Wednesday, May 12, 2010

GUEST BLOG by John: Watching Raiders of the Lost Ark for the First Time Again

Neil Young--"I Am A Child (live)" (mp3)

“Get captured and escape. Get captured and escape. Get captured, escape, open the box and die.” That’s how my oldest daughter summarized the plot of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark tonight. She’d been watching some Cartoon Network show that was a parody of Spielberg’s movie, one of the favorites of my childhood, and when I tried to explain to her that her cartoon was a parody, she asked me what parody was. So after dinner we found the DVD, curled up on the day bed, and listened to the opening movements of one of the most memorable soundtracks in film history.

Movies today tend to give it all away in the first few minutes; they don’t trust the attention span of their audience and maybe, probably, they shouldn’t. Our attentions spans are shortened these days. But watching a movie tailored to popular audiences of decades ago is a revelation, especially if you’re watching it with a ten year old.. You have to be patient, for at least twelve minutes or so, as the narrative draws you in and leads you to the world you’ll be graced to inhabit for the next ninety-seven minutes.

There are so many dark places, so many shadows in the early part of Raiders; you can barely even see Indiana most of the time he’s on his way to that golden idol; you can barely see Indy most of the time he's on his way to that golden idol. But when he comes out of those shadows, he takes your breath away and you understand why that co-ed in his class flashes her eyelids at him in Anthropology 101, those eyelids that state: “Love” “You” even though he’s in a suit and tie and nowhere near the dashing man he was: more Clark Kent than Super Man.

But before that moment in the film, my daughter was entranced. She’d bought into the entire fiction. The fake cobwebs, the smarmy guide, the cool torches, Indy having to navigate those stones. And when we were, the both of us, convinced that he’d found just the right amount of sand to drain from his palm to make the weight of the sandbag equal the weight of the golden idol (and really, how could the two even come CLOSE to equaling out? You’d have to have large bag of Purina Dog Chow to equal that little golden god’s weight), you could feel her shoulders ease a bit, sensing that all might be well.

And then. And then. The slow descent of that altar stone. The chaos of that opening with the false guide, the sliding under the stone wall, those poison darts shooting from the tiki bar figures in the cave, the rolling of that impossibly big boulder like some Rube Goldberg initiate or the stone of the grave of Christ.

And then later, the snakes. She’s no big fan of that brand of reptiles. Whenever we go to the local zoo, we tend to avoid the “Misunderstood Marvels” exhibit with its pythons, tarantulas, grave digger lizards and various other poisonous snakes and frogs. I read somewhere that Harrison Ford didn’t much like snakes either, so the scene where he’s face to face with about a gazillion vipers and one aggressive cobra was a cool special effect with him behind really well Windexed glass. I told her that. She seemed relieved.

Other surprises. She didn’t really know much about the Ten Commandments or Moses. I thought I’d done a pretty good job of teaching her about Old Testament stories and even better a job of New Testament ones. Not so, evidently. Having to explain, in the middle of an action film, about the origins of Judaism, as your ten year old daughter tells you, “Well, if I don’t get this story line (the Exodus) then how can I get this whole movie?” is a humbling moment for someone who considers himself a person of faith.

Nazis and the swastika that figures so prominently in the film? Never heard of them. The nuances of the Holocaust, an historical moment in which many of her ancestors on her mother’s side of the family died, needed more than just a gloss during a particularly rousing chase scene. Still, I tried.

“The Nazis were really bad guys.” Her response: “Yeah, I can tell because of those glasses and the way they talk. Plus the music is creepy and they’re mean.”

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant” writes the poet and the Holocaust to a ten year old seems a slant truth to tell, indeed. We talked a bit about it, and her final word on the discussion was, “Well then, I’m really glad to be only half Jewish and mostly Christian.” Why I felt the need to remind her that she had been baptized says more about me than anything else.

My daughter and I don’t really watch many movies where people’s faces melt off, but I recalled from my viewing of Raiders several decades ago that that wax face special effect is the culmination of the Nazi’s end as they deign to behold the holiest of holies, as Indiana and his girlfriend shield their eyes, like Lot, like Odysseus plugging his ears, and the notion that my daughter might be traumatized led me to caution her, “You might want to look away here; it gets pretty gruesome when they open that Box.” “What happens, Daddy?” “Well, their faces melt off. The Nazi faces, I mean.” Her response: “Oh, well, that’s ok then.”

And we both watched what I’d looked on in horror years ago but which now strikes me as so dated to be almost comical and I grabbed her hand and she squeezed back, as if to comfort me. All those bad Nazis with the lasers of the justice of God ripping through them like cannonballs hitting soldiers point blank, the unbelievers smoking their filtered cigarettes all the while. All the Madame Tussaud figures with their laughable eyeballs. And then, at the end, the Ark of the Covenant stacked away in those endless miles of wooden crates, buried in some crazy parody of the Smithsonian or filmed as a tribute to the ending of Citizen Kane and all that holiness buried deep down, so deep down, as my daughter and I roused ourselves from the day bed and went to get a drink of water and play a last game of Uno before heading off to bed.

Neil Young's Live At Massey Hall is available at


Billy said...

I was 9 when I saw this, and the face-melting moment totally freaked me out.

Not so much that, you know, it kept me from going back and seeing it three more times in the theater. But still.

When I recently went back and rewatched Raiders..., I found myself feeling a little bit disappointed, and I can't quite work out why it doesn't maintain its grip on me quite like Star Wars or Karate Kid, which both hold up better for me.

troutking said...

This is the best guest blogger ever! He delivered a copy of Raiders to my door before I even got home from work today.

Daisy said...


Wonderful post! Sounds like a great experience shared with your daughter.

Billy and Bob,

Y'all better watch out or your guests are going to out blog you!

jed said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jason said...

Thanks John, great post...I have a movie to download now to watch tonight as I can't remember the last time that I saw this movie.

John said...

I agree; Star Wars holds up way better as does ET. I've not watched Karate Kid since it was in theatres; if you have a copy, let me borrow it? Jed, totally agree about Uno. My youngest daughter, when we play, takes special delight in changing colors, announcing, "Now I'm gonna mix it up a little bit." Love that line.

Tockstar said...

Billy, I recently watched Karate Kid and I don't know how well it held up. I'll have to re-watch Raiders. I remember seeing it for the first time in summer day care at my elementary school. We had to bring signed permission slips to be allowed to watch it. My parents said that I could see the movie, but stipulated that I had to turn around during the end. So, instead of seeing the face-melting as it was meant onscreen, I ended up seeing this warped backwards reflection of it on a glass cabinet. I then had many nightmares. Good times.