Friday, May 30, 2008

5/30/08 The Virtues of Leaving Well Enough Alone

So, the new Indiana Jones movie kind of sucks. Not terribly surprising, but still kind of deflating, in that the bell curve of youth as it applies to art was monumentally reinforced. Better no sequel at all than one so bereft of purpose and life.

It bears asking the question, though, especially in light of the new one's disposable crappiness, what makes the "original trilogy" stick where so many other summer blockbuster rollercoaster type movies disappear into the ether as soon as Oscar season rolls around? What makes a good summer blockbuster so hard to pull off?

I don't mean a successful one, because a blockbuster, by definition, should bust blocks. Financially it should do well, which Indy 4 is assuredly doing. So did Transformers, and so did Independence Day, etc. etc. for all the summers stretching back to (as far as I can figure it from critical readings) Jaws or Star Wars (the popular ones to blame). So in that measure, it's a success. But I have a hard time imagining that it will stick to the heart the way that the original set of Indiana Jones movies, or some of the other time-tested blockbusters have.

First, to tease out some critical opinion from anecdotal experience:

Critical opinion: "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is awesome, "Temple of Doom" is bad, and "Last Crusade" is passable. "Raiders" is the one that gets the essential nod, with the other two more or less dismissed as inferior reworkings.

Anecdotal experience, based on my own opinions and a bunch of friends that I've talked to: "Raiders" and "Last Crusade" are both awesome, which some favoring one and some favoring the other. "Temple" is still pretty sweet, but not as good (although one friend of mine says it's her favorite of the three. Overall vibe is that all three are of a piece - episodes varying in quality from great to greater, but still fundamentally of the same tapestry.

I think the gap between these two readings has to do with the the fact that critics are steeped in film, so the first movie gets lauded as a witty reworking of old B-movies and its cliffhanger/serial nods play off of the critical knowledge of the form. The 2nd & 3rd hit the law of diminishing returns - they don't do anything new, or new/old, like "Raiders". This reading is I think dependent on the fact that critics and cinephiles watch such a huge amount of movies that formal elements get foregrounded as the movies pile up in the brain. As an English major, I find it much easier to see narrative twists and turns coming simply because I've spent so much mental effort dissecting what various narratives are and what they attempt to accomplish. For that reason, when I'm reading I sometimes get overly caught up in the formal accomplisments/lack thereof in a book, as opposed to questions like, "is this fun to read?", or "is this compelling?". So because Indy 2 & 3 just followed the stylistic outlines of "Raiders", critics didn't find as much formal meant on the bone to chew on. For the average moviegoer (i.e. someone like me, not steeped in cinema), the appeal of the 3 are of a piece.

So the enduring appeal of these blockbusters is not, I don't think, necessarily a testament to their formal appeal, although all three are of course well-made. No "summer blockbuster" can really succeed without dynamic and memorable action scenes, and Indy has them in spades. Speilberg's facility with visual action is widely acknowledged, and since in Indy he really lets himself go for broke without regard to thematic/logical constraints, you get the setpieces only possible when a director with A-List skills goes B-List bananas.

But empty setpieces do not an enduring movie make. They're a prerequisite, but they have to be hung on the more difficult part of the equation. Enduring appeal goes back to a landing that's hard for a blockbuster to stick: tone and character.

Character first:
Indiana Jones in THE archetypal American action hero, but he is also a very specific character. In some ways, he's similar to James Bond, the aspirational ideal of British culture (or, the aspirational ideal of British culture as seen through the lens of American culture). Whether UK or US though, Bond is an urban ideal - he's the ultimate "city" hero.

Bond dresses well. He drinks expensive upscale drinks. He's constantly jetting off to places like Paris from places like London. Uniform: tuxedo. He's all about the no-strings-attached sex.
His gun is small, easily concealed, the PPK that you could carry into a tastefully appointed lobby in Manhattan (or London, or Paris, etc.). His one-liners tend to the debonaire and the double-entendre, and aspire to the tartness of prime Oscar Wilde. He is the modern, cosmopolitan city as action hero. And he has endured with incredible longevity as a character and idea. The idea, though, is more prominent - which is why it's been fleshed out by such a range of actors. Bond is very much style personified. As a person, we don't really have much of a sense of the particularities of his personality.

Indiana Jones dresses functionally. He goes to grimy, dangerous places. He's about sex, but can't help but feel the strings. Uniform: Fedora. Whip (American West nod). He gets beat up a lot, but also delivers a fair amount of beatings. He doesn't take himself too seriously, but always Gets The Job Done. These are all Bond-ian ideas, style as substance. But many things about Indiana the character are recognizably human (much credit goes to Harrison Ford's portrayal, as well). He has a tense relationship with his father. He doesn't like his name, and gave himself a nickname. He has to deal with girls in his classes that have crushes on him. His best friend is someone who complements him (Marcus Brody, the ur-academic). Many of these character traits are specific to Indiana Jones as a character, not as a style of living, but they intersect perfectly with the style as well - the rumpled, wisecracking American Hero.

The character semi-holds up in the new movie. Ford has aged well, and plays Indy well, but the screenplay is leaden. There are no memorable wisecracks a la "No Ticket", and with the plot a convoluted mess involving aliens and lacking the simple economy and visual/verbal wit of the first three, Indy the character is mostly stuck giving exposition and giving ground to the 4 other characters he spends most of the movie with. The clunkiness of the dialogue prevents Ford from deploying his natural charisma, so crucial to the character. Because, fundamentally, Indy seems like the kind of guy it would be an absolute joy to be around but for all the danger & Nazis and whatnot, and in the new movie this doesn't hold true. Not because he's old, because if anyone is made to age into Connery's crusty, hilarious old guy dynamic, Indy is, but because the screenplay leaves him absolutely high and dry.

Which speaks to the other element that the first 3 had in spades, missing in the new one: tone. The earlier ones are playful, witty, and light; with just enough shadings of gravity and danger to ensure that the events of the plot don't seem weightless. Too often summer blockbusters are so bloated by their budgets and and the amount of work it takes to pull them off that they are engulfed in a kind of destructive humorlessness, or are so silly and light that nothing sticks. The original Indy trilogy strikes the perfect sweet spot between wit/danger/excitement/fear/laughter while being liberal with the set pieces.

This tone is perfectly summed up by the tank chase in Last Crusade. An incredible chase scene, impeccably choreographed, capped by the tank plunging off the cliff. Adrenaline stimulated, audience on the thrill ride. But then: quiet wit, as Indy unwittingly joins the crowd mourning him, removing his signature fedora to honor the fallen, a joke light and witty enough to fit in with the best of Chuck Jones.

The new movie has no such moment, no such balance of light and ballast. It's all just chases for the sake of chases, or jokes for the sake of jokes, the resurrection for no good reason of a character who was last seen literally riding off into the sunset. A character synonymous with celluloid exuberance forced to go through the motions.

No comments: