Moving Pictures
Sep 10, 2012, 06:13AM

Temple of Dumb

Watching Indiana Jones again, unfortunately.

Temple of doom.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark recently for the first time in probably 30 years. My son wanted to see it, and I had fond memories of it, so my wife and I figured what the heck. It can't be that bad, right?

Wrong.  My son loved it, of course; hairs-breadth escapes, chase sequences, hairs-breadth escapes, chase sequences, monkey reaction shots—he was happy. For adults though, there's nothing there. The special effects rush on with a fatuous remorselessness, while the actors stand around looking pretty and lightly stunned (Harrison Ford; Karen Allen as the love interest) or else hamming up their ethnic stereotypes for all they're worth (Paul Freeman as the evil Nazi; John Rhys-Davies as the good Arab second banana). The chase sequences are dazzlingly fluid… but the very fluidity robs them of much of their joy. The characters seem like they're locked in a video game… or, perhaps more accurately, in a giant slick advertisement for their own movie. It's a film as its own trailer.

If it really were just one big, meaningless chase sequence, the film would simply be boring. Unfortunately, the shards of plot rather helplessly touch on real-world issues, in the context of which the glibness becomes actively offensive. Indiana Jones is portrayed as brave and true for looting his way across the world's lesser cultures… not excluding Judaism, which is portrayed as a kind of handy magic totem, for summoning special effects and banishing Nazis.  Steven Spielberg himself is Jewish, of course—which makes the Orientalism directed at his own people either more forgivable or more utterly, stupidly shameless, depending on how you want to look at it.

My wife and I were sufficiently vocally dubious throughout the feature that our son picked up on some of the problems as well. At the end of the film, he looked at us and said, "Indiana Jones is kind of a bad guy, right? He robs tombs." We agreed that this was the case. It's nice to pass on our cranky liberal values… though the boy still liked the movie. Maybe if he watches it again in 30 years he'll change his mind. 

  • Noah, half the point of Raiders has always been that Indy is a shitty hero. He robs graves, it's implied he slept with Karen Allen when she was underage, and he's utterly useless to ever stop the villains. He has to be saved by god at the end. The last shot of the film purposefully underlines how pointless an affair it all was. I think you're blinding yourself to the self-awareness and genre-mockery the film indulges in. Plus, c'mon, Harrison Ford is charming as shit when he's flustered.

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  • Also, as an adult, I resent the implication that monkey reaction shots aren't for me.

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  • Glib self-awareness and genre mockery just reifies the overall depressing glibness. Racism as cutesy winking nostalgia is still racism, and Ford's raffish despicability is stil, as you suggest, meant to be cute. //But the monkey reaction shots are fun.

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  • I'll spot you the racism -- at the very least the Sneering Yellow Peril Japanese guy, and probably the Middle East orientalism in general. But in terms of glib...I don't know if that really registers as a relevant insult to lob at a movie that functions so stridently on a surface level. Saying that Raiders is glib as a critique is sort of like viciously asserting that the New York Times is printed on cheap paper.

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  • No; that analogy doesn't work. If I was accusing Raiders of having been on a television set when I watched it, that would be like sneering at the times for its paper quality.//You're certainly welcome to argue that you don't think that glibness is a fault; I think lots of people like Spielberg's glibness. I find it repulsive...especially when it's coupled with supposedly meaningful subject matter, as in Minority Report or Schindler's List, but also and even in his slight pieces, like raiders or tintin. I just find it smug and precious and relentlessly empty-headed. But different strokes, as they say....

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  • Again, I'll give you the glibness + meaningful subject matter. Minority Report gives me hives and I've never gotten up the stomach to sit through Schindler. When it comes to frothy, poppy, action-adventure, though, I can't really process it as something to complain about. It seems like forcing a work to live up to an arbitrary set of expectations rather than experiencing it on its own terms. On cheap paper. HA!

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