Thursday, January 12, 2006

"I don't know, I'm making this up as I go."

An apologia for Indiana Jones.

In one of my bits and pieces yesterday---I think it was actually a bit, but it might have been a piece---I lumped Indiana Jones in with other Right Wing bully boys and authoritarian thugs from movies of the 1980s like Rambo, the Terminator, and the characters played by Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal whose names don't matter because they were all just avatars of the same Right Wing God of Vengeance. Rambo and the Terminator had rudimentary personalities---as much personality as the screenwriters judged Stallone and Schwartzenegger were capable of portraying, at least---but that's because Rambo and the Terminator were initially conceived as heroes of actual stories. By the time Seagal and Van Damme got going, the moviemakers had figured out that the stories they were in didn't matter as narratives only as set-ups for action sequences and repetitions of the same adolescent male fantasies of the will to power, dominance, and vengeance.

It feels wrong to include Indy as a member of this gang. But I guess he does belong.

The only reason Dr Jones doesn't seem to fit in is that he's played Harrison Ford who played him against the type he actually was.

Ford gave Jones qualities the other thugs don't have.

He gets tired.

He feels pain, deeply. ("Dammit, Indy! Where doesn't it hurt?")

He seems to truly like his love interests.

Marion, anyway.

And he worries. He is chronically in doubt about his own chances of surival. Whatever mess he's in he never believes he's going to get out it. And when he does get out of it, he doesn't look triumphant or determined or even grimly relieved. He just looks exhausted, pained, stunned that he's still alive, and terribly worried, as if he's convinced that something else is coming right along to kill him. Which it is.

Ford's performance is the key to the movies and probably the reason for their success. Here's something mind-boggling to contemplate. The part of Indiana Jones was originally given to Tom Selleck. Selleck had to back out when CBS picked up Magnum P.I. I like Selleck. He'd have been a good Indy, but a different, more cheerful one, more of a swashbuckler, and therefore, when you got right down to it, it would have been harder to ignore what Indiana Jones actually is---a thief and a cold-blooded killer.

That the people he cold-bloodedly kills are bad guys and deserve to die and die violently and brutally is what marks Indy as a typical action-adventure hero of the time.

Indy's job in his movies is the same as Rambo's and Schwartzenegger's in theirs---draw the fire of the bad guys and then dole out "justice"---vengeance---in the form of terrific and punishing violence.

I wonder how many people remember that Indiana Jones was created by George Lucas, who turned over the directing of the saga to his friend Steven Speilberg because he was kind of busy at the moment with some other project. The introduction of Indy is an interesting contrast to the way Lucas introduced another hero whose story he was in the middle of telling then.

Forgive me. My head is full of Star Wars this week because the boys got the Revenge of the Sith DVD for Little Christmas and it was in heavy rotation all weekend.

Luke Skywalker is introduced in the very act of living up to his heroic code of honor.

"But I was going into Toshe Station to pick up some power converters!"

Everybody laughs at the unfortuante bleat with which Mark Hamill delivered that line. But it's an important moment.

Uncle Owen says, "You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done."

And Luke doesn't argue.

Right off we're shown a responsible and self-effacing young man who puts the needs of others and his duties ahead of his own dreams and desires.

In essence, he's already a Jedi.

I think the way Indiana's introduced---thwarting an attempt to murder him, perpetrating a daring theft, and then running for his life, then running for it again---is perfect for his movies. But there's nothing in the first 15 minutes of Raiders of the Lost Ark that shows Jones being a good guy and I can't think of a single moment in any of the three movies where Indy is asked, as Luke is several times, to put what's right ahead of what he wants.

Indy operates without a code. In fact, one of his signature lines whenever he's asked to explain himself is, "I don't know, I'm making this up as I go."

The scripts set it up so that what Indy wants is right and what is right is what Indy wants. Which is exactly the formula that defines right in all other action movies. Right is what the hero decides it is.

In the opening of Raiders nothing Indiana does marks him as a hero. We know he is one because we recognize that in all the movies Lucas and Speilberg are stealing from---excuse me, paying homage to---the character in Indy's situation is always the hero and in this case he's played by the guy who played Han Solo.

Later, he's opposed by the Nazis, and that doesn't just clinch it, it excuses Lucas and Speilberg from having to have Indy say or do anything to identify himself as a hero except kill Nazis.

Again, this is something Indy has in common with the other action heroes. His goodness is defined by his opposition to his enemies' evil. And their evil has no particular moral implications; its simply a matter of their wanting to kill the hero and the people the hero is charged with protecting, which then gives the hero license to kill them with impunity and and as violently and brutally as the scriptwriters and the director dare to imagine.

The Indiana Jones movies have much lower body counts than the Rambo movies and of course Indy never kills anybody who isn't already trying to kill him or his. But the scripts of most action movies are carefully constructed so that the hero is always acting in self-defense or to save an innocent. He never has a choice. It's kill or be killed. Which is a part of these movies' Right Wing appeal. There is no choice. The only way to deal with an enemy is by annihlating him. Whenever a hero appears to triumph before he's killed off the main villain, the villain does something---or says something---that forces the hero to finish him off.

Heroes are relentless, remorseless, and right because the scum deserves to die and if you don't kill him now you're just going to have to kill him later.

I think Lucas and Speilberg are both aware of what kind of monster they created with Indiana Jones and aren't all that happy about it.

Lucas did his best to reconfigure Indiana by with a backstory that gives him all the truly heroic ideals and qualities he never bothers to display in the movies. In the made for TV movies that make up The Chronicles of the Young Indiana Jones, Lucas shows Indiana learning over and over again important lessons about duty, responsibility, and self-sacrifice. The violence is toned down---as much as the violence in stories set in the trenches of World War I can be toned down---and not at all glorified. In fact, it's often presented as tragic and a mistake, and many times when Indy resorts to it he winds up not helping matters any, if not making the situation worse. He has to think and MacGyver his way out of situations his grown-up self shoots or punches his way out of.

And on top of everything else, the young Indiana learns how to be a real archeologist, a skill set and a discipline he is never seen practicing in any of the movies, much to his father Sean Connery's dismay.

Not only that, but Lucas took pains with the series to make it as historically accurate as a work of escapist fiction can be and kids watching it can learn a lot about World War I, the Russian Revolution, the history of jazz (!), and---in one of my favorite episodes---the early days of silent movie making.

They're also excellent travelogs.

And since Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wrapped, Speilberg seems to have devoted his career to creating a moral universe in which violence is an abomination and heroism a matter of thoughfulness and common decency.

No, I'm not about to read Munich as a critique of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Maybe Minority Report though.

Shakespeare's Sister makes some interesting points about her favorites among the newest crop of action heroes, Spidey, the Batman, and the X-men.


Post a Comment

<< Home