Indiana Jones and the Garden of Evil

(We need shorthand ways to refer to the titles of the four INDIANA JONES movies. I suggest RAIDARK, TEMPOOM, LASTADE and CRYSKULL.)

Top of the World

Watching Henry Hathaway’s Mexican-western adventure GARDEN OF EVIL (in glorious Technicolor and Cinemascope) not so very long after seeing Spielberg and Lucas’ INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST TEMPLE OF THE LAST CRYSTAL SKULL got me thinking about various things, including imaginary landscapes.

I don’t want to get all nostalgic and neophobic and bash the Spielberg for being modern — GARDEN OF EVIL isn’t actually a brilliant film either, and the slam-bang ethos of the Spielberg actually helps make it watchable. If you have no very interesting ideas, at least speed of delivery can be your friend.

She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain

It’s actually easier to bash CRYSKULL by comparing it with the first in the series. RAIDARK was an enjoyably SOLID film, using real locations and stunt men, not C.G. dreamscapes and flying synthespians. This had the effect of grounding it — there are very few truly unbelievable things in that film, and they’ve been discussed to death: “How does Indie hitch a ride on a U-boat?” etc. When a truck is overturned, the effects team made it happen by firing a dirty great log through it, hitting the ground beneath and tipping the vehicle over — and you can see the log in the finished film. On the one hand, it’s a technical flaw (no time for re-takes, for the first time Spielberg’s fee was tied to his bringing the movie in on budget and on schedule, so for the first time he TRIED), on the other hand it proves the stunt actually took place. It really happened, therefore it COULD happen.

Where would you even start with TEMPOOM or CRYSKULL? The sequels are catalogues of impossibilities, cartoony assaults on the laws of physics, with miniatures and matte paintings giving way to digital jiggery-pokery, as everyone labours under that terrible misapprehension of modern action cinema: we can do “ANYTHING.” The fact is, just because modern computer graphics allow an expensive filmmaker like Spielberg to represent whatever he chooses in a slick, photo-realist fashion, does NOT mean the audience has to believe it. We don’t for instance, believe that archaeological relic Harrison Ford can survive sailing over three gigantic waterfalls in an amphibious vehicle. We certainly don’t believe John Hurt can. Early on, Ford shields himself from an H-bomb blast by hiding in a refrigerator. “Could you survive an atomic explosion by climbing into a fridge?” asked Fiona. “Let me put it this way,” I replied, all Mr. Science and everything, “You couldn’t survive climbing into a fridge.”

Obviously, a film like CRYSKULL, and far worse stuff like Lucas’ appalling STAR WARS prequels (at least the JONES has some nice lines and appealing performers in sometimes amusing situations) will make hangars full of money by appealing to the public’s fondness for the originals, but the reliance on C.G. strikes me as odd. The public doesn’t actually LIKE C.G.I. Ask anybody. Obviously, what people mean is they don’t like tacky, obvious C.G.I. But what do they mean by THAT?

The hills are alive

Spielberg said something quite interesting once, something about the public ALWAYS knowing when something is C.G. It’s very nearly true. We know something is a special effect when we know it HAS to be. The most convincing effects in that piece of junk JURASSIC PARK II, for instance, are the vehicles. I didn’t realise, watching it, that many of the jeeps and trucks in many shots, are C.G. creations: far easier to make them interact with C.G. dinosaurs that way. So C.G.I. might be most effective when it’s used to present something we can believe in. Trusting the audience to be smart enough to actually question the reality of the images placed before them would be a good first step in fooling them successfully, with entertainment as the ultimate goal.

Think of the dinosaur stampede in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG. Ignoring the rather glaring flaw that the characters running about amid the brontosaurs’ feet are all perfectly illuminated by bright sunlight in three-quarter backlighting, necessitating the assumption that these dinosaurs are somehow TRANSPARENT, does anybody actually believe any of those characters would have survived five seconds in that situation? Scaling back the ambition to wow us with spectacular visuals would be a useful step in actually wowing us with dramatic situations possessing some modicum of convincing risk.

The Hills Have Eyes

Looking at the nice special effect landscapes in GARDEN OF EVIL’s mountain scenes, I was partly moved by an admittedly nostalgic fondness for matte paintings, but I also reflected that what matters just as much as the paintings on the right of the screen is the authentic landscapes on the left, photographed with skill and at some expense of time, effort and money. Doing the whole thing in the studio has always been a mark of cheapness in adventure cinema, with 1933’s KING KONG the honorable exception. We want to believe the filmmakers went on an adventure to get genuinely dangerous footage.

If filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas followed the same logic in C.G. landscapes that they apply to action sequences, the artificial jungles and mountains of CRYSKULL would teeter on spindles like the Cloud City of Bespin in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, they would be stretching and distorted melting cheeselands like the worlds of Dr. Seuss, and be polka-dotted and patterned in ludicrous hues like the musical numbers in THE GANG’S ALL HERE. But they’re not. Because the filmmakers are smart enough to know that such silly antics wouldn’t fly with an audience. Why can’t they apply the same logic to their action scenes?

I Shot an Arrow in the Air

(There’s a moral question here — should Spielberg have stuntmen do dangerous stuff when he could fake it all up? Recently there have been serious accidents on the new Bond and BATMAN films. Personally, I can’t look in real life if somebody does something dangerous, so I’d be rubbish at this kind of cinema. And yet I love Keaton and admire classic Jackie Chan and quite a few older action films. I think doing it for real is aesthetically preferable in every way, but perhaps not morally. We remember what happened on Spielberg’s production of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE, after all. How common are serious accidents? I don’t know, but when Paul Verhoeven needed amputee stuntmen for STARSHIP TROOPERS, he had no trouble finding them. Lots of them.)

23 Responses to “Indiana Jones and the Garden of Evil”

  1. There’s a shot at the end of the Crystal Skull picture that’s quite lovely. After the UFO does all of its nonsense the hole fills up with water, creating — for a moment — a massive waterfall (a running theme in the movie for some reason). It’s really the only quiet moment at the end of two straight hours of noise.

  2. I call it either Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Meth or Indiana Jessica Parker and the Mahnolos of Doom as they both represent the nadir of cinema.

    Placed alongside them an old hand like Henry Hathaway looks positively Pantheon-worthy.

  3. Your shorthand made this unreadable. It is just silly. If you cant be bothered to type the names, then try something that actually makes sense and is not asinine, like, crazy thought, Raiders, Temple, etc.

  4. Two things bugged me about the Hathaway — one, the way he lines his characters up across the frame, which was very flat and static and unimaginative. Two, Gary Cooper’s odd, simpering performance. Coupled with John Wayne’s horrible ebullience in Circus World it makes me think I don’t like Hathaway’s use of male stars. But Widmark rescued it by being his usual untrustworthy self, and the photography and music were great.

    I wasn’t keen on the Indiana Jones valley shot because it was all CGI again, and I was tired of that. My favourite thing was the tent with muslin drapes on which the characters cast giant silhouettes. Meaningless, but very pretty indeed.

    As for the nadir of cinema, I’d still nominate something from the British ’70s sex comedy era. While Spielberg’s idea of cinema, at its lamest, is a theme park ride, someone like Ray Cooney imagines it as a bloody whelk stall. Or a speak-your-weight machine.

  5. I wouldn’t be quick to put down British sex comdies — being a major Kenneth Williams fan.

    Hathaway’s clashes with Dennis Hopper during the shooting of The Sons of Katie Elder inspired Hopper to make The Last Movie

  6. Hey, Ash, lighten up.

    I actually went back and counted the use of shorthand. Six times. Six words made the post unreadable? If I use the word RIZPORP now, does that make this comment unreadable?

    I love it when strange people get cross. Even when it’s me.

  7. Kenneth Williams in a Carry On film is like Ugetsu Monogotari next to something like Not Now Darling. As Billy Graham said of The Exorcist, that films carries a physical evil in its celluloid.

    Hathaway seems to have been quite a hard-ass with actors. But maybe not with his leading men.

  8. Ana Maldonado Says:

    Me gusta Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford es un gran actor y ese nuevo chico seguro tambien.
    I like Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford is a great actor, and that new kid, I am sure he is too.
    Pero estoy tan decepcionada y ofendida por George Lucas y Steven Spielberg.
    But I am so dissaponted and offended by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
    Describen al Peru, a sus ciudades y aeropuertos tan mal.
    They depicted Peru, their cities and aerports so bad.
    Es como mostrar la ciudad y aeropuerto mas desolada y sucia de EEUU como Nueva York.
    It is like showing the most isolated and dirty city and aerport in USA like New York.
    Miren la pelicula si quieren. Yo me rebelo y me rehuso. Estoy de huelga.
    Watch the movie if you like. I refused. I am on strike
    Ana Maldonado

  9. […] 2, 2008 · No Comments David Cairns over at Shadowplay asks a fascinating question: There’s a moral question here — should Spielberg have stuntmen do dangerous stuff when he […]

  10. Ana — I can understand your feelings. But I would be reluctant to denounce the film without seeing it myself,

    Compared to Tempoom, the film is pretty mild. Also remember that the Peru depicted is the Peru of fifty years ago. International adventure movies tend to follow Hitchcock’s formula of depicting those aspects of foreign lands the audience has heard of. Chocolates for Switzerland, jungles for Peru. But Hollywood portrayals of South America are generally terrible so I think it’s a good idea to make a fuss about it.

  11. David K Says:

    Like that dreadful Simpsons episode from a couple of years ago where they went to Rio De Janeiro. Really apalling..
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2002/apr/09/broadcasting.internationalnews

    You’re right about the use of the Hitchcock formula in adventure movies but is it really necessary? Eventually someone making one of these films will surely have to decide to just move on to the nitty gritty and pass up the opportunity to go for a lame gag about how shit the airports in South America are.

    I was really interested to see your take on CGI in Cryskull. So much of the advance press I saw was concerned with informing me of how little effects shots there would be and how faithful Janusz Kaminski was to Slocombe’s photography. Wonderful. Problem being, this made it all the more glaring when the film is in fact packed with CGI and has this weird shiny lighting that makes the whole thing look like it was shot at sunset through a giant window.

    I kind of enjoyed it though. But did anyone else find the look a little off? I haven’t seen any questioning of the visuals apart from the Crash Bandicoot scene in the forest.

  12. To me it looks like pure Kaminski, not Slocombe at all. But it’s difficult to copy someone else’s style, especially on different film stock and with different FX technology.

    Photographically, the scene outside the warehouse right at the start seemed to be staged in front of a CGI sky, and that looked cheap as hell to me.

    The overhead view of the Nazca graveyard looked like an old-fashioned miniature though. (Hey, if they have a hill overlooking the “landing strips of the gods”, then anybody can see those patterns on the ground! Doesn’t that make nonsense of the whole Von Danniken hypothesis?)

  13. Maybe this is a generation gap issue, but when I reviewed Raiders back in the day, my impression was already that Spielberg “doesn’t respect the spatial and temporal integrity of events or actions.” Maybe it looks restrained now in the context of the evolution of the genre, but I took it for an anything-goes funhouse ride at the time.

  14. Chris B Says:

    Forget Shitberg (the day he directs a good film WILL be the apocalypse), go watch Lang’s THE INDIAN TOMB and THE TIGER OF ESCHNAPUR instead, especially with regards to spatial and temporal qualities.

  15. Lang’s films are slower than Spielberg’s, of course, but I can still imagine German-speaking kids getting a blast out of them. Terrific adventure story, with that something extra you get with Lang.

    I would defy anyone to demonstrate that any Spielberg film isn’t more visually coherent than, say, Die Hard III. Whatever the techniques, Spielberg does at least maintain clarity throughout the majority of his fast and colpicated action scenes — we can see who is doing what to whom. Compare to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins or Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and it’s obviously more of an accomplishment in visual storytelling terms.

    The films certainly are funrides though, and the new one has forsaken plot logic to become a video game. (Spoiler alert) Try and follow the conquistadors’ backstory: they travelled to the Kingdom of the CS, and somehow entered the skull chamber, despite the fact that the only way in is using a skull as key — a skull they didn’t have. Despite the fact that presumably the aliens were alive and all-powerful, the guys stole a skull and took it to Nazca, where SOMEHOW they all died. And were buried WITH the skull, which you’d think somebody would have realised was valuable. Add to this John Hurt’s backstory, which is equally nonsensical, and we could actually all claim our money back. George Lucas needs to STOP.

  16. I think you hit on a good point about director’s seeming to reign in their CGI antics to not produce obviously fantastical or mind-expanding material (that Gang’s All Here post you did made the title sequence look creepy, I don’t know if I could cope with the imagery if it were in movement!), yet then not seeming to realise that they are creating absurd, unrealistic sequences anyway!

    I think it comes down to the filmmaker creating the ‘rules of the game’ – there always have to be parameters to work within and I feel too many modern films feel as if they can disregard any rules and chuck every idea plus the kitchen sink into a film just because it will look momentarily cool, but there just doesn’t seem to be much feeling or philosophy behind many decisions in blockbuster films.

    I’ve seen debates like this degenerate into realism vs creativity arguments but I don’t think it is that simple. I love films that strive for heightened realism and films that create their own fantastical worlds, but this is what I mean about the ‘rules of the game’ – a film cannot just arbitrarily shift from one mode to the other just on a filmmaker’s whims, I feel there has to be a explicable reason for that shift, whether it is something like the split, for example between the real and cartoon worlds in Roger Rabbit.

    The problem with CG (and even earlier techniques) is that when it is used for its own sake it can overpower a the world the film has been trying to create and just leads to the other flaws in a film becoming more apparent. I find that when I’m engaged with a film I can be thrown out of it by bad special effects but can often try and work my way back into a film – when I’m not finding the film interesting no amount of CG effects can make it any better and a bad one will just add to my feeling of disinterest with the film. The poor special effect might be the thing I talk about finding particularly poor but it is really a comment on the film itself that I noticed it – it could be argued that a lot of films are less engaging on the script and acting level and are futilely trying to compensate with special effect overload now that it is apparently possible to do anything, which can be impressive but won’t really leave much of an impression unless the effects are particularly groundbreaking or poor (making special effects equivalent to the chinese food of the filmic menu?)

    When it is properly integrated into a film the special effects should be there to fulfil a purpose, and if the film is engaging an audience, I’m sure, can suspend disbelief enough to not complain about the matte shots or CG. They shouldn’t really be obvious technical effects as if they are apparent on a first viewing they are not affecting an audience in the way that they should. A good example of Spielberg doing CG ‘right’ may be the first Jurassic Park, though I have my suspicions that the characters and attention to situations came to the fore because they were taking more care as they were not completely sure whether the CG would really be able to pull off believability! So they paid more care to the non-CG aspects with the result that Spielberg ended up going off the believability deep end with The Lost World!

  17. Yes.

    At various times in Hollywood history remakes have had a definite purpose: let’s remake it with sound! With colour! In widescreen!

    The current vogue is for CGI remakes, the mooted Michael Bay version of The Birds being an example. nobody would suggest that Bay can hold a candle to Hitchcock but the advances in FX technology are considered enough of a reason to do it anyway. This leads to absurdities like The Haunting remake, which can be laid squarely at Spielberg’s door. “It’s a great opportunity to use CGI” was what he said, when the whole point of the earlier film, which scared the pants off him as a kid, was ambiguity, which is dispelled with the first tendril of digital ectoplasm. Even non-remakes often have the same thinking behind them: exploit the technology for its own sake, rather than to tell a story. In a sense, the new Indiana Jones is like a CG remake of the earlier ones.

    Actually, the first JP works better for me because its tightly structured and knows what it wants to say, while the second is baggy and misshapen and has completely flipflopped on the all important social issue of “Genetically modified dinosaurs — a good thing?”

  18. When you get the special effects guys in to direct the third Jurassic Park film and their decent, if workmanlike, result is much better than Spielberg’s sequel that is perhaps shows just how badly conceived The Lost World was!

    Gah! The Haunting has its own circle of (over the top CG) hell dedicated to it! Even among remakes I’ve never seen one completely miss the point of everything that made the original special (the screaming, banging CG ghosts being the main problem, but also the unsympathetic characters. I couldn’t believe they were visiting not to explore the haunted house but as part of an actual sleep experiment! And if I wanted to see Catherine Zeta-Jones in leather I’d watch Entrapment – sometimes lesbian subtext should stay as subtext! ). I thought Speed was a wonderful action film but remember not even liking Twister very much (couldn’t understand how someone who made a film as energetic as Speed could produce something as slow and unengaging as Twister, even while everyone was saying it was a great Summer Movie) and then the films that followed unfortunately left no doubt for anyone that De Bont just had a fluke with his first film – a real shame, but I’ll always thank him for Speed!

  19. I think with Speed we should thank the writer (although he has some dodgy credits too). He came up with a high concept but also some amusing characters and lines. You’re dead right about Twister, which was an incredibly duff script. The flying cows were the only good bit.

    The special effects guy who directed JP III also did The Rocketeer and Honey I Shrunk the Kids, which are pretty nice as dumb summer movies go. Unpretentious.

  20. I love that part in The Rocketeer when Arkin takes the Wrigley’s out of our hero’s mouth and plugs his gasoline leak. At the time it made me think of some far-out possibilities for chewing-gum.

    The rocketeer also reminds me that I once drove Errol Flynn’s grandson who lives in Jamaica to set as a runner, and he was totally obsessed with developing the screen version of his famiy’s collective hagiography of that guy… something about the first world war, sailing, and maybe Tahiti. And at the time I thought it was a ridiculous idea becasue I had recently viewed that Cuban documentary where Errol’s drunk on rum, holding a make-shift cardboard globe and ranting about how great Castro is beacuse he lets him stay on the island and act like Fredo Corleone only because a famous actor’s good for global P.R. only not at allif it;s Errol Flynn in the late 1950’s.

    A lot of gloriously bad ideas from “creative” descenedants (a possible blog, D). And Converse of couse to Arkin’s use of the Wrigey.

  21. There are some great Flynn stories, and some great movies. They’re kind of in opposition though: the colourful stories are the reason we don’t have more great Flynn films.

    I think Bertolucci’s use of chewing gum, to stick two of his films together, is pretty neat. I blogged about this here:
    https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2007/12/02/gum/

  22. FWIW: Hopper and Hathaway fought throughout From Hell to Texas (1958), but got along well while filming Sons of Katie Elder. Hopper had learned to accept Hathaway’s direction by then. The Last Movie was inspired by Hopper wondering what affect the fake western town built for Katie Elder would have on the locals when the crew departed the location in Durango, Mexico.

  23. Yeah… it would never occur to me that people in Mexico wouldn’t understand about films or film sets. In the end, he set the film further down south, didn’t he?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: