Episode 551: It Would Be Easier If “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Were Awful

On the Overthinking It Podcast, we grant that “Raiders Of The Lost Ark” is problematic, but wonder if that means we can’t watch and enjoy it.

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Peter Fenzel, Mark Lee, Jordan Stokes, and Matthew Wrather watch Indiana Jones and the Problematic Fave as they answer the scurrilous charge by another podcaster that Raiders of the Lost Ark belongs in the dustbin of history.

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8 Comments on “Episode 551: It Would Be Easier If “Raiders of the Lost Ark” Were Awful”

  1. Charlie X Member #

    Listening to the Slate piece… they’re not entirely wrong. That’s the thing with a ‘problematic fave’. I admit the take on it seems hyperbolic compared to some more nuanced examinations online through the works of people like Lindsay Ellis who can acknowledge the problematic nature of the thing without necessarily saying ‘thing bad’.
    Especially in the realm of nostalgic properties, there can often be an emotional defensiveness. Nostalgia doesn’t grant an immunity to problematic media much like acknowledging problematic content doesn’t undo the love held or still present for the piece of media.
    I love The Princess Bride and it’s still one of my favourite movies, however I do acknowledge that they don’t pass Bechdel and Princess Buttercup is barely given anything to do other than be kidnapped.
    I’m also a fan of John Hughes, who has made some media with issues. It was fascinating seeing Molly Ringwald herself confront some of this with showing Breakfast Club to her daughter, more so given her involvement with the film. My personal enjoyment-vs-problematic content barometer won’t let me return to Sixteen Candles, but will still let me watch Breakfast Club and Pretty in Pink.

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  2. Mark Lee OTI Staff #

    I wanted to expand on the idea of the plot of Raiders as farce, or more generally, a sequence of events not to be taken at face value. Consider the following:

    1) the map room sequence, with the beam of light and bright flash that hit the Well of Souls. What we see doesn’t make any rational sense given how the light hits the medallion up to that point.

    2) Marian’s escape from the Well of Souls, where it looks like she’s surrounded by corpses, until we cut to Indy and we find that they’re not at all arranged in that position.

    3) the gruesome finale, where the audience sees a whole bunch of crazy stuff go down, while Indy and Marian have their eyes shut. (The Nazis were there, then they weren’t. What *actually* happened?)

    4) the warehouse coda, where the ark is stored in a seemingly infinite field of boxes. I know the US government is inefficient, but someone’s gotta be accounting for all of that warehouse square footage, right?

    In other words, a lot of Raider is fantastical to the point of hyperbolic cartoonishness. That of course doesn’t negate the race / gender problems, but it at least helps blunt some of the concern that the movie has a political agenda. Or maybe that’s me looking for a way to excuse the movie’s faults and rationalize my continued enjoyment of it.

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    • John C Member #

      Heh. Like I hinted at in my (probably too long) comment, I’d love to see the retroactive retelling of Raiders where we find out that the original movie is Indy’s own sexist/racist/self-aggrandizing unreliable narration, and “here’s how it really went down” with a much larger cast.

      Mind you, I’d also enjoy a spinoff in the vein of The Librarians or Warehouse 13 (but with a Spielberg budget) about the logistics of managing the huge warehouse of ancient artifacts that the United States government deems too dangerous to leave out in the world…

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  3. John C Member #

    The way I’ve come around to think about art is basically, we like what we like, and may not have a strong choice in that matter, but we also have a responsibility to understand that some choices might seem trivial to us, but exclude large swaths of the audience from enjoying the work. If we don’t bother to understand those problems and call them out, we don’t motivate creators to do better next time.

    For example, it took forty years of half-joking articles about bee-people and sidekick-as-mastermind theories to turn Star Wars away from vignettes about what amounts to the Divine Right of Kings. It took decades for sitcoms to stop using just the existence of gay and trans people as punchlines. Heck, it’s taken well over a hundred years to finally get some stories about vampires that aren’t thinly-veiled allegories of gay and/or Jewish “invaders,” deliberately or by recycling uninterrogated tropes.

    I forget who explained it to me, but growing up reading comic books, I was introduced to the idea that, if we want to imagine the stories as real events, then the writers are trying to piece the events together from fragmentary information filtered through their personal biases. It’s all “bad reporting,” whether it’s Superman’s upbringing, how the Super-Soldier Program operated, what Klingons look like, or whether Marion did the heavy lifting. Especially as someone who isn’t affected by those choices, I’m guessing it’s easier for me to imagine that there’s a “The Wind Done Gone” version of Raiders that shows Marion and Sallah to be equal partners on the adventure dismissed by a cluelessly “man of his time” Indy. But when the dismissals hit close to home, it’s not a fun intellectual exercise.

    In its way, it’s arguably valuable to re-experience these works in modern contexts, because those little kicks we’re now sensitive to are how many of our friends and family have gone through life. And we really need to finally start thinking about how to disentangle the good parts of culture from the legacy crap that only makes us look bad. I mean, when we’re being called out by a razor blade commercial (and when people are soiling their delicates over said commercial), we’ve got problems, and the engineering types (actual engineers, not the software people like myself…) always tell me that you can’t improve what you don’t measure and track.

    To Jordan’s point, by the way, Birth of a Nation is a deceptively interesting example of the idea that aesthetic opinions just can’t be contradicted. After all, the modern KKK isn’t actually the original. It was created with studio-manufactured pins and cloaks as tie-in merchandise with the movies, making them a violent and racist version of…well, Trekkies. So, the “don’t feed the trolls” adage runs right up against this, in that a fan club became the resurgence of a domestic terrorist network, albeit one that was nearly wiped out by an episode of the Superman radio show. Seriously, one of the weirdest stories in modern history.

    So, yes, Raiders of the Lost Ark is multiple things: A fun movie, a movie that goes out of its way to not be fun for many people, and a complete failure to be the much better movie it could have been (to a much broader audience) if Hollywood hasn’t been an old boys’ club. I tend to think that “problematic” in this sense refers to the specific problem of how to prioritizing those facets.

    That all said, I’d say that God has more of a cameo appearance in the movie than a part. It’s not even a speaking role…

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  4. Mike O #

    The only problematic thing I see here is the industry of Pearl Clutching. Are we going to ban the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull because of its lack of portrayal of disabled gender queer women of color? Why aren’t we piling on this Slate guy for “siding with Nazis by attempting to censor the work of a well known jewish artist”?

    Nothing should be censored or withheld. People should have access to everything consumable. The question of “Should you be forced to pay to have this item spread” (say Birth of a Nation through tax deducted universities) is a conversation worth having.

    Allow people to consume what they want in their own space should be the logical conclusion. The problem is “well, people are weak minded… we should protect them as I see fit” is where these types of conversations inevitably head.

    An all white male panel legislating women’s bodies should be fine, because we allegedly live in a representative democracy. Those white men are supposed to embody millions of women (of color) too. So the conversation should be how do we make the system representative without relying on people’s appearance. Because 1. These white guys sh!t on white male working class just as much, as any Marxist would tell you. 2. You can find just as oblivious or evil women that will be just as bad at representing women 3. We get into the realm of “Hey… there’s a disproportionate amount of jews in media, finance, and politics…” Are these people unable to represent just by the nature of what they are? Or do we let the results speak for themselves?

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    • John C Member #

      Thank goodness that jumping from mild criticism of a minor pop culture work to a panic that all related works are being banned doesn’t qualify as “pearl clutching” and that such histrionics isn’t an attempt to shut down a conversation…

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  5. Three Act Destructure #

    There are multiple layers of revisionism happening here, all of which are not only interesting but which seem appropriate for a movie that is about an archaeologist and historian.

    Firstly, there is the source material that Indy’s adventures pull from: old pulp novels, serials and comic books from the WW2 era. Most of which, in their zeal to sell shock-bang action to masses of hero-worshiping adolescents, tended to play up the stark black-and-white nature of the American-German-Japanese side of the conflict. There’s a pretty famous Captain America cover that tells you pretty much all you need to know about the spirit of these stories. This is not exactly the truth of that war but it was certainly the story that plenty of young readers at the time wanted and were more than willing to scoop up and devour unironically. To them, this was as much reality as the dime novels had been to their parents. Maybe some of them suspected that a lot of this was too fantastic to be real but consider that conceptions of mass media were much more innocent at the time and also that plenty of these stories were actually being written overseas by guys who were really living it.

    For another interesting inflection point, consider the Longest Day, a movie made at a creative level by mostly war vets and which focused on strategy and mission briefings and an understanding of the engagements from a bird’s-eye view (literally, in one famous shot). Versus Saving Private Ryan, a movie made fifty years later which aped shaky documentary footage from the period to create a visual style that pushed viewers through the mud and grime of ground-level combat. Which one is really more authentic? Remember that only one of these includes what I’m pretty sure is an apocryphal scene with Mother Teresa walking into a battlefield in France.

    Is it possible that the reason that so many of these works never escaped the decades that they were created in is because they tied themselves to a version of reality that was never meant to stand the tests of time? Regarding pulp, most of these stories were outdated by the ’60s and might as well have been medieval manuscripts by the ’80s.

    So on to New Hollywood, in which we claim to have learned all of our mistakes from the past. Enter Star Wars. Enter Indiana Jones. And enter the respect that their inspirations hadn’t been given for decades. In fact, it was widely regarded at the time that these works were genius in part because they were able to take something as supposedly trashy and dull as pulp and make it fun and hip and modern. According to Bloom, this is the apophrades, the successor overpowering the predecessor. And boy, did it. I mean, who watches old Flash Gordon serials anymore (besides me, and only a few at that)?

    One of the most interesting features of the ever-shifting grounds of historical relevance is how discussions of moral quality and artistic quality interact, with one typically informing the other. I think you’ve all done a good job of breaking down how messy that process is in reality but I’d like to add that while films like Birth Of A Nation are still highly regarded as technical accomplishments, they also aren’t ever seen. At least outside of film schools. Meanwhile, Gone With The Wind seems to have a larger modern audience that is basically proportionate to its cleaner, although still not untarnished, moral standing in the culture.

    And yes, Marion Ravenwood is a very interesting figure in all of this. The idea of a female character who could hold her own alongside the archetypal gruff adventurer figure of Dr. Jones would have likely been cheeky and empowering at the time. This was probably based on the uninformed and superficial knowledge that most audiences would have had of the genre and its original materials. Maybe Spielberg had a more complex understanding of this stuff but if so then I don’t think he was interested in sharing it with his fans. Still, the truth is that the 40s had their share of characters like Fantomah, Miss Fury and Marvel/Timely/Military Comics’s Miss America — all of which were more thoroughly empowered than Marion has ever been.

    So today, we’re nearing another forty-year mark. And while Indiana Jones hasn’t been consigned to the dustbins of history like all of his inspirations have been, this Slate article proves that the trend of revisionism continues. What was once evergeen is now beginning to rot and any reboot of the franchise will most certainly have to take that into consideration.

    Anyways, forget all that. Here’s my pitch: Tessa Thompson as Indiana Jones! It won’t fix any of the problems but it will DEFINITELY be awesome.

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  6. clayschuldt #

    Against all the problems we now see in the Indiana Jones films, I can’t help but feel “Raiders” still falls on the moral side of things for its condemnation of the Nazis.
    Its a mild condemnation and granted most things look better when compared to Nazis, but for an action film made in 1981 I think it was better than average.
    Its strange, because it is a film made in the ’80s about events that took place in the ’30s and we’re viewing it in 2019.
    I am curious, how much should we expect “Raiders” to accurately depict 1936 Egypt?
    I have the suspicion an American archeologist from that era might be even more problematic than the fictional one of this film.

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