PART I: Indiana Jones and the Sunset of Dissolution
"Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine."
- Milan Kundera and the Unberable Lightness of Being
"If it seems like I've been lost in 'let's remember,'
If it seems I'm gettin' older and missin my younger days,
Well you shoulda known me much better,
Cuz the past is something that never got in my way."
- William Joel, "Keeping the Faith"
It was a sunny May 22nd not too long ago. I was visiting my family down in Virginia. For some reason, I had absolutely nothing to do that day while they were all at work or school. So I drove into downtown Manassas, enjoyed a pleasant lunch, and eventually found myself at the mall, figuring that I'd see whatever big dumb Hollywood blockbuster had come out that week.
Oh, right... That came out, just a few days ago. There was such a mess of hoopla and advertising and anticipation that I had retreated from all the publicity and just plum forgot about its inevitable release. I stood at the front of the marquee chewing on my cinnamon pretzel, contemplating the film's outlandish poster and its next starting time - about 10 minutes away.
'Hmmmmmm,' my mind hmmmed. 'I made such a big deal about not seeing this thing. I bitched to my buddies about how terrible the preview looked. I told everyone a fourth movie to such a sacred trilogy could do nothing but disappoint. Up until right this second I was totally fine just ignoring its existence. So why am I standing here staring at the Loews Metroplex when I should be heading down to the Gamestop and picking up a copy of Super Smash Brothers? What am I even doing here?"
You know...it just felt right. The warm, early summer wind seemed to be blowing me towards the ticket booth. I couldn't think of anything I'd rather do than sit in a packed theater mid-afternoon and try my best to eat my own words and just enjoy this movie. Just to hear that familiar John Williams score...to be launched back into the past...and to see Harrison Ford once again in that iconic role. So what if they added an annoying kid character? If that's the worst thing this movie has to offer, then bring it on. I'm a grown man now, I can take it.
I paid my money and stepped inside.
Before going any further with this charade, I'll just reveal that I'm talking about The Phantom Menace and not Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I threw you off there with that Harrison Ford line, but now I can admit that of course I knew Han Solo wasn't going to be popping up in any of the prequels. That was a cheap bit of deception on my part (however you should have caught on when I said I was going to buy Super Smash Brothers - I tricked you cuz I was referring to the 1999 edition for the N64 not the version for the Wii, which came out in 2008. I'm not a gamer by the way, it's all anecdotal. I just couldn't think of another non-pretzel item I would be buying at a mall.)
That's right...I bought a ticket to Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, completely on a whim and against all the reservations I'd stuck to the last six months. Expectations be damned: I wanted to hear lightsabers clashing, wookies roaring, ships making the jump to light speed. I wanted to know what Lucas and ILM were going to do with new technology at their disposal. And in the first few minutes, when the theme came roaring out of the stereos and that scroll made its way up the screen, I was launched back into the same far off galaxy (a long time ago - yes, the past!) I had first experienced when I was knee-high and slack-jawed. This...was Star Wars! This was now!
But that sense of spiritual transportion was instantly cut off by the mention of trade routes in the opening narration. Then the evil aliens with the offensive Japanese accents turned my grin into something of a wince. Jar Jar hit the screen and I hit the seat in front of me. Why was everybody reading their lines like they were auditioning to give a commencement speech at the University of Snooty Butlers (USB?) Why didn't they hire a kid who could act? And the monochromatic CGI worlds. And Frank Oz forgetting how to do the Yoda voice. And midi-fuckin-chlorians.
Somehow I left the theater thinking it hadn't been a total wash. I bought the soundtrack cd, cuz I thought it sounded cool. I told my brother it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and he should check it out. Looking back, I think I was a little indignant: the puddle before me was filled with all kinds of bacteria and feces yet I walked stepped into it barefoot and remained standing there for over 2 hours. Something in me wanted to cling to the redact the many, many horrible things I had seen and place this first prequel alongside the three films of the original trilogy.
10 years passed. On Friday December 4th of last year, I received the following email from Christopher Funderburg:
"Today I was thinking about the fact that you saw Revenge of the Sith, but not Crystal Skull and I was getting furious: you went and supported yet another incredibly shitty Star Wars movie, even though you knew it would be complete shit, even though 2Ĺ of the 5 previous films were complete fucking garbage, even though George Lucas is clearly a fucking idiot...and yet you wouldnít see Crystal Skull?
You, sir, are a Star Wars fan, but you are no Indiana Jones fan.
Really, I want to use 'thinks Crystal Skull is an affront to the Indiana Jones series' as my measuring stick for disregarding someone, so just see it, enjoy it, realize everyone on the internet is wrong, and join the illustrious rank that includes me, Murry Funderburg and Vern. Right now youíre playing for the team that includes Drew McWeeney, people who loved Transformers, message board enthusiasts who wail about raped childhoods and the "South Park" guys. Itís like youíre being drawn to the dark side and Iím failing in my duties to save you from succumbing to this ugly, corrupt disposition. If only there were a well-known film that I could use as an example to help you understand where Iím coming from here... (other than Bushwhacked.) - chris"
Click on Mr. Stern's nose on the left to find Mr. Funderburg's thoughts on Crystal Skull, at least in relation to The Dark Knight, from his 2008 Year in Review.
When I read this email six months ago, it made me think of Mola Ram, the Shiva-worshipping, heart-ripping Thuggee priest from Temple of Doom, strapping our hero to a slab of rock and forcing him to drink the Blood of Kali: "You don't believe me? You will, Dr. Jones. You will become a true believer!" In a way, that's how both sides of the Crystal Skull camp have made me feel since I made it clear two years ago that I simply had no intention to ever see a fourth Indiana Jones movie. The people who hated it told me I should at least see it because I wouldn't believe how bad it was. And the people who actually liked it told me I should see it because those people were wrong: it was actually legit, there were a lot of good things in there, at the end of the day, despite its flaws, it was an Indiana Jones movie. Many of these folks confidently deemed it better than Temple of Doom, and a select few even said it topped Last Crusade. Then the people who hated it called these people idiots, and those people called the other people idiots, and when the dust settled there was no clear winner: everyone was just lying dead on the ground like members of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, their quests to either disparage or defend the efforts of Spielberg and company having meshed into one big collective cultural shrug.
It wasn't the same with the Star Wars prequels, which were pretty much universally panned. Nobody was going to defend Jar Jar Binks, or Hayden Christensen's acting, or lines like "I don't like sand - it's coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere." But what Lucas did to the franchise starting with the 20th Anniversary Special Editions of the original trilogy in 1997 effected the movies' many followers beyond mere disappointment. To be a Star Wars fan now came with an asterisk, like we were fuckin' Barry Bonds - "Just so you know, I love the original trilogy but wash my hands of this whole prequel nonsense...and the remastered editions...and the Ewoks...and donít even get me started on that 1978 Christmas Special." There's a rampant elitism among the same people who used to just go to the Star Wars universe for fun, and "true" Star Wars fans agree to hate on Lucas more than praise him these days. Which is really a shame.
After the Phantom Menace brainwashing fiasco, I successfully ignored Attack of the Clones. And reports from the front were grim: wooden love scenes, more meaningless political intrigue, Yoda hopping around like a frog with a lightsaber. I had learned my lesson and was ready to give up on these new movies. Of course I underestimated their ubiquity, and ended up watching most of the second one - just to hear some of that horrible romantic dialogue I'd heard so much about - while I was housesitting one night with a friend. We laughed and jeered and mocked little toad-Yoda as he flipped frantically about. Had a real good time. And I didn't feel let down or disappointed the way I did after my Phantom Menace hangover. These movies were not the same as the original trilogy: didn't look the same, didn't sound the same, didn't feel the same. That realization freed me up to accept that these prequels were so divorced from Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (their real titles, forget this 'episode' crap) that their embarrassing existence alone did nothing to mar my memories of the original trilogy.
In other words, nobody raped my childhood. If they had, they would have been arrested because raping childhoods is illegal. George Lucas decided to follow a stupid and misguided - and, less politely, greedy and soulless - path, starting with his decision to digitally "improve" the original Star Wars trilogy. Sure, one or two additions worked ok (the more than two stormtroopers when Han runs into a wall in the Death Star, the better-looking visuals of Cloud City) but for the most part the experience of seeing all the CGI clutter blocking the movie I knew and loved and horrible Jabba scene cut & pasted into those films was like coming home to find out Lucas had burned Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru into charred skeletons (Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru representing the original trilogy in this case.) Or seeing Lucas cut down Obi Wan on the Death Star. Or finding out Lucas had just french kissed his own sister. "Han Shot First" may have become an unbearable geek slogan, but it represents everything that became anti-cinematic in the remastered trilogy: a character arc lost (Han's not a scoundrel?), plausibility obliterated (how did Greedo miss?) and effects added for the sake of having more on screen than needed to be there. This continued into the prequels with their mastubatory space imagery and computer-drawn worlds attempting to make up for nonexistent character development and some of the worst writing ever printed on paper. These were not the same characters (and don't even try to convince me that the Ewen MacGregor Kenobi and digital Yoda are the same guys from the trilogy) and it was not the same world.
So my returning to that same Manassas theater to see Revenge of the Sith in 2005 had nothing to do with a sense of obligation to the spirit of the original movies or any expectation that it would actually be good. It was liberating to know I could experience the third film without having to put a scintilla of faith in it. By the time Darth Vader, revealed for the first time, falls to his knees, spreads his metal arms, and screams "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" I was more than ready to write off this entire new phase of Star Wars as one big Lucas penismobile, meant to impress the fans the way he used to but really just a sad attempt at some sort of older mid-life crisis. My memories of the first set of films couldn't be ruined because these new films had no relation to them whatsoever.
But I did know one thing - I wouldn't be fooled again. Which, finally, brings me to May 22, 2008 and the release of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
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