Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Mola Ram, prepare to meet Kali - in Hell!

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with one of the best non sequitors in cinema. After the Paramount logo dissolves to the image of a mountain emblazoned on a gong, the camera pushes in on a large dragon statue spewing smoke from its mouth. But the dragon isn't a priceless artifact or the entrance to a lost city - it's a kitschy stage prop, and we're thrown directly into a lavish, Busby Berkly-style production number ("Anything Goes" in Mandarin). While tentpole sequels usually have an inflated sense of self-importance, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom sets its self apart with its complete irreverance of its audiences' heightened expectations - even the film's title, blocked from our view by the introduction of nightclub singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), is mocked for its arbitrariness. And though the willingness of creators Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to try anything resulted in many of the elements Temple of Doom is routinely criticized for - the gore, the frenetic pace, the perceived racism and sexism - it's the film's borderline-sociopathic nature that made it a favorite of mine as a kid. No director can adapt a child's perspective like Spielberg, and if I say that Temple of Doom feels like it was adapted from the bloody classroom scribbles of a gifted, manic 8-year-old with antisocial tendencies, I mean it in the best possible way.

Starting in 1930s Shanghai, Temple of Doom starts with Indiana Jones escaping crime boss Lao Che (Roy Chiao), ultimately landing (literally) in India. Jones, Scott and Jones' ten-year-old Chinese sidekick Short Round (Ke Huy Quan) are asked by the shaman of a small village to travel to nearby Pankot palace, which the villagers believe is location of a secret Thuggee cult that has stolen Shiva lingam (an ancient stone said to posess supernatural powers) and kidnapped the village's children. Thinking the stone may be his ticket to "fortune and glory," Indy agrees, and that's all the setup needed for a movie that moves breathlessly from bugs and booby traps to heart-ripping and zombification without ever apologizing for being the cinematic equivalent of a two-hour amusement park ride. More than its predecessor, Temple of Doom embraces the absurdity of its serialized ancestor. We're barely introduced to Wu Han (David Yip), one of Indy's many sidekicks, before he's shot and dies in Indy's arms alluding to past adventures we'll never see. He's just as quickly replaced by Short Round, the rare wisecracking movie kid who isn't completely insufferable - I love that we get the least possible justification for why Indy is travelling with a Chinese boy,I love the abrupt reveal (scored to Short Round's theme music) that reveals a ten-year-old drives Indy's getaway car, and I love that Short Round has his own theme music. Short Round's introduction is one of countless joyous movie moments in the first reel - Spielberg piles one sight gag on top of another in a way that recalls 1941 but without the bloat. Perhaps realizing that he was making a movie about nothing, Spielberg makes Temple of Doom a movie about the joy of moviemaking.

The film famously gets darker when Indy discovers the titular temple, where Thuggee high priest Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) presides over human sacrifices to Kali and forces the kidnapped children to dig for the missing Sankara stones. While Temple of Doom's tendency towards gross-out disturbed many parents and led (along with the same summer's Spielberg-produced Gremlins) to the creation of the PG-13 rating, the movie is actually gory in a way that certain kids are likely to embrace. Movies like Temple of Doom, Gremlins and Poltergeist were, in retrospect, healthy experiences for a literate young kid becoming aware of his own mortality and the resulting anxiety - the famous heart-ripping scene was more amazing than scary, an awesomely graphic externalization of the scary awareness that my body was filled with blood and guts. The whole movie can be seen as taking the perspective of a young boy both curious and afraid of the world beyond his doorstep, which goes a long way towards explaining many of the things it's been criticized for - the perceived xenophobia of the "chilled monkey brains" scene, the increased brutality of the action and particularly the movie's fear and derision of femininity in the form of shrieking, hysterical Willie Scott stem from the puerility that Spielberg understands as clearly as the earnest wonder that is its flipside. And when such willfull immaturity leads to a setpiece as perfectly born out of a child's sense of play as the awesome climactic mine cart chase, Temple of Doom makes a pretty strong case for willful immaturity as a virtue.

The film's casual imperialism is harder to defend, and I must admit that I cringe during the denouement when British troops arrive (accompanied by a triumphant John Williams fanfare) to blow away the Thugees and save the day. It's hard to imagine Spielberg, whose films have grown more morally complex over the years, ending one of his films with such an offhandedly irresponsible white hat/black hat moment today. Indeed, Spielberg has basically disowned Temple of Doom, and as his next feature, The Color Purple, continues a process of maturation begun in E.T., it's hard not to see Temple of Doom as something of an anomaly. And though I think it's a generally positive and perhaps necessary thing that Spielberg grew up, I sometimes miss the wunderkind with Peter Pan syndrome - nobody has ever made tastier cinematic junk food.


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