Thursday, July 1, 2010

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Take Two)

"Indiana Jones and the Terrible Age of Wonders"

Last year's fourth entry in the "Indiana Jones" saga was met with derision while it raided a diamond mine at the box-office (making it to the top of many lists of 2009's more successful films—including a conservative publication that used its Commie villains to claim that it heralded a surge by the public to right-minded films, despite the fact that the rest of the films mentioned on the list flopped...and flopped badly; Indy 4 alone raised all boats).  There were complaints that it wasn't as good as the first three (a clear case of "Mom's Apple Pie" syndrome* among the fandom in fedoras—I felt it wasn't as good as the first one, but that's it): there was too much "Mutt" (Shia LaBeouf) and CGI, the familial complications too obvious, some characterizations a bit spurious,** and that it "nuked the 'fridge"—which briefly supplanted "jumped the shark" for hitting a false note in the national media (they always chortle when the fan-base eats its own) before they went back to not reporting the news. 

That last one stuck in my craw; it showed that the fan-base didn't "get" what the movies are—a post-modern, hi-tech take on the past and the low-ditch movies' past, in particular.  It didn't have to adhere to "reality"—it never did.  Look at Raiders of the Lost Ark, admittedly the best of the bunch—a 30's film filled with flying flap-jacks, Nazi's (Nazi's everywhere, even melting ones), Hitler myths, and tales of apocalyptic power. Nobody questioned "who" would put the rolling rock back after it crushes an intruder.  Nobody asked why a tomb unopened after centuries would still have live snakes in it.  One or two might have asked how Indy rode the back of a sub all the way to Nazi Island (It didn't submerge?  At all?  Then, why'd they take a SUB?!). Nobody questioned the ark.  It didn't have anything to do with reality, but rather with a mythic age of B-movies and wishful thinking that never existed, a cross-roads ("'X' marks the spot") between gritty, slithering reality and far-fetched fantasy, and the other films in the first trilogy followed that same map of fictional territory. 

But not as well.  Where the other two films, The Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade, failed to engage me were their wholesale abandonment of the what made the first film a Boy's Adventureland, and became a series of drawn-out chases, and half-hearted attempts at Mythos.  The Temple of Doom—a favorite among some film-critics, as it challenged Indy's hero-concepts and went to darker psychological places than mere musty caves—bugged me not so much for its inaccuracies (the long fall from a plane on a life-raft, the ripping out of a sacrificial victim's flaming beating heart to the SV's—and the audience's—disbelief), but it's insistence to present a Disneyland-like "mine-shaft ride" that looked for all the world that it was populated by puppetoons.  Then, there's the small detail of it being a prequel in which Jones "learns" that there's more to his mythic quests than robbing graves for fun and profit—which is intrinsic to the character, and is part of the make-up of the somewhat less-than-honorable "Indiana" Jones we first meet in the chronologically later Raiders.  That lesson must not have "stuck."

But, what they do have in common—what they all do—is slap the stubbornly reality-based Jones into a sense of wonder: Raiders... confronts "Indy" with a full-on-Wrathful presentation of something that he dismissed with a casual "if you believe that sort of thing."  ...The Last Crusade makes him take a literal "leap of faith" to save both his life and his father's, and also smashes his long-held preconceptions about his Dad.  "...Temple of Doom" has that previously mentioned quick-dissolving lesson of the Sankara stones and re-defines what "Fortune and Glory" can be to the doctor.  "Indiana" Jones is a teacher, but in his movies, he must learn things.  His character must start with a cherished "truism" and he must learn that although he may have all the answers, there are more questions that he hasn't even considered.  At one point in ...The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, "Mutt" asks "Indiana:"  "You're a teacher?"  And Spielberg weights the reply down, as it's an important one: "Part-time."

The rest of the time, he's a student himself, still learning.

In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Dean Charles Stanforth (Jim Broadbent), says to Dr. Henry Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford): "We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away."  They have both aged, lost colleagues and parents, and their jobs are on the line.  And "Indy" has just ridden the crest of a nuclear shock-wave in the Nevada desert, where he has seen two amazing things, off and on the Earth: the corpse of an ancient astronaut, and the limit of Man's power in the form of the mushroom cloud of a hydrogen bomb.  This is the extent of our knowledge on Earth and it is a fearsome one, one that could mean our destruction at the hands of our abilities and our arrogance to use it.  Behold the power of knowledge and fear.

This is the first of two images (that Spielberg deliberately composed) of "Indiana" Jones in rapt observation of an unfathomable thing that buttress Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.  In both, he is dwarfed by the event, small and helpless—all he can do is watch.  In the first, he is witness to the extent of Man's knowledge.  In the second, as he watches the launch of an alien race's*** craft to inter-dimensionally travel "the spaces between spaces," something far beyond his ken and catechism. The one represents all that we know, and the other opens up another Chamber of Secrets.  "Indiana" Jones can travel the four corners of the Earth, and there is still so much more territory to explore, and, indeed, more than he can know for certain. 

The personal myth that Jones must resolve is that of age and the taking away (the bomb) and the giving (the new experience).  For the loner Jones, that includes new worlds to conquer...and that is celebrated here...but he also, like The Outlaw Josey Wales, finds himself, in this one, acquiring a family he didn't know he had and never wanted, flying in the face of Stanforth's gloomy assessment of their lives as being "one foot in the grave" (like "Indy" hasn't been there before).  In this terrible age of wonders, there is always more to learn...more "treasure," translated by the Incas to "knowledge" and prized more than gold.  Life, no matter how old we get, never stops giving. 

Not if we're observant, anyway.
For me, ...The Kingdome of the Crystal Skull represented the best, most true, antecedent to the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, fully embracing the era it is set (the 50's) and the B-movie concepts being put out at the time, and it is the strongest presentation of the concept of the "learning teacher" since Raiders...  ...The Kingdome of the Crystal Skull represented, to me, the true sequel, while the others were just regurgitating concepts.  This one, like Raiders, raised the stakes.

MY only disappointment with it was, that if it's set in a 50's B-movie world, where's the giant scorpion that the hydrogen bomb creates—there were all sorts of "nukular monsters" in the films of the time, their own metaphors of the costly nature of Knowledge.  But Lucas and Spielberg's intentions were to turn that metaphor inside out.  Knowledge isn't destructive.  It inspires creation.  And new worlds to explore.


There is talk (and only talk) of a fifth Indiana Jones movie, and while it has moved some to despair, for me it has given me fits of giggling anticipation. Imagine Indiana Jones in the B-movie drive-in 60's, with the good doctor investigating SDS students planning a lysurgic acid dump in a city resevoir, while a Beatle-browed Mutt has joined a Hell's Angels sect that practices Trascendental Meditation, and only an exploration of "The Silver Chord" can save Indy from the Ultimate Bad Trip. Meantime, there are rocket-packs, video-phones, IBM computer-rooms, and ESP experts, all figments of a 1960's that briefly sparked the imaginations of the time, but never seemed to catch on.  We were too busy going to the Moon, at the time.

I think it would be groovy, man.

Call it "Indiana Jones and the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

* "Mom's Apple Pie" syndrome is the one where fan-boys says that the movies they liked as kids were better than anything that had come before or since (like "Mom's Apple Pie"), a clear indication that they have a narrow focus and experience.   The correllary is that expressed when a film-maker changes a movie for whatever reason and the fan can't come to grips with it—"They raped my childhood!"—a despicable sexually ignorant comment that indicates the person hasn't known anyone who has been (or might have been) raped or attacked.

** Admittedly so, with the characters of  "Mac" (Ray Winstone) and Oxley (John Hurt)—the latter a last-minute re-write when a "retired" Sean Connery decided not to reprise his role as Indy's father.  He probably decided there weren't any golf courses near filming, or his dismal experience filming The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in Prague left such a mark it didn't compensate for his affection for Spielberg, Lucas and Ford.

*** Here's another instance of last-minute tinkering.  Lucas wanted aliens, and Spielberg with three E.T. movies under his belt didn't want to go there.  So, the ancient astronauts became "interdimensional" beings, rather than space-aliens.  It actually works better that way.  Aliens = space.  We know all about space.  But, other dimensions?  That's a concept that expands the mind and the territory we inhabit.  "There are more things in Heaven and Earth..."  And even, in between.

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I know I saw this, I just can't remember when or what happened.