Monday, May 26, 2008

Back to the Fifties: Curtains & Indiana Jones and that Crystal Skull

In celebration of this Memorial Day weekend, I attended two defining American art forms: the Broadway musical and the Hollywood blockbuster.

I saw Curtains on Broadway and Indiana Jones & the Crystal Skull 12 hours apart. Even for a professional, it was pop culture overload, as each is a mad frenzy of references and allusions. Surprisingly, there are many similarities between the two, including that they are somewhat entertaining but suffer from trying too hard.

But the important connection is that they share the same fictional time frame: it’s 1959 in Curtains, and 1957 for Indiana and crew. (With its “everything and the kitchen sink” approach, I half expected to see Indy in silhouette somewhere in Curtains Act 2, a la the Road pictures.)

Curtains channels 1953’s The Bandwagon, a film about producing a Broadway musical, with Karen Ziemba and Jason Danieley evoking their fifties counterparts, Comden and Green.

The musical was supposed to be in league with Kander & Ebb’s classic Cabaret and Chicago. Instead, in the words of Ben Brantley, it “ lies on the stage like a promisingly gaudy string of firecrackers, waiting in vain for that vital, necessary spark to set it off.” Ah yes—that elusive spark. Another thing Curtains and Crystal Skull have in common.

Debra Monk is the standout of the show—-she’s in the tradition of Ethel Merman, another embodiment of towering talent. David Hyde Pierce is a quieter star—the Boston accent made his speech very odd and labored at times, but his sitcom timing translates well to the stage here.

The acting/dancing/singing is all great, the story/book is okay, and yet somehow it doesn’t sparkle. The whole is less than the sum of the parts. No lighting in a bottle here.

I don’t have much of an emotional attachment to the Indiana Jones films. The only one I saw in the theater was Raiders in 1981 with my brother. (In the last scene, when the spirits first come out of the ark and are beautiful, I turned to my brother and said, “They are going to turn horrible and ugly.” When this happened, it freaked him out for years.)

For a great collection of Indy posts and assessments, pop over to the blog-a-thon at Cerebral Mastication.

For me the Crystal Skull is a hodgepodge that lazily yearns to deliver real entertainment with an emotional payoff. Instead, the relentless allusions and over-the-top campy tone make it all self-indulgent rather than masterful. Didn’t the opening shot of the prairie dog remind everyone of the gopher in Caddyshack? Didn’t the next shot of the jeep and the roadster drag racing remind you of American Graffiti? And you better be careful if you try to evoke Brando’s Wild One. The visual quotes were exhausting.

The entrance of Indy in shadow was good, but Ford himself seemed very weak in the whole warehouse scene. He/his performance gained strength later on, but that first impression set a tone of disappointment.

I have no love for the 1950s, real or fictionalized. I find nothing light hearted there, nor particularly appealing. Peter Stone/Kander&Ebbs and Spielberg/Lucas, however, clearly enjoyed sojourning there themselves.

So, what’s really going on here?

As Manhola Dargis said in her Indy review: “what’s absent is any sense of rediscovery, the kind that’s necessary whenever a filmmaker dusts off an old formula or a genre standard.”

I would take that thought one step further: Spielberg did no re-imaging of how Indy might relate to a 21-century audience. Crystal Skull’s 1950s time period was dictated by the calendar math of the earlier films, but Spielberg could have made this installment of the “30s/40s serial genre” more modern in sensibility. Dargis’s observation (and mine) could equally be said of Curtains.

I think the general critical disappointment of these two artistic creations-—besides the “spark” that can be elusive for any creative endeavor and is what sets, say, Casablanca and Cabaret above the pack--signals that the curtain is coming down on the sensibility of Spielberg/Lucas, Stone/Kander & Ebb. We are witnessing the end of their like as we head toward the first double digit year of our century.


Tim Footman said...

I liked the monkeys with Gene Vincent haircuts.

That is all.