Indiana Jones, 24 and the moral lessons of wacky (but sound) archaeology

I know that I’ve missed the deadline for writing a conventional review of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and that putting something together along those lines now would be like writing a prediction of the demise of the Soviet Union, but I want to set down a few reflections. Whilst watching the film – perhaps because it is such an unrepentantly lobotomised film and in no way requires the whole of one’s attention – I started to reflect about the values that it dramatises and about the role of mass movies as cultural reflectors and determinants.

A tired Indiana Jones

The set-up of the film is very simple. Wacky but ultimately sound archaeology says that there is a magical crystal skull in the jungle in 1950’s South America. Indiana Jones et al are disinterestedly questing after the skull. Comic book Soviet, Cate Blanchett and some faceless expendable commie soldiers are also trying to get the skull. So there you have it: cross-cultural resource conflict set in the developing world amidst the geopolitical struggle of the Cold War; but with silliness, aliens and almost interminable theme park ride-type set-pieces.

I said that the film was lobotomised and one of the ways in which this is apparent is in terms of the moral complexity of the Indiana Jones world – or rather the complete lack of it. No viewer could be so insensitive or obtuse as not to realise where Lucas-Spielberg (as I shall refer to the filmmaker) want our sympathies to lie. We want Indiana Jones to win; and if Indiana Jones doesn’t win then we will feel that there is something profoundly wrong with the universe – that the Creator God Lucas-Spielberg must have crafted his world and then abandoned it as a hideous mistake. So I sat there – wanting Indiana Jones to get the skull and win the Cold War – and I asked myself: what is it that these two parties to this resource competition stand for that I jeer at one and grin with goofy approbation at the other?

At first I came up with the answer that the film explicitly gives: we (because the ‘I’ here has to be dissolved in the irresistible solvent of the cinema-going ‘we’) cheer for Indy and hiss at Blanchettski because he is seeking knowledge, whilst she pursues naked power. The idea immediately appealed to me. Blanchettska didn’t deserve the skull because she wanted it for purely instrumental reasons; she wanted it only because of the use to which it could be put, because of the power which it would allow her to wield. The Soviet machine had no respect for the culture which produced the skull and had no conception of the value that things have in themselves. Professor Jones saw inherent value in the skull. He was pursuing it because he was an archaeologist in search of truth, a man who had devoted his life to understanding cultures just because they are there to be understood.

I realised, though, that the film doesn’t successfully embody that distinction. Blanchettskaya does want knowledge. She wants it desperately and at any cost. She is willing to destroy herself in a mad lunge for power that clearly has nothing to do with any sort of utilitarian calculus. It is Jones who turns away at the last minute from the thing that he has been seeking, just as he does with the Holy Grail in The Last Crusade. In so doing he acknowledges that there are some things that man isn’t meant to know, some truths that are too powerful. And in acknowledging that he is willing to renounce riches, fame and ultimate knowledge. Instead, the real dividing line is between her goal-orientation and extremism and his belief that the real value is not in the thing sought, but in the journey. Archaeology for Professor Jones is a struggle against evil that one undertakes alongside others in search for practical knowledge, but which one must be willing to humbly relinquish if it threatens to destroy you or the people you love.

Whichever way you read the culture clash between Jones and comrade Blanchett, I came to the realisation that these values don’t really matter: they aren’t what’s driving your sympathies. I had been primed to realise this unnerving truth of cinecraft by watching Season 4 of 24 (unsettlingly good pulp television). In his efforts to stop a series of terrorist attacks there is nothing that Agent Jack Bauer will not do – no right that he won’t infringe, no cherished value of civilized society that he won’t sacrifice. He forces a doctor at gunpoint to stop treating one critical patient and to treat another, resulting in the death of the first patient. The logic behind his actions is ruthlessly instrumental – just like Blanchett’s – but the viewer is supposed to watch with a short of shocked approval; the television-makers accept the necessity of any morally ugly act that is taken in the wider interests of national security.

What then guides our sympathies if we can watch and approve of one thing in the darkened cinema and another slumped in front of the cathode ray? Do we have one set of values for a Saturday night at Vue and another for a throwaway Thursday? I don’t think so. The answer is that we are coerced by irrational means. The filmmaker or the television-maker doesn’t seek our approval for their values, they do their very best to force us to agree with them even if vestigial scruples hold them back from going quite as far as Bauer.

When watching Indiana Jones we take our cues from various sub-rational cues that have nothing to do with value judgements. We look at the physiognomy of the characters and see the ruggedly handsome, Fedora-crowned Jones; and then we see Blanchett, pallid, pinched – a bloodless dominatrix figure. We notice (without noticing) how much the camera looks at the different characters and how flatteringly; we imbibe the morally-elevated teachings of the score to the point where conditioned, like Pavlov’s dogs, we salivate when the trademark title track starts up; we listen to see who has the sharpest quips, who the most euphonious accent; and then (depending on the genre conventions) we watch out for the eventual fate of the characters. This isn’t enough for Lucas-Spielberg, though – not for this most Manchurian of filmmakers. He likes to use national-historic cues too. In the first three films it was the Nazis; this time it was the Soviets. As you watch the films you realise that these aren’t real depictions of Nazis and Soviets; they’re not even totalitarian caricatures: they’re just labels, pointers for the audience. All the Swastika or the Hammer and Sickle mean is: this is a baddie. It’s just the same thing as if someone stands in the shadows and looks side-to-side rapidly, perhaps whilst smoking. My memory fails me, but I’ll bet that somewhere in one of the four films Lucas-Spielberg uses that one.

I don’t want to make out as if this is a terribly sinister situation – Lucas-Spielberg isn’t having a big budget punt at mass mind-control. When I walked out of the cinema I heard someone say – only half-sneeringly – that Steven Spielberg (sic) ‘makes pointless films.’ And that’s just about right (the name confusion aside). The filmmaker doesn’t have any designs upon you here; he doesn’t want to change you, he doesn’t want his film to stay with you, I don’t even think he wants to touch you. It seems as if the filmmakers only intention is for you to have a good time – and to have a good time in a very specific way: through a déjà vu experience that takes us pleasantly back to the trilogy of old when Sean Connery wasn’t too old to act anymore.

I think that the popularity of a film like this that doesn’t really stand on its own – couldn’t really stand on its own – says something about us, the cinema-going public, about who the hell we are. In The Heart of the Matter Graham Greene says that ‘happiness is never so welcome as changelessness,’ and I think he captures a sometimes forgotten truth. Big audiences went to see the fourth Indiana Jones film because it was the fourth Indiana Jones film. They wanted something familiar – something where they knew the characters, the feel, where they understood the rules, the colour of the pleasure that they were going to get. They went (we went) for a mass produced pleasure, something formulaic, repeatable – the essence of the thing that they had liked before embodied afresh in a new version of an old film.

On the one hand that suggests that we are limited. The new frightens us and challenges us; it makes demands of us where very often we just want a torpid peace. It suggests also that there is something wrong with our human relationships. Instead of real friendships, we are building relationships with quasi-people like Indiana Jones. I think as well, finally, that it speaks eloquently about how hard we all find it to age. We wanted to see Indiana Jones weathered by almost two decades of ageing, so that we didn’t have to go on watching repeats of the old films, getting older and older ourselves whilst he is protected from age by the timelessness of film. Seeing him on the screen again we are reassured about our own failing powers, our own mortality. We see the lines on his face and the grey in his hair, and feel bound together with him in a community fate. Yet fundamentally we see him unchanged; and that reinforces the great myth that we need to believe about our own ageing – that at root it leaves us the same people.

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2 Responses to “Indiana Jones, 24 and the moral lessons of wacky (but sound) archaeology”

  1. Banjo Says:

    Yes I thought Blanchette’s character was the true Enlightenment figure– wanting to know to the point of her own annihilation. Indy, on the other hand and as you write, recognizes limits, a tendency that places him well within the tradition of those who render unto to Caesar or Simmel or whomever, preserving a gap between the secular and the mystic. This, I’d say, is a reflection of Spielberg’s fairly easy-going, liberal, tolerant-of-all-except-those-who-are-intolerant views. What should we call this? Tolerantarianism?

  2. adammcnestrie Says:

    Someone actually read the piece on Indiana Jones! Good to see. The term is wittily coined.

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