Remember serials? I don't, because I'm too young, and by the time I began going to the movies, it was already the practice for cinemas to stick to single, self-contained, feature-length fare. With the way screenings are arranged today, scheduled so that both theater owners and studios can get as much money from as many showings as possible, there's just no room for any accompanying shorts, especially the kind that don't end in a conclusive manner.
I'd probably be okay with being left out of that experience from the moviegoing past, but each time another Indiana Jones movie is released, I can't help but think I'm at least a little less appreciative of George Lucas' intent than some of the older folk in the audience. When Lucas thought up the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, he partly meant the film as homage to the serials he remembered from his childhood.
Yet Raiders didn't end with a cliffhanger, as most serials had on a weekly basis. And with the third sequel to that film, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, arriving in theaters this week, I still wonder why at least two installments couldn't have been connected with the serializing device. Lucas had already somewhat shown us, through the uncertain ending of The Empire Stikes Back and continuation/resolution beginning of Return of the Jedi, that it could be done. Plenty of modern franchise films include a suggestion of sequel, whether it's Batman Begins ending with a hint that The Joker will show up in Part II (now known as this summer's The Dark Knight) or Iron Man establishing the title character's possible continuation in both a second installment (2010's Iron Man 2) and a spin-off (2011's The Avengers). And occasionally a well-planned trilogy, such as Lucas' Star Wars, will include the actual cliffhanger device in order to bridge parts two and three. In addition to the Empire-Jedi linkage, we've more recently seen an uncertainty-resolution connection in Lucas' Star Wars prequels, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix trilogy, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and, most perfectly, in the Back to the Future films.
Cliffhangers work the same now as they did back in the time of serials. They ensure that the audience has to come back for the next installment to satisfy their narrative needs. I still have memories of sitting in the theater watching Back to the Future Part II when suddenly the plot paused and the "To be continued..." titles came up on the screen. It was so frustrating to be interrupted like that and be left with so many questions, but you know I was first in line when Back to the Future Part III arrived in theaters the next summer.
One practice, though, which I think began with Back to the Future and is still done today, slightly messes up the point of the cliffhangers: showing a trailer for the next installment at the end of the current (typically downbeat) episode. Of course, because there's less uncertainty in today's cliffhangers -- rarely is our hero seemingly about to plunge to his death -- it's more acceptable to reveal the kind of spoilers modern trailers show us, and obviously they help to pump us up for the finale. But in a way, they also alter our experience of the serial-like storytelling.
Speaking of altering the experience, I'm sure everyone is aware that many of the old serials are available now on DVD. And because I'm unfamiliar with them, I've often thought about adding them to my rental queue. But I always decide against the idea, because what's the point? The context is lost on home video. Sure, I could watch one episode and then patiently hold off watching the next installment until a week later, but it's still not the same since I don't have to wait.
I liken the experience of watching old movie serials (as I imagine it was) to being an addict of TV's Lost. When I first got into the show, I watched the first season on DVD almost completely consecutively. Later, when I began watching the serialized series on television on a weekly basis, the experience was much, much different. There's an excitement that comes with the anxiousness of having to wait for answers and plot continuation that you don't get when watching something all at once. In fact, as of this column's publication, I still haven't had time to watch the past week's episode of Lost, and it's killing me -- in a pleasurable way, though.
I would definitely pay $5 to watch Lost on the big screen, at the movie theater, and that's an idea that's been teased for the past few years. But the studios or the cinema chains could easily produce something similar that was more exclusive to theaters. And couldn't it be a big enough hit to bring audiences back to the movies each week, to see the latest installment of an action-packed serial ahead of whatever new release was out? You'd think so, and like me you might dream so, but you'd be wrong.
What would happen if one week a large percentage of the audience missed the latest episode? They probably wouldn't show up the next week, because they'd no longer be as invested in the flow of the series. It's the same reason that serialized television like Lost, Heroes, etc. probably wouldn't be as successful were it not for all the alternative ways these shows can be watched. Nobody has to fit a TV show into his or her schedule anymore, and so nobody has to worry about missing that week's episode and being left behind. If you don't watch Lost on Thursday night, you can watch it later thanks to DVR, ABC.com, iTunes or the eventual DVD set.
Similarly, if you don't get to the theater one summer for the conclusion of Pirates of the Caribbean, you can wait a few months for any number of ancillary formats to watch it in. The same would likely happen if cinemas tried bringing serials back. There'd probably be another way to view them down the line. Meanwhile, only a few of us who really appreciate the theatrical experience enough would actually show up to the same cinema on a weekly basis in order to get our regular serial kick.
But is there any other way to reintroduce or reinvent the serial experience in the theater? Part of me wishes that Kingdom of the Crystal Skull were long enough to require an intermission. And that just before the intermission, Indy and son were in a jeep that was flying downward into a ravine -- clearly to their deaths. Then, following the intermission (during which we all bought more popcorn, because it's that exciting of a movie,) the action would continue with the revelation that Indy and son had actually jumped out just before the jeep ran off the cliff. Unbelievable, sure, but better homage to the cheats of the old serials, right?