Revealing the tricks: Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Dir. Steven Spielberg

Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s appeal must be in how visible it makes all of its processes. Like A New Hope its hyper-nostalgic pastiche of adventure film serials manifests in backwards gazing big budget comfort food with a forward gazing certainty to its anachronism. Born ten years late it feels familiar because your older cousins watched it, to your older cousins it always felt familiar because their parents watched it, and to their parents it felt familiar the moment they saw it at the theatre because Lucas and Spielberg watched it in the fifties. Raiders of the Lost Ark does the job remembering itself for you as it plays out: the fawning students of Jones’ readymade adventure hero, Jones’ shadow cast huge on the wall as Marion wanders diminutive in the frame, her sucker punch instead of words because of course there’s a history. A child would daydream this up after a good Saturday morning in front of the television, which I understand is the point.

A New Hope‘s anachronism differs from Raiders‘ conman confidence because Lucas’ approach to action is to at all costs make it feel spontaneous; its fringe roughness gets lost in a blur of cinematic propulsion. Spielberg on the other hand hamstrings camp with a kind of misplaced artistic honesty, making efforts to demonstrate the fabrication of iconography as well as the setup of fun. For all that the boulder scene screams to life (a fantasy set brought to life with a rare master’s approach to kinetics), there’s the airstrip fight where every piece of tension, every piece of cause and effect is exhaustingly drawn out for us, as though Spielberg is the conductor making every musician play their bit separately. It’s virtuoso to be sure, but it frequently amounts to show off and warm-up more than a piece worth believing in. When Jones descends into the crypt with the Ark, Spielberg’s eye and the meticulous storyboarding underlying the film’s every beat come together for an image that seems to expand the potential of the photographic and illustrated image alike. Sculptures frame the shot from the bottom, Jones descends on a rope more or less parallel to the screen in the middle, but the roof entryway skews our sense of the y-axis. (It’s like a diorama bent out of shape by Jack Kirby). Then we’re back to winks and nods. The mechanics of the marketplace chase disappear into something convincingly live-action Hergé, while the blow-by-blow carnage of the one with cars demonstrates the worst habits of action films to come.

As a film about a magician revealing his tricks you can’t do better in the way of suspense, hence its popularity with film dorks and families alike. Its self-referentiality makes for an accessibility that gives as quickly as it takes: as a how-to it’s cinematic, but as cinema it’s a how-to. If it seems like I’ve insisted that Spielberg should’ve lost himself to fantasy as Lucas did, that’s only one route it could’ve taken. I’m more interested in the potential of the very rare breathers in the film, that diminish the primacy of its icons. The briefing at the university with the Intelligence officers is delivered with ambling dialogue, naturalistic blocking, and suspense conducted through shot composition instead of scoring. Later there’s a scene where Marion farewells Sallah in the foreground then wanders to meet Jones in the mid, so our focus is still on Sallah as Jones and Marion become a part of the fabric of the scene, laughing about some private joke and looking like anyone else. These scenes remind of the director’s conscientious artistry (bridging new wave and blockbuster), and gesture to a natural world that houses Raiders‘ silliness instead of using modernist nods to convince us that it’s all a farce.

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