday break in Florida, my father sat me down and showed me The Godfather.”

The Ansonia (Three Days of the Condor, The Sunshine Boys, and Single White Female), once an opulent residential hotel that kept dairy cows on its roof to provide fresh milk for guests, casts its regal gaze onto Verdi Square, a triangle of green space bound by 72nd and 73rd streets, Broadway, and Amsterdam Avenue. This was once known as Needle Park, the title location for the Joan Didion–scripted, Al Pacino–starring heroin drama The Panic in Needle Park. “All those movies in the Seventies showed a really dark, dangerous side of New York City, and that’s so different than the happy little farmers’ market area that is there now. I love those stops that really give you windows back in time and spark your imagination,” Lilley says.

TCM bus tour
Al Pacino (center) in The Panic in Needle Park (1971)

We took in Lincoln Center’s Revson Fountain, immortalized by The Producers and Moonstruck. Then the TVs on the bus played a dancing sequence from West Side Story (soon to be remade by Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner), set among the soon-to-be-demolished tenements of San Juan Hill, the neighborhood that stood on the site of Lincoln Center’s campus until Robert Moses had other ideas. In most locations, the particular businesses that populated films’ famous shots are long gone, made ghosts by Manhattan’s breakneck pace of renovation and gentrification. You can still recognize the buildings by their bones, even if the Vitamin Shoppe and the now-shuttered Rita’s Italian Ice that currently stand at Broadway and 92nd Street didn’t themselves make cameos in Hannah and Her Sisters. The most recent movie featured on the tour is You’ve Got Mail, most of which was shot within several blocks of the Upper West Side. The children’s book store owned by Meg Ryan’s character was then Maya Schaper Cheese and Antiques on West 69th Street but is today a humble dry cleaner. The owner only learned his business had a Hollywood pedigree when the tour bus began stopping outside. Now, Lilley reports, he sells You’ve Got Mail DVDs on site. The tour doesn’t go south of the Empire State Building, or else Katz’s Deli, the site of Meg Ryan’s fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally…, would surely make an appearance too.

Silverman typically takes charge of the Saturday tours and Lilley the Thursday ones, during which the streets are generally far most congested than on weekends. “When we hit traffic, it’s like a double-edged sword for me,” Lilley says. “I feel bad we’re running behind, but at the same time, now I can really talk at length about all these movies.” On any day, the most likely logistical challenge the duo faces is the city’s unpredictable road closures, but they can always adapt. “The worst possible circumstance for a classic movie tour is if the DVD player doesn’t work, and that’s only happened to me, knock on wood, once,” Silverman explains. (It made for a “unique” tour.)

Both Lilley and Silverman cited Sutton Place Park as their favorite movie landmark on the tour, a tiny, peaceful lookout onto the East River with a stunning view of the Queensboro Bridge. “We’ve taken so many New Yorkers on the tour that have never been there before. It’s so cinematic. I feel like I’ve taken numerous people’s holiday card photos there,” Lilley says. She isn’t kidding — nearly every person on my bus waited patiently for her to snap their picture.

TCM bus tour
Manhattan (1979) with Diane Keaton and Woody Allen

Sutton Place is the swanky, townhouse-lined neighborhood that lies just south of the bridge. “The history of New York and the history of film is beautifully interwoven there,” Lilley says. In the early-twentieth century, the same stretch of East River waterfront was home to not only luxurious apartments with views to match, but poverty-stricken tenements and the gangs who inhabited them, as depicted onscreen in 1937’s Dead End. By 1953, Sutton Place had become the must-have address for the trio of enterprising husband-seekers — Marilyn Monroe, Betty Grable, and Lauren Bacall — in How to Marry a Millionaire. But Sutton Place’s most memorable contribution to film history is as the setting of the most iconic image from Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Allen and Diane Keaton take in the early-morning view from a bench in the very park where we’d climbed off the bus to stand.

Woody Allen’s legacy, of course, is a deeply controversial subject. In general, Lilley and Silverman explain, they try to relate Woody Allen films to their physical locations without engaging any deeper with the subject matter of those movies. “I can’t imagine doing the tour and not making the Sutton Place stop, because it’s so iconically shot in Manhattan,” Silverman says. “But the content of the movie — especially what’s come out in the news over the past couple of years about the making of the movie [Allen’s then-sixteen-year-old costar Mariel Hemingway has said that he tried to seduce her] — I don’t really, can’t really watch Manhattan anymore. But I can appreciate how they filmed and shot this particular scene.”

For those who’ve never visited New York, iconic movie locations have likely done more to inform their conceptions of the city than any guidebook or exhaustively annotated history ever could. Silverman, for one, grew up “obsessed” with King Kong. “For me, King Kong and the Empire State Building are synonymous,” he says. “I went to NYU, and in my freshman-year dorm, if I poked my head out the window, I got a view of the Empire State Building. Being in the city ten years, doing this tour hundreds of times, every time I pass by the Empire State Building, this is New York to me.”

But there is also a singular pleasure to be found in discovering, or rediscovering, film landmarks lying in plain sight. “I really love having New Yorkers on the tour, because they’re always running around, head down,” Lilley says. “To give yourself permission to stop and take a look at a block you’ve been on maybe a hundred times and really see it for the first time, I think it’s magical.”

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The 1987 RoboCop’s ED-209: The Movies’ Greatest Badass Robot?

 


Director José Padilha’s long-delayed RoboCop reboot has arrived, and it’s neither an unalloyed (see what I did there?) triumph nor the travesty that partisans of Paul Verhoeven’s subversive Reagan-era classic had feared. At least, and at most, it’s different, taking bold liberties with the original text, as remakes should.

One such change from RoboCop ’87 is a decreased emphasis on the henchman and jester of Verhoeven’s picture: ED-209, a dysfunctional, tantrum-prone robot roughly the size of a Ford Expedition. Oh, ED-209s are in the new movie; several of them, in fact. They’re even upgraded, now the size of townhouses. Deployed as menacing “peacekeepers” on the streets of a U.S.-occupied Tehran, they appear to function perfectly as intended, and where’s the fun in that? Their screen time has increased while their presence has diminished.

The original film’s ED-209 was created by live-action animator Phil Tippett, the genius craftsman responsible for the four-legged AT-AT walkers and shaggy, two-legged tauntauns in The Empire Strikes Back, among many other indelible movie machines and creatures. An Oscar-winner for his practical effects work on Return of the Jedi more than 30 years ago, Tippett has kept up with the times, reinventing himself as a digital effects artist and earning subsequent Oscar nominations for Jurassic Park and Verhoeven’s other mordant sci-fi satire, Starship Troopers. (That’s the one where puny, highly puncturable humans engage in futile and unnecessarily close combat with the giant alien spiders of Planet Klendathu instead of just nuking them from orbit.)

The visual effects in the new RoboCop are almost all CGI, naturally, including the blandly redesigned ED-209s. But CGI was still years away from being viable in 1986, when Verhoeven’s RoboCop was in production. It was made on the cheap, for $13 million. Adjusting for inflation, that’s only about a quarter of the new version’s $100 million-plus price tag. But art thrives on restriction.

Tippett used “go motion,” an update of the frame-by-frame animation techniques that allowed King Kong to scale the Empire State Building half a century earlier, to bring ED-209 to life. What he created isn’t merely — with no disrespect to Peter Weller, Kurtwood Smith, or Miguel Ferrer — my favorite performance in the film, but one of the most expressive and memorable of all movie robots.

As designed by Craig Davies, ED-209 was more than just a visually arresting creature, pun intended. It was a walking embodiment of the film’s satirical payload about rampant privatization and corporate control of public institutions. It looks like the bastard offspring of a muscle car and a Vietnam-era Bell “Huey” helicopter mounted on stilts. (Davies gave each leg four hydraulic struts where only one would be needed, a nod to corporate redundancy.) It growls with the voice of a panther (that’s what foley artist Stephen Flick used) and ambles with the noise and awkwardness of a 2,000-pound toddler. It seems angry that you’ve made it chase you. Its stubby arms end in machine guns instead of hands. It isn’t a law-enforcement tool; it’s a walking antiaircraft emplacement.

That’s OK: In the movie, the cufflink-wearing bloodsuckers of Omni Consumer Products are only deploying it on the crumbling, lawless streets of Detroit as a demo reel for “a guaranteed military sale … Who cares if it work[s] or not?” (As the new film opens, ED-209s are already in service with the military while their manufacturer, OCP, is lobbying for them and for other armed robots to be deployed on domestic soil.)

On the commentary track of RoboCop’s Criterion Collection DVD, screenwriter Ed Neumeier says ED-209 was meant to represent the U.S. strategy of “urban pacification” in Vietnam brought to the home front. If the robot’s Huey-like profile wasn’t enough of a tip-off, the lab-coated technician who turns him on in the film is named Dr. McNamara, after the Vietnam-era secretary of defense.

ED-209 never seems like a mere prop-as-metaphor, though, because he also provides the film’s inciting incident. In minute 12 of RoboCop, the ‘bot malfunctions during a boardroom demonstration, blowing a junior executive into hamburger. (Producer Jon Davison, who also provided ED’s menacing speaking voice, redid the shots of the poor guy’s corpse being pulped by bullet hits three times because Verhoeven didn’t think they were bloody enough. These were among the shots he later had to excise before the MPAA would grant the ultraviolent original an R rating.)

After witnessing a man’s violent death, OCP’s chairman (“The Old Man”) reacts as though he’s just thumbed through a bearish quarterly earnings report. “Dick, I’m very disappointed,” he says. There were hints of a sardonic intelligence at work already, but this is the moment where Verhoeven permanently destabilizes us.

Some of that lingering sense of shock comes from the way Verhoeven films the sequence, and from the Old Man’s callous attitude. But at least as much of it comes the performance Tippett elicited from a puppet not much taller than a beer bottle. A full-size, 7-foot, 300-pound model was also built and filmed, but the shots where ED-209 walks were all of Tippett’s miniature. That one is the actor. It hesitates. It stutters. It flails its three-toed metal foot, searching for its footing. Later in the film, an outgunned RoboCop survives his showdown with the clunky beast because it can’t climb stairs — it tries, slips, and ends up like a beetle on its back, kicking its swollen legs and wailing. Its humiliation was ironic because, in reality, actor Peter Weller couldn’t negotiate stairs while bolted into his clunky $600,000 Robo-suit, either.

I remember a photograph from an issue of the long-defunct sci-fi magazine Starlog of Verhoeven standing in front of the full-size ED-209 model on the set of RoboCop, his hands raised above his head, his features contorted into a mask of rage. To this day this is the picture of Verhoeven that comes to mind when I think of him. His next four American films, Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995), and Starship Troopers (1997), all bolstered his reputation as a European artist who relished picking at America’s puritanical scabs, and this photo seemed to capture that. But he was probably just miming what he wanted the model to do in the scene, a precursor to the way actor Andy Serkis would be motion-captured for his roles in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings pictures (and his way-underrated remake of King Kong) a generation later).

Serkis’s performances in those films have an emotional sophistication that actor-unassisted computer animation hasn’t yet managed to replicate. But Tippett achieved something close to it when he transformed ED-209 from a scary-looking statue into character. Watching RoboCop these days, you can see it was a penny-pinching production even its in time, which was, least we forget, back when people bought their music on cassette tapes. When ED-209 trundles onscreen to menace our tin-plated hero, it doesn’t look realistic. It just looks alive.

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The Hobbit: Slouching Toward Erebor

Welcome back to Middle-earth. It has been nearly a decade since writer-director Peter Jackson last set foot on J.R.R. Tolkien’s hallowed ground, signing off on a spectacular trilogy of films adapted from the British author’s Lord of the Rings novels. There were box office billions and well-earned Oscars aplenty and then two subsequent Jackson projects—King Kong (2005) and The Lovely Bones (2009)—that suggested the filmmaker might have been stunted by his own mega-success. (With its distended Depression-era prologue and a running time nearly twice its 1933 predecessor’s, Kong in particular seemed as thick around the middle as its director now appeared slim.) So it was no real surprise when Jackson announced he would produce two films based on Tolkien’s The Hobbit—the single 1937 volume that launched the Middle-earth mythology—and even less surprising when Jackson pulled a Jay Leno on his own hand-picked director, Guillermo del Toro, in order to hold the reins himself. (Del Toro retains a co-screenwriting credit for his contribution.)

Of course, succession is never a tidy business, nor is that of making prequels into beloved franchises. Rest assured, Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey perpetrates no Jar Jar–size transgressions. Rather, it’s reverential to a fault, with the director and his regular collaborators Fran Walsh (Jackson’s wife) and Philippa Boyens hewing so closely to Tolkien’s slender text that, at the end of three hours, we’re barely 100 pages in, with mere sentences on the page having been inflated into entire sequences on-screen. The detailed appendices Tolkien included with the final LOTR story, The Return of the King, have also been plundered for inspiration, and the result is a journey whose most unexpected element is just how little ground it covers. (Recently, it was announced that the two planned Hobbit films will now be three, with the next installments set to arrive in 2013 and 2014, respectively.)

Set some 60 years before the events depicted in LOTR, The Hobbit tells of another unassuming Shire-dweller’s grand mythopoeic adventure in the company of wizards, elves, and—this time around—a merry band of 13 dwarfs. The hobbit in question is one Bilbo Baggins—uncle of Frodo—played to great effect in the LOTR films by Ian Holm and here, as a younger man, by the likable Martin Freeman (Sherlock‘s Afghanistan vet Watson). A fussy, pipe-smoking dandy of minimal ambition and even less curiosity, Bilbo is shaken from his life of leisure by a visit from that wise, wandering wizard Gandalf the Grey (Ian McKellen). And if there is one inviolable constant in this first chapter of The Hobbit, it’s McKellen’s delectable mixture of world-weariness and coquettish vanity, which might be the default posture of any British acting great resigned to Hollywood’s inexhaustible need for sorcerers, mutants, and Jedi masters.

Gandalf wants Bilbo to join the dwarfs on their journey to reclaim Erebor, a once-prosperous dwarf kingdom long ago decimated and claimed by the fire-breathing dragon Smaug, which now lies in wait, guarding its hoard of gold. But The Hobbit takes nearly an hour just to get out of Bilbo’s hobbit hole, with much of that time devoted to a long night of drunken dwarf merriment (including not one but two musical numbers) during which you can just about feel the hair on your feet growing longer. For all their Wagnerian bombast, the LOTR films proceeded at a clip, with lots of story to tell and spirited new characters lurking around every bend. There was exuberance in the filmmaking, too, as if Jackson—who cut his teeth on some of the most outlandish, low-budget splatterfests of the 1980s and ’90s—still couldn’t quite believe he’d been allowed to make these movies. They were generous entertainments that you didn’t have to be a Tolkien convert to enjoy—they made one out of you. The Hobbit, by contrast, feels distinctly like a members-only affair. It’s self-conscious monument art, but is the monument to Tolkien or to Jackson himself?

Even once Bilbo and company take to the hobbit highway, the pacing is leisurely verging on lethargic, fitfully enlivened by meetings with colorful beasties: giant, cockney-accented trolls that resemble talking phalli; a goitered goblin king (amusingly voiced by Dame Edna him/herself, Barry Humphries); and stone giants that give new meaning to the expression “mountain men.” A few welcome LOTR faces also pop up along the way, including elvish royalty Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and the magisterial Christopher Lee as the wizard Saruman, not yet corrupted by the forces of darkness. As for the baker’s dozen of dwarfs, with the exception of their noble leader, Thorin (Richard Armitage), they never register as more than an amorphous, knee-high mass.

It should go without saying that all of this is executed at an exceptional level of craft, with Jackson and the real-life wizards of his Weta Workshop once more bringing Middle-earth to life with rich detailing and seamless integrations of live action and CGI. But in the moment of Avatar, Life of Pi, and Harry Potter, such technical mastery is ever more the rule, not the exception. So Jackson has one-upped the competition by making The Hobbit the first feature film to be shot, in 3-D, at 48 frames per second. What that means, in layman’s terms, is that when the cameras rolled on The Hobbit, the film (or, rather, the high-definition video) was moving at twice the speed—and hence capturing twice the information—of both traditional 35mm film production and of the “24p” HD video that is rapidly hastening film’s extinction. And your reaction to this, in layman’s terms, is likely to be either “Wow, cool!” or “WTF?”

Available for viewing only in select cinemas in major cities (the rest will feature a standard 24-frame presentation), this “high-frame rate” Hobbit features exceptionally sharp, plasticine images the likes of which we might never have seen on a movie screen before, but which do resemble what we see all the time on our HD television screens, whether it’s Sunday Night Football, Dancing With the Stars, or a game of Grand Theft Auto. (Indeed, most TVs now have a menu setting that can, if you so desire, lend this look to everything you watch—a setting appropriately christened by some gearheads as the “soap opera effect.”) Whereas video-shot “films” have labored for years to approximate the look of celluloid, Jackson goes whole hog in the opposite direction, the idea being that this acute video quality comes closer to the way the human eye perceives reality. Fair enough, but the reality Jackson conjures isn’t quite the one he intends: Instead of feeling like we’ve been transported to Middle-earth, it’s as if we’ve dropped in on Jackson’s New Zealand set, trapped in an endless “making of” documentary, waiting for the real movie to start.

For the record, I returned to see The Hobbit a second time, at 24 frames, and found it more aesthetically pleasing but no more dramatically engaging. At any speed, the movie only springs to full life late in the day, during the first meeting of Bilbo and the tragic creature who will come to be known as Gollum (once again played by the sublime Andy Serkis), a hobbit reduced to a quivering, schizophrenic mass by his fidelity to a certain gold ring. Suddenly, in one long scene consisting of nothing more than two characters trying to outwit each other in a game of riddles, Jackson the storyteller seems to overtake Jackson the technocrat. The old magic returns, and for a fleeting moment, The Hobbit feels truly necessary, a triumph of art over commerce.

sfoundas@villagevoice.com

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Spring Guide: France’s Virginie Despentes Wants Some Blockbuster Hollywood Porn

Parisian novelist and filmmaker Virginie Despentes’s controversial porn-punk film Baise-Moi (2000), in which two women go on a rampage after being gang-raped, scandalized audiences and was banned in France and Canada, probably more for its real sex scenes than its staged violence. In her concise, funny, and razor-sharp new manifesto, King Kong Theory, Despentes describes the real-life situation that inspired the film and resuscitates feminism with cutting critiques of “hooker chic,” totalitarian motherhood, and the marginalization of pornography and prostitution. She also delivers a fresh and clever reading of King Kong, casting the creature as a polymorphous natural force rather than the usual colonized subject or male libido gone wild. 

Much of King Kong Theory discusses the toxic, oppressive relationship between heterosexual men and women, and the way in which women internalize their oppression. How do you think gay men and lesbians figure into this structure?

The toxic and oppressive relationship between heterosexual men and women is not, I hope, central in the book. . . . I tried to focus more on our own respect for gender duties. I’m surprised men barely question masculinity. I’m amazed, for example, that no male Hollywood actor complains that he has to carry guns or play soldiers, rapists, serial killers, stupid macho men. . . . Are they not fed up? Don’t men want to show their legs in miniskirts and on high heels? Don’t they want to dance like creatures on MTV? Don’t they want to use the anus they’ve been gifted with for better sexual intercourse? Are they that happy to die for countries that won’t give a goddamn fuck for them once they’re back home? Most of them don’t even enjoy the privilege of their gender. . . .

In this narrow frame, of course, gay men are the few. The elite. Trying something different. And lesbians, also, are the elite of womanhood. Obviously. Because who wants to have to deal on an intimate level with regular straight men? It can only be interesting if they might help you with money or your career. Otherwise, how depressing. Then, of course, gays and lesbians are still human. . . . We all live in the same shitty world. I guess only really hard drugs or death can be radical exits.

Your reading of Peter Jackson’s film King Kong is quite unexpected. What made you see this latest version as a feminist fable? 

Because I was working on the book when King Kong was released in France. . . . It struck me that any article I read about the movie would start from the point of King Kong being a male character, when nothing in the picture itself says so. It could be an asexual creature. And it could be female. Kong makes no particular reference to masculinity except that the creature is strong and the blonde is weak. 

What effect do you think pornography has on desire? Does it make us believe that all of our sexual fantasies can come true?

Pornography feeds desire, helps the imagination, and lowers anxiety. The advertising we endure daily is more likely to make us believe that all our fantasies can come true. Pornography, I believe, does not: It’s a message you can hardly confuse with reality. It’s inconvenient that pornography has been kept in an economic ghetto, so we can hardly see quality porn. We could so much enjoy a huge-budget sodomic orgy filmed by Hollywood. Violence is good on the big screen, but nothing is better than sex. 

‘King Kong Theory’ is out in April (though available in some stores now). The Feminist Press, 144 pp., $15.95

Spring Books Picks

American Taliban
By Pearl Abraham, April

A spiritual quest goes terribly wrong for an earnest young American boy who has a great deal in common with John Walker Lindh, the Washington D.C.­–born seeker and Al Qaeda trainee captured during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Abraham’s breathless, exhilarating style matches the timely subject matter as she grapples with the question of how a search for truth might lead a normal American kid into the jaws of the sworn enemies of his homeland. Random House, 256 pp., $25

Beatrice and Virgil
By Yann Martel, April

Canadian author Martel’s second book, the Booker Prize­–winning Life of Pi, got so much positive attention that the author’s follow-up focuses not on zoo animals in lifeboats but on a newly famous author, Henry. When Henry receives a copy of a Flaubert story and a play from a namesake fan in the mail, he embarks on a spiritual journey of a different type, populated not with tigers but acerbic, controlling editors. Which demographic, one wonders, has the sharper fangs? Spiegel & Grau, 224 pp., $24

Foxy
By Pam Grier, with Andrea Cagan, April

In 1973, Blacula bit her neck and made her a blaxploitation legend. Then she whipped razors out of her ‘fro to use as weapons in Coffy, and gunned down and castrated honky bad guys in Foxy Brown. She was the first black woman on the cover of Ms. magazine, and the cousin of football great Rosey Grier. After Tarantino revived her for Jackie Brown, she became a regular on The L Word, but her greatest achievement was shedding the trashy trappings of her early grindhouse career and earning a heap of NAACP Image Award nominations. How’d that happen? Her autobiography isn’t likely to be deep, but couldn’t be less than fast, furious, and hard-hitting. Springboard Press, 280 pp., $24.99

Nox
By Anne Carson, April

Anne Carson’s unusual new release mass-produces a replica of the fold-out art book the Canadian poet made in order to commemorate the death of her brother. Despite the collection’s personal focus, Carson still expresses her propensity for weaving classical themes into her work, basing this series on the Roman poet Catullus’s elegy to his brother’s cremains. New Directions, 192 pp., $29.95

Parrot & Olivier in America
By Peter Carey, April

Carey, long fascinated with etching the lives of misfits and frauds in spirited prose, has practically hogged the Booker Prize, winning twice in the same decade for Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang. For P & O, he sets Olivier, his parody of Alexis de Tocqueville, on a snobby trek through early America, accompanied by a manservant named Parrot, alternating between their contradictory perspectives in another astonishing feat of literary ventriloquism. Knopf, 400 pp., $26.95

A Great Unrecorded History
By Wendy Moffat, May

The Secret Livesof Somerset Maugham
By Selina Hastings, May

Some English professor ought to teach a course called “Gay Literature” and include only canonical writers: Proust, Henry James, Thomas Mann, the Greeks. Prominent on that syllabus would be E.M. Forster and W. Somerset Maugham, and once Moffat’s and Hastings’s new biographies arrive, we will have the goods on these closeted scribes and their vastly different approaches to coming out posthumously. Forster wrote the gay book Maurice, and though he stipulated that it be published after his death, he deliberately preserved archival material that would later out him, predicting that homosexuality would one day gain acceptance. The more paranoid Maugham destroyed his personal papers and asked friends to burn his letters. “Ironically,” writes Hastings, “Maugham’s request . . . ensured not only that they were kept but that most were sold for very large sums to American universities.” Hastings takes advantage of the Maugham estate’s newfound glasnost to report not only on the author’s personal life, but his involvement in British espionage. Moffat meticulously turns primary sources into a novelistic account of Forster’s untold story. Moffat: FSG, 416 pp., $32.50; Hastings: Random House, 640 pp., $35

What Becomes
By A.L. Kennedy, April

After Day, Kennedy’s bleak, prizewinning novel, the acclaimed chronicler of dysfunctional relationships serves up a story collection of lively yet heartbreaking and introspective pieces with sharp, minimal focus. One concerns a dad as he leaves his kids, another’s about a cranky shopkeeper, a third follows a new widow’s big adjustments. Short and bittersweet. Knopf, 224 pp., $24.95 

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The Man in the Lycra Mask

There is no movie more overrated in recent history than Napoleon Dynamite; it’s to cinema what the Doors are to rock and roll, a thing blindly and inexplicably championed as if it were a religion above being blasphemed by nonbelievers. And every time someone tries to explain its appeal—the deadpan comedy that plays like Bergman drama, the geek love that smells like self-loathing, the catchphrases that drop like rat pellets— it just slips a little further from my grasp, though I might watch a movie entirely about Uncle Rico and his attempts to throw a football over them mountains. Even the nine-minute short from which it sprang was some seven minutes too long, suggesting writer-director Jared Hess possesses a febrile mind unable to focus long enough on things like character or story—in other words, the basics of moviemaking.

So it’s of some relief to announce that Nacho Libre, the latest from Hess (and co-writers Mike White and Jerusha Hess, Jared’s wife), isn’t an entirely unpleasant experience, which is to say it doesn’t feel as though it’s worn out its welcome before the second reel. It takes slightly longer before its gears begin to slip and its jokes begin to wear and its laughs begin to fade; it’s only 30 to 45 minutes too long, and therefore a marked improvement for a filmmaker who approached the medium with the attention deficiency of a TV sketch comedy writer. Or maybe a little Jack Black goes a long way.

Black, tenacious in tight pants of various shades, plays the titular Nacho, a kid raised in a Mexican orphanage who dreams of becoming a luchador, with a superhero’s mask obscuring his round face in the wrestling ring. The entirety of the movie deals with his sneaking out of the orphanage, where he’s a cook charged with doling out black-bean gruel topped with stale nacho remnants, to wrestle with a scrawny thief named Esqueleto (Héctor Jiménez). There is a love interest too—a nun named Sister Encarnación, played by Mexican soap opera star Ana de la Reguera, who looks exactly like Paz Vega and Penélope Cruz. See it today and forget it tomorrow—that’s the mantra of Nacho Libre, which has some memorable lines that want to be catchphrases, if only they didn’t slip from your grasp.

The whole endeavor rests on the flabby shoulders of Black, who spends almost the entire film jiggling his shirtless frame across the widest of screens; he rivals Will Ferrell in his desire to use his man tits to elicit cheap titters. Black, rested from his restrained performance against the green screens of King Kong, bounces back like he’s been released from detention in the School of Rock and allowed to roam the empty hallways without supervision. Nacho Libre plays like a Jack Black best-of, down to the song he wrote and performs for de La Reguera that sounds like some Tejano version of a Tenacious D throwaway. And where some might find his accent a tad offensive, it’s so innocuous it plays like the tomfoolery of a child who doesn’t know any better. Nacho’s an idiot, no more and no less, because otherwise he’d disappear completely—like his movie, 20 minutes after you walk out of the theater.

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Rack Focus

King Kong
(Universal)

Bloated even by the standards of the contemporary Hollywood blockbuster, Peter Jackson’s utterly gratuitous 2005 remake is about twice as long as it needs to be, wasting an hour on tedious exposition before devolving into a morass of video-game-like fight scenes pitting Kong against various CGI monsters, all of them hideously ugly. The visual effects have a certain intrinsic value (although I’m not sure the same can be said for Jack Black’s inexplicable performance), but the movie’s most striking achievement is somehow being more racist than the far superior 1933 original. For anyone left wanting more, the extras disc includes three hours of behind-the-scenes footage.

3 Films by Louis Malle
(Criterion)

This new four-disc box packages together three films from the popular New Wave fellow traveler. Along with the 1971 coming-of-age story Murmur of the Heart, the set includes two World War II–era dramas: Lacombe, Lucien (1974), which addressed the taboo subject of collaboration, and the crowd-pleasing Au Revoir les Enfants (1987). The supplements disc includes a new interview with Malle widow Candice Bergen and three audio interviews with the director.

Whisky
(First Run)

An aging factory owner (Andrés Pazos) persuades a veteran employee (Mirella Pascual) to pose as his wife when his long-unseen brother (Jorge Bolani) comes to visit in this deadpan comedy from Uruguay. Some may be put off by the glacial pacing, but finely shaded performances all around make the most of the skeletal story line.

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NY Mirror

DAME JUDI DENCH and her timeless bone structure star in Mrs. Henderson Presents, about the socialite who founded the Windmill Theatre, the vaudeville venue that successfully served tits and ass rather than tea and crumpets in 1930s England. The movie may not be more biting than yesterday’s scones, but Judi’s always a pip—and very adept at charming an interviewer while stepping over potential icky bits. “Do you get asked to play salty but lovable women a lot?” I wondered in a pert phoner the other week. “No,” the Dame chirped. “I’m asked to play parts. I think, ‘How lovely to play them.’ A lot of people say they’re very autocratic and bossy, but I don’t think they’re all like that.” How salty but lovable.

Daring to get a little more familiar, I asked my pal Judi if today’s sanitized Times Square could use its own Windmill Theatre to ratchet up the old raunch-o-meter. “I don’t know whether that applies anymore,” she intoned, with dignity. “But at the time, because of the Lord Chamberlain, the Windmill was very daring indeed. The Lord Chamberlain was still censoring scripts when I came into the theater. We couldn’t have nudity!” (Lord GIULIANI probably would have approved.) Fortunately, she also did a lot of Shakespeare, which Chamberlain tended to leave alone, assuming all’s well that doesn’t rear end well. “I guess he didn’t know about that bare-assed Caliban creature in The Tempest,” I remarked, and we giggled like giddy schoolgirls.

It was for Shakespeare in Love, of course, that Judi nabbed her naked statuette, but she also just pilfered Pride & Prejudice in another salty quickie. “I blew in in a big dress and big wig and came out again!” she told me, laughing. Soon she’ll blow in for longer, returning as M in Casino Royale, with DANIEL CRAIG as the new Bondsman. I told her the original Casino drew snake eyes from critics, but I tend to enjoy it as a colorfully irrational romp. “Good,” she said, sensibly. “Then it’s worth doing again!”


SLY GUY AND THE FAMILY STONE

It’s always worth leaving a top-level job in order to direct a movie, as long as you’ve got the talent to back up the cliché (and the spin of the roulette wheel). THOMAS BEZUCHA did it, abandoning a creative directing position at Ralph Lauren to write and direct movies like The Big Eden and his new one, The Family Stone, and now millions are demanding to know, “How?” “You write a script,” Bezucha blithely told me in another prized phoner. Really? Well, more info, please. “I’ve always loved movies,” he explained. “My idea of a vacation was Sundance. I got an idea for a script and thought, ‘How hard can it be?’ It’s a really easy transition.” OK, I’ll do it—but first I have to get a creative directing position at Ralph Lauren.

Anyway, The Family Stone isn’t the story of Sharon’s folks raising her to be the queen of the B-plus movie starlets. It’s about a dysfunctional-family Christmas, complete with cancer, a possible homophobe, and other issues to resolve before the fat man squeezes down the chute. SARAH JESSICA PARKER‘s character gets scarlet-lettered A for anti-gay—she’s really not all bad, though—but the homosexual couple is so completely faygeleh-flawless that they’re biracial—one’s black, the other isn’t—and even hearing discordant—i.e., one of them is deaf, the other isn’t. “Why not?” said Bezucha, chortling. “We lost the club foot, though. We felt like it was gilding the lily. Those crutches got in the way.”


RANCH UNDRESSING

The most perfect faygeleh couple of all sleeps with the sheep in ANG LEE‘s Brokeback Mountain, a/k/a Bareback Mounting, a/k/a Crouching Cowboy Hidden Penis (Mandarin title: Wo Hu Hang Long), a/k/a Eat Drink Man Man, a/k/a . . . all right, I’ll stop. Anyway, the film has a couple of hot Wyoming ranch hands—one wears black, the other doesn’t—going through all the same mating rituals modern New York gays do. They fuck first, then kiss later (though most of the kissing in the movie looks more like professional head-butting). They pretend to go fishing to throw off the spouses, but actually have no interest in fish whatsoever. And though they think about moving in together, one has a meltdown freaking about the repercussions of intimacy. (They’re not lesbians, after all.) These two could be regulars at Rawhide! At the premiere, when the film tried too hard to tug at our faygeleh-loving heartstrings, I thought, “At last we have a gay romance as banal as the straight ones. We’ve finally arrived!” But mostly, it’s gentle, well observed, and so doomy even homophobes can sit back and enjoy.

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In King Kong, a really controversial duo—an ape and a bottle blonde—provides the most heartwarming love story since JACKO met Bubbles. The remake, alas, is wildly overblown, taking the tight original story and adding more exposition, effects, slo-mo, sociology, and tonsil shots, if way less dialogue. It’s 70 minutes before the big guy even appears, and then there are long, wordless stretches of humans and creatures taunting, attacking, or running from each other as you insanely get nostalgic for the coherence of The Lord of the Rings. Fortunately, the last third kicks in big-time, with Kong bounding through old Times Square (even before the porn) and going apeshit for NAOMI WATTS. “It’s bestiality!” an observer cracked, but I don’t think Naomi’s that funny looking.

Conspicuous overexpenditure hits the screen again with Memoirs of a Geisha, a/k/a Farewell My Crouching Concubine, a florid melodrama that has all the wacky spontaneity of taxidermied butterflies. The characters talk in near-haiku (“Every once in a while a man’s eel likes to visit a woman’s cave”) or showbiz clichés (“You are the most celebrated geisha in all Myaku!”) in between bowing, scraping, and spitting out verbal flying daggers. Every frame seems to come from Nippon by way of N. Highland Avenue, and what’s more, the character named Nobu made me really hungry. If a tree has no leaves or branches, can you still call it a tree? I don’t know, but thanks to all these lunatic excesses, the movie made my eel hard, and I perversely enjoyed it as much as Casino Royale. I might even go to Sephora and get me some “Memoirs of a Geisha eau de parfum—inspired by the film.”

Moving on to the memoirs of a Gatien, a recent, fragrant item of mine mentioned that deported club kingpin PETER GATIEN might be able to come back to the states because he’s part Native American. Well, Gatien (who’s opening a nightclub in Toronto) told Page Six that he isn’t trying to return at all, and no one’s working on his behalf to get him here. Funny, his daughter JENNIFER—an up-and-coming writer—has been e-mailing people that her dad just got into his grandmother’s tribe, Mohawk Nation, “meaning he can come on back to the U.S. of A. Natives are not deportable. I made that discovery a while ago and so my dad will be coming here soon—like next week.” That week has already passed, so maybe next week? Unless Gatien somehow didn’t get the memo. (I refuse to believe he’d flat-out lie.) Or maybe he’s just playing parts.



Pod People
photo: Craig Hayes

Litter Box
THE FASCINATING GASTINEAUS

I did a guest appearance on E!’s Gastineau Girls, brag brag, being filmed as I was interviewed by the mother-daughter duo for a perky podcast. When I turned the tables by asking them questions, the Gastineaus were open and fascinating, with young Brittny projecting a sort of mother-hen quality and mama Lisa seeming more like a feisty coming-of-ager. Things got especially interesting when I asked why they’re celebs and how Lisa deals with sexual dry spells.

I’ve also been guest-appearing in audiences, like the opening-night one for the Zipper Theater’s effective revival of the queer-murderer drama Bareback Pouncing, I mean Rope. In the crowd, AMY SACCO (not with Vanzetti) told me they’re starting to develop the pilot for the HBO show about HER CLUB DIVADOM, AND THOUGH CASTING HASN’T BEEN DONE YET, SHE’D LOVE KRISTEN JOHNSTON to play her because “she has the voice and she’s so funny.” And like Sacco, she’s so very tall.

On Broadway, A Touch of the Poet is rarely seen O’Neill in a potent production that’s for serious theatergoers only. In tackling the tale of dampened aspirations, there are no gimmicks, pop stars, or video projections—just lots of strong, straightforward work. Can you deal with it? (I know I couldn’t.)

But Broadway-to-movie transfers are more iffy. Some people are walking out of screenings of The New World looking more glazed than donuts (but that’s just some people). And a friend of mine is undergoing chemotherapy, but said in all seriousness, “It’s better than
Rent!”



Web Extra

The kids on the Broadway boards are buzzing that the stage musical version of the Full Monty might be on the verge of being made into a film musical, much the way The Producers and Hairspray have ping-ponged from movie to stage show to movie again. The proposed star of the strip-and-sing film epic? Hugh Jackman! Book my ticket now!

More immediately, stage legend Chita Rivera is back on Broadway where she belongs in Chita Rivera: The Dancer’s Life, her loving tribute to herself and the people who helped. The show starts dramatically, with a girl playing little Chita dancing onstage in synchronicity with big Chita, who’s high-kicking in silhouette behind a scrim. Then big Chita comes center stage and entertains and informs us—I had no idea she started out dancing on tabletops like Paris Hilton!—whirling her 72-year-old ass around to some great old songs and bland new ones. Some of the script is too cutesy and cliched (“The part fit me like a glove”) and alas, there’s no mention of Chita not being all hetero, which she told me on the record last year. (Here, she does a gender-specific tribute to the men in her life.) But it’s still a solid enough showcase for the gloriously graceful star, and that’s good, isn’t it, grand, isn’t it?—though for the movie verison, they’ll probably get Hugh Jackman. (For backup dancer Deidre Goodwin, they should definitely get Kevin Aviance. The resemblance is astounding.)

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musto@villagevoice.com

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Planet of the Ape

That 10-ton gorilla in the room this holiday season is literally a 10-ton—or maybe a 50-ton—gorilla. “It’s huge, it’s huge!” I heard a colleague exclaim as the dust cleared.

Peter Jackson’s three-hour King Kong remake is acutely self-conscious without being particularly self-reflective. Every kink in the 1933 original—a ballyhooed mélange of sex, carnage, sadism, racial weirdness, and special effects made by former expeditionary filmmakers Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper—is extravagantly normalized. Jackson’s broad, beautifully designed, knowingly hokey, and ultimately exhausting super-production treats the mad love of a monstrous jungle ape for a sylph-like white woman (Naomi Watts) as an episode of Sex and the City, just a fatherless girl’s search for the ultimate protector.

Destined for box-office glory, Jackson’s Kong can afford to revel in its tawdry Depression origins. The movie is set in the early ’30s. The magical opening montage puts a Hooverville in Central Park, conjures up streets limned by elevated trains and clogged with Model T’s, and evokes a sense of desperate vaudeville in the person of Watts’s gutsy hoofer. All period wonder is liquidated, however, with the introduction of Jack Black—the devious filmmaker who is bound for the mysterious Skull Island in search of the Eighth Wonder of the World.

It takes Black’s tramp steamer of mystery a full hour to even reach Skull Island—a mini Mordor replete with ruins, calcified skeletons, and prehistoric inhabitants deliquescing in the rain. Jackson doesn’t really solve King Kong’s “native” problem—nor can he. The original was as much a symptom as a movie—the most extravagant cinematic expression of white supremacy made in America since The Birth of a Nation and perhaps the most delirious imperialist fantasy ever. Lose the spectacle of the white woman at the mercy of a savage horde and you lose the movie, although in keeping with Skull Island’s decor, Jackson recasts the indigenous people as a mob of slavering aboriginal zombie orcs.

“In this film the Europeans show themselves, as usual, particularly repugnant,” Jean Levy wrote approvingly of the ’33 Kong in the surrealist journal Minotaur. For the surrealists, Kong achieved greatness in its second act—when the action moves beyond Skull Island’s barricade into the primeval jungle of pure instinct and unconscious desire. “Maybe American professors of palaeontology designed the models of the prehistoric monsters for Hollywood,” Levy noted. “Their spiritual father is none other than Max Ernst.”

The spiritual father for Jackson’s dinos is, of course, Steven Spielberg, and Skull Island’s interior is a second-rate, jumped-up Jurassic Park of unrelenting dinosaur stampedes and interminable trapeze acts. Holding the white woman in one paw, the great ape fights three dinos at once, even as her human lover (Adrien Brody) hacks his way through the creepy-crawlies. It’s bio-class warfare to the max—a free-for-all pitting reptiles against mammals (primates actually) against insects and their mollusk allies. Primates prevail—hoist high the opposable thumb, Roger!

Jackson’s camera lavishes attention on Watts dashing through the jungle in a state of greater and greater dishabille. The only thing stronger than the spaghetti straps of her chemise will be Kong’s love. (The striptease will never be consummated. There is nothing in the new Kong to compare with the censored moment in the original when the ape rips off Fay Wray’s flimsy wrapper and then, curiosity aroused, sniffs his fingers.) Andy Serkis’s Kong is positively noble in repose, captivated less by the white woman’s charms than her spunky vaudeville antics. Although Watts is always “acting,” her adventures among the Effects cannot compare to those of Tilda Swinton, who, treating the cosmos as her personal blue screen, plays the White Witch of Narnia with an Aryan hauteur worthy of Leni Riefenstahl.

Intermittently, Jackson attempts to dignify his material. But the repeated referencing of Heart of Darkness is pointless. (For highfalutin tone, King Kong is more a P.T. Barnum version of Moby-Dick.) The director is on surer ground when he re-creates the 1933 movie’s tom-tom savage dance routines for Kong’s stage debut—incorporating a chunk of the original the way a postmodern architect might appropriate the facade of a supplanted landmark. Speaking of which, midtown gets suitably trashed but Kong exerts an Aslanic effect on the big town. Hooverville is gone, Central Park filled with Christmas trees. In this enchanted landscape, KK and his petit w.w. take a magical spin on the ice and frisk in the snow.

She’s down with the ape, but not all the way. For King Kong is an accountant’s movie at heart. Given the excessive length and bombastic F/X, there’s too much action and precious little poetry.

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The Reich Stuff: ‘King Kong’ vs. ‘Producers’

Showbiz legends both, King Kong and The Producers feature sleazy, manipulative impresarios as a means to get at the exploitation essence of popular entertainment. “Monsters belong in B movies,” someone tells Jack Black, who, after spotting King Kong in his natural habitat, happily brays, “The whole world will pay to see this.” Each in its way concerns a quest to become the biggest thing on the Great White Way, and each evokes a moment when New York City might have imagined itself the center of the entertainment universe. There’s a common subtext suggesting that as hard-boiled and callous as New York is, it is still a metropolis in which everyone has his or her place, even if it’s atop the Empire State Building. The Producers is the more domesticated of the movies, with Leo playing timorous white woman to Max’s obstreperous jungle ape. Their aesthetic offspring turns out to be a Nazi pageant, not unlike the original King Kong—which, opening three days after the Reichstag fire, was released in the Reich as King Kong und die Wei Frau and is said to have rivaled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as Hitler’s favorite Hollywood movie.