Category Archives: Sum Up

Sum Up | Clearing Moorings: James Horner and the Wrath of Khan

It’s impossible to imagine Wrath of Khan without the James Horner score. When Star Trek II came out in 1982, it was the third of the late seventies, early eighties sci-fi franchises. Star Wars and Superman were both looking forward to their third films in 1982, while Trek was recovering from its troubled 1979 Star Trek: The Motion Picture. In addition to age (as movies, anyway), Star Wars and Superman also shared the John Williams “sound” (though Superman II had Ken Thorne imitating Williams). The Motion Picture’s score was from Jerry Goldsmith, who came up with some great music, but it didn’t seem to compare—in the public mind—to Williams’s space-based scores.

Well, outside the Goldsmith’s new Star Trek theme. That piece announced a bold new beginning for the franchise (and later became the “Next Generation” theme). And Star Trek II announced a bold new direction too….

1982 Atlantic 7″ Single

The literal first thing composer James Horner does in Khan is bring back the original “Star Trek” theme. Just enough to establish, along with the titles, it’s Star Trek. And then the music starts going in new directions, mostly focusing on the “adventure theme.”

The Khan score, or so some quick Internet searching says, has three recognized themes. Kirk’s theme, Khan’s theme, and Spock’s theme. Spock’s theme is the only one to get broken out on the soundtrack album—though it’s just called “Spock.” It’s the mystical one. Khan’s is the foreboding one. Kirk’s is the adventurous one. I’m not eager to name the themes, outside Spock’s, just because it doesn’t leave room for the Genesis theme, which is separate from the others. The music, like everything in Khan, is exquisitely layered, exquisitely complex.

Soundtrack score album affection is a sometimes difficult one to explain. Especially as I’ve noticed I feel different about it now than I did in the late eighties and early nineties. Basically, it’s a “you had to be there.” Listening to a soundtrack score is not like watching the movie, but from the right angle—for me anyway—it can tickle the same hairs and produce some of the same feels. The Star Trek II soundtrack is very good at tickling said hairs. Both because Horner does such a fantastic job with the score and because the film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, uses it so well. Horner’s score, with its reused themes and its various echoes, stays in the active imagination even when it isn’t heard.

1982 Atlantic LP / 1990 GNP Crescendo CD

Khan (the movie) has a surprise open—it’s the Enterprise, but it’s got a female Vulcan in command (Kirstie Alley). Spock’s there, but he’s at his science officer station. It’s Enterprise versus Klingons and there’s no music, which is very different from when the previous film had its Klingon scene—even Khan reuses that footage. Goldsmith had a whole Klingon theme in The Motion Picture. Horner and Meyer let them act without accompaniment. Horner’s themes are specific (which is why calling it the Khan theme doesn’t make sense to me—it’s the Reliant theme); they can’t be broadly applied. Horner’s score tells the story of the film. The title music has some hints of what’s to come, the end credit music literally recaps what’s come before. The end credit music is some of the most complex in the score—though the action sequences are also exceedingly complex, just in a different way. The action sequences don’t use recall in the same way; when Horner uses the established themes during an action scene, it’s still moving at a clip. End credits it’s about inviting recollection, taking time to think back. The score’s very active with its audience and separate from the movie action. Though tied so close the film’s cut to the music.

And all the story and all the emotion come through on the soundtrack album too. I don’t think I had the album on LP. I know I had the CD, from GNP Crescendo (came out in 1990). The early nineties were the peak of my soundtrack enthusiasm. It didn’t survive high school. Though I also started watching a lot more movies then (instead of the same ones over and over); maybe it was a combination of things. I didn’t really have a handle on what I liked about soundtrack albums back then… not to mention I had… collecting problems. Have collecting problems.

2009 Film Score Monthly CD

In 2009, Film Score Monthly put out a “Newly Expanded” edition of the Star Trek II soundtrack with more than twice as many tracks as the original soundtrack release. The expanded edition’s track order matches the film’s order of events, remastered from the film mixes. It’s all the music from the film, not just select arrangements.

But if I’m listening to Star Trek II and not watching Star Trek II… I don’t want to hear all the music. I don’t want short tracks, I want the long ones produced for the soundtrack album. Horner’s able to tell the story of Khan in nine tracks, forty-five minutes. Sure, it’s mostly the action and it leaves out Kirk’s (great) old mope arc, but it’s also grand adventure. The grandest adventure.

I had no idea how to write about James Horner’s Khan score so I watched the movie scenes cut to the original nine soundtrack album tracks (and the album’s jumbled order). I’ve seen film so many times I could still “hear” the now silent dialogue. The experience did not provide a profound new version of Khan. Instead, it was Khan; abbreviated but amplified.

2016 Mondo LP

The original, nine track Wrath of Khan soundtrack is available through music streaming services. The expanded version, which also came out on LP from Mondo, is out of print.

There’s not much like Horner’s Star Trek II score. It’s an integral part of the film’s success, it’s a success on its own, it’s superlative both on its own and as part of the film.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture might have begun “the human adventure” in 1979, but Khan—in no small part thanks to James Horner—guaranteed the Star Trek film adventure would keep going.


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Sum Up | Utility Man: Josh Hartnett, O, and the Blood at the Root

Tim Blake Nelson’s O adapts Shakespeare’s Othello as a modern, moody, lush, teenage Southern Gothic. Sixteenth century Venice becomes a South Carolina prep school, Palmetto Grove, in the late 1990s; Venice’s armies become the school’s basketball team, the Hawks. The Hawks are crushing it this season, all thanks to jersey number 4, senior Odin James (Mekhi Phifer). Other standout players include sophomore Michael Cassio (Andrew Keegan) and another senior, Hugo Goudling (Josh Hartnett). When it comes time for coach Duke Goulding (Martin Sheen) to award the MVP, Odin’s the obvious choice. The surprise comes when Odin decides to share the award with a teammate, selecting Michael. Not Hugo. That night, Hugo tells his roommate Roger (Elden Henson) he’s got a plan to break up Odin and his girlfriend, Desi Brable (Julia Stiles). When Roger asks Hugo why—“I thought you were his friend,” he says—Hugo explains the co-MVP should have gone to him, at least as far as Odin’s concerned. But there’s at least another layer to Hugo’s motivations—coach Duke Goulding is his dad and straight-A student Hugo has put four years into the basketball team. The MVP award his senior year would’ve been a perfect acknowledgement and a seemingly possible one.


“I’m considered a utility man. I rebound, I can shoot, I play guard, forward, power forward. You name the position, I fucking play it.”

Hugo to Roger


O doesn’t just update the setting and situations of Othello, it profoundly changes the characters. Phifer’s Othello/Odin—the only Black student at the South Carolina prep school—has some specific fears and insecurities about that status. He’s secretly dating Desi, after all, and Desi’s the white dean’s white daughter, which incurs a lot of outside aggression, albeit ones mostly passive and micro. Inside their relationship, despite any posturing, Odin’s devoted to Desi, devoted to what she represents, what they–together–represent.

Hugo intuits all those insecurities and encourages them into weaknesses and into what become fatal flaws for everyone involved. Hugo’s an unquestionable villain, but he’s just working with what he’s got. If Michael weren’t eager to please, if Roger weren’t resentful (the wealthiest blue blood on campus yet the girls still go for the jocks)—they’re both naive from various privileges. Hugo’s able to make it work. His first plan, which he starts concocting at the MVP ceremony, appears to simply be getting Odin in trouble for dating Desi. Or at least to stir things up. But it’s already a more layered one, with Michael as the target. Because Hugo understands Michael’s desire to impress Odin.

And Hugo (thanks to Roger’s willingness to be Michael and Odin’s frequent punching bag) is able to get Michael off the team. At least out of games, which doesn’t necessarily give Hugo any better opportunities on the court, but it does get him close to Odin. Close to Odin, he tries to cement further distrust of Michael. Because Hugo’s already got Michael trying to befriend Desi so she’ll tell Odin to fight for him to get back on the team. Duke will listen to Odin. Odin, Duke tells everyone at the MVP ceremony first thing, is like his son. Not “like a son,” but “like his son.” Except Odin and Hugo are very, very different. And Hugo’s an afterthought to Duke. A relied-upon afterthought, but an afterthought. He’s just not good enough. Duke’s been waiting his whole career for Odin.


“You know I don’t ever have to worry about you, thank God. You’ve always done well and you always will, but Odin’s different. He’s all alone here. There’s not even another Black student in this whole damn place. We’re his family.”

Duke to Hugo


Once Hugo has gotten his girlfriend Emily (Rain Phoenix) to steal a memento from Desi (they’re roommates), and used it to convince Odin of Desi and Michael’s affair, Hugo’s got the problem of three loose ends. Odin will never believe Michael or his protestations of innocence, especially not after—advantageously and presumably unexpectedly, but maybe not—Michael lets his racism out when talking about Odin.

Master eavesdropper Hugo has already got Odin listening in so it couldn’t go better.

Michael’s not guilty of pursuing or seducing Desi—he’s actually just some dopey sophomore who makes an effort to listen to his female friends, though it’s a Madonna-whore thing, not because he sees them as people or anything—but he’s still not not guilty. He’s not not racist. He’s not not a bully. He’s not not a bad guy when it comes to girls. He doesn’t deserve what he gets, but he gets it because the material is there for Hugo to work with.

So Michael’s not going to be a loose end for long. He’s the most disposable, in fact. Emily’s a loose end, though Hugo doesn’t anticipate her being a problem. He’s got a plan for Roger, which he doesn’t share with anyone else because Hugo does see Roger as a fellow victim. Hugo understands what’s going at Palmetto Grove—he understands how his father treats him, how it feels, why his father’s doing it, he understands Odin, he understands Michael, Roger, Emily—and, of the men, Roger’s the only one Hugo shows any compassion. Even when he doesn’t have to show it to keep Roger going with the scheme.

And Desi’s a loose end. Desi’s the biggest loose end. Getting Odin not to believe Michael only takes so much work, it’s an achievable goal. Michael’s going to dig himself in deeper, one way or the other. Roger won’t crack for anyone at school, not when Hugo’s already convinced him to take multiple beatings. But Odin will want to believe Desi, which will reveal Hugo’s manipulations. So Desi’s got to go.

O doesn’t have most of the traditional Othello trappings as far as Iago/Hugo’s motivations go. The MVP thing sets Hugo off, sure, but it’s already been established he’s envious of Othello/Odin’s position as an athlete, as Duke’s favored “son.” Hugo describes it all as jealousy but it’s closer to envy. A functional one, at least until he’s racing downhill trying to keep the lies from catching up. Hugo’s going off to college. He’s going to be fine. He’s just got to get to the finish, with at least Odin intact.


“Nobody doesn’t like [Hugo]. I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have at least one enemy.”

Desi to Emily


Unlike Othello, O doesn’t suggest Odin and Emilia/Emily fooled around or anything like Hugo having a crush on Desdemona/Desi. Quite the opposite on the latter. The two seem to loathe one another, which makes sense. They’re both staff’s students. The school’s performative with its scholastic egalitarianism, putting the dean and coach’s kids in the dorms, the upper middle class among the real upper class. Desi and Hugo know each other. They have known each other a while. And they have zero empathy for one another. Desi’s the only one who thinks Hugo’s a creep. Everyone else just sees the good student, the good teammate. Even as Hugo tries to destroy Michael, the team’s games always come first. Winning is the important thing; even if Hugo’s not singled out for contributing (because Duke has clearly never singled him out with a positive comment). It reflects on Hugo. He doesn’t have to worry because no matter how much turmoil he creates, Hugo can always rely on Odin to come through on the court.

There’s no one in O who has higher expectations for Odin than Hugo. Hugo lionizes him. Hugo sees his father living the white savior sports movie dream with Odin and believes the dream to be valid, just not Duke’s execution of it. O isn’t about Hugo and Odin, it’s about Hugo and Duke. It’s about Duke and his son. Everyone else is collateral damage. For Hugo, Odin is a prized action figure. For Duke, he’s a trophy.

Hartnett’s performance is all about his expressions. It’s all about watching this emotional cut wound him, this emotional stab, this observed opportunity, this revealed insecurity. Hugo’s always thinking, watching, listening. The plans form across Hartnett’s face, in his blinks, his pauses, his patience. Everyone in the film has their implied interiority and all, but with Hartnett, the whole thing hinges on his understanding and essaying of Hugo’s interiority. When Hugo refuses to explain himself, leaving his motivations a mystery, his loose ends tied, the audience has already seen some of them. Or at least those Hugo let affect him.


“You won’t ask me nothing. I did what I did. That’s all you need to know. From here on, I’ll say nothing.”

Hugo to Odin


It’s also in the expression when O gets in its last surprise. Being an Othello adaptation, a lot is predictable. But Hugo’s got one last reveal, one unquestionably authentic reaction. And it changes the entire film, start to finish, untying the bow, folding it over, retying.

O came at the end of the late nineties-early aughts teen Shakespeare adaptation boom. Brad Kaaya’s script leverages the source material rather than relying upon it, letting Nelson turn it into that Southern Gothic, with Hartnett a metaphor for the culture he and his victims exist in. He’s not some pedestrian evil, he’s a prodigious and entirely natural one. The teenage sociopath who wants to be a real boy but just can’t make his brain wooden enough. Far from shocking, Hartnett’s Hugo is inevitable in a way Iago never could be.


Sum Up | F⁴: Five Favorite Fifties Films

  • E: What am I watching? It just started, and I don’t know what’s happening.
  • B: It’s symbolic.
  • E: Yeah? Who’s that guy?
  • B: That’s Death walking on the beach.
  • E: I’ve been to Atlantic City a hundred times, and I’ve never seen Death walk on the beach.

From Diner (1982); written by Barry Levinson; set in 1959.


Growing up, I always had a negative impression of the 1950s (as far as film was concerned–it wasn’t until later I got a negative impression of reality in the 1950s). Anyway, that negative impression of fifties films has changed over the years, starting when I realized Hitchcock was making movies in the fifties, then Kubrick, then Kurosawa. Then I started seeing Hollywood movies from the fifties in my late teens, when I discovered Eleanor Parker, and I revised my opinion. The fifties have a lot of good stuff, even Hollywood.

So the early sixties must be the weak era.

I still catch myself being vaguely down on the fifties. Even as some directors rose to prominence, lots of the elder statesmen started churning it out, which is true of any era. Now, when a film from the 1950s provokes a derisive thought, I mentally walk it back and remind myself… the fifties aren’t just all right, they’re rather great.

And not just because it’s when Bergman got going strong.

Preparing this post I went through the Stop Button responses of the best fifties movies. I came up with thirty-five (though the number is since thirty-six, I hadn’t written about Stalag 17 when I made that list); then I thought maybe I could write about my childhood fifties favorites. Because even though I had a negative impression of fifties cinema, many of my favorite monster movies were from that decade. So the list could’ve included Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Mole People, the Raymond Burr version of Godzilla, and so on.

But then I decided to try to do the list straight. With the only asterisk being East of Eden. I haven’t seen it recently enough to include it with the others, but it might be on here instead of something else, it might not be.

Descending by year, the final list of five favorite fifties films.

  • Touch of Evil (1958)
  • Paths of Glory (1957)
  • The Searchers (1956)
  • Seven Samurai (1954)
  • Detective Story (1951)

Call it a “desert island but with electricity to watch movies” list or a fifties beginner list, these five films hit most of the quadrants of the fifties cinema. Hollywood melodramas aren’t represented in whole, but definitely in part—all five films contain similar elements, while some of them also feature similarities to fifties Bergman. Not so much in content, subject, or tone, but feel. There’s a decided lack of humor; Mose Harper and his rocking chair are about it. Still, These five films “feel” like a fifties film should feel. At least to be an exemplar.

Touch of Evil French poster

Touch of Evil. When I saw Touch of Evil in the theater (for the 1998 re-edit), I had already seen the film before. I might have even owned it on LaserDisc at that point. I didn’t exactly grow up with Touch of Evil, but I did spend my teens revering it. Even cutting it to shreds, the studio couldn’t excise the film of its greatness. I might have first seen it in 1992 or so, after The Player. I remember learning about complicated opening tracking shots around that time.

I’d definitely seen it by the time Get Shorty came out in 1995 because I’ve been laughing at that “Charlton Heston play Mexican” line since the first time I saw Shorty.

The only time I’ve watched the film since starting The Stop Button, I watched the original theatrical version, which came out in a DVD set with the 1998 cut and also the “preview cut.” I meant to watch all three of them, but still haven’t gotten around to it.

I watched it in one of my undergrad film classes—actually, there are two more coming up I watched in those classes—which would’ve been after the 1998 re-cut but before that version was on video. So it must have been the theatrical version. I really got to understand how the performances worked, how the script worked. I also got to see it with a better understanding of Welles.

Paths of Glory poster by Tona Stella

Paths of Glory. I might have discovered Paths of Glory from my dad’s Criterion LaserDisc. One summer in high school, I went through most of his LaserDisc collection—the ones I knew nothing about—while staying up until four in the morning and then sleeping until noon. Or my dad might have just watched it with me when he got it.

I can’t remember.

I definitely was a big fan by the time I went to college, where I’d see it in one of those film classes, but also think about the film in the context of my World War I history classes. Paths of Glory is still, probably, my favorite Kubrick film. I like to say Barry Lyndon to be difficult, but for “bang for the (runtime) buck,” it’s definitely Paths of Glory. And, if Kirk Douglas is to be believed, he’s the reason Kubrick didn’t sell out with Glory. How different American cinema would’ve been had it not been for Douglas wanting to have an unhappy ending.

Glory was one of those films I watched to learn how to pick a film apart, how to understand structure. I had to write an essay on it, after all. I needed to understand how Kubrick used George Macready’s villain, for example, so I had to delineate his scenes. Or wanted to delineate his scenes in the essay and did.

The Searchers Japanese poster

The Searchers. If you grew up in the eighties and nineties and liked film and liked John Wayne, you did not like good films. I’m sure there are some childhood John Wayne fans who would argue, but if you were ever okay watching McQ and The Green Berets, you did not like good films.

I don’t think I started watching John Wayne movies until The Searchers in that college film class. I’d seen The Shootist but probably almost nothing else. After seeing The Searchers, I stuck to the John Ford ones, of course. When I did branch out—to McQ, to The Green Berets—they only confirmed my suspicions about his ability to give godawful performances.

Wayne didn’t really have a redeemable offscreen personality either. So I’ve always been really careful in considering his films, which just makes Searchers all the stronger. Ford knew how to use Wayne to best effect, particularly in this film. Wayne’s playing on type, struggling against the inevitable character development.

Searchers was another film where I learned a lot about how to consider present action. It’s the undergrad film essay the instructor made me stand up and read aloud. I remember he started reading it and I thought, that’s not mine. Only for him to call me up.

Forced public speaking versus ego boost. How grand.

The Searchers also made me think a lot about expectation. What the audience “deserves” to know, what they don’t, and ultimately why deserve hasn’t got anything to do with it.

Seven Samurai British poster

Seven Samurai. It took me forever to see Seven Samurai. I checked it out from the college library my first year, didn’t watch it. I already had a copy of it on tape; I had dozens of EP tapes of movies to watch when I went to college. The quality was so bad I gave up on them almost immediately. But Samurai had come up in film class and the library had it, so I got it.

But didn’t end up seeing it for at least two more years, even as I would’ve probably watched more Kurosawa.

The first Kurosawa I saw was Dreams. Because Scorsese. Because color. I rented it once, didn’t end up watching it, rented it again, watched it. Have zero memory of it, soon enough saw Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Ran. I was a big Ran fan. But Samurai was always too daunting. Too long. Too big.

When I finally did see it, I thought it was great, but then sort of forgot about it. When I went back and watched it last year, I was blown away even more than I remember being the first time I watched it. Definitely one of those films where the more thoughtful you can be, the better your experience becomes. You’ve got to keep its 207 minutes constantly “in mind,” which isn’t necessarily easy but also is an imperative consumption skill.

Detective Story print ad

Detective Story. I gave this one a lot of thought before putting it on the list. It’s earlier than any of the other films, it’s got far more in common with post-war Hollywood than mid-fifties Hollywood. It’s the only Eleanor Parker movie on the list (and only probably her best performance from the decade, not definitely). It’s nowhere near as epic as any of the others (Touch of Evil and Paths of Glory being epically produced). It’s quite the opposite. It’s got a single location and is the most exquisite filmed adaptation of a play… ever. There’s just something about the way director William Wyler does it.

I cannot remember how I first saw it, unfortunately. I think I traded for it because it didn’t air on Turner Classic Movies and had never had a home video released (I was real excited when it came out on DVD, back when Paramount seemed to just realize it had a deep back catalog). Then the DVD went out of print and it all of a sudden became rarer. But now it’s streaming and being able to watch Detective Story on demand is—compared to when I first wanted to see the film in the late nineties—incredible. When classic film accessibility works out, it works out.

And Detective Story is rather accessible. It can’t be as frank as it could be, but Wyler and the cast don’t need to be too frank. Euphemism works on stage and Wyler understands how to make Story play as though it’s… produced on stage. Sort of.

It’s an exceptional play adaptation, even without being great otherwise.

And all five films are great. Phenomenal. Exceptional. Singular. Exquisite. All the good adjectives. Lots of complexity, lots of layers, lots of lots.

They’re enough to make you forget you ever dismissed the fifties as racist Westerns, soapy Hollywood melodramas, and obnoxious musicals. The fifties has all those kinds of films, unfortunately, but they also have some of the finest films ever made. Like the ones enumerated above. Like the thirty-one others I didn’t mention. Like the two dozen I can’t remember seeing. Like the countless others I haven’t seen. Yet.

If only phenomenal started with an F.


THIS POST IS PART OF THE 5 FAVORITE FILMS OF THE 50'S HOSTED BY RICK OF CLASSIC FILM & TV CAFÉ.


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Sum Up | 3’6″

“From thy wedding with the creature who touches heaven, lady God preserve thee.”

Eighth Wonder

Most film blogathons are actor, actress, director, sub-genre themed. If you’re trying to branch out, if you just haven’t had a chance to write about something you love yet, they’re efficient opportunities for some post subject variety. Even though I rarely write about films I’ve seen before and instead am often writing about films one can skip, it’s a great way to maintain some perspective. Film viewing has always had a hard shell to its bubble.

In the fifteen years since I started blogging, I’ve wanted to keep my film blogging bubble pliable. Even before I realized why it should be pliable, I knew it had to be; after college but before grad school—when I started The Stop Button in 2004—I was in a film snob limbo. In 2003, intellectually fueled by foreign films from Netflix, Buster Keaton, and being Pianist perplexed, I gave up on new movies. I ended up taking a two or three year break and never got back into the theatergoing experience as much. Except for fine arts theaters and movie series. Even though I don’t have any of the posts anymore, the first year of Stop Button posts were all about Sam Fuller and whatever else we saw at this film series. And I’d moved on from Netflix to Nicheflix, since I’d had to go region-free very, very early to get films like Larger Than Life (the Bill Murray one) widescreen or Gance’s Napoleon at all; Nicheflix is where I discovered Korean film. Nicheflix was great.

I also had this (probably annoying) thing where if someone recommended a movie to me, I’d watch something else from the same director. Same writer-director. It wasn’t like someone said to watch The Conversation so instead I watched Jack. But new indie auteurs, I’d go in real suspect.

But I never wanted The Stop Button to be too focused on a genre or sub-genre.

Things have veered Classic Hollywood over the last couple years, but it’s mostly because blogathons and lack of film blogging time.

Mutually exclusive but concurrent is my Film—capital letter—philosophy. What I think and why, which almost always figures into how I write about individual films. And this capital Film philosophy didn’t start with The Stop Button or in undergrad film snobbery, or playing Clerks after high school, or having themed overnight movie marathons with friends during high school, or going to movies with summer camps before high school, or going to movies at birthday parties before middle school. Not to mention just watching VHS tapes because it was so cool to watch a movie at home. And if that thrill ran out, letterbox and LaserDisc.

My Film philosophy is changing all the time, usually because of a film. And I’d never thought about what I’d consider my most influential film. The one with the most permanent ramification for my capital Film philosophy. So definitely not the latest big “changer” either; it’s an intellectual fad—a justified one, I hope—but still something to be developed upon. And also understood with that eventuality. There’s no end-all-be-all movie to see. The Day the Clown Cried is not going to make all other film narrative superfluous.

So what about something I’ve consciously considered for a long time. Last summer, through a blogathon, I discovered the movie I had spent years thinking was Vertigo but wasn’t; I had avoid Vertigo because this film memory had scared me so much I refused to do a “close your eyes” exercise in kindergarten because I thought it would make you into a monster. Young and Innocent; different Hitchcock; thirty-five year-old movie mystery solved.

So would Young and Innocent be the most influential movie in those thirty-five years? No. Not any more than how I was convinced Monster Squad had a candle blowing out for foreshadowing and no one—of middle school Monster Squad fans–believed me. It does, of course; they pan-and-scanned it out for video. So Monster Squad, even for those few years it stayed active in my mind?

Nope, no, heck no, hell no. Ew Monster Squad.

Also I’d forgotten about the candle blowing out mystery by the time I did see Monster Squad widescreen again.

I was a Star Wars kid. Big time. Was it Star Wars? No. Star Wars was more than brand loyalty. Brand franchise loyalty, actually. Superman? No, not back then as much. What else did I watch a lot as a kid?

I mean, I was a monster kid. What about Frankenstein? I did a paper on Boris Karloff in grade school.

And then… Kong.

Of course. King Kong.

Blamin' it all

The 1933 version of King Kong is responsible for my childhood fascination with New York City, which lead to various family trips over the years. Kong is why I had to have Empire State Building memorabilia. Kong is partially why a lot. Kong is why New York is why Empire State building is why Art Deco is why thirties history why history is why undergrad major.

I don’t remember the first time I saw it. If I’m guessing, three at the latest? Because I know I saw Empire in the theater and I would’ve been two and a few months. And Raiders. I saw Raiders a little too young for head-melting. Kong would’ve been TV or video. I’m pretty sure we copied it from the library’s VHS. Once in-home VHS copying was a thing.

I know I watched Kong with my friends. Made my friends watch Kong is probably more accurate, since it was middle school before one of them ever stood up for black and white movies. The eighties and nineties were wanting for a lot. But I don’t remember who or when or if we did Kong marathons. Maybe? I know a family friend was a Kong buddy but only because people reminded me about it later. I have no memory of the actual movie watching, just the reminders.

I also know I watched Kong '33 less as I got into high school. Because my high school capital Film philosophy involved how special effects ought to be integrated and while Kong ’33 has singular special effects, their integration didn’t have as many modern applications as Kong ’76. I got to be a practical effects absolutist in late middle school. But less Willis O’Brien and more Phil Tippett. Then Jurassic Park killed stop motion and I dug in on practical. It’s only the last six years or so I’ve evened out that hill.

But I watched some Kong ’33 in college. And after. It’s been a while, but I know when I wrote about it for Stop Button eleven years ago I gabbed about it to my podcast cohost in a pre-show. Kong’s gotten to the point whenever I do get to ruminate on it, it’s a memorable rumination.

I do remember getting the Nostalgia Merchant VHS. It was one of the first items in my VHS collection. Kong helped get me addicted to media. I never replaced that Nostalgia Merchant copy, which was the uncut version (for the first time on home video). I have this vague memory of getting both it and the uncut Frankenstein in some big box store in the late eighties. We might have been on a family vacation because not many stores around us had sell-through VHS sections yet. Or, if they did, they were limited and always list price.

A few years later, Turner did an official release, as well as a colorized. I still haven’t seen the colorized version. Both VHS boxes were terrible and not the kind of thing you wanted to be seen picking up in a video store in 1990. The 1993 sixtieth anniversary edition box was better but I didn’t upgrade my Nostalgia Merchant. Not until—sometime in the late 1990s—I got the Criterion CLV version. There was CAV, which allowed frame-by-frame pausing, and CLV, which did not. Either the CAV was out of print or I didn’t want to spend $100 on a Kong LaserDisc. So I got the CLV.

Before getting the DVD—I waited for the official DVD release, even though it was available overseas (and possibly through Nicheflix) because RKO movies weren’t Warner overseas—I got at least one other copy of Kong on LaserDisc, because it had a different audio commentary. I’m not sure I’ve listened to any Kong audio commentary. I sort of think I have, but I’m not sure. It’s likely. Ish. But I sure had a lot of them.

I actually don’t have the Blu-ray. I didn’t even realize it had been released. By the time I did, I was able to just it digital; 1080p. Frame-by-frame pausing. Finally.

I’ve had easy access to Kong for almost thirty years.

But I’m forty. Those ten years before having a TV in my room, I had a different kind of access to Kong. One with an authoritative but a complicated, somewhat specious footing in reality. And it did take a toll on me and Kong.

Conehead

More than King Kong the movie, I grew up with King Kong the movie as related in a book. Ian Thorne’s King Kong book for Crestwood House, published in 1977. It was a whole “Monsters Series” by Thorne where he summarized the film, talked about how it was made, talked about its legacy. The Kong one talks about Son of Kong, Mighty Joe Young, King Kong vs. Godzilla, the 1976 Kong. And Queen Kong. I’d been wanting to see Queen Kong since I was four.

The book series was a reading life-changer for me. My mom frequently told the tale of how I had zero interest in reading until Crestwood Monsters, then becoming a voracious reader of all things. Including other monster books featuring Kong.

Except they rarely, if ever, really featured King Kong. Instead, they use the touched-up promotional photographs RKO did back in 1933. Kong appears more “realistic” in some of them. In others he appears to be from one hundred to five hundred feet tall and have a rather peculiar cone-shaped head. The conehead gave other monster kids an excuse not to like Kong, even though the images don’t accurately represent the Kong of the film at all. So even before I slowed down on watching Kong ’33 before I was focusing on my theories of practical special effects applications, I stopped talking about it because of social pressures.

The colorized version probably didn’t help things.

But it isn’t just the studio retouch artists changed the shape of Kong’s head, they changed his whole body. They also changed scenes. While audiences in 1933 might have understood a lobby card wasn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the film’s onscreen content, I was checking out a non-fiction book fifty-some years later. Not just non-fiction. I got adult non-fiction books too. These books were the real thing.

Only not at all.

And not just the look of Kong, but the scenes in the film. There’s no triceratops in King Kong. The T. Rex fight doesn’t go down this way. There’s no long shot of Kong on the Empire State Building with a half dozen biplanes in frame. The pterodactyl doesn’t have teeth. The retouch artists changed the expectation of the action beats. It’s great marketing. Exceptional marketing. But also rather annoying because it means I don’t quite remember what’s in Kong.

It also means there’s surprise every time I do watch it.

Legacy

Back before TCM, back before AMC, Kong didn’t lead me to a lot of other films. Son of Kong, sure. Mighty Joe Young, at least once. But Fay Wray, Bruce Cabot, and Robert Armstrong didn’t go on to much an eight year-old would see. We didn’t watch Westerns when I was growing up, so no occasional Cabot or Armstrong appearances in a John Ford movie. I don’t even remember seeing Armstrong in anything else until The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, which our video store did carry, but I would’ve watched it after The Thin Man series and I didn’t get super into Thin Man until at least 1990.

Even when I was watching classics en masse (AMC, then TCM), it was usually only Armstrong who’d show up in some supporting role. Fay Wray I never saw on AMC or TCM. I’d gotten The Most Dangerous Game in 1995 on LaserDisc—same filmmakers as Kong, same jungle set—and she’s the female lead in it, but otherwise, nothing.

Bruce Cabot… I can’t even remember the first time I saw him in anything else.

Directors Schoedsack and Cooper? I mean, I did get to see Blind Adventure (reuniting some Kong and Son of Kong cast and crew) a few years ago and that’s good, but Last Days of Pompeii? I’ve been meaning to watch it for ten years and just never get around to it. I haven’t seen Mighty Joe Young since high school when it didn’t impress me and I loathe Most Dangerous Game these days. While Kong got me very interested in film—and filmmaking—it didn’t directly lead to much.

Neither did any of my favorite classic monster movies as a kid. Little did I understand studio contracts back then.

When I wrote about Kong for The Stop Button in 2008, I had come back to it after getting an MFA in writing. I had a completely different set of examination tools. It had already gone through the history BA toolkit and the anti-CGI toolkit and the pro-CGI toolkit (I was tentatively onboard with CGI until the 1998 Godzilla or so) and whatever else going back to age three. Kong, as always, excelled no matter how I understood Film. No matter what I thought the film was supposed to do, what it needed to do, what it couldn’t do, what it shouldn’t do.

And more than excelling, it further informs, further clarifies, further focuses the all-important capital Film philosophy.

Because it’s undeniable. It’s King Kong.


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