Flashback! To “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skulls…!”

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.

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23 responses to “Flashback! To “Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skulls…!”

  1. I dunno man, I haven’t seen it. I don’t want to see it. Spielberg is dead to me.

    Blanchett couldn’t even get me to see it. I don’t know if Darabont could have gotten me to see it. I love Darabont, but I don’t know that it would. I still haven’t seen Munich yet, and I understand it’s quite good. I just can’t bring myself to watch a new Indiana Jones film. It’s such a cash grab, isn’t it? It’s him deciding he doesn’t care anymore and just pushing the buttons. I know you don’t like Temple of Doom, but Temple of Doom is at least honest.

    Spielberg showing the ark, tieing it in to Close Encounters? Was there anyone who actually wanted those things? Do I want someone to tell me that Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut is the great great grandson of Barry Lyndon? What does that do other than shrink down the enjoyable aspects of the experience.

    I don’t need fanboy continuity, everything-has-to-fit, DC-Universe, Wars/Trek logic to show up in my pulp action movies. It’s INDIANA JONES. The poison that’s in the first half hour of Last Crusade, of everything having to have an origin and explanation – which evaporates once the story gets going and Connery pulls his weight – seems just swim through what I’ve seen of this film.

    You’re right. It’s not a good movie.

  2. I haven’t seen it, I have no interest in seeing it, but then I wasn’t a huge fan (gasp!) of the earlier movies.
    Funny you should mention it being like a ride, though, as I truly enjoyed the Indiana Jones Disneyland ride.

  3. Sean Witzke said:
    “Spielberg is dead to me.”
    A few years back, I would have said the same (with “Hook” being the final nail), but my respect for him as a director was restored somewhat by “Minority Report” (a job “AI” was supposed to do, but that film only convinced me to give him another chance with his next movie…).

    Sean also said”
    “Spielberg showing the ark, tieing it in to Close Encounters? Was there anyone who actually wanted those things?”
    Don’t take this as any great impassioned defence of the movie, but you are referring to a thing that does not exist; there are aliens in the movie, but they in no way constitute a “tie in” to Close Encounters. Who on Earth told you they were the same?

    Pillock/Plok/Bill:
    It’s a nice change to see a critique that’s just mildly disappointed (closer to my response) rather than the overly-worked-up “if you don’t HATE this with as BURNING a RAGE as I did you are Hitler and Stalin’s love child” snit fit that I’ve come across so many times in response to this movie.

    And finally, I’m going to say yet again what I’ve said every time I’ve gotten involved in discussing this movie: I find it pretty ridiculous that many have cited the use of aliens as the great deal breaker for the Indy series as far as believability goes when the previous films have directly shown intervention by the hand of Gawd Hisself.

  4. What, nothing Matthew?

    Aah. It was okay. I liked the way they tried to advance the type of story they were telling, from 30s pulp to 50s political bonehead sci-fi. I don’t claim they succeeded, but I like that they tried.

    The ants kind of freaked me out.

    One of the things that was good about Raiders and Last Crusade but that Temple of Doom and Crystal Skull lacked was the sense of historical resonance that they gained from including actual mythology in the movie, rather than just making up a bunch of pseudomystical BS. It’s something that’s also true of D&D adventures: nobody’s going to care about going on a quest for the Star Crystal, because the Star Crystal’s obviously a generic invention. To intrigue your players, or your movie viewers, you have to either a) steal some real history, or b) work damn hard at setting up an interesting mythology with its own history.

    My biggest problem with the movie is this: Harrison Ford is too old to play the part. He just can’t do it anymore. He sounds old. There were times that I just didn’t recognize him as Indy. Indy should not be a querulous old man.

    I could see, theoretically, how this movie could have set up a new series of adventure movies starring Shia the Beef as super adventurer Mutt Williams, complete with his own storytelling engine, that would have been giant hits for Lucas and Spielberg for decades to come. But it didn’t. And the final scene, where Indy reclaims his hat, suggested that they’re not even going to try.

    What was the point of having Marion around other than giving Indy someone to marry? Did she actually have any lines?

    I was hoping to see Short Round. Oh well.

    Not a terrible movie. But not as good as anyone wanted it to be.

  5. Ed – I’ve seen the aliens, and don’t tell me they weren’t the same damn aliens from Close Encounters, because you’d be LYING. Did you see the awful inside-the-ship cg new scenes in the Close Encounters i-want-to-ruin-my-own-movie rerelease? Exactly the same.

    And if someone had said Short Round was in it, that might have been enough to get me to see it. I love Short Round.

  6. “Exactly the same.”
    I can’t believe I’m defending a mediocre movie being compared to an overrated one, but nope. I am both right and not lying. The heads are both *big* but shaped very differently. This is most clear in the skull of the title, which is carried around for what feels like forever, which is all slung-back in shape, in a way that’s more reminiscent of Giger’s Alien head than the high, domelike big brained traditional “grey” style of the Close Encounters aliens. On top of that, they are explicitly stated to be “extradimensional”, while the Close Encounters aliens are just as explicitly extraterrestrial.
    I remember the re-release version with just as much discomfort as usual, it’s just that my visual memory of the aliens appearance is a little more accurate…
    And, regardless of physical resemblance, unless they are explicitly stated as being the same aliens, the “tie in” accusation, and the accusation that it feeds into fanboy continuity, just don’t apply. There are any number of other criticisms to make of the film, this just isn’t one of them.

  7. Yeahm the shape of the heads is different, right enough…but you’ve gotta admit the final scene was unavoidably reminiscent of Close Encounters, in the same way the atomic city reeked of that Paul Theroux movie Harrison Ford did, what was the name of that thing…the one with “have a nice day” in it.

    It’ll come to me…

    Anyway, I totally saw this movie as revisiting previous Ford and Spielberg movies, and I think that’s a legitimate connection. You put aliens and Spielberg together, it’s no wonder people felt it was a “dealbreaker”, which I’ll agree is a funny thing to find yourself thinking…but I thought it, and I think so did the movie: the aliens are “not from space”. And maybe that ties in with the whole psychic-Communism thing, clunkily but it ties in in theory, it’s just horrifically mishandled…however I’d argue its primary purpose is to blunt the force of whatever that is, that makes people say “aliens and Indy, uh-uh, no way”. The whole mess also has more than a slight whiff of Eighties Asimov to it, tying up robots with Foundation with Eternity with all the damn rest of it…when Indy says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” I thought now seriously, fuck off, I do not need Indiana Jones to be saying this as well, it’s not funny anymore, it isn’t cute, that shit’s got to go…because why on earth is it in there? They couldn’t think of anything else for him to say? No: that’s a callback to Star Wars, it cannot possibly be anything else, no one’s capable of making a mistake about what that line is. And in that light, the aliens…I mean either they’re just absolutely generic, or they’re absolutely generic with this retarded wink on the end of it, and the movie’s sloppy enough that I’m comfortable saying that the latter case, the dumber case…that’s probably the case.

    But, why not aliens and Indy? I think Matthew puts it right where it oughtta be: Raiders isn’t a very good fit with science fiction, and they just don’t manage to be convincing about why it has to be goddamn aliens, instead of something else. Cate Blanchett is in a way hardly used in this movie, which is just crazy (although Sean, I thought for sure you’d see it just for her) — leaving Indy as plain old Indy, whose thing is really only effective when he’s dealing with the God of Abraham…I’m convinced that’s a big part of what made Temple Of Doom such a slog, they just couldn’t figure out how to bring the right kind of focus to bear on the religion. And it might have been done in any number of ways, it just wasn’t.

    This thing, too: because ultimately it’s Cate Blanchett who has to sell us on the otherworldly angle, this is where the themes all come together: her character (and why on earth should an Indiana Jones movie be permitted to be made, where I can’t remember the villain’s name?) is, importantly, not interested in archaeology, to her Indy is as old as his books and his bones, he’s Yesterday’s Man — I mean surely this is the whole fucking point of this movie even existing. And that last bit with the aliens, good Lord how perfunctory it all is, we end up nowhere, and nobody learns a thing. Gak.

    And Ed, I’d actually like nothing better than to take a big crap all over this movie, but the truth is the storytelling is just so lazy and sloppy (and good-looking) that it didn’t stir me much at all. But like I said, that’s the problem, that’s the tragedy: because Raiders did stir me, and still does, that’s why Temple Of Doom is such a huge disappointment. The real tragedy here, the really awful thing, is that Crystal Skulls can’t even manage to disappoint, when it fails. Horrendous! So I will give it to Temple Of Doom, that at least it’s honest enough to be capable of disappointing: at least its failure matters. Indy IV (just can’t keep a straight face typing out “Crystal Skulls” — stupid!) only wishes it could disappoint, but there’s just not enough tension in it for it not to work, even.

    And it soooo didn’t have to be this way.

    I swear to God, Minority Report notwithstanding, these guys are just lazy as hell.

  8. Best wishes for the new year, Plok and all.

    What I see is the end of the pulp explorers’ world, born with Verne and Haggard and lasting until Edgar Rice Burroughs became a joke, maybe in the ’40s. The last little spots of terra incognita no longer open the gates of mystery by themselves, you have to spice it up with Roswell and Von Daniken. And with terra incognita, we also say goodbye to the days when barbarism was exotic, fun, and could make a romantic salute to ancient history. Goodbye barbarism, hello totalitarianism – but fighting totalitarianism is something you have to do with the Manhattan Project and the Marshall Plan. Shoehorning James Bonds and Napoleon Solos into dramatic positions became a joke faster than Burroughs did.

    By the 1950s, shouldn’t Indy Jones be a worried conservationist, along with Jacques-Ives Cousteau and the like, agitating to defend the native cultures of Guatemala and the treasures of China? Well perhaps he is, but can’t you make a story out of that? Put Short Round in the adolescent role, make Indy his Merlin – the natural progression after banging around the world and fighting evil is that he’s acquired wisdom, surely.

    I’m thinking this way because of stuff I didn’t get written about your Mindless Ones interview – I’ve been sort of laid up with poor concentration and a somewhat sedative medication. A perfect time for revisiting old comics. So I was reading Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy, 1927-28; and collections of Oskar LeBeck and Al McWilliams’ Twin Earths newspaper strips, 1957-58; and the later part of Greg Rucka’s Wonder Woman, 2005. Meaning to do a compare and contrast.

    What I get out of it, is a sense of the wide-openness of Tubbs’s world; the relative openness of Nan Daily and Chris Cannon’s solar system; and the uneasy confinement of Diana’s story in a tightly contrived drama-within-genre. I can’t make an entirely fair comparison, but it seems as if our knowledge of the real world has borne down and constrained our sense of adventure.

    In comparable page counts …

    Wash and his pal Gozy get jobs as circus roustabouts, put up tents in the rain, learn the class order of the roughneck hands and the performers, get pecked by ostriches and mauled by tigers, romance Tango the dishy tiger-trainer, and mess things up with old girlfriend Roxy. So they leave the circus with Wash in something of a blue mood. And there they are, sitting on top of a railroad car, rounding a bend with the horizon before them, as Gozy says, “Cheer up, old-timer, new adventures – new opportunities are everywhere – and wherever our ride ends – presto! there’s a new chance.” It’s a moment that chimes perfectly with the corny, jaunty Jazz Age ditties on this Bix Beiderbeck record I have from just that period, and to me there’s the era right there.

    Well, “Wash and Gozy’s sudden departure from the circus lands them in CHICAGO, known as “the Windy City”, because of all the hot air being blown around there about the coming Dempsey-Tunney fight.” Next page, Wash is next in the long line of Jack Dempsey’s sparring partners, wham ouch. The boys get a mystery job which takes them down to Mexico, to help stop thieving from a silver mine; it’s the boss Brick Bane with his bandit gang who are behind it, so there’s getting jailed, shot at, chased, nailed up in barrels etc, and a final reward which they take home and blow on a party and Christmas presents for the town’s poor kids. Wash tries to impress Roxy, but she’s going with a more solid prospect, and then Tango shows up … Then an old sailor who likes their spirit cuts the boys in on a treasure map, shenannigans ensue, and it’s off on a steamer to San Domingo where the pirate treasure game is an old racket, so with a crooked crew, and Brick Bane in pursuit, they’re bound for a Caribbean island, fights, maroonings and all, and enough pirate treasure to split with all deserving parties and enough left over to lose on the stock exchange, but still have the price of a liner to Tunisia, where they fall afoul of a brutal sheik and accidentally make off with his favourite harem girl, who gets the last word in this volume …

    “But dost thou realize we are yet a week’s journey from civilization? Dost realize there are four of us to but three steeds? And didst notice the pie-eyed camel is growing lame? Lo thou dost not yet know the meaning of danger.” Oh, moon of delights, more concrete is thy speech and finer thy Jacobean grammar than Stan Lee’s himself!

    Thirty years later …

    Reporter Nan Daily is on a trading submarine on planet Terra, being depth-bombed by a flying saucer from a hostile nation. She sneaks them out of it with an old WWII dodge, they fight off a pirate sub, and make it back to safety, whence Terra’s secret agents can return her to Earth. She takes up with rocket researcher Chris Cannon, and there’s a drawn-out sabotage and murder mystery over an orbital rocket-plane. Meanwhile, a mysterious globe detected out in space is turned into a public panic by a crooked TV newsman; it turns out to be an experimental Terranian ship which has been holed by a meteor; our duo are taken there on a rescue mission, and there’s a plot to switch the U.S. Secretary of State with a Terranian double, in order for sexy Col. Zena to gain command of the globe-ship ….

    It’s all a nice read, with clean, attractive art, excellent subs and fighter-planes and the slickest, most convincing flying saucers ever. A historical curiosity, in that first contact has happened, but the Cold War is proceeding more or less as normal, with Sputnik I providing a minor plot point. It proceeds at a leisurely pace, in the vein of international intrigue combined with screwball romance. What strikes me is how much freedom of action the characters are supposed to enjoy – in a modern version, the White House and Pentagon would be in minute-by-minute control of everything. It’s as if the “paranoia” of the ”50s were like a summer break before the absolute nuclear lockdown of Fail-Safe and Dr Strangelove. Nonetheless, with the Space Race and extraterrestrial affairs at stake, everything gains an inertia which forbids Wash and Gozy’s kind of happy-go-lucky wanderings.

    And now …

    Wonder Woman has very justifiably killed Checkmate chief Max Lord in cold blood. She turns herself over to the International Criminal Court. But Lord has instructed the Brother I satellite to treat Diana and the Amazons as enemies, and BI sends a horde of Omacs to reduce Themiscyra. Diana breaks parole to join the fight, but the result is the Amazons being forced to remove their island from the world.

    That’s the arc, for a trade paperback. It’s coherent enough, and I suppose it plays out at about the same pace as the Twin Earths serial. But it suffers. Greg Rucka and divers artistic hands do not set themselves either a story-telling or an artistic discipline; they wing it, with a variety of techniques, narrative voices, flashbacks, interludes and foreshadowings of future plots. There is Olympian politics going on, which adds nothing to the story except for Diana to put her foot down resolutely with higher authority. If Rucka intended to present the story in the key of Fail-Safe, superhero world crisis, he utterly loses the suspense in all the floundering.

    And … what sticks out like a sore thumb … the lavish allowance of page space, which any of our better artists would have planned out, and filled with detailed hardware, Grecian architecture and attractive women, is here sketched in and inconsistently inked with action-posed bodies and big faces in stereotyped expressions of urgency – where Crane or McWilliams, with their newspaper-strip discipline, would have conveyed the same in a progression of neat, small panels. Basically, the artistic freedom which Kirby and Steranko properly claimed for spectacle is filled with blow-ups of one-panel drama.

    It’s a mess. It’s a particularly comics-writing kind of mess. I would call it Claremontian, in its sabotage of its own urgency through meandering drama and poor use of serial plotting.

    But I want to bring this all back to Indy and the scope of adventure.

    What I think is, through the latter 20th Century, there has been a progressive tendency to get the audience in by raising the stakes. Alien invasion, nuclear war, mutant rebellion, end of the world as we know it. The Marvel revolution – going serial at all, allowing the scope for a Kree-Skrull war etc, set a standard. At the same time, Star Wars broke new ground with spectacle, and also with the sheer amount of money a really good blockbuster of a movie could rake in. When you can afford a major spectacle, you want the stakes to be full on mind-and-body high, and for people to talk about it for weeks. But this means, it’s crap and everyone will say it is, unless it is realistic, at least on its own terms. And that limits what you can have in the story. You know the Pentagon’s going to be all over something this big.

    But the retrograde charm of Raiders of the Lost Ark was that it took us back to the ’30s, when you could run a truck or a single-engine plane with easily-acquired skills, and save the day with an access of grit. Even the Nazis were taking time off for a kooky excursion into occultism. Nobody was really worried about what Hitler could do with the McGuffin. And the next movie, the dreaded warlords of Shanghai are taking in cabaret floorshows and playing for historical trophies. All very Tintin, very Wash Tubbs.

    Now like Matthew says, you’re a step ahead if you can ground your McGuffin in real history, instead of making up a Star Crystal which hey audience, you’re not supposed to think about it. By the same token, I think you’re ahead if your video game set-pieces and stunt occasions are taken from actualities. I was really taken with the opening Brazilian favela take in the new Hulk film, for example. It was a wonderful location, and you could set an entire storyline there with a little thought. Another nice piece was in the second Lara Croft, where she tactfully intrudes on a shack-boat family on the harbour, and reroutes their satellite TV. Up till then, I was thinking, yes guys, I see what you’re showing me, and it’s pretty good … and then suddenly, they managed to surprise me.

    So, if we just wind down the scale of these action plots, look around for actual materials, and reserve the resources of spectacle for the special climactic matters that deserve it, we might give our heroes more freedom of action, and convey more of a sense of liberty and wide open horizons.

  9. But not stupid, I guess is what I’m saying — which is why their laziness pisses me off.

    For real stupid, you’ve got to go with the folks who made From Hell

    But more on that a bit later, I think.

  10. Ah! Very well said! Yeah, the closest Indy IV comes to it is when Indy realizes where he is with the Howdy Doody music playing and everything, don’t you think? Suddenly he realizes just where he is, and how displaced he’s become…and it moves pretty fast. Not exactly rocket surgery, but you just need it to work: all through this movie, people should’ve been saying stuff like, “well, you’re an amazing idiot, Dr. Jones, it’s a miracle you’re alive, why don’t you just retire before you get yourself or somebody else killed?” Definitely not rocket surgery. And yet they simply can’t maintain it. It’s like somehow they don’t even know what this story’s supposed to be about, the only thing it can be about even if all you want is the Howdy Doody music. I was definitely thinking about your “absolute image” there, Jonathan! Indy sees a mushroom cloud! It’s a bit of the old Ape Lincoln, for sure…but they don’t get him to it in the right way, though all of the pieces were right there…

    And if there was such a thing as Indy fan-fic (there must be, surely?), well their Ape Lincoln would not have been the same as mine…but when I saw it, I was encouraged to give the movie a break. Temporarily. Because now the question is, what kind of Indiana Jones movie are you going to make, and there are a whole lot of options, because the storytelling’s playing field is all shattered and broken up. Like when Stan and Jack left the FF, suddenly somebody had to do it right, where previously there had been no real way for them to do it wrong, since they made it up. And for Temple Of Doom, they did it their way but they didn’t enjoy the same level of success, and that’s exactly what was in the balance for TOD and the man with the bullwhip. This one, though: it doiesn’t even matter if it succeeds, so of course it will anyway, even though it doesn’t deserve to. All anyone expects is the spectacle, the roller-coaster ride. That’s the only way they’ll measure it, and it’s a very poor way — because this isn’t TOD, it isn’t Stan and Jack even though it’s still George and Steven — Stan and Jack left the office at the end of Last Crusade, they were done, it was over one way or the other, and they just had to wait and see if people liked it.

    But now you really can’t tell if people liked it, in any way that counts for anything. There’s nothing there to like, except vaguely one might approve of the choice of Ape Lincoln they went with, or they might not, but it won’t matter because this is second-stage art, not door-opening anymore. The danger always was, that they’d just be writing their own fan-fic — and it would’ve had to have been a colossal, absolutely smashing success, to have succeeded as anything more than that. It’s an Indy story I really never wanted anybody to tell, actually! But if you were going to tell it, okay, I guess that’s a choice; of course a choice is all it is.

    Still. You’ve got Cate Blanchett there, and she’s throwing big, fat sparks off of her. The Ape Lincoln moment made me think “okay, well maybe it won’t be shabby, if they’ve got sufficient commitment in hand they might pull this off!” Then Cate gives her speech about Communism possessing Indy’s soul in secret, and I thought: dog my cats, this really could work, I don’t believe it!” Then I see John Hurt is standing there, too. For just a moment, I have hope.

    But then of course they do not evidence the necessary commitment, and the souflee crashes out. Given the ingredients they chose, the Ape Lincoln and all the rest of it, Cate Blanchett, crystal skulls…I can see where they went wrong step-by-step. Which is a pity, because in TOD I could not tell you where it goes wrong step-by-step, anyway. But this was simply Attack Of The Clones, I didn’t even need to pick up a scalpel, it dissected itself, right before my eyes. In the first three movies I didn’t see a single blessed thing coming until it actually hit me — for good or bad, but at least I couldn’t second-guess it. This one was all second-guessing, there were about zero surprises, I watched it already before I even put it in the DVD player. And because of the type of Indy story it had to be, I really needed it to be able to surprise me, not just massage me. In a way I’m shocked at people not caring very much about it one way or the other, the first Raiders was like a pure jolt, it colonized my brain instantly. I think a lot of people forget just how well it did its job, it eclipsed Star Wars (!), birthed a thousand would-be archaeologists, and stunned crowds. I saw it five times in a month. That’s what Indiana Jones movies are supposed to be like. But for this one I saw a lot of people saying “what are you getting so worked-up about, it’s just a movie, it was okay I guess, I liked the chase in the jungle…” NO. That’s not how this is supposed to go, that’s not what this is supposed to be about…that’s grazer talk, it’s thickheaded. This is supposed to be about new stuff.

    What a shame.

  11. And now for my next trick, I will watch Hellboy II. Got it for Christmas!

    And The Dark Knight, currently out on loan to my brother…coming in January is another Fourth World Omnibus, “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan, and the Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing, oh yas. Sadly no Popeye, but I think I may just pop out to the LCS over the next few days…

    Happy New Year to you too, Jonathan! Hope you are feeling less drugged-up soon. I enjoyed that comparison of yours quite a bit, by the way.

  12. Awww … I kind of took it as an alternate universe version of the Fantastic Four fighting hidden races a la The Mole Man. The dialogue wasn’t exactly Mamet, but neither was Stan Lee’s …

    And to be perfectly honest, I kind of prefer Stan anyway.

  13. Visually, it’s the closest thing we’re ever going to get to a live-action Miyazaki piece. It’s a mind-blowing achievement and it’s hampered by an awful script. Story and character wise… well, Mike Mignola and John Acurdi’s characters aren’t in the movie at all. If I wanted to see a Fantastic Four movie I wouldn’t have skipped the two actual Fantastic Four movies. And, Keeper, comparing any dialog to Stan Lee’s is… not the way I’d sell a movie.

  14. If you’ll permit me to hijack this thread, what do people think about “The Day The Earth Stood Still?”

    I’m debating whether to see it in the theatre or not.

  15. Hmm, no one seems to have an opinion about that one…possibly it’s still too early, SW.

    On Hellboy II, though — and I may make a post of this — the interpretation I prefer is that it was all a dream Hellboy had after eating too much for his midnight snack. Ed called it Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy fan-fic. Well…but couldn’t those two things be the same? It was a bit…off, and I can’t see people who don’t already like Hellboy really putting up with it, but at the same time there were several meaningful points of contact, and I think it was a good-hearted movie.

    Visually, really amazing — and I’m not even sure if “visually” is the right word, I think if you put the panning and the scene transitions and the shot compositions together you actually get something that is so like the reading of a comics page it’s rather astounding, I was always feeling so much like my eye was being drawn somewhere, instead of just seeing, that…well, it was like the anti-Ang Lee: everything Lee did to accentuate the comickiness of Hulk, del Toro did that thing entirely differently, as though Lee represents the filmmaker’s grappling with page-layout translation issues, constantly and overtly fucking with time and space, and del Toro represents a more comics-knowledgeable vision that depends on slide-frame-pose-slide…a really fascinating difference, Lee’s is more challenging to the viewer because it’s more obvious, but del Toro’s shows a very fine appreciation, I think, for how to make this stuff in what’s really the same visual language, or dynamic language, or whatever the hell else I mean there. Lee’s Hulk produces weird dissonances everywhere, as I think it was intended to…you can’t see straight in that thing, there are tons of blind spots, and he only shows you what he’s really doing once…and most people didn’t like it, didn’t appreciate that level of formal experimentation…and when it all finally comes together in the big “aha” moment, as far as I know nobody has yet said “aha”. Del Toro, by contrast, doesn’t do anything except make stuff really POP as it floats in front of your eyes, suddenly Liz is looking past her left shoulder and you’re captivated, as the camera pans past her but never makes it to her focal point. I’d be very happy to watch some del Toro Indiana Jones fan-fic, I’ll tell you that. This is on a massive scale, this thing. And how about that Jack-in-the-beanstalk monster? It’s like Mignola drew that one himself, and when its head comes together it is absolutely a superhero-comic influence there in terms of design, I do believe that’s Ditko actually…

    Stunning, to be sure. Fast-paced, lively, I think at a certain point in the Troll Market he shuns an obvious Spielbergism of just trying to make absolutely every little detail freak you out, and I appreciated that, like, a lot. But are they the same characters? They are not…but they’re certainly comprehensible analogues of those characters, this was not just a vastly better-looking LXG, even if the characters were not quite who they should’ve been there are still many things in this movie that absolutely do go down in the true Hellboy manner…not saying there aren’t parts that are just plain wrong. because there are, but in certain other ways even than the purely visual (or whatever I’m calling it, anyway) this is a occasionally a very big improvement on the first movie, too, and that ain’t hay. I’ll confess that I wasn’t as big on Pan’s Labyrinth as everyone else was, I liked it quite a lot but I stopped short of at any point being stunned by it, or really surprised either…this one stunned and surprised me a handful of times, though, and not just in the predictable ways. I’m happy to call it “the Hellboy that Guillermo del Toro would have written”…

    And let’s face it, a little Stan Lee dialogue would’ve improved FF 1 and FF 2 immensely.

    I feel very kindly towards the actors in this movie: I think they give a damn about their characters, and do whatever they can to make us give a damn too. It is not quite right; but, it didn’t leave me feeling disappointed, at the end. I really did like it.

    Because I feel like it liked me!

    …Yeah, that’s probably going to have to be a post.

    I’m quite glad I own this thing, actually. There’s no doubt del Toro understands what makes a comic really sing, even if his fan-fic Hellboy characters are a shade different from what mine would be. Plus the pacing here was very good at mimicking Mignola’s idiosyncratic pacing in the comic, and in fact that translated pretty darn well to the screen, seemed even more natural there: I mean look at Mignola’s comics, there are not a lot of wasted spaces. There are not many here either, even though movies are good at demanding filler from their makers.

    I’ll do a Christopher Nolan comparison while I’m here, too: Nolan’s two Batman movies are all about not what’s on the screen, but the symbolic sense it makes underneath the recorded events. What’s weak in the concrete execution is I think rich in the symbolic heft…maybe, ocassionally, to a fault? Well, my brother still has my Dark Knight (grr) so I haven’t been able to give it a second viewing yet…and Ed’s right, why do we have to wait so long to get a “real” DVD-with-features out of this industry? I don’t think TDK has anything on it but the movie itself and a handful of deleted scenes. Whereas Hellboy II’s chock-full o’ treats…

    But Nolan, yeah…he takes some drastic liberties, at times, and they do hurt: they are a trade-off, truly. But he doesn’t care about that. I think del Toro does care, but he can’t help taking them either.

    I dunno; it was interesting.

    Will definitely bear another go-through.

  16. Sorry to say it, but Hellboy 2 delivered the wrong kind of goodies for me. It was as if somebody had read a dozen issues of Sandman – say, “Season of Mists” with the clever mythological characterization, followed by “A Game of You” – and then said, hey, we can do this, and rock the audience with fully realized Brian Froud fairies and Celtic caverns. I can’t fault that, but I was hoping for blacker comedy and creepier suspense.

    Especially more Selma Blair with that husky Frankenstein cadence: I put this voice together, after the last traumatic relapse I had, when I wasn’t quite with the human race, you know? So everything I say, is like a rope I’m throwing in the dark, that I hope someone will pick up the end of. But that’s okay if not, I feel my way in the dark prettty well.

    Yeah, that’s it. With a couple of Mignola volumes under my belt, I was hoping for a team who’d be the eeriest bastards on Earth precisely because of how they were making the best of their wounds, and that characterization would propel the story.

  17. Pingback: “I Don’t Like To Lose” | A Trout In The Milk·

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