Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Raiders of the Found Stash, from Flint's Treasure to the Crystal Skull!

In addition to being priceless, education ruins movies. It brings a liberal arts-enforced, PC-indoctrinated empathy that can subject once merry romps to bitter pill analysis under the scrutiny of wool-removed eyes. The jaundiced way I see West Side Story (1961) now corresponds to a warning about Syria: instead of letting warring tribes settle their differences in an organized rumble, Tony barges in, uninvited, and two people end up dead. If he had just stayed out of it, all the differences might have been ironed out in a simple brawl -- a few bloody knuckles and black eyes instead of corpses. But, as Maria says, "any fighting is no good for us." Ai Maria! Fighting is much better than dying. America, and Maria, disagree. This is typical of the Lucas mentality--as when Luke refuses to fight Darth Vader in the third Star Wars. He should watch Sword of Doom or a UFC fight sometime and see it's quite easy to fight without hatred, even with a loving form of attentive dispassion.

Similarly Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) used to be about awesome fights and solid thrills. I saw it eight times in the theater alone, probably 20 more once I bought it on video back when videos cost $40! Now, some 30 years and a liberal arts higher education later, I see the steep price its innocence and 'matinee spirit' carry. Is innocence itself the culprit behind its covertly pro-colonialist--even fascist--message? One must assume so. The privilege of the ignorant is the unique pleasure of venting racist spleen without ever guess on is, in fact, the bad guy. Now the film plays like Starship Troopers without the self-aware irony. Spielberg and Lucas apparently woke up to this, too, because the 'where are they now' saga of growing old and passing the legacy and zzzz  begun in Last Crusade (1989)--which I despised despite the awesome zeppelin sequence-- continues in Crystal Skull (2008). Now Jones is in the Sean Connery role, i.e. a know-it-all curmudgeon, traveling the world with rock-n-roll son in tow, and brawling indiscriminately, the stakes far too high for his age. Does Spielberg think this is pleasant, forcing us to imagine his frail old skeletal system subject to such harsh abuses?

Worse, he wants to grab that crystal skull--not for his museum or alien research or curiosity--but because someone else wants it. He just plans to return it to its rightful lost city pedestal, high in long hidden Mayan jungle ruins, so the Russians don't maybe find a way to turn it into a source of 'limitless power.' Based on past experiences with crafy Belloq and the Nazis doing the same to him, Indy should just mosey along after it, nice and slow, give the Russians time to try it out for themselves and then just pick it up from their melted skeletal fingers at a more convenient time. But he doesn't want them even to see it. He'd rather make sure the skull is in the same place as the Ark and all the treasures he's looted, safely buried in a classified storage facility, never realizing that in withholding these relics and truths from the curious he's little more than a Medieval Catholic inquisitor. Supposedly an archaeologist he's really a fundamentalist, like the Vatican or Smithsonian, hiding any evidence their books on history are incorrect.

Ford's Indy is now too old to bother searching within himself instead of projecting into old tombs. Such self-awareness would infer some sort of legitimate curiosity about the world around him, instead he plays the muttonheaded buzzkill naysayer. This amazing skull with its grey oblong cranium and odd powers is clearly alien and yet Indy still scoffs at the idea it's from outer space. The only 'awake' and genuinely curious character in the whole thing is Russian agent Spalko (Cate Blanchett), who expresses a personal desire to learn the truth about extraterrestrial experience and intentions. Indy belittles this desire, scoffs like she's crazy! Aliens, yeah right. Even if the alien thing is true, Indy would never believe it coming from, you know, a Russian, and worse, a girl. Maybe he's just stonewalling, but if so, why not be at least civil to a woman? Can you imagine Han Solo being such a buzzkill? Refusing to believe the Death Star is real, even after it blows up his home planet? And instead, maybe spitting in Princess Leia's face?

Time frames help unpack these reasons: both the sociopolitical landscape of the year each film came out, and when the film is actually set, mirror grave political and social realities. The first Indy film was set in 1936--before the official start of WW2, when the Nazis were in their Aryan-roots hunting stage. The Ark is found and fought over in Egypt by Germans (still in their wooing Axis satellite phase) and one plucky Yank --six years before the Americans were officially at war. So really he's just a thief; he has no permission from the government to confiscate holy relics from their desert. Presumably the Nazis made some kind of financial arrangement with Cairo, but not Indy. He only grabs the Ark by holy writ of his yankee gumption.

It's convenient that Egypt doesn't seem to interested in its own relics, and since any previous owner (Moses) is long dead, the Ark belongs to whomever can grab this hot potato mcguffin first, because third world countries, it's implied, are backwards children who'd only break their own treasures so don't deserve them. In the Peruvian opener, the Hovitos mirror the Egyptian natives, unable to enter the mystery cave and so whomever brings the gold godhead out is apparently their new king, but it helps to speak Hovito, which Dr. Jones doesn't deign to learn, so he loses out to the crafty Belloq, who merely follows Jones from a safe distance and lets him do all the dangerous stunts, then grabs the prize. Therefore, by not deigning to learn the native language, and not being smart enough to let someone else do his digging for him, Indy is considered the sign of the superior archaeologist. Sorry, Steven and George, but Belloq's far more of a 1981 man, a Wall Street shark with flair and a sense of humor, than Jones, whose scoundrel gall is only redeemable since he's oblivious; for an academic he's staunchly blind to anything like a bigger picture.

Is Spielberg being snarky about France with this recurring archetype? Consider for example the way De Gaulle went and took credit for the liberation of Paris while the American and British troops continued to push the Germans back to the Rhine in 1945! Or the way we forcefully took France's colonies back for them, from partisans who had been fighting the Japanese, like Ho Chi Minh, while the French sat around and gesticulated in their little cafes! Does America doing the work and then the French stepping in to take credit and control not recur both in history and the film, and each time--well in Algeria and Vietnam especially--restoring a Colonial rule only moderately less harsh and/or injust than the Axis?

Let's stretch this idea even further to link the Carter administration and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), with its own Belloq, i.e. a short French director (Francois Truffaut) conducting an arcane metaphysical ceremony to communicate with the ancient ones. There's no Harrison Ford role in CEOT3K per se, just a Goldie Hawn if she got away with her baby at the end of Sugarland Express (1974). The Goldie Hawn archetype was very big back then. But if you consider the big news of the day was Carter and his Camp David Accord you can etch the little guy pragmatist clear as a bell in a still lake. And in today, the idea of a crafty French Jew working for the Nazis before they went full-on genocidal is much more interesting to conemplate than Jones is with his muleheaded Yank 'blunder in and raise havoc' tenacity. There is no 'Belloq' in Skull except old Winstone who exists mainly to take advantage of an old man's sympathy, a kind of shadow to Indy which he only resembles the more he tries to distance himself. Ray's character may be an opportunistic slime, but he's white, British (i.e. future NATO ally), and a man, therefore he must be allied with, his moral turpitude be damned.

I should mention that from 1993-1999 I worked for a French art dealer who was a LOT like old Belloq. I won't mention his name but I will tell you he got into steep debt playing futures markets; eventually defrauding investors and clients. He wound up on the run in Brazil where he later went to--and escaped from-- jail on a whole new set of charges. Various lawyers, detectives, and Mossad agents are still sorting out a morass of who-owns-what and owes whom and who is really the rightful owner of a painting my boss took on consignment and sold to two different people at the same time and then told the owner it was still unsold, so he kept all the money hoping to double it in the future's market in one day and then pay the owner, but instead lost it all. So had to split. The whole experience left me with near-lawyerly insight into the workings of ownership, provenance, and extradition. In fact, I can no longer watch Raiders without musing over who would win a legal dispute between Belloq, the Nazis, Jones, and the Egyptians if they all went to court over who owned Ark. Hint: it wouldn't be Jones. Not even close. Belloq, like my old boss, is Jewish, on the other hand.

You think I'm anti-semitic mentioning that, but dig a little deeper. Think of the Ark's provenance, all the way to the initial owner. But you won't, will you? Because it never will get to court, as Indy will steal it long before then, and at some point history books and bible meet, and we automatically get messed up with myth and fiction.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) follows this self-imposed blindness, the First World concept that 'possession is 9/10 of the law,' and therefore force + superior intellect + luck + white maleness makes rightness. And the only one who deserves the rare comic book is the one who promises never to read it, to keep it in its mylar in a special vault. As Jones moves into the atomic age, he survives an atomic bomb test by hiding out in a model home fridge, showing he's still surviving by missing the spectacle, and soon after he's caught up in a greaser vs. jock fistfight set to Elvis songs, driving around on a vintage motorbike but scoffing at the idea of a real alien presence on Earth, once again avoiding destruction by not looking into Medusa eye of the true unknowable Other, the one who would explode Spielberg's cute/evil alien dichotomy with its sheer monstrous alien ambiguity.

That's one of the reasons why the whole time I was rooting for Cate Blanchett's Ms. Spalko, who at least treats Jones and his doofus family with some compassion while at the same time not losing her ruthless edge. She's dicked over by him time and again because he can only see this good/evil dichotomy, hence she and the Russians are evil, period just as he is good, which as a professor of anything should make the academy reconsider their tenure practices (although sneering at aliens is definitely a sanctioned practice there too). Miss Spalko at least, has an agenda. So what if she's a Communist? At least she plays the game with good sportsmanship and is awake to the mystery of the skulls. Indy doesn't even feign a sporting interest for the purpose of his job in the way Sam Spade did over the Maltese Falcon. Say what you will about the Russians, agent Spalko is a woman, sir, who likes talking to a man who likes to talk. But Indy can only clam up, as tiresomely and rudely as Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner.

But the main tell in this version is that the academic deconstructions of Jones as an emblem of bull in a china shop imperialism has at last begun to take hold. Now Jones can only take the skull and bring it back to its rightful place at El Dorado; when he tries to take so much as a small sword - a knife from a mummified conquistador, his doofus son makes an 'ahem' voice, like put that back, that's not yours, that belongs to the dead conquistador's family, or... He doesn't have a specific reason, and it suddenly casts all of Jones' past acquisitions for his museum in doubt. 'Grave robbers will be shot,' the sign says going in, which his son points nervously a-towards. "Well, we're not going to do any grave robbing," Indy says. But of course his whole life has been one long grave rob. Considering the modern age legal battles over cultural ownership of relics (see here) of late, perhaps Lucasfilm and Spielco have begun to realize that the casual American arrogance underwriting Jones' plundering in the first films might be unconscionable but they should realize that this arrogance is what makes it so eloquent as a metaphor for 80s amok capitalism. Jones is a badass because he's so heedless, so obsessed with acquiring whatever ark-shaped jet ski catches his eye. Imagine how great the film might be if Jones was a heroin addict thanks to a dislocated knee? Instead Indy can't even borrow a dead conquistador's knife for his future endeavors, because his son--leather jacket and motorcycle signifying conformity's sanctioned signifier of rebellious trappings-- clears his throat in a way so pussy proper over 'stolen' antique weaponry it makes me want to punch him in the face and steal his switchblade.

This question of who gets the loot started to flair up for me a few weeks ago while watching another of my politically incorrect favorites, the MGM 1934 version of Treasure Island. Whose treasure is it, rightfully? Whomever has the map? Whomever paid for the expedition? Or whomever stole it in the first place? Or owned it? Or took it from third world natives too primitive to understand the whole concept of 'private property'? When Jim Hawkins and his mom go to look for the money Flint owes in his chest after he dies, mom plays the moral cuckold, saying first say they will collect only what is owed "and not a penny more!" But the treasure map makes it okay to, in fact, take Flint's whole savings account. Flint stole it from his fellow pirates who all stole it from Spanish lords and ladies from centuries before who stole it from their subjects: Spain, the enemy of England, Jim! Like stealing the Nazi gold from Kelly's Heroes or the falcon from the Russian, Kemidov; it's hard to say anyone really has a right to it if the current possessor stole it from people who stole it from (and killed) the previous owners, yet try telling that to the Mossad, am I right, Mr. Wildenstein?

The status of the treasure as up for grabs offers a very peculiar notion of 'white makes right," white being the clothes and the powdered wigs of a gentleman born and bred vs. a dirty scalawag. In the MGM production, there's no mention of how the treasure will be divided up, presumably in equal parts between Jim, Ben Gunn, the Squire, and Otto Kruger. But does the crew get a share? Presumably the pirate crew would get nothing for their efforts other than some measly pay. Are they really the bad guys for wanting to seize it for themselves? In reality the only ones with any right to it are the relatives of the victims of the pirate crew's initial piracy, and after that, the pirates themselves. But the right of Jim and his gentleman born to have all of it and the devil take the pirates is somehow much righter than any other option, if for no other reason than a boy like Jim is writing the story.

"Three more stout and loyal men you'll never find... in this room, Jim."
Luckily MGM changed the ending somewhat, so that Long John Silver (Wallace Beery) escapes with his shirt stuffed with gold coin sacks. He probably worked the hardest to get it, and is not just the craftiest of the lot, but also the only one in the whole cast with an infectious wit and easygoing charm. There are some who might call Indy a pirate, one disguised as an academe. We kids knew he was really Han Solo, so the prof thing was a kick, a fun disguise. By the time he's chasing the Skull though, he really is a professor, the worst kind. In the Treasure Island comparison the Indy of Skull wouldn't be Long John Silver --that role would go to Cate Blanchett-- but the crusty Captain Smollett (below, center), good to have on your side when the shit starts going down, but an awful drag at a party.



  1. Well, at least you recognized an organic shift from Raiders to Crystal Skull. Most people who hated the latter couldn’t even go that far. I can certainly dig what your saying in theory, though I don’t necessarily agree that old Indy is a lesser Indy. He’s just different. But, isn’t that life? Things change. And while it doesn’t match-up with fandom nostalgia, there is nonetheless something true and genuine in the way Lucas, Spielberg and Ford have continuingly appropriated the Indiana Jones series as a means of expressing through character, through cinematic gesture, their changing attitudes towards life that comes naturally with age. I like how Indy consistently chuckles at Spalko’s villainess scene chewing and scoffs away her professed yearnings for ultimate knowledge and mind-power domination. It’s a kind of nonchalant, 'yeah-yeah-I’ve-seen-all-this-before' shrug that befits our hero in his senior years.

    I mean, let’s be real here: was Indy ever respectful to his arch nemeses? As far as I can recall, sportsmanship was never his game; always looking to fuck-over the enemy with a wry smirk or shit-eating grin. Indy always had that dick-level of contempt for anyone who pushed him around or dared to thwart his chances for whatever the prize. It’s just that, now, he’s not only mocking the bad guy, but the situations in general -- the fact that he's still being held at gunpoint, hauled around in trunks, strapped to chairs for psychic interrogation etc etc. Yet, that doesn’t mean he’s bored himself into a slump and is no longer willing to learn a thing or two about the past and about the supernatural that Spalko craves. Near the end, when surrounded by crystal skeletons, he says to her, "Oh, I believe, sister. That’s why I’m down here."

    But I do like Spalko as well. Blanchett defeminized in uniform gray, with her features hardened by a Soviet bowl cut and speaking in cartoon-Russian tongue, only made her that much more sexually alluring. Maybe it was the rapier that did it. When squaring off against the doofus Mutt, surely, I wasn’t the only one who picked up on her double entendre one-liner: "You fight like a young man - eager to begin, quick to finish!"

  2. Hey Cannon - thanks for your spirited defense of Indy's casual contemptuousness! A perfect summation and counterpoint that makes me almost want to see the film again. cheers


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