Secret Pop

May 23, 2008


The weather sure has been apocalyptic-seeming. Two days ago, it was hot out but windy. I could taste Hollywood in my grit-filled mouth. And it tasted like something I should spit out. Little eddies of filth and debris swirled up above gutters running alongside my route home. What would have been a welcome breeze filled my eyes and mouth and imagination with the soot of Sunset Boulevard and the indigents who shit there.

Yesterday I heard there was hail. And a tornado.

This morning, it's plaster grey out. And cold. If there were withered wintry trees on the horizon, I would call it a fitting tableau for burying our old friend Indiana Jones, who died last night. At least for me. And not just because he said the word "nucular."

I'm not sure if I'm going to actually spoil anything for you with what I'm about to say about Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but if you're worried that I will, consider yourself forewarned and by all means look away. And if you feel that knowing that Indiana Jones says the word "nucular" was already too much unannounced spoilage for your standards, I apologize and accept that we may never be the friends I once hoped we'd be.

I won't be able to read the temperamental phrases I scrawled while inside the darkened, goon-filled theater. I only had a red pen, and the light from the screen didn't do much to illuminate my rantings. But, if memory serves, it seems the once limitless expanses of the mind and its inventions are now only able to live in front of a green screen. And not like a fancy one where things look super real. But a crap one where everything looks fake and the only thing you can fixate on is everyone's flaws.

I only remember feeling like anything was kind of awesome at two points in the movie. And I'm not talking about seeing the little corner of the Ark of the Covenant, because that was a totally lame throwaway, despite the thrill it provided to the mouth-breather sitting behind me. The only rewarding moments for me were these two: When Indy mentioned Quechua, I thought, "That's what Greedo's speech was," and I felt self-importantly victorious for getting a reference that was clearly meant for me to get, albeit what seemed like hours into the film. And when Indy sees Marion and he seems boyishly delighted, I was tickled. But it faded immediately when it became clear that the previous chemistry born of her girlish-boyish disappointment and longing would now be replaced by the archetypal barbs of a radio age fishwife.

The chemistry is out the window. For everyone. For Indy and Marion, it might just be that we're looking at a guy we hoped wouldn't look too old for this role but clearly does planting kisses on the mouth of a woman who was never conventionally pretty but now looks pretty solidly daft. You know, I never thought Harrison Ford was all that handsome, but there was a knowledge in his eyes. An impatience. A demanding intensity. He was the perfect gentleman scoundrel. Now all I can see is hos old his teeth look.

The vast majority of the movie, I was so bored and so confused and so not at all interested in what happened to anyone or why. National Treasure shamelessly co-opts the style of caper that made the old Indy films fun by shamefully having Nicholas Cage pretend to not be bald and also be able to solve centuries-unsolved riddles by simply talking the problems through and then confidently arriving at a hypothesis that always turns out to be correct. I remember laughing at its buffoonery and thinking that all the production value in the world can't make an Indiana Jones movie unless you've got the key ingredients, the first of which being Indiana Jones.

But Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, even armed with Indy himself actually in the film and wearing the hat and everything, couldn't hide from its key weakness: a really stupid script. But I am incredulous that the film had no qualms at all about posing as National Treasure. And The Fountain. And The Mummy. And The Mummy Returns. And the X-Files movie. And a Thomas Kinkade painting. And various episodes of the Keystone Cops. And a Barbara Walters special. But with none of the artful choreography, whip-smart banter, or quotability of the previous films. And Sallah has been replaced by the far less adorable Mac, who calls Indy "Jonesey" instead of "Indy" and refers to adventures I have difficulty believing they ever had together.

If you loved Raiders of the Lost Ark -- and I did -- you should just watch Raiders of the Lost Ark. This latest installment cribs from its progenitor so blatantly at times that I expected Indy to say, "Don't look at it!" And I expected Cate Blanchett to say, "It's beautiful!" And they basically did. Just not exactly in those words. But the visual effects might as well have been exactly the same. So much so that it makes me wonder if the field of visual effects actually just involves a lot of cut and paste. I always thought it was really complicated, but what do I know.

I don't think Indiana Jones ever was, nor should it have become, a science fiction franchise. There was plenty of mystical hooey, sure, but it was largely mystical hooey that traded on mythology that was familiar to the audience on some level. I recently half watched a show on The History Channel about crystal skulls, but if I hadn't seen it, I don't think I would have had any reference base for crystal skulls or what they're supposed to be able to do. I don't really feel any better-informed now, but that's mainly because this movie had no idea what it wanted me to know about crystal skulls, except that (a) they are highly magnetic and (b) their powerful magnetic field can be interrupted by placing a Mexican blanket over them.

I wasn't even thrilled with the music, and that's usually a given. In each of the other three Indy features, you've got the Raiders March, you've got the love theme, but you've also got a few themes that really capture the specific story in the film. It's Hindi Indy. Or it's Camelot Indy. But this one. I think they should have been talking about Incans instead of Mayans, for one thing, unless I'm misremembering that. El Dorado. Peru. That's Inca territory, right? Well, whichever, I don't remember any sweeping musical references to ancient civilizations. Even when the indigenous peoples who apparently cocoon themselves in the walls of their various pyramids and cliffs in case a trespasser dares show his face pop out and wave their spears around. I don't remember any particularly Peruvian sounding music at that point. But I do remember thinking, "When do those guys eat and go to the bathroom and stuff?"

Martín didn't hate it, but I told him to sleep on it. He didn't think The Phantom Menace was a tragic disappointment at first either. And I distinctly recall him thinking I was an asshole for saying that it wasn't any good. But I can confidently say that -- while I don't really care if it's WORSE than The Phantom Menace -- I can say that it's terrible for many of the same reasons that The Phantom Menace was terrible. And with just about the same amount of Burger King.

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