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Rethinking Indy

Friday, May 16, 2008
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C'mon, put your heart into it laddy!

Turns out, I am not the world’s only Indiana Jones fan. As a kid I would watch the first three Indy films (still sounds weird to say that) endlessly. The Temple of Doom was on TV last night, and S stopped on it for a second just as I came into the room to get something. I knew it was on without even looking at the screen, and I immediately quoted the next line of dialogue before the character had said it. I’ve watched them so many times that they are almost beyond criticism –- but, fortunately for you, dear reader, not quite. However, I have a dilemma. It has occurred to me of late that perhaps the Indiana Jones films, and TofD in particular, are not the out-and-out fun-filled spectacles that I took them to be so many years ago.

A large part of the charm of the Indy movies is their old-fashioned-ness. Spielberg and Lucas have created nostalgia for an era that most of the fans weren’t even alive to enjoy the first time round. It’s false nostalgia, but there you go. You see, things were simpler in the 1930s: Nazis were bad, and the Third World (or those parts of the globe that became known as the Third World after WWII) was exotic (dare we introduce the term Orientalism??) and full of undiscovered treasure. The grail knight could still traipse off to unknown lands, fight off the hordes, prove himself worthy, and discover illumination.

Healthier than a Big Mac

And because I am a product of the politically-correct 1990s, now, twenty years later, when I watch any of the trilogy (particularly Temple of Doom), some of the portrayals of people don’t sit all that easily with me anymore. I still enjoy the goofy/gross fun of TofD, but the depiction of India is ridiculous to the core (and offensive –- according to Wikipedia, the film was banned upon release in parts of India).

The basic Temple of Doom plot runs thus: a smart, adventurous, white guy shows up in a poor, dirty, Indian village, where the people have been reduced to eating bugs. White guy finds some ancient relics, and saves the villagers’ children from a blood-thirsty, Kali-worshipping cult, thus restoring prosperity, and, of course, happiness. The Indians are either poor and can’t fend for themselves, or under the spell of some form of Hollywood-style Hindu hocus-pocus. Can you imagine a film where a hero/archaeologist from India arrives on the shores of 1930s North America, befriends some of the ‘natives’, then discovers a valued artifact, all the while trying to avoid the clutches of, oh, I don’t know, the Ku Klux Klan, for example? Maybe you can. Fair enough. I see we have our next project, Beal.

It's a bit of a fixer upper, but we'll just get the slaves to tidy it up a bit...

And let’s not leave Raiders of the Lost Ark out of the discussion -– it isn’t entirely free of these images either. Instead of Indians, substitute Arabs –- remember the bit where Indy is trying to save Marion from the back of the Nazi truck, and a group of guys come up to him and start feeling him up? It’s brief, and I’ve never really understood the gag (if it is a gag) in the first place, but now, it, and the rest of the depictions of Arabs in the Cairo and desert scenes, are disturbingly simplistic. I’m not suggesting racism as such, but I do think there is a paternalistic, Western sensibility at work here, though I doubt it was in any way done on purpose, but out of ignorance. The Last Crusade is, I think, only a minor offender. The Arab stereotyping is there, but not as pronounced as in Raiders.

I found this article by Kaizaad Kotwal, a professor of Ohio State Univerisity. While I don’t agree with everything he says in it, and some of it sounds like ‘film-speak,’ it was interesting nonetheless:

“Spielberg’s film works as a piece of post-colonial propaganda, not only because of the way in which he creates lurid “facts” out of pure fiction, but also by the power he wields as a film maker . . . Spielberg hides the darker aspects of his film, the ideological support of colonialism and the rhetoric of white, male patriarchies behind the glitz and glamour of spectacular action-adventure, all under the aegis of historical fiction.”

Kotwal seems to imply that reinforcing colonial values was what Spielberg (and Lucas) set out to do, while I would say that those colonial, or paternalistic values arose naturally because of the form they were trying to emulate -– the Saturday matinée serials which had clear divisions between good and evil, or what was familiar, and what was foreign.

Would Spielberg be able to make a film like The Temple of Doom today? He’s now a ‘socially-conscious’ filmmaker of international repute, so images of angry Indians or Arabs in turbans swarming the good guy should be beneath him. Kotwal’s article does go on to mention how Spielberg actually felt about TofD. He quotes Spielberg, as will I, from an interview he gave in 1994, apparently after he was made aware of the racism and sexism in it: “there’s not an ounce of my personal feeling in Temple of Doom . . . Indy Two will not go down in my pantheon as one of my prouder moments.”

I'll eat anything if the price is right.

So, where does this put me, the weary Indy fan? Can I still enjoy the action-packed thrill ride of a very well-designed, and smartly executed film, however bombastic it is? Or should I throw away my copy in disgust and rail against the terrible influence Hollywood has when it reinforces lurid stereotypes and depictions of ‘other’ peoples? Well, because I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of guy, I think one can do both at the same time. Enjoy the movie if you want to, but understand where it is coming from –- there are things in it that are offensive, things that “just aren’t cricket,” and it’s okay to say as much even if you do love the movies. As a kid I thought that Indy was just helping out the good Indians, and killing the bad ones; he learned that ‘fortune and glory’ isn’t as important as family and friendship, and he saved the day. It didn’t permanently mess me up in my attitudes toward the ‘East’, but one should certainly be aware when watching it –- nothing is ever as simple as it seems.

It will be interesting to see what sort of exotic hordes await us in the fourth instalment.

Well guys, we saved India from itself. Who's up for some Chilled Monkey Brains, my treat?

On a completely different note, S and I were watching Raiders just last night, and S had a brilliant moment of realisation. When Indy swims to the German U-Boat near the end, he is wearing only a shirt and pants. Where is his hat, whip and leather jacket? He left them aboard Captian Katanga’s ship! And I seriously doubt that Katanga was the sort of guy to dutifully send them back to Indy’s home –- he was a nice sort of pirate to be sure, but not that nice! So how the heck does Indy get his stuff back in time for the Last Crusade?? Oh the humanity! llewopemearg

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. James17930 permalink
    Friday, May 16, 2008 8:45 pm

    I remember thinking many of the same things when I re-watched the trilogy a couple of years ago (not in this type of detail — just that as a whole everything was pretty simplistic and patronizing). Since then I’ve actually been pretty turned off of Indy to the point where I’m not even sure I want to see the fourth one.

    That and I just don’t know if Ford can pull off Indy anymore at his age. While it will obviously clean up at the box office, I’m guessing we’re going to see mostly negative reviews upon its release.

  2. James17930 permalink
    Sunday, May 18, 2008 9:08 pm

    Although I might be wrong about that:

    http://ca.news.yahoo.com/s/reuters/080518/entertainment/entertainment_cannes_indiana1_col

  3. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 10:10 am

    I’m avoiding reviews until I see the new one…yes, I will go see it this coming weekend.

    And I would still rank The Last Crusade as one of my all-time favourite movies.

  4. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, May 20, 2008 11:40 am

    And I think Jedi is the best Star Wars movie.

    Now what?

  5. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 12:53 pm

    I think Back to the Future Part III is just as good as Part I. But then again, I also think part II is just as good as Part III, thus as good as Part I.

    What were we talking about again?

  6. Tuesday, May 20, 2008 4:32 pm

    Men in Black II sucks.

  7. James17930 permalink
    Tuesday, May 20, 2008 9:52 pm

    Can you believe Will Smith is a Scientologist now? I mean, for fuck’s sake. I used to really like him. Despite MIB II.

  8. James17930 permalink
    Monday, May 26, 2008 1:44 am

    Just rewatched Raiders. And I have to say, it’s not as bad as I was thinking. But I will say it’s definitely the best of the first three.

    Here’s some hilarity for you though. The Chinese name for the film is:

    ‘Magic Cabinet Strange Soldier’

    I swear.

    While we’re on that topic, here are some other funny Chinese movie names:

    ‘I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry’ becomes ‘When We Were Gay Together.’

    ‘American Gangster’ becomes ‘American Black Gang.’

    ‘Friends’ somehow became ‘Six People Walking.’

    And the recent Jackie Chan/Jet Li vehicle ‘The Lost Kingdom’ somehow became ‘King of Kung Fu’ (although how that name wasn’t taken already is beyond me).

  9. Monday, May 26, 2008 9:27 am

    Radiers is still a great film, and probably the best of the series. I enjoy Last Crusade mostly for the Connery/Ford pairing, they work so well off each other.

    Lucas complains that he never thought the Holy Grail was a good plot device for an Indy film, so they added the father/son thing in to cover for it. I think Lucas was wrong, and that even without the father/son thing it would have been a good movie, but they made it even better by giving Indy a father – then they cast Connery, and made it even, even better.

  10. James17930 permalink
    Monday, May 26, 2008 11:39 am

    My only complaint about Holy Grail is that in retrospect it’s all really obvious.

  11. Gaines permalink
    Friday, May 30, 2008 1:49 pm

    Fair analysis as a bit of academic deconstruction, but really, I think we ought not sweat it too much. In ANY movie, there has to be a bad guy or group of bad guys. The race (or gender) of the bad guys really is determined by the historical setting. Think about it. Modern slasher flicks almost always have a Caucasian male as the psychopath. The terrorists in the Diehard movies were almost exclusively white Europeans with a couple of turncoat American black guys tossed in. John Travolta has played a couple of different megolomaniac terrorist roles. Does any of this make viewers stereotype white males as psycopaths and terrorists? No. Here’s something else to consider. If you are going to make a roller-coaster-type action adventure movie, you generally are going to have to set the movie in exotic locals that the audience doesn’t see on a regular basis. Guess what? Pretty much all of the exotic locations left in the world are populated exclusively by people who are various shades of brown. Kind of hard to come up with entertaining plot lines for a action-adventure set in suburban America. Anyone who can’t separate fictitious entertainment from real world cultural diversity is taking themselves way too seriously.
    This is coming from someone who is about as pretty dang liberal and while not agreeing with the substance thinks that Rev. Wright’s comments, taken in context, weren’t terribly outrageous.

  12. James17930 permalink
    Saturday, June 7, 2008 9:44 am

    ‘Magic Palace’

    So, yeah, but today’s standards this one’s pretty silly, but, I think Speilberg does deserve a little credit to making it so dark and twisted.

    First, you’ve got all the crazy food eating, not to mention the famous heart removal scene. Plus: there’s mind-controlling-blood drinking; both the protagonist and a young boy being brutally whipped; a fight scene between two young boys in which one of them stabs the other; and a group of alligators gorging on the flesh and bones of the bad guys. Sick!

    However, the opening scene in Shanghai, which had understandably been completely denied a place in my memory, is atrocious.

  13. James17930 permalink
    Sunday, June 8, 2008 6:26 am

    ‘Holy War Strange Soldier’

    Okay, I officially don’t know what I’m talking about. It’s not obvious at all (though somewhat silly and with some holes, but what movie doesn’t have those problems?). And yeah, it’s pretty decent.

    Going to see 4 later today. We’ll see what I think.

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