Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Indiana Jones - my accidental essay on the series

Oh, Indiana Jones. "Raiders" is movie magic. I tested an idea & on the series, then wrote out my thoughts. It got out of hand, and led to this massive post. I don't blame you for skipping around, but you'll find my theory in the last 3 paragraphs.

In the Beginning, there was a handsome man with a bullwhip, and it was good.
"Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the perfect action film, the only Indy pic to receive near-unanimous praise on release. Charismatic actors play their parts perfectly, the action is exceptional. It also has some of the tightest dialogue and characterization I've ever seen. As such, it beats its own inspiration: old B movies and 30's/40's serials that kids saw at matinees. Imagine going to the theater 15 times to get one story!

I dimly remember seeing "Raiders" in 1981, in the theater with my family. We went back 6 more times, and loved every minute. We never stood a chance - beautiful scenery, vivid characters, brilliant plot. My favorites: the fight by the plane; the mirror on the ship; "It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage;" Ford's face at Karen Allen's derisive, "see ya around, Indiana Jones."

Why it works: First, Indy is a gritty hero - he steals, screws up, nearly gets himself killed. His first scene with Marion speaks loudly; it's implied that teenage Marion pursued him in his 20s/30s. And won. She's so bitter when they reunite, yet he's very tough and harsh about it. He may show some regret, but he tells her, "you knew what you were doing," like he's talking to a hooker.

Better still, the film has fleshed-out characters, their history is rich because it's unexplained. We don't know what happened with Marion; maybe they just kissed. Jones doesn't panic in the face of danger; but why is he scared of snakes? The fact that Indy steals artifacts from countries? That's more implied than stated. Marcus Brody is Jones' friend and boss. We never learn how they became friends, or whether Marcus knew Marion as well.

That last part is key: the dialogue tells us a lot about the characters, and can work indirectly. The lines don't simply tell us what Indy needs or intends - they also tell us whether he's aggressive, clever, amoral... The roles are richer for it. Also, friends talk in shorthand, referring to what they both know without spelling it out. Imagine: "Marion? You mean your mentor's daughter? The teen you had an affair with, ruining all three relationships?"

George Lucas adhered to those old serials and pulp/B-Movies. They often had fantastical quests, big special effects, some horror, and lots of action. They could be over-the-top, and intellectually unchallenging. Indy fits right in - unnatural treasure, a terrifying climax... The old serials ended on cliffhangers, and Indy's action scenes have perfectly tense reversals. Lucas did play with the theme; Indiana Jones often falls short, unlike the serial heroes. That adds to his appeal, and gives great moments as threats worsen (e.g., the Mercedes ornament).

George came up with Indy while writing "Star Wars." Steven Spielberg told Lucas that he really wanted to make a James Bond film. Lucas offered to create an American Bond together. Indy fits into that too - girls, danger, foreign locales... After three days, they fleshed it out. And "Raiders" had too many great ideas: two scenes (a gong as a shield, a mine cart chase) were saved for the 2nd pic.

-Much of the crew got sick, but Spielberg only ate spaghetti-o's (he brought cans) for 5 weeks.
-Harrison Ford got super-ill, and his stomach problems made a sword fight impossible; this made them invent one of the best scenes in the series.
-Lucas got 40% ownership of film and almost 50% profits after a certain studio gross.
-The film managed to get a PG-rating (down from R) by putting flames over one of the final 3 Nazi deaths.
-the memorable villain Toht (the injured hand guy) is never named, and has only 14 lines in English.
-the Ark is opened with the words used in Synagogues at sabbath services.
-It nearly starred Tom Selleck. Danny DeVito was almost Sallah. Sean Young read for Marion with Tim Matheson as Indy. Bill Murray and Steve Martin had offers too. -while filming, Spielberg dictated to Ford's then-wife the script for E.T.
-Cost $20M. $8M opening weekend, hit $104M in two months (in 1981 dollars!), $384M total.

Part 2: Why Hollywood's Scared of Non-Formulaic Sequels
"Temple of Doom" ("ToD") is scary. Released in '84, it inspired the PG-13 rating. I remember the theater I saw it in (the Times Square space that has "The Lion King" now). I recall lifting my feet off the floor during the bug scene. It's all dark, nasty - enslaved children, beatings, the grossest banquet ever. And don't forget the human sacrifice! Ouch! The origins of all this darkness may lie in Lucas' divorce (1983). A costly separation must feel like all of those misfortunes, huh?

The action scenes are exciting and fast-paced, but the movie itself often slows down - it feels slower than "Raiders." [I learned last year that it's a prequel.] This movie was usually considered the worst of the lot ('til 2008). My original opinion: fun, but unloveable. It's now second-best.

Despite any misgivings, I always loved that they broke away from the first movie. There's no Nazis, no scenes of Dr. Jones teaching, no cameos from the first picture. Indiana's adventures are purely in the Eastern world. I have so much respect for the different direction taken here.

Further, Indy remains gritty. In this one, he's more of a fortune-seeker - you suspect he might steal the stones. Yet little things speak large: his reluctant parental dynamic with Short Round, and his face on learning the villagers' story or first hearing the slaves. We also get more vague history about him - he's known widely as an artifact-thief, and was threatened with castration.

"ToD" opened to mixed reviews. Criticism focused on racism toward Hindus, and (pretty valid) claims that it was too gross and bloody for kids. This caused the big delay between #2 and #3. I had assumed that "ToD" grossed poorly, but "ToD" cost ~$30M and performed well: $30M+ opening weekend, $100M in a month, gross of $330M. If only they hadn't waited for 5 years!

-Willie's awesome dress was made entirely of 1920's & '30's beads. It was so tight, she couldn't dance in it. One of the elephants ate the back off it, and that went on the insurance claim.
-All the Indian villagers are Sri Lankan and speak Sinhalese. That's their language, I guess.
-The main antagonist, Mola Ram, is absent for the first hour. He's a big Indian actor, once known for his hair. After "ToD" he always went bald, becoming Bollywood's most-famed villain.

Part 3, or: Everything Old is New Again (Even the Old Guy)
1989's "The Last Crusade" ("tLC") has so many good elements, but I'm conflicted about it. I suspect that it's 1/2 great, 1/4 bad, and 1/4 mediocre. It received mixed reviews (still better than "ToD"), was made for ~$50M, opened to $30M, and grossed $500M. I saw this one on a class trip (awesome). I'll try to explain my ambivalence, beginning with the good parts:
River Phoenix is brilliant in the intro. River was great (he would've rivaled Johnny Depp), and most girls I know mourn his loss (because he was beautiful). The end of this leads into one of the best moments in film. A hat is pushed onto River's head. It tilts back up, his theme music swells, and we see the adult Jones. Harrison Ford gives us that wonderful grin - then gets clocked. Perfect!

Sean Connery works wonderfully in this picture, both as part of the theme and as an actor. It's a bit funny, pairing the original James Bond with a role inspired by him. Yet the choice was right, as the friction created between the two plays so well. Everyone loves Sean as Jones Sr.

The action scenes are really stunning. The tank battle, castle escape, and plane/car/beach sequences are all jaw-dropping. This is the famous side of Lucasfilm's non-effects work - see my note at the very bottom ("On Action").

Alas, instead of trivia, I have to discuss what really doesn't work here:
"tLC" shows multiple symptoms of what I call "George Lucas Syndrome." One sign is that it's exposition-heavy. People talk of the plot and its objects (map, book), in words that only explain things for the audience. It recurs as folks introduce themselves, as artifacts and folklore are discussed... I'm surprised and disappointed that two big filmmakers handled this better in '81.

Another big symptom kicks off the pic - "GLS" requires many call-backs. A "call-back" is when you bring back something seen earlier - i.e., referring, at the movie's end, to a joke made before... At the start, Lucas tells us that Indiana Jones was the result of one day. One magical-ass day gave teen Indy relic-hunting, fights, chases, a fear of snakes, a bullwhip, a chin scar, and his hat.

That's not good writing. It says too little about the character. These call-backs are used as a form of exposition, but they drain the mystery out of him. We didn't need to know! At best, it's "cute" in a not-good way. At worst, it seems like an unimaginative hack job. For all that, the beginning ultimately works because it's such entertaining action and introduces Indy's dad.

Simply put, time spent writing self-references is time not spent on writing a new story. Many filmmakers can't afford that, but it's part of George Lucas' style now. The Star Wars prequels are packed with such call-backs, especially the explanatory kind, and those all failed. The return of Nazis and Western artifacts isn't too much, but George included Sallah and a joke about the Lost Ark! Save that for your kids' stories, GL!

"GLS" also has a third, nasty, side-effect: heavy use of a stupid/goofy character, one destined for slapstick. In "Raiders," Marcus Brody said he'd go after the Ark, "if I were a few years younger." He's back in "tLC" as a doofus who can barely travel, and "got lost in his own museum." The actor's role became "the uber-fool," and only the first moment of that adds a great laugh.

However, as the joke gets played again and again, it's clearly inappropriate - these are important events, and comical buffoonery deflates that importance, kills the suspense. Watch the awesome tank battle again. As thrilling as the scenes with Harrison Ford may be, there's a palpable drop in tension every time we cut back to Jones Sr. and Brody.

One final, non-"GLS" criticism: the ending is off. Thematically, it's smart to have the father and son connect at the end. It also works because Jones Sr. calls his son "Indiana" for the first time ever. But it's so rushed, it makes no sense. One moment, Jones Jr. begs the German girl to ignore the Grail and go; she ignores him and falls. One second later, Indy is doing the exact same thing? Father-son bonding may satisfy the film's themes, but it's senseless.

"That Other Film," where Lucas completes his revenge on fans. And the future.
As to the fourth installment, I can only rely on the unofficial review espoused in "South Park": the writer and director basically assaulted one of our best friends. The repulsive oddity here is that Lucas, Spielberg, and Ford are all talking about making multiple sequels now. That news kinda stings me - not just because new sequels might stink like #4. What hurts is that these three men should've been steadily making Indy pictures all along!

I loved Harrison Ford's acting, but am disappointed with his choices after the early 90's; maybe he set my standards too high. Lucas has less excuse, as his later movies are fairly atrocious. Only Steven Spielberg has released multiple films that say: "hey, you only got three, but I was busy doing good work." You couldn't make "Indy 3 1/2: Sallah's Itch" without all three men - so I guess I wish Steven had never heard of "Hook" or "AI."

And now, it seems far too late to make any more of the series. As long as Lucas is writing the sequels, I expect no new happy memories. I just know that we could've had our own James Bond (and cooler, too) - at a better rate than 4 every 27 years. Bond films burnt out because they had "hardened" into a formula: Bond+Q+3 Girls+car... Ours might have done better!

On Action (why I wrote this in the first place), and Final Thoughts
In the end, I'm back to where I started: I wanted to know how much of those three movies were pure action. I believed it as a child, yet largely forgot this fact over the last few years - Lucasfilm was the name in special effects. They put great work on the screen for other people, and their own films were nearly a guarantee that you'd see something amazing. Lucasfilm began the fx side of their rep with "Star Wars," and cemented the action side of it in "Raiders."

Unfortunately, I couldn't prove my own theory; I found no connection between action and quality. The results:
  • "Raiders"' 115-minute length dedicates 30 to chases and such. In 12 minutes you get the airplane brawl, a 5 second breather, then that beautiful fight on the truck. 
  • "ToD" clocks in at 118 minutes, 50+ involving swords, guns, and Willie's screaming. "Temple" also has the most bunched-up action scenes: 17 minutes to free kids, ride a cart, and escape a tunnel flood, leading right into 7 more on a rope bridge. That pace is like a great workout: exhilarating and exhausting. 
  • "tLC" runs 127 minutes, spends 45 on fascist-pounding goodness. The action is broken up the most, with the longest stretch leading into 11 minutes with a nazi-run tank.
I can't critique the films using just those facts. The problems in "Temple of Doom" don't stem from too much action. The issues in "The Last Crusade" aren't the fistfights or chases, or how they're spaced. And "Raiders of the Lost Ark" has less than the rest, yet is the best of them all. I found no support for a little theory, but I wouldn't have written this otherwise. I'd never have given the series this much thought, if I hadn't...

1 comment:

  1. Agree with your conclusions. What had the opportunity to become a truly iconic and enduring series became one outstanding one, and parts of a few others surrounded by what became formula. A shame.
    A shame too that Ford was already in his mid 30s when he started these, he would have had to commit to making one every few years fairly early on. Unlike other actors with a hot property he made a number of other movies, with varying success, and Lucas and Speilberg each went on to do (or not) what they did.


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