Thursday, March 6, 2014

Golden Idol in "Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark"

Last Sunday, there was a lot of hubbub about a little golden statuette in Hollywood. I piously abstained from watching the Oscars on Sunday night as a one-man protest against all those who have been snubbed (though, I must admit, my love for Cate Blanchett and Ellen forced me to watch highlights on Monday). As Cate Blanchett herself said the Academy Award is "random and...subjective," but it doesn't mean it is not a great honor to the actors and actresses and filmmakers, and it doesn't mean that those whose win don't deserve it. So, in honor of the Oscars, I decided I'd do a post about another little golden statuette that causes a great deal of buzz.
Raiders of the Lost Ark was on the telly again last week and (because I can't help myself) I had to watch it from start to finish. And who can forget that beginning? It is not a true cold opening because it does introduce the character of Bellouq as Indy's antagonist, but the pursuit of the idol has very little do to with the actual pursuit of the ark. Still, those opening scenes, when we first are introduced to Indy, are so perfect: the right mix of adventure, danger, and even comedy. And really, it is so indicative of all of Indy's adventures- just when it looks like everything has gone right, he's beaten the odds, everything goes wrong and he appears to lose. I can't help myself, I catch my breath every time he replaces the idol with the bag of sand... even though I know- I know- that it it won't work and Indy will be left to run through a hail of arrows, slide under doors, and escape a giant stone rock. Only the Grail Temple has crazier booby traps!
If you ever look at the idol, it is so ridiculous. It is this giant, absurdly laughing golden face peering at Indy. It appears to be solid gold or at least must have some value if so many people are after it. It is a fertility idol which (according to Indy sources) portrays the "Chachapoyan fertility goddess, Pachamama." And if you look at the idol, it is indeed a fertility idol, as beneath the giant head, a little baby is being born. And, believe it or not it is based on a real statuette. Or at least a perceived real statuette. But more on that later.
If you remember my Ark of the Covenant post from a while back (or even, really, my Maltese Falcon post) doing prop history is basically a career. There are so many replicas and fakes and purported real props out there it is hard to know what's real and what's just a very clever fake. The Indiana Jones movies are so much about objects, and the pursuit of objects, so there is a great demand for authentic props. And where there is a demand for real props, there will be a market for clever fakes. So, as a quick disclaimer, I'll admit that I'm a little over my head. I'll include my sources below for you to check out if you want some more comprehensive history.
Apparently, there were a number of "real" idols created during production. They were hollow with (I am almost positive) glass eyes. The idol was then painted over in gold. One idol had glass eyes that apparently moved and followed Indy, those these scenes were all but cut from the final movie. The real statuettes were put in some warehouse, or lost, or were damaged, and it is anyone's guess how many authentic idols there are. All I can say is that if you think you are going to buy an idol- you better do your research.
According to art director Norman Reynolds, the idol is "very much based on a real fertility idol." This statement is only partially true on a number of levels. The idol is based on the Dumbarton Aztec idol of Tlazolteotl, the Aztec fertility goddess. Reynolds adapted the statuette to make it more picturesque for the film. For one, it is smaller so it would be easier for Indy to grab it. He also (obviously) enlarged the head so that it would look more distinctive. The statue was also gilded so that it would look more like "treasure" though, remember, all that glitters is not really gold.
However, if you dig a little deeper into the "original" Aztec (not Incan or even truly Chachapoyan) idol, you'll find that all that is old, well, isn't. According to curators and scholars, the statuette (which was acquired in the archaeologically fruitful and lucrative 19th century) does not seem completely genuine. Either it is completely unique Aztec art (possible) or it was an original statuette "modified" in Europe to make it more marketable or... (gasp) it is completely fake. When it was first written about in 1899 in France, it was lauded as one of the treasures of pre-Columbian Mexican art. It passed hands a few times before it was purchased by Robert Woods-Bliss who left it to Dumbarton Oaks, the research/estate he and his wife founded. A few decades ago, some scholars began to raise concerns, but obviously they were not loud enough to completely dissuade the filmmakers of Raiders to look elsewhere. Because, real or fake, it is extraordinary. 
Which is basically the theme with all the Indy props and even movies. Who cares if the legends are a little messy and the objects are so improbable: those films are extraordinary entertainment. They are creative and daring and fun and smart and everything that movies should be. If I can be entertained, I don't care if what's entertaining me is real or fugazi. Or based on something that might be real but probably is fake. And I will claim that the little Aztec/Incan/Spielbergian/Reynoldian idol is far more worthy of pursuit (real or not) than the little golden man that puts the Hollywood tribes on their knees in homage. But... that's just me. 
Sources (click for link)
"Intriguing Story...Stone Idol..." from The Washington Post by John Kelly

"Raiders of the Lost Ark Fertility Idols... Update 2013" from Original Prop Blog by Jason DeBord

"Raiders of the Lost Ark Fertility Idols in the Marketplace" from "Original Prop Blog" by Jason DeBord

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