Monday, May 19, 2008


The following is my contribution to Cerebral Mastication's Indiana Jones Blog-a-Thon.

Ask the average person what makes the Indiana Jones movies so awesome and they'll probably tell you it's the action, the special effects, the humor, Harrison Ford, the hat and the whip and so on and so forth. One thing people don't talk about as much, but is just as crucial to Indy's enduring appeal: horrifying violence.

While one of the main charms in the Indy movies is their view of the world as a place where wondrous, even magical things are waiting to be discovered - Dr. Jones deserves a world of credit for making archaeology look cool and sexy - it's also a world of unknown horrors waiting to snare unsuspecting adventurers. From the surprisingly (in retrospect) somber opening moments of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy's adventures are defined less by the MacGuffins he pursues than by the always-escalating death traps he manages to evade even as mere mortals like Alfred Molina's greedy Sapito/Satipo/Saripo are punished for their haste and hubris with arrows through the head (and not in a goofy, Steve Martin way). If Raiders is an escapist masterpiece, its largely because Spielberg and Lucas are constantly raising the stakes in an often literal sense. Raiders realizes our most nightmarish fears (the shot of a boaconstrictor slithering out of a desiccated corpse's mouth still gives me the willies) even as it thrills and delights us; it's this undercurrent of darkness, the tension between fear and awe, that gives Spielberg's pop fantasies resonance. This is nowhere more evident than in Raiders' climax, an orgasmic display of melting flesh and exploding heads brought to us courtesy of a pissed-off Old Testament God - while it's every bit as graphic as a similar scene in the same year's Scanners, Cronenberg's film is perceived as more disturbing for its emphasis on bodily horror. In Raiders the gore is morally justifiable (as it's generally agreed that Nazis should explode), so it's considered fun for the whole family and becomes, along with Jaws, a child's introduction to the red, red kroovy.

Still, Raiders is as harmless as a Flash Gordon serial compared to its borderline-nihilistic prequel. Appreciating the much-maligned Temple of Doom has a lot to do with the age at which one first saw it; where an adult might see a cynical, gratuitous exercise in sadism, my four-year-old self could only see the coolest haunted house ever. The highlight, of course, was the infamous heart-ripping scene that triggered so much parental ire - I knew I was seeing something terribly wrong, something I wasn't supposed to see, but in a PG movie (my four-year-old brain considered the ratings system to be God's Law). I was grossed-out yet I was exhilarated by the scene's visceral impact, and I wasn't the only one. I've often wondered if the outcry over Temple of Doom's darkness and the subsequent creation of the PG-13 rating was the result of kids being frightened or parents' startled, Tom Atkins-in-Creepshow realization that their kids were actually enjoying this demented crap.

Last Crusade is relatively tame, except for the awesome moment when Grail-seeker Donovan chooses poorly and rapidly ages and disintegrates in glorious stop-motion, and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull looks like it will follow in its predecessor's gentler vein. And that's understandable; times have changed, and parents have become more precious about what their kids are "exposed" to - I remember being completely baffled by the oft-repeated question of whether Jurassic Park was appropriate for kids, because I had seen, survived and loved movies like Alien, The Shining and Halloween before I could tie my shoes. And while that admittedly seems a bit strange to me now that I'm a parent (don't call DSS yet), I don't want Luna and TBD to be total sissies either. I look forward to a day five or six years from now, after enduring Shrek 5, when I teach the kids about how violence can be fun.


Anonymous said...

yeah,eh, I haven't paid a bunch of attenion to temple of Doom; Indy's ladyfriend struck me as too doofy, but seeing that picture of Kali Mal still fills me with a bit o morbid glee. ooh and some good news about indy 4: Av club gave it a B-.heh

Kat said...

unrelated to your post but: I've chosen trees. so long NY!

Anonymous said...

I've always thought that the withered Donovan (as seen in that photo) looks oddly like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future.