Smaller and Smaller and Smaller: Indiana Jones 4 (2008)

Posted by Charles Reece, June 6, 2008 08:54pm | Post a Comment

I don't know what to say about Indiana Jones and the Subtitle I Can't Remember Without Looking It Up. It's called something like "The Castle of Grey Skull," but I know that's He-Man.  A 20-something year old toy tie-in is more memorable than the new Spielberg-Lucas flick. You won't find any images like the above in the new reiteration. That shot reminds me of the crops-on-fire one from Days of Heaven, which was a celebration of cinematographic possibilities. And it evokes memories of Lawrence of Arabia. It's a beautiful image of Western power, with the silhouette of Indy's hat -- a metonym for imperialism -- lording over the working Egyptians as they dig for an old Christian talisman.  The older, wiser Indy now says "Ike is right," with the empire-building majesty of Douglas Slocombe's cinematography being unfortunately replaced by the middling containment-style imagery of shooting in front of green screens and on sets that look like Disneyland rides. "The adventure continues" indoors and on desktops:

You don't see any indoor scenes which aren't on real world sets, with real sunlight coming in, like this:

And maybe Harrison Ford's salary ate up all the money for extras, the availability of which previously gave you shots like this:

And monkeys regain their dignity by teaching Indy's son to swing on vines, I guess, but they look like lowgrade Pixar and you don't get any framed shots like this one:

In short, Indiana Jones 4 just shows how small the spectacle of epic cinema has become. Even Indy's trademark hat has been reduced from sign of Western subjugating knowhow to mere nostalgic tie-in (i.e., mere trademark). It's ironic that the two directors most responsible for manufacturing Boomer nostalgia for the children of the Boomers are now the most responsible for dismantling the related artifices. The hootin' and hollerin' at the sight of the Lucasfilm logo is only audible at the 12:01 am premiere showings nowadays, but that's because fanboys will take what their masters give them.  Such fanboys are constantly waiting for Godot, or are like the dogs in Martin Seligman's experiments with learned helplessness. This hardcore fan still believes E.T. really liked the taste of his product placements, that the perpetually next Star Trek movie will be the good one, and that Kevin Smith is an acute satirist. The only way to like the new Indiana Jones film is to believe it a sign of the Spielberg-Lucas Industrial Complex getting ready to flip on the switch for their next project (Beckett not being required fanboy literature), or just get used to the pain of disappointment.

What was my point?  Oh yeah: the impoverished spectacle.  Indy 4 will surely look a good sight better when it's been shrunk down to fit on the cell phone.  That way, the viewer won't notice how cheap everything looks, how diminished the iconography has become. Which reminds me of David Lynch's rant against watching movies on the iPhone:

Poor, old-fashioned Lynch doesn't consider the possibility that films might actually be made with reduction in mind. Kind of like they frame everything on widescreen tv shows to fit the standard ratio without losing any crucial information (thereby making widescreen perfunctory, an aesthetic trinket -- "oh look!  You can't see that empty chair on a normal tv set!"), summer movies are starting to feel like they're being shot with the cell phone and iPod viewership in mind. There's a bunch of blurry shit moving around, so it's not as if any info will be lost when watching it on a smaller format. And, in fact, verisimilitude might actually increase for the CGI effects as they get smaller.

Machismo may appear closer than it actually is.

With the smaller spectacle comes the smaller star.  Still working through his Oedipal fixation, Spielberg thought what this action adventure series needed was more family dynamics, so along with the return of Marion from Raiders comes the introduction of her and Indy's son, Mutt (Shia LaBeouf).  LaBeouf's specialty appears to be supplying the dramatic mask to action directors who fancy themselves making more than popcorn entertainment. Just as he did last summer in Transformers (another epic of miniaturized proportions), LaBeouf gums up the action with a dramatic role that turns what should be an 1 and 1/2 hour flick into 2 or more hours. He is the actor par excellence for the fast forward sequences during home viewing, the realworld dramatic analog to JarJar Binks.  When he appears in Indy 4 aping Brando from Wild One, the age of the inflated mini-star has arrived.  On an iPod, he'll look just as tough as Harrison Ford.

As for the story, Indy gets into trouble at the beginning, puts on his hat, makes some one-liners, is fucked over by an archeologist (Ray Winstone), is told about some mysterious stuff existing in exotic locations, which leads him to more mysterious stuff, meets up with Marion, exchanges insults with Marion, rediscovers that he loves Marion, and everything ends with a swirling mess of special effects.  If that sounds like the Raiders, consider screenwriter/scriptcobbler David Kroepp's approach:
You can’t write a fan script[.]  You have to pretend that this movie exists without the other one[.]  The worst thing to do would be to have [Indy] make reference to things he said in the first movie, like to pun on lines of dialogue[.]  That’s tempting, because you’ve seen the movie a hundred times and you know all the dialogue, but no human being remembers exactly what they said 25 years ago word for word, much less make reference to it. So you try to put aside the other movies and yet be in the spirit of them.
Pretending the previous movies didn't exist, Kroepp establishes that Indy really hates snakes, for example. And this time around, he goes up against communists (led by Cate Blanchett) and aliens, rather than Nazis and Christian magic. And, correcting what was evidently a perceived problem with the second and third films, we fans get what we've supposedly been clamoring for, a resolution to his relationship with Marion -- or at least that's what Harry Knowles has been clamoring for:
Then there’s Indy’s reaction to seeing Marion for the first time. I couldn’t describe it to save my life. It’s about 40 different emotions all at once. And only Harrison Ford’s face could deliver that… effortlessly. And at the same time – there’s Marion’s reaction – and ya know… It’s a combination of relief & joy. When you’ve been captured by evil agents of the Soviet Empire and are threatened at Gunpoint… You want your life in the hands of someone that loves you like Indiana Jones.

Honestly at that moment – that second of connection between the two of them. I honestly haven’t had the emotional impact anything like it in years. That look shared between them… suddenly it wasn’t just the entirety of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK – but suddenly it was a flood of what probably happened between that film and LAST CRUSADE. And you could tell that they fought… my god, it’s Indy and Marion. It’d be a sad world in which they didn’t fight. They’re Lions in Human form – courageous, passionate and tough as hell.
But, seriously, there are two basic rules for action films: no wives/girlfriends and no children.  Every single action film with those two elements has been awful. Domestic equality ruined Schwarzenegger's career (he never recovered from True Lies). Don't get me wrong, it's okay to have them as victims, waiting to be rescued, or when their deaths serve as the basis for vengeance, but never as agents of action. This isn't masculinist, however; there's nothing better than a female-fronted actioner with the heroine wielding blades and/or guns, but her family either has to be annihilated at the start of the film, or suffering from torture for the better part of its running time.

Well, I'm rambling. In summary, Indiana Jones 4 made me want to watch the new Rambo dvd, so I did.

The reduction is complete: Indiana Jones and His Boring Domestic Problems

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Cinema Criticism (32), Indiana Jones (4), Summer Movies (9), Dvd Criticism (26)