American Imperialism New Wave (AKA Ronald Reagan New Wave Part Deux): Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark


Updated June 2016

After the completion of my American New Wave series, I found myself hungry for more, and with the rather stark delineation of mainstream ’70s American and ’80s American cinema, continuing chronologically seemed a fair idea indeed for it’s ease of access without necessarily plumbing the same self-consciously raw, arty cinema I generally stuck with to define American film during the 1970s. This is an opportunity for me to plum an type of film I have almost entirely avoided thus far for the purposes of this blog: classic genre filmmaking, or pop fare as we call it when we’re feeling particularly feisty. The series will continue, albeit with a generally more slap-dash rule set fitting the parameters of the generally lighter, airier cinema of the ’80s like a glove. Essentially, I’ll go by year, but within each year, I can cover one film in depth, or a few in smaller review format, or any mix in between. Whatever suits my boat, for, after-all, personal satisfaction was de rigueur in the halcyon ’80s, wasn’t it?

As for publication schedule, It’ll be more compact, a sort of Holiday treat to myself where I get to focus on “fun” movies in place of all the doom and gloom I force upon myself cinematically (I’m such a masochist aren’t I?). In other words, I want to keep things coming fast and loose, to give myself a filmic sugar rush, and to have a little fun with it. My estimation will be the series will continue into the very early ’90s (being that the first few years of the ’90s were basically the ’80s culturally and cinematically anyway, before the New American Independent bubble really blew up big time mid decade). And I’d like to have it all done by the New Year, or slightly afterward. So that’s one month of the poppiest pop I can find. Survival, without cavities, is not an option. And do excuse the titles; sometimes I like to have fun with myself, even against myself. The titles are Holiday Present Part B. 

Firstly, it must be said before anything else, Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark is a fairly stupendous lark, a work of cheerful insouciance at minimum, and a sky-high stratosphere-piercing pop machine at best.  As a pure action-adventure, it’s an apex of economical storytelling, from-the-hip visual stylization, and  gloriously unstabilized anarchy that owes as much to Chuck Jones (of Looney Tunes fame) as John Huston. This is true not only for its wit and physicality (Chuck Jones was a maestro of movement above all), but in how it is a master-class in editing and framing on-screen action (and it climaxes with a wry, none-too-subtle jab at the protagonist that wouldn’t be out of home in either malevolent John Houston molasses or a spring-stepping Chuck Jones firecracker). Almost unthinkably so thirty years on, it is palpably, vigorously indebted to the Midnight Cinema tradition, the so-called reprobate genres epitomized not only by Jones but more live-bodied directors like Fritz Lang. In straying perilously near the B-serial, it unearths a morbidity that stresses how – 21st century bloodlust aside – children’s entertainment was quite a bit more scarlet in the olden days. Populist though it may be, the thing about Raiders is how it turns the disreputable into the divine.

A mid-film sequence, a shoot-out in a bar, is just the bee’s knees: brutal, barren, shocked to the core, and grimy in the best ’40s B-movie sense of the word. A sloppy, scrappy, angry smack-down, the scene still carves out time for a  beguiling, mystifying homage to another more respectable classic that is essentially a B-movie doctored up with all manner of airs (Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, need I say more?). Our protagonist, but not hero, Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford, gloriously reprobate) walks into a dive bar owned by his old flame Marion (Karen Allen). Director Steven Spielberg suffuses the screen with a swampy mist, sturm, und drang, and the Nazis who antagonize the film arrive like specters from the underworld, before everything eventually erupts in a cataclysm of human confrontation. Watching the sequence, or any sequence in the first Indy film, the piercing entertainment almost distracts from how well-crafted the piece is as a narrative. Lithe and cunning, Raiders invests a surprising amount of trust in its audience, carving out space to be its best self without any of the cloying sentimentality or exposition of the typical children’s film. Unlike the lead-footed, bog-standard colossus of the modern day summer picture, Raiders is always flying up in the air, even when it’s getting its face pounded into the ground.

On the surface, it’s all as expected, with a bright and valiant great white knight in Indiana Jones set out to save the day by rescuing the long-lost Ark of the Covenant (which the film is quick to remind us carried the original Ten Commandments, assuming you follow that sort of thing) from its sandy tomb in the Middle East. The only problem: Nazis, and what Nazis they are, headed by Ronald Lacey as Major Arnold Toht in a deliciously demented and screechy performance reminiscent of Peter Lorre (the similarity, incidentally, is why he was cast, after both Klaus Kinski and Roman Polanski disagreed or dropped out, both of whom were better actors but probably too conventionally nuanced for the nebbish role on display here).

But Indy’s heroism is actually a ruse for the film, a catalyst for its own dissection of adventure cinema tropes without ever descending into the muck of the “moral map” or the “message picture”. The venomous, capricious final sequence – a toxic swig of protoplasmic body horror  – is all the more bracing because of how passive Indy is throughout it. His humility, and his humility alone, saves him from the cruel efficiency of the Nazi death machine, a vastly more capable force than Jones is who rendered moot as an adventurer implicitly. That is, when he isn’t out and out being pummeled by the film around him.

Ultimately, Indy’s credibility is a currency in Raiders, his cultural capital as a white hero accrued in the audience’s mental map of action cinema and expended right as the film begins with an in-media-res stinger that Indy just manages to survive, sans prize. Two hours later, there’s no forward movement to the character. The Indy at the end of the film is the Indy at the beginning of the film: a raffish, often churlish, sometimes even ghoulish rapscallion whose roguishness is more closely aligned with a Bogart character than any modern day hero. Without even descending into curdled, obvious self-serving nihilism or trying to save Indy through existential commentary on his soul, Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay excoriates Indy from beginning to end. A stinging inversion of the Enlightenment individualism cementing most Western pop fiction, the denouement of Raiders happens in spite of Indy, not because of him.  Had Indy never even trespassed into the picture, everything would have occurred roughly as-is.

This is, pointedly, not the kind of deviant subversion that distances Indy from its progenitors and sneers at them from above – rather, it embraces the lunacy of its forebears and elevates them to a sort of garish art form. So the two arch-pop fairies, Spielberg and George Lucas, were smitten with the faults in their stars; there’s a surfeit of dry comedy, but no irony, no disgust, no distrust. In their filmmaking, they do not seek to expose or revel in the badness of the adventure serial, but to give it the best whirl they possibly could circa 1981 – as a directorial effort, it is one of the most stunning and exactingly re-created explorations of a specific genre of film ever concocted, with shots and sets and performance ticks palpably staging a coup with their cinematic past. Even the grain of the film deceptively time stamps it at an earlier date than its 1981 roots. Because of this, with the gung-ho adolescent fervor of the kids they used to be when they likely flocked to these old adventure serials, the joy of watching Raiders is intimately in harmony with the joy Spielberg and Lucas’ joy dreaming it up. It channels a youth that the movies bestow upon us all, and it renders this youth eternal.

Score: 10/10


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