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Indiana Jones and the Meaningless Void
If You Really Want a Quest for The Holy Grail, Try Looking for Significance in an Indy Adventure

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

With so much to love about the "Indiana Jones" movies, is there anything to know?

To ask is to miss the point, but let's miss it by a mile anyhow, on the eve of Dr. Jones's rollicking return to the multiplex. Let us not be like those fawning, tight-sweatered Archaeology 101 coeds from "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and instead be film theory students in dirty, pseudo-vintage T-shirts: What does "Indiana Jones" meeeeean? What does it do to us? What part of us does he represent? (Besides summer? Besides ophidiophobia?)

The film professor opens up the question to the whole class. Anyone?

"Um, he's America? He blunders, he plunders? He's ersatz John Wayne?"

Nice one, Eric. But what else? You in the back -- Patricia.

"Misogyny! Xenophobia!"

Patricia, you always say that.

"But look at how he treats women! Look at the devaluing of indigenous cultures! Listen to the phony accents, the minority stereoty--"

What else? Trevor, stop texting and tell us.

"It's, uh, Spielberg working through his Holocaust grief? Like, before Schindler, before Private Ryan? It's about revenge?"

The professor assigns a five-page, double-spaced paper to his cineastes, due Wednesday. Suss it out, gang. Re-watch the first three films. (Since the new one, "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which opens Thursday at midnight, was not being made available for critical analysis until the last minute.) Discern what's underneath. Be like Indy, and excavate deeply. Rip out his heart, "Temple of Doom"-style, and offer it to the goddess Kali.

The papers are reluctantly submitted. Everyone gets a C-minus, except Eric, who BS'es through it by drawing parallels to the Reagan era, how the 1930s were really the 1980s, et cetera. Patricia winds up writing about the symbolism in Indy's bullwhip. Half the class focuses on the Nazi stuff. (Remember? In the third one? Where Indy met Adolf Hitler at the book burning in Berlin? That was awesome.) Most only come up with a paragraph or two.

* * *

This is the Indy problem. For all the attention, the icon never says much beyond his lines and endures little beyond his near misses, and he imparts only a fraction of the depth we've absorbed from Batman and Darth Vader and Humphrey Bogart. Wile E. Coyote has lived through more scrapes, and taught us more. Fans of big-budget summer blockbuster sequel franchises have always found plenty to discuss passionately -- going too far, too deep on theories and ideas the creators may or may not have intended. Some of the subtext and irony in popcorn movies is plain to both the casual viewer and the devotee. Some of it they've had to work hard to extrapolate, but the franchises somehow keep giving. The best franchise movies never stop giving -- more to debate, more to ponder.

"Star Wars," "Star Trek," the combined narratives of Marvel Comics superheroes -- Spider-Man, the Hulk, the X-Men and now Iron Man; Harry Potter, Superman. You can go to conventions and sit in seminars and talk about any of these stories and heroes forever, or get a doctorate in semiotics thanks to them. In the Indiana Jones panel discussion (usually held in a faraway ballroom at a "Star Wars" convention, because of the Lucasfilm/Han Solo pedigree), you mostly talk about collectible porcelain Indiana Jones figurines, or camera angles in "Temple of Doom."

Financially, the "Indiana Jones" movies have earned $1.2 billion in ticket sales so far. Surely there must be something to say about him, something he symbolizes. But what do we get back from Dr. Jones, besides stray bits of archaeological legend? Although the main character is a tenured professor, there was never anything to learn, because there is only fun. ( Only!? Isn't fun plenty?)

This is why "roller coaster" appears so often in critics' reviews of Indiana's past adventures, because they recognize just that -- steel and track and loop-de-loops.

In 1935, Indiana Jones crash-lands in India and discovers a blood cult worshiping Sankara stones, which he returns to the village that reveres them as holy objects. In 1936, he discovers the ark of the covenant, and then rescues it from the Nazis, only to have the U.S. government hide it away. ("Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" is actually a prequel to "Raiders of the Lost Ark," a never-explained flip in the time line, even though "Raiders" came out first, in 1981, and "Doom" was released in 1984.)

In 1938 (which is to say 1989, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade"), Jones outwits the Nazis one last time and discovers the Holy Grail, the legendary chalice from which the Apostles drank at the Last Supper, but it is lost in a sudden earthquake. Lost treasure is a recurring motif -- things that are best left undiscovered fall out of Indy's reach. In the end, Indy retrieves something lost: the attention of his father, played by Sean Connery, who is also an archaeologist. It seemed like we might get someplace the last time around, even as "Crusade" dragged to a finish:

Professor Henry Jones: Did I ever tell you to eat up? Go to bed? Wash your ears? Do your homework? No. I respected your privacy and I taught you self-reliance.

Indiana Jones: What you taught me was that I was less important to you than people who had been dead for 500 years in another country. And I learned it so well that we've hardly spoken for 20 years.

This exchange occurs on a German passenger dirigible, and soon enough the Joneses are under Stuka attack, sidestepping character development, avoiding thought, back on the ride. (Even actual roller coasters inspire greater thinking than an "Indiana Jones" movie; writers and devotees of roller coasters travel great distances to discover and ride them, and continually find new, poetic ways to describe them.) In "Indiana Jones" there is no theme, no take-away. He is a great turn-on, but a lousy companion. The message, as clearly stated over and over again by executive producer and writer George Lucas and director Steven Spielberg, is this: Keep your arms and feet inside the car at all times.

In the 1990s, "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," a short-lived television series bankrolled by Lucas, unleashed more back story, but without much of a ride, and audiences yawned. The deeper and more cerebral they went (and without Harrison Ford), the less Indy seemed like Indy.

For these are movies about making movies. More important, they are movies about making money by making movies. The Los Angeles Times, reporting worsening U.S. economic woes a few weeks ago, drew an ominously plunging red arrow down its front page to represent a 50-point drop in U.S. consumer confidence from where we were last summer. The arrow ends at a headline for a companion story, about how movie ticket sales go up in recession-like doldrums, when people can no longer afford vacations to amusement parks, and the multiplex becomes the only idealized escape.

" 'Indiana' will get us out of this," the headline reads.

There's something to that, beyond box office economics. Indy comes along just in time, satisfying a craving in American audiences for his insouciant bravado, the sort of bravado that has no political consequence, safely up there on the movie screen, set in another time.

* * *

He's changed (thicker torso, craggier face) and we've changed (vanished attention spans, deadened senses). He's 60-something now, and we all think we're 23. They've got him running around in 1957, fighting the Red Menace, with a Roswell/space alien story line in the background.

When Lucas and Spielberg announced in 2006 that they were going to make a fourth Indy film, and that Harrison Ford, then 64, would play him, fans immediately got online to talk about it. Although they pondered what the story would be, they were more consumed by technique. Passionate "Indiana Jones" fans want to know about camerawork. They care whether Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg's longtime cinematographer (but first-time "Indiana Jones"-er), would adhere to the original series's "bright," cheap look. It was about carbon arcs and 2:4 light vs. 8. The fans conducted their own CGI debate while the movie was shot on secure locations and locked-down studio lots: Would Spielberg do things the "old-fashioned" way, or would he give in to his friend George's dependence on digitally created effects? (Spielberg went old-school. Fans love that the new movie has been cobbled together on old-model Moviola editing consoles, except for the ones who don't, who prefer, like Lucas, the digital way.)

"Star Trek" fans write. Harry Potter fans write. "Star Wars" fans play dress-up. And what do Indiana Jones fans do? They are the ultimate "Making of . . ." technical geeks, wanting to know everything about storyboarding, stunts, squib explosions, editing, matte backdrops, sound mixing and John Williams's musical scores. They almost never want to know about character development or theme. (Even though everyone who made the new "Indiana Jones" says the biggest hang-up to making a fourth movie was the lack of a good story.) The question for Indy fans is always "How did they do that?" and not "What does it mean?" They shun analysis. They abhor movie reviews, except their own. In this way, they are the ideal audience.

In a recent interview in Entertainment Weekly (the big "summer movies" issue), Spielberg and Lucas sounded like an old married couple in the car, arguing over directions and process. They differ even on what to write with: "When Steven works on his scripts, he does his work on a computer. I wouldn't touch a computer," says Lucas, the man who subjected the world to computerized Jar Jar Binks. "I do mine on nice yellow tablets with a Number 4 pencil, and I will not change." (The yellow pads on which he wrote "Star Wars" in the 1970s are part of the holy archive. The first thing you notice when you look at them, in the "Making of 'Star Wars' " tome, is that Lucas is one of those people who draw girly circles for the dots of their i's.)

"This interview must seem like we're in Bellevue," Spielberg observed.

* * *

"Archaeology is the search for fact . . . not truth. If it's truth you're looking for, Dr. Tyree's philosophy class is right down the hall."

-- Indiana Jones

Perhaps it was only ever about the fedora. Indiana Jones wasn't about anything, except the triumph of brown leather jackets, and the way men felt wearing them on their adventuresome, tiresome Casual Fridays. It was about a time when every Banana Republic store had a Jeep parked in it, and palm fronds, and sold chambray oxford shirts. Every office still has that guy who thinks he looks great in a fedora.

When a 46-year-old Harrison Ford and his then-wife attended a big dinner at the National Museum of American History in May 1989 to donate Indiana Jones's jacket and fedora to the Smithsonian, the museum's director applauded Indiana's adventures as an "escape from the bureaucratization of American life. . . . He has a kind of redemptive diffidence."

Redemptive diffidence! Finally, a scholar speaks! The jacket and fedora have remained on display, becoming more and more mundane, like objects in a SkyMall catalogue. They are no ruby slippers, and will likely be shelved someday, confused with other blockbuster ephemera; ignored, like the ark of the covenant stashed away in that federal warehouse at the end of "Raiders."

Spielberg and Lucas have said it since 1981: All we wanted to do was have fun. There is no other point. There is nothing to get. We entertain ourselves by entertaining you.

The biggest Indiana fans do the same. At considerable expense and with varying degrees of believability, they make their own movies and post them online (or sell them to one another), the further adventures of Indiana Jones, in which they cast themselves in the lead. They evaluate one another's efforts based on how "real" (i.e., like the original) the fan film seems. Men love to dress up as Indiana Jones: Don't shave. Drag a pair of Old Navy khakis through the dirt. Get out your leather jacket. Get out the fedora.

Three boys (now men) in suburban Bay St. Louis, Miss., will live forever in fanboy lore for spending the summers between 1981 and 1989 making their own version of "Raiders of the Lost Ark," frame for frame, in their back yard, with video cameras. Copies of their film surfaced when they were adults and they became a little bit famous for it. The result is eerily earnest and adolescently adorable, as their Indiana goes through puberty from scene to scene. Now there's a studio deal to do a movie about the boys doing Indiana. (Movies about making movies of movies.) Everyone wanted to know what compelled the boys to do it, and why they kept with it so long. Why did Indy call out so strongly to them?

In an interview on TheRaider.net, an Indy fan site, the boys' ringleader, Chris Strompolos, said, "When I saw the movie, the character of Indiana Jones completely changed my world." He cast himself in the role.

"I tended to live in a fantasy world anyway and was coming off my 'Star Wars' fascination. I wanted nothing more than to be Indiana Jones, inhabit his world and be able to have the same chances and choices he did. So I set out on doing that. In retrospect, I guess I made a good choice, as 'Raiders' is still to this day one of the most perfect adventure films ever created. It changed the face of cinema forever."

It did? You get all the way down to the bottom of the cave, and find no treasure, and a skeleton who hisses It changed the face of cinema forever. It is the Meaningless Void. But Indy's down here with you, and so are the snakes, and it feels okay.

It didn't change people, it changed cinema. And maybe that changes people? Indiana Jones was meant to be seen for the rest of our lives in Best Buy and Circuit City, on a hundred different high-definition screens, with the volume way up. Look at that picture. Look at the color, the sharpness. This is where you find him. This is what he means.

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