Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Yippee-kai-yay, Father Christmas!

John confesses his faults to Al
As I prepare for my annual Christmas Eve viewing of Die Hard, I present a few stray and overdue thoughts on this holiday favorite. Die Hard has been to me the prototypical "action movie." It may not have been the first, but it was the first one I noticed influencing others of its time. It established — or at least brought to my attention — some conventions that would follow elsewhere: a tricky "caper" plot that belies the simple expectations of big action, an estranged heterosexual couple that passes through the trauma of said plot to emerge reconciled at film's end, and an implicit homosexual relationship between the male leads through which all interpersonal relationship issues are resolved.

Holly's watch comes undone
Die Hard places blame for the couple's troubles on the woman and on her attempted independence. It is suggested that despite John's stubborn phallocentrism, it is Holly's decision to pursue her own career that has put the pair's marriage in jeopardy. Further, the west coast company that Holly works for is shown to be ethically dubious, in opposition to John's east coast job in law enforcement: drug use and sex in the workplace are shown during the office party, with the company boss seemingly laughing off what John sees as obvious transgressions. To save Holly, and therefore their marriage, John must defeat not only Hans Gruber, but Holly's career. He puts an end to both, literally to the former, symbolically to the latter, by undoing the clasp on Holly's watch, a gift given to her by the company for a job well done.

Reunited: John and Holly, Al and his gun
The reconciliation of John and Holly is remarkably one-sided, with John doing most of the talking. He does this talking not to Holly, however, but to Al. Talking to Al over police radio, John confesses his faults and his feelings for Holly in an emotional highpoint. Al confesses his own inadequacies, in his case a symbolic impotence resulting from his accidental shooting of a child, an incident that has left him unable to draw his gun since. When the hostage crisis is over and John and Al meet in person for the first time, they are given a much more emotional and romantic reunion than John and Holly. After their tearful embrace, Al is able to pull out his phallus — his gun — and empty it into the body of a leggy long-haired blond, the last bad guy. Both men are restored to full potency, and Holly is reclaimed by her husband and their marriage. Indeed, given the importance placed on the relationship between John and Al, Holly's role — or the role of any woman in this scenario — is strictly token.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Happy birthday, Bernard Hill

Today is the 66th birthday of Bernard Hill, an actor I always enjoy watching and whose Hollywood career has been noticeably punctuated by a recurring role: A person of authority who reacts stubbornly to news about his grim chances of survival, only to be killed a short time after.

The Ghost and the Darkness

Hill's Dr. Hawthorne, the sole medic for a turn-of-the-century construction crew building a bridge over Africa’s Tsavo River, is told by game hunter Remington that the man-eating lions that have been terrorizing the camp will most likely target his hospital. When Hawthorne questions Remington’s demand that a new hospital be built immediately, Remington insists that a deadly attack will follow otherwise. Despite following Remington's orders, Hawthorne is killed by the lions the following night.


As the captain of the world's largest passenger ship, Hill remains undaunted when warned of dangerous icebergs along his travel route. Instead of using caution, he orders the ship to move faster. Moving too quickly to avoid a deceptively massive block of ice, the ship is torn apart, and the captain perishes in the pilot house as Titanic goes under.

Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Hill plays King Theoden, the aging ruler of a land besieged by evil forces in The Two Towers. Warned by allies Aragorn and Gimli of his likely defeat by the approaching hoard of Uruk-hai warriors, an indignant Theoden insists his fortress is well-defended. His stronghold is soon overrun, however, and while he narrowly escapes thanks to the last-minute intervention of the wizard Gandalf, Theoden is killed while battling under similar odds in the following film, The Return of the King.


Playing a German general in North Africa during World War II, Hill gets word from Tom Cruise's Colonel von Stauffenberg of impending defeat by Allied forces. Hill's general stubbornly agrees to withdraw, only to be gunned down moments later in a raid by American fighter planes.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Remembering Pearl Harbor, Hollywood-style

Commemorate today's anniversary with this list of films, offering Hollywood's take on the Before, During, and After of the attack on Pearl Harbor.


Flying Tigers
John Wayne in his P-40
John Wayne leads the famous flyers — in this movie, a mixed bag of principled freedom fighters and hot-shot mercenaries — against the Japanese in pre-Pearl China. Motives and personalities may be disparate, but everyone pulls together after FDR's famous speech.

Donna Reed and Montgomery Clift
From Here to Eternity
Set in Hawaii in the weeks leading up to the attack, this classic features Burt Lancaster and Montgomery Clift as the toughest-but-most-vulnerable soldiers in the army. They love the service, and they want to be loved back. Is that so wrong?


Tora! Tora! Tora!
Sô Yamamura as Admiral Yamamoto
Both the Japanese and American sides are shown in this film from 1970. Much bickering about invasion strategy is shown on the Japanese side, while the Americans are shown repeatedly ignoring seemingly obvious clues about the attack. After all the destruction, the film attempts an uplifting ending with Japan's Admiral Yamamoto declaring, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."

The attack begins
Pearl Harbor
Every line of dialog in this Michael Bay-directed film sounds like a paraphrased chapter of a history book ("All we have to worry about here is sabotage, so we've bunched our planes together to make them easier to protect.") or a parody of romantic clichés ("I'm gonna give Danny my whole heart, but I don't think I'll ever look at another sunset without thinking of you."). It's a paint-by-numbers period melodrama whose colors drip all over the CGI-enhanced fantasy of actual events, though if you can sit through the first hour and a half you will eventually see Pearl Harbor blown up Bay-style, which I guess is something.


Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
Spencer Tracy as James Doolittle
Spencer Tracy makes sporadic appearances as James Doolittle, the mastermind behind America's retaliatory air strike at Japan. The real focus is on the other flyers, namely a bomber crew led by Van Johnson's Ted Lawson. While the men succeed in hitting their target, they don't fare as well afterwards when their plane crash-lands in Japanese-occupied China.

Slim Pickens
Dare I profane the solemn day by recalling Slim Pickens, prisoner on a Japanese submarine, simulating defecation by dropping his boot into a toilet in order to prevent a Cracker Jacks compass from falling into enemy hands? I dare!

See also:
Remembering D-Day, Hollywood-style
Remembering the Doolittle Raid, Hollywood-style

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Women, gorillas, and de-evolution

The Gorilla Theory

Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus
The nightclub patrons have taken their seats to watch the show. Women in exotic costumes dance onto the stage to a primal rhythm played on conga drums. A gorilla enters the room and slowly swaggers to center stage, followed by the puzzled gazes of the audience. Slowly swaying to the savage sound of the conga drums, the gorilla peels off its hands, revealing underneath slender white human arms. Then, to the amazement of the audience, the gorilla removes its own head and exposes its true self: Marlene Dietrich, icon of cinematic female sexuality, performing a taunting striptease to the delight of every onlooker.

This scene from the 1931 film Blonde Venus is a perfect illustration of a recurrent motif in Hollywood films: the pairing of women with gorillas. The woman/gorilla pair has provided Hollywood a vehicle by which women can be exploited as spectacle and contained by the male social order. The pairing is used to illustrate the patriarchal belief that women are primitive and dangerous, and that, when uncontrolled by the patriarchy, they threaten to undermine and harm the (male) social order. This pairing is not exclusive to one genre or period, and its repeated use has been instrumental in imparting the same patriarchal containment theory on generations of film audiences.

The films considered here span a range of years and genre types: King Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949), Gorilla at Large (1954), and Gorillas in the Mist (1988). Each film reflects the male social order's fear of women as forces capable of undermining the patriarchy, and each film satisfies the male order's desire to contain and control female sexuality. These films pair women with gorillas by showing them to be similar, and then demonstrate how that pairing threatens to violate the heterosexual union1 upon which, due to the control it affords men over women, the patriarchy's authority depends. Furthermore, the films punish the woman/gorilla pairs with a severity proportional to the violation they have committed.

King Kong

Kong arrives at the sacrificial altar
The 1933 film King Kong is probably the most famous of the "woman and gorilla" films. It is more or less a horror film, and the relationship between the woman, Ann, and the gorilla, Kong, conforms to the victim/monster pattern of most horror films of the time: the monster is a source of terror, certainly for the men in the film, and, according to the surface text, to the woman as well. Any alliance between Ann and Kong is implicit. The two are, however, identified as similar, both in their identification as "other" (i.e., different from the dominant white male), and in their reduction to spectacle.

Kong is certainly identified as "other." Like all the gorillas in these films, he is, of course, non-human. Kong is also atypical of his own kind: he is impossibly large for a gorilla, and, as far as the film reveals, he is the only giant gorilla in the world. His habitat, Skull Island, also makes him different, as it is far removed from the civilized world (indeed, unheard of until Denham produces his secret map). The island natives further Kong's identification as "other" by alienating him from their own order. They are terrified of him, and separate themselves2 from him with their giant wall. In this way, the natives, who are most certainly "others" themselves due to their skin color, their remoteness from civilization, and their primitive ways ("remoteness," "civilization," and "primitive" of course being relative to the white patriarchy controlling the film), establish Kong as "more other," or "wilder than the wild."

Ann, the only woman among the ship's crew,
is further singled out by the natives
Ann, too, is constructed as "other." She is the only woman3 aboard Captain Englehorn's ship, and Jack makes her acutely aware of her difference by explaining that "women just can't help being a b/other." Jack even separates Ann from her own sex, bestowing her with greater difference: when Ann asks how Jack can be attracted to her when he "hates women," Jack replies, "But you aren't women." Ann is further identified as different on Skull Island4, when she is singled out of the group "white humans" by the group "non-white humans" (the natives) due to her blonde hair (Denham comments, "Yeah, blondes are scarce around here."). The natives further establish Ann's difference by placing her on the "other" side of the wall, giving her to Kong. They are certain that Kong will be more satisfied with her than with their own women, identifying Ann not only as "other," but as "most like Kong." This action, then, unites the two figures that the film identifies as most removed from the white male order.

Kong and Ann at center stage
Ann and Kong are also alike in their roles as objects of spectacle. Ann is hired by Denham to be spectacle in his film. While the film is never made, Ann is scrutinized by Denham's camera and the ship's crew during the test shots Denham shoots on deck. Kong, in turn, provides a kind of "show" for the natives who watch from atop the wall as he takes Ann from the sacrificial platform. Back in New York, both Ann and Kong are reunited on stage in the most "spectacular" scene in the film, displayed on stage for the auditorium-size audience both in and out of the film. While Jack is also a part of this spectacle, as is, to an extent, Denham (though his role as showman/controller lessens his role as spectacular object), Kong and Ann bear the largest part of the audience's gaze. In the shots before the unveiling of Kong, Denham and Jack both refuse to take credit for the capture. Denham tells the press, "Miss Darrow's the story. . . Play up that angle — 'Beauty and the Beast.' That's your story, boys," establishing Kong and Ann as the objects to be looked at by a male audience (the "boys" of the press).

Kong takes a swipe at an attacking airplane
What results, then, when Kong abducts Ann — both on Skull Island and Manhattan Island (the film's two main locations and the sites of Kong's spectacular and destructive behavior, both still isolated and removed, to varying degrees, by the surrounding bodies of water) — is a union of the two non-patriarchal "others." That this union — this force which escapes the confines5 of the male social order (illustrated quite literally as Kong breaks out of the steel chains Denham restrains him with) — is powerful and threatening to the patriarchy is illustrated in the violent destruction Kong inflicts on the city in his search for Ann. Most importantly, this union interferes with the assimilation of Ann into the male order via marriage to Jack. Obviously, if Kong maintains possession of Ann, there can be no wedding.

Kong falls to his death, Ann ends up with Jack
To recuperate this loss of control, the male social order must destroy the renegade union. Because Kong initiates this coupling, and because Ann remains at all times terrified of the gorilla and desirous of being rescued, the recuperation allows different treatment of each. The punishments are relative to the violation: Kong, the force which displays no possibility of assimilation into the male order, deserves death, and Ann, whose only "crime" is being a woman, can easily be contained through the marriage she believes is no punishment at all.

King Kong (1976): Dwan, swarmed by press photographers,
and Kong's lifeless body
(The 1976 re-make of King Kong offers some interesting variations on the original. Most significant of these is that the woman, now named Dwan, and Jack both sympathize with Kong and object to his death. Jack's loyalty to the male order is also questioned, due both to his sympathy for Kong and his own ape-like appearance. These differences in Jack are compensated for, however, by the lack of a heterosexual coupling at film's end. Though Dwan, standing by Kong's corpse, cries out desperately for Jack, Jack hesitates and does not go to her. Due to Jack's questionable "maleness," their marriage would fail to place Dwan under adequate patriarchal control. Dwan is contained, however, by the battery of press photographers that swarm around her and reduce her to an object of spectacle.

King Kong (2005): Kong reunited with Ann
Peter Jackson's 2005 version, made more than ten years after I wrote this essay, makes the kinship between woman and gorilla even more explicit. Perhaps material for a future revision...)

Mighty Joe Young

Jill and Joe after their first encounter with O'Hara and crew
Mighty Joe Young transforms the relationship of woman and gorilla from the victim/monster pair seen in King Kong to a symbiotic friendship. Through this closer connection, the film establishes the gorilla, Joe, as the symbolic embodiment of unrestrained female sexuality, thus making the positive friendship between Joe and the woman, Jill, even more threatening to the male order.

The film establishes Jill and Joe as an obvious team. The two are, in effect, twins. Both are raised together from early youth on the African farm. Both have similar first names, and share the same last name (Young). Jill describes Joe as "the only friend I have." The two are protective of each other: Jill stops Gregg from shooting Joe when his attempts to lasso the gorilla fail, she yells at the crowd at the Golden Safari Club when they throw bottles at Joe, and she helps Joe escape the authorities at the end of the film; Joe, in turn, threatens Gregg, O'Hara, and Crawford with a rock when he thinks they are at the farm to harm Jill, and he rescues Jill from the burning orphanage. The two work together as a team, both on stage during the tug-of-war with the strong men, and at the orphanage during the final rescue.

Performing at O'Hara's nightclub
Like Ann and Kong, Jill and Joe are also connected in their identification as "other," and in their reduction to spectacle. Both are removed from western society as products of what O'Hara describes as "darkest Africa," the very essence of savagery and primitiveness to the white male social order. Even in their own homeland, however, the two are out of place: Jill is the only white woman O'Hara finds in Africa, and Joe, though not as monstrously huge as Kong, is still a giant, and, according to Crawford's initial reaction to Joe's roars, not inhabiting a region common to gorillas. Joe's size terrifies even the African natives on O'Hara's crew (who embody wildness through their "primitiveness"), making him, like Kong, "wilder than the wild." Jill and Joe are subsequently reduced to spectacle. The first instance of this reduction (it is also an example of their relationship as "twins") occurs after Jill prevents Gregg from shooting Joe. Still stunned by his fall to the ground, O'Hara exclaims, "Am I dreaming, or did I just see a gorilla — and a beautiful dame?!" Afterwards, both Jill and Joe are incorporated into O'Hara's objectifying and humiliating nightclub act. Their differences become something to be looked at by a western (male) audience.

What makes the relationship exceptionally close, however, is the control Jill has over Joe. Jill is the only one who can command Joe, and Joe consistently obeys her commands. She prevents Joe from hurting O'Hara after O'Hara's men attempt to capture Joe. She stops Joe's destruction of the nightclub by commanding him to return to his cage. She commands Joe during their successful rescue effort at the orphanage. By controlling Joe, then, Jill controls the female sexuality which he represents, and thus controls her own sexuality.

Greg and Jill kiss after Jill requests he return
to Africa with her...
That Joe represents unbound female sexuality, a sexuality that, through Joe, Jill controls6, is given explicit demonstration when Jill and Gregg are in the Chinese restaurant, and, meanwhile, the three obnoxious nightclub patrons are giving Joe alcohol to drink. Jill initiates romance, confessing her attraction and telling Gregg that she wants him to return to Africa with her (to which Gregg initially replies, scolding Jill's free sexuality, "Listen, Jill. You can't go around asking guys to go to Africa with you."). Only then (after the controlling reprimand) does Gregg reveal his true feelings and kiss her. Joe, in the shots immediately following the kiss, breaks out of his cage and runs rampant through the nightclub, destroying the place entirely. The release of Jill's sexuality via her attraction to Gregg (she has until this point been every bit the virginal innocent) — a release which she herself initiates — is accompanied by the release of Joe, and the destruction he commits reflects the passion of the young woman's first love. It is not until Jill's romantic interlude is over, and she arrives at the club to command Joe to return to his cage, does the destruction stop.

...then Joe rampages through the nightclub
Joe's violent destruction of the nightclub, however, also suggests that unbound female sexuality is dangerous. Of course, this suggestion is not entirely explicit, certainly because the "gorilla as female sexuality" metaphor functions below the "important" action of Jill's romance and Joe's escape, but also because at this point in the film, Joe's rampage seems entirely justified, even unnecessarily delayed. Even amidst the destruction, no humans are seriously harmed, and all attempts are made to keep audience sympathies with Joe (the gorilla even saves the life of one of the obnoxious men who gave him alcohol by freeing him of an attacking lion). The juxtaposition of the two scenes, however — of Jill and Gregg kissing and of Joe violently destroying the club — is powerful, and the implicit suggestion that unleashed female sexuality is a destructive force is central to the film's treatment of the woman/gorilla pair at film's end.

While Jill and Joe are the film's central protagonists and never fail to maintain audience sympathies, they do, as a pair, pose enough of a threat to the male social order for that order to desire their containment. Quite simply, what the pair represents is the possibility for female sexuality to exist beyond the confines of the white male social order and to escape the containment of the patriarchy. Furthermore, if Jill and Joe are both considered representatives of femininity (Jill quite obviously of its physique, Joe of its unbound sexuality), then their unmediated coupling suggests that a female/female relationship could be of equal of greater value than a male/female relationship. (While Jill eventually confesses her love for Gregg and her desire for him to return with her to Africa, her initial desire is to return to her exotic and removed homeland only with Joe.) This clearly violates the all-important institution of heterosexual coupling. The destruction which Joe causes at the nightclub also indicates, as does Kong's destructive rampage through Manhattan, that uncontrolled female sexuality (the Jill/Joe pair) is dangerous. If it is to be allowed to exist within the male social order (i.e., if it is to be allowed to exist at all), then it must come under the control of that order.

Jill and Joe contained: by Greg's lasso, by Crawford's camera
Jill's love for Gregg is the channel through which the patriarchy enforces the pair's confinement. The two are returned to Africa, but not without Gregg, who serves as the patriarchy's imperialist agent and contains Jill (through the heterosexual coupling) even in the remote, non-western wilds of Africa. By containing Jill, Gregg is also able to contain Joe/female sexuality: he simply controls the controller. Jill's containment is made explicit in the final scene, in which O'Hara and his (male) assistant watch a home movie sent by Jill and Gregg (and filmed, incidentally, by a man, Crawford): Jill is shown lassoed by her lover Gregg, neatly framed, along with Joe, on the screen within the screen — the woman/gorilla pair reduced to mere image, a spectacle for men both in and out of the film.

Gorilla at Large

Laverne in the spotlight
Gorilla at Large, a mystery thriller shot in 3-D, furthers the relationship between gorillas and unrestrained female sexuality by blurring the distinction between woman (Laverne) and gorilla (Goliath). In this case, female sexuality is an extremely dangerous force which hides behind the presence of the gorilla in order to undermine the male/female relationship and commit murder.

Obvious connections are made between Laverne and Goliath even before Laverne's criminal activity is revealed. The two are, like the other woman/gorilla pairs, objects of spectacle. Their act, in which Laverne performs on trapeze over Goliath, is the main attraction at the carnival (which is owned by Cy Miller, Laverne's husband, therefore clearly establishing Laverne and Goliath as objects of a male-controlled spectacle). The two have also shared a similar relationship with the gorilla's trainer, Kovacs: Laverne was once married to him, and Goliath can be controlled by no one else. Kovacs, then, has had dominance over both. The replacement of his wife with a gorilla further identifies Laverne and Goliath as similar — indeed, they are interchangeable. The two are more closely associated, however, through Laverne's crimes against the patriarchy.

Laverne and Joey get close
Although it is finally revealed that Laverne is the mysterious murderer, her most severe crime, per the film's implicit statement, is her refusal to respect the heterosexual relationship/controlling device. She has already been married to Kovacs, but has left him to marry Cy. During her early relationship with Cy, it is implied, she had an affair with a former trapeze partner named Cupie (who we learn was her first murder victim). Within the span of the film, she violates her marriage to Cy by propositioning Joey, an action which also stands to jeopardize Joey's relationship with his fiancee, Audrey. Laverne is defined as a dangerous woman whose danger derives from her changing sexual desires and her willingness to actively satisfy them.

The murders Laverne commits are shown to be components of her liberated sexuality7, and that sexuality is therefore explicitly defined as dangerous to the male order. She killed Cupie because, as Kovacs explains, "she was tired of him." Her next two victims are murdered because they know of her affair with Cupie and threaten to divulge that information. Significantly, all of her victims are men.

Laverne, wearing the gorilla costume, attacks a cop
What enables her to kill, however, is her relationship with Goliath, and her method of killing — disguising herself in a gorilla costume and using judo to break her victim's neck — conceals her violent actions by transferring them to the gorilla. The broken necks lead the police to believe that the killings are the work of the enraged Goliath. The film's spectator is led to believe that some gorilla is the murderer when a hairy ape arm appears from off-screen and bludgeons a police officer and then releases Goliath from his cage, and when Goliath appears at the scene of Owens' death. Laverne is capable of violence against men only when she masquerades as a gorilla. Her costume empowers her (only when wearing it does she use her judo) and gives her an alibi. Her violence, and the sexuality from which it purportedly derives — a sexuality over which she has control — are thus directly associated with Goliath. Here the woman/gorilla pair representing uncontained female sexuality commits an obvious assault on the male social order. Its punishment, then, is certainly more severe than that inflicted upon Jill and Joe.

Laverne is taken away
Because Laverne demonstrates that the heterosexual coupling is not strong enough to contain her, yet never demonstrates a desire to be completely free of it (she is always attaching herself to some man, even if not to one exclusively), at film's end she is delivered into the custody of the police, destined for a jail cell which will certainly provide a more restrictive control. Goliath suffers a more severe punishment. His offense is the obstruction of Laverne's true identity: without him, Laverne has no alibi or method of concealment. Furthermore, Goliath obstructs Laverne's containment by abducting her in the final scenes. While the abduction terrifies Laverne to unconsciousness, it prevents her immediate capture and containment8 by the male order. In order for Laverne to be identified as the true offender, and for her to be punished as the patriarchy desires, Goliath must be eliminated. He is shot, and Laverne is taken away.

Gorillas in the Mist

The 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, which purports to tell the "true story" of primatologist Dian Fossey, provides the most extreme example of this most severe of anti-patriarchal violations with a woman/gorilla pair which consistently avoids containment by heterosexual coupling and even disturbs heterosexual relations that don't threaten to contain it. The pair's punishment, as can be suspected, is of corresponding severity, and is the most severe containment inflicted upon any of the pairs. The severity of the actions of the woman/gorilla pair in this film derives from the extreme closeness of the woman/gorilla association. It is a relationship of a closeness unsurpassed by the previous woman/gorilla pairs.

Dian is nervously examined by the Batwa
Certainly, Dian and the mountain gorillas are similar in their "otherness." Like Jill, Dian is, for the most part, the only white woman in Africa (Roz Carr and the visiting student are others, but their appearances are brief). Until the arrival of the students, she is the only woman on the mountain. The Batwa natives are in awe of her red hair (as the natives of Skull Island are entranced by Ann's blonde hair, which immediately defines her as "other"), and consider her a witch. This identifies her as "other" even further, this time from the group "women." It is explained in one of Dr. Leakey's voice-overs that the last person to conduct research on the mountain gorillas, a man, George Schaller, never made physical contact with them. Fossey not only makes this contact, but is accepted as a member of the group, distinguishing her as the only human to ever become part of this non-human society. The gorillas, too, are "others." This is reflected most notably in the destruction inflicted upon them by the (male) poachers, and in the fact that they are most obviously non-human (possessing, at the same time, pre-human attributes). Fossey says of Digit, the silverback, "Digit and I have a strange connection. He has no peers in his group. He's alone. I understand that." Here, both Digit and Dian are defined as "other" from their respective groups, strengthening their ties to each other.

Dian and Bob watch movies of Dian and the gorillas
Both Dian and the gorillas are also alike in that they are both reduced to spectacle (as are all the previous pairs). The poachers who raid the gorilla groups do so to turn the gorillas into objects of spectacle: ornamental trophies (in the form of gorilla-hand ashtrays and severed heads) and exhibits for zoos. They are also made into spectacle via Bob Campbell's camera lens, which takes films for the world and puts their pictures in National Geographic magazine. Dian is also turned into spectacle by Bob's camera, and when she asks Bob why she is in his films so much, he tells her, "'Cause you're the story. You're what people are interested in."

Dian among the gorillas
The connection between Dian and the gorillas becomes so strong that Dian, in several ways, "becomes" a gorilla. She is accepted by Digit's group and can enter the group's space freely and physically interact with the "other" gorillas. To achieve this closeness, Dian mimics the sounds and movements of the gorillas. She adopts this behavior elsewhere as welLaverne: when Bob arrives, he finds her moving around her hut like an ape, pounding her chest and making gorilla noises (introducing her to Bob as a gorilla, not a woman), and when she burns the poacher camp her posture, movement, and facial expressions are a direct mime of the gorillas. She can mimic the animals so well that she is able to stare down the unfamiliar gorilla (which charges at her and the newly arrived students) in a face-off. She nurses the baby Pucker back to health as if she herself is a gorilla mother. Her murder, it is suggested, is committed by the same poachers who kill the gorillas, making her equivalent prey (the hand that kills her uses a machete, the same weapon used by the poachers). When Dian is buried, Sembogare connects the stones encircling her grave with those around Digit's, an action which, as Sembogare explains earlier in the film, links their souls together as one.

Bob leaves Dian
Dian's close relationship with the gorillas (her metaphorical existence as a gorilla) compels her to repeatedly violate the patriarchally sanctioned heterosexual relationship. She takes leave of her fiance, David, to go to Africa to study the gorillas. She makes that separation final by staying in Africa longer than originally planned, and by eventually falling in love with Bob. By becoming involved with Bob, she causes (at least partly) Bob's marriage to end in divorce (any marital problems Bob has beyond his relationship with Dian are not mentioned). When Bob tells her he can not stay on the mountain with her year-round, and proposes they live there for only six months each year, she lets him go to Borneo alone and their relationship ends. Finally, when she interrupts the lovemaking students, she fires them, apparently for not taking their work with the gorillas seriously enough, shouting "This is not a summer camp! If you want to crawl in and out of each other's beds, you can do it somewhere else!" Dian violates not only the male/female relationships which seek to contain her, but those which contain other women.

Dian in bed with pictures of the gorillas
The heterosexual relationships which Dian so consistently disrupts and destroys are replaced by her own implicit sexual attraction to the gorillas. This attraction is revealed rather strikingly in the several shots which precede Dian's murder. Dian is shown lying in her bed, looking at photographs of the gorillas. She is listening to a romantic song (Peggy Lee's rendition of "Sugar") playing on the tape player. She looks closely at one photograph, smiles, tells it "You're beautiful," and kisses it. She then holds the photograph to her chest and falls asleep. It is after this action, an action which typifies her close relationship with the gorillas (a group of "others" existing outside the confines of the male social order, as opposed to a patriarchally condoned partner), that she is violently murdered (presumably, indicated by the blade used to kill her, by the [male] poachers from whom she protects her kindred "others," the gorillas).

Terrorizing a poacher with a mock hanging
The severity of Dian's containment reflects the irretrievable damage of which the patriarchy finds her capable. She not only resists incorporation into the male social order by way of a heterosexual marriage, but she also undermines, even destroys, the heterosexual relationships of others. (Dian knows all along that marriage is her only alternative to life with the gorillas. After being forcibly removed from the first mountain by the soldiers, she tells Roz Carr, "I'm going to go home, I'm going to buy the sexiest dress I can find, I'm going to marry David, and he's never going to hear another peep out of me." At film's end, during her funeral, Dian is heard in voice-over saying, "I really expected9 to get married, have children.") Furthermore, she provides refuge for the "others" oppressed by the male order (the gorillas), and she does so even violently, by burning the poacher camp, threatening Claude Van Vecten, mercilessly questioning the boy poacher, and sadistically terrifying the captured poachers with the mock hanging. She is a woman who displays no desire to acquiesce to the patriarchy. She and the gorillas succeed at what Jill and Joe merely hint at: a viable interpersonal bonding of "others," a bonding which escapes patriarchal control and thus violates the male order's need for male-dominated male/female relationships. This woman/gorilla pairing, therefore, must be eradicated completely. Dian, Digit (with whom she has the strongest bond), and several other gorillas in Digit's group are killed by the same brutal method, presumably by the same brutal hand.

Bob's concerned looks suggest something is wrong with Dian
(A more exhaustive semiotic examination of this film would provide some interesting insights. Dian's unparalleled success with the gorillas is accompanied by an apparent deterioration of sanity. Her remarkable achievements, then, are not portrayed as entirely positive. Several scenes exemplifying her success end with shots of a man's worried look. What is emphasized here is not Dian's brilliant research, but the male order's reaction to them, indicating that a woman's achievements are not as important as what a man thinks of them. It would also be interesting to examine how closely the film mirrors Fossey's real life, and to explore how much of her story is forced into the Hollywood formula and how much is the outcome of a "formula" etched by society itself.)


Gorillas in the Mist completes a progression of increasingly greater crimes against the patriarchy and their correspondingly severe containments. Interestingly, this progression follows the chronology of the films' release dates. Significantly linking each film to the social attitude10 of its time would require a separate investigation, but it could be suggested that King Kong appears shortly after the free-spirited twenties (which witnessed such shocking aberrations as women who smoked, drank, and even voted!), Mighty Joe Young and Gorilla at Large appear in the decade following World War II, when fighting men were returning to a nation where wives had satisfied the demand for increased self-sufficiency and had played an important part in preserving the "home front," and Gorillas in the Mist, which posits the most threatening view of the uncontained feminine, is a product of the post-"women's lib" eighties, which marked the decisive emergence of the "career woman," to whom marriage and motherhood often became secondary considerations.

It is also worth noting that each successive film shows the woman to be more the source of the violation against the heterosexual union. Ann is set on marrying Jack — it is Kong who threatens to prevent the union. Jill desires marriage, but initially wants only to return home to Africa with Joe. Laverne's sexual desires prompt her to violate the heterosexual relationship and kill men — Goliath merely provides an alibi. Dian repeatedly resists and destroys the male/female coupling on her own, while the gorillas become helpless victims in need of her protection.

Furthermore, as the violations against the heterosexual relationship become more severe, the size of the gorillas decreases, and the gorilla-like behavior of the women increases. Kong is an impossibly large gorilla; Joe is also unnaturally large, but hardly as huge as Kong; Goliath is perhaps not impossibly big, but certainly larger than standard; and Digit and his group are of normal size (some real gorillas were used in production). Correspondingly, Ann is unwillingly abducted by Kong, Jill befriends Joe, Laverne masquerades as Goliath, and Dian becomes one of Digit's group.

Inherent in this progression is the suggestion that women are essentially bestial and primitive. Because of their evolutionary relationship to humans, gorillas represent non-evolved humanity. They reflect the primal base from which humans have evolved into a more "advanced" being. To associate women with gorillas, then, is to assign women the status of "underdeveloped," or "non-evolved." As the women in this series of films become more ape-like than their gorilla counterparts, they become increasingly "de-evolved." There is a visible retrogression in humanness from Ann to Dian: Ann is a city dweller, Jill feels at home in "darkest Africa," Laverne exhibits the behavior of a degenerate criminal, and Dian is assimilated into a gorilla group while apparently experiencing mental deterioration. By pairing women with gorillas, then, these films can more easily rationalize containment — indeed, containment seems the only way to safely integrate these primitive creatures (women and gorillas) into the male social order. That the (patriarchal) Hollywood apparatus would pair women with gorillas is entirely logical, for mankind's relationship to both is the same: once born from them, it defines them as "other" and relegates them to mere spectacle — attractive ornaments to cage and possess.


This essay was inspired by Linda Williams' "When the Woman Looks," published in Re-Vision: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, edited by Mary Ann Doane, Patricia Mellencamp, and Linda Williams. (Frederick, MD: University Publications of America, 1984), p. 83-99.

1 . . . threatens to violate the heterosexual union upon which, due to the control it affords men over women, the patriarchy's authority depends.

This statement about the heterosexual coupling sounds kind of assuming when taken out of the classroom where these ideas were first generated, where my target audience and I had already worked out certain assumptions, and where I was therefore free to let them go without explanation in order to keep the paper within the page limit. Here, however, I think I should explain the thoughts behind this statement.

I'm basing this view of the heterosexual coupling upon the biblical tradition, where a woman takes her husband's last name upon marriage, is instructed to "honor and obey" (Genesis 3:16: "…thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."), is a sort of property, like Jacob's wives, etc. Modern relationships have attempted to redefine this kind of thing, and it is true that the heterosexual attraction exists in both sexes of that orientation naturally, before and beyond any containment it can imply. However, the idea of the marriage bond, or contract, I think originated as a male thing, a way to make women property (like Jacob and the other patriarchs did), to contain them and their sexuality. Thus the thinking that women should remain virginal until marriage, as a way to guarantee men "unused property," despite the license afforded to men in expressions like "sow your wild oats," etc. Keeping women virginal until marriage, until they are promised to one man, is a way to contain their sexuality. They have no freedom to explore their sexuality before marriage, and after marriage any exploration is limited to the one male partner.

Also, when I talk about the guiding force behind film and society, it is the patriarchy, the white male social order, which, despite social changes (or the illusion thereof) from time to time, is still essentially based, I believe, in the above way of thinking. These attitudes, though many have sought to change and redefine them, exist today, arguably to a majority extent. Sexual discrimination still exists, as do many older attitudes about the role of women in society, the workplace, the home, etc. (The "white" in "white male social order" is another assumption, but as sexual discrimination exists today, so does racial bias. That, though, will need to be the topic of another essay.)

Sexist commentary in film is often glaringly obvious. It shows itself in the way women are fetishized on screen, often picked apart, segmented by the lens (the classic introduction of a female character starting with the feet, the camera tilting slowly up her legs in the private eye's point-of-view shot). Female nudity is as often required as a selling point for a Hollywood film as male nudity is shunned to avoid controversy and an overly-strict MPAA rating.

On a more subtle (and, to me, more interesting) level, film often slights women with the way it is constructed. Denying women point-of-view shots is one way to undermine a female character's credibility, as is ending a conversation with a man on a shot of that man, even if his reaction shouldn't matter as much as the woman's (see the example from Gorillas in the Mist later in this essay). Die-hard psychoanalytic theorists would argue that film, by its very nature, can not truly communicate to women. It has been theorized that because women do not have penises, they can not experience castration anxiety: they simply have nothing to lose. Because they have nothing to lose, they can not fully appreciate the system of loss and recuperation upon which film's pleasure is based, either narratively (boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl), structurally (one scene ends, another takes its place; one shot ends, another takes its place), or physically (one frame vanishes, another takes its place).

This is not to say that there are no feminist films, or that every movie made has a male bias (although I think that accepting the castration theory makes it tough to believe otherwise). I find it easy most times, though, to find such a bias seep through in some way, even in movies that on the surface seem to espouse feminist ideals. These gorilla movies are certainly no exception.

2 They are terrified of him, and separate themselves from him with their giant wall.

Kong vs. a dinosaur
A different reading of King Kong could posit Kong as a sort of champion of human evolution. As much as Kong represents primitiveness, or the un-evolved human form, he is certainly not the "least evolved" creature on the island from a traditional evolutionary point of view. While we see only one giant gorilla (we are led to believe that by "Kong" the natives are referring to this one specific creature, not to an entire race), we see several dinosaur-like reptiles (the stegosaurus, the brontosaurus-like lake creature, the smaller lizard creature in the chasm, the t-rex, the huge lizard creature Kong kills, and the pterodactyl). Kong does battle with and kills three of the dinosaurs, reenacting in a way the evolutionary conquest of the previously reptile-dominated earth by mammals.

The natives occupy only a small area along the shore of the island. They have built their giant wall to protect their marginal space, like soldiers come aground on enemy land, who fight to gain a few hundred feet, then put up barriers to hold their line. We assume that the wall is to protect the natives from Kong, as Kong is the only creature we ever see near the wall. Judging by the stomping and chomping with which Kong greets the natives once he breaks through the wall, the natives certainly need protection from the giant ape. But they also need protection from all those other gigantic creatures, the dinosaurs, which demonstrate a penchant for mammalian flesh in their attacks on the rescue party and on Ann.

Perhaps the natives, then, champion Kong as much as they fear him, for he is, as they are, mammalian, trying to stake a claim on an island dominated by reptiles. They certainly find the need to appease — if not worship — Kong with their offerings. As far as we know, the natives do not perform a similar ritual for the reptiles of the island, and have chosen to revere Kong, not the reptile majority. During the sacrificial ceremony, the natives dress in ape-like costumes and mimic the way gorillas walk, seemingly aware of the likeness between apes and humans, seemingly knowing that they are somehow "on the same side."

3 She is the only woman aboard . . .

"I guess I love you," says Jack.
Denham is frustrated by the requirement — which he says is imposed by the public and by his exhibitors — of male/female romance in his adventure movies. He feels that romantic story lines are irrelevant to his pictures, but says, almost spitefully, "This time I'm gonna give them what they want." The film (not Denham's, but the one we're watching, King Kong) makes a sly comment on this as well with the forced romance between Jack and Ann. Jack's confession of love comes rather abruptly, and is presented almost comically. Their relationship seems obligatory, not only as something imposed by the patriarchy, but by the filmmakers who, if they are truly speaking through Denham, accuse the public of imposing the relationship. This film directly acknowledges that this relationship is imposed consistently, even where it doesn't belong. At the same time, the film imposes the relationship just the same, despite any subtle commentary the film might be making. Thus film is revealed as a means by which the patriarchy can play out its desire to posses and contain, over and over again.

(This playing-out of possession — of loss and recuperation — is really what film is all about, in many ways. Many people believe, in terms of narrative, that Hollywood movies are always structured around some variation of "boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy regains girl," where "girl" is a woman, a best male friend, a career goal, territory, etc. Some have theorized, incorporating psychoanalytic theory, that all film — Hollywood or otherwise — is pleasurable only because of the constant loss and recuperation it presents as scene replaces scene, shot replaces shot, and frame replaces frame.)

When Denham leaves the ship to look for his female lead, he says "I'm going out and get a girl for my picture, even if I have to marry one!" The joke seems to be that Denham will subject himself to marriage if it helps his film. In light of what the theatrical agent says, though, about women being afraid of Denham's reputation for courting danger, this more likely means that Denham will get a female lead even if he has to capture, contain, and drag her off!

(This has nothing to do with the "women and gorillas" topic, but when Denham says that he's going to give the audience "what they want" I think of Charlie Chaplin's original version of The Gold Rush (1925), which has a subtle and clever comment at its end about Hollywood's plot requirements, in this case the "happy ending.")

4 Ann is further identified as different on Skull Island . . .

No name is actually given to the island. There is a large mountain on the island called Skull Mountain, though.

5 . . . this force which escapes the confines of the male social order . . .

Jack comforts Ann moments before she
is re-abducted by Kong
Kong starts breaking out of his chains right after Denham announces to the audience that Jack and Ann are to be married the next day. As Kong becomes frantic, Denham shouts to the press, "He thinks you're attacking the girl" The comment could just as well be directed at Jack and the patriarchy, and Kong's escape and subsequent re-abduction of Ann could just as well be seen as Kong's attempt to protect Ann from marriage/containment. Similarly, the natives, who are in ways agents of Kong, abduct Ann for Kong right after Jack confesses his love to her.

6 That Joe represents unbound female sexuality, a sexuality that, through Joe, Jill controls . . .

Jill trades her father's flashlight
Jill acquires Joe by trading her father's flashlight, as the jewelry she offers the African men is of no interest to them. Jill trades her father's flashlight — which is rather phallic in shape, of which she says twice out loud "Doesn't belong to me" (as she has no penis), and which is a source of power in its own right, as it generates light — for Joe, who becomes her phallus, her source of power. Jill (like the other women here) becomes a threat to the patriarchy because she has acquired what no woman is intended to possess — a phallus. She usurps a phallic symbol belonging to her father to obtain her own (and the African men refuse to accept anything but a phallus in trade when they reject the feminine jewelry). Perhaps significantly, Jill's father is dead by the time Jill meets Gregg and O'Hara, a time when Joe is a huge and powerful force that only Jill can control. It's as if her father — stripped by Jill of his phallus — is no longer needed, because Jill has her own phallus/power.

7 The murders Laverne commits are shown to be components of her liberated sexuality . . .

After Cy walks in on Laverne and Joey and tells Laverne to "Let him go," he and Laverne have the following exchange:
Laverne: There's nothing to worry about. He's just a nice kid. And by the time summer's over he'll be gone.
Cy: I wonder.
Laverne: Are you starting that again?
Cy: I was about to ask you the same thing.
Laverne: Don't be silly. Every time a new partner shows up, you go into the same routine.
Cy: I was a new partner myself once.
Laverne: Then why don't you tell Joey the deal's off? That you're too jealous to have anybody come near me?
Cy: I'm only warning you.
Laverne: You really ought to warn him. About how accidents partners. Remember Cupie!

She then picks up the Cupie doll Joey left behind and throws it at Cy. It falls to the floor with a clatter.

Spider woman, swinger
Cy later reveals to Garrison that Laverne broke his arm, and that the injury forced him to leave the trapeze act. Laverne continued the act without him. It is also later revealed that Laverne killed Cupie, and it is implied that she had an affair with him. The mention of "partner" here takes on a sexual meaning, and Laverne's role as "spider woman" is well defined. She brings new men into her act (which is performed on suspended wires, above the ground, in a type of "spider web"), seduces them, and when, as Kovacs puts it, she gets "tired" of them, she kills or disables them so she'll need to find a new "partner." It becomes evident why Laverne is a trapeze artist — she's a "swinger," both under the big top and in her sexual tendencies.

There are two scenes which may hint at why Laverne moves through sex partners so frequently. In the first, Joey and Laverne are practicing their new act, which requires Joey, dressed in the gorilla costume, to lift Laverne above his head. Joey is unable to lift Laverne that high. In the second, Joey proves Cy's innocence by asking Cy to open a stuck window. Cy, his arm still suffering from an old injury, is unable to lift the pane. Symbolically, the men in Laverne's life can't "get it up."

8 . . . her immediate capture and containment by the male order.

On the loose
As in King Kong, the abduction of Laverne poses a threat to the patriarchy. Now, a powerful pair — woman and gorilla, murderer and alibi, unrestrained female sexuality and the enforcer that allows that freedom — is on the loose. The killing of Goliath is also a commentary on how the male order views Laverne's future: she's going to prison, presumably with only women. Per the patriarchy, why would she need her sexuality (Goliath) there? It's an added punishment...she's imprisoned, but also stripped of her sexuality/sexual expression (Goliath). It shows that the controlling force in this film is still interested in containing Laverne, even if she is not to be "used" in a heterosexual coupling, even if her sexuality — contained or otherwise — is of no use to the male order.

Garrison acts as the patriarchy's enforcer, determined to crack the case. In the last scene, he has Laverne taken away, then points Joey toward Audrey, directing their reunion and the restoration of patriarchal order. Present in this scene, and in many of his others, is his (Freudian?) cigar.

9 "I really expected to get married, have children."

Dian seems to know that this fate threatens to consume all women, and that to avoid it she must take these seemingly extreme measures (moving to a remote mountaintop in Africa, like Jill, living with gorillas, not men).

10 . . . linking each film to the social attitude of its time . . .

Finding social "causes" for a movie is tricky, and I tend to avoid doing it. (Of course, I'm still doing it here, but that's the advantage of using these notes — I can add these disclaimers!) It could also be that the changing social role of women throughout time is not as relevant to the male order's desire to contain them as is the male order's constant psychological anxiety about women and its "need" to contain them. Again, more psychoanalytic stuff — but if women do represent to men the loss of the penis, and if at some traumatic childhood moment boys do have the realization that the penis is power, and if exposure to women actually creates anxiety by reminding men that they too could lose that source of power, then they perhaps will have this subconscious tendency to contain women anyway, whether those women are in a position of social power or not. I often wonder if it is not as involved as that, and if men are threatened by women because the male role in perpetuating the species, in creating life (the most powerful act of all), is rather slight compared to the role of women. Perhaps men have a subconscious feeling that they're not really needed beyond their role of inseminator. Who knows? Anyway, the social causes thing is just a suggestion, as finding a social cause at all — especially pinpointing one within a decade — is really tricky, if possible at all.