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!


1 comment:

Jess said...

Good to see you back and writing - and further proof to me that you make one great teacher :)