Jøhnny Fävòrítê (johnnyfavorite) wrote,
Jøhnny Fävòrítê

you are what you pretend to be

I haven’t seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in, oh, let’s say 15 years or so. If I saw it today, I doubt I’d like it. It’s your typical big dumb adventure movie, the polar opposite of things I like these days. Yet I was super-stoked to see Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, which played at the Belcourt Theatre last night. I would have gone with Steph, but she’s in Houston right now, so I invited a guy I used to work with. The film did not disappoint.

In case you’ve never heard of it, here’s the story. Eric Zala, Chris Strompolos, and Jayson Lamb were three kids living in Mississippi who decided to create a shot-for-shot remake of “Raiders.” It was 1982 and they were all around 12 years old. They originally thought it could be completed in a single summer. In reality, it took them seven years’ worth of summers. They finished in 1989, when they were in their late teens. There was one public showing of the film for friends and family, in the auditorium of a Coca-Cola plant. Then the three original collaborators went their separate ways, at least partially due to bad blood from old arguments, and the film was largely forgotten.

Eric occasionally showed the film to friends. Unbeknownst to him, his college roommate made a copy. That copy was copied several more times, and eventually made its way into the hands of filmmaker Eli Roth. Roth was at Dreamworks doing a pitch and passed along a copy, which was seen by Steven Spielberg, who directed the original “Raiders.” The film was shown in 2003 at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, and brought down the house. The three kids who made the film all received nice letters from Spielberg himself, and eventually met him in person. Since then, the film has taken on a life of its own. Inspired by this turn of events, Eric and Chris have quit their day jobs to start making movies again.

This is not an easy film to watch. It was shot on crude Betamax and VHS home video recorders. The sound is terrible. More often than not, I could not understand what the child actors were saying. But it doesn’t matter, because I wasn’t following it as you would a typical movie. I was seeing it as a technical tour de force, writ as large as humanly possible, given that the filmmakers and actors were all just kids. This is the most big-hearted labor of love I’ve ever seen in my life. It put a lump in my throat more times than I’d care to admit.

As the film progressed, I remembered the original “Raiders” well enough to know what was about to happen. I knew that, for example, there’s going to be a gunfight that ends with a bar burning down, an extended sequence on a ship, another sequence on a submarine, a scene where Indy gets dragged behind a truck, and so on. How on earth are they going to pull off all these things? They’re kids, they have no real budget to speak of. Yet they managed to produce very credible versions of all those things. Every new development had me gasping for breath. The scene where Indy commandeers a Nazi truck carrying the Ark of the Covenant is just amazing. It was over in 100 minutes and the pretty-close-to-full audience at the Belcourt gave the film a standing ovation. I can’t remember the last time I saw anything so inspiring.

After the film, the director, Eric Zala, appeared onstage to answer questions. The caliber of those questions led me to believe that I’m not the only guy in the world who’s read everything available on the web about this thing. Eric seems to really enjoy the adulation, and he told a lot of good stories.

Based on what Eric told us, I’m pretty sure you’re never going to see this film without one of the three principal filmmakers in attendance. They are in a legal gray area. Their film is a blatant ripoff of a copyrighted work. Spielberg has given them tacit approval, but he can’t just come out and embrace their film all the way. It would be interpreted as a license to steal everything he’s ever done. I’m sure his lawyers would never allow it.

Not wanting to push their luck, the kids from Mississippi are very careful about how and when their film is presented. They don’t provide screeners to critics. They allow it be shown only at non-profit organizations and festivals. They never profit personally from these showings. They never allow a copy of the film to travel anywhere without one of them going with it. They are trying very hard to keep their film off the internet.

I’m not the only guy who’s completely smitten by this big wet sloppy kiss of a movie, as evidenced by the fact that you can spend hours reading about it on the web, if you’re so inclined. I certainly have! But if you’ve only got the patience to read one article about it, I’d suggest this profile that appeared in Vanity Fair in 2004. It contains frank and thorough coverage of the juicy conflicts that occurred between Eric and Chris over the years, which I haven’t seen covered in detail anywhere else.

I’ve read that they’re working on a DVD release, but obviously there are big legal hurdles to clear. Since Spielberg himself likes the film, I’d say it will happen eventually. Until then, if this film comes to a theatre near you, you’d be wise to go see it.
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