Entry from August 8, 2007

This summer, on eight successive Tuesday evenings, I am presenting a series called The American Movie Hero (go to www.americanmoviehero.com) at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. The eighth film in the series, Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark with Harrison Ford, screened on Tuesday, August 7th. Before showing the film, I spoke as follows:

When I was a teacher in England some 20 years ago, I had pastoral responsibilities as what was called a “tutor” to a group of kids ranging in ages from 11 to 18 and from an equally wide range of academic interests and abilities. It was always a challenge to figure out what to do with our tutor group meetings and, one year, I set everyone the task of giving a five minute talk to the group on his hero or heroes. Most of the choices were of sports stars of the day or — even at that late date, in the mid-1980s — to still-well-known heroes of the Second World War. A particular favorite was Sir Douglas Bader, the Spitfire pilot who had lost both legs in a pre-war flying accident but who talked his way back into the cockpit when war was declared and shot down 22 German planes while flying with prostheses.

One boy of 17, however, who was a bit of a problem child, chose as his hero Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. It was obvious to me that this was a bit of calculated insolence on his part, an ironic protest against having to do anything so much beneath his dignity as admitting to feelings of admiration or emulation towards someone whose deeds had raised him to the level of the heroic. Like the movie culture itself at around the same time — the culture that produced tonight’s film, Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981 — he had obviously come to think of himself as too cool to have any real heroes. Like it, too, he announced the fact of his own coolness by choosing as his hero a fantasy figure whose heroism depended on his non-existence. But the boy played it straight and spoke admiringly if tongue-in-cheek of Captain Kirk’s calm decision-making, his tolerance towards all intergalactic life forms and his defense of liberal and enlightened values against Klingon or Romulan villainy.

Today I feel a little bit naughty in the same way he was by presenting to you as a “hero” on a level with Sergeants York or Stryker such a personage as Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones. It’s ridiculous, I know, to imply that such an obvious cartoon can for a single moment bear comparison with the other heroes in this series. But the point of including him is to show that he is not quite unrelated to the American heroic tradition — if only because he represents what today looks, I’m sorry to say, like that tradition’s end point.

As Marshal Kane in High Noon and Ethan Edwards in The Searchers showed, America’s feelings about her heroes were becoming more and more ambivalent in the 1950s. When we see the cabin door closing on solitary and excluded John Wayne at the end of The Searchers, it’s impossible not to think of this as a symbolic act, the culture’s way of saying that, even if we are still allowed to admire such a man, we are to regard him as belonging inevitably to the past and as having no place in our modern and enlightened world. The link between the virtuous hero we were saying good-bye to in the 1950s and the cartoon hero we were saying hello to in the 1970s and 1980s was, in my view, the cool hero of the 1960s whom we have seen in the last two films. Since last week, however, I have been turning over in my mind the problem raised in connection with Peter Yates’s Bullitt by Leon Kass, which those of you who were here then may remember was this: how, exactly, can we distinguish between a virtuous hero like Ethan Edwards and a cool hero like Frank Bullitt?

Both are brave, both are dogged in pursuit of bad guys beyond the point at which the worldly wise think it injudicious to continue the pursuit further. Both, too, are motivated by private vengeance and public duty in proportions that are never quite made clear to us, and both have voluntarily separated themselves to a greater or lesser extent from those on whose behalf they act — in part by taking upon themselves the burden of a terrible knowledge of real horrors from which the others wish to be spared. At the risk of undermining the whole premiss on which this series has been founded, I admit that the difference between the two men is more of degree than of kind. But it is still not trivial. Ethan, after all, doesn’t have a nice bachelor pad in San Francisco and Jacqueline Bisset in his bed to relieve the tedium and hardship of his long quest for Debbie’s Indian captors.

Ethan’s deeds are on a truly heroic scale, while those of Frank Bullitt, where they are not a Bond-like fantasy of nearly effortless conquest and attractiveness, constitute a more everyday sort of heroism — the heroism of cops and firefighters who are just doing a job, but a job that only people with special and admirable qualities can do. That’s part of what I was getting at last week when I noticed the emphasis the director, Mr Yates, gave in that movie to people doing their jobs — not only the police but the doctors and nurses and ambulance men and even the taxi driver and the stewardess — and the favorable contrast he made between them and more ambitious sorts such as Walter Chalmers who thought in terms of careers rather than jobs.

But I think there is another difference as well, and this goes to the heart of what I meant by distinguishing virtuous from cool heroes. It lies in the fact that “cool” is primarily a visual quality. It has to do with “image” or “attitude,” which is to say with a self-presentation that is designed to create a certain effect. The biggest difference between Ethan Edwards and Frank Bullitt, in other words, is in how they look. Ethan never gives us the impression that he is trying to look any way at all. He simply is what he is, and he doesn’t care if we the audience admire him or not. He appears not to notice that we exist. But Steve McQueen never quite persuades us that he doesn’t know or care that he’s in the same room with a camera and that the eyes of the world are upon him even as his eyes are doing most of the acting for him.

The self-conscious artistry of Mr Yates’s direction and his elimination of all but the most essential dialogue reinforces this priority given to the visual and helps to emphasize the extent to which his hero, though still recognizably a hero, is more an aesthetic phenomenon than the moral one that John Wayne always is, right or wrong, in The Searchers. Or, to put it in yet another way, the difference between the cool hero and the virtuous hero belongs more to the history of the medium than to the history of heroism itself. Which brings us back to tonight’s film. Adam Keiper noted last week how the cool hero, except in the car chase, had not yet come to resemble a speeding Bullitt. To our eyes, this Bullitt seemed very unspeedy, even slow-moving. This was because, I think, Peter Yates still felt the need to make his hero look, at least to that extent, real. The character was close enough to being a fantasy of effortless competence that drawing out his pursuit and final confrontation with the villain in the way he does brings him back down to earth a little.

That sort of directorial bad conscience about indulging in fantasy is what has gone completely by the time we get to Raiders of the Lost Ark thirteen years later. Steven Spielberg keeps things zipping along from one action sequence to the next because he knows his audience doesn’t care anymore that it doesn’t look real. It’s not supposed to look real. It’s supposed to look like a comic book — or like the Saturday matinee serials of the pre-television era that were the cinematic equivalent of comic books and were designed to appeal to the same, pre-adolescent audience. I am about a year and a half younger than Mr Spielberg, and as a child I went to what must have been one or two of the last of these serials. The one I remember best was a 15 parter about a dashing aviator named Hop Harrigan, played by William Bakewell, and it was older than I was when I saw it in the mid-1950s, having been made in the year of Steven Spielberg’s birth. I might even say, as I presume he would, that I date my love of the movies from those childhood Saturdays when no one much older than my own age of seven or eight was in the audience.

The tagline to subsequent installments in the Indiana Jones series was: “The hero is back!” But it was clear at the time that this referred not to the real hero but to the movie hero — and in particular to the B movie or kids’ movie hero like Hop Harrigan. What brought him back was the nostalgia of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who had written the original screenplay of Raiders even before he had written and directed the first Star Wars — the movie that, thirty years ago this year, had announced the debut of the cartoon hero for a mainstream audience. This nostalgia, I think, was really for the kind of childish innocence that seemed to be required to take any kind of heroism seriously by the mid-1970s. Of course, recapturing that innocence was impossible. It could now be only fake innocence, a knowing and ironic sort of innocence that was to become the hallmark of what we have since come to call “postmodernism” and that was, among other things, an excuse for people to cling to childish tastes far into adulthood.

All the way through Raiders of the Lost Ark, from the opening shot of a mountain peak chosen as an allusion to or a visual pun on the Paramount logo, we are constantly reminded that we are watching a movie. Even the Nazis are movie-Nazis — caricature villains like Ronald Lacey doing his Peter Lorre imitation — rather than anything remotely historical. Above all, the quick-cut editing, by Michael Kahn, was to Raiders what William Fraker’s photography had been to Bullitt — that is, a constant visual reminder of the highly-wrought cinematic artifice that was the movie’s apology for its looking so much like a movie rather than real life.

By today’s standards, of course, the editing seems almost staid. In our era of attention deficit disorder and the return of mainstream movies to the pre-teen demographic of the old Saturday matinees, Mr Kahn would have to kick it up a notch or two to be sure of avoiding the damning epithet, “slow-paced.” But the magic and other fantasy elements to the story that had become almost routine by the time of The Matrix in 1999 — which also went to three installments — were now firmly in place. Interestingly, perhaps, magic is not yet taken for granted, quite, in Raiders, but it is given the excuse of a biblical provenance. Nothing less than the original Ark of the Covenant — looking remarkably well-preserved after 3000-odd years — is required to transport the movie into fantasy-land, and there is no overt fantasy apart from it.

But of course there is lots of implicit fantasy. Every escape is by a hair’s breadth, every fight pits our hero — and, now, a heroine too — against multiple or gigantic opponents. When we see one monstrous spider, we know that soon we will see 50; when we see one mummy, we can be sure that there will be dozens. And when we see one snake, it looks forward to a scene in which we will see thousands of them. There is no reason for the snakes to be where we find them, in the tomb along with the Ark, except to give Indy and Marion, played by Karen Allen, something else to escape from that would almost certainly have killed them if they had been real. The plot is almost non-existent, except as a shoddy makeshift used to string together one such escape after another.

Indeed, there seems to me to be a certain contempt for the audience as well as for the material in the film’s refusal to bother with plot details. After Marion is seemingly incinerated in the crash of the truck carrying a load of baskets, into one of which we have seen her climb, and then she later turns up alive, Indy simply says that she “must have switched baskets.” Yeah, good guess. It’s as if the film-makers are saying to us: we both know that this is all fakery, so why should you expect us to go to the trouble of providing a naturalistic and plausible account of her escape? You don’t really want that anyway. What you really want is the visual experience of the exciting action sequence, not boring explanations which might take time away from the next action sequence.

Likewise, in the final scene, the hero and heroine’s seemingly deadly predicament is resolved by a literal deus ex machina. They don’t have to do anything but shut their eyes while a bunch of ghosts in swirly clouds erupts out of the Ark to melt all their hateful Nazi enemies like wax figures — a gratifyingly visual ending for them, by the way — while not dissolving the good guys but only their bonds, leaving them alone, free and triumphant. A culture that acknowledged or celebrated real heroes would be insulted by such childish fantasies. But a culture like ours that has decided real heroes are an embarrassment clings to them as a kind of reassurance that the unreal, cartoon kind of heroes are the only kind there are — and that therefore they can’t expect anything like heroism from us.

As a result we must acknowledge instead that we are no longer living in the same world as that of the heroes that we saw earlier in the series. Trained in the cinematic school of Indiana Jones, we almost can’t help looking back on Sergeant York’s patriotism as rather corny, on Sergeant Stryker’s methods of discipline as primitive and unnecessary, on Marshal Kane’s lonely courage as the tiniest bit arrogant and on Ethan Edwards’s bulldog-like determination as tainted by racism and sexism. Enjoy the movie, but also try to remember all that it has helped to cut us off from.


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