Saturday, December 17, 2005

Dowd: Hot Monkey Love

Hot Monkey Love
by Maureen Dowd

As President Bush tries to shake off his dazed look and regain his swagger, he will no doubt dust off his cowboy routine: his gunslinger pose, his squinty-eyed gaze, his dead-or-alive one-liners, his Crawford brush clearing.

But this time, he may want to think twice before strapping on a Texas-shaped belt buckle. W. might inadvertently conjure up images of Bushback Mountain.

The High Plains, one of the few remaining arenas where men were men, may now evoke something more ambiguous, like men with men. After "Brokeback Mountain," pitching that pup tent on the prairie will never seem the same.

Can a culture built on laconic cowboys like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood survive one rough-hewn cowboy crooning to another, as Jake Gyllenhaal's Jack Twist tells Heath Ledger's Ennis Del Mar, "Sometimes I miss you so much, I can hardly stand it," and, "I wish I knew how to quit you"?

The Duke's tough "Pilgrim, you could've gotten somebody killed today and somebody oughta belt you in the mouth" has a different ring than Jake's vulnerable entreaty, "It could be like this, just like this, always."

Hmm. Maybe it's time to take another look at that sway in John Wayne's stride.

Everything will have to be re-evaluated. "High Plains Drifter" now sounds like a guy who might get arrested in a bus station bathroom. And audiences may be ready for "The Good, the Bad and the Bad Hair Day."

For decades, Republicans have had electoral success exploiting the simplistic frontier myth. Ronald Reagan galloped in from the West to rescue Washington. Dick Cheney's aides cast him as the stoic rancher who would blast a shotgun at rustlers if they messed with his cattle.

In 2004, the G.O.P. convention was staged like "The Magnificent Seven," with a gunslinging posse - including Rudy Giuliani, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain - riding in with W. and Vice to save the town from the black hats.

Poor John Kerry had to fall back on sailor imagery, skippering a boat into Boston and saluting the crowd with "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty." At least he managed not to use the Village People's "In the Navy" as his theme song.

A president who hates dissonance, who prefers a world in black and white, is now confronted by confusing gray shades everywhere he looks.

Hollywood is busy sensitizing - and emotionally layering - archetypal macho guys, including our most famous alpha male. He's still strong and decisive. His back's as hairy as ever. But it's just not the same Kong.

This lovable overgrown monkey is more like the brooding, wounded and steadfast romantic heroes Heathcliff and Rick Blaine. Like Jane Austen's Mr. Darcy, Peter Jackson's big ape goes for gals with spunk. He likes babes who juggle more than jiggle.

This gorilla doesn't go around tossing "gorilla dust," as Ross Perot used to call it, just to get into another alpha's space. He doesn't look for a T. Rex simply to rip its jaws apart - he only protects his loved ones. He'd rather hang out on his mountain, enjoying the sunset and watching his gal juggle and do pratfalls.

In a way, the new images of alpha archetypes are subversive precisely because the cowboys and the king of the jungle remain macho even as they become more nuanced.

The latest Kong waits for the blonde to come to him. "This time, he really seems to have the qualities of a hero in a woman's romance - he's distant, he's suffering, he's aloof," says Cynthia Erb, a professor and the author of "Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture."

As the hairy antihero grows more sensitive with each remake, the Ann Darrow character gets more sexual and aggressive. "She goes from a naïve, innocent, screaming, virginal character in the 30's to a sexually free, liberated feminist woman in the 70's," Ms. Erb notes. "In this one, she has the benefits of feminism and is the one who in some ways initiates the courtship. She actually works to earn his interest." And tries to save him.

For all its dazzling digital spectacle, "King Kong" is not as daring as it could be. Peter Jackson could have made Kong a woman. Or, while he was borrowing "Titanic" imagery for the lovers' parting on the Empire State Building, he could have gone all the way and made "Brokeback Island."

Just picture it: Leonardo DiCaprio, blond, doe-eyed and smitten, curled in the ape's epicene yet hairy grip. Kong, swinging both ways.