Monday, May 12, 2008

Makin' it up as he goes

Last week when I wrote my list of 100 Things That Bug Me, I included as item #32 that when the new Indiana Jones movie comes out, the criticism focused on it will credit anything good in the movie to Spielberg or Harrison Ford or the screenwriter or whomever, while anything bad in the movie will be all George Lucas's fault. The narrative about Lucas seems to be settling that whenever he manages to turn out something good, it's invariably the result of some kind of alchemical reaction resulting from the happy circumstance of the talent he's put together for that particular project, because it's been clearly established that Lucas himself, left to his own devices, produces naught but Certified Crap On A Stick. And wouldn't you know it, but I found a precursor in a post by Lance Mannion.

It seems that Lance watched Raiders of the Lost Ark with his family the other night, and while he still likes the movie as a whole, he doesn't care for the film's climax, what with the Ark of the Covenant unleashing the Power of God to melt the faces of the Nazis and make Belloq's head literally explode. If he doesn't like the ending, that's his prerogative, obviously, but look where he places the blame:

It's funny how that George Lucas, having originally conceived of the Indiana Jones movies as being full of the occult and the spook-tacular, had to have all that wedged into each movie, as if he looked at each of Spielberg's first edits and said, "Where's all the scary mystical stuff, Steven? Go back and put some in, ok?"

"Wedged into each movie"? When I saw Raiders as a kid, I thought the whole opening of the film was deliciously creepy; it didn't feel "wedged" in there at all.

Lance also backs his point by appealing to John Williams as a gigantic factor in the success of Star Wars, saying:

A third if not half of the original Star Wars' contagious joyfulness came from Williams' score. A lesser composer and Star Wars might easily have been a one-shot, a cult favorite, kept alive by repeated late night showings on the Sci-fi channel back when the superimposed cartoon aliens commented on every film.

Ouch. There you have the standard thinking on George Lucas: it's always to someone else's credit when something of his is good. Now it's John Williams keeping Star Wars out of MST3K oblivion. Not that I don't revere the score to Star Wars, because I do, but let's be realistic: there are lots of movies with great scores that have nevertheless sunk into obscurity. I don't think a score has ever saved a movie, no matter what the Jerry Goldsmith freaks at the FSM board will tell you. (The Final Conflict has a great score. It's still a piece of crap of a movie.)

This kind of thinking happens all the time. I have a friend at work who seems to loathe George Lucas, and like all such sufferers of Lucas Derangement Syndrome, he loves to toss Howard the Duck into the conversation whenever Lucas's name comes up. And he won't be dissuaded by the obvious point that Lucas neither wrote, directed, scored, nor starred in Howard the Duck: "Hey, he produced it! That means he's responsible for the whole thing!" Well, OK, but if we're going to go by that logic, then I think it's probably time we all let Michael Bay off the hook for Pearl Harbor, Steven Spielberg for 1941, Eddie Murphy for The Golden Child, Joel Schumacher and George Clooney for Batman and Robin, and...well, you get the idea. Now, there is something to be said for magic happening when certain creative teams get together, but this is by no means a sure thing. Not every Astaire-and-Rogers musical is a gem; Fierce Creatures is an entertaining comedy, but despite sharing the same four leads, it's no Fish Called Wanda.

But to return to Raiders of the Lost Ark, I've never had a problem with the ending. Lance and his commenters seem to think that the ending doesn't fit the movie that precedes it, but of course it does! The early briefing scene, when Indy and Marcus Brody are explaining the Ark of the Covenant to the two Army guys who seem to never have attended Sunday School, has Indy opening his Bible to an engraving of the Ark blasting its enemies with "Lightning, fire, or the Power of God or something"; Marcus points out "The Bible speaks of the Ark leveling mountains and laying waste to entire regions. An army which carries the Ark before it is invincible." It's set up very early on that the object the Nazis are looking for contains within it the very power of God, and it's referenced again in the hold of the cargo ship when the Ark burns the swastika right off the crate, so at the end, when it's the Power of God which strikes them all down, it comes as no surprise. Nor, really, does the grisly nature of God's punishment toward those who touch his Ark seem inappropriate to anyone who has read any of the Old Testament at all. This is an instrument of the God who turned Lot's wife into salt because she looked back at where she'd come from. So yeah, melting the Nazis? I can see Old Testament Jehovah doing that.

What doesn't quite add up is Indy's sudden realization that he and Marion will be safe as long as they shut their eyes and refuse to look openly on the power of the Ark. How did he know? Was it pure intuition? We don't know. In the novelization, there's a line from that old wise man Indy and Sallah visit for the translation of the writing on the Headpiece; the line seems to be prefaced in the movie, when he says "This is a warning, not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant." In the movie that's all he says, but in the book he adds something like "He who would open the Ark and look on its contents will surely die", reading from the Headpiece. So at the end, it's that bit of wisdom that Indy suddenly remembers. That would have made the ending of Raiders make a little more sense.

I'm not sure how Lance would have Raiders end, but the Ark is the gun on the mantelpiece, and it's got to go off in Act Three. And since we're dealing with not just any gun, but God's gun, it's got to go off something fierce. What else would have done? One final big action set piece? Without the Ark ever being opened? That would have just been silly.

(And here's a thought: we all know that the Ark is locked away by the US Government by the "bureaucratic fools" Indy rants about at the end. But is that the right way to look at this? I imagine that Indy had to signal for a rescue from that island in the Mediterranean; assuming they're picked up by an American ship, they'd find a man, a woman, a golden box, and...a whole bunch of dead Nazis who have been slain in spectacularly nasty fashion. Upon returning to the US, these Army guys (one of whom is played by William Hootkins, who was the first Rebel pilot to die above the Death Star in Star Wars) learn all this, and now they've got a dilemma: Now that they have the Ark, what the hell do they do with it? If it's that powerful and indiscriminate in meting out punishment, then they can't very well use it in any meaningful sense; and they can't put it back where it was found, now that the Nazis know where Tanis and the Well of Souls are. So, they take the last option that makes any sense: they seal it away themselves, someplace secret and safe. Makes sense to me, and Indy's "bureaucratic fools" are actually doing the only responsible thing they can. How about that?)

One thing I really like about Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is that Indy is never really questing after the Holy Grail because he really wants it, whereas the younger Indy in Raiders wanted the Ark all along. At first, in Last Crusade, Indy is searching for his father; he only ends up going after the Grail because everybody else is, and he doesn't want it falling into Nazi hands. He's able to use some of the wisdom he gained in his quest for the Ark in his search for the Grail: when he realizes, for instance, how to get past the whirling blades by kneeling before God, but even moreso when he shows the insight that the Grail would not be a beautiful golden chalice encrusted with jewels, but rather a worn and dented and beat-up old cup befitting a King who showed up to claim his kingdom by riding on a donkey. That's one really good thing about Last Crusade, a movie which otherwise has quite a few problems.

Lance also seems reticent to watch Temple of Doom again. Frankly, I've come full circle on Temple; when it first came out I loved it owing to its constant action, but then I liked it less when I decided I didn't much like Willie Scott or Short Round. But even later after that, I decided that Willie and Shorty weren't quite as annoying as all that, and I really liked the film's set pieces and exploration of a whole different milieu. And I think it's cool that Indiana Jones's adventures establish as real the power of Jehovah, of Christ, and of the Gods of the Hindu pantheon. Of course, Temple is a lot more gory than Raiders and Last Crusade; in fact, if memory serves, it was Temple that was largely responsible for the creation of the PG-13 rating in the first place.


Anonymous said...

This strikes me as very weird... I've never before encountered anyone who had any complaint with the finale of Raiders for any reason. I find it all, from Belloq's obsession with opening the Ark to the smiting of the Nazis to the final denouement of the Ark being crated and hidden, perfectly organic to the story and in line with all the foreshadowing that's come before. (I'll admit to never being troubled by Indy's realization that he and Marion can't look -- guess I just chalked it up to him being the expert on these things, and less consumed by ego than Belloq.) The occult/mystical/magical stuff isn't "wedged into" the Indy movies... that stuff is, in large part, the definition of the Indy movies. The "scary mystical stuff" is the reason why the bad guys want the various macguffins in the first place, whether it's Nazis after the Ark or Mola Ram wanting the Sankara Stones, and without it, Indy's just another guy digging up potsherds. (Not that there's anything wrong with that; real archeology is cool and all, it just wouldn't make for a very exciting movie.)

Good point about Last Crusade, incidentally. And for the record, I like Temple of Doom and yes, it (along with Gremlins, which came out the same summer) led to the creation of the PG-13 rating. Let the debate commence on how well that has turned out...

Roger Owen Green said...

FWIW- Last Crusade is my favorite of the three IJ films.

SamuraiFrog said...

I think the reason The Final Conflict can be considered a fantastic score is not because it "saves" the movie (it certainly doesn't), but because, when divorced from the movie, it can be listened to and enjoyed on its own terms. Because the movie sure didn't do it any favors.

Lance Mannion said...

Melting Nazis. Gross but boring. Angel of Death. Not even spectacular special effects for its time. And boring. Marian and Indy standing there with their eyes shut trying to look scared and impressed. Boring.

I'd have had the freighter crew come back to help Indy take out the Nazis. Would have explained how Indy and Marian got off the island too. The ark could have melted the Gestapo guy at the end, if you really needed all that hocus pocus made explicit.

And I gave Lucas plenty of credit for Star Wars, at least half, even two thirds. Williams is a better composer of film scores than Lucas is a director, that's not so hard to admit, is it?

J, you can like these movies without their having to have been great.

Anonymous said...

Boring? Lance, I have no wish to pick a fight or anything, but I simply do not understand how you can say that. Granted, everyone's mileage varies and my opinions have no doubt baffled hundreds, er, dozens (well, all right, maybe three, since that's about how many readers I have), but for me that "hocus pocus made explicit" is completely the pay-off for all the lead-up throughout the movie, all the talking about the power of the Ark, the threat of the Nazis getting their hands on it, etc. Would you really have preferred that the Ark turn out to be nothing more than an empty gold box? Or that we simply never open it, that Indy and the freighter crew (in your scenario) just reclaim it and hand it over to Porkins? What would the pay-off of that be?

Really, I'm curious and trying to understand your position here...

Lance Mannion said...

Jason, watched it lately?

Boring as in static and unsuspenseful and not particularly well-shot or staged. Every shot goes on too long. The Nazis spend way too much time gaping and screaming before melting. The soldiers stand there obviously looking at nothing while the Angel of Death whooshes around being an obvious special effect. And Indy and Marion have nothing to do.

I'd have preferred something more subtle. I thought it was really cool when the ark burns the swastika off the crate.

Also the ending depends on Indy having finally had no real plan and just doing something stupid to get himself caught.

But I loved the movie anyway. I'm real surprised by the intensity of the defense of the ending, not just by Jaquandor and folks here but by some commenters over at my place. You'd think I'd suggested that it was a bad idea for Indy to wear the hat.

Kelly Sedinger said...

There's a certain extent to which debating stuff like this is useless; if you're bored by the ending, that's that. I think it was Gene Siskel who said something to the effect that debating what's erotic and what isn't boils down to one guy trying to talk the other out of his erection, and well, that's a pretty useless order.

But I have to admit, Lance, that I do find some of your suggestions for a "better" ending to RAIDERS faulty. Having the freighter guys show up? From where? How would they know where to go? Why would they go there? How would they take out a bunch of fully-armed Nazi soldiers? This would end up seeming like a James Bond ending in which our hero mounts an assault on the enemy fortress along with his Ally of the Movie.

Second, your complaint about Indy not having had a real plan -- when in any Indiana Jones movie does Indy have any plan at all? Indy doesn't plan things. That's a pretty important bit of character, there. If he suddenly had this wonderfully thought out scenario to take out a hundred Nazis and reclaim the Ark, it would have rung very hollow.

I also think that looking for a more subtle ending is wrong-headed. The whole movie points to the Ark not being a subtle thing; if it had simply killed a single Nazi at the end without being opened, it would have made the Ark look like a pop-gun.

Finally, complaining about special effects in a movie that's twenty-seven years old strikes me as unfair, but I think the effects work pretty well and hold up today, and I think the scene is well-shot and well-staged.

Kellie said...

Regarding Indy's rant at the end: So, they take the last option that makes any sense: they seal it away themselves, someplace secret and safe.

I got the sense from the way they showed us the final treatment of the ark that it was being shoved in a dark corner of some sprawling non-descript storage warehouse of random artifacts and junk to be neglected and forgotten. It never seemed to me that the ark was safe, and that it was only secret in the hidden in plain sight sense. But it made sense for the arc (sorry) of the movie that the Powers That Be, even the supposed good guys, don't respect the ark or its worth beyond what it can or can't do for them. It served as an excellent contrast for the journey Indy took in that movie and as a nice thematic touch just before the credits rolled.

teflonjedi said...

Hmm, that was the Angel of Death? I always thought it was the Spirit of God. I am under the impression that the Bible says that to look upon the Face of God means, well, death.

teflonjedi said...

OK, so I actually went back last night and watched Raiders again. Early in the film, the Army Intelligence guys show up, and Indy demonstrates his vast archaeological knowledge, by pulling out a big book with an illustration of the Ark in action..."Power of God", Indy says.

What doesn't quite add up is Indy's sudden realization that he and Marion will be safe as long as they shut their eyes and refuse to look openly on the power of the Ark. How did he know? Was it pure intuition?

So, for this, either we have to rely upon the Bible (Exodus 33:20 as it turns out), or the novelization, I guess.