Jun 15, 2008

Harrison Ford's Face and the Remembrance of Things Past

I went to see the new Indiana Jones recently. I don't want to get much into reviewing it but as a product it had everything required of it – one-liners, dubious treasure-chasing side-kicks, ravishing locations, spear shaking natives, ludicrously evil freedom-hating foreigners… all held together by Spielberg’s loving and playful understanding of American mythology, genre filmmaking and his own cinematic legacy.

The opening scene (and indeed the whole first half of the movie) have such a knowing assuredness to them you can’t help but be carried along, from the self-deprecatingly silly reference to the first movie in the cross fade from the Paramount logo to a gofer mound through to the perfectly judged introduction of cinema’s favourite archaeologist himself. And then suddenly with a confident jolt in perspective we're skipping lightly past a panorama of 50s America; from area 51, the Manhattan Project, the house of un-American activities and the paranoia-laden infancy of the Cold War in the shadow of WWII. While Spielberg is scrawling Sunday Afternoon adventure cartoons on the landscape of 20st century America he is literally and figuratively in his element. He is his generation’s greatest moviemaker; playfulness without showiness, cleverness without smugness, entertainment without condescension.

Where all this goes to when they get on a plane to South America I don’t know. Perhaps there was a mix up at the airport as it seems by the time they arrived all they had with them were the brainlessly bombastic CGI stunts of The Mummy movies and a beardy John Hurt pretending to be possessed.

All of which is fundamentally beside the point. The whole thing was fine, efficient, great even in places. But something about it left me feeling decidedly, well, sad.

Up to this point it’s probably noticeable that I’ve been talking exclusively about Movies rather than films. For me the two are not the same thing. A movie is a very specific kind of film. The product of a Hollywood system forged in the burgeoning USA of the early 20th century. The Movie is a curiously self-referential thing; isolationist, parasitical, reliant on limited set of genres and conventions (the Western, the War Movie, the Period Movie, The Biopic, the Rom-Com, the Blockbuster), its lifeblood is borrowing, appropriation, referencing, playing with itself, as such its as much about structures and themes as it is about characterisation or the telling of a good story. The movie is about escapism, but not in the sense of disappearing into the world of the movie, it’s about disappearing into the world of Movies. It’s no surprise that the studios themselves became tourist attractions, theme parks; they are the promised land, the thrilling heart of this self-quoting, meta-filmic dreamworld.

The best movie moments are always for me those that revel in this. Like Singing in the Rain, a movie made in order to use the best of MGM’s back catalogue and set within the movie world, where characters float across the studio from set to set. Like the end of Back to the Future II, located within the end of the original film, the stars frantically rushing around earlier versions of themselves. Like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven or David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, simultaneously driven by and undermining the conventions of the Western and the Detective movie respectively.

And like the movies they inhabit movie stars are not just actors (some of the best are not really actors at all) they are Stars. Their presence transcends their performance in any particular movie. When you see them on screen the character they play is always knowingly transparent, the Star showing through, their face and their voice imbued with the accumulated memory of every movie you’ve previously seen them in. It’s pretty much a cliché these days to point out that in a Cary Grant film the character is always Cary Grant, the creation of a mysterious man called Archie from Bristol. Similarly the reason Henry Fonda is so devastating as the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in the West is because when you seem him massacring an innocent family, its not just an attractive blue-eyed psychopath that’s killing those children, its Abraham Lincoln , it’s Wyatt Earp, it’s frigging Henry Fonda.

But I think it goes even further than this. I grew up with The Movies. I used to sit with my mum and dad nearly every Sunday evening, watching a movie. Movies are a series of interruptions that punctuate my everyday existence, that mark it. They are both something to remember and a way of remembering. Unlike Prufrock I have undoubtedly measured out my life in Tom Hanks films.

Take Jurassic Park for example, I remember the cinema in Cambridge, I remember it was Elizabeth Dale’s birthday party, I remember the fake coloured footprints that covered the floor and walls of the restaurant we ate in before hand. I remember the front cover of the video we bought later. I remember the first time I went to Universal Studios, being filled with wonder by a giant animatronic triceratops and hearing that familiar soundtrack pumping out of speakers hidden deep in the giant green ferns. Because of the omnipresence of the Movies, because it always sought to exist beyond the limits of any two hours of screen time, that particular film has come to have a presence in my life, to exist as a series of memories and feelings and places; it has come to be a part of my childhood.

And so when I see the Stars of that film, reappearing essentially as themselves in some new movie, I am always carried back to Jurassic Park and to the childhood I associate with it. Like Proust’s little Madeline dipped in tea, the tired lines on Sam Neil’s permanently weary face will always remind me of Elizabeth Dale’s Birthday party, of my front room when I was seven, of the smell of the humid Florida air. I could never dislike a Sam Neill movie however bad it is because they will always have Sam Neill in and Sam Neill makes me think of happy things; and that, fundamentally is the logic of the Star system.

Anyway, back to Harrison Ford. By this logic it should surely be a nice thing to experience the familiar rush of memory on hearing the opening bars of Indiana Jones. Like Jurassic Park it holds many similarly fond childhood memories.

And besides this is a film that consciously wallows in nostalgia. Not merely the nostalgia for the earlier films in the series, but the nostalgia on which those films were founded, for a kind of Sunday Afternoon adventure serial and a wholesome boys action comic that had long since disappeared. Even nostalgia for a kind of filmmaking that was already dying out, and nostalgia for an America before Vietnam and Watergate and everything that has followed. This movie wants you to think fondly of earlier times.

And yet, there was something about this coming back together of all the old elements, the music, the settings, the costume, the stars (and it was in fact the presence of Karen Allen that really got to me), that only made it crushingly apparent that regardless of the circumstances that past could not be recaptured, that time was forever lost.

Although for Proust a single taste can bring the past flooding back, if the entire scene (the table, the house, his aging mother) had been reconfigured, it only would have led to an overwhelming sadness. Only in the fleetingness of these memories can they be sustained, once they are recreated they are destroyed. And looking into the aging faces of Harrison Ford and Karen Allen, was for me like the idea of my parents forever trying to recreate the same joyous holidays we once had, going to the same places, wearing the same clothes, doing the same things. It is futile and hopeless and just plain sad.

So rather than that give me a glimpse of Indiana Jones’ smile glimpsed some terrible new Harrison Ford film, or a few bars of John William’s score misheard in some other piece of music, that for me is the best way to remember Indiana Jones.

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