Raiders of the Lost Ark – A Look Back

The big new movie this week is “The Mummy,” starring Tom Cruise, and, frankly, it looks dreadful. It’s also the directorial debut of Alex Kurtzman whose previous work as a writer (“Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Transformers,” the list of breathtaking garbage etceteras from there) I truly loathe. So, I didn’t feel like paying for and wasting time on it.

But I really want to keep up a schedule of a review/essay a week for this blog. As I searched the movie releases, nothing caught my fancy. I was sharing this conundrum with my brother when he suggested, “Why don’t you write about ‘Raiders’?”

Indy 1You see, we recently attended a special showing of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” a 35mm presentation at my (invaluable) local, independent cinema. And you know, “The Mummy” has a bit of an Indy-ish vibe going for it, with a partial setting in the Middle East and a roguish, Khaki-clad hero at its center. It’s a tenuous connection at best but I’m using it as a jumping off point anyway because you know what? I really do want to talk about what it was like watching “Raiders” close to 40 years after its release.

I live in Miami, a city known for its hip now-ness, so I was happily surprised to find a midnight screening of an “old” movie (I’m nearing 40, that’s not old, right? Right?!) packed with people. It was so full that two rows of folding lawn chairs were added to the front to accommodate the number of people who showed up. The regular seats at the Coral Gables Art Cinema aren’t the most comfortable to begin with, too narrow, too short, but I was practically elated to be sitting in one of those instead of a picnic chair for the duration of the movie. It’s a good thing to get to a movie early.

The lights dimmed and 30 minutes of previews did not commence. Whew! Instead, the classic Paramount Studios logo came up immediately. No fancy digital gloss this time, no stars gliding across a reflective river before settling above a mountain. Just an old-school painting. Maybe the background clouds moved, but that was it. Like I said, classic. Maybe a little too much so.

Paramount Pictures Logo

Even though we were promised by that evening’s host that the film’s print was relatively new, struck back in 2012, and that it looked “awesome!”, when that logo faded in, it was so grainy and scratched, I thought I had stumbled into a grindhouse theater. Maybe it’s because I’m so used to digital presentations, but there definitely was a moment where my brain screamed, “This looks awful!” But as the logo faded out, so did my anxiety. The jungles of South America appeared. The scratches subsided. And the grain, well, that remained. But it gave the movie an ineffable quality. I was transported. It was 1981 and I was watching the Indiana Jones for the first time.

It’s like listening to vinyl; the faint popping and hissing distract at first, but then the analog sound somehow feels deeper. It surrounds you. Film grain has that same effect. Yes, my Blu-ray copy of “Raiders” looks better. The colors are deeper and the visuals crisper. It’s great. But it still doesn’t compare with seeing a classic projection as light tears through film and transports its images to the screen. That’s what a movie’s supposed to look like.

And there’s nothing like seeing a movie in a packed theater. Sure, I love watching them at home also. I’m calmer. I can put me legs where I want to (though I still somehow end up in a contorted position that I can’t explain, even to myself), and I don’t have to deal with cell phone wielding idiots. But sitting with a bunch of strangers and sharing an experience is just, you know, awesome. When Harrison Ford’s Indy faces down a scabbard wielding villain and just ingloriously shoots him, the audience’s whooping laughter and applause made that great moment even more electric, and that can’t be recreated at home.

What struck me most when watching the movie from beginning to end for the first time in a while, is how lean it is, especially when compared to its sequels. It really is a machine that keeps on rolling, yet it doesn’t feel empty. Between Lawrence Kasdan’s writing and the acting, the movie manages to suggest depth without overstating anything. For example, Indy’s relationship to love interest, Marion (Karen Allen), is never explained in detail, but you learn all you need to know about Indy’s feelings for her when he simply hesitates before saying her name for the first time.

Indy 2

It’s what I initially disliked about the film when I first saw it as a wee kid. I watched the original trilogy out of order with “Temple of Doom” and “Last Crusade” first. “Crusade” especially is goofier and more in-your-face. That really appealed to me then, and when I saw the grittier “Raiders” soon after, I initially balked.  He was a quieter, more mysterious Indy than in the later movies, and I originally mistook that as emptier. Turns out, he’s just subtler, something I couldn’t grasp as a child.

Time and age, though, rectified that reaction. But I was still surprised this time around by how funny Indy still is and how goofy the movie is when it wants to be. A chase sequence through an Egyptian market is played more for laughs than excitement, which is accentuated by John Williams’s buoyant score. But it still doesn’t feel as campy as some of the action in the later films. In some ways, “Raiders” may not be that different from its successors, but director Steven Spielberg is more reserved and shows more resistance to hamming things up here, which is probably why it’s now my favorite of the trilogy of films (What? There’s a fourth film?).

It’s also a meaner movie. Well, no, “Temple of Doom” is, but again that’s couched within the goofier Spielberg, so it’s not as apparent; though, it was apparent enough that the one-two punch of “Temple” and “Gremlins” in 1984 forced the MPAA to create a PG-13 rating. PG was simply too ridiculous for those movies. But it also is for “Raiders.” One villain is set on fire and Indy mercy kills him, shooting him in the head. At first, he just stands there, half melted, it looks like, in front of Marion. Then blood spurts out of his forehead and he slumps to the ground. And in the film’s finale, several characters actually do melt, in long takes that truly showcase the gore, with one character exploding outward, viscera flying at the camera.  Even as an adult, sitting in that movie theater, the violence that stood out to me as a boy still shocked some 30 odd years later. But it’s an appealing kind of shock, like what we experience in a good horror film.

Indy 3

If there’s something I didn’t like about the movie, it’s the casting. No, the cast is great, but I do have a problem with London-born Alfred Molina playing a Hispanic character (complete with a thick accent) and Welsh John Rhys-Davies playing the Egyptian Sallah. I don’t want to complain too much because they’re both memorable in their roles. But, I don’t know, it’s just not cool. What I really can’t deal with, though, is something I never noticed before. Some of the background villains are clearly white dudes made to look Asian with make-up. True, none of those actors have speaking roles, but on the big screen they really stand out, even when they’re in the back of the frame, and it’s embarrassing. But, you know, different times, and, sadly, we still pull some of that stuff now.

Other than that hiccup, the movie still holds up. It’s as great a ride as ever. And as the lights came back up in the theater, it was close to 2 am in the morning. I was tired, and the bleary eyes around me confirmed the same was true for the rest of the audience, but we all had these big grins on our faces. We knew we had experienced something special together.

-Pavel Klein












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