Favorite Films: King Kong (1933)

Who Can Resist That Mug?

I must have seen the original King Kong (1933) over twenty times by now, and I never seem to grow tired of it. One of the reasons I love it is that it is Pre-Code. As such, it gets away with many scenes that a few scant years later would have received the kibosh from the censors at the Hays Office. In one of my favorites, Kong employs Fay Wray as a scratch-n-sniff toy, stripping away her outer garments as if they were onionskins and holding his fingers up to his nose. You can see the scene on YouTube here.

A few years before he died, I happened to meet the producer and co-director of the film, Merian C. Cooper. He spoke to a film class at UCLA for which I was the graduate teaching assistant. During that class, he gave his own interpretation of what Kong was really about. Now I don’t necessarily take his word for it, but he says that the ape was a symbol of the downtrodden black race which did not know its own power. Maybe, but there are too many vignettes of the giant gorilla munching on black natives or crushing them like insects under his feet for that reasoning to be altogether convincing.

While I liked the big gorilla, I went ape for Fay Wray. After seeing countless movies of the period with goldilocks-looking blondes wearing those stupid cloche hats, like cloth helmets, it was refreshing to see a healthy young woman who would be considered a knockout today—without having to squint your eyes. Oh, and she was also a pretty good screamer.

Fay Wray in the Notorious Scratch-N-Sniff Scene

There have been numrous remakes and near look-alikes, but I still think the only ones worth considering were done by Ernest B. Schoedsack with or without Merian C. Cooper. I am specifically referring to Son of Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949). In the age of CGI, Kong just ceases to be interesting. The model work in the Schoedsack/Cooper films was nothing less than superb.

 

Red Sunset Mother

It All Goes Back to Aesop

It All Goes Back to Aesop

The three words of the title of this post were separately suppressed by Myanmar’s ruling junta: “red” because of its association with Communism; “sunset” because General Ne Win’s name meant “sunrise”; and “mother” because that was the nickname of Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi.

That brings back to mind another draconian instance of censorship. In Costa-Gavras’s film (1969), the rightist Greek colonels in charge forbid the use of the letter Z (Zeta) in the Greek alphabet because of the protestors’ use of the Greek phrase “Ζει,” meaning “He lives.” The pronoun refers to the democratic politician Grigoris Lambrakis, who was assassinated in 1963.

What does one do when the powers that be forbid the use of certain words? Russian and Eastern European writers under Communist rule came up with the solution: use other words in their place. This is referred to as the use of Aesopian, or Aesopic, language. Just as the ancient Greek teller of fables used stories to mask political realities, writers would use metaphorical language to stand in for the proscribed language. In an article entitled “The Rhetoric of Subversion: Strategies of ‘Aesopian Language’ in Romanian Literary Criticism Under Late Communism,” Andrei Terian describes the procedure used:

Since organized dissent was absent, the ‘resistance through culture’ represented in Romania the main form of assertion of the writers’ independence from the Communist regime. Civically, it materialized through the refusal to enroll in the party’s propaganda machine, while artistically, it took place through the defense of the priority of the ‘aesthetic’ criterion in the production and reception of literary works, which generated a literature relatively autonomous from the political sphere. Nevertheless, from the perspective of maximalist ethics, the ‘resistance through culture’ is a deeply duplicitous phenomenon, which fits perfectly in the Ketman paradigm described by Czeslaw Milosz. In the Polish writer’s opinion, ‘Ketman means self-realization against something’ (The Captive Mind ….), which, in the case of totalitarian societies, is translated in a profound divergence between an individual’s private thoughts and their public expression.

I thought Milosz expressed it better in The Captive Mind—a book I urge everyone to read—but I can’t quote it because, alas, I can’t lay my hand on it at the moment.

Terian is a bit abstruse, so let me think of an example. Let us say that the Tea Party rules America as a rightist junta and bans the use of the word “abortion.” A hated Liberal writer can use another term, such as “ablution” in such a way that a censor would let it pass, despite the fact that its meaning would be clear from its context, as in “they were able to limit the size of their family with the discreet use of ablution.” Writers can and did develop an entire language of such circumlocutions under the noses of the Communist censors.

Even words as basic as “red,” “sunset,” and “mother” can find Aesopian equivalents, such as, perhaps, “rubicund,” “gloaming,” or “progenitrix” respectively—though a poet can play with the concept much as Viking poets used kennings such as “wave’s steed” for “ship” or “Freyja’s tears” for “gold.” And the Viking’s did this not because of censorship, but to help the meter of their compositions.