The Art of the Indy-pendent Film

This supercut, called “Raiders of the Lost Archives,” details the decades of adventure serials that inspired George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Lawrence Kasdan to make Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. On the left side of the frame is the 1981 film, and on the right are clips from various adventure films from 1931 to 1973.

As I commented elsewhere: “This piece of re-mix isn’t about whether Lucas, Spielberg, Kasdan, and company are talentless hacks. It’s about recognizing that beloved media properties actually stem from a long lineage of earlier efforts. This is one of the ways that art is like science: repeated experimentation, even with minor differentiation, yields results that can be reproduced reliably.”

With that said, there are ways to screw it up:

This is Red Letter Media’s Plinkett review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. As usual with the Mr. Plinkett series, there are lots of storytelling basics outlined here. But this time, there’s special attention to how a well-established media property works from iteration to iteration. There are a lot of elements that make an Indy movie an Indy movie, and the lack of those elements hollowed out The Crystal Skull from within. Sure, it made a lot of references to the earlier films in the series, but, crucially, it made no references to the films upon which its premise rested.

Crystal Skull was supposed to be a callback to the sci-fi B-movies of the 1950s. That’s what Lucas claimed he wanted to emulate. That’s his source material. But Crystal Skull doesn’t acknowledge those movies at all. You couldn’t do a “Lost Archives” supercut with Crystal Skull, because with one or two exceptions, the iconography of the 1950s sci-fi B-movie is entirely lacking from the film. Where are the white coats? Where are the goggles? Where are the oscilloscopes? Where are the teenagers dancing, necking, or screaming? Where is the phantom creeping menace?

Kludgy exposition does not a sci-fi movie make. It takes more. For Crystal Skull to work, Spielberg et. al. should have reproduced the imagery of 1950s B-movies in as much detail as the other films reproduced that of the adventure serials that inspired it. Kill Bill did this with kung-fu movies; Tropic Thunder did it with 1980s action movies. The loving attention to detail is part of what made those movies enjoyable. You could sense they were made by a fan of the source material, who wanted to see that material go further.

This is my rather loquacious way of recommending that you read The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. by Jonathan Lethem. The eponymous article is here, and I re-read it every once in a while just for this part:

Most artists are brought to their vocation when their own nascent gifts are awakened by the work of a master. That is to say, most artists are converted to art by art itself. Finding one’s voice isn’t just an emptying and purifying oneself of the words of others but an adopting and embracing of filiations, communities, and discourses. Inspiration could be called inhaling the memory of an act never experienced. Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos. Any artist knows these truths, no matter how deeply he or she submerges that knowing.

That, right there, explains both why the first three Indy movies worked, and why Crystal Skull didn’t. In the former films, the crew acknowledged and paid homage to their masters. In the latter film, they were the masters, and acted accordingly. They were so arrogant about their beloved franchise that they believed they couldn’t possibly need any help reviving it. But that simply was not true. Crystal Skull should have been called Indiana Jones and the Uncanny Valley. It was so concerned with reproducing an Indy movie that it forgot to reproduce a good movie, period. It was self-referential, not referential to other works. It was in conversation with itself, not other movies. The whole film is an echo chamber.

It’s okay to reference earlier works. It’s good to know your lineage. When you have a map of where your forebears have gone, it’s easier to go where none of them have gone before. When you do it right, you get something like Raiders of the Lost Ark. Decades later, it’s still fun, still charming, still a touchstone of action film making. It’s an important film to a lot of people who didn’t grow up with the adventure serials that inspired it, and as a pastiche it was a huge contribution to American film making in the 1980s. But done wrong, you get Crystal Skull, a Frankenstein’s monster of a movie cobbled together from other, better movies of the same family, shambling about onscreen, waiting to be consumed by flames.

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