Saturday, March 19, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part XII: Adventure has a name


Look, I know.  All right?  I know.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz, and George Lucas
With Harrison Ford (Dr. Henry "Indiana" Jones, Jr.), Ke Huy Quan (Short Round), Kate Captshaw (Willie Scott), D.R. Nanayakkara (The Village Priest), Roy Chiao (Lao Tse), Roshan Seth (Prime Minister Chattar Lal), Raj Singh (Maharajah Zalim of Pankot), and Amrish Puri (Mola Ram)

Spoiler alert: you may well have seen this a hundred timesbut you have at least seen it once

Shanghai, 1935.  We reunite with our hero by going into his past, a year before the soul-shattering events of his adventure in Raiders of the Lost Ark.  And so, we catch up with Indiana Jones as he sits down to deal with a trio of Chinese gangster-businessmen, led by the patently-nefarious Lao Tse.  They have met to negotiate the exchange of a diamond for the cremated remains of Emperor Nurhaci.  (Nurhaci, apparently, does not belong in a museum.)  Things quickly go wrong, which is why Indy takes a hostage, Lao Tse's expatriate American singer Willie Scott.  In the confused melee to follow, Indy and Willie make an escape, rescued by Indy's juvenile associate, Short Round, and they make it all the way to the airport—where they embark upon one of Lao Tse's own airplanes.  This doesn't work out, and the pilots, operating under their boss' orders, bail out over the high Himalayas, leaving Indy, Willie, and Short Round to perish in the fiery crash that follows.

Of course, by a desperate miracle, our hero and his friends survive.  Shaken but still breathing, then, they make their way to the plain below, where they are taken in by the friendly inhabitants of a village somewhere in northern India.  They learn of the suffering of the village, brought about by the re-emergence of a powerful cult centered upon the nearby Pankot Palace.  The marauding nobles came into the village, and stole their sacred rock, the Sankara Stone.  More importantly, they stole their children.

Our great white hope is troubled by this developmentbut only with the promise of "fortune of glory" does he undertake the quest laid out before him.  Thus do Indy, Willie, and Short Round venture to Pankot, and once there, they get more than they bargained for, coming face-to-face with all the evils of India, both prosaic and frankly unimaginable: bad food; peremptory maharajahs; lethal assassins; a near-sex experience (that one was really close); oceans of bugs; and, beneath the palace, a Lovecraftian heart-ripping cult of human sacrifice.  Devoted to Kali, led by the impressively monstrous priest Mola Ram, and dedicated to using an army of mind-controlled child slaves to dig through the catacombs and caves, these neo-Thuggees seek to unearth the other Sankara Stones which—as Mola Ram explains to Indy as he tortures and brainwashes him—shall give them the power to smash the God of Abraham and rule the world.

This, as you can imagine, would be bad.

All right, best we get it out of the way: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is racist as fuck.  It is racist in its broad strokes: it is a story about Indians where the Indians are, almost uniformly, reduced to humiliatingly submissive peasants or active agents of unadulterated evil.  It is racist in many of the smaller details of its construction, notably in the infamous banquet scene (which I love too much to hate, probably almost solely due to childhood nostalgia).  It's racist in the resolution to its conflict, which comes not even at the hands of our hero, but by the British-led Indian Army (this is a second Indy movie in a row where, if you examine it closely, nothing he does actually matters).  And it's even racist in its Goddamned landscape shots, specifically when the series motif of the "Indy Map" dissolves against a picture of the Great Wall of China... as he flies toward India (in a bit of geographic ignorance akin to showing a photograph of Manhattan while your character goes from D.C. to Veracruz).

On that note, however, I'll half-heartedly defend it as not being especially racist against the Chinese, outside of that cartographic mistake: yes, triads; yes, Short Round knows a smattering of kung fu; yes, Short Round speaks in somewhat broken English with a thick accent (the accent, of course, belongs entirely to young Ke Huy Quan); and, yes, Short Round is subordinated sharply to Indy.  On the other hand, Short Round is a child sidekick, so he's bound to be subordinate; Short Round is the best child sidekick; and I have distinct memories from my own childhood of identifying, rather freely, with the partner that Indy obviously cares for and respects.

This could lead us directly into a discussion of how Temple is also insanely sexist, but we'll get to that later on.

More than anything, though, Temple is racist in its very narrative fundamentals: it is a blisteringly old school tale of a White Savior.  Hell, scratch that: it's the White Savior narrative, probably the only one that maintains any traction at all in respectable civilization.

It's thus hard to imagine how to fix Temple in this regard: its racism isn't a spice, it's an ingredient.  It is, maybe, fancifully orientalist enough that the sting could've been taken out by setting it in a completely fictional country, rather than any part of India (that surely has its problems, too, but at least a more overt fabulism might've removed it from its more pernicious "these real people suck" school of orientalist fiction).  But they didn't do that.  Instead, they tied Temple to real Indian history, while punching it up for the sake of fun (with the Thuggee Cult), as well as to real Indian religion, depicted with purposeful sacrilege in a way that the Judeo-Christian-themed entries in the Indy canon don't quite approach.  (Indeed, there's a whole generation of Americans whose sole knowledge of the Hindu faith comes from this very movie.)

As far as my dumb ass knows, this is an accurate depiction of Shaivism.

If it is not exactly malicious, it is still pretty damn racist—and so I'm probably going directly to hell when I die, because Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is also something like my third or fourth favorite film of all time, and the other three Indy films, although I love each and every one of them, aren't even really that close.

It is, in any event, almost undeniably Indy's best-made adventure.  It even competes forcefully enough with Jaws that I find no difficulty in saying that it's Steven Spielberg's best-made film—without any limitation to a mere franchise.  Temple, and I hope you agree, is a work gifted with a virtually unparalleled mastery of mood, managing its (many) emotional transitions not just with grace, but damn-near invisibility.  (Plainly, childhood familiarity helps a lot—but I really do think it's more than that.)

Above all, and to keep the superlative train rolling, Temple is my favorite horror film, and while it's no new observation to say that Temple belongs more in the tradition of horror than action cinema, it's a description that bears repeating.  (And Spielberg himself—in the midst of practically disowning the damned thing—agrees.)  Born out of bad years for both its principal creators, it's a horror film true—indeed, it's a horror film of the Gothic mold, only this time, the Gothic horror is set in a haunted palace of sufficient sprawl to host several action scenes—with its two adventure modules bolted onto its front and back ends.  I aver that the seams here are very well-hidden, but the middle hour of Temple—everything from the dinner scene onward, or perhaps from the moment that the escaped child slave makes it back to his village, only to die in Indy's arms—is dedicated to an unrelentingly dark tone, leavened (and only partially) by its attempts at humor with poor, shrieking, womanly Willie.

Spielberg and George Lucas brought Raiders' cinematographer Douglas Slocombe back for this second installment, and if Slocombe's reverence for the sacred was one of the major driving forces behind the imagery of Raiders, in Temple he breaks through completely into an unalloyed and single-minded evocation of pure religious terror.  Consider the climax of Raiders; the midsection of Temple is like that, but stretched out to ten times its length.  It is, overall, some of the best cinematography I could name: there's scarcely a shot in the whole movie that looks tossed-off, and my list of the most memorable visuals from the Indy series (or even from Spielberg's whole canon) would be insufferably tilted toward shots from Temple.  (Leaving aside the most famous images, the command of lighting, color, and dimensionality in the scene where the assassin emerges—for all intents and purposes—from out of a painting is simply amazing.)

Thanks to Slocombe's immaculate lens and Spielerg's dead-serious staging, when we witness Mola Ram put his hand into his sacrificial victim, and tear out his still-beating heart—as we watch the still-living man lowered into a pit of lava—it is not likely to ever occur to us that this is overwrought and, frankly, cartoonish.

But Slocombe is aided mightily here by Norman Reynolds' successor in production design, the experienced fantasist Elliott Scott—and, as in its photography, Temple is one of the most perfectly-designed films of all time, virtually out-Adaming Bond's Ken Adam in the overwhelming scope of its cultist underworld.  Spielberg's editor Michael Kahn naturally returned (Lucas evidently also had a hand in the cutting), and their work is exactly as dedicated to deepening the sense of terrifying awe within the scenario as Slocombe's or Scott's.  (The heart-ripping montage, tellingly, is bound to the rhythms of two competing prayers.)  Together, the five lend a combined intensity and grandeur to their horror that has rarely been seen anywhere but here.  That infernal lighting, the controlled panic of the editing, all those gross, tactile details on the sets—it is not too much to say that there is nothing but perfection in this film, at least from the moment that Short Round, rather optimistically, confuses the cockroaches under his feet for cookies.

Incidentally, if we're talking about Temple's adherence to Indy formula—a formula codified in this film, even though it is (rather strangely) considered to be a departure from it—can we talk about how unbearably disgusting its rendition of the Creepy-Crawly Scene is?  Snakes, rats, CGI scorpions—I can take or leave them.  But, no matter how often I've seen it, this will knock me on my ass every time.

Composer John Williams is, as usual, among the most essential members of Spielberg's team.  It's Williams, after all—far more than the occasional feints toward humor—who keeps the funhouse darkness of Temple from ever quite becoming really dour.  Yet in his music there is just as much urgency, if not quite as much terror, as there is in every other aspect of the film; and only in a career like Williams' is it difficult to determine if Temple is his best work, or if Empire and Jedi (and, perhaps, The Last Crusade) are actually a little better.  It's outstandingly good nevertheless, the most layered and complex of his four Indy scores, with its best secondary motif (the one that rises up fully in the composition, "Slave Children's Crusade").  It grants the action a more militaristic, perseverant progression, particularly in counterpoint to the unabashed triumphalism of Indy's hero theme.  (It is typically undercut, but to good effect, by a happier, whistling tune in moments of victory.)  Meanwhile, Temple keeps that iconic theme to a minimum—quite fittingly, given that, in Temple, Indy comes closer than in any of his other films to total physical and moral destruction.

But then, he practically starts there.

It is not at all clear to me why Lucas, when he was spitballing ideas for the new Indy adventure, conceived of Temple as a prequel.  I imagine that it was a way to sideline Marion, though this seems like a ridiculously convoluted strategy; so perhaps it was a way to explain Indy's blithe treatment of the supernatural, although in point of fact he seems significantly more open to the idea of magic than he does in Raiders, and all this really winds up doing is mildly breaking his insistence upon the mundane nature of the Ark one year later.  (I'm rather fond of the buried theme in the Indy films, though—that the original trilogy is about Indy discovering, one by one, that every religion is true.)  But, perhaps, it was because he wanted to ground his hero with feet of clay, even more firmly than Raiders had done.

You see, half the charm of Dr. Jones is that he's a jerk, but only in Temple is he truly objectionable: nearly his first act in the whole film is to threaten an innocent woman's life—he subsequently kidnaps her, and if she complains, in my opinion she's taking it rather well, given that she's being held captive.  But, then, something happens to this amoral graverobber over the course of the film—in fact, it's already in progress by the time Indy has accepted the villagers' mission, although he's clearly tricked himself into believing he's going to take the stones for himself.  A new heroism, one that obviously confuses our poor soldier of fortune, crystallizes within one of the finest bits of storytelling in Spielberg's body of work: not strictly silent—it relies, in huge part, upon the sounds of whips and screams—it comes when Indy has snatched the stones from the skull idol, and it looks for all the world like he could escape this temple of doom, scot free.  But he hears the sounds of slavery in the mines beneath him, and he looks up—and we look up—at one of the most upsetting and narrative-laden set details in any movie (let alone one I was allowed to watch at age five): the flayed skins of children, pinned up like trophies, in the rafters of this hellish cathedral.

Credit Harrison Ford for more than just destroying his spine in service of Temple's stunts: we see on the man's face the conflict, and the final victory of the righteous spirit that still lives within Indy.  In other words, Temple is the Indy film with the most complete and satisfying character arc for its hero, even if it does conclude at around the hour mark.  (There is, of course, also the deepening of Indy's relationship with Short Round still to come, a legitimately sweet miniature arc that satisfies Spielberg's need for father issues in every last one of his films; and, naturally, we finish with the creation of an untraditional but complete nuclear family—though, as I'm sure you know, the only family to emerge from Temple that outlasted the film's own credits were the Spielbergs themselves.)

Wrapping up, it's worth making quick reference to Temple's more obvious joys, the gloriously huge action setpieces that take up the first twenty minutes and last half hour, essentially the majority of the film remaining, outside of its terrifying middle.  The final sequence—really a collection of three action scenes—is remarkable for how gingerly it lifts us out of horror, moving from the liberation of the children, to the roller-coaster mine cart ride that perfectly balances visceral thrills with Indy's typically broad physical humor, to the absolutely unforgettable scene on the bridge, which even Temple's detractors recognize as one of the franchise's very finest moments, both a flawless suspense setpiece and a climax that fittingly (even if it's not an intentional metaphor) sees Indy's newfound heart remain where it belongs, in his chest.

But let's cast our eyes back instead to the beginning, which is not discussed nearly as often (or in such glowing terms), though I love it as much as anything in the film: what other movie that trafficks in such gore also opens with such a beautifully-choregraphed and lovingly-filmed musical number, and somehow makes it feel like it actually belongs there?  One of my favorite shots in Temple (but, like I said, they're all my favorite shot) is the very first, tracking into the dragon's mouth—not long before we enter that completely nondiegetic dance sequence, which suggests that everything to come will have the texture of a dream (or a nightmare).  Anything goes, and even though I've seen it dozens of times, this shocking opening gambit always catches me surprise.

The amount of material that isn't perfect in Temple (at least, upon its own problematic terms) is practically negligible.  But, as I promised, we do have to deal with Willie—consensus pick for the worst female lead in an Indy movie, or, possibly, any movie.  (However, Kate Capshaw herself has been beaten up long enough: she offers a technically proficient performance that is clearly exactly what Spielberg and Lucas asked of her.)

So: I don't know if it's that I enjoy her introduction so much that I give her the kind of credit that lasts throughout a whole feature, or if I simply find it easy to comprehend her whining, screaming reaction to the events of the film, but... I like Willie.  At the same time, it's all but impossible not to recognize Willie's conception as the result of two men who must have been on the edge of an outright hatred of women—which, in fact, they were, due to personal problems they'd let bleed into their work.  (This is more Lucas, I think; either way, whatever issues Spielberg had must have been resolved to Capshaw's satisfaction, at the very least.)  Whoever authored it, however, she is a devastatingly negative stereotype, and every moment that doesn't work (or almost doesn't work) is the direct result of Indy kidnapping her in the first scene, a turn which—honestly—doesn't even make any real sense.  (Nor does her going with him to Pankot.)  And so the travel to the palace is a little pacey, mostly because of Willie's kvetching; and although I can't quite bring myself to even dislike it, the belligerent screwball seduction scene is the one major exception to that aforementioned mastery of mood.

But, please, let's give Willie the credit she's long been due: because if that were me in the centipede-filled corridor—and probably if it were you—do you know what happens to Indy and Short Round?  They die.  They just fucking die.

Score:  10/10


  1. I can always count on you to have opinions that skew wildly from the popular consensus, and that's why you're an actually interesting blogger. Keep on following your heart, Hunter!

    1. Thanks! I think!

      Is it that out of step though? I know Temple has always had it detractors; and, further, it's the man's most controversial effort, at least outside of Munich, which is largely just mis-read, and that One Scene in Schindler's List, which many smart people have found intolerably exploitative. And I am aware that since Temple makes less than zero effort not to be offensive, it's taken on the status of an embarrassment in progressive circles--which is, of course, not improper. My girlfriend certainly hates it. (Personally, I still think Close Encounters is more blithely offensive.)

      Still, I thought it had been reevaluated lately on the strength of its craft, especially viz. Crystal Skull. Oh well. Hopefully I won't ever sink to Armond White levels of half-mad contrarianism!

    2. No no no, this is hardly a slight. A lot of people seem to hate this one because that's the cool thing to do, but I can always count on you to view a film by its own merits rather than comparison to others or listening to what other people say. It's not contrarianism, you just feel how you feel and that's that.

  2. I just rewatched Temple of Doom last night (after living in South Asia for almost a year), and I was torn between the truly authentic cultural details, and the (dare I use this phrase?) hilarious racism. Anyway, your review coincides pretty solidly with my feelings for the film, and I look forward to following your blog! Also, I totally agree with your last paragraph. Game over. (Although, it speaks a lot to Kate Capshaw's dedication to the film, no?)

    1. Thanks! Good to have you aboard!

      And, yeah, it really does--the making-of featurette that comes with the set really drives home what a trouper she was. Also that the shooting of Temple of Doom would probably violate most contemporary health codes.

  3. Willie Scott kicks ass, she's like Miss Piggy in the flesh. I think you've misread her being "held captive" by Dr. Jones. She's tagging along because she REALLY likes him and is pulling the "admit it, you're head over heels over me" bluff that Han Solo does.

    It's the movie's longest running joke that Willie is way more into Indy than Indy is into her. Notice that Willie gets her most angry when Indy acts as though he's simply obliging her: because, well, he kind of is. It's why at the end she smiles and relents so easily when Indy pulls her in with his whip; she doesn't want her presence taken for granted, she wants to know that she's wanted, and Indy's finally saying so (in his own way).

    There's definitely a possible "women sure love playing mind games, am I right?" reading you could make with this scenario, but it does become apparent Indy's playing a little bit of the game himself (he could've just dumped her at any point if he really wanted) and I think there's some meta-ness going on in witnessing Harrison Ford on the receiving end of the Han Solo romantic playbook.

    1. Oh yeah, this was written at probably my maximum "I shall view this as a documentary of literal events that have immediate and knowable consequences in the real world" stridency, and I've mellowed in the years since as I've come to realize, even though I was never the worst about it, it's an arid way to approach art. It's not a good relationship manual, but it of course isn't trying to be. It's a fun romantic fantasy, inflected by the performances as you say. At this point, being a lot more familiar with the 30s styles it's riffing on, I'm even slightly jazzed by the dopey sex comedy parts before they fall into a bin of roaches.