Friday, May 28, 2010

Steven Spielberg: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Steven Spielberg had already plundered his own work as much as his influences by the time he made his first sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Jaws not only served to transport the entire plot of Duel into the ocean but took the sound cue of the "dying" truck for the shark; E.T. reworked Close Encounters of the Third Kind from a child's perspective. That Temple of Doom should bear a resemblance to the director's past work is naturally obvious, but the most visible reference may not be the one you think.

The first scene, the film's most suspenseful and most successfully comedic, takes place in a Shanghai nightclub that looks suspiciously like the raucous party sequence from 1941 (itself vaguely reminiscent of the centerpiece of Tati's Playtime). As with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Temple opens with a double cross, as everyone's favorite adventurer/tenure-draining absentee professor delivers the ashes of a Chinese emperor to a client who swindles Jones out of his payment of a large diamond by poisoning his drink and offering the antidote in lieu of payment. The constant use of the Lazy Susan rotating objects around the table and the quick cuts of weapons being readied by the gangsters ratchets up suspense, while the ultimate explosion of the situation plays out in the sort of grandiose comedy Spielberg failed to capture with the film this sequence recalls.

However, even the set pieces subtly lay out the difference between Raiders and its successor. Raiders's first big special effect was a giant rolling boulder that chases the protagonist and nearly crushes him; in Temple, Jones hides behind an equally outsized gong that rolls along the floor blocking our hero from Thompson machine gunfire. It's funny, but it underlines the split in sophistication: the boulder, a three-dimensional object, threatened its hero, while the gong, a 2-D disc exists not behind the protagonist pushing him but beside him where it is no threat. I doubt anyone believed that Indy would have died in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but suspense is a necessity in the booby trap-laden adventure realm, and Temple of Doom -- all of the Indy sequels, really -- never capture the thrills of the original because of scenarios like this, ones that place the hero just to the side of danger so he can more easily quip at its expense rather than in a situation where he might truly be tested.

Indeed, with a sequence placed just after this opening involving surviving a jump from a plane without a parachute by inflating a raft in midair and another depicting a cheesy (but, in fairness, occasionally riveting) mine cart chase, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom exaggerates the already cartoony elements of the Saturday morning serials Spielberg watched and loved as a child into outright farce. This is of course intentional, as no one with the director's storytelling ability could have worked very far into production without seeing this movie taking shape as a cartoon, but Temple of Doom's chief shortcoming is the feeling it exudes of wanting to be a more postmodern take on the material. Replacing the suspense of the first film are images and objects of full-on horror that clash with its sillier moments; had Spielberg and Harrison Ford pushed Indy just a bit further in the aloof, separated direction the character moved for this film, our hero might have provided a more ironic counterpoint for the outlandish ethnocentrism on display. Instead, he looks bemused (sometimes amusingly so) as he stands in the middle of an idiotic display, the sane man locked in the madhouse.

After all, both of his companions are buffoons. One is Willie (Kate Capshaw), a famous American singer performing for some reason (a reason I don't care to know in this intentionally goofy movie) in that Shanghai nightclub on a long-term basis who not so much joins Indy on his quest as constantly drags him down like a manicured, pampered albatross that rises from the dead to peck and squawk at Indy's neck. Spielberg wanted the complete opposite of Marion Ravenwood, who was competent and strong (until the actual story kicked in and she became a damsel, at least), so Willie is nightmarishly stupid and entitled compared to the abrasive and compelling love interest that preceded her. Willie serves only to act like a bimbo in every situation, and her presence begins to grate before she's even finished delivering her first lines. Jones' other pal is Short Round who, much to my consternation, is a child. Worse, he is a child designed solely to be a wisecracking young cad, in the model that is not funny, has never been funny nor shall ever be funny. (The two exceptions to this rule, in the entirety of cinema, are Jackie Coogan in The Kid and Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon. That's an average of one per half-century.) Short Round is the second most clever character in the film, which says more about the too-broad brushstrokes with which screenwriters Willard Huyck, Gloria Katz and Spielberg's buddy George Lucas paint the people than the believability of Jonathan Ke Quan's performance, which had no hope of being anything other than a groanworthy spectacle thanks to the material he's given.

Technically a prequel -- only in a temporal sense, not a narrative one -- Temple of Doom places the hero and his team in India, or a version of it. There is no grounding of reality for this depiction of the second most populous country in the world, and Spielberg's research appears to have gone no further than watching Michael Powell films. The obvious connection is, of course, Black Narcissus, what with a British captain (himself looking more than a little like Roger Livesey in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp) presiding over the lavish Pankot Palace, a cloistered abode where the only wealth of the nation lies and colors the occupiers' view of a country they do not truly understand -- to use modern parlance, they never leave the 'green zone.' But there is even a hint of The Tales of Hoffmann in here, as the two unlikely partners share a common goddess, Kali, the dancing death deity personified in one of Hoffmann's vignettes and the subject of brutal cult worship in the bowels of the Indian palace here. In fact, both uses of Kali are blatantly sexual, from the lithe dancing in Powell's film to the penetrative, literally heart-grabbing ritual conducted above a swirling lava pit.

The difference is that Powell, a lifelong and unapologetic Tory, painted his dramatization of India in Black Narcissus as an attack on itself, its own stereotypes proof that the British did not fully understand the nation they nevertheless subjugated and forced its own culture upon. Meanwhile, Spielberg who, for all the love he has received from everyone for making WWII en vogue again, is the image of the "Jew-run, leftist media" that fundamentalist Christians use to scare their children into eating vegetables and agreeing to homeschooling, creates this broadly offensive pastiche of cheap stereotypes born of older movies. This is not to say that Spielberg is deliberately putting forward a racist view -- for all of the offense of scenes like the warped dinner party with eyeball soup and "chilled monkey brains," such moments are too dumb to really get under the skin -- but that he cared more for feeling like a kid again than telling an interesting, suspenseful and witty story, as he did with the first film, which frankly has its own racial issues that I feel are also valid, if overstated. (It's interesting to note, however, that, for all the deliberate use of old-school effects like matte paintings and sound-stage over location shooting, some of Spielberg and George Lucas' trickery was the result of being refused the right to film in India because the government found the script racist.)

The overriding conclusion to take away from Temple of Doom is not only that Spielberg should have stuck to his own mantra of not making sequels for his work but also that he clearly did not fully learn his lesson from 1941, a more ambitious picture that nevertheless revealed how blaring comedy at deafening decibels was just a technological way of fatally overselling the joke. Temple of Doom has damn better effects than those found in 1941, but those effects create an odd split between the darkness of the mise-en-scène and the goofy meaninglessness of how that mise-en-scène is ultimately conveyed. Spielberg is still talented at choreographing jokes visually, such as Willie screaming to an Indy she doesn't realize is fighting for his life that, "This is the night you let me slip through your fingers" only to cut to an obvious but cheeky shot of Indy reaching in vain for the door to get her help. But he still cannot place dialogue longer than the briefest quips into his films without drowning them in the grandiose style of his direction. Besides, many of his sight gags are just too broad, such as Willie struggling to get on an elephant while a gaggle of village women look on, mouths agape as if amazed they allowed themselves to be cinematically represented in such a way.

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom has its moments, and it definitely succeeds in its unspoken goal, which is to establish the hero as the new James Bond (Bond even took directly from the film's scene of a bad guy being sucked into and crushed by giant rollers in not one but two of its films, via a cocaine-chopping processor in License to Kill and a printing press in Tomorrow Never Dies). Bond films work because their protagonist regards the ludicrous inflation of gadgetry and stunts with detachment, as if every situation, no matter how fundamentally insane or even stupid, is just part of a day's work. Indy takes on that detachment, but in the process he loses the natural, rakish glee of watching him in the moment, replaced by the forced wit of a character smarter than the world around him but not quite bright enough to burst through the film's metaphysics to watch it with us. Furthermore, Spielberg never finds the balance between the more horrific and explicit side of the material, which would prompt the MPAA to create the PG-13 rating as a stopgap between PG and R, and its frothy, lightweight humor, a failure that even the director himself acknowledged. In a making-of documentary, Spielberg contended that Temple of Doom was easily his least favorite of the trilogy (back when it was just a trilogy) because it lacked the personal touch he'd placed in his other work. That's the most astute criticism anyone could offer; Spielberg established himself as a mogul almost instantly in Hollywood because his supremely commercial projects, themselves an anomaly, contained the stamp of auterial themes and personality characteristic of his contemporaries' less bombastic work. Temple of Doom does not contain a stamp or a spark or any other quantity of emotional investment, lacking even a fondness for character the bubbled under the plot conventions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a running spring that keeps that movie fresh today. The director believes that the best, perhaps the only truly worthwhile thing to come out of the film was his marriage to Capshaw, which is both schmaltzy and completely true.

The failure of 1941 was intriguing for what it could have been, and the occasional overload of saccharin in The Sugarland Express came from an honest place that absolved it, but with the soulless craft on display here, Spielberg at last made his first truly bad film, interspersed with moments of entertainment but bogged down by a lack of personal purpose to a director who certainly didn't need to take on the project for cash. Besides his eventual betrothal, perhaps the most positive outcome of the film was its director's own dissatisfaction with it, one that would spark his first attempt to marry his big sights, big feelings style to a story of true severity, beyond inserting something as ponderous as child slavery in this daffy cartoon, and would set Spielberg along the path to his next major career shift. But more on that another time.

1 comment:

  1. As far as suspense goes, maybe, just maybe, the fact that it was a prequel was a problem. What are we supposed to do, fear that Indy will get shot in the foot?

    And I've been having a problem with the rating system. Perhaps I'm being a little harsh and quick to judge, but the fact the rating company waited for a man to get his heart ripped out to create the PG-13 rating shows pretty clearly that they were more interested in a big audience than preventing children from getting traumitised.

    And what's worst is that they STILL haven't gone back and changed some of the PG ratings, like Bettlejuice.(Nice FUCKING model- really?) And Jaws should at least get a PG-13 rating.

    They should admit that they screwed up and fix things. Instead, they're just making themselves look worst.