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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)

Don Siegel had an anecdote about the length of titles. He showed them to his boss, who kept asking for them to be longer, then showed them to the boss again, telling him each time he’d made the changes. In fact, he had not–his boss was simply familiar with the titles and couldn’t gauge the experience fresh after the first viewing.

The last time I watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, I gave it three and a half. A first for the Stop Button, a post about a previously viewed film. Before starting the film, I figured I’d only write it up again if the star rating changed. Much to my surprise–as Raiders goes through many two and a half (and maybe even two) star lulls at times–I realized, this viewing, definitely a four star one. The last time, I think, I hadn’t seen the film in quite a long time and was waiting for scenes and sequences, my memory of the film interfering with my viewing of the film itself.

It’s still a problematic four. The ending, where the film needs a boost, works only because of the John Williams score. There’s the end music, closing the story, then the bump to the iconic theme music. Maybe it’s as simple as I didn’t watch it long enough last time, to let the music envelope me. Because, more than any other Williams score (Raiders being at the high point of his career, both in terms of quality and cinematic importance), this one carries a lot of weight for the film. It does a lot of the heavy lifting.

It doesn’t do all the heavy lifting–Harrison Ford, from the first grin, has most of it. That grin, as he’s falling into the pit in the opening sequence, establishes the character. Everything else–from his interactions with Denholm Elliott, John Rhys-Davies, even Karen Allen–is just gravy. Spielberg’s direction is good, but–as the ending (compared to Close Encounters) illustrates–is far from extraordinary.

The supporting cast–particularly Allen, Rhys-Davies and Paul Freeman (even if his French accent is a little iffy)–are all great. There’s not a weak performance in the film and a lot of the smaller ones are singular (I’m thinking of Don Fellows).

The problems are plot ones. There are lulls due to the (requisite) epical storytelling, but it goes further. Even when the events aren’t perturbing the plot, some of Spielberg’s action sequences get a little long. Others, like the truck sequence, are perfect.

I was trying to guess how many times I’ve seen Raiders. I’m thinking it’s got to be around fifteen. Maybe the last viewing, I tried to find something new in it. I don’t think there is (except some in jokes, I’m sure) and, instead of examining it, I should have just been enjoying it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Frank Marshall; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Paul Freeman (Dr. Rene Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Major Arnold Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody), Alfred Molina (Satipo), Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich), Anthony Higgins (Gobler), Vic Tablian (Barranca), Don Fellows (Col. Musgrove) and William Hootkins (Major Eaton).


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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg)

Maybe it was the viewing atmosphere… I also was obsessing about something I’d read from either Spielberg or Lucas claiming credit for “MTV-style” editing with Raiders. Once the film was edited, the two went through and snipped a few frames at each edit point to hurry the film along. As I watched Raiders tonight, it all did feel very hurried.

The film is excellent–exciting, well-written, beautifully directed–but nothing sat, nothing resonated. I expected a transcendent experience (similar to the one Star Wars produces), but found myself very aware of the film. Not obsessively–I wasn’t watching the clock to see how long each sequence went and I didn’t time how long Indiana Jones and the audience were deceived about Marion’s death, but I did notice all the work being done in the film. Primarily, John Williams’ score. From the first sequence–when Indy’s running in South America to the plane–Williams’ score does more work than anything else in the film. It’s not bad–it’s a great score–but I just couldn’t separate my observation from the experience. The film just didn’t force me to do it.

Similarly, lots of little moments in the script do a lot of work in the shortest time possible–the rapid-fire humanization of Indiana Jones, his comedic accidents, the establishing of Indy and Sallah’s kids–it’s all fast and it’s all precise, and maybe it’s too fast and too precise for this presentation. The Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD is the cleanest DVD presentation I have ever seen. It doesn’t look like a movie, it looks like a Pixar digitalization. There are no DVD artifacts, which is fine, but there is no film grain either, which is bad. Raiders plays like one of those shows recorded on video back in the 1980s and 1990s, when everything just looked a little off. And Raiders shouldn’t look off.

I haven’t seen the film in eight or nine years and then it was in optimal settings–without looking for the Spielberg/Lucas editing innovation–on LaserDisc. I’ll have to watch Raiders again in similar conditions, but it was a rather unsentimental experience, which I wasn’t expecting from a film I’ve probably seen twenty times.

3.5/4★★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Steven Spielberg; screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, based on a story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman; director of photography, Douglas Slocombe; edited by Michael Kahn; music by John Williams; production designer, Norman Reynolds; produced by Frank Marshall; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones), Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood), Paul Freeman (Dr. Rene Belloq), Ronald Lacey (Major Arnold Toht), John Rhys-Davies (Sallah), Denholm Elliott (Dr. Marcus Brody), Alfred Molina (Satipo), Wolf Kahler (Colonel Dietrich), Anthony Higgins (Gobler), Vic Tablian (Barranca), Don Fellows (Col. Musgrove) and William Hootkins (Major Eaton).


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