Culture

Kong: Skull Island’s Bread and Circuses 2.0

Kong: Skull Island (Warner Bros.)
And Byrne patronizes color guards, but Barras’s My Life as a Zucchini is nearly perfect.

Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island repackages Hollywood’s 1933 King Kong along with other action-adventure movie trivia. Its story takes place three years before the unfairly maligned Seventies remake that starred Jeff Bridges, Jessica Lange, and Kong swatting fighter jets from the World Trade Center towers. It’s also set six years before the release of Francis Coppola’s overrated Apocalypse Now, the psychedelic Vietnam War movie that really did end all psychedelic Vietnam War movies. Designed, like all movie franchises, to fulfill the Millennial urge for escapist entertainment, Kong: Skull Island is the blockbuster as junky postmodern bread and circuses.

In contrast to that big-budget pacification, there’s the new indie movie “spectacular” Contemporary Color. This musical documentary records the convocation of several national color-guard troupes held at New York’s Barclays Center arena in 2015. Co-produced by pop avant-guardist David Byrne, of the rock band Talking Heads, Contemporary Color showcases little-known Americana. The practice of working-class, middle-American cheerleading squads and marching bands confirms Byrne’s bohemian love of “primitive art” from outside the bastions of haughty, big-city sophistication. This more authentic, homegrown spectacle is also intended to pacify national unease.

Kong: Skull Island and Contemporary Color coexist because Millennial culture is at odds with itself. Kong: Skull Island’s plot features a military-media assemblage (Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, Tom Hiddleston) whose expedition on Skull Island puts them in desperate conflict with its ferocious prehistorical monster inhabitants. The explorers’ motto? Think local but survive.

You can’t get more “local” than Contemporary Color’s cadre of small-town aspirants. Although KSI’s B-list actors are paid more than the high-school students who practice dance and baton and military moves, they all pursue personal gratification, seeking what could be called “sub-stardom.” That’s the condition of Millennial anonymity fostered by movies that are detached from everyday life. The spectacles in Contemporary Color derive from military ceremony, yet the movie encourages an eccentric anti-patriotic identity among the young, untutored participants and their audiences.

KSI’s Seventies setting takes us back to that sea-change in political and cultural values, a time when a stunt rifle’s butt and tip are discussed only in nonthreatening terms. We see the beginning of what, these days, looks like the end of self-protective (“militarized”) American civilization. Those who now “fight” (to use Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren’s term) for political power by opposing democracy also fight against those citizens who disagree with them (the Left vs. the Right). The perception of American civilians as monsters leads to the metaphor of KSI’s clash with assorted primitive beasts, while Contemporary Color remains oddly pacifist.

*****

Contemporary Color

“Ladies and Gentlemen, America has changed,” David Byrne announces when it’s his turn to perform a song written for a color-guard troupe. (Each routine in Contemporary Color pairs a performance team with musicians who compose original songs to accompany the choreographed acts.) The “change” Byrne refers to is the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling — known as “the gay marriage ruling” — that was coincidentally handed down on the day of the Barclays Center color-guard performance. (The movie includes a video clip of the White House bathed in rainbow-flag colors.) Byrne’s proclamation shows that he sympathizes with the young folks on stage: awkward, overweight, or emaciated girls, awkward, effeminate, or chunky boys — their only commonality is an effort to bond over their shared insecurities. It’s the We’ll-March-About-Anything generation.

KSI never gets so politically specific (each character is a cliché). Instead, it subsumes politics in its pell-mell action-movie F/X. You’d expect Contemporary Color to counter by emulating the complex pageantry seen in art-maven Matthew Barney’s deliberately non-commercial Cremaster Cycle. But brothers Bill and Turner Ross, who directed Contemporary Color, fall short of Barney’s example. Their style resembles Adam Yauch’s basketball-hip-hop documentary Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot, which functioned as a multicultural home movie. Contemporary Color lacks the excitation of KSI’s director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts. Hollow excitation is what wins over young moviegoers such as those Get Out fans who ignore everyday politics for the cheap thrills of sado-masochistic race fears.

Like the insufferable Pitch Perfect movies, which trivialized amateur a capella singing competitions, Contemporary Color verges on cultural satire minus cynicism. The Ross brothers’ failed home movie most resembles those quasi-artless Christopher Guest satires Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, though it doesn’t detail what motivates anxious teen subcultures. This film gives only a glimpse into working-class communities uniting to aid their young folk. Byrne’s unctuous appearances, in which he assumes the same naïve enthusiasm as that of the show’s smarmy host (Mike Hartsock), are no less patronizing to ordinary folk than KSI’s metaphorical monster mash-up. This is bread and circuses for hipsters.

Vogt-Roberts stages extravagant Apocalypse Now–type action scenes (Kong fighting off sharp-fanged, reptilian “skullcrawlers,” or entangled like Hercules by writhing creatures), but the Ross brothers never figure out how to shoot small-town, home-grown spectacle. Contemporary Color should analyze disenchanted pomp as Ang Lee does in his homeland-set Iraq War movie Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, but it lacks Lee’s deep understanding of our culture’s need to combine excitement with compassion.

These contemporary bread-and-circuses movies are no different from what the classical poet Juvenal described as the attempt by the failing Roman Empire to furnish its citizens with meaningless escapism. Neither Kong: Skull Island nor Contemporary Color is edifying for the Millennial audiences who might support them.

*****

My Life as a Zucchini

Claude Barras’s My Life as a Zucchini, from GKIDS, the redoubtable children’s-film distributors, is nearly perfect, perhaps the best animated film in years. The story of orphans who seek love and discover two-way compassion raises stop-motion photography to heights of emotional purity. The characters’ wide, doll-like eyes draw a viewer in, and paint-box colors brighten their innocence and yearning. Yes, the orphans’ stories are topical — problems from abuse to immigration — but Barras and screenwriter Céline Sciamma (who co-wrote André Téchiné’s Being 17, the best movie of 2016) are never oblivious to politics or Swiss-French patriotism. This fable idealizes civilization’s basic social unit and at the same time redefines political and moral priorities. In other words, this superb animated film is a family spectacle for adults of all ages.

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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