Friday, November 14, 2008


Raider of a lost art

By Edward Copeland
I can't recall whether it was Time or Newsweek, but I remember the cover: Harrison Ford and Karen Allen tied to a post. I'm fairly certain the name Spielberg hadn't entered my consciousness, even though I loved Jaws. I hadn't seen Close Encounters or 1941 or The Sugarland Express for that matter (though I had seen Duel). I could hardly wait for Raiders of the Lost Ark and when my 12-year-old enthusiasm got to see the movie, I loved it. As the years went by, each time I saw Raiders, I liked it a little less, so it was with dread when I faced the prospect of a fourth installment 27 years after the original.

Because of my health problems this year, I couldn't see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in the theater. I knew most of the twists ahead of the time. Even worse (or better, depending on your point of view), the week before I saw it on DVD I saw the hilarious South Park episode that had the kids trying to get Spielberg and George Lucas arrested for "raping Indiana Jones."

Now, while I don't feel what Crystal Skull did was that bad, it certainly wasn't a very good movie. I hated Temple of Doom from the first time I saw it, but I thought Last Crusade was enjoyable enough. Crystal Skull was just a bore. It just made me think about how Raiders diminished in my eyes over time. I remember reading Pauline Kael's review after my mind had started to change and her writeup crystallized my thoughts. That wasn't the only time it had happened with a Spielberg film either. While E.T. held me in wonder when it first came out, years later when I saw it again, I found myself mocking it as I watched it. Now, if I do like a Spielberg film when I first see it such as Minority Report or Catch Me if You Can, I'm afraid to re-watch it because with the exception of the glorious and incomparable Jaws, Spielberg's movies don't wear very well. Schindler's List was great both times I saw it, but it's not exactly the type of film you want to pop some popcorn for and kick back for a carefree evening of moviewatching with friends. When thinking about what to say in this piece, I realized that Spielberg is one of the few acclaimed directors that you seldom hear discussing movies or filmmakers who influenced him. Granted, not everyone can be a Scorsese, who gets positively giddy discussing obscure films he saw as a child, but I almost wonder did any films make an impression on Spielberg? Is that why so many of his feel so thin, either from the get-go or over time?

I recently saw an interview Elvis Mitchell did with Edward Norton where Norton talked about how Spike Lee would try to screen a movie every night while they filmed 25th Hour. One night, Lee showed Midnight Cowboy and when it was done, he turned to Norton and said, "Still a muthafucker." Does Spielberg ever show films to his cast and crew to give them an idea of what he's after like so many other directors do or is that why sometimes so many seem to be in different movies at the same time. It seems to me that Spielberg turned into a corporation before he had a chance to grow as an artist. The same year he released E.T. was the year he began to be a producing machine with Poltergeist, with varying degrees of success from the drudgery of The Goonies to the brilliance of Back to the Future, which is better than most of the films Spielberg has actually directed. For me, the greatest film Spielberg has made remains Jaws, which I never tire of watching. I wonder if he's watched it lately. Maybe he should. Maybe he'll spot something he's lost.

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I feel the same way about "Raiders," and can't really put my finger on where it goes sour for me, but it seems like there are several dead scenes that keep the movie from flowing right: most of the time spent in Cairo, the fact that Indy and Co. could just walk right in to the heart of a Nazi camp and start digging on their own largely without being detected, and of course the time spent on the ship near the end.

If you're looking for Spielberg discussing other movies and his influences, check out the documentary "Keep Watching the Skies," where he talks a great deal about the 50s sci-fi serials and movies he loved. It airs on TCM occasionally and is also on the new "Forbidden Planet" DVD.
To me it seemed somewhat indicative of Spielberg that Dreamworks never had an "art house" division, and that Spielberg hasn't used his name or money in the way Scorsese or even Tarantino has, on behalf of classic films or specialized filmmakers.
Spielberg's talked openly about his admiration for people like John Ford, Frank Capra, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, and so on. There have been a number of doc/specials where he mentions influences and he also appeared in the AFI 100 Years specials, whatever that's worth.
Jeez, I couldn't disagree more, although I would have to write a dissertation to explain why.
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