Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Lost Art of a Lost Ark

It's coming on May 22; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The exclusive johnnypopculture review will be posted here the following day. As we approach the new film's release, let's take a look back at the first three installments in the series, starting with ...

Raiders of the Lost Ark (d. Steven Spielberg)

There's a whole movie that takes place just before the iconic opening shot of the Paramount peak in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. And I'm not talking about a prequel. Maybe it would be more apt to say that there's a whole series of movies.

Spielberg and producer George Lucas conceived of Indiana Jones's adventures as an homage to the classic cliffhanger serials of their youth. Let me tell you a little something about those serials: they all sucked.

In the 1930s and 1940s when movie theaters played films on a constant rotation, the space between showings and double features was taken up by a few different short film types: newsreels, cartoons, and serialized adventure melodramas. Studios produced those serials as afterthoughts, usually rounding up a few low-level contract players, standing them in front of some recycled sets (reading from recycled scripts) and filming them at a rapid pace. As such, they are usually poorly acted, barely written and criminally padded, plodding along at a dreary pace over installment after installment, sometimes running dozens of episodes. Take nostalgia and genre enthusiasm out of the equation, and they are unwatchable.

But the things that get you when you're a kid get you hard, and these serials, shown in the early days of television for lack of anything better (or cheaper) got the young Messrs. Spielberg and Lucas. They wanted to capture the bits that were fun from those primitive adventures, but they were also both canny enough filmmakers not to include the long, deadly dull stretches that mark so many of the originals.

And so we have Indiana Jones and his now-legendary adventures.

The film opens at the end of one of those long-ago serials; Spielberg simply drops all the boring stuff and launches his film right when things start getting good. It isn't hard to imagine the story that led up to Jones and company entering the South American temple with the mythical golden idol: the discovery of a long-rumored map (in pieces, naturally), the assembly of a team, the narrow escapes along the way, the rival archaeologists. But we don't see any of that except where the old 40s adventure serials were always best: we see those events only in the mind's eye.

On screen, we get all climax. In the hands of lesser filmmakers -- and a number of lesser filmmakers have lifted long stretches from this movie over the past 27 years -- that leads to the sort of attention-span-deficient adventure stories that we see so many of glutting the multiplex (I'm looking at you, National Treasure). In Raiders, the result is exhilarating.

After that initial rush of action, Spielberg cashes in the audience good will and sets up the next quest for Dr. Jones: the Ark of the Covenant. The scenes of Indy teaching class and then explaining to the government agents just what the Ark is are marvels of storytelling. They are exactly the sort of blabby exposition that so routinely sunk the serials of yore, but with some good humor, a passion for his subject, and the movie-star magnetism of his leading man Harrison Ford, Spielberg renders these long-winded speeches riveting.

Ford gives Indy a complexity in this first film that frankly is lacking in the later efforts. At once devoted to his field and world-weary at the conniptions he's forced to go through to pursue it, he is the ultimate modern fanboy, crazy in love with the artifacts of history while also cynically recognizing how silly the whole pursuit is. After all, as his rival Belloq points out, in the end, it's just junk that's been buried under the sand for a thousand years.

But it's not.

Joining him on his quest (and in the newest quest) is Marion Ravenwood, the hard-drinking daughter of his archaeology mentor, and a former love. Here's another area where the later films lack a bit: Indy and Marion are a match for one another in a way that no other female lead in the Jones movies approaches. Even when they snipe at each other, their chemistry is abundant and it is good news indeed that Karen Allen makes a welcome return for the latest installment.

Finally, there is a level of retribution in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Like Mel Brooks in The Producers twelve years earlier, Spielberg is a Jewish kid poking a finger in the eye of the great bug-a-boo of his youth, the Nazis. They will feel the wrath of a Hebrew God by the end of this movie. Even Jones will have his eyes opened (though they are actually closed) to the power of Yahweh before the film ends. "I don't believe in magic, a lot of superstitious hocus pocus," he says as he embarks on his quest. One suspects he will sing a different tune by its end.

Raiders of the Lost Ark, a full generation after its release, still holds up as one of the greatest adventures in cinematic history. The same cannot be said for the serials that inspired it. We'll find out in tomorrow's blog entry (and the next day's, and the NEXT day's) if the films that followed it measure up.

4 stars.

DVD notes: With the new film due soon, Paramount has re-released the Indiana Jones movies as "Special Editions." As best I can tell, there is very little to recommend an upgrade if you (like me) purchased the box set from 2003. There are new intros for each film featuring Spielberg and Lucas and a couple of "new" "Making Of" features, but nothing unfamiliar to anyone who watched the disc of extras included with the 2003 set, or who has ever watched the many documentaries about the films that have aired on basic cable over the years. A note to the marketing department of Paramount: if you had convinced Spielberg to record his first ever director's commentaries for these films, you would have sold them to me again. But you didn't. So you didn't. Stick with the 2003 set.

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