Monday, November 06, 2006
Indiana Jones and the Cultural Patrimony of Doom
When I was in college, one of my favorite discoveries was How to Read Donald Duck, a clever, if heavy-handed, cultural critique of Disney´s comic book adventures. According to the authors, Dorfman and Mattelart, writing in 1971, all those wonderful stories where Uncle Scrooge, Donald and the triplets claimed floating islands in the Pacific, rescued golden crowns from Mayan cenotes, and thwarted revolutionary “dogs” that looked suspiciously like Che and Castro were pure American Cold War capitalist propaganda. I’d like to say I’m not so easy now (I’d love the authors to back up their take with an intercepted memo from Disney to his artists reading, “Boys, Kissinger called. How soon can Huey, Dewey and Louie make
Which is why I was a little disappointed that no one brought up Indiana Jones earlier this year, when
Looter: This is the second time I’ve had to reclaim my property from you.
Indy: That belongs in a museum
Looter: So do you.
The thought of a permanent exhibit on Indiana Jones at the
In honor of Harrison Ford’s recent boast that he’s fit enough for a planned fourth Indiana Jones movie, maybe it’s time to take a stab at “How to Watch Indiana Jones.” Unless I’m mistaken, no one’s really tackled the narrative of archaeological collection and patrimony politics in the Indiana Jones movies. That's a shame, as I believe that what's most salient about Indy—and what prompts lazy reporters to dub people everything from “the Indiana Jones of Tomatoes” to “the Indiana Jones of Finance” (I just Goggled “Indiana Jones of” and got 40,800 hits)—is that he makes archaeology look like the perfect mix of scientific brain and globe-trotting brawn. Indy can take back one kaddam from the Staff of Ra "to honor the Hebrew God whose Ark this is", and lay a smack-down on the Nazis.
Except that, as the McSweeney’s satire suggests, his archaeological ethics and skills leave a lot to be desired. As an archaeologist, he makes Heinrich Schliemann look good. Take that justly famous first scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Indiana Jones is in the jungle of the eastern slopes of the
Thankfully, his French nemesis Belloq is waiting outside, with a coterie of armed “Hovitos” natives to help set Indy straight on why “Finders Keepers” just isn't going to cut it this time.
Jones: Too bad the Hovitos don't know you the way I do, Belloq.
Belloq: Yes, too bad. You could warn them... if only you spoke Hovitos.
So the American archaeologist destroys a temple and loses the artifact—to a French archaeologist, no less—because he failed to enlist the local peoples in the protection of their patrimony. Right? Had Indy gotten an advance copy of Patrick Tierney’s controversial Darkness in
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom ditches the Nazi angle, but sharpens the specious critique—very much implied in “pro-museum” arguments this year—that “culture-rich” countries´ laws and protests are disingenuous political pander, and don't represent the countries´actual will, or ability, to protect their monuments and artifacts. Granted,
As always, Indy is victorious, and returns the children and the stone to the Indian village. What does it all mean? Sadly, I can’t meet my own aforementioned standards and produce a letter from Lucas to Spielberg reading, “Steve, what if in the next Indiana Jones movie, he intervened in another country’s struggle over the meaning of the past (some sort of stone thing) for the sake of the future (some starving kids) and rescued both from a hypocritical anti-imperial cultural elite (I´m thinking Thuggees)?” That letter does not exist.
But Secret of the Incas does. In 1953 Paramount Pictures flew Charlton Heston to
In a nutshell, Steele is a handsome rogue who’s been holed up in Cuzco, Peru for a few years, playing gigolo for visiting female tourists for money (“It’s the best kind,” he tells one. “It’s the hardest to get. It always smells sooo good.”), and waiting for “a line on that Incan treasure” everyone keeps talking about. He finally gets a clue, and with a beautiful Romanian blonde in tow (Indy, cover your heart, indeed!), he steals a plane, and flies to that famous lost city of the Incas,
Steele wants to find and steal the “Golden sunburst” of the Incan emperor Manco. His resolve falters, however, when he meets “Pachacutec,” a graduate of the University of
Incredibly, the film is loaded with asides on cultural patrimony (an American archaeologist on his Peruvian military escort: “His job is to see that we don’t appropriate any souvenirs.”) and references to what we might call “archaeological self-determination.” By the film’s logic, Steele doesn’t suffer a crisis of conscience because he realizes stealing is wrong; he gives the sunburst back because the treasure’s cultural value to the Andean peoples outweighs its monetary and scientific value.
If it sounds a little preachy, that's because it is, as any argument over the idea of cultural patrimony must be. But in a “funny” last twist that shines a mirror on America's ambivalence about those sorts of arguments, the producers show that our Ur-Indy is still the bad-boy explorer we want to root for. In the movie's final minute, Pachacutec restores the sunburst to the
The music swells, 'The End' flashes on the screen, and we're remindend once again that our favorite guy in a hat and his big-picture archaeological ethics are just fiction. Right?
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