High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Misanthropology: Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

So, the M's diet isn't nearly so restricted as it was earlier this year, but more adventurous meals still have the faintest hint of pins and needles to them. For a while, his eyes have been on the prize of Fried Chicken Mondays at West Town Tavern. When we realized that my birthday fell not just on a Monday, but on the very last Champagne and Fried Chicken Monday, our plan was clear and Crisp as Dom PĂ©rignon '99.

Dinner was, of course, fantastic. I started with the Crispy Soft Shelled Crab BLT. Amazing and probably more difficult to eat if one was not committed to shoving one's entire face into the dish and commencing to chow. Fortunately, I am hampered by table manners. M had the flat bread, we both had the chicken, I had the Dom (ZOMG! So. Beautiful. And such a fantastic pairing with the fried chicken). For dessert, the Devil's Food cake with caramel ice cream for moi, and the strawberry rhubarb tart for him. Yum, yum, and again yum.

Time permitting, we figured we'd take in a movie after dinner, and things worked out conveniently for us to see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at Webster Place (which has been remodeled, either before or after becoming a Kerasotes Theater, I do not know, but the chairs are large and cushy and the arm rests go up).

As for the movie, it won't go down as the most triumphant return of a franchise, but it's entertaining enough. I actually loved the first 20 minutes or so on the strength of the look alone. I loved the toasted look of the lighting, the overly crisp lines of the Russians' costumes, the deliberate 2-dimensionality of the warehouse's interiors and exteriors, as well as the slightly over-the-top coloring to everything. It all worked together to place the story not just in the '50s, but to place Indy in an entirely new timeframe. I think this Jausz Kaminski kid could go far.

I think I might be an easy mark, though, because, despite its stagey-ness, I was thrilled every bit as much as Spielberg wanted me to be by seeing Indy's shadow on the car just a moment before we get to see the man himself.

For the most part, I liked the spin on archetypes, too. Even before the real action starts to unfold, the drag race between the lead car in the army convoy and the refugees from American Graffiti lets us know that the players in this movie will be different. Shia LaBeouf's The Wild One bit in the train station may have crossed the line between homage and slavish fanboying, but if one must introduce the new generation, as it seems Lucas, Spielberg, and Screenwriter David Koepp seemed to feel they must, locating it in the '50s and running with such a familiar archetype wasn't the worst decision they could have made.

The introduction of the Red Menaces as the new archetypal villain is less successful, but not for lack of effort. Part of the problem is the year: It's 1957. I'm certainly not trying to argue that the HUAC era and McCarthyism died out promptly by 1954, but the urgency of it is lacking, and not even Jim Broadbent could make me believe it wasn't. (And I have been eager to believe Jim Broadbent since he first asked "WHAT is he Looiiikkke in Bayyyyyyeeed?")

Disappointingly, they seemed to think that the entire weight of the villains' characterization could rest on the assets of Cate Blanchette in military drag, and I will say that her gauntlets in the opening might have been able to carry a lot of weight. But we end up knowing very little about her, and there's fairly substantial ambiguity about some important things that establish the rules of the universe in this installment. Can she, in fact, read minds? Can anyone?

On a related note, I don't object to aliens as a matter of principle. It's a good thing that I didn't know about the aliens going in, because I would have been worried about the racist bullshit Chariots of the Gods crap. A lot. I do object to aliens with so little plan and/or mission statement that they make the Orii look like the urban planners of early Indus Valley civilization. We never know who they are (except for Cate's clunky, out-of-the-blue dialogical exposition about hive minds), why they're here (other than to be archaeologists as terrible, without method, and mired in fucked-up classical archaeology's principles as Indy himself is) or what the shit is up with salting the earth upon their departure.

That said, I was relieved that the indigenous folks with artificially modified crania (a subject that is near and dear to my heart) were not, in fact, aliens themselves (they really skirt the edge of alien origin for the Nasca lines, though); I was relieved that the people to whom the glorious and powerful aliens gave farming, aqueducts, and other technology that is SO COOL and SO ADVANCED that we can't even TELL YOU WHAT IT WAS, but BOY is it SPIFFY! were fictional/mythological, rather than being an actual cultural group.

And speaking of culture, boy HOWDY is that a mess.

To: Professor Henry Jones, Jr.
From: ME
Re: Stop talking wrong culture history

(1) Peru is notable for many things. Not being in Mesoamerica is one of them.
(2) Not to dip into environmental determinism or anything (you certainly have that covered), but your people occupying mountainous areas are almost never known for running around in nothing but loincloths. If they did, we probably would not know about them, as this would be a career-limiting move in terms of cultural persistence.
(3) The Incas did not invent Quechua. Certainly they are a Quechua-speaking group. Certainly it was the language of the empire, but they didn't make it up.
(4) It's hard to know where, exactly, y'all end up, geographically speaking: The "natives" (classy, by the way, to let the Russians gun them down) rather look like Yanomamo (and if they are, they're a long way from home, yuppie boy), but they've apparently picked up a taste for scarification from somewhere else, and their blowguns and Capoeira-inspired superfly martial arts moves are from another area of Brazil and/or the lowland Amazon entirely.
(5) Wherever it is you are supposed to be, Mayan is going to be of no help whatsoever. Really. I promise.
(6) An offhand reference to Vere Gordon Childe does not qualify you as a natural-history-based, wild-for-context New World Archaeologist, you dirty, dirty classical archaeology bastard. (But you are still totally my Vintagey Serial Archaeologist Boyfriend. 4-EVAR!)
(7) Dude. Don't do that to a mummy. Ever. Not even to a completely silly, made-up Conquistador mummy. Just don't.

Seriously, that was wronger culture stuff than is usual (although the First Look stuff about the next Mummy irritated me more), but as long as one ignores that, the movie is plenty of fun overall.

I wish Indy and Marion had more to do together. I just love Karen Allen, and god knows I've loved the ass-kicking Marian for a long time. The moments they did get were nice enough (although the "They weren't you, honey," moment was too obvious and too drawn out). I get that this movie is really about eras ending, torches passing, and new archetypes emerging, still I had some resentment for the amount of time spent on the father/son issue, as it seemed inversely proportional to the time spent on a romance that I really love.

LaBeouf was fine, given that they didn't make the mistake of giving him too much character material to work with. I was grateful that no one pulled off his pants.

Also on the lack of characterization front, it's hard to be cranky about a reprise of John Hurt's role as the Fool in Olivier's Lear, but it would have been a kind attention to write a part for such an esteemed and talented actor. (Am I wrong to find it amusing that as late as April 5 of this year, the LA Times wrongly reported the role Hurt was playing?) Also, is it possible that only I really wanted the damned qipu he wears around his neck for the whole damned movie to become relevant in some damned way? Ok, so that's just me, then. FINE!

But the good news is they didn't forget to write Indy, and really, we're all here for the man himself, nu? Way back last year, I got my first glimpse of Harrison Ford back in costume over at It was an incredible rush. There is nothing I don't love about that photo, and Ford's performance lives up to both it and to the living, breathing Indy.

The dialogue he has with BeoMac at the beginning is almost unnecessary, because everything about his performance communicates that this is an Indy who is slowing down. Every action sequence has a keener edge because you know he's pulling it off (or failing too, and I loved the epic fail of the whip stunt in the first action sequence) more through sheer force of will than through the easy physicality that sustained him through Raiders and Last Crusade. And as ridiculous as the surreal Atomic Bomb test scene was (seriously, Howdy Doody playing for no good reason on the television of the Mannequin family was just gratuitous), Ford's plays that slightly-comic-panic-before-the-gonzo-plan so well, and it's so big a part of Indy's charm.

It's by no means the best film in the franchise, but it is certainly a credit to it. As Roger Ebert put it: "I can say that if you liked the other Indiana Jones movies, you will like this one, and that if you did not, there is no talking to you."

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