As the most gifted and congenial by far of the New Hollywood tyros, Steven Spielberg may be the only consummate master of the post-television movie spectacular-the blockbuster that’s diced out into bite-size narrative units like Chicken McNuggets (every structural hint of bone or body part processed out of existence, every juicy piece a separate unique experience, designed to vanish without a trace). Aspiring to the condition of continuous action as if that were a delirious state of grace-borne aloft by superbly timed jolts and impossibly narrow escapes, usually in three-to five-minute setpiece doses- RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK all but bypasses character and logic for a string of stunning rides through separate portions of Disneyland, one right after the other, each one a visceral treat.
Valuing speed over sense, the movie is too energetically rushed to allow it) self any detours into lyricism. It’s a surprising turn of events for the director of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, but the box office blues of 1941 must have led Spielberg to some second thoughts about how to bring an audience to its knees—back to the lessons of JAWS, in other words, with the additional commercial support of George Lucas (who produced and collaborated with Philip Kaufman on the original story). Consequently, even when God puts in an appearance toward the end of this globetrotting adventure—a fiery, vengeful Old Testament God playing yang to the yin of the benign aliens in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS—He doesn’t get to stick around any longer than a television commercial.
I’ll never forget the queasy experience I had one Sunday afternoon last year, in the front row of a crowded midtown theater, watching the grisly elevator murder in DRESSED TO KILL at the same time that the man who created it, Brian De Palma, was a couple of seats away, watching me and others react to it (and leaving the theater as soon as the sequence was over). The curious thing about his gaze, as I recall it, was that it conveyed a lot of pride and satisfaction, yet none of it was directed at the screen.
It’s a gaze I remembered more than once while responding in a similarly helpless way to the merciless mechanics of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK—and not merely because Spielberg and Lucas are also decadent disciples of Hitchcockian storyboard construction in which The Sequence becomes the whole raison d’être of filmmaking. It was also related to the dawning realization that the real continuity and characters of their movies can be truly located only in their audience responses-not in any autonomous evidence up on the screen, which is bound to be relatively uneven and riddled with gaps (e.g., how does the hero get to the Mediterranean Island on a Nazi submarine?)
Consider Karen Allen here, a likable, resourceful actress who gets used like one of those convertible stage units in a play full of short scenes First she’s established (in a drinking bout) as one of the boys, then as some perfunctory variant of the mannish woman (Joan Crawford as Vienna in JOHNNY GUITAR) running a Nepalese saloon, then as a fluttery sort of captive heroine who clearly isn’t one of the boys, then as a background prop; whatever a given scene requires, she dutifully becomes The same principle holds (more or less) for everyone and everything else in the movie, from hero Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) to villain Beloq (Pau1 Freeman) to the Ark of the Covenant to somebody’s pet monkey. Try to summon up a composite image anywhere, a feeling or idea that you can salvage when the movie’s over, and you’re mainly stuck with an arsenal of disconnected poses and disposable functions.
There’s a lot of confusion around-most of it to the advantage of banks—about the status of this blunderbuss approach in relation to art. Its effectiveness as dazzling entertainment is harder to quarrel with; I was glued to my seat, and even the monotonous lack of variation in the pacing (as in 1941) has something soothing about it. But the creepy presumption of most criticism nowadays is not only that it’s possible to be a Serious Artist while wielding megabucks, but that it’s often necessary to wield these lofty budgets in order to be considered “seriously” at all. Around the time of the release of STAR WARS, it was widely reported that Lucas Intended to make only avant-garde films in the future. Such a story seemed preposterous then, and I find it even harder to swallow it now. Lucas lacks the freedom to make avant-garde films—assuming that freedom is ultimately a matter of mental space more than budget. Most people, I know, assume the reverse of this—such is the myth that keeps those Industry wheels turning—but few highly budgeted directors have ever seemed like exceptionally free individuals to me.
So maybe the real auteur of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK is neither Spielberg nor Lucas-however brilliant each may be in his separate functions-but the money that plays with them and us, the money that calls all the shots.
Combining the dogged desire
of Lucas to be pulpier than Sax Rohmer in this 1936 white supremacist
archeological romp (while combining all the world’s most important religious
myths on the head of a pin and simultaneously whistling
How deeply are we expected to get involved in a plot about the fabled Ark of the Covenant which doesn’t feature a single Jew, with Arab (i.e., proto-Iranian) and Nazi villains galore? RAIDERS somehow contrives to convert the Great Whatsit of KISS ME DEADLY (nuclear death In Pandora’s Box) into the 10 Commandments of Cecil B. De Mille, without ever convincing us that either has the moral weight of Cheech & Chong’s roach clip, or the 15 Commandments of Mel Brooks in HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART 1.* It mainly locates its few tokens of crunchy transcendence in its audience’s unconscious and its promo campaign On the screen, it sticks more practically and nihilistically to the short-range task of being a “rattling good yarn”—one, indeed, that rattles and hisses at you in sensuous Dolby while boldly slinging you from one outrageously suspenseful snake pit to another Before the movie’s scarcely begun, Indiana Jones is being chased by a giant bowling ball of a boulder through a Penman cave that’s otherwise characterized by tarantulas, treasures. diverse death-traps, and cave-ins.
“I am a shadow reflection of you,” Freeman says coolly to Ford at one point, alerting those academics who night want to brood seriously over this enjoyable nonsense The Ark Itself is a McGuffin-prop lifted from DAVID AND BATHSHEBA, a Gregory Peck vehicle of thirty simmers ago. As I see it, the Great Whatsit here is really nothing more than the proverbial Magic of Movies-the only subject Spielberg/Lucas seem equipped to tackle head-on, in tandem with the usual dull concentration on the nature of power traps (which is what turned APOCALYPSE NOW from a film about Vietnam into a film about being a director, and what makes the last shot of RAIDERS a clear steal from CITIZEN KANE).
In a way, the opening dissolve from the Paramount logo to an actual mountain peak tells us all we need to know By the time we arrive at the c11mactic narrative striptease on a mountaintop, we see death pour out of the Ark like a lethal dose of projector light, spelling out hologram-like figures which emerge from the emulsion only to turn ugly and start zapping the Nazis dead. Faces melt fabulously (in the snazziest of all the flashy special effects) as the Nazis are being cremated; the heavens part to suck up all the cinders and then neatly close shut again, like a zipper.
But the most thrilling moment of sexual release for the audience I saw RAIDERS with was the humorously delayed decision of Jones, much earlier, to shoot a fancy sword-swishing Arab with his gun rather than bother with his whip. Its offhand genocidal message comes very close to being the only one that New Hollywood (from TAXI DRIVER to STAR WARS to APOCALYPSE NOW to DRESSED To KILL) can find beyond its own pretty, bejeweled navel—a pithy suggestion, derived from Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, that simply says, “Exterminate the brutes.”
*I was originally reviewing UP IN SMOKE (a Cheech & Chong comedy) as well as the Brooks movie—and Andrew Noren’s CHARMED PARTICLES—in the same column. (1993)