I will be the first to admit to a weakness as a cinephile: I’m not very good at watching mainstream action movies. I didn’t grow up on them, and when I consume them as an adult, I tend to do them wrong. I know this because it’s pointed out to me every time by various friends who are annoyed that I can’t simply enjoy and accept the plots, explosions, and suspense of mainstream Hollywood films. (This includes co-founder Angela, who loves action films.)
Instead, I find myself thinking critically about these movies. I consider how they construct their symbolic systems, how characters and plot are coded, and how the films fit into a broader industry of cultural production. Maybe it’s just a hunch: no one (repeatedly) invests $185 million without having a pretty solid idea of exactly what they’re spending it on and why.
I was recently reminded of this character flaw after seeing Kong: Skull Island, which is about as loaded as they come in terms of Hollywood industrial product. With a First Team All-Star cast and a reboot of one of Hollywood’s legendary stories, Kong takes place at the end of the Vietnam War, employing some about-to-be-discharged American soldiers on a secret mission to explore an uncharted island that turns out to be inhabited by (King) Kong and other very large beasts. It’s a delicate, isolated ecosystem in tenuous balance that the soldiers disturb and then must escape.
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, a 2016 nonfiction book by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the Vietnamese-American writer and academic whose 2015 novel The Sympathizer is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time: wryly funny, tough, vivid, stylish. (Actually, everything I’ve read by him is great, including his short story collection from this year, The Refugees.) In Nothing Ever Dies, Nguyen examines the way memory of the traumatic Vietnam War is enacted by Americans, Vietnamese, and other groups. He focuses attention on film industries, especially examining the role of Hollywood in selecting, shaping, and shaping American perspectives on Vietnam.
Nguyen suggests that as expensive industrial products meant for mass consumption, most films attempt to reinforce desired cultural narratives. They’re trying to fit into a larger “war machine” that crafts these narratives from start to finish, with various large-scale entities working together to shape a people’s overall perception of Vietnam – the events, the self-image, and who the heroes and villains are. This critique of mainstream cinema is not new, but Nguyen applies it to memory of the Vietnam War as something that’s shaped in ethics, industry, and the arts by Americans, North and South Vietnamese, Koreans, and refugees. All seek to portray themselves in ways that serve broader cultural goals, dealing to some extent with the responsibilities of remembering well and acknowledging the complexities of the conflict.
The Vietnam War has always been a powerful symbol, both for the intensity of its images of war and as an example of the power of images. We know that in an unprecedented way, media and images shaped public opinion of Vietnam as it was happening; now, part of the identity of “Vietnam War” is the very idea that it revealed how powerful images could be. But as time and subsequent horrors soften the actual images of Vietnam, what’s left is enfeebled. Media and art that used Vietnam for specific purposes – to shock, protest, and influence – now harvest fresher and more potent symbols that can be called up and collated with related cultural output (news, YouTube videos, films about current conflicts). So what’s left for Vietnam is its reputation.
Kong: Skull Island’s use of Vietnam – the country and the war – is about as oblique as you can get. The American soldiers have been ordered to leave but are waiting for transport, so they’re just hanging around and we never see Vietnamese soldiers. There are some images winking at Hollywood films about Vietnam, which are meant to reference the past deeds of these soldiers. Saigon is rendered mostly as a rainy exterior and a couple of interiors with colorful extras, and then it’s offshore to the uncharted Skull Island and its surprising inhabitants. Once everything immediately goes haywire, the soldiers all have different ideas about what to do on this island, which are consistent with their views on the Vietnam War and its end: kill Kong, kill everything, gather as much information as possible, or escape immediately so we can all go home.
So this is where my mind starts overheating a bit, because one strategy Hollywood uses effectively in a situation like this is the layering of symbols and symbolic systems. This layering is constant, occurring in characters, who are painted in the broadest possible strokes; plot, which echoes real-life past or current events that most viewers are familiar with; and setting, which provides the literal backdrop and thus implies various aspects of culture and history.
Layering serves many purposes. For one, it gives shape to the movie, allowing for multiple plot threads to overlap and characters to develop in different sections, creating a dense film-world without having many characters talking over each other. It also gives credence to multiple points of view with which various viewers might identify, allowing a sort of passive “choose your own adventure” to play out in which the best option is the last and most desperate one, and mirroring America’s preferred image as benevolent considerer of all parties involved.
Finally, and more cleverly, layering smudges. For ease of recognition, characters, plots, and setting can’t be too complicated. But when things are too simple, a story risks falling apart. Things don’t add up, they contradict, or the way elements are coded risks confusing or offending enough viewers that the film will fail as an industrial and economic product (take token minority characters as an example). By heaping different layers of imagery and potential meaning, it throws off the scent people like me who insist that there’s intended meaning in films like these.
As a field of symbols, Vietnam addresses all these elements in Kong, but in ways that are ironic – because the soldiers aren’t actually fighting other humans, but do wind up fighting giant monsters – and postmodern – because much of the symbolic imagery in the film comes not directly from the Vietnam War, but from the Vietnam War film genre, sometimes cheekily and sometimes less obviously on purpose. The result is that Vietnam, like Keith Richards in his Pirates of the Caribbean cameo, remains potent only as a symbol of the past, stripped of actual power.
And while contemporary Hollywood has shown itself to be adept at recycling everything, it also wants to make sure its products are relevant to the current time, so it carefully blends in contemporary issues that it wants to resonate with viewers. Being an uncharted, wildly picturesque jungle island inhabited by wondrous creatures, Skull Island inspires some heated views in Kong on the subject of whether to leave its ecosystem alone or disturb it, directly mirroring debates over issues like fracking, environmental conservation, and humanity’s effect on our environment. In Kong, many decisions are made that turn out to be profoundly ill considered, but the awesome beasts ultimately settle things themselves. On humanity’s place in the environment, the film winds up being both tangled and simplistic.
Ultimately, Kong posits environmental consciousness, or conservation or whatever one calls it, as something passive done by others. Passivity: all we need to do is ease up on the gas, so to speak, and everything will be just fine regarding the environment. Done by others: this is a piece of entertainment meant to be your escape from the realities of your life, or, nature will take care of itself and we can undo the damage we cause by simply leaving through the door we came in. Although Hollywood monster movies can implicitly comment on the environment, they allow themselves to be subsumed into broader American cultural forces that have other priorities. And so, on Vietnam and the environment, Kong falls in line with the precisely calibrated forgetting and remembering that preoccupies writers like Viet Nguyen. (TB)