Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Review of Raiders of the Lost Ark

At last we come to number 66 on AFI's list, Raiders of the Lost Ark. That means that my excellent wife and I are one third of the way finished! And it only took us two and a half years! At this blinding speed, AFI will publish a new list before we're finished watching the movies.

It's hard to review Raiders of the Lost Ark. In my life, Raiders of the Lost Ark was one of the most influential movies... no, scratch that... THINGS that warped my childhood. There was Mom, Dad, Sis, The Public School system and then there was Raiders of the Lost Ark. How can I possibly detach myself enough to give an impartial review? I've decided I'm not even going to try. Instead, here is a summary of the way this movie made me the way I am.

I'll start with Indiana Jones. He is an icon whose fedora, bullwhip and roguish five-o'clock shadow represent machismo, adventure and courage. He's a perfect alliance of brawn, smarts and tenacity. To my developing mind, he was the unfailing symbol of manhood. To complicate matters, I thought my dad kinda looked like him.

When I was a kid, I wanted to look exactly like Indy. I still think I want to look like Indy. Here's a news flash, ladies. You're not the only ones with body-image issues. Every Gen-X man wants to be Indiana Jones, yet suffers in stoic silence.

It's funny how the tongue-in-cheek aspect of this movie and indeed all the Indiana Jones movies went over my head when I was a lad. Indy was just Indy and went on amazing adventures. Little did I know that Indiana Jones was George Lucas' reworking of corny adventure serials from his own childhood.

My reaction to this dramatic irony changed as I grew older. As a child I was oblivious. As a teenager I began to detect that some aspects of these movies were a bit stupid, over-the-top, and corny. I began to hate Indy. I felt betrayed. Then one day, I got it. "These movies are meant to be cheesy," I exclaimed. And then I started liking them again.

Yet I never could love them as much as I did as a boy, when I took them very seriously. I miss the way they excited me and feel slightly irritated that Indiana Jones is just a joke to George Lucas. Perhaps this why I have such negative reactions to irony in places where it is unwelcome. Little self-references, technical and directorial "jokes" and easter-eggs in movies drive me crazy. In comedies, it's great. Elsewhere, I loathe them. I don't want to know that a shoe flies past the Millenium Falcon in Return of the Jedi. I hate the Wilhelm Scream. I hate anything that winks to the audience and reminds us that we're just watching a movie. I watch a movie to escape, to experience a seamless dream that whisks me out of reality. Unnecessary breaking of the fourth wall ejects me from the movie and reminds me, "Oh yeah, I'm a penniless writer and don't look like Indiana Jones".

The soundtrack to Raiders of the Lost Ark was composed by John Williams. Along with Star Wars, it sealed his reputation as Hollywood's greatest soundtrack composer. The score is exciting and imaginative, as was everything he composed from about 1976 to 1989. It is the standard by which I judge all film music.

There is another way in which Raiders of the Lost Ark affected me. Some readers may be wondering why my personal blog's address is at http://pharoahphobia.blogspot.com and I don't blame you. Pharoahphobia is the fear of mummies. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and his gal Marion are escaping from an Egyptian ruin. Marion gets separated in the dark and finds herself surrounded by moaning, screaming mummies that grasp at her with withered arms. It culminates when she sees a snake emerging from a mummy's mouth. Indy comes to the rescue and guides her away from mummy chamber, leaving the imagined screams behind. It's all over and everybody's happy. But not for Jeremy. The scene stays in Jeremy's mind and festers with other negative mummy associations, emerging as a full blown phobia a few years later.

I have one last item. It's about what Indiana Jones has become. Like many of my generation, I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and was disgusted. We all saw The Phantom Menace, another George Lucas sequel, ten years ago and felt disgusted as well. What made these sequels so awful for us? There are truly a lot of differences in tone and style, but not subject matter. I think these differences can be summed up with one word: dignity.

It seems strange to be discussing dignity in reference to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a movie in which somebody's face melts. It's is also strange to be discussing it in relation to a movie that is based on an ironic premise. But really, compared with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Raiders of the Lost Ark has dignity. Crystal Skull just seems like it's trying too hard to entertain us. It's partly in the overuse of computer graphics, but it's also in the writing too. There are no moments of repose. It's just action action action and it's so grating!


Let me use an example. Some of you may be familiar with the Greek term Deus ex Machina. It means "god from a machine" or "god from a box". It's a phrase used to describe a situation in a story when all hope is lost for the heroes, when suddenly the cavalry arrives, a random meteor squishes the villain or something otherwise happens that defeats the antagonists without the hero having to do anything. In ancient Greek theatre, this was accomplished by Zeus being lowered toward the stage inside a pretty box upon ropes, at which point he would vanquish all evil and put everything to rights. God from a box.

Raiders of the Lost Ark has a Deus ex Machina. Literally. A box, the Ark of the Covenant, is opened by some hapless Nazis and God zaps them. The writers knew the phrase "Deus ex Machina" and knew they were writing one. It's something clever that's there to investigate and think about if you care, but you can ignore it if you don't. No attention is drawn to it. Dignity.

If Raiders was written today, I have no doubt that George Lucas wouldn't be able to resist pointing out how clever he is. Some comic relief character would be there at the end, and he would say something like, "Holy moly! Thatsa a real Deus ex Machina, Indy! Meesa funny! Whoa whoa!" and then he'd slip on something and fall down. Tell me I'm wrong, George Lucas. I fucking dare you.


These are, of course, not the full extent of what I feel is wrong with the George Lucas sequels. Star Wars is coming up on the list eventually and I'll save the rest of this rant for the future. George Lucas must be brought to literary justice for systematically taking a dump on my childhood.

So. Anyway. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Good movie. Honestly, a must-see if you wish to understand Western Culture.
5 1/2 kadams out of 5, but take back one kadam to honor the Hebrew God, whose Ark this is