Monday, February 25, 2008

The Children of George and Steven, Part I - The Crap of Our Youth

Indiana Jones, the films and the character, means a lot to me, perhaps a bit more than it really should. The films themselves I love, with RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK being the movie that solidified my status as a lifelong movie freak. It also has a deeper meaning to me, because it was the right film at the right time, a movie friend that came along when one was sorely needed, and in this fairly bizarre way I look upon not just as a movie but as an old friend, someone I can take comfort in from time to time. I can’t really go into the whys and hows, except to say that there was a bit of a dark time for me and my family and constant returns to the old Morristown Triplex through the summer of 1981 were actually encouraged as long as it was going to help me forget about my troubles for a while (and just so you know, even though it was tough going there for a while, everything turned out OK in the end). The sequels were big events for me, too, although as much as I enjoy them they never really meant the same to me, because times were always different and the events that surrounded them were nowhere near as heavy. The last one of these films came out in 1989, half a lifetime ago for me, leading me to think I had said goodbye to Dr. Jones back then, but that, of course, turned out to not be the case. The opening of INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is about three months off, but it’s been in the works for a long, long time, ever since an October 1993 Variety article about George Lucas stated that there actually were plans for another film, despite previous insistences that THE LAST CRUSADE was indeed that. It’s been a real long time in coming, but I don’t quite exactly know just how excited I am about it. Aside from the idea that I don’t want to see my favorite film series potentially get ruined with a lackluster entry (hey, it could happen), the fact of the matter is I don’t really feel like I need Indiana Jones to come back into my life again. For a chubby, sometimes dim, friendless kid in the 80s, yes, he mattered, but I’m not that person anymore. The idea to kind of tantamount to dating your old high school girlfriends once again; do I really need to go there? Can I just have my memories and leave it at that?

Ah, but this is the movie industry, where nostalgia is a star in its own right. It’s easier to make a sequel, even if it’s almost 20 year after the last film, than it is to make something original because there’s less risk: the audience will show. Will I be there opening day for INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL? Of course! I’m as much of a lemming as anyone else and curiosity (and nostalgia) will certainly get the better of me, no question. But it goes beyond all of that, really. There’s the element of devotion, not just to the Indiana Jones character, but to the men who created him, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I know that I’m not alone in this, that idea that you have to go and support everything these guys do, and I know it’s something beyond just simple fandom. Everyone knows these guys changed the shape of movies, but they also helped change the face of contemporary society, unknowingly at first and (I think) unwittingly in the end, but change it they did, in a big motherfucking way. As with the movies, one can always question if the influence has been positive, but you can’t deny it’s been huge.

Case in point: When THE PHANTOM MENACE opened, it was estimated that 2.2 million full time employees at companies all across the country took the day off or called in sick so they could go see the movie. In the event of a national tragedy, a 9/11, I can see that happening, but for a movie opening? Unheard of. And yet in an odd way, it’s not that surprising when you consider the audience. Mostly Generation Xers and Millennials (both terms I despise, but it helps clarify things), young people with disposable income and a desire to relive the pleasant memories of their youths in the same manner Lucas and Spielberg did by making their films. No matter what your lives were like outside of the theater, these films left a huge mark on people my age, and when I say “people” I mostly mean guys my age. The idea of the perpetual state of childhood isn’t exactly a new one (Peter Pan, ect.), but the notion that not only would it become acceptable that you didn’t necessarily have to “grow up”, that you could even make a living off of it, that was something new altogether. Folks like Forest J. Ackerman, who turned their houses into shrines of all things fantasy, used to be the anomalies. After a certain point you were expected to throw out your comic books, give your toys to Goodwill and grow the fuck up. Now it’s socially acceptable to wrap the comics up in plastic and keep the toys in their original packaging (or close to their original condition) so that they can accrue in value, for that day when you may need to sell them off in order to pay the rent. This did not really exist 30 years ago.

So times have changed; hey, they always do. One of the things that’s changed with those times is the definition of what man is, or used to be*. A man used to mean several things: a Lee Marvin-type, a man’s man that fought in wars and could handle himself in a bar fight; a Gregory Peck-type who provided for his family and knew how to fix things around the house; a Paul Newman-type, a rugged intellectual who fought against social injustice. Those kinds of men still exists, but there are seemingly less of them, mostly replaced by “guys”, guys who like to hang out with their buddies, smoke dope and drink, play video games and talk pop culture. An excellent example of this can be found in KNOCKED UP (and most of Judd Apatow’s recent work), the shiftless loser whose main ambition is to create a Mr. Skin-style website who only deals with an adult issue (parenthood) when it’s literally forced upon him. This type of “guy” is not exactly new, either, but it was never the norm like it is now, in this era of stunted growth and the idea that “40 is the new 30”. The movies are reflecting this, no question, but they’re part of the problem, too, and always have been. As a society, we’ve been invested in fantasy for far too long. We love our TV, our music, our drugs, our celebrity culture, our fashion, and our movies far too much than we do helping our fellow man or actually making a positive change in the world. Movies are a part of our complacency and people of my generation look to them to validate this and to validate themselves, a constant escape from some kind of reality. Luke Skywalker may have had a pretty shitty childhood growing up on Tatooine, but he didn’t have to pay taxes or rent and eventually fate found him, taking him on a lifetime of adventure. Only in the movies. Real life just isn’t the same.

Movies have always been about escape and fun and fantasy, along with the occasional social statement, but over the last thirty years the line has gotten blurred. It's not so much that the films themselves are at fault (one can argue that things would have gone this course no matter how the popular culture evolved), but that they help to feed our passive-aggressive nature. The desire to have the movies become our reality has grown to greater lengths. There are certain aspects of this, like the advent of new technologies that seemed unreal 30-40 years ago, that are indeed a positive, but in the attitudes of most people my age it’s become destructive. I see it in myself and people I know and I see it in how it’s affected movie themselves. Like in the real world, we have so many advantages that we never had before, but we’re not exactly making use of them like we should. It’s not so much that I’m just waking up to this, but recent events in my life are serving as a clear reminder that this addiction to the crap of our youths isn’t doing us (or me) any good. It’s hurting our perception of reality and it’s hurting the movies themselves. Growing up is always difficult, but the process is taking longer and getting more and more painful. The shit that I’m currently going through, mostly my own damn fault (bad career choices and the male phenomenon of not thinking before you speak), is for me to go through, though I don’t deny that I’m relying on others to help work it out. I'm not sure if things will resolve themselves like I want them to, but at some point things will get better, of that I'm sure.
As for the motion picture art form that’s so important to me, I’m still trying to figure out what can be done there. We’ll discuss that in Part II.

*The idea of what really constitutes “a man”, and whether those old standards apply in this day and age, is a valid one, but it’s a discussion for another time.

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