In full Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls gettin’ ready fever – and in my case a real fever – I decided to watch all those Indiana Jones films again.
I said a while back that all good directors have to have a sense of rhythm. This is true. But to be a great action director (not violence, that’s sorta different) you need to know how to tell a joke. When you watch the opening sequence of Raiders, what is it but set up and pay off done at a delirious level? You spend the whole sequence, it and the truck chase, laughing uproariously at Indy’s travails, and at no point does Jones get the upper hand. It’s all about timing, and that set piece is a doozy. When you look at the failings of the Prequel trilogy, what’s most apparent is Lucas’s utter lack of humor. Things don’t build in a way that tickles you, he just stacks stuff artlessly. You keep waiting for the snap and crackle, which was apparent to some extent in Star Wars, though Lucas seemed mostly to be mining the war film aesthetic, which worked well for what was essentially moments of combat but even so you have the prison escape which led to the garbage compactor where the momentum keeps building. Lucas lost that. But when Kershner took over, you get that sense of piling on in the Asteroid chase and that sense of prankishness. In that way Lucas needed to intercut in the PT because he could keep a sequence goosed long enough to deliver those thrill beats without having to leave the room.
But, with Raiders, I’ve seen it so many times now it does little for me, and I start getting a bit bored during the Wells of Souls section. I remember seeing it (with Alexandra Du Pont, natch) at the Eastgate in Portland, Oregon the weekend of that theater’s closing, and I remarked afterwards that Spielberg was the greatest second unit director in the history of cinema, and that the film was – for better or ill – the beginning of 1980’s cinema (just as 1983’s The Right Stuff can be called the last of 1970’s cinema). That 2nd unit comment is not a slight by the way, most directors before Spielberg left the action business to their 2nd unit cause it was so time consuming. What Spielberg did, how he revolutionized action cinema, was make that stuff the focus of his talents. It shows. Sadly, when one looks at modern action cinema, you see too many technicians who fail to deliver interesting characters, or cast actors who will do that heavy lifting for them.
Really, the only Indiana Jones film I ever want to watch is Temple of Doom. That’s because it’s perpetual motion machine of excitement. Other than the introduction and ride to Pankot Palace, the film keeps up its momentum only to take it to the highest level for the film’s final 40 minutes (everything after Jones wakes up from the black sleep of Kali).
People can complain about Short Round all they want, I’ll put up with his early wisecracks for the obvious and natural chemistry he has with Jones, and the sequence where Indy puts Short Round’s hat back on, and touches his face gingerly. Sure, it could be a poster-moment for Nambla, but it really works. Which is then followed by the most iconic shot and sequence of Indy in the franchise. The lights come up slowly to reveal Indy after whipping a stick out a bad guy’s hand. The bad guy goes to Indy, we hear two punches, and the bad guy slides back into frame. YES.
Kate Capshaw could be called the weak link, but I never minded her. She’s annoying and screechy, but you can’t replace Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood and so they went the absolute opposite direction by having the female lead be nearly a wet blanket.
In a way, you could suggest that these films are much like Busby Berkeley films, which the film encourages with it’s Berkeley-inspired opening musical number. In fact, that’s the best way to think of these films. As good as Raiders is, it’s a little too serious in its business to be as much fun (even if it is perfect), and so every sequence and set piece in Temple of Doom is a musical number, starting with the opening sequence. I think my favorite is the “five minutes” argument that then turns into a fight, and then discovery of the hidden passage. But then you’ve got the mine car chase, which is a masterpiece of editing. And then the bridge set piece. “Mola Ram? Perpare to meet Kali… In hell.” In my oh so humble opinion, Temple of Doom is Spielberg’s best film of the 80’s. Yes, better than E.T. Yes, better than Always.
Last Crusade works almost as a parody version of Raiders, and that’s the problem. Raiders is already a funny movie, and so the pleasures are in watching Harrison ford do a Scottish accent and play against Sean Connery. But, though the opening set piece and the tank chase are Spielberg at the top of his game, the catacombs and boat chase are B game material, and the entry into the final temple plays a lot like the opening of Raiders except without the laughs. Perhaps it’s the more “real” religious implications of the film, like Raiders, that makes it a bit stuffy. For all the racism that could be implied in Temple, making the Nazi’s the bad guys is not only easy but gives a portentous side to things. With Thuggie cultists, it’s just silly (even if the film embraces some colonialism, but the film doesn’t give it more of a thought than mostly just acknowledging the whole franchise wouldn’t exist without Gunga Din). Such gives me hopes for the insouciance of Crystal Skulls.
Some have faulted the film for turning Sallah and Marcus into comic relief which is hard to argue against, but I wouldn’t mind it as much if it didn’t strike me lazy writing. When Brody becomes an boob it’s so the film doesn’t have to explain why he’s easily captured by the Nazi’s. And Julian Glover is such a non-entity of a villain, even he gets a great death scene. But you also have Isla acting like an idiot to get to the conclusion. When too much of your film is predicated upon people acting foolish, you’ve failed.
You also get “You stood up to be counted against all that the grail stands for, who gives a damn what you think?” and “He chose… poorly.” And the opening sequence with River Phoenix’s brilliant mimicry of Harrison Ford. It’s just not great, it’s a rehash.
I hold few expectations for Kingdom, though there were definitely elements of the trailer that I liked (actually, mostly just the shot of swinging Ford that showed Spielberg had not lost his touch for fun action staging) though if the quips that were apparent in the trailer are indicative of the whole (which was – what? – 90% of the dialouge in the trailer?) we may be in for a bumpy ride. If they can keep the exposition down to a minimum and Spielberg is engaged in his set pieces, it should prove to be an interesting throwback to 80’s cinema by way of 30’s cinema.