Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Power of Symbol

When I watched the latest Indiana Jones movie a couple of years ago, I could not put my finger on it, but I know I didn't like it. It just didn't seem like an Indiana Jones movie. I wasn't the only one and people pointed to the scenes like Indy getting in the fridge and surviving the nuclear blast or the part with the monkeys as to why the movie was terrible. Those were distinctly bizarre things that do seem out of sync with the schema of the rest of the series, but the movie as a whole was lacking and I couldn't describe why. It was by no means as bad as the new Star Wars movies, but I definitely felt like they should have just left the legacy of Dr. Jones alone instead of having a complete trilogy plus one out of place one that was lacking.

Normally, I would not have worried about it anymore and just continue on with my life, but I have a friend who continues to insist that both the new Star Wars trilogy and the new Indiana Jones invigorates their respective franchises and are consistent with the established mythos of their series. My rational brain cannot fathom that and I try to simply state that I did not think they were even good movies on their own let alone the fact that they lived up to the status of their predecessors. He will not let it go and cannot fathom how it is possible for someone to hold such an opinion and I end up having to go back and have to present my case on why they are not good because it seems like I am the only one that is willing/stupid enough to engage him in this matter.

My case for why the new Star Wars movies (The Phantom Coherent Plot Line, The Attack of the Worst Romantic Lines Committed to Film and Revenge of the Moment Where Darth Vader Lost His Coolness) is, I feel, pretty solid. I could regale you with why that is, but frankly, I don't want to bore you and I believe that there are better sources to explain why they are not good even good movies (such as Red Letter Media's hour and a half long critique which is simply spectacular and I would watch all of those reviews over watching the actual movies any day). However, my case for why I don't like Indiana Jones was not as evident. It just didn't sit right. I've come to realize that the reasons people frequently point to as evidence that is a bad movie (the aforementioned nuclear fridge and swinging monkeys) are usually symptoms of a greater problem with the film.

However, I couldn't place it. It was indeed another one of the Red Letter Media reviews of the movie that helped me understand why the movie couldn't overcome it's weak points and be another great Indy film.

It was pointed out that the reason we love Indiana Jones is because girls want to be with him and guys want to be him. He is intelligent, witty, smooth with the ladies, adventurous, heroic, tough and principled. We don't watch these movies because we want to see him grow and develop as a character, you watch it because it would be awesome to outthink traps, steal idols, and dodge a rolling boulder. You can see this in other famous movie characters such as James Bond and Batman. These three characters do not usually develop that much over the course of their movies, but rather represent a certain ideal. Bond and Indy are two slightly different takes on the ideal of manliness and Batman is the ideal embodiment of justice. Then each movie tries to explore taking that ideal and testing it against various threats.

That's why the Joker is probably one of the most fascinating villains for Batman. The Joker brings an element of chaos into the picture that is a direct threat to the code of Batman. The Joker doesn't seek wealth or power, but rather unpredictable chaos. The fact that Batman stops him does not mean that the Joker lost, but rather the Joker has already won by forcing Batman to participate in the chaos.

This leads to a concept I've never really considered. These characters are symbols. They are placeholders for the audience. The audience knows what these characters would do in these situations and often judge the movie based on how the symbol is treated by the movie.

When the last two James Bond movies came out, you had some long time fans complain that it wasn't James Bond anymore. This was despite how good Casino Royale actually was. If you had no idea who James Bond was and watched that movie, it did a really good job, I believe. However, the Bond portrayed in the movie was different than some fans' idea of who Bond is and so they wrote it off. They may even admit that it was a good movie, but just a bad Bond movie. If he doesn't order a martini, shaken, not stirred or if he doesn't say, "Bond, James Bond" then it is not a Bond movie. If Q is not played by Desmond Llewelyn, then it's not Q. If there's no gadgets, its not a Bond movie.

However, we can stand that there can be different Bonds because over time, the ideal man that Bond is supposed to represent changes. As you go through the series, the actor playing Bond gets replaced so that the character generally stays in his forties. Despite how good Sean Connery was as Bond, after a while it would seem weird as the symbol of the ideal man as a seventy-year old running around and jumping off things as they blow up.

Batman needs to have money, technology, expert training and a superior intelligence in order to be the perfect tool for justice.

Sadly, it is the same for Indiana Jones. However the problem was not that Indy was now sixty-five, but they changed who Indy was and they changed how an Indy movie works. One might argue that it is good for a series to change with the times to which I say that you should shift gears completely and do a reboot. However, they changed the wrong things.

One of the hallmarks of Indiana Jones was his lack of nationalism. Indy stood by the ideal of preserving history and discovery and would fight clear evils, but he was not a pawn of the military. The new movie showed him as being a pawn by the Americans. It is also arguable that who is good and who is evil is blurry. The Americans are shown as a paranoid superpower with nuclear weapons and the Russians, it could be said, are trying to defend themselves with their own weapon.

Indiana had a violent streak and would often kill in cold blood, but now he is toned down. They added more family friendly elements like those animated (why are they animated?) gophers. Some may argue that those are good changes to the series to which I go back and say again, reboot the series because you are lying when you say it is the same series if you changing the core of the symbol.

In the last Indy film, they tried to have Indy change and develop over the movie and it messed with what is adored about the series because Indy is not a man, Indy is an idea.

Admittedly, another kind of movie has a great appeal and that is the one of the heroic journey. These movies are the ones where the character goes through a change over the course of the story. The character is different at the end than he was at the start. He overcomes trials and experiences victories and becomes his heroic self. These stories find their appeal in the idea that this is the story of every person. We are given the choice in life whether we will sit back and do nothing or venture out and face our fears and shortcomings and try to overcome them. These are the stories of Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, Neo from the Matrix, and Sam from Lord of the Rings. They are like us in that they reluctant to change, but as they journey down the rabbit hole, they overcome adversity and become their heroic selves. It inspires the audience that they too can choose to become the heroic versions of themselves. Luke, Neo and Sam are not ideas, they are us. 

It is like the reverse of Batman, Bond and Indy. We want to be Batman, Bond and Indy who are distinct ideals that we wish we were but who we really are is Luke, Neo and Sam who have to journey to become more themselves.

Perhaps it was the appeal of the idea of having Indy develop and change over the movie that prompted the idea that they should change the tone and feel of the movie to fit it, but in doing so, hurt what made Indy so fun to watch. Indy is not a man, he is an idea.

Despite how much the prospect of having another Indiana Jones was, it was probably best to leave it in the past and simply treasure the symbol. I believe symbols are often far more powerful.

In the Batman Begins film, the idea of a symbol is talked about extensively. By Bruce Wayne fighting not as himself, but rather as a symbol of fear and using tactics that re-inforce that symbol, he becomes much more than one man fighting crime. He becomes an idea that reaches into the consciousness of the citizens. He becomes far more powerful.

The symbol of Indiana inspires us to put on the mantle of Indiana and to become like him. Of course, the symbol only goes so far, because he is fictional and it is something we can't really become.

This brings me to why am I talking about movies with such detail.

As I was thinking about Indiana Jones as a symbol, it brought me to the conundrum that is Jesus Christ. In many regards, Christ is a symbol. He has become the symbol of salvation, redemption, justice, mercy and love. Through his teachings and actions, he has become a symbol that inspires people. The interesting thing is that he calls us to take up his mantle.

Whereas the mantle of Indiana Jones includes wearing the iconic hat, with a bullwhip in hand, shirt open, a leather jacket and an unshaven face, the mantle of Christ includes the characteristics of love, justice and mercy.

However, I have found that we don't take up the mantle. For some, they believe that we, as mere humans, are not able to take on the mantle of Christ nor that we should. The mantle is Christ's alone. For others, they are jaded by those who call themselves disciples of Christ, but do not dare touch the mantle of Christ. In the end, the mantle sits there untouched and the symbol looses it's power.

I think it comes down to us seeing ourselves as Samwise Gamgee who has no obligations to the world nor, seemingly, the power to impact the darkness of the world. The idea of being Christ is far from our reach. We see Christ as this divine Batman. Someone who is grand. Vast. Unattainable. Someone who has already arrived at the pinnacle of love, justice and mercy. Then we look at this symbol and think that we shouldn't bother. Let Jesus be the Christ because I will just fail.

However, you don't want to forget that Samwise chooses to go on the journey and although, yes, he stumbles and sometimes falls, he moves through and at the end of all his trials he has become a force of redemption. He eventually becomes the symbol he thought he never could be.

I find it sad when people, and Christians in particular, pick on themselves and don't see the potential that Christ sees in us. They would rather let Jesus be the Christ because they believe they can't despite it is Jesus himself who leaves his disciples to become disciple-makers.

Perhaps the better example comes from "V for Vendetta". The story takes place in the future where Britain has come under the rule of a harsh theocracy. One vigilante who stands up to the religious establishment and wants to set the people free from their oppression. He fights a seemingly hopeless battle and in the end dies at the hand of those who wish to keep their power. Sound familiar so far? His final sacrifice inspires the common citizenry to take up the iconic mask of the vigilante and stand up in the vigilante's place. One of the last shots is a giant crowd all wearing the mask. They were V.

It's interesting, because you have the symbol of V who represents freedom who is unwavering and idealistic, but the citizens are the ones that go through the change. V did not need to change. It was the citizens he was trying to save and by them changing, they were saved. In the end, they as a people became the symbol of V.

I wonder if that story intended to parallel the Christian story the way it did. Even if it was not intentional, I see the parallel all the same. Jesus died for the sake of ideals he stood by. He was inspiring us to follow him. It is fitting that we participate in the journey of the citizenry and become the symbol of salvation, redemption, justice, mercy and love.

I sometimes honestly wonder if when the New Testament talks about the second coming of Christ where it says that it will happen in within in their present generation as Paul believed it would, that is actually already did happen. What if when we use the term the "body of Christ" to refer to the church that that really is the second coming of Christ. That we really are supposed to bring salvation, redemption, justice, mercy and love to all ends of the earth just like the Christ is supposed to. 

That is the power of symbol.

"So tie me to a post and block my ears
I can see widows and orphans through my tears
I know my call despite my faults
And despite my growing fears

But I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again

So come out of your cave walking on your hands
And see the world hanging upside down
You can understand dependence
When you know the maker's land

So make your siren's call
And sing all you want
I will not hear what you have to say

Cause I need freedom now
And I need to know how
To live my life as it's meant to be

And I will hold on hope
And I won't let you choke
On the noose around your neck

And I'll find strength in pain
And I will change my ways
I'll know my name as it's called again"
- "The Cave" from the Mumford & Sons' album "Sigh No More"