Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Summer of '81: Escape from New York

In John Carpenter's landmark action film, the year 1988 sees a whopping 400 percent increase in America's crime rates.  A result is that, by 1997, Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison...housing all of America's offenders.  

The city is one giant "dark zone."  The waters around the island are mined.  The bridges out of the city are blocked off, and Lady Liberty has become but a disembarkation point, a processing station for new prison inmate where they are (mercifully?) given the option of immediate termination rather than incarceration. 

This last bit of detail involving the Statue of Liberty  is wonderful visual and contextual symbolism: the beautiful statue that once welcomed immigrants to America's shores now oversees a journey to perpetual exile and punishment.  The American dream, as Carpenter's They Live (1988) suggests, seems truly dead.

Some critics at the time of the film's release called Escape from New York "utterly cynical" and noted that it presented a "corrosive, pessimistic view of humanity," (Kevin Thomas, The Los Angeles Times).  

Others, like Joseph Gelmis noted that Carpenter's visuals were "provocative," and recognized  that the Carpenter film offered "an escape" from "ordinary entertainment into the hothouse  humidity" of viewer "paranoia" (Richard Corliss, Time Magazine).  

Another way to read that last sentence is this: As in the case of all good speculative writers and filmmakers, John Carpenter gazed at some troublesome signs in the world around him and imagined what the future might look like, given certain present-day trends.   All true works of art -- and this goes for horror movies, action movies, literature and theatre -- reflect their historical context to a large degree, and the same axiom is true of Escape from New York

So what exactly were those trends?  What was Carpenter seeing  around him, in the culture, in 1980 and 1981?
A computer diagram of Manhattan Island Prison.

Well, the crime rate in America had steadily been on the rise since the early 1970s, but was at all-time peak in the early 1980s (though it steeply declined starting in 1993).  

The most highly-concentrated areas of crime in America were inside modern cities, largely because of the population density and the pervasive economic disadvantages of many denizens.  

In 1980, America was also suffering an economic recession and locked in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

At the same time that crime was skyrocketing in 1980, America boasted the highest-documented incarceration rate in the world.  

In other words, we not only had more crimes committed here, we had more people going to prison for them (especially drug crimes, which form a disproportionately large percentage of our inmate population, to this day).  

In 2010, still, we incarcerate more criminals than any nation in the globe.  One in American eighteen men is in jail at this point, or being monitored under house arrest.  So this trend, unlike the crime rate, did not abate after the 1980s.

Studying these trends from the standpoint of 1980, however, it must have been tantalizing to imagine what might occur in the future if the crime rate and prison rate continued to increase at such a blazing rate; if all things remained equal.  Were we destined to be a country of crime and violence, managed by heavily-armed, helmeted and uniformed policemen?

Instead of building prisons -- especially with deficits and economic recession to deal with -- would we pick a pre-existing, geographically isolated area like Manhattan Island -- and convert it into a giant, inescapable jail?  

It's a brawny, imaginative, and scary concept,  and John Carpenter was also reportedly influenced by the 1974 film Death Wish, which he didn't much like, but which nonetheless depicted the modern American city as a "jungle."  This was a vibe the director reportedly sought to emulate in Escape from New York.

He succeeded wildly, and though Escape from New York is not a horror film, it features passages of palpable terror and surprise jolts.  Most of the film occurs in impenetrable night (like Halloween [1978]), and dangerous, barely-human "Crazies" roam Manhattan's streets, bursting out of floor boards and chasing people down darkened alleys.  Courtesy of Carpenter's pulse-pounding soundtrack, the film is perpetually intense, and punctuated by great bursts of violence and rousing action.

If one purpose of film is to transport the audience to a new world, one unimagined and unreal (but nonetheless believable), then Escape from New York succeeds wildly, landing us in a future that might have been, but thankfully wasn't.  It's a great dark, dystopian fantasy.

"Get a New President"

Ronald Reagan + Margaret Thatcher = Donald Pleasence.

Escape from New York tells the story of a decorated veteran and criminal convict, Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), as he is transferred to Manhattan Island Penitentiary.  

Before Snake goes in, however, a national crisis occurs.  

Forces of organized labor (now deemed a terrorist organization by the police state....) hijack Air Force One, and fly it over restricted New York airspace while it is en route to the Hartford Summit and the President's meeting with international enemies, the Soviet Union and China.  The plane crashes, but not before the President (Donald Pleasence) lands safely inside the prison in an escape pod.

Unfortunately, forces of New York's tyrannical ruler, the Duke (Isaac Hayes), capture the President and use him to negotiate for the release of the entire prison population.  The President  happens to be carrying a critical cassette tape on the subject of a nuclear fusion breakthrough, one which could end the war, finally, and involves no less than "the survival of the species." Ao he can't simply be left in the City at the mercy of the Duke.  

Snake gets sent into the penitentiary by glider to retrieve the President and the crucial cassette tape.  The survivor has just 24-hours to do so before capsules in his neck (implanted by his captors...) explode and kill him.  Once inside Manhattan, Snake teams up with an old Cabbie (Ernest Borgnine) who "knows everyone in this town," a treacherous but brilliant old colleague, Brain (Harry Dean Stanton) and his his "squeeze," Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau), a devoted bodyguard and beautiful woman.

But getting the President out alive isn't going to be easy.  

"Only Prisoners and the Worlds They Have Made..."

Snake lands in enemy territory.

One of the most perpetually fascinating aspects of Escape from New York involves the Carpenter comparison of the world inside the prison to the world outside, in larger, future America.  

Specifically, America of 1997 -- as envisioned by Escape from New York -- has become a restrictive police state, and the country is locked in a perpetual, seemingly-never ending international war.  

The war, in fact, seems to be an excuse for some draconian law enforcement policies, and the refrain "we're still at war" (spoken by Hauk [Lee Van Cleef]) is used as a kind of blanket explanation, rationalizing away much.   

We get much of this information through visuals, and through brief snatches of dialogue.  The "terrorist" hijacker of Air Force One says this, for example: "Tell this to the workers when they ask where their leader went. We, the soldiers of The National Liberation Front of America, in the name of the workers and all the oppressed of this imperialist country, have struck a fatal blow to the fascist police state. What better revolutionary example than to let their president perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison."

That line suggests much political commentary about the country America has turned into.

But Carpenter artfully sets up a parallel between the film's two rulers, The Duke of New York, and the President of the United States.  Donald Pleasence's character -- whom the actor freely admitted was created as an amalgam of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher -- is strong with stagecraft and public speech, but cowardly when confronted with real personal jeopardy in New York.  Worse, when he is "tested" by Snake following his escape, the consummate politician evidences simply token regret for the fact that people died to save his life and free him from the Manhattan Penitentiary.  

All the Chief Executive can offer are a few hollow words about "the nation" appreciating their sacrifice.  The nation?  What about him, the man and president?  Rescued by people dismissed as criminals and thrown away by society at large?

Snake gives the President a fair chance to review his experiences in NY, and thus revise his law enforcement policies (throwing away whole cities worth of American citizens...) but the President does not rise to the occasion.   He's going to be on TV in a few minutes, after all, and he's really busy.

In Snake's eyes, this behavior ultimately makes the President no better than The Duke.  Both men  use harsh tactics, just on vastly different scales.  The Duke threatens people with a machine gun; the President with a breakthrough in nuclear fusion that could end the world.  

The Duke does not reciprocate the loyalty of his people, and when he sees a chance to escape from prison alone, he takes it.  Similarly, the President evidences no regret for the fact that Maggie, Cabbie and Brain died in the attempt to rescue him.  One man is a criminal on a personal scale (the Duke); the other is a criminal on an international scale.  One man rules a real prison, the other man rules a country, a metaphorical prison, perhaps.

The 1996 sequel, Escape from L.A. would go even further with this notion of comparing America to a prison; with a fundamentalist, religious-right president (from Lynchburg, just like the late Jerry Falwell...) banishing Muslims, atheists, smokers and meat-eaters (!) from Christian America proper to the breakaway island of Los Angeles. 

I Thought You Were Dead: Snake Plissken as Carpenter Anti-Hero

I heard you were dead.

When I wrote my monograph, The Films of John Carpenter, I expounded at great length about the John Carpenter Anti-Hero, and the numerous examples we see throughout the director's film canon.  

These anti-heroes are, in brief: Napoleon Wilson in Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape from L.A., MacReady in The Thing (1982), John Nada in They Live (1988), Trent in In The Mouth of Madness (1994), Jack Crow in Vampires (1998),  and Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars (2001).

What can we say about these men?

Well, the Carpenter Anti-Hero is often a noble outsider and criminal  whose reputation precedes him. We see this explicitly with Snake.  Everywhere he goes, men admire him, know his reputation, and greet him with the comment "I heard you were dead."  He is a legend, then, in his own time.  Before he was a crook, Snake was a decorated war hero.  This is important, he once believed in America enough to serve in her military; but something change.  Something disappointed him and Snake left the system.  Hauk is downright fascinated by Snake and his outsider status, and by film's end, even offers Plissken a job.

Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Joston) in Assault on Precinct 13 is also the subject of intense curiosity to members of the establishment class, including his jailer, Starker (Charles Cyphers): "You're not a psychopath. You're not stupid," he says "why did you kill all those people?" This question allows us to understand that Wilson -- like Snake -- is not simply a run-of-the-mill thug.  Desolation Williams in Ghosts of Mars is very much the same space: a noble criminal with an uncompromising set of ethics and a legend built up around him by society.  These are men who left society-at-large to make a statement.

Why create a film hero who is also a criminal?  Well, as I wrote in my book, Carpenter is a real maverick, but more than that, strongly anti-authoritarian in his bent.  I  suspect that he views people who are part of the current (corrupt?) system as being compromised and therefore not entirely fit for heroism.  Now, of course, Natasha Henstridge and Austin Stoker play noble police officers in their respective Carpenter features, but they emerge as real heroes largely through their association with the criminals and recognition that Wilson and Williams can be powerful allies fighting a common evil.  

Secondly, who is a "criminal" depends largely on who writes the laws, doesn't it?  This is, similarly, the difference between a freedom fighter and a terrorist.  Who's to say if Snake is a criminal, or actually a protester?

But to put a very fine point on it, Carpenter  requires an "outsider" in films such as They Live and Escape from New Yorkone to pass judgment on the current establishment.  You can't fulfill this role if you are a part of that establishment  You have to be disenfranchised...outside.    

As his point of view as "outsider" suggests, the Carpenter anti-hero is universally a man who sees things differently than those around him, and usually in power.  Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) sees the United States as corrupt and bereft of freedom and humanity in both Escape films.  Likewise, John Nada (Roddy Piper) discovers the alien conspiracy behind America's consumer, yuppie culture, in They Live.  

Importantly, the "vision" of these two  characters is hampered -- or perhaps augmented -- in a fashion that visually distinguishes them from the other dramatis personae in the films. Snake distinctively adorns an eye-patch. John Nada dons a pair of sunglasses so that he can see reality as it is; the very opposite of rose-colored glasses.   In other words, form echoes content in the films of J.C.  These men "see" differently, and their visual accouterments actually reflect the singularity of that "sight." 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, through the Anti-hero's actions, some aspect of "The Establishment" is changed in a typical John Carpenter film.   The Carpenter anti-hero is one who, through often his final act, changes the shape and order of things in his world.  He overturns the corruption.  In Escape from New York, Snake judges the President as a failure, and shreds the cassette tape that could save the world...judging that America -- at least in this iteration -- isn't worthy of survival.

In Escape from L.A., Snake Plissken activates the Sword of Damocles and plunges the world into perpetual darkness, so that America can literally start over, and liberty can be re-born.

In They Live, John Nada destroys the alien satellite dish sending hypnotic signals to all human beings, revealing the world as it truly is; not through the filter of reality the alien echo chamber has created. In The Thing, MacReady destroys the arctic base, and holds the Thing at bay in the icy winter, even though it means his eventual death.  In Vampires, Crow takes down the evil cardinal in the Vatican and the lead vampire simultaneously, destroying an unholy -- but apparently well-established -- conspiracy.

Snake and his anti-hero brethren are agents of change, but in films like Escape from New York, Carpenter suggests such change can only truly come from outside the system.  The agents of change, it should be noted, are almost all Western-styled heroes  (cowboys?) who ride in, almost always alone (though Crow has a team; Williams a gang...) and soon set things straight.

Chock Full of Nuts

And in this corner...Snake Plissken

Another reason that Escape from New York works so well, 40 years later,  is that it gently but humorously tweaks its own premise, that the Big Apple is now a maximum-security prison.  

For instance, The Great White Way is still, apparently putting on musicals...just with smaller budgets.  Snake walks in on Cabbie during a theatrical performance of the uncharacteristically-happy tune "Everyone's Coming to New York." This song pointedly ribs musical tradition and the Great American songbook, but more than that, literally states the truth.  In a country of harsh, draconian laws, where Manhattan is a prison, everyone is coming to New York. Sooner or later.

Later in the film -- during an action scene, no less -- characters passionately argue about street directions, as drivers in standstill New York traffic are wont to do in real life, every day.  In particular, Maggie and Brain argue about taking Broadway at that time of night.  Broadway, it turns out, is lined by armed miscreants and Crazies...

Another fine joke is entirely visual in nature. Snake hides in a coffee shop on Broadway and 43rd street, called Chock Full of Nuts (established in 1921). Well, Chock Full of Nuts sells itself as the "official coffee of the city that never sleeps," and given the presence of Crazies and crooks, the New York of this movie doesn't seem to sleep, either.  

Better yet, the store is overrun by Crazies (coming out of the floor boards) in a matter of moments, so it is, a place, literally, chock full of nuts. The shop's residents live up to the moniker.

Why mention the humorous aspects of the film?  Well, it's harder to view Escape from New York as "corrosive," "utterly cynical" and "pessimistic" once you recognize that it also features this mitigating presence of levity.  In other words, the movie's dark view of humanity (and the System) is leavened, largely, by the wicked in-jokes that run throughout the film's veins. John Carpenter is first and foremost a popular filmmaker.  He may (and often does...) have a lot of substance to say in his films, but his movies are always going to entertain first.

In that sense, finally, Escape from New York must rank as one of the great urban blight pictures of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  It doesn't candy coat its dark speculations a whit, but its lead character, Snake, is an admirable anti-hero, and the movie boasts this subversive sense of humor about its very premise.    

These are just a few reasons why Snake Plissken is immortal, and cult movie fans have never made the mistake of believing that he is dead.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Summer of '81: Superman II

Although the film suffered dramatic behind-the-scenes tumults, including a shift in the director’s chair from Richard Donner to Richard Lester, Superman II (released in America in 1981) certainly ranks on my short list of the best movie sequels ever made (along with The Empire Strikes Back [1980], The Road Warrior [1982], Aliens [1986], The Godfather II [1974], and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [1982]).

To this sequel’s credit, Superman II assiduously continues Superman: The Movie’s (1978) religious underpinnings, comparing the Man of Steel to Jesus Christ himself. Only here, it is not Superman’s origin that we witness, but rather his great “human” temptation, as well as an Armageddon-styled, End-of-Days-type battle. As before, the carefully placed religious sub-text underlines many of the film’s key visuals, and layers the story with an additional veneer of meaning.

Additionally, Superman II deepens the Clark Kent/Lois Lane relationship significantly, and adds new shades to Superman’s personality. There are moments here in which Superman is legitimately angry and even self-loathing. Yet despite his difficult trials, his ultimate goodness still shines through.  Even when things are at their worst -- and he is at his weakest -- this Superman is not a “dark hero” or a “brooder.” 

Finally, and perhaps most viscerally, Superman II delivers fully and explicitly on the action promise of the first film.

Superman: The Movie did a spectacular, even incomparable job of establishing the world of Superman with its epic three-part structure (Krypton/Smallville/Metropolis). Yet there wasn’t a deep impression in that film that Superman had faced a devastating challenge; one that could ultimately destroy him or imperil all of mankind. Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman) was a criminal menace and mastermind, certainly, but one with overt comedic overtones. Even Lois Lane’s death -- the event that caused Superman to reverse time itself – was an unintentional side-effect rather than a direct result of Luthor’s malice.

Superman II’s creative dynamic is determinedly different, however. Here, we witness a frightening multiplication of on-screen danger as Superman faces three Kryptonian criminals who wreak incredible havoc on Earth. The film’s climactic “Battle for Metropolis” still looks mighty impressive today, but in 1981 it carried an emotional punch too, a literal special effects wallop.   

Indeed, this sustained battle between Superman and the three super-villains might be described as a sort of Holy Grail for modern superhero movie fans: a city-wide battle scene wherein super foes duke it out, no holds-barred.  The only limits present are those of the imagination, and of the special effects technology. This is, largely, what modern audiences desired (and did not get) out of Singer’s Superman Returns (2006), apparently.

Today -- over thirty years later -- Superman II impresses most significantly as “The Last Temptation of Superman,” as I like to term it. This is the (stirring) adventure in which Superman learns he will always stand apart from the world, and, in the end, comes to understand why he must embrace that (isolating) destiny.

“Is there no one on this planet to even challenge me?”

Superman (Christopher Reeve) rescues Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) from terrorists at the Eiffel Tower, and detonates a nuclear bomb in outer space (intended for Paris) at the last moment.  

The blast in deep space, however, shatters the Phantom Zone prison and releases three super-powered menaces, General Zod (Terence Stamp), his consort Ursa (Sarah Douglas) and the hulking Non (Jack O’Halloran).

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Lex Luthor (Hackman) escapes from prison, and discovers Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

At roughly the same time, Lois and Clark visit Niagara Falls to investigate honeymoon rip-offs, and Lane begins to suspect that Kent and Superman are one in the same.  When she learns the truth, Superman takes the love of his life to his icy home in the north, and confers there with the image of his Kryptonian mother, Lara (Susannah York) about taking a human wife. Lara instructs Superman that he most forsake all of his Kryptonian powers, and become a mere mortal. 

Clark undergoes the process, unaware of the danger the Earth faces from the three Kryptonian criminals.

With nobody to stop them, Zod and his cohorts take total control of the Earth, forcing the President of the U.S. to submit to their will. After a day or so in charge, however, the criminals grow bored, at least until Lex Luthor shows up and informs Zod that he can deliver Superman -- Jor-El’s son -- to him.

When Superman – now with no powers -- learns what has happened in his absence, he takes a difficult trek back to the Fortress of Solitude in hopes of restoring his powers and reclaiming his heritage.

 “I see you are practiced in worshiping things that fly.”

In Superman: The Movie, we saw a God-like figure (Jor-El) in a Heaven-like setting (Krypton), vanquish evil insurrectionists (like Lucifer) to the Hell of the Phantom Zone. We also saw that God-like figure deliver his only begotten son, Kal-El, to Earth…as a gift to mankind.

Superman II picks up on this religious aspect of the superhero’s journey and writes new chapters in his tale.  In particular, Superman II focuses on two specific aspects of Christ’s story, namely his temptation by the Devil, and secondly, the battle of Armageddon, the war leading to dawn of a New Age of Peace.

In the first instance, Clark reaches a crossroads in his relationship with Lois Lane. She learns his identity as Superman, and he decides to pursue a relationship with her.  This relationship -- though what Clark desires most deeply -- goes directly against his destiny as the Savior of Mankind. Clark cannot be the world’s savior and Lois’s husband simultaneously, but he chooses to be with her anyway.  In other words, he has given in to the temptations of the flesh and of the heart. Clark renounces his powers for the love of a mortal soul, and then even lives as a mortal himself for a time. Only after giving up his God-like powers does Clark realize he has abdicated his destiny and his heritage.

At this point, Clark heads back into the Arctic desert to attempt to regain his powers, and these moments in the film function as an allusion to Christ’s forty-days wandering in the desert, as described in the Gospels.  If we count that time as the moment from which Clark becomes human to the time he becomes Superman again, we see that he, like, Jesus, is exposed to terrible dangers during this period, from vicious beatings (at the fist of a nasty trucker) to nearly freezing to death. 

Finally, Clark -- again like Jesus Christ -- is healed and ministered to by an otherworldly power.  Only here it’s the power of the green crystal (the power of Krypton) which he finds still intact in the Fortress of Solitude. In Scripture, it was the Angels who came to Jesus, but as we saw in Superman: The Movie, there is a case to be made that the Kryptonian society represents “Heaven,” so the analogy holds.

When Superman returns to Metropolis to fight the evil-doers from Krypton, the event plays out very much like the Biblical description of the End Times.  It is, in short, the precursor to the “Second Coming of Superman.”  Once Zod and the others are defeated, the victory heralds -- if not a thousand years of peace -- certainly a paradise-like kingdom with no crime or war, as directly promised in Scripture.  In this case, Superman has learned from his temptation and promises the President of the United States that he won’t make the same mistake again. He will be looking over the world – and protecting us – without selfish distraction.  The Son has taken his place as the Messiah, putting aside the desires we associate with the mortal world.

The temptation of mortal life.

The Trials: Wandering in the icy desert.

Restored by a Godly power.

The Second Coming of Superman
Restoration and a New Age of Peace.

In the film’s three Kryptonian villains, we get representations of the Anti-Christ, the Devil, or “false Gods,” but ones who nonetheless boast divine powers.  In fact, the God-like (Devil-like?) abilities of these bad guys are defined in the film in largely Christian terms.  When he comes to Earth, for example, the evil Zod walks on water.  And Ursa, almost immediately upon visiting Planet “Houston,” discovers a serpent in the grass (which she promptly kills).  Finally, all three of the villains are destroyed when they disappear or "fall" into an apparently bottomless pit, a dramatic plummet which mimics the fall of Lucifer.  These actions and symbols are all deliberately religious in nature so that we, as the viewers, can contextualize Superman II as Armageddon and Aftermath.  This is the long-destined battle between Good and Evil on Earth.

Walking on water.

The Serpent in the Garden.

The Fall.
At the heart of Superman II lurks the very question many ask regarding Jesus, actually.  Can the Son of God be both Man and God simultaneously?  And what does the man lose or give up by being divine?  The answer is very clearly stated in this film. Superman must surrender the Earthly love of Lois Lane, and commit to a destiny wherein he will always be alone, always be separated, in some sense, from the rest of humanity.  Outside of the special effects spectacle of the film, I admire Superman II because I feel that Superman’s existential crisis is right there, on the surface, for all of us to see.  He turned back time to bring Lois Lane back to life, but he still can’t actually be with her; can’t love her, can't grow old with her. 

I appreciate the fact that we get to see “the man” inside Superman in this sequel.  The one who gets angry when Lois discovers his secret.  The one who tastes his own blood for the first time, after forgetting he is no longer invincible.  The one who executes a perfect deception against Lex, Zod and the other criminals.  Even the one who -- just for once -- would like to be a little selfish.  

There’s a sense in this film of Superman as a much more well-developed character than we have seen previously.  In particular, Superman II's conclusion always impresses me.  After Superman realizes he cannot defeat the villains with brute force in the Battle of Metropolis, he defeats them with his mind – out-thinking and outmaneuvering them – in the Fortress of Solitude.  

This is, in some way, a comment to the audience that brute force – even on a super scale -- can be beaten by intelligence and ingenuity.  I must admit, watching Superman crush (the mortal) Zod’s hand is one of the great joys of this film. Being physically strong and being clever are two very different things.  Superman is both, but Zod is only the former.  We might intuit that Superman has learned from his time with human beings how to be clever, and I like that lesson.

I have very distinct memories of seeing this film in the theater in 1981, and being overwhelmed and highly-entertained by the Battle of Metropolis, a fifteen minute set-piece that involves the Empire State Building, a flying bus, heat vision, super “breath,” and other powers we associate with the Superman myth  It all comes together beautifully in this sustained set-piece, and I’ll never forget the rush of adrenaline I felt (and the cheers of the audience...) when Superman picks up Zod, spins him around, and hurls him away.  The bastard had it coming.

I attribute the thrill of that small (but delightful...) moment to the believable special effects, the strong audience investment in the Superman character at that point in the narrative (helped immensely by Reeve’s portrayal), and Stamp’s cold, ruthless screen presence as General Zod.  

In short, every element came together absolutely perfectly in the Battle of Metropolis, and Superman II had the audience right where it wanted it.  Great villains, a great sense of humor, a touching romance and a meaningful journey for its hero...what's not to love here?  I believe it says something about the quality of the writing, the acting, the directing and the hero himself that Superman faces three villains in this film, but is never overshadowed or sidelined.  Superman II never becomes a freak show (as some Batman films have become).

Alas, this would be the last time in the Superman movie franchise all the elements gelled perfectly. After Superman II, it was all downhill…

Sunday, June 13, 2021

40 Years Ago: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

If adventure has a name, it must be Indiana Jones.

But if adventure movies could have three names, they would be Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Harrison Ford.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) remains one of the most brilliantly-crafted action blockbusters of the last several decades, and is a testament to the collaborative efforts of those talents name-checked above. As Richard Schickel noted in his original Time Magazine review: “The simple craftsmanship evident throughout [the film], the attention to detail, which, as the special-effects people like to say, "sells the shot," puts the viewer in mind of an almost vanished habit of meticulous movie-making.”

Like Star Wars (1977) before it, Raiders of the Lost Ark is more than a simple adventure film, however. It is also a pastiche, a descriptor meaning that the film meaningfully draws its inspiration from other, historical works of art.  

In this case, Lucas and Spielberg knowingly style their 1981 adventure film after the serials or chapter-plays of the 1930s and early 1940s.  Nearly every aspect of the picture -- including character “types,” contextual backdrop, and even choice of wardrobe -- emerges from the movie serials of this span.  

But intriguingly, such elements are re-purposed for modern audiences as symbols or signifiers of “innocence” during an epoch of what could fairly be described as cynical, technological movie-making.  

Legendarily, Raiders of the Lost Ark was devised by an exhausted and depleted George Lucas following the difficult production of Star Wars.  The project also appealed to a post-Jaws (1975) and post-1941 (1979) Steven Spielberg on the basis that it would prove a deliberate step-away from -- and rebuke of -- the “mechanical” effects and challenges of those pictures; the worlds of matte-paintings, blue-screens, motion-control cameras, and other cutting edge hardware.

Yet Raiders of the Lost Ark serves as more than mere romantic response to modern, technological filmmaking. It also shares a crucial creative element or conceit with such 1930s films as King Kong (1933).  

In particular, the film serves as both a critique of  a morally rudderless, secular Modernity and as an invitation for contemporary movie audiences to imagine a “larger” world outside the confines of “The West” or “Western Thought.”  

Thus, Raiders of the Lost Ark escorts viewers to a world where not every mystery is resolved, where not every miracle is quantified, and where not every problem is diagnosable.  It showcases a world, quite simply, where you can still believe in magic…and still feel wonder -- and yes, fear -- at facets of life beyond the boundaries of human understanding.

Raiders of the Lost Ark also explicitly concerns the First World’s whole-sale plundering of the Third World for its treasures.  And this plundering -- particularly for golden artifacts -- is no doubt a metaphor for the oil trade, and also for western imperialism or colonialism in general terms. 

But intriguingly, the Lucas/Spielberg film also acknowledges that in “excavating” the resource-rich Third World, some heretofore dismissed mystical or mythological aspect of those cultures may find new relevance or meaning in the glittering and advanced -- but ultimately spirit-sapped -- Age of Reason.  

In other words, in the process of strip-mining Africa, the Far East, Peru, or the Middle East for its treasures, the denizens of the First World also discover some lost connection to their own history, or even their diminished sense of spirituality and humanity.  

Beyond the “fortune and glory” of avaricious, individual aspiration stands the possibility of renewing one’s faith, and buttressing lost or faltering belief.  This very notion is the thematic undercurrent not only for Raiders of the Lost Ark, but for all the Indiana Jones films. A world-weary and at times dissolute man of Modernity finds in buried or forgotten Antiquity the magic that is lacking in his life, and in his "new age" of science.  Indiana Jones may claim that Archaeology is the search for facts, not "truth" (the purview of Philosophy, he states), but in terms of the films, this is not strictly the case.

This overriding theme of rediscovered faith in re-discovered articles of Antiquity is powerfully visualized in Raiders of the Lost Ark, especially in regards to the unearthly, dreadful power of the Ark.  The film is rife with literal “Wrath of God”-type visuals which suggest a power outside human comprehension. This unseen, gathering force grows in strength (and anger…) as Nazis and Indiana Jones himself threaten to “disturb” the Ark from it sanctuary and long slumber.

The discovery of this priceless religious artifact in Raiders of the Lost Ark by two figures who have “fallen from faith” -- Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and Rene Belloq (Paul Freeman) -- also pulsates at the heart of the picture. 

Both men unexpectedly see their lapsed faith renewed -- though in drastically differing fashions -- during the film’s explosive denouement.  Importantly, however, this new-found sense of faith or belief arises from their reckoning with an ancient Holy Object, one totally outside their respective allegiances during the technological but inhumane World War II era.

To depict a hero who has lost faith and then finds it again, Spielberg frequently crafts visuals (with DP Douglas Slocombe) that diagram remarkable depth and detail, ones heavy on dark and light.  These are the film’s compositions of “shadow,” and they pinpoint a morally uncertain Indiana Jones perched half-way between good and evil.  

He could, it seems, go either way at this juncture, and Raiders of the Lost Ark is his story of, finally, of redemption…of emergence from the shadows of doubt, guilt, and existential angst.

Girded with thrill-a-minute fight sequences and exhilarating chases, Raiders of the Lost Ark thrives even today not only because it is jaunty, good-humored nature, but because it seeks to excavate in its audience a well-spring of authentic wonder, a belief that those things that seem buried in our past --whether a holy relic, the tradition of the 1930s movie serial, or even an individual sense of spirituality -- can find relevance and new meaning in an age of cynicism and calculation.

“Inside the Ark are treasures beyond your wildest aspirations.”
After returning empty-handed from a hazardous trip to Peru, archaeologist and professor Indiana Jones (Ford) is contacted at his university by two officers from U.S. Army Intelligence.
These officers inform Indy that Adolf Hitler is “obsessed with the occult” and that he has sent his armies across the globe to recover any relics or treasures relating to it.  Within Hitler’s reach now is the Ark of the Covenant, the mysterious container which is believed to have once housed the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  
Mankind has searched for the Ark for three thousand years, and now Hitler wants it because it can “level mountains” and render any army which carries it “invincible.”
During their world-wide hunt for the Ark, the Nazis have also revealed an unusual interest in Abner Ravenwood, Indy’s American mentor, with whom he had a falling out some time ago. Ravenwood possesses the head-piece of the “Staff of Ra,” a ceremonial object that can locate the precise location of the Ark inside the long-buried city of Tanis.  
Army Intelligence wants Jones to acquire the head-piece first, and also recover the Ark before the Nazis can do so.
Indy’s first stop on this journey is Nepal.  There, he learns that Ravenwood is dead, and that Marion (Karen Allen), Abner’s beautiful daughter, is in possession of the head-piece.  Marion is also Indy’s former lover -- and a spurned one at that -- and is reluctant to part with the jeweled head-piece because of the bad blood between them.  
When Nazi agents, led by the sinister Toht (Ronald Lacey), burn down Marion’s bar in pursuit of the same artifact, however, she agrees to partner with Jones on his quest.
Indy and Marion head to Cairo next, where they work with Indy’s old friend and an expert digger, Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) to locate the Tanis Map Room.   Sallah reports that the Nazis are digging in the wrong place, and that there is still time to excavate and recover the Ark from the Well of Souls.
After several hazardous brushes with the Nazis and his French rival, Belloq (Freeman), Indy and Marion finally retrieve the Ark...and then once more lose the prized artifact to them.
In the end, Indiana Jones and Marion must stand witness to the mysterious and fearsome powers of the Ark of the Covenant, as Belloq does the unthinkable, and opens it…

The Ark…it is something that man was not meant to disturb. Death has always surrounded it. It is not of this Earth.” 
In the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood studios such as Republic, Universal, Mascot, and Columbia succeeded at the box office by producing a steady diet of serials, or chapter plays.  These adventure films highlighted weekly cliff-hangers and stories of derring-do.  Audiences watched these chapter-plays (usually about twenty-minutes in duration per segment…) and then returned to the theater the following ten weeks or so to see how their heroes fared following apparently-impossible-to-escape perils. 

These 1930s-1940s serials arrived in a variety of modes or genres, but can nonetheless be organized by four categories, broadly-speaking.  There were space-based serials (Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers), superhero serials (Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel), western serials (The Lone Ranger) and, last but not least, “adventure” serials often featuring a larger-than-life hero engaged in a dangerous quest (usually in a jungle or other "uncivilized" territory by Modernity's standards).  

Indeed, “the adventurer” in the fourth sub-type of serial would often travel to some lost kingdom, country, island, or village (Darkest Africa [1936], The Secret of Treasure Island [1938], The Valley of the Vanishing Men [1942], Raiders of Ghost City [1944]) in search of lost treasure.  The adventurer/hero was sometimes an agent for the U.S. government too, and might end up battling forces of the Axis Powers -- Germany and Japan -- in efforts such as Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (1943), The Adventures of Smiling Jack (1943), and Secret Service in Darkest Africa (1943).  

Virtually all of the 1930s-1940s serials featured a hero with a memorable name, such as Ace Drummond, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Frank Merriwell, Kit Carson, Don Winslow, Red Barry, or Red Ryder.  And many of these protagonists frequently wore a hat so that it was easy to stunt-double the lead actor during fight scenes.  

Clearly, Indiana Jones fits easily into this serial tradition, right down to his trademark fedora. The cliffhangers are present in the 1981 film too, and Raiders’ boasts an episodic structure that hinges on extreme danger, and then sudden resolution of that danger. 

The conventional serial format imitated by Raiders also often features a sidekick of a comic nature, a role that Sallah happily conforms to in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Short Round plays in Temple of Doom, and Marcus Brody fills in The Last Crusade.  These characters not only back-up the protagonist and provide levity to alleviate tension, they provide someone for the hero to rescue so more derring-do is possible.

The backdrop for such tales, as noted above, is often explicitly World War II, and involves evil foreign agents, with names like “The Scorpion.” These agents often infiltrate non-aligned countries so as to procure their resources and/or loyalties in the conflict.  The villains generally fall into the comic-book general villain/soldier-villain dichotomy, which again one can detect clearly in terms of Belloq and Toht in Raiders. Belloq is the brains and cunning, whereas Toht is the muscle or enforcer.

Straight-forward and patriotic, the 1930s-1940s movie serials mostly eschewed nuance or subtlety in storytelling, and succeeded as pure entertainment; as roller-coaster or thrill ride. They were literally “black and white" in format and theme.   

Raiders knowingly absorbs all the creative ingredients of such serials, as noted above, but the game it plays is a bit more complex.  The film harks back to a more innocent time not only in terms of movie narratives, but in terms of movie-making itself; what Spielberg described as a “James Bond movie without hardware” in an interview with Janet Maslin.  The black-and-white aesthetic remains virtually intact, only updated for color cinema. Visually-speaking, the film's black-and-white presentation actually involve shades of light and dark, and menacing, obfuscating shadows.

Upon re-watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for this review, I was reminded how beautiful and textured the cinematography remains.  Spielberg conveys a great deal of information about character and plot through visual means, and via compositions that stress shadows, or the interplay of light and dark.  

In particular, Indiana Jones himself is often visualized as being half-in and half-out of the shadows.  When he is acting as a “grave-robber” in Peru for instance, at the commencement of the film, we see him emerge from the shadows, but not completely.  The shadows still cloak and obscure parts of his visage, in part because he is an unknown quantity to the audience.  Is he a mercenary, a grave-robber, an historian or a scientist?  It's not entirely clear at this juncture.

Similarly, when Indy attempts to procure from Marion the head-piece to the Staff of Ra -- and not entirely honestly at that -- even darker shadows fall across his face.  We see nothing of Indy's face save for his furtive, cunning eyes, and the imagery suggests that he is hiding much.  Here, Indy seems truly in danger of becoming like Belloq...a man without faith, and more than that, without goodness.

When Marion first spies Indy in the film, in her saloon in Nepal, he is visualized by Spielberg entirely as a shadow on the wall, at least at first.  Again, consider the details of their personal relationship. Indy romanced Marion when she was very young (and likely made love to her…), and then went about his way, with hardly a look back.  Marion has never forgiven or forgotten him, and this memory of a failed romance has driven her to the ends of the Earth, literally.  

Indiana Jones is thus, literally, a colossal shadow looming over Marion's life, and her decisions.  When she first sees him again, after all these years, in Raiders of the Lost Ark, that’s precisely as Indy appears in the frame, as an over-sized shadow dwarfing her body.  He is as large and imposing as she has made him in her memory.

Finally, another trenchant example: when Belloq speaks to a heart-broken Indy at a Cairo restaurant, Indy is seen in the foreground of the frame, under a cloak of shadows that echoes his cloak of mourning (at Marion’s apparent demise). But there’s more going on in this scene than meets the eye.  It is here that Belloq refers to Indy as his “mirror,” and he discusses with him how they are both men without faith, and thus very much alike.  

Indy slips into shadow in this composition because he very much fears that Belloq's words are accurate.  His obsession -- his desire to reclaim various treasures of Antiquity for fortune and glory --  has caused him to cut corners, and to endanger those whom he loves. Indy believes Marion is dead, and that, furthermore he caused her death.  All we need to understand this state-of-mind is the prominent image of his face beneath the shroud of shadows. He is a man whose soul is in a precarious condition.

Man of Shadows: Grave robber or archaelogist?

Motives: Pure or shadowy?

The Shadow that looms over Marion's li fe.

The Shadows of Guilt is like a shroud over Indy.

If light and dark, shadow and light, play a crucial role in the visual aspects of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the film features another significant visual leitmotif: the wrath of God as a tangible force in the real world; though one unnoticed…until it is too late.  

Several times through-out the film, an “ill-wind” blows -- without apparent “rational” or scientific cause -- and this wind is the unseen breath of God, gaining in power as both Indiana Jones and the Nazis grow closer to recovering the Ark of the Covenant.  

The old wise man who translates the head-piece of the Staff of Ra reads a warning to Indy not to disturb the Ark of the Covenant, and that ultimatum is the key to this “ill-wind” motif.  Brody similarly warns Indy about the dangers of the Ark, and the fact that it holds secrets "no man can know." 

But meanwhile, Belloq is not afraid of this possibility, and contextualizes the Ark as something “not of this Earth.”  He calls it  “a transmitter…a radio for speaking to God,” but is so vain and arrogant that he does not fear trespass against the Divine (or, perhaps, the alien...).

The strange, unnatural -- or supernatural? -- ill-wind blows for the first time in Raiders of the Lost Ark immediately before the fight scene in Nepal.  Marion sits alone in her bar, before a single candle, and the flame flutters in the wind suddenly as she regards the head-piece of the Staff of Ra, and determines to be Jones’ partner in the recovery of the Ark.  

The wind does not blow because Indiana Jones has left the saloon and let in the freezing air, or because Toht has entered the building, mind you.  The wind -- for no Earthly reason -- threatens the candle’s life, and the flame quivers uncertainly.   This is the first warning, the first exhale of God's wrath, perhaps.

The next time the Wrath of God is suggested in terms of visuals, the wind is much stronger, perhaps because the end of the quest is nearer, and the Ark is that much closer to excavation.  The old man in Cairo reads the warning on the head-piece to Indy, and suddenly the hanging lamps in the old man’s home begin to sway, and a cloud of dust gusts up from the floor.  Again, the wind seems to have come from nowhere. The Wrath of God is nearer.

This ill-wind next becomes a storm, when, by night, Sallah and Indy crack the seal of the Well of Souls, and access to the Ark is revealed at last. Overhead, in the impenetrable night, a strange, unearthly storm gathers, thunder roars, and lightning crackles. This atmospheric disturbance represents the most significant warning yet not to trespass in God’s domain, not to attempt to possess that which man is not yet meant to “know.”

After the Ark is recovered and stored in a Nazi crate, the most indisputable sign yet of God’s anger is seen. A rat near the crate starts to go crazy -- as if hearing or processing some kind of unearthly signal -- and the Nazi symbol on the crate’s side burns up…as if Evil cannot stand firm, or even exist at all, in the face of Pure Good.

Finally, of course, when the Ark is opened, all Hell breaks loose.  

The ill-wind finally manifests…first as blue-tinged wind (like the blue sky of the thunder storm over Tanis..), and then as vengeful, flying angels.  The wind becomes fire (and remember the flickering of the candle in Marion’s saloon…), and it immediately melts and destroys the Nazis.  Then, a supernatural windstorm of shocking ferocity blows through the temple, and back up to Heaven, as the sky opens up to receive it.  

The Wrath of God -- hinted at and warned about throughout Raiders of the Lost Ark -- has delivered its final judgment.  

It starts with a candle's flicker...

Then a wind from nowhere shakes the hanging lamps (in the background)...

When the Ark is found, the sky opens up, and storm clouds roll in.

Sacrilege is punished.

And punished....

...and punished.

The candle flicker is now an all-consuming fire.

And the Heavens open up at last, to receive the Power of God.

There is much more to Raiders of the Lost Ark than these subtle and meaningful visual leitmotifs, but taken together they tell a story about modern man and his arrogance...and his spiritual emptiness.  One "obtainer of rare antiquities" in the film pursues fame and fortune -- or perhaps self-glorification -- and dies.  The other re-discovers faith, and survives, his belief in wonder restored.

There are so many other great and downright remarkable aspects to this film, but in passing, I must also mention the desert truck chase, which remains a model of dazzling stunt-work and rapid editing.  This stunning set-piece moves with certainty, confidence and momentum, and never lets up, even for a second.  It must certainly qualify as one of the top five action sequences in the modern cinema.

I also appreciate and admire Harrison Ford's performance as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He is never afraid to reveal vulnerability, or the fact that Indiana Jones is a a bit of an unscrupulous scoundrel. This character, unlike the revised Han Solo, shoots first (against the Cairo Swordsman), is likely an alcoholic, and is an unrepentant womanizer. 

Later films in the Indiana Jones cycle (namely Last Crusade and Crystal Kingdom) attempt to lionize and sterilize the character, and ret-con him into a stolid, "it belongs in a museum!" fuddy-duddy, but for Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy is a real man, with real desires, and real foibles.  In my opinion, that makes him seem all the more heroic.

Finally, I love the film's last sequence.  It's the perfect capper visually to the narrative, and also in terms of the film's thematic material.  The Ark -- a symbol of a wondrous, lost age, and powers behind human comprehension -- is sealed up, locked away, and forgotten.  Humdrum Modernity can't parse, categorize or understand it, and so it relegates the Ark to a warehouse of "mysteries," all forgotten...perhaps to be excavated once more in another three thousand years.

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