Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Director's Spotlight #2.6: Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom/Last Crusade

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. November and December are devoted to Steven Spielberg, with November dedicated to his classic adventure films. Today, his first two Raiders of the Lost Ark sequels, 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Temple of Doom Grade: 33 (C-)

After the smashing successes of Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Steven Spielberg decided to make good on his promise to George Lucas to make two more installments in the Indiana Jones franchise. Spielberg, Lucas and company puzzled over how to handle the next film. They knew they didn’t want to bring back Marion or the Nazis, and so they decided to make it a prequel. So far so good. The group threw around the idea of a haunted castle in Scotland, but Spielberg vetoed the idea, having just made Poltergeist, so the haunted castle became a demonic temple in India. And that’s where things got complicated.

1935: Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) escapes a close call with treacherous Chinese businessman Lao Che (Roy Chiao). Jones brings along Lao’s mistress, American singer Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), and sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan). Through a series of extraordinary circumstances, the trio find themselves in an Indian village. The people are starving, the children missing. A local shaman explains that the nearby Pankot Palace has kidnapped and enslaved their children and taken their sacred stone. He enlists Jones and company to save the children and retrieve the stone, which Indy believes may be one of the lost Shankara Stones, filled with diamonds and mystical wonders. But to save the children and the stones, they must overcome the Thuggee, a cult that worships Kali (an evil god), practices human sacrifice, and controls Pankot’s Maharaja.

Temple starts off well enough with a spectacular musical sequence reminiscent of Old Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and an Indy entrance worthy of the best James Bond movies. The game of wits between Jones and Lao Che is one of Spielberg’s great, Hitchcockian suspense scenes. Ford is as good as ever as Jones, and Lao Che is a threatening villain (one who could have carried his own film). The early comic relief is strong as well: Indy has been poisoned, and his attempts to stay alert and alive are often quite funny. The escape is very funny as well, culminating in a terrific set-piece involving a jump from a plane.

There’s an early warning that things will go south: Willie. Spielberg and Lucas’ decision to avoid a Marion re-tread is respectable, but the decision to make Willie the polar opposite of Marion results in a shrill, doddering idiot incapable of taking care of herself. Willie is materialistic and shallow at the beginning, but some might assume that she’ll become a well rounded character later on. Nope. Willie becomes more intolerable as the journey progresses, and her thoughtless putdowns of Indian culture are often downright ugly. An attempt to bring pathos to her character via a story of her grandfather’s lack of success is thrown out as arbitrarily as “pass the salt”. The character is never anything more than an annoyance, and her eventual romance with Indy is completely unbelievable (Capshaw herself has stated her hatred for her most famous character).

Short Round is a more polarizing character. Some find him funny and charming where others regard him as an irritating, reductive stereotype. There’s no doubt that there’s no real need for Indy to have a child sidekick, but Quan is a good actor, and many of his early scenes with Indy have great humor and banter (one strong sequence involving a cheat during a card game is quite funny; pity that it was intercut with scenes of Willie shrieking). The character deserved a better movie.

But these characters are hardly the worst thing about Temple (Willie would certainly be a close third or fourth). Lucas envisioned Temple as a darker film than Raiders, and patterned it after the dark The Empire Strikes Back. The problem is that the Star Wars Trilogy was part of an ongoing saga; it made sense that things got worse before they got better. Temple is a prequel, and the entire Indiana Jones series is episodic. Spielberg disagreed with Lucas, but decided to go with his best friend’s framework. And so the ugliest film in Spielberg’s filmography was born.

There’s no doubt that Spielberg’s craftsmanship on Temple is as strong as ever: the villains are threatening, there’s a strong mastery of visual gags and storytelling, and the film has the great tactile quality that the two stronger Jones films share (a quality sadly missing from the majority of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull). There are later set-pieces (the mine-cart chase, the bridge scene) that are excitingly crafted as well.

But in many ways Spielberg’s gifts as a filmmaker only succeed in making the film uglier. Lucas and Spielberg wanted something horrifying at the center of the film, and they got it. The Thuggee cult is as horrific as anything Spielberg ever put on film. It is also astoundingly offensive. The cult isn’t a gross oversimplification of the dark side of Hindu spirituality so much as a complete misrepresentation: the cult also combines certain elements of Mayan and Aztec rituals (human sacrifice) and Satanic cults. There’s no doubt that Lucas and Spielberg had no intention to offend, but the thoughtless mishmash is offensive all the same. The margins aren’t much better: Willie’s putdowns of Indian culture are annoying enough, but the film seems to relish in mean-spirited shocks about Indians eating snakes, monkey brains, and other gross things. The film is famous for a scene in which the villainous Mola Ram (Amrish Puri) tears the heart from a man’s chest. On one hand, the scene is effectively horrifying and memorable. But it’s in service of a storyline so hateful that the film becomes exhausting.

Perhaps the worst bit comes from the child slavery angle: this is an important subject, and far too horrifying a reality to be thrown in so cavalierly here. This isn’t meant to be a soapbox, but the subject isn’t thrown in as anything more than another shock. The villain gives a weak justification for the slaves in order to find the Shankara Stones. What about the stones? What do they do? There isn’t much of an explanation of the significance of the film’s MacGuffin, aside from vague assertions of power and prosperity. There’s very little real struggle over them until the end of the film. Not to suggest that Judeo-Christian artifacts are superior to Eastern ones, but Spielberg, Lucas and company better understood the importance of the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail than the Shankara Stones. They’re just relics that signify fortune and glory. That isn’t enough.

What’s the explanation for all the ugliness, aside from Lucas’ silly idea that the second film had to be dark? Raiders screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan hated Temple and refused to do anything with it, and he came up with an interesting explanation: “Temple of Doom represents a chaotic period in both their lives…”; Lucas had just gone through a difficult divorce, while Spielberg’s relationship with Amy Irving was at a low point (he would later marry and divorce her before his marriage to Capshaw). Couple that with Spielberg’s desire to escape the “cutesy” label E.T. had given him (something the Spielberg-produced Gremlins would do better the same year), and Temple starts to make more sense. The self-conscious attempts to be dark? There’s Spielberg and Lucas’ personal troubles and Spielberg’s uneasy attempt to mature. The hateful Willie character? Spielberg and Lucas were going through difficult periods with women.

There’s some that think Temple could have been saved had it been relocated to Scotland, the Thuggee made into Satan worshippers. While that would have been less offensive, there’s still a problem in that the film still would have been a self-conscious stab at darkness. Raiders featured frightening imagery, no doubt, but above all else it was a fun movie. Its key was taking old movie serials and injecting them with the gravity and power only great filmmakers could bring. Spielberg brings his mastery of Hitchcockian suspense, his Howard Hawks style adventurousness, and his David Lean-like mastery of imagery, but it can’t change the fact that the Indiana Jones films are supposed to be light, fun entertainments. If nothing else, Temple shows Spielberg’s willingness to take risks in injecting so much peril and terror into an adventure film. Those risks were in vain.

Last Crusade Grade: 82 (A-)

Spielberg agreed. With Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the director chose to “apologize” for the previous film and fulfill his obligation for an Indiana Jones trilogy with the lightest, funniest, warmest entry in the series. Originally not enamored with the idea that the MacGuffin would be a static item like the Holy Grail, he chose to bring one of his pet themes to the project: the absent father (see: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T., Catch Me if You Can). The decision to bring Sean Connery on as the father (remember, James Bond was an inspiration to the Indiana Jones series) adds weight to a film that is not only a farewell to the franchise (for now), but also, in a way, a farewell to the classic Spielberg adventure film.

After a strong prologue, Indiana Jones brings friend Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliott) the Cross of Coronado, an item he had searched for his whole life. Jones is approached by Walter Donovan (Julian Glover), a wealthy American businessman searching for the Holy Grail, the cup that Christ supposedly used at the Last Supper. Donovan had hired Jones’ father, Henry (Sean Connery), an expert on Grail lore, but Henry Jones, Sr. has gone missing, and Indiana goes to Venice to find him. Indiana, Marcus, and Dr. Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody) find an artifact that may point them in the direction of the Grail before rescuing Henry from the Nazis (Indiana “hates these guys”). But Elsa and Donovan are working with the Nazis, and now it’s a race to the finish between good and evil.

Right off the bat, things are much stronger than in the previous installment. A fun prologue introduces young Indiana Jones (a well-cast River Phoenix) and many of his tropes (the whip, the hat, the scar, and the fear of snakes). But above all else it establishes the distant relationship between Jones and his father. Connery goes against his tough-guy persona to play a bookish old man whose interest in archeology often outweighs his concern for his son. The two Joneses clearly care for each other, but neither knows how to show it. Indiana’s non-traditional lifestyle makes sense now, considering his father’s distance from his family, and his disinterest in his father’s obsession (the Grail) only clarifies their shaky relationship.

Like previous Jones entries, Last Crusade combines the Saturday-matinee serials that Spielberg and Lucas loved with the Howard Hawks “men on a mission” storyline, Hitchcockian suspense dragged to extreme levels (North by Northwest seems like a strong influence on the Jones films), David Lean’s mastery of imagery (Lawrence of Arabia), and the continuing storyline of men tampering with a force of nature they couldn’t possibly understand. This Jones installment’s frequency of gags and comic timing adds a screwball comedy feel, from Jones’ banter with Elsa to Henry Jones’ bumbling. Spielberg sometimes had trouble with comedy (see: 1941, Always)); Last Crusade’s strength is its integration of the comedy into the storyline.

Last Crusade wisely borrows many of the more iconic moments from Raiders of the Lost Ark (the Nazi villains, the European and Desert settings, the Judeo-Christian artifact) while expanding other elements. Spielberg’s mastery of visual gags carries over from the first film to make the funniest of the films, an often agreeably goofy film that uses its humor to move the story further. Sallah (John-Rhys Davies) and Marcus are back, their roles expanded. The two often provide comic relief (Marcus’ lack of direction is particularly funny), but they are never buffoons, a mistake Spielberg made in 1941. Elsa, meanwhile, works as a cross between Marion and Belloq (a strange mix): a love interest that made a deal with the devil. If the film’s reverence for Raiders is ever a shortcoming, it’s in the set-pieces. They’re often strong, but sometimes they feel like retreads (the motorcycle chase and the fight atop the tank in particular). But they’re welcome retreads, and a return to form after the ugliness of Temple of Doom.

The strongest element in Last Crusade, and what makes the film more than just a Raiders retread, is the father-son relationship. Spielberg, after all, did come from a broken home. Spielberg’s empathy for fathers was clear in Jaws, but while there’s no judgment of the absent father figures in Close Encounters and E.T., their absence is felt. With Last Crusade, Spielberg began to reconcile the theme that had dominated so many of his early films. The Grail’s importance is clear, but the film’s real definition is in the journey the two men take together. Indiana is roped into Henry’s Grail obsession, Henry into Indiana’s adventures; in becoming acquainted with each other’s life’s work, the two develop a better understanding for each other. Henry’s love for his son shines through when he nearly loses him, and Indiana’s quest for the Grail ultimately boils down to a chance to save his father’s life.

The film’s climax is not the discovery of the Grail, nor is it the triumphant defeat of the Nazis, but a moment of understanding between a father and son. After several days worth of hearing his father call him “Junior” over and over again (and it’s always funny), the son finally hears his chosen name, “Indiana”. It’s the warmest moment in the series, and an element of emotional maturity in a mostly lighthearted film.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade comes at an interesting point in Steven Spielberg’s career: after the hateful Temple of Doom, Spielberg took a break from the adventure films he was best known for to make two prestige pictures, The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun. While Last Crusade may seem like a regression of sorts (Spielberg has admitted as much), it is better thought of as a tribute to the great adventure films of Spielberg’s classic period, and as a farewell. As the father-son reconciliation (and the two “serious” films) suggested, Spielberg was growing up, becoming a father, and moving on to a new period in his life as a man and as an artist.

The film serves as a proper ending to the Jones series (let’s just ignore the latest installment for the time being…or for all time if you’d prefer). Indy is reunited with his father and his best friends, and together, they ride off into the sunset like the great heroes of Old Hollywood. That’s the way it should be, and it’s a fitting capstone to a chapter in Spielberg’s career. Spielberg’s classic adventure films weren’t quite through yet (Always, Hook, and Jurassic Park were still around the corner), but with Last Crusade, Spielberg began to wave goodbye.

Tentative Director’s Spotlight Schedule:

Thursday: Always/Hook
Saturday: Jurassic Park
November 20-30: Break
December 1: A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
December 3: Minority Report
December 5: Catch Me if You Can
December 8: The Terminal
December 10: War of the Worlds
December 12: Munich
December 17: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (sigh)

Canceled: The Goonies and Gremlins are Spielberg productions, but neither feature the questionable “directed by” status that Poltergeist does. They’re out.

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