I said NO camels, that's FIVE camels!

Look, if I take anything seriously, it's Indiana Jones.  Therefore, because there's been some confusion related to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (see the last post and its comments), I was eager to correct any false assumptions.  With my friend Dave's (reluctant) permission, I'm publishing an excellent email from him re: the movies.  It's an informal first draft, but I still think it's one of the best holistic critiques of the "tetralogy" I've read.  You can tell how much Dave loves the movies, and you can appreciate that Dave is a much simpler, better writer than I am.  For those of you who are interested in reading more about Indy, there's more after the jump.

For those of you who are bigger "Lost" fans than Indy fans, here are some hot pictures of Sawyer and me hanging out.

May 24, 2008

"...Yes. Yes. I agree that Raiders kind of stands on its own. Actually, when I read that review (after you sent it to me), that idea stood out to me, too. Don't know if I agree that the final three are a trilogy of their own... I think they're like Monet's haystacks (to be obnoxious about it)* -- they're all about the same guy, but his world shifts a little bit between each adventure. I think it's like the films that follow Raiders make a path that leads steadily away from Raiders, but pretty linearly. Each blazes a new bit of a singular trail that leads to new territory:

The Raiders world is whimsical, but basically realistic, with some elements of the supernatural potentially explainable by our own experience or by means made available to us in the film. This with the possible exception of the actual effects of opening the Ark (what would "God's wrath" have done if the Nazis had shut their eyes tight?). And, Indy feels punches (and for that matter, bullets) soundly.

In Temple, whimsy and coincidence has a marginally larger role to play than it did in Raiders (How did Short Round know to bring the car to THAT window?... or to a window at all, actually... A kid in a car happening to find Indy falling out of a window in the middle of Shanghai is a bigger and more explicit stroke of luck than we've seen before-- Indy had to try twice to get the right size uniform off a guard in Raiders). And, many of the supernatural things we observe have no explicit explanation in our world or in the world of the film. We are asked to believe that a man can live without a heart and that voodoo works just because it's related to some kind of Black Magic going on and cultivated at the palace. Incidentally, Indy does get beat up, but he sustains blows in the final fight that I think may have toppled the Raiders Jones.

Certainly, the world in Last Crusade is a little sillier and a little less dangerous than the world in Raiders. Actually, its visceral impact is probably the least of the three first films, but its heart and charisma are strongest. Where Raiders legitimately sustains real, subtle interactions among captivating characters, its focus is not on the characters, but instead on maintaining the serial style that inspired the movies. Last Crusade departs from the serial style (notice how many fewer Venetian blinds exist in the film) a little, and perpetuates (if not elaborates) on the extreme level of whimsy and coincidence that Temple initiated (a la the return of his hat on the cliff); but, its great strength--and the thing that makes it wonderful despite its lacking the rich style of Raiders (unlike Temple, which doesn't successfully survive the abandoning of Raiders' stylistic or realistic integrity)-- is its admitting the fact, and placing its focus on character relationships instead.

Last Crusade is the first time that the relationships in an Indy film are its focus. And, the film benefits a great deal from it. Indy's relationship with Willie (Willy?) is a joke. And so is she. On purpose. Detrimental as it is. Indy's relationship with Marion was never a joke, but it was also incidental to the plot. In the Last Crusade, the Holy Grail turns out to be Indy's reconciliation with his father. The whole search has been to find his way back home. The lack of style, the special and unbelievable luck he has, his continued super-human strength in fights aren't ever a problem in Crusade, because they aren't the point of the film. He isn't looking for a cup, really (naturally). The style and conventions established with Raiders are largely (and largely successfully) abandoned.

And, now Skull…

I think that what we have are four movies out of what should have been six--we skipped over two in the nineties. Twenty years after Crusade, following the trajectory begun with Temple and continued with Last Crusade, we should be at Skull or beyond (we have simply missed the intermediate steps). In Skull, we're clearly no longer even within the farthest borders of 30's serial territory. But, I don't believe we're too far away from the world of Last Crusade. With Last Crusade we established what might have been the beginning of a major shift in the series... To a new style that doesn't quote 30's serials, but that is purely and uniquely of Indiana Jones.

When we saw Raiders, we all already knew Peter Lorre, and knew the Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or at least we knew that low brass music equals bad news in cinema. We knew the style, if not the particular films, that the first film evoked.

The territory blazed post-Raiders makes a new place for Indiana Jones. Originally, the films referenced earlier work. Now, the earlier work is much lesser known than Indy himself. Post-Crusade, Indiana Jones is as much a part of cinematic culture (if not more) than were the shows that inspired his creation.

Going into Crystal Skull, we all know Indiana Jones. And we know Marion. And, post-Temple and post-Crusade, we know to expect the unexpected in Indy films.

A viewer of Crystal Skull has to do a lot of work on his own to make the thing work. But, the previous films give him the tools he needs. Re-watching the new film in my head, I can excise the ants and the vine-swinging, because I know that Indiana Jones doesn’t need that kind of sensationalism; I can imagine the dialogue between Indy and Marion that we don’t get to see because I’ve seen it shipboard in Raiders; I can imagine the moment where Mutt and Indy come to terms with each other because I’ve seen it in Last Crusade. In other words, the elements are all there, but they exist in a kind of shorthand because familiarity with the character(s) is taken for granted… And, truthfully, though there can never be too much of what’s wonderful about the Indiana Jones characters, we have been given enough by the first three films.

My biggest problem with the new film is that, since it is the latest in a tradition begun post-Raiders, and since that tradition is a departure from the larger 30’s serial tradition out of which Indy grew in the first place, the new generation (the under-20 generation) might not know the Indiana Jones language well enough to appreciate this film as anything but superficial, reasonably well-put together action. For these kids, the short-hand references in the film to the earlier films might seem to be all there is. The things referenced might be lost on them entirely…

Good heavens, Alison. Look what I’ve done.

That’s all there is to that.

*my mentioning Monet’s haystacks as an analogy for the Indiana Jones tetralogy** grants you the right to never take me seriously ever again.

**same goes for the word “tetralogy”***

***and for taking the time to write a three-tiered footnote in a Facebook message
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February 26, 2010 at 5:31 PM delete

As a note: I was the person that was least disappointed in the movie at our big initial viewing, I think, because my expectations were low, and I appreciated the conscious genre change from 30's serial to 50's sci fi, most explicitly framed by the opening credits sequence, the infamous "ride the nuclear explosion in a lead fridge" scene, and even the "rumble" in the college diner. My general appreciation of strident inartful cinema of the 50's (i.e. half the stuff on MST3K)probably fed that. The film is still fun, but it was also ridiculous (but certainly less so than, say, Transformers 2). It wasn't particularly substantive or saying anything the other films hadn't already done better (America good, lust for power bad, women troublesome, Ford can still throw a punch). Again, Skull isn't downright awful, but it is unexpectedly low quality for the series and the people involved.

Now, I do appreciate Dave's discussion of the 3 original films. But if Dave is making the point that Skull doesn't ruin the CHARACTER for him, that's fine, doesn't for me either (and I've talked with him about it on several occasions). But requiring previous films as "shorthand" for needed characterization may be a rationalization, but it still isn't good cinema in my opinion. You don't need to see Terminator to appreciate how good Terminator 2 is. Hell, you almost don't need to see Star Wars to appreciate the Empire Strikes Back. But liking Empire doesn't make Phantom Menace suck less for me. Quality should create intense interest from audiences. Dave seems to be suggesting, for him, the other way around for Skull: that he can enjoy Skull because his intense interest in the character gives it quality (excising moments he doesn't like, imagining the scenes but better). Valid, but I'm simply not as invested in the character as he.

As well, I'd believe the "missing films" theory if it fit with Spielberg's stylistic arc through the same time period. Raiders has a stylistic commonality with Close Encounters and Jaws(realistic fantasy adventure). Temple has more in common with Amazing Stories, as it is whimsical, fun, and has strange unexplained physics, maybe a smidge of Empire of the Sun with all the Eastern exoticism (and the child abuse). Last Crusade is more like Hook, with more whimsy, but supported by emotional investment, with a father son relationship being part of the story and not just a theme, and the power of simple belief or faith as a central part of the film.

What is Skull like?

You'd think War of the Worlds, but that film at least attempted character study and interaction. Indy never tried to interact on an emotional level with anyone in Skull other than "Marion makes me happy and angry at same time! As a father, I can be hypocritical! You should care about these flat characters I apparently care about, audience!".In any case, this wasn't the Spielberg of Munich, Minority Report, or Catch Me If You Can, all good action packed movies with different styles that could have been put to good use with this character. This was, unfortunately, the Spielberg of The Lost World: a perfunctory, unfaithful and pandering sequel that stands (or rather, stood) by itself in his oeuvre for its particularly mercenary quality, its dependence on special effects thrills, and where I'm sure he had a lot of fun making a lot of money and hanging out with old friends, but was not particularly interested in artfully telling the story presented to him.


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