On the Church and Society
December 19, 2005
The final line in both the 1933 "King Kong" film and the new remake is: "It was beauty killed the beast."
Given both its heart and wondrous special effects, director Peter Jackson's epic-like, 2005 "King Kong," where an over-sized beast becomes infatuated with a beautiful blonde, amplifies the question: Can a work of art be both beautiful and violent? That is, does the concept of "beautiful violence" make sense? To some, it might seem paradoxical.
Jackson's "King Kong" serves up plenty of violence. There are all sorts of battles on Skull Island, for example, involving Kong, dinosaurs, men, and giant, yucky bugs. And once he breaks free from his chains, King Kong wreaks some considerable damage on 1930s New York City, finally meeting his demise atop the Empire State Building.
At the same time, there is obvious beauty in this film. For example, the recreated New York City of the era is at times mesmerizing. It's also easy to see why Kong falls for the striking Naomi Watts who portrays Ann Darrow. In addition, King Kong possesses a kind of noble beauty himself, as one says about great animals.
But a piece of art, like this film, is not meant to be taken in snippets beauty here, violence there. It is a cohesive work.
To wrestle with beautiful violence, let's quickly review what art is supposed to be about in the first place. If it is only the self-expression of the artist, then who cares? Why should we waste our time pondering efforts in self-absorption?
Art must be more than mere selfishness. The artist has to move beyond himself. That usually means keeping an eye on the audience. Some sniff at this as corrupting commercialism. In reality, it is a healthy sense of serving others. Sometimes the artist looks beyond consumers to a much higher power, with art becoming a way to worship God.
Depending on the purpose, art should be to varying degrees entertaining, illuminating, and uplifting. In the end, the best art makes us better people.
Unfortunately, the art of moviemaking too often is plagued by self-justification, self-aggrandizement and an impulse to drag people down to the base and unsavory. That includes the use of gratuitous violence, i.e., violence without purpose.
However, marvelous exceptions can be seen where a kind of beautiful violence emerges. Peter Jackson provided examples in his "Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy, in which magnificent filmmaking used violence in service to virtues like loyalty, courage, and friendship.
Christians should completely understand beautiful violence. It is a central tenet of the faith. They saw it compellingly brought to the big screen in Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." For many, it's hard to think of a more violent film, or a more beautiful one. Yet, no paradox exists. In the beautiful act of sacrificing for the sins of mankind, Jesus endured the most violent of deaths.
Beautiful violence also came to theaters earlier this month in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," based on C.S. Lewis' classic children's novel. The film featured the Christ-like Aslan submitting to a violent death to save a traitor, and an epic battle whereby good conquers evil. Director Andrew Adamson deserves praise for his skilled filmmaking, and his respect for the adventure and purpose in the book.
So, does Jackson's "King Kong" offer beautiful violence? It does, though not on the lofty levels of "Lord of the Rings," "The Chronicles of Narnia," or most certainly, "The Passion of the Christ."
By bowing to the original film, Jackson understands that beauty is what the tragedy of King Kong is about in the end. Much of the violence presented in the film is undertaken in service to love and beauty. "King Kong" is at least in part about the filmmaker and the audience appreciating beauty, as in a woman, a beast, and that beast's willingness to protect his beauty.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
Copyright © Raymond J. Keating