Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Through an Antidote Darkly

If you're not following Damian Arlyn's 31 Days of Spielberg project over at Windmills of My Mind -- well you just better have a damn good excuse. Knowing Damian's knowledge of Spielberg and great writing style, I was looking forward to his Temple of Doom post since the beginning, and just like all the others it's a great read. Like Damian says in his comments section, I too was surprised at just how many Temple haters are out there. Sure, it's an odd movie that deals little in reality -- but it's also wildly entertaining. I felt it was as good a time as any to invite everyone inside my Pankot Palace of Temple of Doom Wonderment, with some additional thoughts on the subject.

Part of what makes Temple so special to me is that it was really the first movie I ever watched. Throw out the Disney movies, edutainment and what not, and it was the opening red credits of Temple that introduced me to genuine film entertainment. I remember the night well: it was before my family bought a VCR so we had to rent one, some night in 1985. While my dad was fiddling with the connection, the image of Kate Capshaw's Willie Scott jumped on the screen and for the next 117 minutes I sat spellbound. Of course my mom expressed some disapproval during the Thuggee rituals, but the ship had already sailed. So I obviously have some biases with this film, and I obviously viewed the movie differently back then since I had not seen Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I frequently point out that one of the redeeming qualities of Temple is its unique place in the Indiana Jones Trilogy. Indy is not set out on some great quest to save the world, nor is he even globe trotting or teaming up with familiar faces -- he is simply trying to get the hell out of India and maybe live out an archaeological dream of saving the some priceless relics all in the name of goodwill. And on the subject of dreams ...

... Does Indy take us with him into this airborne snooze? A theory proposed to me long ago by another fellow Temple fan was that the movie's refusal to deal in reality could be explained by it all being a dream. Sure it's kooky, but let's take a look at what happens before he goes to sleep: gun battle in a night club, narrowly evades death by poison, survives impossible window leap, finds safety in an airplane. Now, after Indy wakes up: survives a leap out of an airplane through the safety of an inflatable raft, survives a fall off a great cliff, is greeted at an English-speaking isolated Indian village, gains affection of sexy nightclub singer, witnesses inhuman Thuggee rituals, is tortured by a voodoo doll, inhabited by the Black Sleep of Kali, survives falling bridge, etc. Things are relatively believable up until Indy covers his eyes, it's after he wakes up that fantasy sets in. Also keep in mind that Indy's random trip into India includes encounters with familiar sights (old acquaintance Chattar Lal, Sankara stones) and his pistol holster deja vu (however familiar it can be, since Temple is technically a prequel to Raiders). Yes, it's a stretch in every sense, but an interesting Temple talking point.

Another great contrast between Temple and its trilogy counterparts are the evil groups Indy encounters. Raiders and Crusade both prominently feature Nazis -- Temple gives perhaps the most feared religious group of all time in the Thuggee, who may have been responsible for 2 million murders during a reign of terror as great as 600 years. The Thuggee scenes are often passed off as exploitation, but George Lucas' story is remarkably historically accurate. The group believed their murders appeased Kali, each one preventing her appearance by one millennium, and they performed a series of rites in her honor after each killing. Even Mola Ram's line of 'maaro maaro sooar ko, chamdi nocho pee lo khoon' has meaning, it translates to 'Kill, Kill the pig, flay his skin, drink his blood.' If you ask me, the Thuggee are much more interesting as villains than Nazis.

Of course, it helps when you have a character played by the late Amrish Puri leading the charge. Mola Ram is my favorite character in Temple, and his casting speaks to Spielberg's brilliance. Despite not making his Bollywood debut until the age of 40, Puri went on to star in over 250 films and was sometimes referred to as the 'Al Pacino of Bollywood.' Puri had a commanding screen presence, and perfectly played the few English lines he had, most notably 'you are in a position unfit for giving orders!' The horrified reaction he gets from Willie and subsequent 'Welcome...' are gold.

If there's one everlasting image of Temple for me, it has to be the bridge climax. Where does this rank in the all-time action set pieces? The fact that it was shot on a real bridge with no miniature work creates a rare level of tension where you really have no idea how the hero will escape. Spielberg's direction in this scene couldn't have been better, especially the deliveries he gets from the actors. Capshaw's line ('Oh my Goooodddd ... is he nuts?!') is probably the only time in the movie when her character actually enhances the scene and can draw no criticism. Short Round's performance adds a different element, showing that he's eternally confident in Indy, but at the same time terrified ('He not nuts, he crazy!'). I remember at an early age memorizing the dialogue in Chinese Indy gives to Short Round -- 'chow chi matzu tantha!' (simply meaning 'hold on to the bridge!').

**This scene made such an impression on myself and my brother that for years any trip over a walking bridge at a park was incomplete without some reenactment (and if time permitted, a brief rendition of Three Billy Goats Gruff). It was probably disconcerting for mom that her kids were the ones always yelling 'prepare to meet Kali ... in Hell!'**

Temple truly is the black sheep of the trilogy, but that's what makes it so great. Why can't sequels like this be made anymore, where it exists as simply another episode in the series? Temple did not pick up where Raiders left off, it was another exercise in classic adventure film making by Spielberg -- merging the nickel arcade storylines of the 1940s with the production sensibilities of the 1980s. We'll never see another movie like it again.


Damian said...

Nice piece, Adam. As I said before I love Temple of Doom too and still feel it's better most movies that come out of Hollywood today. I think Joe put it best when he said "I'll take Temple of Doom over the Pirates of the Caribbean films any day."

I've actually never heard the theory that everything after Indy going to sleep on the plane was a dream. It's certainly interesting but I don't think it holds water. First of all, as I argue in my analysis, the "fantasy stuff" actually begins before Indy's nap. It begins with the film's opening credits when the camera goes into the mouth of the dragon and we see dozens of girls dancing in what is most definitely NOT a nightclub. It's a scene that couldn't possibly exist in the real world. It can only exist in the movies. It's Spielberg's way of preparing us for that is about to come (along with the title of the song "Anything Goes" which more or less sums up the attitude of the film).

Secondly, I am not a big fan of this seemingly new and popular practice of interpreting everything that follows a character going to sleep as a dream (people have done the same thing with the end of Minoroty Report). By this rationale, most of Raiders, after falling asleep on the plane bound for Nepal, could be a dream and the second half of War of the Worlds, after the family goes to sleep in the basement, never happened either.

My basic attitude is that people who go to sleep eventually have to wake up. If they don't then what we just saw probably really did happen. If it didn't then it's more of a cop-out than anything else and the storyteller just did a lousy job.

Burbanked said...

Terrific article, Adam, chock-full of stuff I'd never thought of or knew before. I love the idea that you and your brother saw this probably WAY before you might have, but - as you say - "that boat had sailed already". Hilarious. I find myself in that position more and more as I excitedly share my favorite movies with my sons, and something will happen on the screen that makes me think "ooooops. (pause) Oh, well!"

The bridge sequence IS truly amazing, for all of the reasons you cite. I also love that the sword Indy wields not only represents something different for him to fight with in this movie, a clever new piece of actorly business, but it's also the thing that saves him here - he couldn't possibly have made the bridge rescue with his signature whip. That's an excellent piece of plotting on the filmmakers' parts and you're exactly correct that the way the tension builds in this scene is quite a bit stronger than similar sequences in the other Indy movies.

"Prepare to meet HELL." Great stuff!

Adam Ross said...

Damian -- yep it's a kooky theory like I said, but something that intrigued me when I was younger. I kind of hoped it was true, along with the "ghost" in Three Men and a Baby.

Alan -- another great point about the bridge sequence, especially since he picks up that nifty hardware just minutes earlier. I'm sure I'll be the same way with our expected child, though a few of my faves will definitely have to wait until they learn how to read (subtitles and what not).

RC said...

nice reflection and thoughts.

sometimes i get the different Indy films just a little confused, so it's helpful and enjoyable to read thoughts like your here.

and dead on Indy over Pirates for sure.

Michael J. Mendez said...

Great post, loved the insight about the dream. Really interesting theory. Guess I got to watch it again now!

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viagra online said...

Greetings Adam Ross!
this post has brought me back in time to very good memories.
Like when we used to use a VCH, is was long ago