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SUMMERS WITH SPIELBERG – Raiders of a Lost Genre

SUMMERS WITH SPIELBERG – Raiders of a Lost Genre

Keegan O'Brien

August 19th, 2015


I was recently in a conversation where someone claimed that Pulp Fiction was overrated. “All it is is blood, guns, and violence.” Yes, I know. Not because I’ve seen the movie more times than I care to admit, but because I’m aware of what the term “pulp fiction” actually means. Pulp fictions were cheap, serialized magazines that came about in the late 1800s and died out in the 1950s, after wartime paper shortages led to increased prices, which defeated their purpose in the first place. By the time they could recover, we had all moved on to TV. While Tarantino pays homage to this dead medium by weaving several short, grimy, stories together into a feature film, Spielberg and Lucas pay an equally large homage with Raiders of the Lost Ark. Kind of.

Indiana Jones was inspired by an evolution of pulp fictions, serial films. Serial films were short films that would play before the feature up until the early 1950s. They had a continuing story, would often end with a cliffhanger, and typically had the same kind of off the wall adventure stories that Indiana Jones has become famous for. Essentially, they were TV shows before TV shows were invented. They had low budgets and were produced as quickly as possible. Spielberg decided not only to have the film’s plot elements, atmosphere, and time period be reflective of pulp serials, but he even decided to shoot it like one. Raiders had a production budget of $18 million ($52 million today, in contrast to the $150 million average blockbuster budget), he wouldn’t shoot more than four takes per shot, and filmed the entire movie in 73 days, hoping that the “rushed” schedule would bleed into the movie, giving it a more serial film atmosphere.

I could easily sit through Raiders of the Lost Ark and tear its plot apart. The countless dei ex machina that propel the plot and characters forward, leading to them actually doing very little, the constant use of hard lighting that doesn’t have a diegetic source (the snake pit scene being the biggest offender, with the whole scene obviously using non-diffuse light coming from nowhere), I could even say the production felt cheap. But like the person who didn’t like Pulp Fiction because it was, um, pulp fiction, I’d be missing the point. The bad storytelling, the outlandish plot, the rough-around-the-edges production … that’s the point of Indiana Jones. I’d argue that deep down, everyone up in arms about aliens being in the fourth Indiana Jones aren’t actually upset about that; they’re upset that the whole thing is just another clean, processed $185 million dollar blockbuster. The serial texture was gone, while the serial story lived on. It makes outlandish things like magical ark death machines and alien intervention seem like the terrible, clichéd ideas that they actually are.

The most amazing thing about Raiders of the Lost Ark is that it was a hit, and that it’s still a hit. Making a blockbuster as if it were a serial from the 1940s is a crazy idea that shouldn’t work, but it does. Some Hollywood studios are still willing to take a gamble like that. They did it in 2005, when Batman Begins earned its claim to fame as “an indie movie with a blockbuster budget,” and Fox and Marvel are currently producing Deadpool, a crazy, R-rated superhero action-comedy.

But Raiders did it first. It made a blockbuster by not trying to be a blockbuster, and 35 years later people still love it.

The Eugene Film Society and the City of Eugene Cultural Services proudly present Summers with Spielberg, a weekly series of free screenings of Spielberg’s landmark films. Summers with Spielberg begins with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Aug. 19 from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. at Kesey Square in Downtown Eugene.

Keegan O'Brien is a Eugene native in his senior year of film production at Portland State University. While filmmaking is his primary focus, film writing and analysis is a hobby that he deeply enjoys. Check out his blog, Cinematic Ramblings, to read his spontaneous thoughts on movies.

One Comment

  1. Ann O'Brien says:

    Cinematic Ramblings is an exceptional blog to say the least. Not only is it mentally stimulating as Keegan O’Brien is a master of descriptive and articulate communication, but it was artistically informative. I enjoyed his insight and obvious “natural” vision about what makes a movie a work of genius. For someone like myself who only wants to use my time for a film that will give a perspective of an event or an artist’s eye and soul, I found Keegan’s blog an enriching read. I discovered “roots” not just fruit. Now that will give a film snob like me new choices on my list of “must” sees.

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