Monday, May 12, 2008
Simply Passing Through History
All films leave theaters eventually, even the ones that play a long time. It’s something missing in this day and age, the excitement that comes with a film that plays for months and months and months. Now, with dates for DVD releases set by the time the thing opens, that bit of fun is gone. I can remember that RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, to name an obvious choice, seemed to run forever and ever during that time when I was exactly the right age for the film. I think a small part of me thinks that it should still be playing in theaters at any given time. I guess there are plenty of films which would qualify for such an honor, but RAIDERS is special to me. I remember it vividly: Sunday afternoon, Yonkers Movieland, theater number one, the third day of release. It sold out. The other three films playing were HISTORY OF THE WORLD PART ONE, CHEECH AND CHONG’S NICE DREAMS and OUTLAND. For some reason I can remember that they sold out too. It’s funny what you remember.
So with just a matter of days until the release of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to revisit the Indiana Jones films in the best way imaginable--in a fantastic theatrical setting, shown in full, beautiful 35mm. Have I mentioned that that’s the only way I think I care about seeing the new film? You can see it in digital. I’ll take film. With Indiana Jones, it’s the right way to go.
There’s not much I could say about RAIDERS that hasn’t been said already. You’ve seen it, you know what I could say. But still, here’s a few random thoughts which are not meant to be definitive in any way whatsoever:
I love the quiet of the opening sequence, as the credits pass over the screen quietly. They’re not revealing to us just yet what we’re about to see. We’ll find out in a few moments.
There’s a long tradition of movies that have that very long exposition scenes, setting the hero off on his mission or whatever, from the James Bond films to Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough haggling over matters in Spielberg’s own THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK to who knows what else. The version of the scene in RAIDERS may just be the best version of that scene ever, if you ask me. The way it seems to start in progress when in fact we haven’t missed anything, the wide-open expanse of that lecture hall, the way Harrison Ford sells us on his expertise in this world, Denholm Elliott’s authority and the interesting characterizations by William Hootkins (Porkins in STAR WARS) and Don Fellows (“I answer only to the President” in SUPERMAN II). They look like a Mutt n’ Jeff pairing, but the film wisely doesn’t discount whatever authority they may have. They’re not dumb government guys, they’re just not aware of how much they are about to be told. For some reason, I always enjoy the way Hootkins emphasizes the “t” in “nut” when he says “Hitler’s a nut on the subject”.
Karen Allen is cool. Karen Allen is awesome. It’s interesting that the casting of both Allen and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia seem slightly different than how the characters may be written but they both work like gangbusters for different reasons. She can hold her liquor, she’s endearingly goofy when that monkey jumps on her, she can assert herself well throughout. She doesn’t seem at all like a Hawks chick-type, yet she may be one of the best Hawks chicks ever. You can believe that she could probably drink any of the men in the movie under the table.
The famous main theme by John Williams has been so seared into the public conciousness that you can forget how good the rest of the score is. A few months ago I found myself excited, not just from the thought of seeing Karen Allen as Marion again, but by the possibility of hearing Marion’s theme once again. I suppose it functions as a sort of theme for both Marion and Indy as well and in underscoring the mostly unspoken history they have, it adds a level of maturity that is usually missing from the Lucas/Spielberg blockbusters otherwise. I could easily list the highlights throughout the score (The truck chase!) but instead I’ll mention the total lack of music during the bar fight in Nepal. The idea of not scoring a fight scene in an action movie feels like a lost art these days, when music is laid end to end like wallpaper and it’s refreshing to see a movie allowed to breathe in this way—not every moment in a movie is the most important moment in the movie. I wonder if the new film will have such a sequence.
Paul Freeman’s genuinely sharp portrayal of Belloq stands out all the more because I realized that he’s not a villain so much as he is a simple antagonist (It’s the Nazis, true supporting players, who assume the role as the real villains). He’s aligned himself with the Nazis and it’s evident he wasn’t particularly likable before that, but his own reasoning is believable throughout. “You could warn them…if only you spoke Hovitos.” Belloq may rub Indy the wrong way with a few of the things he says throughout but he does nail his competitor on a few points. If Indiana Jones spoke Hovitos, of course he’d use it to his advantage. In comparison, the subsequent films in the series seemed to go for the straight villain approach with their antagonists and they feel less weighty as a result.
Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay is the best work of his career. Period. I just wanted to point that out.
But from the way the film is shot to the disparate array of characters to the expertness of its action scenes, the feeling I get is that joy-of-cinema feel that you can tell how much everything was clicking while they were making this. Spielberg had just come off the behemoth of 1941—a movie I love regardless, but that’s another can of tuna—and this one in comparison just feels free, effortless, as if it’s exactly the movie he’s meant to make. I'm not saying it's absolutely Spielberg's best film, but I don't think anything else he has ever made has that feeling to such an extent. I never get tired of it.
Most of all, I watch it now and think of how it is made not for ten year-olds, but for the ten year-old in all of us. And yet, the interpersonal relationships between the various characters and the settings we are introduced to throughout add an exotic flavor for adults that add to viewings even now. There are some blockbusters I grew up with that retreat in my mind as I get older, but it hasn’t happened with this one yet.
I don’t know how much of this feel is going to be in the new one. Whether he can harness the director, the person, he was all those years ago, is open to question, because it’s hard for anyone to put aside how they’ve changed over the years. I wish he would have gone light on the CGI for the movie, but hey, I also wish that I could go see it with my dad, so obviously there are some things in this world we’re not going to get. Maybe it’ll be a good movie anyway. Hope springs eternal. We never been to be told just how great RAIDERS is. But sometimes it’s nice to be reminded.