Boxing Day has come and gone, Bloggers.
I slept through most of it, though; so this is like my Boxing Day, right here.
What was I going to talk about?
Oh yes, that’s right…I saw the new Indiana Jones movie.
And, it was okay.
Which is a big problem, actually. I mean, it wasn’t as bad as Temple Of Doom or anything, but therein lies the disaster, if you see what I mean…a few parts were even quite good, even if only fleetingly so (the odd line of dialogue hints at unexplored depths, and Cate Blanchett produces a marvellous villain even though she’s not technically given much to work with), and of course Harrison Ford is believable as Indy…but then he always is, isn’t he?
I do question the need to have another Indiana Jones movie that involves confronting age and mortality, and especially one that seems so preoccupied with a video-game aesthetic…you guys noticed that, right? Very pronounced fascination with the video game, in a way not a bad thing at all, perhaps just the logical extension of Spielberg’s zeal for stunting it up, previously discussed on this here blog at some horrifying length…but although I will say that Steven Spielberg probably is as reliable a crafter of mise-en-scene as any filmmaker alive today — say what you want about the man, but he understands what a camera angle is for! — still, being able to juggle isn’t the same thing as doing magic tricks, quite. The video-game thing is interesting, but decadent; true, in late-era franchise efforts, decadence isn’t necessarily something to be ashamed of, and it’s always good to have somebody around who understands that the most effective stunts are often the most economical ones…oh no, they’re going to fall off that cliff! Heh. So perhaps there was always something faintly Disneyland-esque about the problem-solving on display in the Indiana Jones movies, an embrace of stunt that sought to produce the sensation that one was not so much watching a movie as getting on a ride…the greatest ride ever built, that wasn’t made out of steel. But where does “ride-ism” lead? Since 1980 we’ve seen a remarkable infiltration of the stunt aesthetic into many different pastimes: current-day game makers and players are positively eager to portray their pastime as the leading edge of what “motion-picture” entertainment should one day become: fractal, digressive, interactive — a dream you walk through rather than being pulled through, or pushed through. A vast gallery of contiguous possible scenes that can be passed into, looped back around in, emerged from as through a trap-door or secret tunnel entrance…a universe that can be sliced along as many different axes as one has time to discover the existence of. This is the new artistic dream-logic, and its devotees would no doubt turn and point to the Spielbergian preoccupation with stunt and spectacle so brilliantly brought off in Raiders, as its watershed. California, the car culture, pulps and comics and other low-grade entertainment — and film school: monster movies colliding with John Ford westerns, Jewish history and Jules Verne and The Seventh Seal all filtered through Truffaut and Kurosawa, a little Shakespeare and a little Twain thrown in for good measure…all of these producing, first Columbo and American Graffiti, and then Jaws, Star Wars, and Raiders. And was there ever more fertile soil for the creation of amusement-park rides? That got into the gaming, too, you see…
And then the gaming got into the movies. I’d be very surprised to learn that Spielberg was unaware of how he was reincorporating the aesthetic he helped to birth back into his own metier — the model atomic village Indy stumbles into seems very not-Indy at first glance, but there is something about it which compels the eye and the ear…something borrowed, or perhaps something finally paid back. A little Duke Nukem to go with your Douglas Fairbanks? It would be a mistake to say that this movie is a plain-and-simple revenant, I think: at some level here, conscious play is going on. The thing works backward, from game to ride to movie. Many might find it a little soulless; but it’d be unfair to call it stupid.
However I think it would not be a stretch to call it desultory: hey, I waited a long time to see Marion Ravenwood again, too, and is John Hurt ever not a sprightly addition to a roomful of actors? But the movie’s problem is not that it’s terrible as a piece of entertainment, but that it isn’t any good as a movie… and therein lies the whole problem in one neat and tidy package. Nothing is excavated here; everything’s already known. This isn’t an adventure story, it’s an Animatronic travelogue. This isn’t a movie, it’s a series of sketches: and some of the sketches are of fairly high quality, and include talented performers and suggestive expressions…but they’re still sketches.
They don’t really take you anywhere.
The worst part of all this being, of course, that I kind of liked that.
Which as I was saying before is precisely the problem. Because as with so many latter-day George Lucas movies, somewhere under here is the skeleton of an actual story that could be watched and liked, if it wasn’t so cut-up and covered-up…if it wasn’t so perplexingly flabby. So desultory. And as with so much recent Spielberg, there are moments where you see just where he decided to go wrong, instead of deciding to go right: where he left off the discipline of filmmaking, to pursue goals more suited to other forms…like rides, or games. It isn’t like it’s all pure accident, in other words: for some strange and vexing reason, they choose it. Germs of ideas everywhere, but all left untended, unmanaged, and so unharvested in the end: mindreading Communists, atomic bombs, and post-historical flourishes with Brando references, even…but did anyone else shudder when Indy remarked that he had “a bad feeling about this”? Did anyone else see that as a clue, to how and why this movie could be enjoyed, without yet being any good? How and why we were short-changed: because implicitly we were promised another Raiders, but the lessons of Raiders remained largely unlearned by the very two people who taught them in the first place. Trash culture, weren’t we speaking about trash culture? There’s little trashier than Raiders Of The Lost Ark…but Raiders, as a movie, is still good. You could teach a class on Raiders: on intention, influence, and aesthetic in that weirdest of all filmic critters, the Seventies adventure movie. There’s a lot to be said for it, even still — though it may be crap, it’s got at least two movies’ worth of care and craft to it, and more importantly the care and craft involved is very disciplined, very much in the “old” tradition of filmmaking. The excavations are well-planned and to the point; form follows function with wonderful economy. The thing is practically spare: there’s not an ounce of fat on it. Its strength lies in its simplicity. Even those who feel they’ve got reason to hate it would admit that, I believe.
Not that there aren’t good moments in the new Indy movie, or at least ones that make some kind of sense. When the rumble breaks out in the restaurant, that makes sense — when Indy sees the mushroom cloud, when the sleepy college town is invaded by the corrupting modern forces and actors, it makes sense. There are ideas, here; there really are. Underneath the sticks and stones, there’s something that could have been cared about, could’ve been carefully cooked down and reduced to essence, instead of just thrown into the salad bowl and tossed with a stylistic vinaigrette. Instead of merely being a bunch of scenes that happened to fall on top of each other, this could’ve been a good movie. By which I mean: a simple movie. Built from cliche, inevitably, but with just a little extra conscientousness it could’ve been poked and prodded into blossoming into the right kind of cliche…instead of being a bum, which is what it is. Everything that’s wrong is a clue to what could’ve been right: that’s the fucking tragedy of it. God, I’m tempted to list them all, honestly I am. The little momentary dream-flashes of previous Harrison Ford movies, filtered through the Indy lens…I wish I could believe these are accidents! The little embedded critique of the postmodern, the appearance of the Ark — and I really never did need to see that warehouse again, but if the only way to make this movie was to (have a nice day!) bust things up, then okay, let’s bust ‘em, Indy can have a son with whom he has a dumb relationship and they can run into the army ants for heaven’s sake and there can even be aliens from “the space between spaces”…Jones! bellows Cate Blanchett, and I want her to be in love with him, I really do, in fact I think she kind of is…but we don’t see it, except in the brisk efficiency of her acting. Maybe she could’ve said “Jones” one more time. What’s here, that wasn’t in Raiders? Nothing but the heart, and the time is probably past for this particular idea-of-movie actually, but they could’ve brought the heart along, I think. If they’d wanted to. I mean, they could’ve installed some sort of core in it! I like Indiana Jones a lot, but one thing I can’t say — one thing I defy anyone to say — is that what they liked about this movie was where the flying saucer came from, and yet that information is crammed in there for us, isn’t it? As though to soften a blow of some kind…
But, why have the blow land at all, then?
Why have John Hurt performing such an undeveloped role, that might just as well be played by somebody of lesser skill for all it really adds to the movie?
Why go to all that trouble crafting such a protagonistic mash-up character as Indiana Jones in the first place, if you’re not going to have him observe anything? Harrison Ford is quite good enough at this stuff that we will always identify with him, always see through his eyes, even if the world he comes from is as distant from us as the surface of the moon…but if he isn’t written as a character whose sight is important, he might as well not be there at all.
Think about it carefully: sight is what it’s all about, in this movie. That’s the skeleton, that lies under the flabby flesh, and whenever it’s brought up into the light, everything hangs together. That’s what’s in the various boxes; that’s what wants to be excavated.
Everything else is just scenery.
An awful admission, Bloggers: seeing this movie was not like being on a ride. It was like watching somebody be on a ride.
It probably should’ve just been made as a game in the first place.