King Kong and the Dinosaurs:
Evolving Icons of Evolution in American Films
In two recent studies W.J.T. Mitchell (The Last Dinosaur Book, 1998) and Cynthia Erb (Tracking King Kong, 1998) have traced how American culture has redefined and reappropriated the icons of the great ape and the dinosaur. As “totem animals” of modernity these icons have not only evolved in somewhat similar ways but also been cast as a significant configuration in evolutionary narratives. In my paper I will look at Lost World (1925), King Kong (1933) and Spielberg’s Congo and Jurassic Park to examine the historically variable semantic and semiotic division of labour linking apes and dinosaurs. I will concentrate on two conflicting observations: On the one hand both icons are cast as main agents in narrative scenarios propagating meaningful and ideologically charged evolutionary structures. On the other hand theses structures are increasingly undermined by inconoclastic gestures triggering a multiplication of meaning: Whereas the ape-men in Lost World still function as racist scapegoats Kong becomes a tragic hero by saving Fay Wray from the giant lizards and by challenging the media apparatus capitalizing on the representation of monsters. In the two Spielberg films the iconographical and ideological setup becomes even more complicated: Here, dinosaurs and apes simultaneously figure as didactic pets and as disturbing new/recreated species attacking the technologies of representation and control.
A „Gesamtkunstwerk“ of Effects: Program and Prologue in Silent Era Movie Palaces
In American movie theaters of the late teens and twenties, the primary unit of presentation was the program rather than the film. Films were the main attraction, but they were integrated into a thematically coherent sequence of varied attractions that comprised lavish dance numbers, songs, recitals and short films. Key among the program elements was the so-called atmospheric prologue, a stage number that came immediately before the film and supposedly prepared the audience for the showing of the film. Theater managers such as Sid Grauman or Samuel “Roxy” Rothafel, who in the process became celebrities in their own right, almost on par with major movie stars and certainly more famous than most film directors, pioneered the thematically coherent film program. In the mid- to late twenties, this uniquely American art form was exported to foreign markets along with American films, particularly to Germany, where a number of American studios had managed to acquire a dominant position in the theatrical market by buying up Ufa’s movie theater holdings. Already hotly debated in the American trade papers, American style film programs became the focus of public controversy in Germany. Most notably, Siegfried Kracauer wrote a vitriolic attack on what he disdainfully termed a “Gesamtkunstwerk der Effekte”, an assemblage of effects that hindered, rather than helped, the perception of the film. – Based on a brief sketch of presentation practices in US silent era movie theaters, this paper will trace the public reception of program and prologue according to the “American principle” in German movie theaters of the twenties.
The White Man in Recent American Films
White masculinity has long been a staple icon in American popular culture, especially in its graphic representations that the medium film has provided. While for decades mainstream films have left white male identity by and large uncontested as the seemingly stable and whole center of the culture, a number of films of the 1980s and 1990s have made white male identity their major concern.
In films such as Sam Mendes’ American Beauty or David Fincher’s Fight Club (both 1999), a critique of the alienating and estranging effects that late capitalist consumer society has on the individual is articulated through a concern with white male identity—more specifically, through the protagonists’ perceived crisis of masculinity and their attempts to reclaim an authentic masculine identity which they regard as having been infringed upon by American society. In both films, an iconic masculinity reemerges that vigorously asserts itself in opposition to its sexual and racial other at the same time as it is unambiguously heterosexual and unabashedly white. In my paper, I will investigate the ambiguous consequences that this gendering and racing of social critique has for both the possibilities and limits of the critique put forward and the white masculinity that the protagonists seek to rescue. I will look at issues such as authenticity; identity and political agency; masculinity and heterosexual desire; the unacknowledged presence of homosexual desire in the construction of heterosexual masculine identity; the suppressed presence of a racial/ethnic other; and the connection of the gendering and racing of social critique to other forms and texts of American (popular) culture.
„Reinventing Billy the Kid: The Juvenile Delinquent as Cultural Icon“
Of all the Western heroes in popular culture Billy the Kid is still one of the most popular. Hundreds of historical markers and museums and a huge fan club called „The Billy the Kid Outlaw Gang“ with thousands of members keep his memory awake. Hundreds of dime novels, popular novels and comics, 20 biographies, more than 40 films, 30 plays, an opera, a ballet, and an uncounted number of pop-songs, poems, or also articles in journals and magazines have been produced about him.
This amazing popularity and the tremdendous reception it has triggered off stands in strange contrast to his striking historical unimportance and the lack of solid information about his life. All we definitively know is that he was born in New York in 1856, that he came to Silver City, New Mexico, with his parents in 1873, turned into a formidable gunman during the so-called Lincoln War, killed more than 20 people, escaped from hanging in a spectacular flight from the Lincoln County jail and was finally located and shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner in 1881. The immense amount of fantasy and myth that has turned Billy the Kid into an American icon in the course of time must be seen, so it seems, as a projective compensation for this absence of concrete knowledge.
The interpretations of his personality reach from the early demonizations as a satanic killer, a great number of historical, social and psychological analyses, his celebration as a culture hero in the 1960s to the deconstructivist images of today. The paper investigates these reinventions in the context of cultural history and analyses their underlying changing motivations.