May 4, 2008
Indiana Jones and the Savior of a Lost Art
By TERRENCE RAFFERTY
“THIS is a recreational activity for me” is surely among the last things you’d expect to hear from the director of a huge, costly, dauntingly complex summer action movie as it nears completion, with its release date just a few weeks away.
But that is what Steven Spielberg said not long ago, speaking by phone from a dub stage where he was supervising the sound mixing of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (opening May 22), the first new installment in 19 years of the crowd-pleasing adventure-movie franchise that began in 1981 with “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” “In 1989,” Mr. Spielberg said, referring to the year “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” came out, “I thought the curtain was lowering on the series, which is why I had all the characters literally ride off into the sunset at the end. But ever since then the most common question I get asked, all over the world, is, ‘When are you going to make another Indiana Jones?’ ”
It’s a fair guess that theater operators and executives at Paramount Pictures have asked that question at least as frequently as the ticket-buying public has, and perhaps with a shade more urgency: the three Indy pictures — “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) was the one in the middle — have raked in well over a billion dollars worldwide from their theatrical releases alone. The anticipation, on the part of both the fans and the suits, falls somewhere between keen and breathless. And for most filmmakers that level of expectation might appear in their clammier dreams as a giant boulder bearing down on them and picking up speed.
“I’m having a great time,” Mr. Spielberg said. And, unlikely though this may seem, you can’t help believing him; he certainly sounds excited, and the secret of the Indiana Jones movies’ success has always been their free-spirited inventiveness, a what-the-hell quality that can’t (or shouldn’t) be faked, even on a gigantic budget.
Weirdly, authenticity — not faking it — is very much on his mind when he makes one of these unabashedly preposterous movies, whose hero (still played by Harrison Ford) is a two-fisted, bullwhip-wielding academic archaeologist zipping around the globe in search of rare mystical artifacts and in the process running afoul of Nazis, creepy human-sacrifice cults and other exemplars of unambiguous, unadulterated evil.
Even by the extremely flexible standards of high-adventure pulp, the Indy pictures are a pretty stern test of the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. (At times you feel as if it were hanging, as the hero periodically does, over a mass of writhing, fang-baring snakes, or a river full of famished crocodiles.) The authenticity Mr. Spielberg is concerned with here is something other than the historical realism of, say, “Schindler’s List” or “Munich”; what he wanted to talk about was the physical integrity of the action, of which there is, in an Indiana Jones movie, plenty.
The tone and style of the films derive from the movie serials of the 1930s and ’40s, which Mr. Spielberg, growing up in the ’50s, used to see on Saturday mornings at a revival theater in Scottsdale, Ariz.
“They made a great impression on me, both because of how exciting they were and because of how cheesy they were,” he said. “I’d kind of be involved in the stories and be ridiculing them at the same time. One week they’d give us a cliffhanger with the good guy going off the cliff, the car crashing on the rocks below and blowing up, and then the next week he’s fine. They forgot to show us the cut of the guy jumping out of the car? That we weren’t going to do in the Indiana Jones series.”
In fact, Mr. Spielberg said, he tries to cut as little as possible in these movies’ action sequences, because “every time the camera changes dynamic angles, you feel there’s something wrong, that there’s some cheating going on.” So his goal is “to do the shots the way Chaplin or Keaton would, everything happening before the eyes of the audience, without a cut.”
Warming to the subject, he went on: “The idea is, there’s no illusion; what you see is what you get. My movies have never been frenetically cut, the way a lot of action is done today. That’s not a put-down; some of that quick cutting, like in ‘The Bourne Ultimatum,’ is fantastic, just takes my breath away. But to get the comedy I want in the Indy films, you have to be old-fashioned. I’ve studied a lot of the old movies that made me laugh, and you’ve got to stage things in full shots and let the audience be the editor. It’s like every shot is a circus act.”
And in 1981, in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” that approach was so old-fashioned it looked new. (It’s difficult to remember now just how stodgy and joyless the action genre had become; even the James Bond movies, reliably sprightly in the ’60s, turned into slow-footed, campy behemoths in the ’70s with entries like “Moonraker.”)
In the 27 years since, practically every action filmmaker has tried to drink from the grail of Indiana Jones, to tap into the movie’s quasi-mystical kinetic (and commercial) power: the pace had to be blindingly fast; the stunts insanely elaborate, the villainy extra-villainous; the hero’s attitude blithe, insouciant, almost sociopathically cool. Mr. Spielberg and George Lucas — who produces the movies and who dreamed up the basic idea of the series — have a lot to answer for.
The sad truth is that the enormous influence of the Indiana Jones films has been a distinctly mixed blessing. Action movies are, over all, a good deal snappier than they were 30 years ago, but they also tend to be a good deal less intelligible. They skimp on the exposition and go straight for sensation, as if cutting to the chase were not a metaphor but literally the cardinal rule of filmmaking. And that’s true not only of the most egregious Indiana Jones knockoffs — the “Mummy,” “National Treasure” and “Lara Croft” movies spring, unwelcomely, to mind — but of nearly every studio picture that features more action than, say, “My Dinner With André.” It’s no accident that movies of this sort, ubiquitous in summertime, are so often blurbed as “thrill rides”: they can be that exhausting, and that pointless.
Pointlessness is, however, in the eye of the beholder. When asked what kind of films he enjoyed most as a boy, Mr. Spielberg replied, simply, “Anything with a lot of movement,” and quite a few of us would say the same. Swift, thrilling motion is the hook that pulls young imaginations into movies, and although your taste might get a tad more refined over the years, vivid, intricate, ingeniously choreographed action can still give you that Saturday-matinee charge of pleasure.
The perilously long and complicated opening sequence of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” for example — in which a song-and-dance number (“Anything Goes,” sung in Mandarin) turns into a wild slapstick action scene involving a diamond, a poisoned drink and an elusive vial of antidote, and ends with Indy and his companions jumping out of a plane in a rubber raft — delivers that sort of giddy, mildly deranging stimulation. The staging and the cutting have the “can you top this?” audacity of a silent comedy, and the timing is slyly impeccable: it’s about the length of a Keaton two-reeler.
It hardly matters that the “Anything Goes” set piece was originally planned for “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” The big action scenes in the Indiana Jones movies are almost risibly inorganic to the narratives that contain them. This kind of randomness is risky — not to be tried at home, or by any filmmaker less prodigiously gifted than Mr. Spielberg. You need a rigorous imagination for visual comedy to make movies as exhilaratingly ridiculous as these.
“John Williams and I have a word we use when we have something we think the audience will love,” Mr. Spielberg said, referring to the composer who has scored all the Indiana Jones movies. “Maybe it’ll be a little over the top, and we ask each other, ‘Are we being too shameless?’ In a way I think we’ve both grown kind of proud of being shameless.”
When the jokes are good, as they frequently are in the Indy pictures, there’s every reason for pride. These goofy movies tell you as much about Steven Spielberg as his more serious work does. Movies truly are a form of recreation for him, and he’s the kind of artist who reveals himself fully in the intensity of his play. In the Indiana Jones movies he revives the spirit of silent comedy in the adventures of an intellectual with a bullwhip. And that’s a feat that, whether you think it’s worth doing or not, at least deserves high marks for degree of difficulty. If only everybody else in Hollywood hadn’t tried to imitate him, he’d have nothing to be ashamed of at all.