Friday, 25 September 2009

Warped 1950s: Indiana Jones & the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

The forgotten blockbuster...

16 months have passed, and still no follow-up film from Steven Spielberg. Rumours surface, telling of a Lincoln biopic here, a Harvey remake there, an Old Boy remake, a Tintin adaptation... None of which are scheduled for release in 2009, or even 2010. Even if one (or more) of these projects reaches the light of day in 2011, we still have the longest gap in the director's entire career so far – 6 unexpectedly fallow years (2005-2011), with only one lonely film, in the dead centre of an artistic wilderness.

In taking the time to re-assess the value of this strange and already quite neglected film, a good start can be made with the narrative of the original trilogy. Although it might seem obvious, it’s worth putting the chronology all together:

1935 -
Temple of Doom - India (Sankara Stones)
1936 -
Raiders of the Lost Ark - Egypt (Ark of the Covenant)
1938 -
Last Crusade - Venice / Germany / Turkey (Holy Grail)

(1944 - George Lucas born)
(1946 - Steven Spielberg born)

1957 -
Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Nevada / Peru / Amazon (Crystal Skull)

The first thing that strikes us, looking at the dates, is that neither Steven Spielberg nor Geroge Lucas had been born by 1935-8, the period of the first 3 films. The imaginative world of the trilogy was modelled entirely on Republic and Universal ‘serial’ pictures (such as The Great Alaskan Mystery, featuring nazi spies and futuristic weapons). Two decades later, by 1957, Spielberg was 11, and Lucas 13. Inevitably, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull represents something slightly different.

The film not only takes place in an era that both filmmakers remember personally, but also (and crucially) one which boasts an entirely different array of films to draw on; instead of ‘serials’, we have the 50s melodrama and B-film – Spies, planes and nazis make way for aliens, saucers and Communists. Fear of the German war effort is traded for something more subterranean – propaganda, indoctrination, and mind-reading. (Stalin, of course, was genuinely interested in these techniques. Rather more troublingly, the release of the CIA "Family Jewels" to the National Security Archive, on June 26 2007 – just eight days after Spielberg began shooting the film – showed the extent to which Sidney Gottleib and MKULTRA had been operating such experiments within the USA.)

This is the morally ambiguous territory that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull inhabits. Trading away the pure cinematic fantasy of the 3 ‘Republic Serial’ pictures for a strange, hybrid 50s, Shia LaBeouf’s entrance (to take an early example) is snipped straight from The Wild One, 1953, a move as surreal and artificial as anything in Tarantino/Rodriguez’s Grindhouse:

In moments such as this, parody is blurred with serious comment, almost beyond recognition. The climax of the Nevada sequence, as Indiana Jones comes across a picket-fence town in the middle of the desert, with clotheslines fluttering, inhabited only by mannequins, blankly watching television, is a horror/comedy moment worthy of David Lynch. The faceless figures sitting in front of the TV, blind and inch-deep, awaiting the explosion of Oppenheimer’s weapon, are a savage allegory of the 1950s society in which the filmmakers came of age.

Remembering MKULTRA, the fact that this is an all-American bomb (‘I like Ike’), very nearly killing an archetypal American hero, adds to the blurred environment of the film. The clear-cut boundaries of WW2 have dissolved, and in the following scenes, Indiana Jones is needlessly persecuted by the FBI, losing his job, and (in a highly symbolic moment of comedy) he mistakes a pair of KGB agents for the FBI agents themselves. Instead of the defined atmosphere of the 30s ‘serial’, we have entered a world of total paranoia.

This ambiguity extends into the Peruvian sequences, with the absurd image of Marlon Brando (ie. ‘Mutt’) striding into a Catholic asylum, and being led to the tomb of a real-life conquistador, Francisco de Orellana, who disappeared in the Amazon in the 1550s. With this, we see the dark past of America (the conquistadors, a madness portrayed in Aguirre: der Zorn Gottes) linked with its cinematic self-representation (Brando). Cue the entry of the Crystal Skull itself – torn from the rotting shroud of Orellana, it presents us with a palimpsest combining the most mythical past, with a surreal 50s 'future' (or, from our perspective, a parallel past). This is not just the treasure of a Spanish conquistador. It has been found by The Wild One. It is a part of the 1950s, Area 51, and ancient alien travelers... Again, parody and seriousness blur.

With that, we set into the exploration of mind control, Stalin and (implicitly) MKULTRA. Irina Spalko insists that they will be able to ‘control us through dreams’ until we ‘become them’. As paranoid and feverish as the Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), we are offered a vision of a monstrous communist plot, deranged and Strangelovian. Dean Charles Stanforth – Jim Broadbent – has already made the point: Communists in our soup. But, of course, in this film (a film where a joke about 'not stepping into old-fashioned fridges' is extended to the surreal survival of an atom-bomb), the mind control is real. An old friend is already maddened by it. Like the plastic family sitting waiting for the bomb, it is funny and unnerving. No longer the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail – instead of the manipulation of religious material (the discarded opium of the masses), the film shows us the manipulation of minds... 'Propaganda, and the media'.

Ultimately, all these themes are plunged into the jungle. And, as ever, it is the towering Jungle of the Imagination, inhabited by giant ants (borrowed from Charlton Heston’s The Naked Jungle, 1954), triple waterfalls and quicksand. Monstrous tree-devouring un-eco trucks, bazookas and swordfights definitively lay to rest the pretensions of Pirates of the Caribbean, National Treasure or The Mummy. We arrive at the mossy temple, having climbed through a skull’s-eye waterfall, and with the ‘hatching’ of the guardians through the walls we re-enter (or so it seems) the world of the Republic serial, as first seen in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Our Milton-quoting heroes make it to the huge columns, and onto the gothic, receding spiral staircase. Here, underground, we at last see the Skull replaced. The power of the mind is unleashed, and the 50s parody emerges with a vengeance. If Grindhouse ends with a car-chase worthy of Vanishing Point (1971), Kingdom of the Crystal Skull signs off with a re-enactment of the C-57D landing on Altair IV, from Forbidden Planet (1956). And doesn’t the swirl of substance, combined with the retro philosophizing of John Hurt (“the space between spaces...”) momentarily evoke the hideous bulge of the atom bomb over Nevada with which we began?

From the moment the film begins, not with the familiar theme but with Elvis Presley’s 1956 B-side ‘Hound Dog’, it is clear that this work represents a departure from the 1930s territory of the original trilogy. But, for all its parodic oddness, it succeeds in using Spielberg/Lucas’s most enduring, archetypal American myth for a lasting examination of one of the darkest hours of America. The years in which they grew up.

C-57D landing on Altair IV’, from “Forbidden Planet” (1956)

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Aldo Raine and Aeneas (Basterds Post Three)

"Each and every man under my command owes me one-hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps..."

Brad Pitt's fearsome and paradoxically lynch-burned redneck, Aldo Raine, is (as has been spotted elsewhere) a direct tribute to Aldo Ray (star of 50s war films including The Naked and the Dead and Battle Cry), pictured to the right.

As well as this amusing homage to an Italian-American star (or Eye-talian, as Aldo himself might say), the character is, also, persistently identified as 'Aldo the Apache': a violent but courageous resistance fighter who takes the scalps of his victims. The fusion of 2 such apparently contradictory cinematic icons (the Soldier and the Indian) demonstrates the hybrid nature of this self-professed "spaghetti Western, but with World War II iconography" (as Tarantino described his film to Dylan Callaghan).

In addition to this bravura stylistic and satirical experiment (linking the cowboys with the nazis, the director imagines a form of American-Outsider resistance to both, exercised through the cinematic image, and liberal scalp-taking), Tarantino also seems to be exploring his own sense of American identity: his father was Italian-American, whilst the (single) mother who raised him was half-Cherokee. The film is, at least in part, Tarantino's 'Song of Myself', and Aldo Raine shares his own familial roots.

It is striking then that such an American figure, the most complex national symbol in all of Tarantino's films, is deliberately placed in the chapters of a work so defiantly European. The majority of the film's dialogue is in subtitled French and German. The main roles are all otherwise performed by Europeans... We find no Tom Cruise mugging as Claus von Stauffenberg in this war.

It is perhaps this conflation that leads to the final scene of this epic spaghetti-western being lifted directly from the founding epic of European literature, The Aeneid, as the Eye-talian Apache carves "his masterpiece", and is transformed into the horribly unforgiving Aeneas.

Here are the closing lines to Virgil's poem, as disturbing and abrupt as Tarantino's:

(The Aeneid, Book 12, Lines 927-952, Trans. David West) -

The Rutilian rose with a groan which echoed round the whole mountain, and far and wide the forests sent back the sound of their voices. He lowered his eyes and stretched out his right hand to beg as a suppliant:
"I have brought this upon myself," he said, "and for myself I ask nothing. But if any thought of my unhappy father can touch you, I beg of you – and you too had such a father in Anchises – take pity on the old age of Daunus, and give me back to my people... You have defeated me, and the men of Ausonia have seen me defeated and stretching out my hands to you. Lavinia is yours. Do not carry your hatred any further."
There stood Aeneas, deadly in his armour, rolling his eyes, but he checked his hand, hesitating more and more as the words of Turnus began to move him, when suddenly his eyes caught the fatal belt of the boy Pallas, high on Turnus's shoulder with the glittering studs he knew so well. Turnus had wounded him and then killed him, and now he was wearing his belt on his shoulder as a battle honour taken from an enemy. Aeneas feasted his eyes on this reminder of his own wild grief, then, burning with mad passion and terrible in his wrath, he cried:
"Are you to escape me now? Wearing the belt stripped from the body of those I loved? By this wound which I now give you, it is Pallas who cuts you. It is Pallas who exacts the penalty in your guilty blood."
And blazing with rage, he plunged the steel full into his enemy's breast. The limbs of Turnus were dissolved in cold and his life left him with a groan, fleeing in anger down to the shades below.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Follow-up: Beethoven and the Basterds

The critical teacup-storm surrounding this film is getting interesting. The Independent this weekend had a front page article entitled "The Tragedy of Tarantino - How He Squandered The Chance To Become One Of The Greats"...

In the wake of this (entirely coincidentally), yesterday I read a book about Beethoven's Third Symphony. The parallels were perhaps latent already: an established artist, popular with the critical elite, suddenly taking on a much more serious, political, subject, on an unprecedented, epic scale (the 3rd symphony is all about Napoleon Bonaparte, and was almost an hour long: nearly three times as long as any previous symphony). Beethoven even has epic violence followed by a 'drinking scene' (the 3rd movement is based on a soldier's 'trinklied')! With the Morricone-arranged 'Für Elise' of the opening, and the Beethoven card saliva-ed to a forehead in the drinking scene, the figure of Ludwig van seems to be constantly in the background of the film.

But the parallels didn't really hit me til I read the critical responses of the time, quoted in the book. Here is the critic from Der Freymüthige, assessing the responses in August 1806, about 10 months after the premiere:

"Some of Beethoven's particular admirers assert that it is just this symphony which is his masterpiece, that this is the true style for high-class music, and that if it does not please now, it is because the public is not cultured enough, artistically, to grasp all these lofty beauties; after a few thousand years have passed it will not fail of its effect.

"Another faction denies that the work has any artistic value and professes to see in it an untamed striving for singularity which has quite failed. By means of strange modulations and violent transitions, by combining the most heterogeneous elements, as for instance when a pastoral in the largest style is ripped up by the basses by three horns, a certain undesirable originality is perhaps achieved, but genius should not proclaim itself in the unusual or the fantastic.

"The third party, a very small one, stands midway between the others - it admits that the symphony contains many beauties, but concedes that the connection is often disrupted entirely, and that the inordinate length of this longest, and perhaps most beautiful of all symphonies, wearies even the cognoscenti, and is unendurable to the mere music lover; it wishes that Herr van Beethoven would employ his acknowledgedly great talents in giving us works like his previous two symphonies, works which have placed him forever in the ranks of the foremost instrumental composers."

The parallel is incredible. This is a work now (200 years later) universally acknowledged as a (and by a number of critics THE) turning point in western music. A watershed work of art, by a major artist. But it was met with accusations of "strange modulations and violent transitions" and claims that he has unsuccessfully combined "the most heterogeneous elements". Or the faint Mark Kermodeish praise of admitting that "the symphony contains many beauties, but the connection is often disrupted entirely, and the inordinate length wearies even the cognoscenti". The final wish ("that Herr van Beethoven would employ his acknowledgedly great talents in giving us works like his previous two symphonies") is so similar to the Independent/Guardian desire for another Reservoir Fiction as to be quite uncanny.

It isn't hard to think of films that gathered universal approval, but which will never be discussed in a decade's time (let alone 'a few thousand years'): just think of Sideways, Pan's Labyrinth, Capote, Lost in Translation etc etc... I think that Inglourious Basterds is quite another thing all together. Maybe a true watershed work. At last, somebody is forcing the focus of cinema towards the American Epic literary form: a huge and cascading novel of a film.

Here, at least, is an attempt to take the film seriously on its own terms:

If only more critics were making the effort. But, as seen in a review from 1806, perhaps they never did.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Inaugural: Inglourious Basterds

What's wrong with Inglourious Basterds?

It's an epic. An apocalyptic masterpiece... a vision of what Tarantino calls the 'sociological battlefield' of the war in Europe, in both myth and fact. It's the darkest black comedy since Dr Strangelove, and the most timely piece on the meaning (and re-interpretation) of the war since Gravity's Rainbow.

We see troubling hints that the central American myth of the 'colonisation' of the wild west can be paralleled with the European genocide (thus undermining the central pillar of US cinema, and fusing the cowboy with the nazi). A similarly disturbing parallel is drawn using King Kong... Scenes like this perhaps begin to explain the discomfort it has given to mainstream audiences.

We even see cinema used as a mental AND a physical weapon, exactly like the closing images of Pynchon's novel (p. 760): "The screen is a dim page spread before us, white and silent. The film has broken, or a projector bulb has burned out... And in the darkening and awful expanse of screen something has kept on, a film we have not learned to see: it is now a closeup of the face, a face we all know – "

With that we see Tarantino emerging, after an experimental hiatus of 12 years, with his Late Style. As formidable as late Malick or Kubrick... Whilst he could, after Pulp Fiction, have gone on to become (at worst) Guy Ritchie, or (at best) Scorsese, he has used Kill Bill and Death Proof to reinvent himself, developing a completely different and original voice. A voice ringing with all of cinematic history, excessive and contradictory, almost like Whitman's, but moving far beyond pastiche...

I think that the film proves that, with Pynchon's recent and abrupt creative demise, Tarantino is one of our most intellectually daring writers. Scenes that unroll with page after page of memorable, plausible, disturbing, and occasionally hilarious lines. A new Pynchon? Fuck yeah. And a new Kubrick, perhaps.

Only an artist at the height of his powers could begin a WW2 film with an Ennio Morricone arrangement of a Beethoven bagatelle, and end with a chapter entitled 'The Revenge of the Giant Face'...

So, cue the critics shuffling away from him, and on to blander pastures. (As they did with Malick: in 30 years' time, people will go "Oh yeah... Tarantino... I quite like Pulp Fiction...?" in the same tone as people now do with Badlands.)

However, 3 critics do seem keen. And, thankfully, they are all American, and so very influential.

Once you've seen the film (not before), check out the following:

Roger Ebert -

Richard Corliss (Time Magazine) -,8599,1917595,00.html

Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle) -

A last thought. In reflecting (with the third of these reviewers) on our 'collective celluloid dream' of the war in Europe, note that September 1st 2009 – as well as celebrating this maiden voyage of The Whale-ship Globe marks the exact 70th anniversary of the invasion of Poland, and thus the grim birthday of WW2 itself.