Friday, June 20, 2008

Revisiting the Lost Ark

Last night, we saw Raiders of the Lost Ark (not Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark) on Westminster Street. Along with Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, Jaws, and The Muppet Movie, all of which my dad had taped on Betamax from the TV--often with entire commercial blocks intact--Raiders was one of the cinematic staples of my childhood. Sick days home from school consisted of eating toast with strawberry jam, drinking ginger ale, and watching one of those movies. Naturally, after the depredations of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which left me feeling more enervated than any flu, I took in Raiders like a panacea.

On the whole, I found its remedial powers to be intact--diminished, perhaps, by time and successful imitation, but not effaced. I still reveled in the scene in which the two government officials--from the Department of Laurel and Hardy Look-Alikes--meet with Indiana Jones and Marcus Brody to recruit them to go after the Ark. The meeting, which is, we understand, to be in the strictest confidence, is held in what might be the most reverberative room on the campus; amid the sibilant echoes of the gothic revival architecture, the characters churn through layers and layers of exposition, but the scene never gets bogged down in it. There are more words in this single scene than in all of Crystal Skull, but they feel necessary and interesting in their own right; dialogue in Crystal Skull merely describes, like captions, what is already apparent on screen. "I thought it was closer," Jones mutters to no one after falling just short of a jeep he had leaped towards; "Throw me the skull!" shouts another character, later, during a frenetic scene involving the throwing of a skull. "Get me the hell out of here!" sulks one theater-goer to his date.

If language in Raiders has a reality outside of the film's visuals--if it has an echo that suggests its physicality--action does too. That is, we spend much of the movie straining, along with the camera, to catch moments of extreme and brisk confrontation. When Indy slides beneath the Nazi jeep, comes out the other side, and then pulls himself up from the back, we wince sympathetically with the pain of road-burn. It's not real, but it feels real: the camera shakes and bounces and suggests that the reason we're seeing this at all is that we're on a jeep a few feet away. Compare this with the digital effects of Crytal Skull, which exist solely because the camera shows them: nothing, really, is happening. This ethereal quality makes the movie less fun, not more, because it lowers the stakes.

Still, Raiders has aged. It's not nearly as funny as I thought it was, but it is much more racist. Natives of a country are always inscrutable, malleable, and disposable, and they live loud lives that end bloodily. Indeed, Indiana Jones is as good at creating carnage as he is at exhuming its aftermath. Future archeologists, digging up the remains of a strange city called "Cairo," will wonder what war took place circa 1936 that left a small army of Egyptians dead, next to their scimitars and fruit stalls.

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I took the photo at the top of this post last night with my new digital camera, which was a wonderful birthday present. Wonderful for me, that is; incredibly irritating for everybody else.


James said...

As long as we're talking about memories of an earlier age's videotapes...

1) Sometime you should get into the work of Providence's own S.J. Perelman. I'm thinking here of his "Cloudland Revisited" essays, in which he would watch old prints of the silent films he adored in his youth and come away disillusioned.

2) What's your opinion of Jan de Bont's magnum opus?

John Rogers said...

1) Thanks for the recommendation.

2) Undiminished. With exchanges like


who needs Billy Wilder?

John Rogers said...

oh, and

"I'm smarter than you! I'm smarter!"

[after decapitation by subway signage] "Yeah, but I'm taller."


Neal said...

Are you people talking about "Speed"? Dennis Hopper, man. Jeez.