12 May 2009

42. Raiders of the Lost Ark

Like a lot of folks, I have a knee-jerk reaction to Steven Spielberg. When I heard about his movies, I think, "Ah, whatever. Fuck that guy. He's overrated."

I think I'm just starting to get over that.

Between watching "Jaws" for the first time and now watching this movie with fresh eyes, I can see the appeal. Or maybe I'm getting older and less pretentious and I realize that a movie can be entertaining and broadly appealing and still artful.

The main thing I like about this movie is what I like about older, classical Hollywood shows: it takes interesting, idiosyncratic characters and puts them in an economically told story. They make it look easy when it is anything but, but that's Hollywood in a nutshell from what I can tell.

The movie starts out with intrigue, mystery. Where are we? Why are we in the jungle? Who is our hero? He doesn't talk much, gets a great introduction, and already we're into the story, searching for an artifact. Throughout this 10-minute set-piece, we're also LEARNING ABOUT THE CHARACTER. This is becoming more and more important as I watch these movies: they are planting things that will later pay-off. Like what? Like the bullwhip. Like the snakes. Like Indy going to ANY lengths for an artifact. Like Belloch besting Indy again.

Notice also: there's the rhythm and release. And they escalate it so that it happens almost every few seconds. Tension is built, diffused; Indy gets away, only to find it isn't that easy. He removes the idol, takes a breath, then the walls come crumbling down. He jumps across a chasm, then slips down, then grabs a branch. We know he'll always make it in the end, but we never know if he'll make it moment to moment.

In other words, the beginning of the movie is a microcosm of what will happen in the rest of the film. It's almost like the film's thesis statement: this is what I'm going to show you, and if you're paying attention, it will all be right here for you. So relax: with Spielberg, you're in the hands of a master.

The reason he's a master is because he is constantly fucking with you as an audience member. He's playing games with you at every moment, and he knows how to do it well, and he gets great joy out of it. And so do you. Nothing wrong with that.

So: we get the great 10 minute intro, and then the reveal: he's a professor! He wears glasses! He's like Clark Kent to his previous incarnation of Superman. Great. We get a long exposition in dialogue scene, but it works because we've just had our hearts racing already with the previous stuff, so we could use a breather. Plus, he's a professor. Of course he's going to teach us something!

He gets the go-ahead, and at the end of act 1, he's off to find the Ark. And he does, but not before he reconnects with his old flame, a hard-drinking woman in Nepal; not before he almost eats a poisoned date; not before he has to confront his snake issue head-on; not before he has to fight a German strong-arm; not before he shoots a swords-man; not before he hops on a submarine; not before he gets the girl again. In short, not before he becomes -- or remains -- a hero, and all the twists and turns of the rollercoaster that entails.

You know the details and I don't have to fully recap it for you, but watching it again with my pen and paper and my copious note-taking, I was struck with how well this movie was plotted and structured, how expertly we are played. There was recently released a .pdf of Lucas, Spielberg and Kasdan talking about the creation of this movie, and it is a doozy. You realize how much thought, how much effort, how much work really goes into something that we think of as puffy, light and fun. But they knew exactly what they were doing, and they did it well: after all, a mere piece of "entertainment" is considered one of the best screenplays ever written, and thus is on this list.


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