A bit of a trick question, admittedly. I knew that movies had directors as early as age seven, when I ordered a book about the making of the 1976 King Kong from Scholastic Book Club, memorized every detail of the special effects, and learned to distinguish between shots that showed Kong from head to toe (played by makeup master Rick Baker in an ape suit) and shots that put Kong’s face, torso, hands or legs in the same frame with actors (in which case we were looking at huge audio-animatronic mock-ups designed by Carlo Rambaldi). I knew that somebody named John Guillermin directed the Kong remake, and that Looney Tunes were directed by Chuck Jones, Robert Clampett, Robert McKimson and Frank Tashlin. And I knew Alfred Hitchcock directed Psycho because I heard a friend’s parents talk about it at a barbecue.
But even then I didn’t understand the full scope of a director’s duties. I didn’t understand that he (or rarely, she) was responsible for more than making sure the actors memorized their lines and stood in the right spot while reciting them; that he or she was, in fact, in charge of everything—most importantly composition, lighting, camera movement and the decision of when to cut from one angle to the next, and that all these responsibilities added up to something called a Vision; all of which meant, quite simply, that movies were more than stories that happened to be told in pictures; that they were opportunities to enter the imagination, feel the feelings, even inhabit the personality, of other people, and dream their dreams.
All this started to become clear to me one morning in June, 1981, when I was eating breakfast in a coffee shop on Northwest Highway in Dallas with my mom and younger brother. In the adjacent booth were three prototypical North Texas bidnessmen—white shortsleeved shirts and wide ties, hamhock forearms, thick necks—chowing down on pancakes and recounting their weekends. The largest of the three, a guy built like John Goodman, regaled his boothmates about a film called Raiders of the Lost Ark,”...by the guy who did Close Encounters.” As he described the plot, you could tell his friends weren’t warming to it; one of them actually tried to head off the recap by stating emphatically, “I’m a James Bond man.” But then, as the big guy plowed onward, working through the film scene-by-scene, he started to giggle, and the giggling increased to the point where he was tittering like a southern grandma. I’d never heard a sound that delicate coming out of a man that huge. By the time he got to the Cairo marketplace scene, he could barely finish a sentence. “And he’s chasing the kidnapped girl, right .. and there’s this little old monkey that does the Heil Hitler salute ... and then they get separated ... and she’s hiding in this basket, and she thinks she’s safe, and the monkey gives her up to the Nazis.. and then he gets done fighting all these guys, and then the crowd parts behind him, right ... and there’s this swordsman in black, and he’s flipping around the biggest damn broadsword you ever saw, and you’re sitting there thinking the he’s gonna haul out his whip and they’re gonna have a duel, right ... and then,” he paused, drawing in breath, steadying himself, “..he just…he just…” And then he held up his hand, index finger and thumb in the regulation pistol-shape, and hollered, “Blam!”, so loud that half the restaurant jumped and glanced nervously in the storyteller’s direction. The big man’s giggling gave way to raucous laughter, and the man’s pals joined in, laughing at how hard he was laughing, and I knew I had to see this movie.
And when I saw it, something happened; a sea change in consciousness, though I didn’t have the words to describe it at the time. From start to finish, I was into the movie, yet I was also outside of it, delighting in what it was doing to me and to the packed crowd around me; I was realizing, for the first time, that you go into a particular kind of movie with particular expectations, and that the source of delight isn’t just what happens, but in the ratio of expected to unexpected moments, the timing of those moments, and the sensibility behind their orchestration. Steven Spielberg’s sensibility, his personality, came through so strongly in the first ten minutes of Raiders that I felt, in some strange yet identifiable way, as if I was back in that coffee shop hearing the big man recap the film for his buddies; by which I mean that I didn’t feel I was simply watching a movie, but listening to a specific person with a specific personality—my friend Steve—telling me a story, filtering each moment through his own quirky sense of what was exciting or scary or funny, all the while carefully reading and anticipating my reactions, giving me more or less what I expected most of the time, then hurling a wicked curve.
Exhibit A is the second half of the temple opener, after Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones thinks he’s secured the idol and can walk out unscathed; the pedestal sinks into the earth, the room starts rumbling and the dust starts to fall, and he turns around and looks up and sees a mammoth boulder rolling down toward him like a Sisyphean ski-ball, and of course he turns around and hauls ass, but as he runs, he keeps looking back over his shoulder, as if, in even in survival mode, his brain pickled in adrenaline, he’s still having a hard time believing that he’s actually in this situation, and can’t help looking back, to see how close he is to death, and perhaps to reassure himself that this is not a dream, that he really is running in front of a boulder. At this point in Raiders, I began giggling like the big man in the restaurant—in sheer delight—and kept giggling intermittently for the next two hours, as if under the influence of nitrous oxide; my delight was jump-started not just by Indy’s predicament, but its presentation. I was amused by the proximity of the boulder to Indy, and by the fact that even though the stunt only lasted a few seconds, Spielberg and his regular editor, Michael Kahn, essentially repeated the same physical action—Indy running away from the boulder—four times with slight variations in camera distance and movement (seemingly in the same hallway), extending the moment and thereby intensifying its ludicrousness. Also delightful: while outrunning the rock, Indy has to pass the same booby-traps he scrupulously navigated on the way in. Since there’s no time for delicacy, he has to just sprint, scramble or jump through each death chamber—remember the distinctive Dolby whistle of those poison darts?—and hope for the best. The final comic curveball: Indy outruns the natives, swings into the river on a vine like Tarzan, swims to a waiting plane and finds a snake beneath his feet, but instead of being frightened, he’s pissed at the pilot, his old buddy Jock, who knows full well that Indy hates snakes. The serpent isn’t a threat, he’s an affront to their friendship.
From that point forward, I watched Raiders—and all movies—with an eye for signifiers of personality and conscious intent, noting specific filmmaking choices that I did not yet have words to describe. Consider Indy’s reunion with his estranged flame and onetime student, Marion (Karen Allen), in a Himalayan tavern. During the opening drinking contest, I noticed for the first time in my life as a moviegoer that there was such a thing as an entire scene done with no cuts (cinematographer Douglas Slocombe just moves the camera laterally between the contestants, dipping down between moves to capture an empty shotglass being set down and a new one being filled); as a film student, I finally grasped that this choice had at least two aesthetic justifications: to add a second, subtle layer of tension to an already snappy scene (the second layer deriving from our subliminal awareness that we’re seeing a filmed live performance, and our sporting interest in seeing how long they can keep it going), and to illustrate how inextricably Marion is connected to this bar, its patrons and the hardscrabble life she’s eked out.
Likewise, I sensed Spielberg had specific reasons for showing Indy re-entering Marion’s life by staying on a medium closeup of her for the first few lines while representing Indy as a looming shadow on the wall behind her. Such a choice usually suggests villainy or mystery; I realized, much later, that both adjectives apply. Marion resents her ex because of their age difference (“I was a child,” she later tells him) and her corresponding sense of having been exploited and discarded by a globetrotting heartbreaker; then they were incommunicado for a long time while his legend grew. So of course she’d see him, for now, as a mythic abstraction, looming and unknowable. On top of all that, the complementary arcs of Marion’s torso and Indy’s silhouette make it seem as if Marion is casting his shadow—indicating her own potential for swashbuckling, and foreshadowing her decision to join Indy in his quest for the Ark (“I’m your goddamn partner!”). This one shot doesn’t merely showcase a moment, it finds a visual metaphor to describe how a character feels when she’s in that moment. Raiders, like all of Spielberg’s films, is full of such shots. It’s a shallow movie that’s deeply imagined and deeply felt—popcorn filmmaking as personal as an anecdote told to friends in a coffee shop.