Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Indy’s Women: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford’s wry, sardonic, vaguely reluctant action-energized masculinity always seems to hold the seed of its own critique. Even in the current flick, he comments wearily on the necessity that he extract himself from touchy situations, assessing his ability to contain threats with quick insight and clear confidence but none of the arrogance or stupid invulnerability that seems de rigueur for so many action heroes.

Indy’s escapades always have an ulterior motive; ultimately, it’s all about the research. The representation of professors on film speaks volumes about cultural stereotypes—see, for only several, recent instances, Smart People, in which Dennis Quaid plays a disheveled, impervious literature prof, and The Visitor, in which Richard Jenkins offers a much more nuanced portrait of a sad, lonely, professionally stalled economics professor. In the Crystal Skull, we first see Indy captivating his class of young acolytes, wearing the requisite suit and bow tie of the 1950s egghead. Donning his battered brown fedora signals his transition to action hero. Gone is the effeminizing suit and tie, replaced with his sweat-stained safari shirt, brown pants, and scuffed boots, his worn but ubiquitous bull-whip by his able side.

When his younger boy-partner admires Indy’s strength, our hero wise-cracks that he’s only a teacher part-time. During the rest, adventure is his playground and he’s proud of his ability to execute his moves. Under every ivory-towered absent mind, it seems, is a superman waiting to loosen his tie and leap tall buildings. But for Indy, the requisite one-against-many fist fights, car chases, and narrow escapes seem subsidiary to the character’s main goal, which is to secure knowledge, as well as the containers in which it’s supposedly borne. In the Indiana Jones series, the quest to know justifies the pursuit of things.

The Crystal Skull, in fact, makes the pursuit of knowledge its overt and primary motive, as the totemic object over which its heroes and villains struggle represents an ancient Mayan ritual symbol that honored the gods and dispensed wisdom. The errant skull must be returned to its rightful resting place, so Indy and his team face a perilous journey down a series of increasingly long, fast, and furious waterfalls, and into and out of various caves and tombs, shoving aside cobwebs and fighting off the creatures of the dark that imperil their way.

(In one of the film’s most unfortunate missteps, these creatures, who stream from the central tomb much as the horrible, giant red ants copiously bled from their mound earlier in the film, are costumed as caricatures of Native American Indians, with feathers, war-paint, and loin-cloths. The extras’ over-the-top make-up screams Disney World ride more than it serves as a scary narrative detail, a gratuitous bit of racism that could have easily been cut.)

The characters line up good and bad pretty much along the knowledge v. things axis—Max, the turncoat double-agent who pretends to be “Jonesy’s” friend, inevitably becomes consumed in the great final conflagration since he refuses to leave the cave of treasures, greedily stuffing his pockets with jewels and gold. The good folks, who survive, are those who “know,” and know enough to constrain their desire by respecting the origins and proper ownership of things. “Oxy,” for example, Indy’s anthropologist colleague, somehow lost his mind in his effort to return the skull to its rightful homestead, but proceeds to regain his coherence over the course of their journey. His appreciation for “the natives” is rewarded quid pro quo: the return of the skull buys him the return of his mind. As they travel, Oxy’s cryptic remarks, which only Indy can decipher, lead them to the skull’s originary cave and allow them to set the world aright.

The film’s villain, on the other hand, can’t keep her obsession with knowledge separate from an imperialist desire to acquire things and cultures. In the final confrontation, when the skull is returned to sit among the twelve others that make up their own tribal council, the Russian villain is incinerated by her own hubris. Played with gleam by Cate Blanchett (even if, as A.O. Scott reported in the Times, her accent slips all over the globe), the icy evil-doer peers too deeply and looks too hard into the skull’s empty eye sockets, chanting, “I want to know” (or rather, “I vant to know”) over and over until the skull’s extraterrestrial powers turn her into smoke, her greed punished with death.

Most notable in this fourth installment of the Indy chronicles is his reunion with Marion Ravenwood, his hard-drinking buddy from the first film, and her newly introduced son, who (spoiler alert, although it’s not much of a secret anymore) turns out to be Indy’s. “Mutt,” played by Shia LeBeouf as a rather vain greaser, has quit school to pursue motorcycle maintenance (a perhaps an oblique reference to a more Zen way of life than the kind Indy pursues, however reluctantly). When he realizes the boy is his, Indy insists he should go back to finish school, again trying to honor knowledge over adventure. Given old Dad’s activities, book-learning is a hard sell.

Ford’s advanced age is addressed head on, providing some of the film’s best jokes. Always the hesitant hero, Indy is now also a profoundly tired one. Mutt calls him “gramps” and “pops” not because of their new familial tie but because Indy seems ancient to him: “What are you, 80?” Mutt asks guilelessly. That Indy doesn’t try to overcompensate for his old bones is one of the film’s sweetest conceits.

Given Ford’s limited ability to perform his own stunts (although he clearly accomplishes enough of them to make his performance impressive for a 65-year-old), this film focuses on his relationships much more than the earlier ones, creating for him a nuclear family that’s solidified in the end by a marriage, of all things. How ironic to see Indiana Jones domesticated, although since more sequels are never out of the question, whether he can settle into the conventional, complacent couple-dom that action heroes always, if sadly and nobly, resist remains an open question.

Until film’s rather ludicrous, conservative conclusion in marriage, Karen Allen, returning as Marion, has fun representing a middle-aged woman who’s more than a domestic help-mate for Indy. She drives their get-away cars over cliffs, confident that they’ll all survive; she delights in fighting off evil physically and intellectually; and she never cowers in the face of the fearsome or revolting challenges that confront Indy’s party on their way to the story’s happy finale. Watching her take such energetic good fun in being part of the crew brings a welcome point of female identification to the typically masculine (and male) action story.

Likewise, Blanchett’s villain, with her silly black helmet-hair and her icy blue eyes—however ridiculous the character or her recycled Cold War conflict—provides a fun display of female power and ingenuity. With two women in central roles—one good, one bad—the Crystal Skull offers more gender balance to the action-adventure plot. Of course, were Indy as young as he used to be, the women might remain constrained in subsidiary, sex-object-to-be-protected roles. Now that he’s older and more conscious than ever of his mortal limitations, Indy’s women can assume a more central role in his escapades—his masculinity has less to lose or to prove.

But that’s part of the fun of it.

Humming to John Williams’ familiar score,
The Feminist Spectator