Saturday, June 7, 2008

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

A preliminary post you might enjoy, more in essay form. Warning: Long. I won't do this to you again.

I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Spur of the moment. I looked online for the showtimes, saw one was starting in 35 minutes, and found myself saying bye to my wife while rationalizing to my daughter that I’d be previewing it for her. I mean, she’s 8 … and it’s PG-13. Thanks for all the hype, Nickelodeon.

I then asked her to downplay my whereabouts to her 4-year-old brother, as I cautiously glanced toward his room, hoping he was still asleep. She nodded quickly, indicating that she both understood and accepted her duties as a member of our family’s Meltdown Prevention Force. I mean, he’s 4 … and it’s PG-13. Thanks for all the hype, LEGO.

Jerry Seinfeld once said that one of his favorite feelings is that of being on the way to see a movie. I have to agree. That’s probably when I’ll get my next speeding ticket. (“You know, officer, Jerry Seinfeld once said …”.)

Through the theater door and past the ticket-taker, I proceeded to enter the auditorium. As I reached for the door, I noticed a long line waiting to get in, and suddenly got that “First-Class Heel” feeling that I was cutting in front of 800 people.

“Are you waiting for this theater?” I asked a woman, who looked as if I might pull a gun. “No … this one,” she gestured behind her.

Relieved, I went inside.

As I rounded the corner up the ramp, I stepped into a near-capacity crowd. One that had obviously waited in a horrible line like I’d just seen. Suckers.

I walked up the steps and began searching for a seat, finding one about three-fourths of the way up, three seats into the center section. Not bad.

“Anyone sitting here?” I asked a 40-something blonde lady, seated next to another woman. “Just you,” she replied in a British accent, clearly trying to pick me up.

I took a seat and inched slightly away from younger Camilla Parker Bowles.

Sitting there anxiously as the previews were about to start, I wondered what it would’ve been like as a 10-year-old to look ahead to the year 2008, and see myself at age 37 about to watch a sequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. Would my face have melted like Belloq’s at the vision of purchasing a ticket by computer?

I remember it all fairly well. The year was … 1981 …

It was a summer night and my mom, dad, brother, and sister and I had just gotten out of church. Sunday night church wasn’t a regular event (Sunday morning, sure), but we’d been that night. As we were walking out of the building, I got an indication that a decision had just been made, requiring swift action.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

My brother informed me that the movie down the street was about to start, and we were going to see if we could make it.

“What movie?”

Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

“Do we want to see this?” I asked, with a healthy dose of skepticism.
CUT from our scene at the top of the church steps to us already in line at the theater.

“Yeah,” he countered convincingly. It’s got Han Solo from Star Wars in it. It’s going to be good!”


As I studied the poster, I had a sense that I’d seen something about Raiders, but that it hadn’t grabbed my attention. It looked kind of Western-y. Lots of sand. Historical-looking. Your basic “brown” movie. Not my favorite at the time.

But with this new information from my brother, and seeing the printed words “from the creators of JAWS and STAR WARS” … things were looking up.

Ahead of us in line, my parents were thrusting money into the hands of Don, the theater owner, who was fielding questions from our skeptical mother like a pro. These are the parents who’d once taken us to see The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh and then decided we were leaving 15 minutes into it. I think they were expecting more comedy and less astrology.

“Is this okay for the kids? What’s it about?”

“It’s kind of a Biblical movie,” Don assured.

That sealed the deal. And a fairly accurate description, it would turn out. Though I chalk up 40% of his response to pure business savvy.

My brother, sister and I walked on in to the right (the side where the more kid-friendly movies usually played) and my parents entered to the left, which was reserved for more adult fare—that week being The Four Seasons. Why Dad opted to see Alan Alda and Carol Burnett over Raiders is beyond me. My brother rationalizes that Mom’s whip was larger than Indiana Jones’s.

You’ve seen the movie. But here’s what’s burned into my brain: Every seat was full, and we had to sit in the very back on the right. (The theater was split in halves with a narrow aisle straight down the middle.)
It was muggy inside the theater. Humid. (As the movie would let out two hours later, it would be pouring rain.) And it was smoky. In 1981, I think they gave you a pack of Salems with your popcorn. The guy next to us fired up a lighter, and the tip of his cigarette glowed orange-hot. By the looks of him, he could’ve lit it by striking a match on his face.

This was going to be a problem. Not just for me, but for my sister, who was hyper-sensitive to cigarette smoke. I looked over at her and she had already tensed up, eyes turning red. My brother noticed, too, and in a gutsy move I still marvel at from a 12-year-old kid, calmly leaned over to the guy and asked, “Excuse me, sir, but do you mind not smoking? It bothers my sister.”

“Oh, sure,” the guy graciously complied. (Whoa.)

Moments later, the Paramount logo transformed into that actual mountain peak … and we became enthralled.

Again, you’ve seen it. But the way we saw it was special--as three kids who’d recently been transplanted to a new town, sharing in a cinema masterpiece and bonding together in the back row. Most movies we’d seen up until then had been decidedly children’s fare. That night, we had carved out another piece into the adult world. One without child actors or animated characters, in which we could ask its members to stop smoking and they would honor us with respect.

And it seems that everything about that night brought the event more alive.

The humidity of the theater made us feel the jungle heat of Peru.

The smoke made it seem like we were actual patrons of Marion’s bar, complete with a near brush with a hot poker to the face ... well, some guy’s cigarette.

And being secluded to the edge of a crowded theater made it feel as if we were among the street mob of Cairo.

“Didn’t you guys ever go to Sunday School?” Indy asked. (Hadn’t we just come from church ourselves?)

A mainstream action film with Biblical reverence was just cool. I especially appreciated how God dealt justice to the Nazis, and how Indy knew not to watch. Unlike my mom, who unfortunately got her introduction to the film at that moment, having peered into the theater while waiting out in the lobby for us.

In every way, the movie was a triumph.

Smart. Captivating. Funny. The scene where Indy shoots the swordsman generated an eruption of laughter I’ve never heard equaled from a theater audience again.

We loved Indiana Jones.

And I still do. So there was no way I’d have missed the new movie.

But it could never compare to what turned out to be … the best movie I would ever see at The Mission Theater.