Who are films like Speed Racer, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and The Edge of Heaven really aimed at?


Even though I’m five decades beyond the target audience, I submitted myself to Speed Racer. My kids are interested; and besides, the film’s perpetrators cling to a respectable image, which they acquired with The Matrix. The writing-directing Wachowski brothers supposedly are innovators, iconoclasts, post-whatever-the-hell philosophers working in a medium of pop thrills. But who, other than the Platonic 9-year-old boy, is meant to go gai with the savoir of Speed Racer?

Which figure in this retooled version of a clunky old TV cartoon might represent the audience? I’d say the Wachowskis see us as the pet chimpanzee. What oppositional, anticorporate message is conveyed to us chittering apes? Win! Win all you can! And how does it feel to be the chimp, watching this nightmare of saturated primary colors? Save your money and find out at home. Have someone squirt ketchup and mustard into your eyes for two hours.

I detain you with this abuse of Speed Racer only because the picture so dismally exemplifies the tradition of filmmaking-by-condiment that long ago became standard in America whenever we head toward barbecue season. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws first laid the hot dogs on the grill, according to all the conventional histories–and if you think of summer blockbusters primarily as marketing schemes, then the conventional histories are surely right. But if you also think of summer blockbusters as bearing a definable attitude toward their content and their audience, then the true precursor of Speed Racer did not appear until Star Wars.

It was George Lucas, two years after Jaws, who introduced the characteristic strain: a half-nostalgic, half-mocking glorification of bygone amusements, reproduced with swaggering expense where the models had been cheap, and stamped with an author’s name where the originals had been anonymous. With the subsequent success of Raiders of the Lost Ark–devised and produced by Lucas, with Spielberg hired to direct–a very fancy set of quotation marks was permanently fixed around summer “movies.”

They have a lot to answer for, those two; and though Spielberg has gone on to a more than honorable career when apart from Lucas, I can’t entirely separate the director of Munich, Minority Report and A.I.: Artificial Intelligence from the man who has just collaborated in making Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Nineteen years had passed since the last Indiana Jones movie. Spielberg could have walked away free, and let us do the same. Instead, he’s forced on us the question of whether he and Lucas, conjoined, have anything better to offer than their Wachowskian spawn.

On an intellectual level: no. If you are a moviegoer of a certain age–and age, as we’ll see, is the key determinant here–I need say no more than “Nazca lines” for you to know that Crystal Skull revives a techno-Aryan-occult fantasy of the 1970s: the notion that pointy-headed visitors from Beyond must have built the ancient civilizations of South America, since the natives there are too stupid to use toilet paper. I suppose I should have written “spoiler alert” before that last sentence; but what’s to spoil when the premise is rotten to begin with, and the filmmakers give it away in the opening scene? Featuring un-Earthly creatures with strange powers and a series of spooky old tombs and temples, Crystal Skull unites two of the great Lucas-Spielberg enthusiasms, stargazing and spelunking–and never mind that the pop mythology used for the merger is unconscionable. The main point is it’s convenient.

And so, too, is the Lucas-Spielberg family romance. A nervy young blood, played by Shia LaBeouf, has attached himself to our hero in Crystal Skull. Meanwhile, Karen Allen has returned to the franchise in the role of Indiana’s long-lost love. I suppose only Jones himself needs to wait for the fourth reel to find out what kind of cozy embrace is being prepared for him, amid the careening vehicles and poison darts. Indie, phone home!

As transparent as its title artifact, and just as obviously made from plastic, Crystal Skull conforms to type by offering a new version of old trash pleasures, only without the novelty. Almost without, I should say. In the role of a KGB parapsychologist, the ever-astounding Cate Blanchett glides forward as if on wheels, her pale eyes unblinking beneath a Louise Brooks wig, and coos a string of Anglo-Slavic vowels that make no better sense than anything else in the picture but are a lot more fun. The role she plays is a tired joke, but Blanchett herself is contemporary–the one up-to-date element in the movie, and the one entertainment.

The rest is weariness, of a desperate, middle-aged kind. Harrison Ford and Karen Allen do look marvelous, for people of their middle years; but their pretended reunion has all the erotic charge of a good toothbrushing. I suppose they have to go through the motions for the sake of the kid–but he, in his way, is older than both of them. To put forth an image of flaming youth, Lucas and Spielberg have reverted to their own, making Shia LaBeouf into the leather-jacketed, motorcycle-riding rebel they admired fifty years ago when they saw The Wild One. For the aging auteurs, he’s cinematic Viagra.

The good news about Lucas-Spielberg, then, is that they don’t look down on their public in Crystal Skull. That’s because, in effect, they are their own audience. The bad news is, this is all they’ve got to say to themselves. Thirty years ago, they set out to turn old trash into shiny new myths. Today, thanks to their efforts, even new movie trash comes out feeling old–and their own myth now plays like Twilight of the Boomers.

Having straddled a hyphen for all his thirty-four years, the Turkish-German filmmaker Fatih Akin has a right to tell crossover stories. He has dramatized Euro-Asian crazy love in Head-On; recorded musical expressions on either side of the Bosporus in the documentary Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul; and now, in his latest movie, he weaves an almost obsessive pattern of shuttlings: East-West, male-female, old-young, gay-straight. I hope American audiences won’t judge this picture by the soap opera label that’s been slapped onto it, The Edge of Heaven, because Akin’s original title gives a far better idea of where the movie ultimately deposits its characters, no matter where they begin: Auf der anderen SeiteOn the Other Side.

To isolate just two of the lines of movement: Nejat (Baki Davrak)–pinch-faced, celibate, approaching 40–starts out in the story as a college professor, delivering lectures about Goethe in his native Hamburg. He couldn’t be better acculturated to Germany–but then the path of catastrophe leads him to Istanbul, where he decides to remain as an expatriate in his own homeland. Meanwhile, Ayten (Nurgül Yesilçay)–fierce, lush-lipped, still in her twenties–travels in the opposite direction, trailing calamity all the way. A member of a revolutionary group, she leaves Istanbul as a fugitive and by chance finds temporary refuge in the home and arms of Lotte (Patrycia Ziolkowska), a student at Nejat’s university.

As often happens in contemporary art-house fare such as Babel–and in older, more popular movies about intersecting lives, going back as far as Grand Hotel–coincidence comfily substitutes for social process. You will notice how Ayten’s mother (played in and out of a blond wig by Nursel Köse) risks her skin working in Bremen’s red-light district, whereas Lotte’s mother (a plump, gray and unpainted Hanna Schygulla) dwells in contrasting and sullen suburban propriety, the point being–what? That the world includes high and low? At its weakest, The Edge of Heaven gives you Tinkertoy symmetries: matching shots in which caskets glide in and out of airplanes’ bellies, or characters walk in and out of jail cells, or a particular landscape circles past the camera both early and late in the film.

At its strongest, though, The Edge of Heaven has a thrashing, furious, dirty-minded life that would disrupt anybody’s pattern. In almost every scene, the vitality of the unexpected breaks out in passing details: the way bystanders applaud the cops when they haul away Ayten’s comrades, or the way a detective sits inside an open window frame while conducting an interview, so he can smoke in the office. More important, there is something unpredictable in the thick, messy interactions among all the main characters: the dance of shame, politeness and sympathy that goes on between Nejat and Ayten’s mother; or the headlong plunge that Ayten and Lotte take with each other while dancing in a Hamburg club; or, most moving of all, the softening of Lotte’s mother before Nejat and then Ayten, after grief has cracked her shell. There is nothing schematic about the fried food, bodily fluids, streetscapes, highways and music that course through the characters’ lives. Nor does Akin want the movie as a whole to remain schematic. Ultimately, he leads you out of the film’s cells and circles, to a view of the open sea. And though he brings some of the characters toward forgiveness, he leaves the final reconciliation for the future.

“How did you know who I was?” asks Lotte’s mother, when Nejat comes to meet her in a hotel lobby. The answer is so obvious that he doesn’t even bother to shrug while saying it: “You were the saddest person in the room.” In a story that’s dominated by loss and displacement, hunger and misapprehension, these two people have quietly understood each other. That’s the true crossover moment.

Flash forward: It’s all but impossible to tell the difference between the archival footage in Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and the new images shot in jerky, snowy, vignetted black and white; truly impossible to know where autobiography and local history leave off and a left-wing, Freudian, hockey-obsessed fabulism takes over. Maybe it’s a fact that Winnipeg has the world’s highest rate of somnambulism–but is there really a city ordinance that guarantees sleepwalkers entrance to their former homes? Perhaps thoroughbreds fleeing from a burning racetrack once ran into the river and drowned–but did they freeze in the water, their heads raised in agony, and become for one season a popular attraction for courting couples? I know that the white-haired woman whom the filmmaker claims is his mother is actually Ann Savage, star of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour; but in her re-enactments of scenes from Maddin’s youth, how much of her dialogue is reproduced verbatim? I can almost believe Mrs. Maddin actually challenged her no longer virginal daughter with the bitter words, “Was it a boy on the track team, or the man with the tire iron?”

My Winnipeg refutes the conventional wisdom that other people’s dreams are always boring. Maddin’s dream in the film–running through his head while he dozes on a train–is that he will finally escape from his hometown. But the train just keeps rolling down the middle of the snowy streets, while Maddin sinks deeper and deeper, more and more fantastically, into nostalgia for the city of his youth. What has become of Eden’s department store? Where is the beloved Winnipeg Arena? Gone–gone like ghosts, who nevertheless came back, once upon a time, at a séance held right in Parliament House, which had been built as a huge Masonic temple. Is this true? I really don’t care. My Winnipeg opens in mid-June. I can’t wait to escape into it again.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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