Every Frame a painting? Douglas Slocombe and Raiders of the Lost Ark

One of the things that I am extremely proud of (there are not many such things) is the number of times that I have seen Raiders of The Lost Ark, apart from the fact that it is the best period made period film period, it is also one of the very few times in the history of film, a director was able win over the yin-and-yang between art and commercial.

Raiders in a way like many great films is a culmination of the films that came before it in the adventure genre, a mosaic, a collage if you please; much like what Star Wars was for space fantasy. At the same time it wasn’t too indulgent and hell bent on speaking to only its core irritating fanboy clique who have difficulty in understanding that comic books are not movies (Deadpool I’m looking at you).
Another thing that sets Raiders apart is the fact that it doesn’t really project its style or its hero, which is what hero driven movies tend to do (remember Raiders was not sold under the Indiana Jones banner in 1981), it is the setting, it is the story, it is the time, it is the red lines connecting wondrous places on a map, it is the tribals chasing, it is snakes hissing, more snake hissing, it is Marion shouting INDYYYYYY from inside a basket, it is the slightly irreverent dialogue,and a lot and lot of other things.
It really works, because we are there, with ‘them’ when they are kidnapped, when a boulder chases you, whatever that happens in the movie happens to you, and this happens every single time for me even when I know what is going to happen next. The excitement!
In one of those hour long interviews Spielberg confessed that Raiders was the most planned movie he had ever made and the one with the least embellishment.
Embellishment is really the keyword here, because the transference of excitement from the screen to you doesn’t happen in an overtly stylized environment. Let’s take the Bond films for example (which again is what Spielberg did want to make but was turned down by EON, not once but thrice), Bond gets the best of everything, literally everything, even if he had to die, it would be spectacular, it is not attainable only. You can only dream of becoming a James Bond, but you know for sure you will never be.

But here is Indy, uneven stubble, monochromatic clothes, ex-girlfriend issues, ex mentor issues,snake issues, still maintains a level of decency and idealism in his work,not really great but he is not trying to put up a show, if this is not achievable fantasy, then what is? Indy is the supreme achievement in this type of character development.

Coming back to embellishment, there is very little of grand here’ Spielberg made Jurassic Park which does a lot of grandstanding with helicopters, excessive aerial shots and computer birthed dinosaurs and a spirit raising John Williams score; none of that is there in Raiders, plain on straight to finish film making, classically uncluttered, but nevertheless memorable. Not every frame is a painting in Raiders because it doesn’t need to be when there is more substance to being subdued, shot by now rest in peace Douglas Slocombe. About whom this whole write-up is.
There is very little manipulation of light and emotions, even when there had been ample opportunities to do so (deserts, mountains, rain forests and these are the terrains that cinematographers oh so love) but Slocombe stays on the characters, the setting, the story and how the camera should advance it from scene to scene, not stop it at its tracks.
Slocombe was a veteran from the 40s, helming classics in each of the decades subsequently, Dead of Night(classic horror), Kind Hearts and Coronets(classic of classic comedy), The Lion in Winter(epic), The Italian Job (epitome of the British style picture, the old one buddies),producing a work portfolio that is essentially a textbook for future professionals. He would have been touching 70 years when the classic film loving Spielberg would have approached him. The wealth of experience.
To look at the initial Indiana Jones films as the culmination of this light artist’s work is much like looking at Raiders as the culmination of film itself. Douglas Slocombe brought in a much needed sense of time to the franchise and did away with sophistication and let the feelings take over. Interesting to note that Spielberg re visioned action choreography with Raiders and the effects of which are seen till today (refer LOTR and the Hobbit trilogy for the same), this unique way of shooting wouldn’t have been possible without Slocombe.
People who watch movies will understand that the names that come before and after the movies are not mere names and there is a sinking feeling that comes with reading of news such as the death of people who worked on your favorite picture, a false feeling that maybe you knew them well; after all they made your favorite picture.
Douglas Slocombe, one of the all time greats of cinema is no more. He was 103.
Thank you for the movies.

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