This was to be Tarantino's homecoming. As a son-of-the-south, QT has slipped his homestate Tennessee among thousands of other references in his now extensive library. Tennessee is Butch's escape haven in Pulp Fiction, Aldo Raines (Inglourious Basterds) is a descendant of Tennessee persona Jim Bridger. Like another southerner, D.W. Griffith, Tarantino visits the antebellum at his own peril. And where Griffith plowed into a fantasy revenge on behalf of the owners of the south, Tarantino charts a revenge brokered by the other side. It has the beats, all the verbal wit, the endless exploitation riffs, all the logical fury of canon QT, what it lacks is Tarantino's knack for emotional bonding carried by carefully plotted visuals.
There are glimpses. Only few moments bring back the narrative dementia of days of yore Quentin: in a cabin of mumbling trackers, a kerchief-masked Zoe Bell peers into an 1800's stereogram viewer. As she slips it in, the focus narrows and we get an unsettling sensation of 3-D as the images combine. In the view is an early photograph of the Parthenon, in the foreground are what appear to be slaves. The image serves a few purposes: it's an indictment that savagely skewers our current 3-D technology, a wry director's statement to the audience: "I'm not going 3-D, but I'm going to doctor this image and make you think it's real using a 3-D effect." And the image isn't merely a technological comment, it historicizes the film's themes by placing slaves in the ruins of a culture that became powerful through the economics of slavery. Even better, it's a comment on the greek revival in antebellum architecture, Candie's plantation bears a passing resemblance to the Parthenon. That hint is: slavery will soon be history. That's about 8 seconds of screen time. Bruce Dern as the owner that sends Django and his betrothed into the open market, carries the only other moment of sheer brilliance. He peers down on Django like a demonic billboard high above Times Square. He's the real monster to slay.
Surrounding these moments is an overwritten, underacted retread of themes already broached in the more developed Inglourious Basterds. Want to know why Django Unchained isn't up to speed? Try reading Rene Girard's Violence and the Sacred. He knows the how-why-what of violence coded in ancient myth. The basic gist is: spilled blood, sacrifice, revenge are all elements of basic human rituals. QT is a director who specializes in modernizing ancient bloodrites (as well as spotting and raiding B-movies that did the same). All that tension and release we've been experiencing in his films isn't merely bloodlust. It's the control of bodies, of imminent fears, not merely the rage of revenge. Until Django, Tarantino's main characters were validated semi-mythic, experiencing death (Kiddo in Kill Bill), defying death (Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction, Shosanna in Inglourious Basterds) and dying to serve mythic requirements (Vincent in Pulp Fiction). The most realistic myth of his is Resevoir Dogs, where impending death sanctifies Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) so much so that Mr. White (Keitel) is willing to kill for him. There, and before Django, the emotions are symmetric. In Django, death comes down to earth as merely a plot mechanism that decides how the next scene will be written. It breeds no symmetry either visually or emotionally. Where the death of Vincent and the escape of Butch work hand in hand to fashion the offscreen myth (literally the "pulp fiction") that Marcellus is forced to create to save face in Pulp Fiction, in Django no circle of logic levitates the film's body count into an unknown, metaphysical arc. The bonding forced on the heroes of Django is lifted entirely from Basterds yet it has none of the lyrical urgency of the earlier films. The label "charade" is applied by Christoph Waltz's characters in both films, even a brief German language scene inverts the English spoken in the LaPaditte farmhouse in Basterds. It's too similar without breaking new ground. But there are glimmers. For brief moments we're shown the film he should've made. They're earlier reminisces of Django as he relives escape and capture. The sequences are vivid off-exposure nightimes, chases out of B-movie hell, and a garish daytime POV of Bruce Dern. That was the real film, where Dern was the real plantation owner, and Django feared both life and death.
The pivotal scene of Django, its 'philosophical moment', is the "Skull War" scene (see the book Skull Wars about Harvard's 1800s "race science"). Here Candie exhibits, then saws the skull of his father's houseboy, ostensibly the skull of Stephen's (Samuel L. Jackson) father. The soliloquy is handled with an almost apologetic fury, and it shows Tarantino blowing his best hand. Even though the skull is the wittiest of his visual parallels (to the white cake - both are cut - both are served after dinner - both are 'made' by African-Americans) it doesn't freak the audience enough, it's not truly demented. Problem is there's no relish, no surety in the ethnic science Calvin's preaching. It's all screamed by the boy-plantation owner as DiCaprio plays Candie. Tarantino's Nazi's were much more threatening because they remained urbane, calculating. Here the charade remains only a parlor game. The drama comes from a too mechanical sudden shift, a left-field reaction by Waltz (Tarantino has to force his hand with a cheap memory insertion - the unwilling mandingo fighter's death-by-dogs). The comedy comes from the audience's realization the father figure of the house isn't Candie, it's the skull's descendant, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). He's breached protocol, already seated in the library, warming himself a brandy when Candie enters for his fatherly talking to. The man charged with observing everything is really in charge, yet he's a slave outside this library. Both Stephen and Django have inner/outer performance masks. Outside, Django is a terror to his own ethnicity, pretending to be the Mandingo trading expert, while Stephen is standard issue Uncle Tom. In the privacy of Candyland's closed doors their masks come off: Stephen becomes the brutal father-figure, Django the lovelorn softie. When revenge comes, Django doesn't even shoot the the skull he's compared to indirectly, he just blows Stephen up along with the house. It's a bruiser's version of Tarantino, he's finally begun making the films he imitates. The former slave walking away from the same type of house Zoe Bell stares at in her stereoscope. This is the first of his films without any grand pulp fiction. Still worth seeing. Better than 99% of films in release.
We assume plot, composed mostly of spoken word and shared gestures, is the most important element of storytelling. Though this traditional idea of plot is crucial in plays, novels and television, it remains only a facet of film storytelling. In complex filmmaking, plot is sometimes just a layer of story characters are parts of or even fronts for. In films like Citizen Kane, Vertigo, The Matrix, The Shining, Star Wars, Inglourious Basterds characters behave as if they are purposefully connected to the mayhem unfolding, but like us in our worlds to various degrees, they are barely aware of the mechanics in the storytelling that surrounds them. These directors weave very different story arcs in the undercurrent visuals, and this 'unseen,' nuanced storytelling is what allows these films to be repeatedly viewable, endlessly debatable. Beyond basic plot, thinkers like Lucas, Spielberg, Kubrick, Tarantino offer paradoxes, mirrors, inversions, duplicates, distortions — even clones, and then combine them with forms, mostly physical, that tell a visual story. You might call them alternate stories. Ones that characters like Indiana, Neo, Aldo Raine seem completely unaware of. The 'real' story of Crystal Skull is left unknown (except perhaps to Oxley and paradoxically only when he's in his unconscious fog). The most recent Indiana Jones tale is an archaeological mystery Spalko and Indiana decrypt only partially, and this is Lucas and Spielberg's goal, they know repeated viewings are a given. Their craft is to spend immense amounts of time (in this case - years) developing crucial missing links to taunt an audience with, and they attempt this without robbing a mass audience of basic blockbuster pleasures.
"..we still have the issues about the direction we'd like to take. I'm in the future; Steven's in the past. He's trying to drag it back to the way they were, I'm trying to push it to a whole different place. So, still we have a sort of tension. This recent one came out of that." - George Lucas
Two minds made a movie. George Lucas' recent, exponentially more complex storytelling and Steven Spielberg's amiably increasing Antonionisms merge for convulsive weirdness in the latest install of the Indiana Jones epic. Say what you will about its deficiencies, Skull is the most visually coherent of the series. Tossing aside the slender plots of the last two Jones films, Crystal Skull is a mutation of key themes established in Raiders, a return to form (return is a theme the film layers on), and outlines an attempt to bridge Old Testament myths with (potential) future testaments. The Jones films are about myth: how we develop myths out of past and present, and our reckless use of them and our lack of awareness of their power, whether actual or perceptual. Look closely into Skull and you'll see the act of preserving myth is the nail humans hammer dead-on into the collective coffin (the first coffin is an alien's whose sourced in an alternate dimension) and shows both real and perceptual coffins for us to relish our deaths in one day, or crystallize a way into newer tropes of time use. The ultimate goal of the film might be achievable only outside the film's timeline since the characters misinterpret the skull and its usefulness. Ultimately Skull can only be understood by the 9 year-olds out there in the dark that feel the magic enough to dream the solution.
Visually astute thinkers, Lucas and Spielberg aim for simplicity inside complexity: they use the warehouse that ends Raiders as a form - a structure that the final throne room of Crystal Skull embodies equally, though scale is altered. Its form has been rendered circular. They saucerize it and alter the enclosure scheme: treasures are left exposed for viewing and boxes are uniformly reassembled. Boxes become the throne room whose treasures are crystal not gold. Paradoxically both beginning (U.S.) and ending (Akator) kingdoms can be linked to crystal skulls, yet gold is the initial lure. These box forms animate throughout until the saucer's departure. The key mystery: the skull's power and process by which it is returned is explained by this form-changing. The myth of the skull hinges on whether it's a lure or not, consciously or unconsciously it brings three-dimensional beings, humans, to witness mutlidimensional beings 'reassembled' to travel. The skull becomes a mysterious lure to a planet of simplistic treasure seekers, maybe testing our right to evolve outside of our three dimensions (Skull might have been a pivotal 3-D movie). Crucially the mystery remains unsolved at film's end, Spalko, Jones or Oxley still do not understand collectively what they have seen, yet this visual transformation of warehouse to saucer throne room explains it to us unconsciously.
Boxes arranged in a maze of rows, unevenly stacked.
Defying the current swell to digitize fully, Spielberg reverted to a celluloid-only release, forever condemning any hi-res masterpieces the ILM personnel are taping all over the canvas to the unusually able distortion of filmed optics (in a way, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is a time-machine of filmmaking since it resembles films with effects from the 90's set in the 50's made late in the 00's). If you were to stare at a matte painting used in Raiders of the Lost Ark (see image above), you could or would see brush strokes that become mountains once put under the lens and into the bath. Celluloid hides many secrets digital formats can't. What you see is still the negative/positive and its density of blacks (the dark) that brought blockbuster abstraction to the first two Jones films.
The retro Paramount logo appears, it dissolves to a small mound. Immediately the tip crumbles, out pops a prairie dog, who dusts himself off and races away from a tire that smashes his exit. We don't even see the first human-made form is a circle with a chrome hubcap, it blurs by so fast, but we can hear the engine. The metaphor is blandly obvious, humans dominate here without being aware of where they're going, of what gets destroyed along the way: this is how we behave as dominators. The prairie dog and the ants seen in the jungle both emerge from the ground, but where the prairie dog flees, the ants devour. Like Indiana, the ants and prairie dogs are earth diggers. The ending's pyramid crumbles like this mound, both are destroyed by saucers, both are escaped by 'diggers' just in the nick of time.
The 'Hound-Dog' blaring, '32 Ford, is a reference to Milner's Coupe from American Graffiti: a materially formed American object built for speed. The Coupe zips across open grassland and reaches two-lane blacktop where a military-starred Army convoy drives, a vehicular storytelling style not unlike how ships approach planets at the opening of Star Wars films. Don't forget the cars are 25 years apart in design, bridging the era of Raiders with the one this film is set in. To us they appear from the same era. And the song has a sly undermeaning: Jones and his son are both named after George Lucas's dogs. Soldiers inside stare at them impassively: these are not North Americans (they would be cheering, or at the very least, blinking). The kids driving the Coupe, screaming in an exact replica of the audience's screaming for the film's opening night, ride up in the oncoming-lane and are shown mirrored in the Army's olive drab Ford's shiny hubcaps: the first recognizable saucer. We (the teenagers) are mirrored into the object we mythologize space travel (time travel) with. Sideways.
This bookends the sequence with the first tire-shot, mirroring saucers. A sly joke: This saucer is spinning via carbon-based fuel. As a film about saucers and the metaphysics of why our species imagines this spatiodynamic object as a vehicular metaphor (see Jung's Flying Saucers for the psyche's details), Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is about our brain's very simple, central archetypes and the basic metaphors we imagine time-travel through, and paradoxically, the reasons these goals appear unachievable. Imagining immortality is dynamic myth in film. Making fun of our quest for it is the next-gen.
Storytelling intricacies: Panning from interior to exterior, the reveal shot shows the Soviet driver's face looking in camera at us in his circular rear-view (forcing our identity with the dragsters in their Coupe, this shot is cut from the hubcap mirror in perfect flow) and panning to them in reflection as well, gaining ground. Look at all the circular objects. Mirrors, headlamps. Teenagers come parallel to the lead car, containing a muscle-bound Soviet, who warns his driver not to race the kids across from him. The kids swerve, avoiding a truck, but are undaunted, they lure the driver, who is young, to join them and he does once the females are framed, speeding off, his vehicle separating from the column. The kids cannot see the trunk hides our hero and whether he likes it or not, Indy is part of this contest. It's a joke reversal of the contest that ends American Graffiti, Bob Falfa (also Harrison Ford), that film's villain now tied up in this trunk, opening a film with a drag. Spielberg condenses the space-race and cold war into this innocuous drag. A yellow bolt vs. a drab nationalist star that happens to represent both Soviet and U.S. ideologies.
Splitting from the road, the Army column takes a right at the Atomic Cafe, an actual place, during an actual time. The yellow sign, humming with neon, rises, its final placement just above the horizon: a perfect prediction of the mushroom cloud that ends this next opening sequence, mirrored perversely here — the shot there also moves upwards to a final framing, bookend number two. Dusk is arriving. The echoes of "Hound Dog" become hollow. A major opening scene was to occur here in Frank Darabont's early draft of the film, it remains a ghost here of that paranoia. The title appears "NEVADA 1957" on a landscape that includes an unusually saucer-like cloud form on the right vista.
After killing guards that have declared a 24 hour cut-off in access to a desert facility, they drive in, on left a U.S. flag and on the right, a series of crosses (telephone) that disappear behind a restricted sign. Spielberg & co. suggest this is a somewhat nationalist - Christian undertaking, whatever this cumbustion column has as an underlying myth, it is unified by a cruciform. All these forms ride above horizon, their dominance is implicitly subtle. Telephone poles bookend later in establishing the Peruvian locale, seemingly emanating from the central cathedral's main cross. The second view of the column penetrating the area is first overlaid with a black and white barrier and then our view is bisected by a foreground of Old Glory, the second five-pointed star we have spotted.
Click on image to see Skull's other checkpoint. Notice subtle similarities, look very closely, some hints: the B&W angled stripes of the raised barriers become the angles of the crypt's door AND the serpents that descend upon opening, Stop signs become the dual warning masks. Differences: notice the parallax horizon aimed left here and right there. Spielberg is insisting this beginning mirrors the ending, this U.S. checkpoint implies we are a kingdom of a crystal skull, although our containment of it is a reverse of Akator's; one is kept here, buried and awaiting unlocking.
Once ejected from the trunk, and preceded by his hat, a circle with a bump in it, Indy is surrounded by a circle of men aiming rifles at him. The film recycles Indy's hat shape as a saucer shape. The endless uses of it, even shadowed, indicate how close Indy is to comprehending Spalko's search for immortality. He's got it on the brain. Spielberg then adds up the symbols: Our shadowed hero stands in front of the car's star (military, is the atomic bomb also a military star?), the golden sun behind him off-camera: he stands between our actual star off-screen, and our identification star, the five pointed one, between a mirror of asymmetrical stars. Showcasing Indy's form as silouette, this film is about creatures that not only do not block light, they generate it. These glyphic shot-compositions, of contrasts between light, body and symbol, suggest the aliens are combinations of properties we worship without knowing how to integrate them into our evolution. Spalko later dies absorbing light.
Below: lower right frame is the saucer that ends the film. Myth, vehicle, persona, state; a thematic all-in-one.
A man punches Indy after removing his brimless hat, and then an arrival stops him from continuing: Through a cloudy, dusty car window (a gray haze) appears Irina Spalko. Craving next-level consciousness, she looks, dresses and acts foreign: She mocks her own role practically as an illegal alien. Her outfit, gray, her skin, porcelain white, her back and belt affixed with five-pointed stars. He singles her to show us her blue eyes and red lips, but the coloration is subtle. Despite the warm glow of the incandescent bulbs or the setting sun, she is ghosted with unearthly light. Her hair/helmet suggest the spheres of Lucas' magnum opus villain: Vader - she carries swords around as if a duel is ready to happen at any minute. Having requested and repeatedly been denied the chance to direct one of the new Star Wars films by Lucas, this is his replacement chance.
Welcome to Steven Spielberg's Star Wars film.
"you're not from around here."
The questioners and questioned form a five star-pattern of bodies. She tells Indy that she wants knowledge buried inside his head and opens her hand in an attempt to read his mind psychically. He laughs at her and she tells him that he is hard to read. She soft slaps him in a mirror of Indy's first punch, and now he mocks her further by replying 'ouch.' The words know and knowledge are used repeatedly in contrast to gold and treasure. These light-skinned colonizing Westerners have separated these concepts and are now adrift in an unconscious, somewhat underground intrafaith war. Indy, though he searches for ancient relics (that she boldy shatters and sweeps away underfoot mimicking the opening shot), doesn't know the purpose of this quest. Neither do, actually. Each film references a differing rationale, he is hired by the U.S. Gov't in Raiders, stumbles into a dessicated village-in-need in Temple of Doom and chases after his kidnapped father in Crusade. Each film showcases Indy's realizations played out as central theme, here little or no purpose is realized. Our nemesis Spalko, provides the balance, she is the film's purpose, not unlike the Smith character in The Matrix, a catalyst that hides the full possibility of knowledge. A dangerous and unconscious division of labor.
A wide reveal shows us a massive building, on the scale of several aircraft hangars, where two Soviet technicians stand staring at its security and with a flourish, Spalko repeats the gesture of reading Indy's mind, and the door's lock explodes, the gateway doors part for them to reveal a massive warehouse, the warehouse that ended Raiders of the Lost Ark. Gears opening this door are mirrored at film's end with the flooding gears that crush their escape route, like Lucas' Star Wars films, Skull is littered with scale-mirrors that create a visual dialogue no one inside the film seems to be aware of. Her throwaway Force gesture: the massive warehouse is much easier to 'read' than Jones' head, both are filled with similar information of differing types. Perversely labeled only on the inside, "51," the facility's appearance as the first archeological decrypt (Indy's skills are normally used to find ancient treasures in original settings), means this film is evolving the notion of treasure. Indy himself has contributed artifacts here (his complicity is in question). The room is both maze and reliquary locale, cobwebs blanket the anonymous and endless wooden crates like other tombs of earlier empires: a powerful indictment of modern America's concept of itself. It simply collects the previous civilization's treasures and hides them, not with the panache of a mystical or mythical want, but with cold-headed bureaucracy/technocracy. A soulless empire that counts Indiana as a member.
In a reverse of Raiders, this film starts in the warehouse and ends in the South American jungle exactly 20 years later. Indy protests and is shown the tip of her sword. The box she is looking for Indy has already seen, a box among boxes. She tells him that the contents were inspected ten years earlier and he remembers. He asks for a compass, and his companion Mac turns the directions into an identity when he underlines "west;" the screenplay is commenting on the futility of claiming a point on the horizon as our own. He commandeers gunpowder, since the contents of this particular box are highly magnetized, and begins a sinister search, the group following the shifting ghost movements of the powder high above the boxes. Spalko even uses the wording paradoxically: "What is the point Dr. Jones..?"
Above, the first throne: knowledge and light.
Notice similarities to the chamber at film's end? She stares again at a blinding light at that height differential, this is a throne-room shot which represents the scaled power of knowledge. The alien replaces Indiana here in the final scene, a transition in evolutionary terms. The point of this shot is to create a differential in light with the alien, who is the summary of the light and the body (the skeletons generate the spotlights in the final scene), while here Indy and the light are separated, uncombined, unevolved.
Once found, the box opens and metal in all directions begins to follow it, even the light fixtures are pulled, repeat saucer shapes resembling UFO's. The Soviets have opened several boxes nearby and the metal contents of other secrets begin to follow the chosen one under its magnetic power: This treasure causes all other treasures to follow it, it is 'above them' in a way. A sealed steel box is opened like a large trunk: an unearthly shroud is cut and an Alien is revealed, the product of the Roswell crash. As the coffin is opened, Spielberg shows us Spalko in the mirror of the container.
Surreally the body is covered in a gray rubberized form, an allusion to her, and as she reverently cuts open the gray, she is cutting open her mirror in the film. Indy, not having seen the being, escapes and commandeers a truck, attempting to escape with the contents. MacHale (Ray Winstone) tells his Soviet driver, engaged in a game of chicken with Jones in an alley-like passage, that he doesn't know what he is dealing with in car-dueling with Indy, the opening drag race is now reverted: he repeats "you don't know, you don't know!' as both cars implode; Indy escapes and is caught by the Soviet head man and they fall into a new room with a glass disc on the floor (a Star Wars-type element and a saucering reference that portals with the squared aisles of boxes above).
and they fall again, into a room with a platform lit in cool flourescent bulbs (Star Wars references that mimic the jet-sled that follows below)
and below is a glass sealed observation room, a massive jet engine on a testing sled - tracks lead out into the darkness. The duel triggers a countdown and the the two men are sent into the desert at Mach speeds, where prairie dogs watch the flaming jet race by mirroring the opening shot, car to jet. The animals are watching a needless human comedy to dominate speed not travel. The flames mirror the '32 coupe's paint-job. The jet comes to rest at a terminal taken visually straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind's landing site. In many ways, Skull has its core lifted from CE3K: Harold Oxley is in parallel this film's Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfus), whose psychic implant/vision leads him to the Devil's Tower ending, suggesting only Oxley is suitable to enter the next stage of the saucer's consciousness/vision.
Indy escapes into the night, and finds a canyon (another Star Wars visual reference) that exposes into a distant suburban town. Far below, in what appears to be a perfect suburban landscape he narrowly escapes being discovered by his Soviet pursuers as he jumps a backyard fence and enters a house through the kitchen, where faucets run dry (paradoxically, staged car washing has real water: see above). Unlike the suburban settings of previous Spielberg films, imperfect, nicked, dusty, these are falsely perfect, it is his latest comment on his origins in suburban Phoenix. The TV blares "What time is it?" as in Howdy-Doody time, a perversely perfect reference to the film's subliminal message as a time-travel corpus. The place is a frozen (in time) set to test Atomic bombs. Indy quickly finds shelter in a lead-lined refrigerator (mimicking the alien corpse's container) and once the bomb explodes, a shot shows the blast taking the TV out first, he is propelled into the air, outrunning the unlucky Soviets who stare at the new missile-refrigerator: they are consumed in the fireball. Spielberg vaporizes his former locale: a fake suburbia, a place he reverently used to refer to (Poltergeist/ET). The fridge settles on the ground, expels Indy, who stares at a prairie dog that hides from him, mirroring the opening shot.
Einstein meets Eisenstein: Reproducing the first shot of Indy's reveal from the car trunk with a military star left, real one right, Indy and his Saucer-hat stand in the middle again, this shot is an image glyph that suggests these are separations of what the alien beings combine to achieve immortality-as-dimension-travelling:
As if to barrel the mirroring point across, the film pans establishing a desert AFB, replete with the new sound of jet engines, and a hangar where Indy is taken. Inside a room that seems identical to the one that he and the Soviet crashed into earlier, Indy is scrubbed of his annoyance: radiation poisoning. The film then has its reverse of Raiders's Federal scene, U.S. Agents suggest paranoia as a rule and dispute all claims of patriotism. Knowledge has many values. Indy angrily recounts how little he was made aware of the stored material in question, and for the second time he has been disallowed from knowing what the government has found. The state is complicit in humanity's lack of consciousness about the ethereal AND the real. As a film without true heroes and villains, Crystal Skull is a daring blockbuster. The return of the Crystal Skull is the film's central mystery. The vectors for the return happen to be a legend that becomes a myth. The U.S. Govt is powerless to stop it and the Soviet state is powerless to control it. Each is measured in its humiliation as custodian of the potential of the inherent 'crystal' knowledge, and each fall under the spell of the military star to contain its use within the culture. Lucas and Spielberg suggest as conquerers/graverobbers of the preexisting American cultures, we are separated from the ability to achieve consciousness while we regard our math, our cosmology as pinnacle/peerless. How can we learn from something we dominate?
Returned to teaching, Indy is quickly removed from his post once the FBI begins to rifle through his files, and he flees for a job offer in Leipzeig (once a place of enemies in earlier films, now an accepted scholarly destination). Materializing out of fog, Indy's own personal sequel Mutt (a joke-reference since Indiana is named for a former dog of Lucas's, and referenced larkishly by the film's opening song: Hound Dog), initiates his next gravedigging, luring the Jones scion with a letter and the promise of a crystal skull, the lost city of Akator (known commonly as "El Dorado") and the grave of famed searcher of Akator, Francisco Orellana.
But not before the Jones team is chased biker vs. car across the Yale/Marshall campus, culminating in a Soviet car knocking down a statue of Marcus Brody, his head separating and crashing through a windshield: a perfect warning for the film's ending in which a statue's head is reattached. Knowledge is regained in the koanic reversal. This is the first throne (maybe the only) to a kingdom we are shown.
Indy ably converts Mutt's incipient play with conflict (he wets his comb in a soc's Coke, takes a pending beer that Indy replaces) into an escape device. Fending off the pursuit, Indy directs his son (in their first chase scene) to ditch into the library where they slide to a slow end just missing a student carrying a stack of books. He tells his students to get out of the library and do real field research, grabbing a hold to his progeny and darting away. A plane-travelling shot reveals the view below (a view down that "only the gods can see") of Nazca lines, a lost civilization that created massive pictograms aimed at eyes staring down from the sky. Wickedly, they show you a spider (the weaver of consciousness), and a spiral, the film's motion evolution AND the motion of the plane's propeller. This film is perhaps the most vehicular of the Indy films: even the final river passage is on a gas combustion amphibious auto. Once in Peru, a long tracking shot moves from Mutt's spinning his knife (spirals) to a colonial South American church that frames the background, the seat of spiritual power once, through a market to an archway that frames a telephone pole that represents a Christian cross. The market showcases the various levels of conquest/cultural identity remains that the European presence created, in a nod to Raiders, Indy spits, mirroring Marion's in a similar market in Cairo. The scene is the only time we see ethnicities interacting somewhat in harmony. This cross motif has followed us all the way from the Atomic checkpoint, where telephone poles drift in the distance, to here, where they come into frame from the distance: Mac stands underneath this ending cross, identifying an intra-Christian war for the skull. Paradoxically, even members of the same faith find new ways to go to war: the border.
As subliminal commentary on the conquest of America (the film references Orellana's El Dorado quest but mentions this word only once, replacing it with a Star Wars-ish trademarkable fiction: Akator), the film is set continuously in a west that created domain/order over American indigenous cultures, the college (an enlightenment neo-gothicism spin-off), the book that first shows us the Nazca lines (it duplicates a 'god's eye's view' for any consumer), the Church to Asylum tracking shot, each illustrate a determined and unconscious colonialism. As the only Jones film set entirely the American hemisphere, the creative team may be going for broke with their thematic embrace of the American/colonialism conflict. Voyages into hidden cities under ruins allows for contact with mythically dangerous protection. As a film series that once showed a slight, National Geographic-like respect towards the primitive/dark/foriegn, this film has a darker view of ethnic discordance. The campus is populated only by light skinned people (he shows you a socs vs. greasers rumble in the coffee shop, fills an anti-communist rally of all light skins). And to contrast, the natives that guard tombs now walk and move supernaturally, if subtly. As a film about ethnicism (what is commonly thought to be 'racism') laced in 'treasure seeking,' the dice are loaded differently.
Blockbusters seem to be thematically linked to ethnic conflict, in fact our first, The Birth of a Nation, was a sentimental superscape of reconstruction southern justice grafted on Woodrow Wilson's white man's burden, looped around fears of the dark and of a then growing fear of the rising black identity. Like a lighting strike into every movie theater, Americans thronged to see this opera of hatred dressed as a patriotic counterpoint to WWI. Its power was so unique it alone instigated the Klan's resurrection and is no doubt indirectly responsible for the deaths of humans. As if to counterweight Griffith, the makers decide to satirize the form, the genre they've recreated once before, they now see its problematic groove, so the answer is to build a Flaubert-like trap. If you don't laugh at it, you're probably it.
The film at its hidden core is a self-consciously twisted parody-commentary of ethnic relations as dark primeval men defend palaces from light skinned otherlings grasping for keys (or in one case, possessing them) to eternity. This is a dark film that suggests a hell-bent satirical lens on obvious ethnic relations in mirror conquests occuring here in 5000 BC (when the 'Aliens' land and build Akator) and then in 1500 AD (when Orellana comes close to achieving what Indy/Oxley/Spalko go half way with), essentially a rare view inside the myth of conquest. The elements are not riddles, in fact the riddles that appear are distortions that hide the real meaning of the film from the audience, in effect a sly send-up to other films like National Treasure, but the film itself is a heaving, gaping riddle, it acts as both paradigm and teaching tool. The question becomes: do we want these keys to eternity or do we really just want control?
Inside the insane asylum, past dark skinned inmates, rotored ceiling fans and a spinning vinyl record disc of soothing music, they are shown Oxley's former cell,
a skull inverted as a room, and dialogue that uses the word 'mind' repeatedly: the windows make eyes, a motif reversed once arriving in Akator where eyes peer from behind a bas relief skull. The skull image has likewise been carved into the wall and the phrase 'return' is listed in all languages its occupant knew: Oxley is telling the key idea to the audience: Return. It is a direct command to the children in the audience. The word also decodes Oxley's two discoveries, he returns to the chamber he found the skull to hide it and of course they decrypt the resting place, a pyramidal structure overlooking Nazca lines, a previously unfound city where 'living dead' guardians attempt to kill graverobbers. Pointedly, the guardians are the heroes here, Indy and son are ambiguously allowed to enter, they are the Christian poachers among an indigenous group, Indy satirically mutters: "It's good we're not grave robbers." When Mutt thinks he sees someone, Indy blares out satirical ethnicism (again, what we used to label 'racism') "Ah, you're jumpin at shadows."
Deep in the bowels of the temple are chambered passageways. One opening passes over a disc (a saucer), an Aztec calendar dial, that levers to expose another, deeper chamber. If Skull begins with a western wheel flying across the plains, it bisects here with a Mesoamerican (Olmec, Zapotec, Mixtec, Mayan) time wheel literally and allegorically used as a passageway. Crucially the Maya like the Aztec did not invent or use the wheel in transportation, Lucas is suggesting the alternate use of the wheel is to reimagine time, and crucially Indy does not recognize it for us: our culture doesn't see it, we see the cumbustion-engine wheel as our claim to movement.
Inside are seven wrapped bodies, members of Francisco De Orellana's entourage. One is exposed to the world by Indy cutting using Mutt's knife (he cuts through brown/tan/white colors ie: Indy's own outfit) and we see his pale face decompose (it looks like he died yesterday), and the rigorous (and futile) attempt to gain immortality is shown to the children in the audience, the what and how, the deception of immortality operating (or is hoped for): light skin decomposes to dead tissue. A motif of accelerated decrepitude, the dissolving face has made an appearance in earlier Jones films (even the heartless sacrificial of Doom has his head scalded). This momentarily perfectly preserved face is Indy's mirror (in counterpoint to Spalko's alien, she is gray cutting through gray). Once Orellana's body is found: a paradox is shown. We view the decomposed body of Orellana protected by armour, capped by a golden face mask (humans mistake the gold of treasure with its metaphor: the sun's rays that hide a doorway to time-travel) , a clearly poor use of materials to achieve an everlasting life. The Kingdom Milton speaks of is not here or in Akator, but buried inside every conquerer, whether conquistador or archeologist. Calling it a Kingdom may be its undoing, its paradox, the title tells us why the Skull's treasure is unachievable. Underneath the body however, hidden behind his head, is the real prize, the crystal skull Orellana had stolen and Oxley had rediscovered and returned to hide from the Soviets. Indiana mutters a key word: "Unbelievable" and in his hands is the opposite of the bodies around him, this being is eternal having fused the materials from their dimensional home and made the bone and brain/neuron elements longer lasting than mere flesh. Possession of it is pointless, it must be returned for its secrets to be known. Again, all other metal treasure follows this unusual magnetism. A treasure above all others. The Skull might be the most intimate metaphor for the computer and its elementally purified circuitry, a solid state living consciousness by all appearances inert. The neuron evolved progressively.
Once outside the temple, Soviets appear and take the Skull for their own and Indy and Mutt are taken prisoner and sped to the Amazon. Deep in the Amazonian jungle, a Soviet camp is exposed to us, where Indy sits strapped in a tent, and the forest's edge is lit by a campfire surrounded by dancing Russians. Mac reminds him the real goal is to find Akator, where a city of gold is promised. He is replaced by Spalko who suggests the crystal skulls are products of an unearthly civilization. Notice the opaque nets that project Indy's hat-shape and whose head is inside the saucer shape. Oxley is then presented and his madness of the Skull seems to be a subtle form of telepathism (he seems to 'hear' Indy think later in the film once the skull's 'magic' is performed on him). Apparently the skulls open up new areas inside the mind, the purpose is unknown except Oxley presents a barely logical being, speaking in riddle, barely aware of the physical, and gesturing in mid air. Indy is forced to experience the power of the skull, which is uncovered and charged with electricity and sends a signal into Jones's brain. The effects cause a series of spasms. As in other films, Indy appears to have been transformed.
It is clear Oxley's transformation by the skull was not like Indy's, he seems to have been taken over, his eyes never engage others, he auto-writes. Indy's transformation is artificial. Oxley's door to consciousness is opened (and she misidentifies him as weak-minded).
Discovering that Oxley auto-writes in mid-air when asked questions, the images he gestures with turn out to be logograms of Mayan that create a riddle for the location of Akator. Indy decodes these, and after a half-baked escape attempt that reveals Mutt's role as Indy and Marion Ravenwood's son (set in sinking dry sand), find themselves on a journey across the Amazon basin to find it.
Leading the path through the jungle is a Soviet jungle-leveling machine, descendant directly from the mythology of Star Wars Episode I in which a Trade Federation behemoth shreds jungle without blinking. Tied up are the newly reunited family Jones, where their escape is guaranteed, and fraught with interfamily squabbling, humorously son cries out 'oh, shit' in relief when Indy opens a switchblade from behind his back to cut his bindings. Indy's first move to disrupt the convoy is to aim an RPG at the jungle shredder between son and wife, and it causes the disc cutter to be propelled directly at them, bisecting each car in succession (a mirror of the 32 coupe's bisecting the prairie dog's mound, the process continues, amplifies, evolves).
As ingenuity of fighting continues absurdly (Mutt duels Spalko ala Vader and Luke), and the Skull changes cars and hands multiple times, Mutt is lifted from the convoy by a vine, where he encounters a canopy of monkeys, and he faces one who sheepishly looks at him. Outlandishly he follows them as they swing away, adding a Tarzan mythology to the unfolding hilarity.. he tracks them as Indy and Spalko car-duel against a cliff wall, another motif from Raiders appears. As Spalko prepares to erase Jones, Mutt lands into her car, grabbing the skull and leaping to the other car. Spalko angrily hurls a monkey.
Crashing into a clearing, both vehicles are overrun by giant ants that swarm and attack the highest mammals and consume their bodies once fallen. The Skull provides a void from the ants, who avoid it in an invisible field that surrounds it. It attracts all metal and repels insects. Spalko escapes by climbing onto a vine and suspending herself (she uses Mutt's escape in mirror), even crushing an ant that manages to crawl along an air bridge made of innumerable ants, its innards splattering onto the lens in an ape of a previous Spielberg film. The lens is an (until now invisible) disc we view the film through. The ants don't run from the vehicles like the prairie dog does.
Marion rescues them by leaping off the cliff and repelling off a bending tree that slides them into the Amazon softly. The Soviets follow behind.
After three drops of the waterfalls, a parody of Temple of Doom's improbable opening air escape, the group finds themselves facing a skull-shaped outcropping that pours water, this serves as the entrance to Akator. Once inside the murals indicate a prehistoric civilization that possessed incredible technology, and attended by long-headed humanoids that were worshipped like kings, 13 of them, the shadowed skull overlayed onto a golden shimmering equal figure.
A deeper tour shows them a dark series of passageways that lead to a promenade. Out of a bas-relief wall skull, peer eyes that follow the intruders. And then the walls crumble and protectors of the 'Kingdom' appear. The warriors hurl boleadoras to trip our heroes, until they see the crystal skull, and they withdraw in awe.
Indy and group make it up the next temple, which has a four pronged roof element and a sunken platform. Sand is improbably at this raised platform's deck. Indy decodes Oxley's interpretation and they begin to pull out mask elements that hold back a chamber of sand (the idols are suggestive, elongated skulls), and once in motion, the massive pyramid top reveals a collapsing stone form that draws the four prongs into a central object: a four-pronged monolith. Music cues indicate the theme from War of the Worlds. The burial of these ships in both films is a conscious parallel. The obelisk is a sky-pointer, the pyramid a sky-marker. They fall into it not unlike his and Marion's sand escapade. The sand placed atop a pyramid suggests our use of sand as time counting medium: the hourglass. The forms used in this sequence, the obelisk assembly, the stepped platform to sand, the withdrawing rectangular steps are all allusions to real and filmic objects from outside sources.
Above, first the four corners rise to point to the fifth direction: up. Middle image above, inside the chamber below the upper entrance a series of cork screw steps (replicated from 2001's monolith) are revealed that slowly withdraw, forcing Indy to race time and reach the bottom before tumbling onto spikes that have killed previous, unsuccessful violators. Finally, the collapsing ceiling of the final throne room, reveals a metallic version of the temple opening's four-pronged monolith aimed down, reversing from the saucer's underbelly, a time-portal shown visually out of mirrored markers. This temple was built by the saucer men, subtly turning the temple's decryption by Indy into a time-travel puzzle, however discrete.
In another chamber deeper in the temple, a massive storage room composed of Earth's civilization's artifacts, treasures is revealed, Etruscan, Sumatran, Greek, Mongol. The appearance of so many differing time-scales forces the audience to resolve what time-frames are being layered here. Indy tries to help by muttering: "They were archeologists." Treasures of metal again follow the Skull. Or were they archeologists in disguise? Are these artifacts simply a lure created through a myth, in case the treasure is not activated? Or are they evidence the Saucer Beings gather to determine whether or not to implement the Skull myth and its lure? Simply put: the aliens know the planet's (perhaps this is occuring on many other planets with semi-sentient beings like us) future-cultures will use archeology on a quest for awakening all treasures, and in effect, the Saucermen 'test' the culture to see if it can be evolved into their crystal dimension. Here obviously humanity comes close, but fails. Note the treasures are destroyed when the Saucer departs, they had no use for the material, it was gathered for no real purpose. Consider the strangeness of the plot's dilemma, was the Skull was never 'stolen,' the paradox of the throne room's entrance checkpoint: how could Orellana have gotten past this? The aliens arrived in 5000BC, collect artifacts from future societies, lure conquerers/archeologists, who find the skull (is its legend about being stolen is only half true, who actually entered the final throne room: was the skull was intentionally circulated to make its return necessary and a key to opening the doorway to the next stage?).
Tlaloc mask, Ciudadela, Teotihuacan
At the chamber's center is a doorway where Oxley seems to think the Skull belongs and Indy finally utilizes the Skull's magnetism as it was intended. This is the second checkpoint in the film, with shared properties (go back to the Army Base entrance). Notice the colorless world of the artifacts surrounding the colorful doorway that seems to have defied aging, hinting the core of the treasure room is alien manufactured, the trigger reads its own civilization's head. A fertilization allegory as gateway to another dimension, they are entering a masterful time-machine, as the Skull draws an arrow down separating layers of forms that part to reveal a corbelled passageway that opens into a chamber floored by an Aztec calendar disc. The throne room is a visual mutation of the Raiders warehouse, only now the boxes and their enclosed are separated, an activity that began with the opening of the crate that held the remains. The power of both kingdoms are metaphorically contrasted. What we held as precious in our warehouse the interdimensional beings use as decoration surrounding the doorway of their throne: time travel, unlike humans, they know the futility of material goods.The lighting is spotted like the Area-51 warehouse, except now the saucer forms hanging from the warehouse's ceiling - light sources - are merged with these seemingly inert beings: they glow, a summary of the image of Indiana atop the boxes, now they are atop in stature. In metaphoric terms, the massive maze of Area 51's warehouse is now a small, open circular room, tiny in scale but massive in dimension. On thirteen thrones are crystal skeletons. One is missing a head, the 'stolen' skull's body. The camera's movement showcases the mirror theme (see below). The thirteen are a nod to the Mayan uses of 13, a number beyond our basic acceptance of decimal thinking (and perhaps we reject it supernaturally through fear: triskadephobia), a suggestion to the audience that the successful search for nuances in math that lead to quantum leaps may be out of our reach as long as we discard or misunderstand vastly complex lost civilizations. The saucer theme, the seven notes that sound haunted, are a reduction of the Raiders theme: a dark, creepy musical response to the theme that plays heroically throughout the series.
Spalko, having traced their route, enters the chamber as Oxley presents the Skull to the recipient skeleton. She proclaims them a hive mind, an observation no less flawed than Indy's, both mistake their mirrors in conquest by labelling them, they apply meaning without comprehending a totality. These humans appear to not fully recognize their superiors on the evolutionary scale, who interceded once in human history but have been long forgotten. In their conflict Spalko and Indiana withold vital observations from one other, crucial details that might have opened a doorway to the future. She recklessly grabs the skull and proceeds with the uniting of the two parts, skull and skeleton, standing in Oxely's place. As she returns the skull, it lurches and flies back to its place under its own power. Listen to it clang in place, the noise suggests the impossibility of its initial separation, hinting the skull's severing was the being's choice not Orellana's. It immediately stares at Oxley, and broadcasts to him alone, he's clearly been chosen to receive the Skull's interdimensional 'treasure' (Indy can't receive this despite his skull trance - his was artificially induced) who begins speaking (telepathism/ventriloquism) in Mayan. They speak Mayan by transmission. The chamber begins to revolve and collapse, the boxes/bricks break apart lego-style (referring to both the initial warehouse and slyly the Lego's rasterized-like tie-in toys), its 13 interdimensional parts now reuniting and ready itself to 'return'. Metaphorically the chamber both disassembles (the boxes) and assembles (the life forms) showcasing a mastery of thirteen dimensions humans cannot recognize. Since the final interdimensional being has singular corporeality like ours, clearly it travels through this time vortex, inside the saucer, as a whole. Those that cannot experience the time distortion lack the necessary biological dimensions, they're exploded as rejects. The skull sourced here, travelling through the film, was only one part of the whole, it is a piece of a being's singular dimension, solidly contained. The throne room, a vector for the reshaping of time/dimension (it could be perceived as an operant calendar, a preview of the saucer), broadcasts these thirteeen dimensions seated on thrones, spiralling, flickering, dissolved, allowing the dimensions to recombine into a perceptively living being. Spalko interrupts the exchange between Oxley and and his returned skull and demands it for herself, she returns to her role as a worshipper (the framing earlier in the warehouse observing Indy scattering pellets). The being turns to her and begins to transmit. "I can see" she claims as it begins. Sunlight glints inside through holes in the collapsing chamber, Spalko receives unearthly light (as in Raiders - but now Spielberg and Lucas can claim a progression in image-metaphors within Skull predicting her explosion) and she dies becoming (literally embodying) the image glyph-framings of Indy (in front of sun, atomic explosion and sun-like objects). She dies as she is not crystallized. However deadly, Lucas has migrated our petty metaphor for knowledge, gold (as in Orellana's mask), into a more operant one: crystal. Now forever lost, the sole goal of the previously inert crystal being might have been to upload into Oxley humanity's potential transformation. The metaphor is simple: anyone ever have a crystallizing thought? The crystal skull is a latent metaphor for full brain capacity (and more, it elongates).
Oxley, Indy, Mutt, Mac and Marion quickly figure out the chamber is doomed as pieces (boxes) of it begin to rise up to a four pronged portal into another dimension (time-travel unconsciously hinted at by an upwards scale-mirror to the earlier, upright and massive assembling obelisk). They escape but not before Mac is consumed by the whirlwind. Not having been primed like Oxley to receive the treasure (is it the treasure of quantum consciousness?), the knowledge that may have offered humanity and evolved us is now lost as Spalko is consumed, she demands that the flow stop "cover it" she begs. The alien crushes her in a reverse of her crushing the ant, each creature distanced by perhaps millions of years of evolution. Imagine the crystal skull dimensions that Oxley could have grown (obviously you are given one with this consciousness), yet the attempted crystallization of Spalko's brain killed her. Sensing her rejection, the alien-King sneers at her, a gesture repeated many times in the film across knowledge chasms both between humans and between humans and previous evolutionary chains, vaporising her into oblivion. The treasure is lost, the King-alien departs. The humans of the future having rejected us just as we have rejected them by misinterpretation.
As the remaining group escapes past massive gears that collapse (as mirrors) together that flood (the gears are part of an entire complex designed and built to release the saucer and cover its tracks) with water (in a parody of Apocalypto's ending, the family Jones is ejected by a spiraling water spout that projects them onto a cliff overlooking the temple). From above they watch as the pyramid and obelisk collapses and a giant saucer (their time travel) rises inside a funnel of massive chunks of earth, finally disappearing into the sky. A large scale (perpendicular) mirror to the opening smashing of the prairie dog's mound. And it is an inversion of the mushroom cloud, Spielberg slowly incorporates the sun into the shot as mirror: the graphic connection.
In the coda, set in a brightly lit church, Indy and Marion are married and as a final metaphor, wind blows open the door sending Indy's fedora to the feet of Mutt (the entire theme of the film is this saucer form: knowledge searching for immortality) , who attempts to try it on until Indy swipes it, departing the church, a mirror for the audience's exit.
The greatest animated film of all time is this improbable masterpiece both drawn as manga and directed by Miyazaki. The 'children's version' of the much headier Princess Mononoke, Nausicaa centers around its titular Princess. Visual scales of warring ecosysytems are populated by microscopic humans who battle for extinction. The economy of storytelling is masterful as characters appear with implied backstory and warring groups enter the plot only as they penetrate the current conflict (a far cry from American storytelling where all groups are introduced early in narratives fearing audience confusion). Although ecology is a prevelant theme for Miyazaki, here the conflict's structure is sublimely rendered by extravagant biology using few metaphysical or supernatural devices or motifs. Because threat levels of its transforming ecology are so palpable (they're rendered through processes like emergency cleansings - villagers burn spores from an infected crashed vessel), the film turns the audience into participants of the biome. A miracle in celluloid. Now showing in 35MM through December 20 at NY's IFC Center. Staggered dates and times. Not just a must see, a must see again and again. Voices of Alison Lohman, Patrick Stewart, Uma Thurman and Mark Hamill.
The Wachowskis lift Matrix Revolutions's ending wholesale from Nausicaa.
An Unseen Enemy Griffith delineates storytelling for the century.
Museum of the Moving Image's 2nd annual series devoted to films made 100 years ago. Four distinct programs showcase a masterclass on the beginnings of both genre and format specialization with a special emphasis on New Jersey's role as nature's backlot (a hint that out west of New York was the medium's future). Some key Mack Sennett, Edison, Griffith films will be shown. A must see for any filmmaker with an eye in the past.
Robert Florey was denied the right to direct Frankenstein and was handed the Poe story. His film pushed the envelope in numerous ways. 21 minutes of pre-code violence remain excised from the existing 60 minute film. Showing at the Loews Jersey City, Saturday October 27. Showing with Tod Browning's Dracula.
Nor will it evolve with the times.
Little known fact: Children's graffiti began the Syrian Civil War. A group of boys imitated the sights of defiant Tunisians and Egyptians on their TVs and tagged their school with anti-Assad slogans. Quickly they were rounded up and tortured. The uprisings began as protests to children's torture. Le Monde Diplomatique writes about the secret wars. http://mondediplo.com/2012/09/02syria Frontline takes you on an hour through the basics of the Syrian nightmare - first a razor sharp front-line battle story, then the narrative. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/battle-for-syria/