Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Ring Form Opportunity: King Kong – and some notes on how to do it

David Bordwell just sent me the following note:
Long ago I remember the French critic Thierry Kuntzel giving a talk (which he never published, I think) on KING KONG arguing that it had such a construction, which he compared to an opened book, and the discovery of Kong as the 'gutter' (we'd say) between two pages, before and after. I've never checked to confirm this, but maybe it would fit too.
Are there any takers? I have seen the original, as well as the more recent remake, but this is not something you can do from memory. You need to watch the film and take notes. Judging from my experience, it should take at least half-a-day to do this.

And you start with a leg-up. In the first place, you have a reason to think the film might be a ring form, so you're looking for something specific–remember Mary Douglas's check list? Further, you've got a candidate for the central episode; that makes things much simpler.

Now you're trying to verify whether or not that episode is the center of a ring. Without that start you might have to test several episodes for centrality. And – obviously – when you're looking for ring form, the first thing to look for IS that central episode. In the cases of both Tezuka's Metropolis and Heart of Darkness, I started with a suspicion about what the central episode was.

Apocalypse Now was different By the time I began working on the film two years ago I had become interested in ring form and had, by that time, published my Metropolis analysis. So I was on the lookout. But AN didn't seem promising. In fact, that's why I did one post where I simply went through the whole film and summarized each section. I took the DVD's chapter divisions at face value when I did this. Why?

I assume that the people who did that had been working closely with the film for a while and that they had good instincts. Maybe they got something wrong, but at this point the best way to determine that would be to start with what they’ve done and see how things work out. Beyond that, however, I grouped the individual segments into higher level “chapters”, more or less on general principle.

I saw, of course, that the sampan massacre was a pivotal incident, but I couldn’t see that the prior and subsequent episodes were symmetrically arranged around it. Nor did I have that somewhat less constraining concept of center point construction available to me; I came up with that in the course of working on Heart of Darkness, which I did when I’d finished my work on Apocalypse Now.

Once, however, I decided to check AN for center point, the argument fell into place rather quickly (because I’d already do a lot of work). The crucial move, of course, was to see that the sampan massacre WAS the center point, rather than Chief’s death, which corresponds to the center point in HoD.

Addendum: From Judith Mayne, "King Kong" and the Ideology of Spectacle, Quarterly review of film studies, Vol. 1, No. 4, November 1976: 373-387.
And yet the structure of King Kong is a paragon of symmetry. The center of the film, occurring on Skull Island, is enclosed by two sequences occurring in New York, and these two sequences in their turn are enclosed by the references to Beauty and the Beast. In addition, New York and Skull are held up to each other as in a mirror reflection. Our first view of Skull Island, through Denham's map, could easily be is taken for the Island of Manhattan. Just as Kong climbs to the top of his mountain and fights off pterodactyls in defense of Ann Darrow, so, in New York, he climbs to the top of the Empire State Building to ward off airplanes. His destruction in New York is completely prefigured, in shot, in the Skull Island sequences.

* * * * *

BTW, take a look at Bordwell’s post, Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, and Hollywood movies. He presents two films, Passage to Marseille and The Locket, as being structured with story4, withinstory3, within story2, within story1. The innermost story (story4) contains the key the unlocks the mystery of the rest. That makes it the center point.


  1. "Are there any takers?"

    One of the motifs and certainly a number of elements in the film are certainly a part of what I have been doing. They are seriously late sources for me so not yet paid them full attention.

    I could certainly use the film and my knowledge of the long history of the themes and motifs that interest me to test the concept of ring form sometime next year.

    Checking Thierry Kuntzel appears to have written on the subject but its not published described as work on "the scene of repetition."

    I found a paper by Judith Mayne that was strongly influenced by Kuntzel's own work on Kong. Deals with a number of familiar themes for me.

    Ring form is not my area but her language, "complete a full circle", mirror image, etc. Certainly looks like it may be on topic for you.


  2. Great find. See the passage I've appended to my post.

  3. One of the first things I wrote on the long term survival of the creature and motifs I track was something along the lines of, 'the successes of this long term show business survivor was simply its ability to look like lots of different things.'

    Seriously interesting post, thanks to both you and David. Beauty and the beast is one of the major aspects yet to explore as I had not got a full way in to the subject other than to note potential. I think that may just have changed.

    1. Well, the movie's been remade twice, plus various sequels and spin-offs. And now I'm wondering about the original Japanese Gojira. It IS a very ritualistic film. And one that's about more than just a big monster from the deep.

  4. We are somewhat married to the monster.

    Central western image that of it that represents it as an unnatural creature and unlike an animal in its habits.


    Not looked but not familiar with any Japanese examples of the image. Huge in the states for a long period, central image used in a huge range of American B movies in advertising shots.

    1. Gojira came out in Japan in 1954. The film was cut and edited with new footage and released in America in 1956 as Godzilla. The Japanese made a whole pile of sequels. Gojira/Godzilla is a giant reptile, the product of radiation. I don't know when the Japanese first started producing such stories, but Tezuka was writing manga about irradiated creatures in 1949 (Metropolis).

    2. The abduction motif in particular has a relationship with philosophy and folktales or elite and popular culture. It has 'traditionally' been important to determining concepts like animal or 'man-like'.

      Its been missed in a lot of discussion on such things. Isolated research cultures.

      The lines appear to be more vague and anxious than historians often suggest at times. But they are often looking at more formal authorized compositions that are perhaps more guarded than other forms of story- telling that have more room to play.

      It also seems to stand on its own and make sense without recourse to the legal philosophy.

      If the theme is culturally specific raises the question what else is it in the cultural pattern that allows folk to be mindful of the theme.

      Would also be interesting determining what the pattern was that allows for the emotional connection made.

      Difficult to sort and date the moves but the density of distribution of the abduction motif makes it easier than other examples that appear to contain the same folk/elite elements.

      Its a significant motif and a very twisty turny yarn.

    3. Note that there's no abduction in Gojira, though there was at one time a tradition of sacrificing virgins to him, or perhaps her. When Gojira goes on a rampage it's against Tokyo, not against anyone in particular.

  5. p.s no idea if this one moves into Japanese culture or not. So far have zero examples but enough on my plate with European material to spend much time here.

    If it is the case it has not transferred, does not necessarily imply significant difference. Transmission often does not happen at a local level if a widely distributed story already covers the same descriptive ground. Can lead to significant variation within a single culture at a more local level, can also be socialy and culturally useful to disguise and maintain a difference .