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Monday, May 26, 2008

Musing Pictures: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Spielberg meets Plato in Outer Space (or South America) -- Light, Knowledge, and the Crystal Skull

(Here Theyr Bee Spoylers)

I must admit here that I entered in to the theater today with the intention of thoroughly enjoying a piece of escapist cinema, trusting that the masterful team behind it would carry me far and away from the times and places I currently inhabit. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was very effective in that regard, but the back of my mind could not help but notice hints of a fascinating network of ideas that lurks beneath, behind and around the film's narrative.

We begin, like the other Jones films, with the famous Paramount mountain logo transforming in to the image of its twin. Here, it's a mound of dirt, from which emerges a ground hog or prairie dog (my weakness in zoological identification becomes apparent here). The image of a mountain becomes the image (and the diagetic fact) of a mole hill. It is a trick of perspective, reminding us that what we see has a lot to do with where we're looking from.

It is fitting that a film about an archaeologist explores ancient ideas. In this case, the first shot initiates a film-long and surprisingly intellectual examination of the Allegory of the Cave, a narrative devised by Plato in "The Republic", written about 2370 years ago.

Plato's story, told here on one foot, is about a group of prisoners chained to a wall in a cave. Their heads are forced in to one position, such that all they can see are the shadows cast on the cave's back wall. All the knowledge that these prisoners have is derived from the shadows they see on the wall. Though they do not know it, the actual truth is behind them, casting the shadows. According to Plato, if one of the prisoners were to escape, he'd be very disoriented at first, blinded by the light of the sun, by the sheer force of truth. After a while, this prisoner would acclimate to the bright light, and would return to the cave to free his fellows. Unfortunately, these poor souls would think their liberator completely out of his mind, unable to understand all of his stories of color, light, sound, and of the length, breadth and depth of the world.

Much like in Plato's allegory, Spielberg's films form strong bonds between light and knowledge. In Spielberg's narratives, a bright light often emanates from a source of knowledge (the ark in the first Indiana Jones film, the mothership in "Close Encounters"). Spielberg will often fire harsh beams of blue-white light directly in to the camera, too, when important information is conveyed to characters or to the audience (searchlights in "Schindler's List", flashlights in "Jurassic Park"). Whereas many of Spielberg's films explore this idea deep beneath their surface, the Indiana Jones films, and particularly this fourth film in the series, bring light and knowledge together much more overtly.

First, the connection between light and knowledge is established. As the film's first act reaches its climactic chase sequence, Indiana Jones, under duress, leads a group of communist spies to a box in a warehouse that contains the mysterious remains of a corpse. The remains have an odd effect on metals around them, almost like a magnetic force. As the communists lift the box and carry it away, large, hanging lights in the ceiling swing gently towards it (and, of course, towards the camera). Beams of light constantly turn towards the viewer as the moment of illumination, in which the contents of the box are revealed, approaches. This revelation, of course, becomes

There are many more moments like this. Later in the film, Jones and his adventuring partner have just discovered the long-lost tomb of seven conquistadors. The archaeologist excitedly works to cut through a conquistador's burial wrappings, and demands of his young partner, "give me some light". The light of an electric lantern glares brightly in to the lens in the next shot, as the face of the conquistador is revealed. This is a significant moment in the narrative, in that it lends credence to the legends that fuel the plot -- an element of the legend proves true, and as such, the rest of the legend has more credibility.

We find out later that the crystal skull, the object that all of the characters pursue, is itself somewhat of a light source, shimmering faintly from within. We also discover that it is considered a source of tremendous knowledge, an elongated skull with room for an over-sized brain.

As the film unfolds, we are presented with more and more images of light, eyes (such as a waterfall that emerges from a cliff shaped like a face, with cataracts flowing from its eyes... through which the adventurers must travel to find the lost city that they seek), and with the quest for knowledge (Jones and the boy who turns out to be his son argue about the value of an education, while Jones himself seems to have mixed feelings about the best ways to educate, deeply respecting an old professor who put him to sleep, while also suggesting to his students that they get out of the library for a while.)

These ideas merge overtly when the crystal skull is returned to its owner, some sort of otherworldly being. When Indiana Jones and his band get close to the skull's final destination, they are in the bowels of a large pyramid of sorts, a temple with descriptive paintings on the walls. Jones provides us with a brief interpretation that presents us with a new story, that of alien creatures with large heads descending to Earth and teaching this region's people new skills, ways to help their civilization establish itself and grow. At one point, the crystal skull is held up in front of a large painting of one of these visitors, and the skull's shadow falls plainly and evenly over the head of the figure in the painting. It is, in a way, Plato's allegory all over again -- a moment of revelation in which the projected shadow is that from which we learn.

Here, Spielberg begins his commentary on Plato's tale, turning the tables a bit on an ancient idea.

The skull turns out to belong to one of several crystalline skeletons of ancient creatures from Elsewhere. When the skull is returned, the creatures come alive. Irina, the film's super-villainous KGB agent, demands of these creatures to teach her everything. At this point, it seems as though she may get her wish. Though the building around her seems to undergo a cataclysmic transformation, she is transfixed by the crystal creatures, whose eyes link with hers by a shaft of wispy light. At first, she seems awed, but eventually, the knowledge overwhelms her, and though she says "I can see!", the light is blinding, and destroys her.

As Jones and the others escape, they run through a room full of ancient artifacts from all over the world. It is very similar to the warehouse in which the film begins, only here, the objects are not in crates and boxes -- they are open to the world, exposed to light.

Spielberg, as a filmmaker, is re-organizing Plato's cave, re-structuring the way knowledge is understood.

Light, in film, serves two technical purposes. First, it illuminates objects in a scene, so that they provide film or optical chips with enough material to create an image. Second, it creates the shaded and shaped shadows that form a projected image on a screen. The creation of a film is a marriage of both processes. A filmmaker both illuminates objects directly, and creates shadows on a screen for us to see -- shadows that look very much like the objects themselves. Amazingly, we are now living in a world where the shadows may contain more information than the beam of light that causes them. If we were to stand by the screen and look in to the projector's lens, we'd see bright streams of light, but there would be no story, no narrative, no message, no meaning. Ultimately, we still have to look away from the light to see that which it illuminates, regardless of which side of the camera, or which side of the cave's entrance we're on. Irina looks straight in to the light for knowledge, and is blinded by it. Jones looks at that which the knowledge created -- the monuments and artifacts of civilization, and is able to learn much more.

There is a lot more that can be said on this subject (bringing in the Communism/Capitalism aspects of the story, the insanity induced in Oxley by gazing in to the skull, the particularly striking view of the nuclear explosion early in the film, the idea of Jones being 'kept in the dark' about his participation in the unearthing of alien remains, Mutt Williams' discovery that he is Jones' son, etc. etc. etc.) but I am happy to give my readers an opportunity to explore the topic further in comments or critiques on this blog. I welcome your responses!


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Musing Pictures: Speed Racer

I do not regret seeing "Speed Racer," even though it is indeed just as bad as the worst reviews claim it is. Yet again, the Wachowski brothers (of "The Matrix" fame) have presented us with a striking vision of cinema's potential without spending more than a moment's thought on narrative. Structurally, the story of Speed, second son of Ma and Pops Racer, is quite classical. Boy wants to be a racecar hero, boy finds out that the world 'aint what he thinks it is, boy defies conventions and changes the world. And that third act, in which Speed Racer competes in a Grand Prix with no motive other than to simply win the race, is straightforward and recognizable enough to be enjoyed... if you haven't walked out of the theater by that point. Unfortunately, all structural methodology seems to fall apart at that macro level. The Wachowski Brothers introduce several technical elements, including multi-image wipes (in which the face of a character wipes across the screen the way a straight line might have done in "Star Wars"), multi-layered images (with characters speaking in close-up in the foreground, and wheeling, rolling shots of the action whirl behind them), fancy computer-generated 'camera moves' around and over and under the racing and exploding cars, and a color palette that is much louder and more vibrant than any digital/live-action film in recent memory. Unfortunately, few of these effects serve any narrative end, and as such, they become obviously and painfully, as Macbeth puts it, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." (Macbeth, Scene V)
Early in the film, the Wachowskis use an effect that, interestingly, does carry with it some narrative significance. In a race early in Speed's career, he approaches a record set eight years prior by his lost brother, Rex. To illustrate how close Speed is to breaking his brother's record, the Wachowskis don't rely on timers, counters, clocks, watches, or even on the ramblings of various race announcers. Instead, they show Rex's car, a ghostly shimmer on the race track, at times behind and at times ahead of Speed's white "Mach 5". This blending of time, an elision of eight years between the two races, a simultaneous depiction of both races on the same screen, within the same image, powerfully illustrates an important dramatic element of Speed's personality and motivation, and underscores one of the film's underlying tensions -- the threat and promise that Speed is almost exactly like his brother. I wish the Wachowskis would blend their technique and narrative like that more often. Alas, much of the flash in this film is wasted -- cars zoom around so fast, and with so little attention paid to character (even to the character of the cars themselves!) that there's very little left for a viewer to grab a hold of. The pace is so fast and so disorienting that its effect is to numb rather than engross. By contrast, the narrative scenes, in which characters talk, chatter, discuss, mourn, and celebrate, seem excruciatingly slow. The result is far from a smooth cruise through Speed Racer's world, but rather a lurching, binary slog, like a first-time driver behind the wheel of a stick-shift.

There is a beautiful metaphorical moment late in the film that illustrates both the Wachowski's ambition and their failure. In the third act, in Speed Racer's final race, the cars follow a path that takes them through a tunnel. As Speed enters the tunnel, the camera swings around to catch him in profile. Behind him, on the wall of the tunnel, is a long strip of images -- rectangles with the picture of a galloping zebra within them. As the camera pulls beside Speed, we can see those rectangles only one at a time, through the windshield of Speed's car. As those images flicker by, we see that, in fact, each zebra is slightly different, each one fraction of a moment ahead of the last in a suspended sort of gallop. The pictures flash by, and of course, we see them as a galloping zebra.

This is a visual quote of one of the origins of motion pictures, when Edweard Muybridge, to settle a bet, set up cameras along a racetrack and snapped a series of photographs of a galloping horse. Though Muybridge did not make a movie, the technology and concept of stringing a series of photographs together to illustrate movement began with him. In this image, the Wachowski's are acknowledging and perhaps boasting about their place in this technological history. They have taken Muybridge's horse and, effectively, they've put racing stripes on it. They've turned it in to a zebra. The missing element here, though, is the element of reality. Whereas Muybridge sought to find ways to see reality in a different way, the effects and techniques that the Wachowskis employ in "Speed Racer" merely offer a new depiction of fantasy -- they're little more than animation. Their "bullet-time" effect, invented for "The Matrix", is more comparable to Muybridge's galloping horse. Both techniques employ a string of still cameras to capture details of motion and perspective that the human eye is incapable of. The animation in "Speed Racer" is presented with a certain lack of conviction, as if the animators were insecure about whether any of their work would come across well. Animation does not need to represent the real world as we see it, but it is always presented with the challenge of depicting the real world as we feel it -- even if it is a world of the future, of the past, of animals, or even of fantasy. With a few individual scenes as exceptions, the Wachowskis have always struggled with this element of their special brand of creativity. There is technical wizardry at work, but behind it, there isn't even a clever illusionist.

"Speed Racer", like many of the big special effects films of the past few years, is a great example of why special effects must remain subsumed to narrative. It is an even more powerful example because of the creativity the Wachowskis bring to their special effects vision, which is not enough to replace good narrative, characters and good integration of the elements of cinema.