Have people become so consciousness-raised they can't have a good time at the movies anymore? When I caught the opening-day matinee of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom during a visit back home, I had a swell afternoon. My brother, who's 51, not the least bit consciousness-raised, and hadn't been out to a movie in years, said it "made him feel like a kid again." I told him about Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first picture to feature globetrotting archaeologist hero Indiana Jones, and urged him to see it sometime; "You'll enjoy it too - although this new film is even better."
I never imagined that was going to be a minority opinion, at least insofar as published commentary is concerned. Nor did I anticipate (though I suppose I should have) that this latest fun-machine from the Lucas-Spielberg factory was going to stimulate not the usual cascade of cover-story raves, but a spate of grave editorials on the "excesses" and "intensity" of its action and violence. Yet there they were, boxed and encapsulated on the front page of the USA Today my cousin passed me before dinner the next evening. Even the film's director, Steven Spielberg, was quoted to the effect that he wouldn't take children under 10 to visit The Temple of Doom; it might give them nightmares.
That struck a chord. How many times over the past several decades had I heard people, anywhere from their teen years to comfortable middle age, say, "I had nightmares over that for weeks" while reminiscing about some movie from their youth? The cinematic sources of those remembered nightmares were various: King Kong shaking the sailors off the log span and into the valley of spiders; a tribe of arctic zealots proposing to lower a red-hot iron pot over a friendly explorer's head in the 1935 She; a party of scientists and Air Force officers, their breaths steamy in the freezing corridor, opening a laboratory door to discover The Thing standing just on the other side. Perhaps closest to the immediate point, there was Gunga Din, with the mad, firelit scowl of guru Eduardo Ciannelli, the flicking tongues of his pet cobras, the wind-blown cries of "Kaaaa-eee-leeeee..." echoing from the cliffs as the Thuggee murder cult prepared to do its thing. What never varied in these reminiscences was the tone in which "I had nightmares for weeks after" was pronounced: fond, nostalgic, I-wouldn't-have-missed-it-for-the-world.
I'm pretty sure today's kids will be talking the same way about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in decades hence. But of course it's not the kids who are fretting even now. And what the editorial writers want to save them (or themselves) from isn't so much the "horror" or "violence" of specific passages - for one instance, the high priest of Thuggee plucking a sacrificial victim's heart right out of his chest. The anti-Indy rap is subtler than that. The watchword here is not "violence" but "intensity." Spielberg's breathless rollercoaster ride - much more assured than that of the widely loved Raiders - is in fact too assured for some tastes. One comes out of Temple of Doom keyed up by the relentlessness of the energy, the one-damn-thing-after-another eventfulness, the breathtaking expertise of the filmmaking - and some folks would rather not be keyed up, thanks just the same.
Spielberg has run into resistance of this sort before, though the argument was couched differently. In 1979, his film 1941 was generally held to be an aesthetic, and certainly a commercial, catastrophe. Oh yes, I panned 1941 myself, and rather complacently, too. It seemed so obvious that Spielberg had got carried away by the machinery involved in making a multimillion-dollar comic extravaganza, and that, in adding screwball set-piece after set-piece, he'd wound up with a raucous, mindless, monotonous, and almost entirely unfunny movie. I still think 1941 has big problems; but over the years Spielberg's quiet "I never thought of it as being especially funny" nagged at me: what if we reviewers had been watching the wrong movie? When I finally checked out 1941 again, on cable TV, I found much of it eerily compelling - a cinematic ballet of mass hysteria that, however dubious as a picture of the U.S.A. at the outbreak of World War II, makes personal and honorable aesthetic sense as an expression of the flipside of Spielberg's sunny Close Encounters/E.T. sensibility.
This fascination with the machineries of mayhem rather than the machineries of joy finds happier, and more salable, expression in Spielberg's Indiana Jones adventures - for they are adventures, they do deliver the generic thrills. As it happens, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom also delivers considerable comic exhilaration in much the same way.
Consider the opening, as inventive and dazzling as Raiders' encyclopedically perilous intro in an underground Peruvian shrine: Indiana's confrontation with some nefarious Chinese in a Shanghai night spot. The essential situation is simple enough: Indiana has a rare archaeological find to trade for a fabulous gem. The Chinese want the treasure, but would prefer not to part with the diamond. They would also prefer that Indiana Jones not walk out of the Obi Wan Night Club alive.
Spielberg has introduced this sequence with a multileveled movie in-joke, a production number that begins with the striking of a great gong (cf. the opening credits of Gunga Din), has songstress Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) emerging from a red-smoking dragon's mouth that looks as if it ought to be decorating a Temple of Doom somewhere, and then lurches into the kind of Busby Berkeley song-and-dance extravaganza no nightclub stage could ever accommodate. Having scrambled levels of cinematic artifice for us ("Anything Goes" is the song being performed - entirely in Chinese except for the title phrase), Spielberg proceeds to compound the gamesmanship by making punny jokes at every level of visual, aural, and pop-cultural association.
The Chinese, for instance, are pidgin-English Mr. Moto villains (just as the villains of Raiders were cheerful throwbacks to the stock Germanic villains of prewar movies), and they and Indy swap treasure and diamond, and conduct a running liars'-poker duel, by means of a lazy-Susan tabletop - a preposterous vehicle for suspense, and an apparatus we chiefly associate with Chinese restaurants. Indiana discovers he has just swallowed a poisoned drink, staggers to his feet, and his drugged movements seem uncannily choreographed to merge with the dance number continuing in the background. The antidote to the poison is by now clattering to and fro on the nightclub floor, along with the diamond, likewise gone astray; and just as Willie Scott, a '30s golddigger par excellence, lunges after the stone, a champagne bucket is spilled and the "ice" is lost in a wash of ice. It's a mad, giddy whirl, but as intricately designed and balanced as the works of a fine watch whose every tick inspires glee.
One would have to be very poor in spirit to disdain such beauties as merely "mechanical." Spielberg is not only a supremely accomplished filmmaker, he also conspicuously delights in what he's doing, and the sense of play is eminently communicable. His lust for cinematic storytelling is prodigal. At a later point in the film, as Indiana and his street-urchin companion Short Round stand talking on a night horizon in India, a meteor streaks through the sky behind them; only the audience sees it and Spielberg makes nothing of it explicitly, but this vagrant grace note, evoking the cosmic splendors of Close Encounters and E.T., brushes across the viewers' sensibilities like a testimony of the wondrousness of the imagination: anything goes, anything's possible when stories are being told.
Such tokens of the wondrous punctuate the action at its more intensely adventurous moments: a magical, and masterful, play of shadow work and shrewd art direction that allows a strangler to step seemingly out of midair behind Indy in a palace bedchamber; a sword-toting skeleton that rises from the floor of a dungeon - an inexplicable manifestation until we perceive the rational, and much more terrifying, explanation of why the dead should seem to rise. Mechanical? Spielberg strews such frissons like cinematic bonbons.
Temple of Doom does have its shortcomings. The titular Temple of Doom sequence is not excessively horrific - it just goes on too long, with too little in the way of fresh discovery, and the gambit of teasing us as to whether Indy has lost his soul after being forcefed a goblet (skull, actually) of ceremonial blood falls flat. Likewise the Lucas-style insistence (George Lucas again exec-produces, as in Raiders) that the pragmatic Indy learn to believe in the Force behind a stolen sacred stone. Spielberg's Forces aren't rhetorical; they don't derive from comic-book conceits. They're vivid, immediate, lucid; not invoked platitudinously but measured by the perfection of fluid camera movements, the inevitability of an exactly judged cut. Even when he's only making movies for fun and games, they're beautiful to behold.
This review, published in the June 6, 1984 issue of The Weekly (Seattle), later appeared in the National Society of Film Critics anthology Love and Hisses (1992).
Copyright 1984 by Richard T. Jameson