Commentary Track: Is King Kong a Realist or Surrealist Text?


In King Kong (1933), protagonist Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) proclaims to an eager audience that “seeing is believing.” Denham, however, is wrong—seeing is only part of believing, as knowing also plays a key part. Surrealist cinema often blends what is seen and what is known into a synthesis of dream and reality, altogether ignoring the cultural and scientific notions of causality and reason. Realist cinema, on the other hand, stresses knowing in order to further the plausibility—and thus the narrative absorption—of seeing. Although King Kong’s narrative blends the fantastic and the real, I will argue that it is nonetheless a realist text, as it reasons with the fantastic by virtue of reality—namely, by scientific knowledge of the pre-historic and by the penetrating power of the ethnographic gaze.

Although King Kong is a realist text, it nonetheless contains a noteworthy argument for its potential as a surrealist one: the visual jerkiness of early cinema’s stop-motion live-action; the jarring technical limitations of Kong’s hand-guided animation calls attention to the unrealistic, dream-like premise of a giant ape existing in an otherwise plausible universe—a cinematic universe supported by verisimilar acting and clear causality (Denham captures Kong in hopes of increasing his fortune and fame). Consequently, a surrealist tension surfaces between the stop-motioned Kong and his modern world. However, this tension is dual-edged: the jerkiness creates such a stark contrast to an otherwise seamlessly-moving universe (of a twenty-four frames-per-second reality) that the presence of the enunciator becomes highly exaggerated—the film is foregrounded as a realist spectacle, à la cinema of attractions. Ultimately, the viewer’s awareness of Kong’s animation being the result of a diligent extra-diegetic animator’s work calls attention to the fact that King Kong is also a celebration of technology and of cinema’s constant search for novelty. In the context of Gunning’s writings then, King Kong’s use of stop-motion would be an example of “an aesthetic [that] runs counter to an illusionistic absorption”—thus, King Kong simultaneously acknowledging the presence of its audience, thereby disavowing an isolated synthesis of dream and reality; the blatant presence of the enunciator overwhelmingly interrupts the narrative and literally blocks absorption.

King Kong is further rendered realist by its plotting of Carl Denham’s ethnographic pursuit, in which Denham aims to capitalize on the modern desire to see the foreign, the strange, and the primitive—all of which is embodied in Kong. The fantastical nature of Kong—his size and Other-world mysticism—is ultimately rendered rational, and thus realistic, by the ethnographic gaze of Denham’s camera and crew; the ethnography of Skull Island helps to mask the irrational fear and desire of a giant and pre-historic gorilla. Essentially, the impurity and dangerousness of Kong’s bodily disruption is marginalized by the rationalizing ethnographic gaze of the film camera—the camera gathers information on the foreign and the strange, then renders its subjects as controllable and tamed. Conversely, if King Kong were, in fact, a surrealist text, any notions of rationalization and scientific justification—as per the ethnographic gaze—would instead be rendered utterly irrelevant, as the dream-like and fantastical nature of Kong would instead be unapologetically integrated into the film’s ‘narrative.’

Beyond the film’s ethnographic rationalization is its meta-narrative’s rationalization of Kong. Specifically, Kong’s existence is scientifically-justified as the result of isolation from modernity—Kong has lived on an island so far removed from technological development and disaster that pre-historic life has successfully been preserved. Hence, when Denham captures Skull Island and its animals with his camera, he is not capturing an uncanny blend of the surreal with the real, but simply the real alone.

Ultimately, King Kong adheres to the realist text’s binary of dream and reality, and it makes no outright attempt to blur those boundaries; King Kong may be a creature of fantastical proportions, but he is no dream—he is the scientifically-rationalized anomaly of countless years of isolation. Hence, on-screen instances of ‘real world’ implausibility do not draw attention to the dream-like power of illusion, they instead affirm seemingly pseudo-scientific folk myths of lost worlds—both Carl Denham’s audience and the real-world audience knows the reasoning behind the giant ape they see. This affirmation, combined with the jarring jerkiness of stop-motion animation, presents a resoundingly realist text to the audience—a text that is realistically grounded not only as a narrative with significant potential for absorption, but also as a spectacle of seeing, in the tradition of the cinema of attractions.

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