Showtime has been showing the four Indiana Jones movies. I love watching them—even the ones I like less (more below)—because Spielberg’s direction is endlessly delightful not to mention educational.
There are two different “schools” of directing, although I tend to think there are three: 1) Camera. 2) Performance. And when you put those two together: 3) Storytelling.
Spielberg is the closest we’ll ever have to a Mozart of directing. His judgment and taste in composition, blocking, performance and storytelling are consistently the best of anybody, ever. He’s just a genius and a thrill to watch. Please allow Soderbergh to explain this way better than I can.
The four Indy movies:
Obviously the first is the best. It is darn near perfect (even with that bouncing rubber rock). My friend Doug Schwartz, who mastered most of our FSM CDs, told me a story of his dad, Willie Schwartz (a session musician, he played flute for Mancini, among others) coming home one day, having seen Raiders by himself fairly early in its run when it was just the “new Spielberg movie” with a funny title. “I just saw the greatest movie I have ever seen in my life,” he said, awestruck, or something to that effect.
It’s amazing to think they almost did this with Tom Selleck, a durable TV star, but no Harrison Ford. There’s only one Harrison Ford. I remember being eight years old, thinking, “I want to grow up to be that guy.” He was just the coolest, handsomest, most lovable movie star ever, with the scar and the grin and the cool hair. He was, in a way, like an action hero-version of my father, a Jewish doctor on Martha’s Vineyard. Ford’s father was Irish, and his mother Jewish, and he said that he was, as a man, Irish, but as an actor, Jewish. I agree! (At the time, our friends compared my dad more often to Woody Allen.)
My dad and mom in the 1980s (my mom sort of has a Karen Allen thing?):
Reminder: Do not try to reboot a Harrison Ford character with any actor! Poor Alden Ehrenreich. We all know what young Harrison Ford is like, because we grew up with him! Although now that I’m remembering, River Phoenix was terrific as Young Indy—but he wasn’t actually replacing Ford.
My enduring memory of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is sitting in the Capawock Theater in Vineyard Haven on opening weekend in 1984—the smallest of the four theaters on Martha’s Vineyard—with a bunch of rowdy kids as, for some reason, the 7pm show was 50 minutes late to start. It was overwhelming heat, humidity, the smell of popcorn, turning-around-to-talk-to-the-other kids, and popping Junior Mints. To this day, I can feel the sensation of the lumpy chair springs as we waited for 50 unexplained minutes.
Temple of Doom itself—as a kid, I loved it, but remember thinking the heart-extraction was a bit much. (After blowback from this and Gremlins, the PG-13 rating was hastily invented.) In hindsight, Spielberg and Lucas both admitted that this was their “angry divorce movie” (meaning to their first wives, not each other) and I think that’s the nicest way to put it. It’s just uncharacteristically mean-spirited—hey, let’s punch a waitress in the face for a laugh!
Last Crusade I love, and it’s almost as wonderful as the first movie, thanks to Sean Connery and the father-son relationship. When I saw it in 1989 I was disappointed at Williams’ relatively light use of the Raiders march, and more reserved, formal tone to the score. In hindsight, I love it. Absolutely fabulous.
When I was in college, I discovered a book (I forget how) of essays critiquing pop culture, Seeing Through Movies, edited by Mark Crispin Miller. Most movie fans will probably hate this book because all it does is argue that everything we love from our childhoods is terrible and ruining society. The chapter on Star Wars and Indiana Jones is about how the films are conservative, regressive, and infantilizing of the audience. I don’t have the time and brain space to explain the arguments or weigh in with my own take on it right now. But this book opened my eyes to all kinds of film and cultural criticism and I absolutely recommend it.
Crystal Skull I saw in a theater in Hollywood and remember thinking, okay, I like it more than I thought I would…but having seen it again within the past few months, what sticks out is—whose story is this? Indy’s? The kid’s? Marion’s? The Skull’s? The Russian lady’s? Raiders works because it’s the greatest adventure movie ever—and Indy arcs from being a mercenary to a believer. Last Crusade works because Indy and his dad go from estrangement to reconciliation. Temple of Doom is just a romp; Indy’s arc, if anything, is just a repeat of that from the first movie.
But Crystal Skull…I guess it’s about the family coming (back) together? But the fridge thing crosses the line from winking at the audience, to mocking us. I quite liked the first half of Crystal Skull more than the second, with Spielberg’s fascination with and skill at recreating the 1950s. It is a shame that Shia LaBeouf’s demons seem to be getting the best of him, because he is so incredibly talented—but he plays Mutt with too much angst.
This is a good reminder, to myself, that the last thing I want to do with this blog is set a bunch of time bombs that might eventually blow up my career. To the extent that I’m occasionally criticizing things, I’m just saying what I would reasonably say in a meeting if anybody asked me—or what the participants, themselves, likely know to be true. Or at least, I hope that’s the case!
James Mangold is a terrific director and I’ll be excited to see Indy 5. Although it does seem that Conan O’Brien’s prophecy from a 2000 interview with Ford is coming true: the title will be Indiana Jones and the Comfortable Bed.