Friday, December 6, 2013

Characters and stakes: Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tootsie

I recently watched two classics of the 1980s that both, in their own way, help focus on the idea of character and stakes. Now, there's something I've been hearing in various interviews with screenwriters: that executives give notes asking for the stakes to be raised, which usually means to put more people in peril, usually ending with world-destroying villains or even worse.

Now, maybe a month ago, I heard some brouhaha over a discussion on The Big Bang Theory related to Raiders: that Indiana Jones fails to actually impact the story. That is, at the climax, Jones is tied to a post and it is the Ark itself that destroys the Nazis. Someone on Twitter even opined that Jones made things worse since, without him, the Ark would've been opened in front of Hitler, thus killing the Fuehrer. This is wrong--the only mention of Hitler in relation to the Ark is that he's uncomfortable with this Jewish ritual that includes opening it up. But even though that's wrong, it shows you that people are willing to recognize that Jones doesn't really save the world in Raiders. Which is meant to mean that he's not really important.

Which is bullshit.

It is totally correct to argue that Jones doesn't save the Ark. In fact, since he's the one who uncovers the Ark, you could argue that he's the one who put it in the Nazi's hands. So, yeah: Jones doesn't defeat the Nazis, the Ark has to do it itself. (Though we could also note that the Ark fails some times too: it burns off the Nazi markings of the crate in the hold of Katanga's ship--but the Nazis still find it. Stupid Ark, can't you do anything right?)

But Jones does do two very important things in the movie: he rescues Marion from the Nazis in Nepal; and he reconciles with her and makes himself a better person. Which is one way this movie heavily diverges from its pulp ancestors: the old pulp heroes would save the world and the girl but remain the same. Jones changes through the action of the film, finding not only faith but the worth of other people.

And this was driven home when I compared it to Tootsie: like Indy, Michael is great at what he does (acting), but is also a giant asshole who undervalues women--and who acts for his own gain. (Indy leaving Marion in the tent; Michael hiding his Dorothy persona by having sex with Sandy, played by an amazing intense Teri Garr.) And Michael doesn't save the world: he doesn't raise the status of women all that much; and he ends up hurting a bunch of people along the way. But in the end, he comes to be a better person.

So what are the stakes of Raiders and Tootsie? Simply that the hero can become a better person.

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