Friday, December 18, 2015

Birthday Take: Steven Spielberg in "Raiders of the Lost Ark" (1981)

Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Steven Spielberg
Born: December 18, 1946 (69 years old) 
Nomination: Best Director (nominated) for Raiders of the Lost Ark

The Take

It's ridiculous to think that an action adventure film could be nominated for Best Picture nowadays. It has been proven a few times to be a hurdle that The Academy refuses to reward. At most, they turn to the likes of James Cameron with Avatar or Peter Jackson with The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Even then, they rarely win. But why? They're well made films, even if they fall into a category other than drama. It doesn't entirely make sense why this seclusion happens. There have likely been many iconic action films in the past 20 years that have been considered overlooked by The Academy. However, here's one interesting fact: Raiders of the Lost Ark was nominated for Best Picture. Not only that, but it was also only Steven Spielberg's second Best Director nomination. Sure, it was his third film technically to go for the top honors (Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind preceding it), but it's even more interesting to see the first Indiana Jones film from the perspective of The Academy.

Spielberg in 1981 was a decade into his feature film career (his debut being Duel from 1971). Jaws was only made seven years prior. True, The Academy is quick to recognize great talents, but rarely have they acknowledged blockbuster filmmakers with such reverence as they do Spielberg. While he shifted to dramas later on, his early run of genre films is astounding considering that he jumped between sci-fi (E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial) to action (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and still landed in the Best Picture race more often than not. If only there was someone on par with his talent to compare to nowadays, the unfathomable achievement of his early work would be more understandable beyond the consensus that they're all classics. To put it frankly: The Academy has yet to honor the offspring of Spielberg's style, such as Christopher Nolan. Is it because they're inferior, or have the tastes just change?

To give Raiders of the Lost Ark its credit, the film is one of those great action films that still feels revolutionary. The opening sequence, even that iconic John Williams score, could be its own short film. Even the boulder feels iconic and Alfred Molina screwing over Harrison Ford is full of great beats. The direction alone in this scene is astounding and reflects why Spielberg is so great at action when he wants to be. Of course, the film is so much more once the journey actually starts. The stunts are impressive and everything about it is rich with kinetic energy. I'd dare argue that while the franchise became hit and miss after this, it definitely revitalized the idea that action movies could themselves be art. In that sense, I can understand why The Academy connected with it. Otherwise, it's a film that feels odd when put alongside other Best Picture nominees of that year, such as On Golden Pond, Chariots of Fire, and Atlantic City. It even feels weird in that decade. But there's no denying that it is well directed.

Much like the enthusiasm around those first four (and very much earned) Meryl Streep nominations, it's hard to really appreciate or accept that Spielberg wasn't once nominated countless times for his work. Raiders of the Lost Ark was only his second time, and his first was for sci-fi (Close Encounters of the Third Kind). True, it was populous art that connected with audiences, but what makes it different from alternatives today? Beyond the fluke that is District 9 in 2009, what up and comer has made an appearance in the Best Picture category with a genre film? I know that Spielberg was influential and had an enviable catalog to that point, but that still makes no sense. I want to know why The Academy gave up on this diversity and has been heavily dramas nowadays. I'm mostly reminded of this as Mad Max: Fury Road is being taken seriously as an Oscar contender. I don't believe it can be, but Raiders of the Lost Ark suggests that at one point, it was plausible that anything could happen.

Spielberg's also likely receiving more acclaim for Bridge of Spies, which will probably earn him his umpteenth Oscar nomination. He is such an assured director that it's hard to ever find fault in how he became a necessary, influential talent. Though I am personally curious to understand at what point he went from just another impressive filmmaker to an actual icon. Many people have a track record on par with early Spielberg (in that they're all consistently good), but few can have that universal appreciation or name recognition, especially considering that Spielberg essentially made blockbuster genre films for most of his early run. This isn't a bad thing, but it has me wondering how Raiders of the Lost Ark made it to the final five and why very few have been able to do similar stunts in recent years.

No comments:

Post a Comment