A lot of people thought the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull jumped the shark when Indy survived an atomic bomb detonation by climbing into a refrigerator. But I think it was when he fell into quicksand and Shia LaBeouf tossed him a snake to pull himself out. Fucking, Shia.
Anyway, I understand that the entire Indiana Jones project is, in part, an homage to the movie serials of the 30s and that a quicksand scene is a prerequisite, like a car chase or a cliffhanger – a literal cliffhanger, not the term of art. And it says it all right there — all of us in the storymaking trade go for a “cliffhanger” but no one has ever tried to ramp up their narrative with a slow sinking feeling. Except maybe Sartre.
Cliffhangers, quicksand — it’s just too much earth science for this high school dropout. But quicksand has been coming up lately. At least for me. I admit I’m late to the party, since much of the media on quicksand’s slow sandy crawl from the celluloid bog to the popular imagination apparently began earlier in the decade. And it wasn’t through the front door of mainstream media either — rather the unlatched rear window of podcasts and fetish films.
Is it weird yet? Nope. Keep going.
I first discovered quicksand’s gritty resurgence through a RadioLab episode. Producer Soren Wheeler spoke with Slate columnist Dan Engber about his huge piece, Terra Infirma, the Rise and Fall of Quicksand. Engber was researching the relative decline of quicksand as a cultural preoccupation, when an Internet search led him to a discovery he didn’t expect:
Dan: Within a minute, I discover the quicksand fetish community.
Soren: The quicksand fetish…
Soren: Like fetish-fetish? Like sex fetish?
I’m just going to let that sink in (ba dum tss!) but you should know that Engber’s encounter with this strange but fascinating world was echoed a couple of years ago, when the Vice magazine staff went to Los Angeles to meet a community of quicksand fetishists and made a 20-minute documentary about the experience – including a visit to a quicksand fetish film set.
Now, it’s weird, right? Not yet – proceed.
I should say here that I’m not a quicksand-man. As a card-carrying member of Gen X, hot lava was the geological terror du jour when I was growing up. Every tract-home carpet was a lava pit. And though lava is hot, it’s not erotic.
Quicksand? Never really came up. In fact, the only quicksand I really remember back then came in the virtual form of Pitfall!, a game on my Uncle Mike’s Intellivision.
The side-scrolling video game came out in 1982, a year after Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was undoubtedly an inspiration. I have no idea why it took Lucas and Spielberg 27 years to come ’round to quicksand themselves. I guess they were too busy inflicting their hero with snakes and Nazis. Since they finally combined snakes and quicksand, we should probably anticipate snakes, Nazis and quicksand in a sequel.
Now, this is where it gets weird.
The only artist who ever attempted snakes, Nazis, and quicksand in a single work was David Bowie. Because that’s what happens when you’re David Bowie.
Dig the lyrics to “Quicksand” on his 1971 album Hunky Dory:
I'm living in a silent film
Portraying Himmler’s sacred realm
Of dream reality
Should I kiss the viper's fang?
Or herald loud the death of Man
I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain't got the power anymore
Himmler, a viper, and quicksand. The trifecta. Holy shit.
So, yeah, David Bowie is pretty much Indiana Jones’ worst nightmare. (And I’m not even going to mention that Bowie’s original surname was Jones — what does it all mean!?).
“Quicksand” is “sugar-coated poison,” writes Chris O’Leary, author of Rebel Rebel: All the Songs of David Bowie from '64 to '76. On his blog Pushing Ahead of the Dame: David Bowie, Song by Song, O’Leary observes that the song is “a lushly-arranged, lovely tune about despair and delusion, with Nazi references, and whose chorus tells its listeners to give up all hope.”
And later: “The lyric suggests that life’s not only an illusion but one whose purpose will never be revealed, regardless of your religion, your guru or your imagination. ‘Knowledge comes with death’s release’ is its only positive statement.”
I have to admit, the aforementioned sugarcoating definitely helped the poison pill go down in my case. I never delved too deeply because I love Bowie and habitually chow on these early word salads, avoiding anything I can’t reconcile, like so many beets.
Bowie himself summed the song up in the original liner notes like so:
“The chain reaction of moving around throughout the bliss and then the calamity of America produced this epic of confusion. Anyway, with my esoteric problems I could have written it in Plainview — or Dulwich.”
This makes even less sense than the song itself. But let’s throw Bowie a bone. And Shia can throw him a snake. And if I don't explain what you ought to know, you can tell me all about it on the next Bardo.
I'm sinking in the quicksand of my thought
And I ain't got the power anymore...