Indiana Jones and the Death of Film Discourse

It’s time we erase the distinction between “high” and “low” art when it comes to film. 

When we think of the former category, we may think of cerebral, twisty, dark, or emotionally exhausting films that win awards we didn’t even know existed. We may think of the “Oscar-bait” dramas that were barely seen in theaters, but were watched when they were added to streaming platforms because you or your family member said, “I’ve heard good things about this one.” When we think of the latter category, we may think of the endless parade of superhero spectacles, the John Wicks, the Mario movie. There’s this tendency in most of us to judge a movie positively or negatively before ever having seen it, based purely on whether we feel it falls in one category or the other. Thinking in this manner is destructive to the art form. There is no such thing as “high” or “low” art in film, and this arbitrary distinction doesn’t allow for nuanced, open-minded discourse about the work produced to, in the end, make us feel something.

I’ve often claimed that I will appreciate a movie for what it is trying to do and how well it pulls that off. I will enjoy a movie for what it is and judge it accordingly. How well does a movie as a whole achieve the vibe that its direction, script, visuals, and performances seem like they’re working toward? Does the film actually surpass this goal, or does it drastically fall short? Do I even care, at the end of the day, if it achieves this goal (this is where personal taste comes in)? All of these are great questions that can and should be asked by a viewer when critiquing a film, even informally in one’s head. There is absolutely no need to preface a review, even conversationally in the car leaving the theater with friends, with something along the lines of “it was a pretty simple story, but …” or “it was a bit emotionally draining, but ….” Sentences like this take away from the most important part of any review: it resonated with you, or it didn’t, for a reason. There is no need to act like you are betraying your own preconceived judgment by enjoying something you perceive as “too highbrow” or “not complex.” However you feel about a film, use it to guide you as you figure out what films you gravitate toward in the future, without pointing to their popularity or lack thereof as a reason to not see something in the first place. 

My favorite movies of all time are the original Indiana Jones trilogy: campy, bombastic, original adventure films inspired by the over-the-top black and white serials of the 1930s. In creating these films, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas had no goal other than to capture the energy of the serialized adventures that inspired them. They had no grand ambition to “elevate” the story and turn it into a more “highbrow” piece of art. They recognize that great art isn’t inherently highbrow at all, because this distinction is meaningless and placed on art by those who seek to capitalize off of it. In the end, with their first film collaboration in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Spielberg and Lucas destroyed the wall between high and low art. “Raiders” is a certifiable masterpiece in the history of cinema, containing iconic visuals, some of the most well-paced and well-choreographed action scenes, and jaw-dropping stunts that surpass even the most action-filled blockbusters of today; in my opinion, it is great art. It does all this by executing a campy, pulpy vision to perfection: Indiana Jones is supposed to be high-octane, almost slapstick in its violence, in a way that purposefully revels in its theatricality (and if you’re not convinced, there’s a whole slew of postmodern theory dedicated to analyzing the concepts of “pastiche” and “camp” lovingly imbued into the origins of this franchise — “Raiders” was also nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars that year, if you’re still not convinced). It’s not necessarily “style over substance,” but it has made me realize that I gravitate toward films that, for lack of a better term, commit to the bit. 

I don’t think this is a novel claim, even if people don’t realize it. You may hate the films that I love, preferring something more intellectually stimulating than Harrison Ford shooting Nazis in Egypt and doing it spectacularly. But if, for example, Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” had failed in its intellectually-stimulating execution and had not committed to the bit, you’d walk out feeling like it was sub-par. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” the long-awaited fourth film in the series from 2008, makes for an excellent example of this for me, standing out as the worst film in my favorite franchise. It’s fine. Don’t believe the hate: there are honestly a lot of great parts, simply because you can’t deny the talent behind and in front of the camera for this one. But it gets caught up in a middling script, unclear character motivations and an overuse of CGI that make it clear: Spielberg and Lucas got a little lazy for this one and phoned it in a bit. It commits to the bit on occasion, but not all the time in the balls-to-the-wall way the original trilogy did. This is also very evident in the recent MCU projects. The ironic, quippy humor that the studio is associated with has become the very thing that turns people off now, because it is inherently opposed to the bit. If the film doesn’t take itself seriously as a piece of art, regardless of its quality, why should we, as the audience, hold it to that standard? That kind of humor worked for the studio initially in the early 2010s because it was fresh and new compared to the “grimdark” superhero movies that defined the decade before it. But after so many years of the same ironic sentiment, it’s clear that the most important ingredient to get any audience to actually care is sincerity

The point is this: there is no reason to look at certain genres of film, or films with enormous budgets called “blockbusters” by whoever gets to decide that, or “prestige indie dramas,” under different lenses. Sci-fi, action, comedy, thriller, and drama films all have some inherent differences in their content and thus require a degree of differing scrutiny when it comes to looking at their quality. However, and this is important, one is not better than any other because of the differences in how we look at them. What it comes down to is one simple factor: whether the film succeeds in its own, specific endeavors by its willingness to commit to itself. And before that, it is ultimately more important to ask yourself: did I even enjoy it, or care that it succeeds in its goals? Art is subjective, after all. There is no reason to push yourself to enjoy something lauded as a masterpiece in any genre, or even the biggest blockbuster of the year, if it just didn’t resonate with you at that deeper level. 

All of this is to say: don’t be hard on yourself because you enjoy something that someone pretentious may call “too simple.” And vice versa, the worryingly frequent output of blockbusters of poor quality doesn’t mean big, crowd pleasing movies are inherently worse than the alternative, so don’t prematurely judge those films as such. Art is art, even if it sets out to accomplish an entirely different goal, even if a studio made billions of dollars off of it. Apparently John Wick 4 has some of the most well-choreographed action in any movie ever made. Go see that Mario movie; I’ve heard good things.

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