There were good eats, good friends, and some might even say a good movie-- Sunday night during Memorial Day weekend the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society kicked off the summer movie season by gathering together under some ominous-looking clouds and even a few patches of starlight for a tailgater screening of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull at our flagship drive-in, the Mission Tiki in Montclair, California.
The gatherings of the SoCal DIMS faithful have evolved since the inaugural meeting back in the summer of 2005 from informal get-togethers at favorite ozoner locations to share stories, pictures and ideas for further events, to taking new memberships and interacting with customers in Southern California drive-in snack bars, to helping coordinate special events. And now the latest wrinkle in the celebration, the SoCal DIMS tailgate party, is kicking off its second summer of family-oriented fun for drive-in movie fanatics and casual moviegoers looking for a fresh take of the summer movie season.
Though it was a mite cool by Memorial Day weekend standards, there were still plenty of cars congregated near the front of the screen at 6:00 p.m., early admission time for SoCal DIMS members and friends who get the pick of the lot with plenty of time to spare for socializing, unpacking and packing in plenty of homemade chow before the movie starts. Of course we always leave room to visit the snack bar as well, and the Mission Tiki’s, done up in beautiful retro tiki style, is not to be missed. (In July, the group will be visiting the newly renovated Van Buren Drive-in which boasts the best snack bar of any Southern California drive-in, built as it is around the nucleus of a giant grill on which fresh carne asada is always sizzling.)
Spend a few minutes at the drive-in with the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society...
The Mission Tiki’s veteran projectionist nonpareil, Jeff Thurman, even made time for a gracious and typically witty tour through the drive-in’s projection booth, which was a fascinating look at what makes a technically superior drive-in like the Mission Tiki tick. The tour, along with some of the pre-game festivities, has been documented by SoCal DIMS cofounder Sal Gomez in the embedded video here. If the drive-in tailgater looks like something you’d like to get in on, there are four more scheduled tailgate parties for the summer of 2008, as well as a special Monsterama all-night film festival at the Mission Tiki coming in October. So mark your calendar, and check out all the good stuff Sal has for your enjoyment at the SoCal DIMS web site, where you can keep up with the latest news, check out some great photo galleries, keep up with some great blogs and links, and much more.
Screengrab courtesy of Jim Emerson
It’s never a total disappointment being at the drive-in even when the movie doesn’t measure up, because the experience itself is so much fun. Unfortunately, the movie this time around, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, while not a complete flop, definitely had many of us craning our necks to sneak peeks at the Iron Man/Speed Racer double bill on the neighboring screen. The kinetically charged visual energy Spielberg brings to almost every project, evidence of the true cinematic storyteller abiding in his heart and bones, is something I’ve always counted on in his great movies, and speaking as someone left largely seduced and abandoned by the Indiana Jones series as a whole, that energy is never more important to me than it is in these tales, for it is about the only thing there is to enjoy in them. (Mike Gilbert might say the new movie continues Indiana’s essential brownness.)
There are the incidental pleasures in the first three episodes—Karen Allen’s introduction in Raiders, Indy’s encounter with Hitler at a Nazi book burning in The Last Crusade, and for me the high point of the entire series, the opening “Anything Goes” musical number, in Cantonese, and subsequent scramble for diamonds that leads off Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. (This sequence is so good that I’m inspired to revisit the entire movie again in the hope that, like I did with 1941, I might discover a brilliant movie underneath the insistent memory of all my initial bad reactions. At this point it’s almost a truism that any movie Spielberg feels he has to apologize for is probably better than its reputation.) However, Crystal Skull, like no other movie in the series, feels rote and uninspired, both in its perfunctory, muddled story and its indifferent direction, Spielberg’s most disinterested since the first half of Jurassic Park-- the self-referential in-jokes inserted to tweak the nostalgia of the series’ fan base are little compensation for a narrative that simply never gathers steam in the manner of even the least of the previous films.
The movie’s traditional dissolve, a bliss-out of graphic continuity, from the peak of the Paramount logo to an actual mountain, or in the inspired instance of Temple of Doom, a gong embossed with the representation of one, an image which carries its own wonderful raft of associations, is turned into a joke here, one which ends up at the expense of the movie itself. Is it reactionary of me that my spider-sense went all tingly upon seeing the Paramount logo give way to… a gopher mound? Neither the mound nor the CGI gophers that surround it (sigh) ever amount to anything, ever resonate with the action. (Now, if it had been an ant hill…) Is this Spielberg’s way of telling us to lower our expectations? Even if not, the juxtaposition still comes off as an inconsequential joke, hardly a harbinger of heights of action and adventure soon to be scaled. Even the movie’s look, grounded as it is in the buffed, CGI-tinged realism of cinematographer Janusz Kaminski’s images, disappoints— there is no single moment in Skull to match the glowing hallucinatory beauty that Douglas Slocombe brought to the first three films, where the jungles themselves seemed alive, ready to pounce, and the movies, especially Temple of Doom, virtually popped off the screen.
The opening sequence, which introduces us to Indy’s new nemeses, the Russians, led by Cate Blanchett’s Irina Spalko, a sculpted-in-evil Soviet scientist (and apparent psychic), promises a workout for Indy and our adrenaline glands. But the movie surprisingly sets aside the frisson of unease generated by Indy’s discovery, under threat of Spalko’s insistence, of alien remains in a mysterious warehouse in favor of the meat of the subsequent adventure, upon which those remains bear no apparent connection-- the appearance of a motorcycle-riding young tough named Mutt (Shia LeBouf by way of Brando), who recruits Indy to rescue his mother, a captive along with Indy’s old colleague (John Hurt) who knows something about the titular see-through cranium. Indy butts heads with the headstrong youngster, and you can practically hear the gears of the picture start to grind. The audience is consistently two steps ahead of Indy as to the true identity of Mutt and his mom (What other rationale would there be for the return of Karen Allen?), and the testy exchanges between old icon and duck-tailed youth are nostalgic in a bad way—they remind you that the dialogue in these pictures was rarely better than musty. The scrapes they get into, punctuated by those repeated close encounters with Spalko and friends (“We meet again… and again…. and again, Dr, Jones”), are Indiana Jones lite—there’s literally nothing at stake during a three-stage plunge down a waterfall when, after the first dive no one gets anything more than wet, or during a nifty run-in with savage red ants in which one villain gets devoured head-first. (At least the snakes and spiders and bugs from the previous movies were real snakes and spiders and bugs).
But most disappointing is that crystal skull itself and what it means, about which there is much awestruck gaping and speculating, none of which translates into a compelling narrative and about which to say more would be in violation of the Spoiler Act of 2008, in effect for the 42 Americans who have still not seen the new movie. Suffice it to say that Spielberg and George Lucas, in attempting to fuse Indiana Jones with the sensibility more akin to the representative ‘50s sci-fi that defined the genre during the time of their story, offer a resolution that sputters like a wet fuse, neither exploiting the fear of invading aliens that the entire movie has been pointing toward (the warehouse in which the movie’s opening action takes place in painted with the hard-to-miss legend “Area 51”), nor fulfilling the thread uniting the previous three films, the archaeological pursuit of God. (Erik von Daniken might disagree, I suppose…)
For the most part, the cast is game—it is good to see Allen on screen again, even though she’s given nothing as memorable as that drinking match from Raiders to do here; John Hurt convinces us (once again) of the enormity and hallucinogenic logic of the images he must be staring at inside his own head; and I even dug Blanchett’s heavily accented Soviet dominatrix moves, Natasha Fatale-by-way-of-Charlotte Rampling—she gets at the would-be spirit of the proceedings and is only marginally less frightening than she was in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. But Ray Winstone is wasted as Indy’s double-triple agent compadre. And Harrison Ford, like Spielberg, just seems tired of the whole show—he’s there because, like the director, it wouldn’t be an Indiana Jones movie without him, the truism of which young LeBouf, primed as he is to become the inheritor of the Jones mantle of scholastically inspired derring-do, may soon discover. After enjoying him in Holes, Disturbia and Transformers, the young actor wears out his welcome here—it may be just as dangerous to enter a movie dressed like The Wild One as it is to equate your movie with a pile of gopher dirt.
Those predisposed to welcome another installment of the Indiana Jones series may be far more forgiving of the movie’s lack of pizzazz—there may even be an implicit defense of it in the unavoidable theme of an aging icon of cinematic heroics. Yet Indy, despite his copious stunt doubles and his director’s attempt to not seem hopelessly analog in a digitally converted world of action cinema, seems creaky and outdated here, the movie only a faint echo of the level of excitement we know Spielberg can bring to an adventure picture when he’s firing on all cylinders. The mission statement of the original movies was in part to resurrect the breakneck narrative of ‘30s serials and refashion them in the technology-infused cinematic grammar of the ‘80s. How ironic, then, that Lucas and Spielberg, in no longer reaching back to the ‘30s, or even the ‘50s, but instead to the template of the ‘80s movie that changed blockbuster action movies forever, should appear so winded and wheezy in their modernity. Forget the crystal skull—in 2008 it’s Indiana Jones that’s the museum piece.
(Drive-in photos courtesy of Sal Gomez, Kathy Beyers and the Southern California Drive-in Movie Society)