Saturday, May 24, 2008

Indiana Jones Versus the General Intellect

If one wanted to be generous to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull one could say that it tries to continue the self-reflexive nature of the previous films. Whereas the early films represented the 30s and 40s through the lens of the serials of the time, the current film represents the 50s through the conventions of a 50s B-movie, complete with the atom bomb, greasers, the red scare, and flying saucers. It does not go far enough in this direction, however, or, more to the point, it is hindered by Lucas and Spielberg’s desire to become caricatures of themselves.

One thing that has characterized Lucas’ filmmaking since the prequels is this relentless desire to connect all of the dots; the prequels find it necessary to present the origin of everything, from Boba Fett to Chewbacca’s uncle. The current film is burdened by filling in the loose ends to the point where we know not only that Marcus Brody (Indiana Jones’ colleague) is dead, but also that he became dean of the college before dying. From the very beginning Speilberg’s films were almost always family romances, the reconciliation of the family through some external event, aliens, dinosaurs, poltergeists, etc. In the latest Indiana Jones film this becomes incredibly literal and over the top, as Indiana Jones gains both a wife in being reunited with Marion Ravenwood and a son. The only thing missing is a family dog, but his son goes by the nickname Mutt, which is also a meta joke since "Indiana was the dogs name." So much of the film is driven by these rather uninteresting subplots and easter eggs.

The Indiana Jones films have always been on some level about the politics of knowledge. First, there is the “Orientalist” narrative in which only the West can comprehend the secrets of the ancient kingdoms of Egypt and Central America. The living denizens of the various exotic locales do not even have a clue what treasures lie beneath them, let alone how to find them. Only Indiana Jones can unlock the secrets of the ancient tombs (it is only a tragedy that he does not speak Hovitos.) Second, there is also often a quasi-religious idea of humility in the face of the divine. In the end Indiana Jones knows that the ark is best left alone.

The closing scene on the politics of knowledge in Raiders of the Lost Ark

Which is reborn as an easter egg in the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, 
Look closely and you can see the Ark

In the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull this focus on the politics of knowledge gets shifted a bit. With respect to the first, the Orientalist narrative, there are no "native informants" in this film, nothing like Sallah, Indiana's friend in Egypt. Knowledge exists only between different westerners, Indy spends most of the film tracking down the clues left by his old grad school buddy Harold Oxley, deciphering clues left in Mayan. When the natives do appear they appear as a screaming horde armed with blowguns, there is nothing to discuss, just punch and shoot. Second, the villains are now Communists rather than Nazis, so the plot of the first and third films, Hitler’s desire to turn religious artifacts into weapons, is absent. Second, because the object in question is now secular, an alien skull, rather than sacred, the ark of the Covenant of the Holy Grail. This leads to a very muddled final scene in which the communist villain points out that aliens have a hive mind. She latter is killed by her desire to “know everything.” In some ways this reproduces the end scene of the first film. Aren’t all sequels secretly remakes? This is where the film missed its mark, and could have really developed the anti-communist message. Given that the film dallies with the rumors of Stalinist psychic experiments, the film could have developed the hive mind versus individualistic knowledge. This also would have allowed for the film to develop the rather tacked on middle section about McCarthyism into something. It could have pitted Indiana Jones, the representative of western knowledge (of its others) and "free inquiry" against the collective intelligence of the soviets/aliens.

Hence the title of this post.

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