"A movie happens in a way that has always been cathartic,
the personal, human catharsis of an audience in holy
communion with an experience up on the screen.
That's why I'm in the middle of this magic,
and I always will be."
Steven Spielberg, on what spoilers spoil.
With the new but familiar John Williams' jaunty orchestrations playing behind me, I start to wonder if you really can't go home again. It's a very wise and telling phrase, the title of a Thomas Wolfe book published in 1947; "You Can't Go Home Again." You cannot recapture the past. There's too much time in between the 'you' you are now and the 'you' you were then. Then, being callow and full of wonder, it wasn't difficult for a showman like Spielberg to really mesmerize me. When I met the man in 1979, only the title of his next project was given away and I immediately piled meaning on the word 'Ark' and had a field day imagining it was Arthur C. Clarke's 'Rendezvous with Rama' that Spielberg was prepping. Hard to believe but in 1981 I walked into a press screening to see Raiders of the Lost Ark with two pieces of information and only two. It was directed by Steven Spielberg and starred Harrison Ford. OK, trivia fans note. The Royal Tattoo was being staged at the time of the screening and the press show was inundated with Ghurkhas (true). Gimli himself was there (Sallah, as played by John Rhys-Davies) and told some indiscrete stories about the production that I'm not sure if I can repeat here. So I won't. I recall Spielberg wasn't happy with the marketing of the movie (I remember there being a swastika on the poster and together with a grim looking Ford, they made the movie look like a war picture). This is why all subsequent Raiders artwork has Ford grinning like an idiot. "This movie is fun!" he was saying while cracking his whip. As you do.
For those of you who know the movie, you can imagine what part of the seat I was perched on after that glorious opening. Do you know what an opening like that does to your brain? It gives you a promise that not only is there more to come but, heaven help us, it may even be better. And I had no idea going in, no idea what a raider of a lost ark was (in truth I still don't). So Thursday the 22nd May 2008 will be very interesting as Lucas and Spielberg have both gone home again and taken great pains about it. The press tells us that Spielberg asked long time cinematographer Janusz Kaminski to ape Douglas Slocombe's lighting in the first three Indy movies while the director himself would have to get back to a style of shooting he'd felt had long since sloughed off him. Well, the trailer had a few digital giveaways (OK, so in the 80s it was blue screen and now it's green) so it's clear Lucas and ILM have had their mitts on it. But Indiana Jones movies were always FX heavy so I don't mind that too much and Spielberg, a self confessed digital Luddite, has striven to keep it pure (chemical rather than digital) which all sounds promising. If truth be told, I'm a digital Luddite too. Put HD Video up against 35mm film and see what comes out smiling. A clue? It's chemical every time.
In revisiting his own past, Spielberg invokes the Bourne trilogy as an example of what constitutes a comparative up to date thriller in 2008 and he seems to appreciate the trilogy but he mentions that with that frantic camera movement and multi-jump cutting you lose the sense of place. I disagree, citing Paul Greengrass' Bourne sequels as superb examples of direction because amid the explosive visual style the viewer is never in any doubt as to where they are and what directions characters are going in. Although I admire and enjoyed Doug Limon's first Bourne, it is shot in a much more 'classic' style.
All the post Cannes screening reviews are coursing through the internet and I'm trying hard to keep ahead of their boulder of spoilers. But I have been spoiled in the sense that in any internet activity one is bound to fall over a word here, a phrase there which may reveal things that Spielberg would prefer to keep under wraps. Executive Producer George Lucas is more sanguine and notes that anyone could've read the novel Jaws to find out what the movie was about beforehand. I fall between both men's opinions on the subject. I know the three main spoilers from glimpsed articles but am still anticipating having a hell of a good time. Another concern was that viewers may find the retro Indiana too old fashioned. Hey, the key word in that sentence is 'fashioned' and if Spielberg can fashion anything, it's an Indiana Jones movie. Uh...
And I keep forgetting Lucas is also behind the scenes. Was it wise to hope for a revisiting of successes past and keep the wonder intact... with George Lucas involved? Look what happened to Star Wars. Let's be positive. It's nice to see nods, both broad and subtle to the past trilogy. There's even a literal head nod to Denholm Eliot's Marcus Brody. Ford is as charismatic as ever and annoyingly spry for a 64 year old. Ray Winstone is suitably slippery and devious while Karen Allen looks terrific and has her own 'Indy' moments. Cate Blanchett is a buttoned down villainous Ruskie with a Louise Brooks helmet cut and I loved her to bits. She's a real chameleon, a character actor with a real talent for De Niroian role-submersion. Her Hepburn in Aviator still makes me gawp. John Hurt spends a lot of the movie off his rocker but is a convincing archaeologist rendered insane by exposure to crystal skull (not a role for the method actors). I'm still not getting what excites Spielberg so much about Shia LaBoeuf. As the 50s greaser Mutt he's OK. His Tarzan moment stretched things even for an Indiana Jones movie. I bet that was Lucas' idea considering the Chewbacca rope swinging-Tarzan yodelling embarrassment in one of the three digital car crashes he calls the Star Wars prequels. Can't recall which one and that says a lot.
Technically, the film has some deliberate and one assumes loving touches. Lens flares abound and I swore I detected a slight jiggle in the front credits, an effect to simulate the wayward optical titles exposed on to film in the not too distant past. And it's the old Paramount logo – nice. The set pieces are artfully staged spruced up by ILM's digital tinkers (it still 'feels' 'Lucased' and doesn't have the 'feel' of the miniature and model effects of old – oops, this is the positive paragraph). Spielberg has been as respectful to his own work as much as he could be and stayed within the flavour of the Indiana Jones world with one small exception and it's one that really hurts the film. It's not enough to rob it of its glaringly robust pleasures (but we have seen a lot of this kind of action before – what else can film-makers do to take the gun away from the scene so hand to hand combat is assured?) but it knocks the film askance and although Crystal Skull isn't floored by it, it's at least on the ropes.
Let's make a bold statement. Spielberg either got it right and I'm 20 years older so couldn't really get it the same way I used to be able to or he (and George) did not get it right and this sense of "you really shouldn't have gone there..." is real and nudging me in the ribs recalling each scene. So let's get some of the slightly less impressive aspects out of the way. Williams' three scores for previous Indy adventures all have very distinct themes, some of which I hum too often for my own good (and my good standing as a Jerry Goldsmith fan). The sublime 'Truck Chase', 'Slave Children's Crusade' and 'Belly of the Steel Beast' - cues from one, two and three respectively - are all stand out action cues that are like intravenous excitement drips. They pulse with heroics and hummability (Arthur C. Clarke used to write novels to the Raiders soundtrack). I tried to play to death the Crystal Skull CD before I saw the movie but only came away with some mild swirly goings on (skull theme) and very disjointed action cues. It's probably me again so I'll go easy on Williams.
Again with the Hollywoodised indestructibility of the human body hurled through the air in a metal casing (see Iron Man). But this is Indiana Jones so I'll go easy. Again. I mean this guy jumped out of a plane with a dinghy and survived. Ford is believable as an adventurer thrown out of academia on suspicion of living in the 50s (Americans were very paranoid in the 50s) and each of the 50s' themes were nicely worked into the mix. We have greasers and wild ones, commie threats, commie conspiracy and we have Roswell. And therein lies the rub. Roswell. I should have twigged from that one shot of the labelled crate in the trailer.
What really works mixed together? Think about it.
A lot of things. Gin and tonic (Mmmm), strawberries and cream, semolina and jam, the genes of Angelina Jolie's parents – loads of things. What doesn't work mixed together? Indiana Jones and science fiction. There. I've said it. Not so much a spoiler as a generic giveaway. The world of Indiana Jones concerns itself with mystical artefacts and power that emanates from said artefacts. Earthly power, earthly artefacts. There was the ark of the covenant, god's golden box that hated Nazis with their eyes open. Then we had the Shankara stones (they had the power to get hot and bring prosperity to poverty struck Indian villages). The last up was the Holy Grail, one of the most earthly but unattainable items of all myth. It could heal any wound. Cool! So how about those darn crystal skulls? News fans – the 'real' ones have just been discovered to be fakes. Well, if Lucas was mythed off, he certainly took a risk with the MacGuffin and I don't think it worked. At all.
Now, as all you smart folks know, a MacGuffin is the essentially meaningless reason that brings characters into conflict and creates the drama for the movie. It's a Hitchcock term and is harmless and immune to movie appreciation. We just have to know that it's important enough to spur the characters on. Well, there are many myths and mythical objects in the world and Lucas is saying in interviews that he couldn't find any (mythical can also mean made up, George) to hang the next Indiana Jones movie on. OK. But where he went to find his MacGuffin really damages the movie. By going beyond our solar system, Lucas belts Indy hard in the solar plexus. It's not fatal but it does hole the movie below the water line. Once your MacGuffin is something that one's mind cannot grasp, you have a climax of a movie that should have you cheering the ceiling off and instead makes you go "What just happened?" It's no wonder that the Cannes audience cheered loudly at the start of the movie and gave a polite smattering of applause at the end.
That does not surprise me one bit and it's a mis-step that may cost the movie a building box office result. Of course, it'll go stratospheric this weekend but I'm curious if it develops legs (spindly, crystal legs)... Have fun.