There was a fairly famous commentary in Wired a couple of years ago by Patton Oswalt that essentially came down to the comedian telling today’s movie geeks that they have it too easy. Back in the day, there was no internet to follow the development of a film blow-by-blow, there was no Internet Movie Database to learn who all the primary people behind the film were, and a home video was months, if not years, after the initial theatrical run, rather than weeks. In essence, the technology has taken the effort out of it, and truthfully, the same can be said about the art of filmmaking as well. Digital cameras, Photshop, Final Cut, it all means you can make a movie at home look like a top-notch professional effort.
All this has probably also leant to the rise of the fan film, an easy way for people who love a movie to relive the experience by inserting themselves in the mythos. But if we were to go back to the prototypical fan film, the one that broke through as an art form, the Birth of a Nation of fan films if you will (in terms of impact not content), then you would come down to a bizarre seven year project by a trio of teens who decided to shoot a shot-for-shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark. This is what Raiders!: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made is all about.
A bit of legend comes into play here. It was a fascination in local Mississippi that Chris Strompolos, Eric Zala, and Jayson Lamb had spent every summer vacation from middle school to high school graduation remaking Raiders blow-by-blow, shot-for-shot, and scene-by-scene. The film once finished sat on a shelf for years, but began to be traded by a kind of underground network of movie buffs until is was screened at Butt Numb-A-Thon, the annual birthday party/marathon film screening put on by Ain’t It Cool News Founder Harry Knowles. But appreciation wasn’t the end of the legend, because there was a missing piece of the story, one last scene for the guys to shoot to make the remake complete.
The documentary Raiders! has a two-fold purpose, to recount the creation of the Raiders fan film throughout the better part of the 1980s, and the cast and crew coming together again to film that elusive final scene: the fight at the airfield. One of these purposes is informative and admirable, as we watch three young filmmakers improvise their way into paying tribute to a cinema classic that meant so much to them. The other one though has an inflated sense of self-importance being sold as old school nostalgia. One of these stories is more appealing than the other.
Admittedly, there’s a good tale here, and I think writer/directors Jeremy Coon and Tim Skousen were on to something by presenting the behind the scenes story of this fan film to a mass audience. The industriousness of the younger Chris, Eric and Jayson is commendable, their dedication to a single project for nearly a decade nearly unheard of for kids. The end result is actually fairly impressive, too, which is part of the reason why their adaptation, Raiders, became a hit, aside from the novelty of kids making their own Indiana Jones movie. The camaraderie of the boys, joined together by their love of Raiders and the tumultuous domestic circumstances, is a thing of inspiration. Their falling out near the end of the project, meanwhile, is the thing that broken dreams are made of.
The modern story, the one where the guys come together to make that last scene, is the problem half. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all heard the siren song of completionist tendencies, the desire to finish a project no matter the cost simply because it must not remain unfinished a second longer. But was that all that was on the minds of Chris and Eric? Jayson, who was the cameraman and special effects artist on the film in the 80s, is shut out as the other two hire professionals to fill those roles, saying to Jayson that he can always “shadow” the pros, which is kind of a slap in the face to Jayson since Eric remains director and Chris remains in the role of Indy.
The hiring of professionals and the possession of a big budget flies in the face of the things there were great and admirable about the work they did as kids. Lost is the ingenuity and the improvisation, because Chris and Eric don’t have to flub the staging of a fight in front of an airplane. They were able to raise enough money to build an airplane, and an airplane with working propellers at that. It really seems more like Chris and Eric are trying to achieve their filmmaking dreams as teens, even though they say it’s merely about finishing the first project. One does get the sense though that Eric, who once tried to make a go as a professional filmmaker, was trying to make up for lost time.
Also robbing the film of some of its genuineness is how Chris and Eric made their lost scene. They chose to shoot in April when they knew weather conditions would not be ideal for a two-week exterior shoot. Why would they do that? They knew what was coming. Also problematic is the B-story about Eric risking his job as a game tester to finish the shoot when it falls behind. Eric’s unseen boss seems more annoyed than being well and truly angry that an important employee is missing in action to remake a 30-year-old movie scene. The whole thing seemed staged for more drama.
It’s weird that my feelings about the documentary Raiders! should be so extremely bifurcated. I do love Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I do admire those kids for their dedication and their complete repudiation of common sense that lead them to set themselves on fire and drag themselves behind moving vehicles. But I kind of hate who they grew up to be, or at least I hate that they dedicated their drive and talent to finishing their childhood project and pat themselves on the back for that dedication. To put this in appropriate archaeological terms, it’s like they dug up a lost city from Ancient Egypt and built a Wal-Mart.
Raiders! is two different movies: one is a charming story about kids living the dream and one is a sad tale about adults still living the dream. Perhaps they should have left well enough alone.