A mind is a terrible thing to waste on obscure pop-culture trivia

My kids’ latest favorite thing is Indiana Jones. Thanks to the release of the newest movie, the attendant schoolyard chatter, and the impossible-to-avoid merchandising, Jonah’s and Archer’s zeal to see the original Raiders of the Lost Ark was stoked to a fever pitch, and ultimately we just couldn’t resist, especially considering that Raiders is awesome. After filling in the kids with a little history (about the Nazis), a little Bible lore (about the ark), and a little science (about archaeology) — and after stern warnings about fighting being lots of fun in the movies but not OK in real life — we sat down for a family viewing, and we all had a great time.

Inevitably Andrea raised the question, “Did that guy ever do anything else?” referring to Paul Freeman, the actor who turned in a memorable performance as Belloq, Indy’s Nazi-collaborating rival.

Opening a mental filing cabinet I said, “I only remember seeing him one other time, in a British TV series on PBS of all things, a year or two after Raiders. I think it had something to do with solving mysteries with science. It might have been called Q.E.D. Come to think of it, Sam Waterston might have been in it!”

When I went online to confirm this, I found that my recollection was faulty in one way: I had seen Paul Freeman two other times, including in the very funny Sherlock Holmes parody, Without a Clue, in which he played Professor Moriarty. But I was exactly right about Q.E.D. — it was a British TV series about solving mysteries with science, its few episodes aired on PBS between one and two years after Raiders, the star was Sam Waterston, and Paul Freeman was indeed in one episode. I remember being disappointed that he was nowhere near as suave as he’d been in Raiders. (But that was OK, because Sam Waterston was the main attraction. In my house growing up, we were all big fans of Waterston thanks to his droll performance in the movie Hopscotch.)

Incidentally, despite my having seen Freeman in a total of only three roles, his filmography lists nearly a hundred film and TV appearances I managed to have missed.

Now here’s a Lucky Strike extra: co-starring with Freeman in Q.E.D. was Julian Glover, who a few years later would play Indy’s other Nazi-collaborating rival, Walter Donovan, in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Ready for my WGA card

I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull last night. To my great surprise, I was entertained throughout! I expected it to suck badly, and now, in the cold light of day and outside the excitement of actually watching the film, I agree with the many substantive screenwriting complaints that Mystery Man is collecting on his website. (Warning: spoilers galore on that site.) I think what happened is that The Phantom Menace (et al.) set the bar so low for George Lucas movies, and Firewall (et al.) set it so low for Harrison Ford movies, that with Steven Spielberg’s countervailing, still-pretty-good filmmaking sense, the new movie vaulted those bars easily.

Of course I already knew from the trailer that the film alludes to the 1947 Roswell UFO incident, just as my own speculative Indy IV story did more than a year ago — but I had a tiny moment of amazement when Indiana Jones actually uttered the word “Etruscan,” which also figures in my story. What are the odds? And where’s my royalty check?

Update 26 May: Mystery Man has a new post up that comprehensively itemizes the serious flaws in the Indy IV script. I agree with almost all of it, and like commenter Kevin Lehane I like the movie less the more I think about it.

Indiana Jones and the Musical Gimmick

[This post is participating in Cerebral Mastication’s Indiana Jones blog-a-thon.]

Speaking of subtle filmmaking techniques

The rousing musical score that John Williams wrote for Raiders of the Lost Ark included several melodic themes: two for Indiana Jones and one for Marion, a motif for the German army, and of course a theme for the lost ark itself, suitably spooky. As an avid fan of the film and of John Williams I’ve listened to the score countless times over the past 27 years. But as a musical layman, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I noticed something clever that John Williams seemed to be doing with the Ark Theme.

We hear the Ark Theme for the first time when Indiana Jones shows an illustration of the ark to the Army intelligence men who come to meet him.

As you can perhaps hear in that clip, the melody doesn’t quite resolve; it segues into a few notes’ worth of Indy’s theme (a.k.a. “The Raiders March”). But the Ark’s theme is heard again just a few moments later when Marcus expresses his misgivings about this assignment to Indy.

In this clip, Indy starts out thinking about his old flame — “Suppose she’ll still be with him?” — and Marion’s theme plays for a few bars, but then Marcus tells him, “For nearly three thousand years, man has been searching for the lost ark,” at which point the Ark Theme comes in. But once again it does not resolve, segueing this time into the flying-boat travel montage.

The next time the Ark Theme appears, Indy is in the Map Room. This scene is divided into four sequences, each of which includes a rendition of the Ark Theme, each separated from the others by a cut to Indy’s friend Sallah, who’s waiting for him outside.

In the first Map Room sequence, Indy lowers himself by rope into the room and looks at the miniature city on the floor. The Ark Theme plays almost to completion, but leaves off the final note when cutting to Sallah being harassed by some German soldiers.

Next Indy deciphers some hieroglyphics and checks the position of the sun. The Ark Theme plays barely halfway through this time.

Now Indy affixes the medallion to the Staff of Ra, places the staff in the proper hole, and fervidly awaits the proper alignment of the sun. At last the angle is right and a brilliant beam of light reveals the location of the Well of the Souls! The music reaches a crescendo and a satisfying resolution — but while Indy was waiting for the sunlight to creep across the Map Room floor, the melody modulated into another key. We still have not heard the Ark Theme play from beginning to end!

In the coda to the Map Room scene, Indy snaps the Staff of Ra in two and looks for his rope to climb out, but it’s missing. Sallah drops an improvised replacement into the hole. The Ark Theme peters out on a visual gag: Indy discovering a Nazi flag knotted into his makeshift rope.

In the very next scene, Indy, disguised (poorly) as an Arab, ducks hastily out of sight when some soldiers approach too closely. He enters a tent and discovers, tied to a tent pole, Marion — who he thought had been killed! He’s about to free her when he realizes he can’t without raising an alarm. Marion wonders why he’s not cutting her bonds. He tells her, “I know where the ark is, Marion,” and we hear the Ark Theme again. As he explains and she becomes frantic, the music segues into Marion’s theme.

Next, Indy uses a surveying instrument to convert his Map Room calculations into an actual location for digging. A variation on the Ark Theme plays, still unresolved.

A short time later, Indy arrives at his calculated location with a team of diggers. He clambers up a rise alone, scopes it out, and calls his team over. The first half of the Ark Theme plays three times in slightly different forms, and there’s a crescendo as Indy removes the first shovelful of sand, but it’s still not a resolution of the complete Ark Theme.

We get a few notes of the Ark Theme again (listen closely) as Indy and Sallah heave the stone cover off the chest protecting the ark…

…and then a few more as they lift the ark out of its container…

…and another few when Belloq spots the illicit dig early in the morning (“Colonel, wake your men!”)…

…and then once more as German soldiers converge on Indy’s dig site. Once again the final resolving note is left off.

The next appearance of the Ark Theme comes much later. The main characters are now all on a secret Nazi island submarine base. The Ark Theme accompanies the procession of Belloq, Marion, a lot of Germans, and the ark itself (and secretly Indy too) across the island to the ceremonial altar. It’s interrupted when Indy steps out of hiding and levels a bazooka at the group.

Indy’s bluff is called, and he’s captured and brought to the altar to witness the opening of the ark. Belloq mutters some sacred words in Aramaic, the ark is opened — and the stone tablets are not inside, just a bunch of sand. (Psych!) Disappointment turns to bewilderment, though, as the electrical equipment shorts out and an eerie fog spills out of the ark. Here’s the Ark Theme again. This time, just before it resolves it gives way to a danse-macabre version of itself.

That version also doesn’t resolve. Instead it becomes a staccato nightmare as the power of the ark is unleashed.

Finally, the one and only time in the whole film that the Ark Theme is heard from beginning to end, complete with a melodic resolution in the same key, comes as the ark purifies the island by fire, then seals itself back up.

The long-awaited resolution of the Ark Theme creates a sensation of finality. The music subconsciously reinforces the action on the screen: hearing the melody conclude at last, there can be no question that that’s all we’ll see or hear from the ark. Not even the film’s final scene, in which the ark is packed away in a crate inside a gigantic warehouse, repeats the resolution.

Now let’s see if the new sequel betrays that satisfying sense of finality by “going back to the well,” as it were (the Well of Souls!) and unearthing the ark again.

Whips and change

[This post is participating in Cerebral Mastication’s Indiana Jones blog-a-thon.]

As high school wound down for me in the spring of 1984, my class load was pretty light and I put in more time at my afterschool programming job in the Flatiron district. My occasional wanderings in that neighborhood — running errands, finding lunch, etc. — took me past several wholesale import shops, some with large storefronts displaying selected items from their stock in the window. One day as the premiere of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom grew near, I passed one such store and saw something that gave me an idea.

Two years earlier, my friends and I had attended a sneak-preview screening of E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial. When the house lights came up at the end, we noted with amusement two manly men seated a couple of rows away, complete with Caterpillar trucking caps, too overcome with emotion to get up and leave the theater right away. “This is going to be huge,” we predicted. And we had an idea.

A few months before that, New York magazine published an article about our school called “The Joyful Elite” (original article). It inspired equal measures of pride and outrage: pride because it said we were some of New York City’s smartest kids, and outrage because it said we acted like we knew it. The school was in an uproar for several days because of it; and so my friends and I capitalized on that. In those pre-Zazzle days we found a novelty printing shop in the Yellow Pages (called “Abat,” which I’ll never forget because of the memorably gruff way the owner answered the phone: “’Lo, Abat”) and ordered a large batch of “Joyful Elite” buttons. When we got them a couple of days later, we carried our supply through the hallways between classes, selling them to students and faculty for two dollars apiece. They sold like hotcakes and we made hundreds of dollars! (A big deal, in high school in the 80’s.)

So when the lights came up after E.T. and we knew it was going to be a hit, we saw a profit-making opportunity. We had Abat print up a batch of “I ♥ E T” buttons and congregated outside a big midtown theater on the film’s opening day. Aware that we were crossing some sort of a line with respect to merchandise licensing, we prepared a story to tell any law-enforcement official who asked that the buttons meant, “I love Edison Tech,” our (made-up) alma mater. Fortunately no law-enforcement official ever required us to test the quality of that lie — perhaps because we sold a grand total of two buttons to exiting moviegoers. Our immediate post-mortem explanation for our failure was that everyone who sees E.T. leaves the theater too verklempt to engage in crass commercialism. On further thought, a button was not much of a way to commemorate the E.T.-viewing experience; but at that time the only tool we had was a hammer (the hammer of printing novelty buttons) and every problem looked like a nail. The excess inventory, a cartonful of “I ♥ E T” buttons, sat in my mom’s apartment for decades. If only we’d had some sort of item to sell that was more subject-matter-appropriate.

Anyway, when I passed that importer’s storefront two years later — with the opening of the first Indiana Jones sequel just a few days away — and my eyes alighted on bagsful of six-foot-long imitation-leather bullwhips for a dollar apiece, I snatched up several dozen.

I brought them with me to the premiere showing of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I arrived early enough to be near the head of a line that eventually wound from the box office of the Loews Orpheum (then on 86th Street — where I also lined up early for the premieres of Return of the Jedi the previous year and The Empire Strikes Back three years before that), down the block, and around two corners. I set a big bag of bullwhips on the ground by my feet. When my friends arrived later to hold my place in line, I made periodic forays along the ever-lengthening queue of people to sell my bullwhips for five bucks apiece, and I cleaned up. Many eager purchasers wanted to know why I wasn’t selling fedoras, too. (Answer: I’d thought of that, but they were too expensive.) A cop came and tried to shut me down but I talked him into accepting a free bullwhip instead and he left me alone.

I made hundreds!

Update: I’ll be damned, it looks like Abat still exists.

You heard it here first

The new trailer for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull features a crate labeled “Roswell, New Mexico 1947,” a clear allusion to the infamous “UFO incident.”

My own speculative Indy IV story, published almost a year ago, included an oblique Roswell joke (“…he conceals the Falcon in the New Mexico desert… a dramatic near-crash during a test flight in 1947″) — which only increases my certainty that when it comes to screenwriting, I can do it better than (or at least as well as) the pros.

Geekier than thou

Here is the background image from the main page of IndianaJones.com, the website promoting the upcoming film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull:

Obviously the crate is meant to be the same as the one in which the government’s “top men” squirreled away the Ark of the Covenant in an enormous warehouse at the end of the first film.

Only look: the number on the crate in the new picture is 9906573. Could I have been the only one to notice immediately that this does not match the number on the crate in the first film, 9906753?

No, I know one more person who immediately spotted the (apparent) error: my equally film-geeky sister Suzanne.

Indiana Jones and the Rolling Roles

The latest Indiana Jones movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, came out in 1989 and was set in the year 1938. Next year, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Harrison Ford will present a fourth Indiana Jones movie. In real time, 19 years will have elapsed since the last one.

Since Harrison Ford has visibly aged in that time, it’s reasonable to expect that a comparable interval has elapsed in story time between Indy 3 and Indy 4. Let’s say that the story interval is not 19 years but 24. That opens up a pretty interesting story possibility.

It’s 1962. An aging Indiana Jones has made a discovery of tremendous personal importance to himself, something he’s been looking for all over the world for thirty years. And for some reason, the first thing he does is to make his way to a small city in California to track down an obnoxious loudmouth with a fast car and a taste for Stetson cowboy hats — Bob Falfa.

Jones tries to convince Falfa to accompany him on a highly unique project. Mysteriously, Jones tells Falfa that he can divulge no details (“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you”) but, knowing Falfa’s love of fast cars, promises him the chance to drive something faster than anyone’s ever seen.

This was the wrong thing to say. Bob Falfa’s pride is hurt; his own car, he asserts, is the fastest thing on wheels. “And I’ll prove it to you!” Falfa storms off before Jones can get another word in and, almost at once, he goads a local hood, John Milner, into a drag race — which Falfa loses, spectacularly, trashing his car in the process.

Humiliated, Falfa leaves town that very day and changes his identity, swearing off hot rods and Stetson hats in a bid to be untraceable. (But he can’t completely break with the past. His new name, Martin Stett, commemorates his preferred hatmaker.) Stett kicks around for a few years and ends up with a gig in San Francisco as the personal assistant to a wealthy and unsavory businessman known as The Director.

Late one night Stett finds himself in a high-stakes poker game with some hardcore gamblers, including one charming out-of-towner (“I’m just passing through”) who’s losing badly. Out of funds on a big hand, the stranger puts his pink slip in the pot, assuring everyone that it’s for “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.” Stett wins the hand — and learns to his astonishment that he’s the new owner of a spaceship called the Millennium Falcon. The stranger, Lando Calrissian, is devastated but gracious in defeat. He offers to give piloting lessons to Stett in return for a lift back to his home galaxy far, far away.

After dropping off Calrissian at a bustling spaceport, Stett flies around this new galaxy for several years, picking up odd jobs where he’s able and enjoying his new solitude so much that he changes his name again, this time to Solo. Over time he befriends a Wookiee, a Jedi, and a princess, and plays a role in reforming galactic politics.

Feeling nostalgic one day, Solo takes a long flight back to Earth and is a little puzzled to discover that, due to the time-distorting effects of faster-than-light travel, he has arrived years before he left. Thus unable to visit his old stomping grounds — they don’t exist yet! — he makes to leave immediately but the Falcon’s hyperdrive, which has always been finicky, gives out altogether. Solo is stranded on a planet where there are no spare hyperdrive parts for thousands of light years in every direction.

With no other options, he conceals the Falcon in the New Mexico desert and begins researching ways to rebuild the hyperdrive from raw materials available on Earth. His research reveals the existence of ancient Etruscan mineral-smithing techniques that produced artifacts suitable for use in the hyperdrive motivator.

Solo begins hunting for Etruscan artifacts all over the world and is soon drawn into the world of archaeology, for which he has adopted yet another new alias — Indiana Jones — and reindulged his old love of broad-brimmed headwear. Along the way he has numerous new adventures and his repair of the still-concealed Millennium Falcon is sidetracked into an on-again, off-again project whose highlight is a dramatic near-crash during a test flight in 1947.

Finally, by 1962, Jones/Solo/Stett/Falfa has accumulated enough Etruscan jewelry and pottery and so on to build a hyperdrive motivator and complete the Falcon’s repair. However, he is by now old enough that his arthritis robs him of the agility needed to crawl in and among the parts of the Falcon’s engine machinery. What he needs is someone younger, mechanically inclined, and trustworthy. He knows just the person: an aimless young hot-rodder named Bob Falfa. And this time he won’t insult his car…

Nouns of the noun

There were so many little parallels between Raiders of the Lost Ark and Pirates of the Caribbean that I was mildly astonished to find no websites about them in a casual search just now. (Not as astonished as I might have been.) Someone’s got to document them, and it looks like it’s got to be me.

If you haven’t seen either of these movies, stop reading now. Spoilers ahead.

  • First (and least) there are the titles of the movies, which are both: [plural noun] of the [singular noun phrase]. (Technically, the full title of Pirates is Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, but we can overlook that.)
  • The central artifacts of both films are made of gold, are hidden in a stone chest in a secret cavern, and bring supernatural misfortune on those who abuse them.
  • Raiders and Pirates both have a small, intelligent monkey working for the bad guys. Neither monkey survives to the end of the film.
  • Both movies revolve around a gold medallion with extraordinary properties, and:
    • The heroine wears it around her neck;
    • In one scene where she fingers the medallion thoughtfully, a candle flame gutters; and
    • The medallion is rescued from a burning structure.
  • The heroine outdrinks someone (though in Pirates she’s just pretending to drink).
  • While a captive, the heroine dines in private with the villain, and:
    • He gives her a new dress for the occasion;
    • She grudgingly puts it on;
    • She wolfs down food greedily; and
    • She threatens him with a table knife.
  • The hero and the heroine are stranded by the villain in a location totally cut off from civilization with virtually no hope of escape.
  • Surrounded by skeletons, the heroine screams in fright.
  • On being reunited with an old flame, both movies’ heroes are greeted with a slap in the face. (OK, in the case of Raiders, a right hook to the jaw.)
  • Johnny Depp’s entrance even resembles Harrison Ford’s, vaguely: photographed first from behind, then in an extreme closeup of the eyes. Shortly thereafter, both heroes regard the corpses of their predecessors respectfully.

Finally, at the end of both movies, the central artifact is abandoned by the protagonists, reconcealed, and waiting to cause new mayhem upon its next accidental discovery.

How many of these parallels do you suppose were deliberate?