Cranky’s Flickershow Reviews
By Neil Richter
7 Years in Mississippi
Today’s is a very special column. Those of you who were lucky enough to stop by for the second of three events at this year’s Black Earth film festival had the rare pleasure of witnessing Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. Yes, it is a re-make of Steven Spielberg’s classic adventure. No, it was not done by professionals. Instead, it is the realization of a seven year-long odyssey started by two 12-year-old boys with a dream and a Betamax® camera. Chris Strompolos and Eric Zala (both of whom were in attendance at the screening) were just two kids in Mississippi when they first saw Raiders. Soon afterwards, they came up with the silly idea of remaking it, shot for shot. In the mind of a 12-year-old, this doesn’t seem nearly as difficult a proposition as it actually is. Reality set in soon afterwards however, when the boys began building a paper mache replica of the famous boulder in Chris’ room—failing to realize that the finished results wouldn’t be able to fit out the door. The scattered production that took place over the following years is, in and of itself, the stuff of movies. In fact, Spielberg himself has announced that he will be making a film about the boys’ efforts.
As for the film, it is a surprisingly faithful remake, considering that the boys filmed it from memory, these being the days before dvds, video stores and Netflix. The competence and production values grow as the filmmakers get older and more confident. The epic length of the production also leads to some amusing instances in which the lead actor goes in and out of puberty within scenes. Beyond that though, the results are astonishingly skilled, considering the fact that it was made by a bunch of kids. Eric and Chris do an amazing job of recreating all of the film’s major action sequences using a variety of improvised (and exceedingly dangerous) special effects. For fire, they simply outfitted themselves in homemade ‘protective’ suits, doused themselves with alcohol (or gasoline if there was nothing else around), and lit it up. Apart from almost burning Eric’s house down, knowledge of these makeshift methods lends the famed bar-shootout a sense of queasy immediacy and danger. Another example would be the classic truck chase, which the two boys choreographed using real vehicles. The monkey? Credit here goes to Chris’ dog, Snickers. The ghosts inside the ark? Cloth in a fish tank superimposed over shot footage. That darn boulder? A fiberglass contraption finally put together with the aid of a local craftsman. If nothing else, this film is a testament to the mindblowing creativity and potential of youth. Eric and Chris began this film at an age when anything and everything is possible. To a 12-year-old boy, there is nothing you can’t do. That they were able to keep this attitude as well as the perseverance to back it up through seven years of difficulties and challenges is nothing short of amazing.
Which brings me to my main point. This is the sort of film that defies any sort of criticism. In the end, it is about far more than simply retelling a Spielberg classic. Watching this film, I felt as if I was given a window into somebody’s childhood. Its all up there on the screen: Chris getting his very first kiss while in character, the fruits of the over 600 hand-drawn storyboards put together by Eric, an entire neighborhood of kids joining together to make one dream come true. There is something both nostalgic and slightly surreal about it all.
This was increased tenfold when Eric and Chris shared many of their behind-the-scenes stories with the audience once the screening had ended. Many of them are almost too much to believe: Eric, his entire head encased in industrial plaster (they wanted to make a mask) being rushed to the hospital, lest his eyelids be ripped off by his unsuspecting friends. A hurricane washing away their makeshift boulder years after production wrapped, only to find it bobbing in a swamp three neighborhoods over. Or the final capper on the story, a personalized letter from Steven Spielberg himself, long after the boys had parted ways and moved on to their adult lives. Apparently the filmmaker was given a VHS copy of the re-make by horror director Eli Roth (Hostel, Cabin Fever), who had himself gotten a hold of it through a series of instances too complicated to repeat here.
When it all boils down, Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation is actually about the insatiable desire to create that lies within any artist. Some people are willing to do anything to make their vision a reality. Eric and Chris are two such people. What a wonderful movie to show at a festival like this, where young, mostly amateur filmmakers from all over come to show their work in front of an audience. Here it is, untapped and raw. Its not always pretty. Its not always perfect, but its real. People like Eric and Chris are the reason we have movies. They’re the reason I write this column. I just wish I had thanked them for that while they were in town.