The Man in the Hat and the Man who Used to Make Him.
A blog post by Dewey O'Neil
Senior Odd Dog Blog Writer
“The man is…nefarious.”
I feel infantile sometimes admitting that Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones Jr. was the first person I wanted to be since (1) he’s fictional and (2) the majority of my peers award their fathers with such an honor. To that point, I would concede the following: my father has done far more than Dr. Jones to assist and support me, but when I was six, I didn’t want to be the guy in the suit with the briefcase - I wanted to be the man in the hat with the whip.
Nonetheless, my Dad was responsible for showing me many great films in my youth, an activity which, to a young father, may have seemed insignificant or simply a rudimentary way to keep his two boys engaged after a long day of work. However, these viewings are vividly etched into my memory and still stand as the kindling and first sparks of my lifelong love of cinema. And in spite of the countless ways in which we differ, movies still remain the solid bridge which joins my father and me thirty years later.
I first saw Raiders (or most of it, anyway) sometime in the spring of 1987 or 88, and it was precipitated by a combination of our weekly family dining ritual, a newspaper, and the old man.
“Didn't any of you guys ever go to Sunday school?”
Immediately following church on Sundays, my family would sit down to a big breakfast. We’d hit the grocery for all the essentials: bagels, bacon, eggs, and a cheese danish. And once at the register, my father would throw on the Sunday edition of The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s top rag. Sunday breakfast was the only time I felt like the world slowing down for all four of us. It was leisurely, peaceful, and punctuated by the smells of Mrs. Dash and fresh newsprint. We sat, sipping tea and coffee, munching bagels and Danish, and scanning the Sunday Plain Dealer.
Speaking personally, I only ever wanted two sections – Sports and the Arts. I was a baseball fan in my youth and devoured every Cleveland Indians’ box score, but I would usually have to wait for the sports section until my father was done with it, so I would snatch the arts section to look at the film advertisements. Within the arts section was a television schedule which I would also peruse, looking at the Sunday night movies on WUAB, channel 43.
On a rare occasion, one Sunday morning, my father preempted his sports section by checking the television listings. It was a strange move, and I remember staring at him, waiting for the moment he set the arts section back down so I could grab it. Before he relinquished his grip, the following conversation occurred:
Dad: Oh, honey. Look what’s on tonight! (shows Ma the listing and points with his finger)
Me: What? What’s on?
Dad: It’s called Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s on tonight, but you’ll be in bed. I’ll tape it for you. You’ll like it.
I wonder if, like me, you ever get the feeling that memoirists employ a bit of creativity in their recollection of conversations. I assure you – this conversation occurred almost verbatim.
“Look at this. It's worthless - ten dollars from a vendor in the street. But I take it, I bury it in the sand for a thousand years, it becomes priceless.”
I remember Indy’s introduction where, after being mostly shadowed by the canopy of the Kauai rainforest, he stepped into a shaft of light as the orchestra tumbled out a couple measures of sinister notes – almost like composer John Williams was going for some sort of “Duh duh DUUUUUHHHH!” I remember being a bit confused by that musical cue and wondered if these dark, descending notes indicated that this man was not someone to be trifled with, if he was in fact, a bad guy. In such a dangerous, foreign environment, he seemed all business, and I wasn’t quite sure what to make of him.
All my concerns dissipated once Indy’s burlap sack of sand failed to register the same weight as the golden idol it replaced. That was when the cracks began to show – figuratively and literally. Jones quickly became a fallible man, one whose escalating trials were…well…funny. Later in life, I was made aware of Lucas and Spielberg’s affinity for Republic serial adventures, a genre which, while I never experienced directly, I was exposed to through the cliffhanging commercial breaks of such cartoons as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or GI Joe. All of Indy’s obstacles were both exciting and humorous to behold. I giggled at Indy trying to pull himself out of the chasm by the tiny weed, and Ford’s self-satisfied albeit short-lived smirk in that scene still makes me chuckle. I marveled at the enormity of the giant fiberglass boulder, the imposition of Belloq and his platoon of Hovitos, and particularly at Jones’ escape and the ensuing chase. I think it still remains my favorite chase scene from any movie in spite of its brief length. This is also the first moment I heard “Raiders’ March”, the Indiana Jones theme, a song which thirty years later still fills me with heroic delusions. Needless to say, Spielberg, Lucas, and Ford owned me almost immediately.
I also remember Marion Ravenwood’s introductory scene. I didn’t completely understand the drinking contest she was engaged in but felt sure it was some kind of game. In spite of my youthful inexperience, I still managed to perceive an otherness from this woman. She was a domineering, female business-owner, outdrinking or ordering around swarthy and dangerous looking men and controlling the conversation with the established male hero. She lacked familiarity when stacked against the delicate and demure sensibilities of another Marian I knew well, the one from Disney’s Robin Hood. While Ravenwood certainly becomes a distressing damsel at points in the film, she is always scheming an escape, slapping faces, or talking back (sometimes with her mouth full). Ravenwood was revelatory to me at a time when I was more accustomed to women in film and TV fading into the wallpaper.
And obviously I remember the truck sequence. Apart from the music, the stunts, and the comprehensive spectacle of this classic setpiece, I remember one part in particular – when Indy, after commandeering the truck, sends the jeep of Nazis careening off the side off of the desert mountain. That notion terrified me.
“I can only say I'm sorry so many times.”
So imagine it’s the climactic scene. Indy and Marian are tied to a post. Belloq enacts the ritual of the ark opening. The Nazi monsters Toht and Dietrich look on. Young me sits so close to the TV I could climb in. And then, Belloq finishes the Hebrew incantations before nodding with a slight apprehension to the Nazi stooges who respond by lifting the lid of the ark. The lid passes in front of the camera and we slowly begin to zoom in on Belloq who bends to peer inside -
– and that was it. The tape stopped and began to rewind. What. The. Fart.
My father, bless his heart, made an honest mistake. In the days of VHS, there were two settings the user could employ when recording: Standard Play and Long Play. If my father had recorded Raiders using LP, I would’ve seen the entire film, albeit in far inferior quality. As it happens, he used SP which captured Raiders with far better color and tracking but used the tape up more quickly. So, I had a copy of Raiders, an incomplete copy with a plethora of commercials but a copy nonetheless. And without reservation, I wore that copy out, watching it several times a week for 15-20 months which I feel stands as both a testament to Raiders’ quality as well as the quaint, bygone behavior of pre-internet, pre-youtube childhood. Sure, I could have just rented it, but my father, ever the frugalist, scoffed at the notion of renting a movie that we already owned 94% of: “Just find someone who owns it and borrow it from them.”
As luck would have it, my babysitter, Michelle, owned a VHS copy of Raiders. So in the summer of 1990, in a musty basement in Avon, Ohio - after seeing Temple of Doom at a friends’ house and Last Crusade in the theater - I finally watched the ending of Raiders in all its face-melting, bureaucratic fool glory. And then I watched it again, and again, and again, and again, maybe in an attempt to make up for all the times I’d watched the film incompletely or maybe because watching Dietrich and Toht’s faces melt and Belloq’s head explode was just so mouthwateringly vicious.
“Your persistence surprises even me.”
Far be it from me to criticize America’s most famous filmmaker, an artist whose undeniable legacy in Cinema is surely intact, a storyteller whose pictures have touched millions worldwide, but I miss the old Spielberg.
Beginning in the mid-eighties with Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple, Spielberg began to fluctuate between making popcorn movies and historical dramas. His desire to jump between genres and the products of this push for versatility were admirable and increased his appeal and stature. But I see 1993 as Spielberg’s pinnacle. 1993 saw the dual release of Jurassic Park, Spielberg’s last great popcorn movie, and the award-winning Schindler’s List, one of the greatest historical pictures ever made. His hard work and ambition was rewarded with unparalleled commercial/critical success and Oscar gold. There was no doubt that this man’s prolific contributions to cinema would last forever. Then came Hook.
In the past 25 years, I can’t name a Spielberg film that was really good. Catch Me if You Can and The Terminal were fun and cute, respectively. Bridge of Spies was well shot and proffered a heretofore cinematically unseen depiction of post-WWII Germany but frequently felt flat and overlong. The predictable Minority Report was really only visually appealing, and the same goes for War of the Worlds which, at one point, simply felt like Jurassic Park with aliens. And, let’s face it, Saving Private Ryan is saved only by two or three sequences – Omaha beach, the death of the medic (played by Giovanni Ribisi), and the final defense of the city. If we’re being truly honest, the rest of the film, though jarring, drips with melodrama and schmaltz.
Director and Monty Python alum, Terry Gilliam, once critiqued Spielberg’s films for their insistence upon happy endings. He quoted Spielberg’s longtime friend, Stanley Kubrick, who, in reference to the screenplay for Schindler’s List, posited that the holocaust was not about hope and success, as the script would have you believe, but rather about failure. As a reluctant cynic, I am inclined to side with Spielberg on this one; his film is about a small glimmer of hope surrounded, enveloped, and immersed in plenty of despair along the way. Perhaps it is different for some, but where such dark history is concerned, I prefer juxtaposing the horror with a dash of hope. In fact, if you crunch the numbers, Schindler saved 0.000019999999999999998% of the six million Jews murdered in the European Holocaust. Moreover, the film ends with Schindler lamenting not saving more when he clearly had the means, a lamentation which adds up to, in the protagonist’s mind anyway, a failed opportunity. I feel Spielberg courted both tones quite well: hope in despair and failure in success.
I am more interested in Quentin Tarantino’s take on the filmographies and careers of directors. Like him or not, Tarantino possesses a knowledge of cinema which I would surmise is unmatched by any other industry player. Moreover, the man talks a lot, and I frequently listen. In his studies, Tarantino has noted a pattern, perhaps not an altogether shocking pattern, but one which I feel applies to Spielberg. Though he refrains from using many names, Tarantino believes that as time marches on the quality of most directors’ films declines, perhaps owing to the depletion of their creative impulses or perhaps because they become less critical of the projects they choose to undertake. While he makes some exceptions to his rule – such as Martin Scorsese – Tarantino fervently believes that each great director has his time, and this theory seems also to be the main factor in his choice to make a total of 10 films before checking the gate for the last time. Were he in Spielberg’s shoes, Tarantino would probably have taken his final bow in 1993, secure in the legacy of his oeuvre, content to go out on top.
Suffice to say, Spielberg’s time has passed. He may still be a brilliant producer or a bankable name in foreign markets (where Ready Player One made the vast majority of its money), but he will never again create something like Raiders or Jaws or Jurassic Park. Some may be quick to decry such a claim as being overly influenced by nostalgic attachment, and I would agree; there’s certainly a good amount of that in there, too. Nonetheless, with as much objectivity as I can muster, since 1993, Spielberg has undeniably lost something. In his defense, we’ve all gotten older, viewers have changed, he’s changed, and God bless him, but I can’t muster even a fraction of interest in The Post. His final chance, in my opinion, is the forthcoming and final installment of the Indiana Jones films, and I say final because it’s the last time Ford will crack the whip as Indy. Any Indy films that follow don’t count – I’m looking at you, Chris Pratt.
“It's not the years, honey, it's the mileage.”
Before I moved out to Arizona ten years ago to begin my career as a teacher, my father and I screened Raiders at the family home in Westlake. We laid on the floor side-by-side, our heads propped up by pillows from the couch. It was late, and regrettably, we both fell asleep, but it was nonetheless fitting to conclude my life in Ohio in this fashion and a nice memory I have with my dad. It was also an interesting and relevant segue to begin my move to Arizona where I now live less than ten miles from Spielberg himself.
The man in the hat was my hero and still is in many ways. He was an expert in his field and motivated in his endeavors by a deep, unflinching respect for antiquities (except for the business with stealing the golden idol as well as whatever unnamed transgression he committed in Madagascar which earned him a death sentence, apparently). He was quick with an insult, loved by women, possessing of a tight circle of reliable friends, and when the dust settled, always standing atop a mountain of obstacles, his fedora silhouetted by the setting sun. While Last Crusade is probably my favorite because of the father-son relationship, Raiders is a technically superior film. Even Lucas says it remains his favorite movie he ever worked on.
Ford turned 76 today, and no matter how disappointing Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was, I’m still hopeful for one last adventure they’ve planned for 2019.