Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The holy grail of props

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Grail diary from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What movie prop would you love to own?”

Twenty years ago, when I first saw Jurassic Park, the moment that stuck with me the most wasn’t the raptor attack or even Jeff Goldblum’s creepy laugh: it was the park brochure that appears briefly onscreen before Laura Dern tramples it into the mud. We see it for little more than a second, but the brevity of its role is exactly what struck me. A prop artist—or, more likely, a whole team of them—had painstakingly written, typeset, and printed a tangible piece of ephemera for the sake of that fleeting gag. In a way, it seemed to stand in for the unseen efforts that lie behind every frame of film, those invisible touches of craft and meticulous labor that add up to make the story a little more real. Looking back, I recognize how showy that shot really is: it wasn’t captured by accident, even if it’s staged like a throwaway, and it calls attention to itself in a degree that most good props probably shouldn’t. And my reaction makes me feel uncomfortably like the hypothetical moviegoers that Pauline Kael imagined being impressed by Doctor Zhivago: “The same sort of people who are delighted when a stage set has running water or a painted horse looks real enough to ride.”

But it’s still delightful. I’ve always been fascinated by movie props, perhaps because they feel like the purest expression of the glorious waste of filmmaking: an object is lovingly crafted and aged by hand simply to be photographed, or to sit out of focus in the background of a single shot. My appreciation of the Lord of the Rings trilogy went up another notch after I watched hours of production featurettes last winter, many of which focused on the prop department. I learned, for instance, that the artisans who made the hundreds of sets of chain mail wore down their own fingerprints in the process, and that Theoden’s armor included a golden sun stamped on the inside of the breastplate, where no one but Bernard Hill would ever see it. Each touch is imperceptible, but in the aggregate, they add up to a vision of a world that remains totally convincing: even if we quibble over Peter Jackson’s narrative choices, it’s impossible not to be impressed by his determination to build up so much detail before an audience even existed to see it—if they ever noticed it at all. Props are designed to serve the story, not to dominate it, and I’d be inclined to call it a thankless task if I weren’t so profoundly grateful for the result.

Brochure from Jurassic Park

Maybe because I’m an author, I’ve always been especially taken by props that involve written text, whether they’re John Doe’s notebooks from Seven or the obsessively detailed newspapers of the future that we glimpse in Children of Men. I think I find such props so fascinating because they feel like a reversal of the way words and filmed images naturally relate: if a screenplay serves as the engine or blueprint of the movie as a whole, these words exist only for their visual properties, which can only be convincing if someone has taken the time to treat them as if they were meant to be read in their own right. When a movie falls short here, it can pull you out of the story even more drastically than most comparable mistakes: my favorite example is from The Godfather Part III, which prominently displays a headline from The Wall Street Journal with text that seems to have been copied and pasted from a computer instruction manual. (These days, movies seem aware of how much every shot is likely to be scrutinized, so they’re more likely to take the time to write something up for the sake of viewers and their pause buttons, like Captain America’s to-do list.)

As far as I’m concerned, the greatest prop of them all has to be the grail diary in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. We see it clearly for maybe a total of thirty seconds, but those few glimpses were enough to fuel a lifetime’s worth of daydreams: I sometimes think I owe half of my inner life to Henry Jones’s battered little notebook. As it happens, you can read the whole thing online, or some simulacrum of it, thanks to the efforts of such prop replica masters as Indy Magnoli, whose work goes on eBay for nine hundred dollars or more—and I can’t say that I wasn’t tempted, years ago, to pick up one for myself. Recently, the original prop went up for auction at Christie’s, and while I’ve love to be able to tell you that I was the one who shelled out $30,000 for it, sadly, it wasn’t me. Still, I’m probably better off. Up close, a prop rarely has the same magic that it had in the scant seconds you saw it onscreen; an object that seemed unbearably precious can turn out to be made of pasteboard and hot glue. If we believed in it for the brief interval of time in which it appeared on camera, it succeeded. Which is true of everything about the movies. And if we dreamed about it afterward, well, then it belongs to us all the more.

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