Thursday, May 22, 2008

Random Cracks of the Whip

In a matter of hours, I’ll be watching Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. As the minutes tick away until the big event, some random thoughts ...

What’s in a name?
As I said in my previous Indiana Jones post, I haven’t seen the trailer for the new movie (never mind the movie itself). So, who knows, as far as titles go maybe Indiana Jones & The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull will turn out to be a worthy mouthful. For the moment, though, it seems pretty lame. I know, I know: You’ve heard this before and thought it yourself. But what you might not know is that one the film’s working titles, according to IMDb, was Indiana Jones & The City Of The Gods. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems infinitely better. Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull is one of those titles that you can’t say without feeling like you’re leaving out a word or adding one that doesn’t belong. And even when said correctly, somehow it doesn’t quite ring true. Kind of like The Phantom Menace. Let’s hope it’s not an omen.

What’s in a face?
Watching Raiders Of The Lost Ark this week, I found myself fascinated by one of Arnold Toht’s henchmen, pictured below. Just look at that guy. What’s his deal? Was he unlucky in the gene lottery or is that a bad makeup job? And if it’s a bad makeup job, what’s the ethnicity of the actor, and, more importantly, what’s the ethnicity of the character? I’m sure someone should feel offended by this portrayal, I’m just not sure who or why.

Toht you so!
As far as I’m concerned, movie villains are best played by actors we’ve never seen before and will never see again. It makes their villainy all the more authentic, as if they couldn’t be any other way. That’s why Darth Vader is the greatest movie villain ever, because, sure, you can put James Earl Jones’ voice in The Lion King, but that black-masked figure that is the ultimate symbol of evil will never terrorize another story.

Also from that family of here-and-gone bad-guy creations is Raiders’ black-clad Toht, played by Ronald Lacey. Who? Exactly! Lacey died in 1991, and a quick scroll through his filmography at IMDb suggests that if I’ve seen him in any other speaking part it was probably within a 1984 episode of Magnum P.I. (not that I remember it). That said, Lacey did make a dialogue-free appearance in The Last Crusade, sitting in as an uncredited Heinrich Himmler in that Nazi book-burning sequence where Indy bumps into Hitler. As far as unrecognizable cameo casting goes, that’s absolutely brilliant! And what’s equally fun is to note that the previous year Lacey played Winston Churchill in a TV movie called The Great Escape II: The Untold Story. Digest that for a second: Churchill and then Himmler. That’s delicious juxtaposition! Yet it might not as good as this: In 1983, just after his frightful turn in Raiders, Lacey appeared in a Margot Kidder flick I’ve never heard of called Trenchcoat playing, no joke, “Princess Aida.” Huh? That might merit further investigation.

In the meantime, let’s pause long enough to pay tribute to Lacey’s portrayal of Toht – the character I think of every time I touch something that’s too hot to handle. Toht’s most memorable moments would have to include the chilling revelation of his scarred hand, the comedic bit with the collapsible coat hanger and the climactic face-melting. Yet Lacey’s best moment as an actor might be one where Toht in the background.

The scene in question comes late in Raiders when Indiana appears on a bluff with a rocket launcher. When Indy yells down at a phalanx of Nazis, all the bad guys turn at once to gaze up at him as he issues his threat to blow up the Ark. All, that is, except for Toht, who takes a seat against a rocky outcropping like a guy waiting to hit his tee shot on a busy and backed-up Saturday at the local golf course. He’s totally unfazed. And though I’m sure Spielberg had a lot to do with Toht’s actions (or, rather, lack of them), Lacey is brilliantly disinterested. As a child, wrapped up in the action, I was blind to such subtle genius. Now I see it for what it is. Tremendous!

Not so special
Considering that The Abyss and its groundbreaking digital water tentacle hit theaters the same year, it’s somewhat shocking to go back and observe the rudimentary special effects of 1989’s The Last Crusade. The implementation of matte drawings is frequently obvious. The rapid decomposition of Walter Donovan is no more impressive than the face-melting in Raiders from the beginning of the decade. And then there’s the scene where the Nazi goes over a cliff in a tank and manages to hold on to the gun turret even as it rolls over and breaks free from the rest of the metallic beast (gotta love models!). Then again, given the spirit of the series (a tribute to the B-adventure serial), it works.

On that note, in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Spielberg said that he considered using the same old-school technology for Crystal Skull. Instead, he’s gone CGI. “We have just as many matte-painting shots in this movie as we had in the other movies,” Spielberg says in the interview. “The difference is, you won't even be able to tell that there's a brushstroke.” Hmm. I’m doubtful that the CGI will be so seamless that we’ll confuse actual on-location shooting with stuff fudged via greenscreen, but it’ll be an upgrade, no question. That said, there would have been no shame in settling for the old-school approach to remain consistent with its predecessors. And even though Spielberg has opted to go digital, that he even considered otherwise underlines the major difference between him and co-producer George Lucas.

In a different excerpt of the same interview, Lucas admits that he pestered Spielberg to shoot the entire film digitally on a soundstage, ala the Star Wars prequels. Why? Because while Spielberg is still in love with making movies, Lucas is in love with movie technology. The typical tableau of the Star Wars prequels features bland, lifeless sets in the foreground (made all the worse by bland, lifeless acting) as accessories to overly-active CGI backgrounds. As a result, whether by accident or by design, the backdrop becomes the focal point. Which is another way of saying that Lucas is more concerned with how a story is told than how a story is experienced. His Star Wars prequels – as well as his selfish, foolish “enhancements” to the original trilogy – were meant to thrill an audience of one: himself. Spielberg, on the other hand, wants to thrill the masses. For him, the experience rules. The methods are superfluous. Too bad more filmmakers don’t think that way.

Not so last
For the record: I’m not overly concerned with the fact that the actor playing Indiana Jones is almost two decades older than the last time we all went on archeological adventure together. Harrison Ford knows the spirit of Indiana Jones inside and out, so the success of the Crystal Skull will likely come down to whether the script understands the character just as well. It’s a gamble (see: Temple Of Doom), but success is attainable (see: The Last Crusade). With that established, the real reason Spielberg is stupid to make this movie is that he can’t possibly retire the Indiana Jones series as poignantly as he already did in The Last Crusade. I’m not talking about the film as a whole (though between the early creation legend with River Phoenix and the late father-and-son squabbling with Sean Connery, The Last Crusade is wonderful). I’m talking about how that third movie actually ends: with the gallop through the canyon and the ride into the sunset. It’s perfect. Crystal Skull won’t match it. Can’t match it. And that’s a shame.

This is it!
Well, off to the theater. I’m positively pumped. Sure, it could be a flop. Sure, I’m nervous about Shia LaBeouf as Mini-Indy. But Crystal Skull can’t be worse than some of the dreck I’ve sat through so far this year. We really need Indy to swing in on his whip and save 2008! In the least, I’ll have John Williams’ music.


Fox said...

I told a friend of mine that I hadn't seen *The Last Crusade* since it came out, and that I remember nothing. I really would like to see it again...

Anyway, he brought up the amazing into-the-sunset ending just like you did. Seeing the stills now is nice.
Great post overall. I can sense the giddiness in your sentences.

But now... just like you were doing with the trailers, I must avoid reading your review until I see the film. Hopefully that will be tomorrow.

p.s. Here's to using Memorial Day weekend to catch up on films!

RC said...

it was my understanding the Speilberg registered 6 different names so to keep the plot a secret and the city of Gods was one of the fake titles.

prashant said...

he brought up the amazing into-the-sunset ending just like you did. Seeing the stills now is nice.
Great post overall. I can sense the giddiness in your sentences.

Work from home India

Anonymous said...

That henchman of Toht who you pictured above gets shot in the face a few minutes after he is introduced. He is also set on fire. I remember thinking that the makeup must have had something to do with that.

Looks like a white guy playing an asian guy.