30 Years at the Movies: Part 1
I turn 30 on Feb. 2. Those 30 years have been awfully entertaining, and I've spent a great deal of them watching movies. Many of my most vivid memories -- too many of them, probably -- revolve around movies, from seeing "Raiders of the Lost Ark" at the drive-in at age 2, to helplessly giggling my way through "Independence Day" in 1996, to joining the cheering crowd during "X2: X-Men United" in 2003, to watching in awe as P.T. Anderson's masterpiece, "There Will Be Blood," unfolded in 2007.
I had originally planned to mark those 30 years by writing an in-depth piece about one movie from each year I've been alive. I even picked out all 30 movies. But that idea is, ultimately, far too limiting. How could I write about just one movie from 1999, for example? That one movie would be "Magnolia," but then I wouldn't write about "The Matrix," "Eyes Wide Shut," "Three Kings," "Fight Club" or any of the other great films from that year. So that just won't do.
So each week this year -- hopefully -- I'll write about one of the movies released during my lifetime that is most important to me. This will be a personal series about my favorite films, so I won't feel obliged to write about, say, "Blade Runner," a movie that most film buffs would call important, but which I would call terribly overrated. (Go ahead, throw your tomatoes.)
Let's get started. Today.
. . .
30 Years at the Movies, Part 1
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Screenplay by Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz
Released May 23, 1984
Watching "Temple of Doom" is a little like going to Disneyland.
It's got singing and dancing, a thrill ride down the side of a snowy mountain, a twisting, turning trip around the rails, cute kids, gross-out scares that produce smiles instead of screams, and, well, Indiana Jones.
Oh yeah, and racial stereotypes.
Growing up sucks, and part of that suckage is realizing the faults of the movies you loved when you were a kid.
I vividly remember the night I saw "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" for the first time. My dad brought it home from a now-defunct video store on Dundee Road in Buffalo Grove; it was called Entertainment King. This was after dad got home from work, so we probably started watching it around 10:30, 10:45 p.m. We were still rocking the Betamax back then, and the TV, for some reason, was sitting on top of the piano bench.
I didn't see "Temple of Doom" on the big screen until 1999, when the AMC 30 South Barrington put it in a series of midnight screenings that also included "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Billy Madison." The 15-year wait was worth it -- the sold-out crowd clapped, cheered and laughed like they were seeing it for the first time.
That's how you start a movie!
But back to my living room in 1985: I was blown away immediately. The movie starts with a huge dance number scored to Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," sung in Mandarin. There's an incredible shot where the film's title appears in front of the background but behind Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw). I had never seen anything like that before, and to this day it remains the lasting image of the movie for me.
What follows is still one of the most relentlessly entertaining films ever made. I long defended "Temple of Doom" as not only the best of the Indy series, but as one of the best action movies, period. Only "Die Hard" and "Aliens" can match it for pure intensity, and it remains one of Spielberg's funniest films -- the bedroom waiting-game that Willie and Indy play about 45 minutes in is just perfect.
And let's not forget John Williams, whose score for "Temple of Doom" is definitely in his top five. He doesn't lean on the "Raiders March" nearly as much as you might expect, and crafts rousing themes for Indy's sidekick, Short Round (Ke Huy Quan), as well as the slave children they save from the clutches of the evil Mola Ram (Amrish Puri). The playful music in the aforementioned bedroom scene -- entitled "Nocturnal Activities" -- is classic.
The film also spawned my all-time favorite arcade game. A typical weekend, circa 1987, would include a trip to the now-defunct movie theater at Town & Country Mall, followed by round after round of the Indy game at the now-defunct Just For Fun arcade. You saved the slave children, then raced down the mine-cart track, then grabbed the Sankara stone from the temple. Then you did it again. And again. And again!
Of course, I'm dodging the 800-pound statue of Kali in the room. Like so many movies before and after it, "Temple of Doom" seems to have no problem painting the people of Asia with the broadest strokes possible. The Chinese are either devious villains like Lao Che, or fast-talking jokes like Short Round ("Docta Jones! No time for love!") But that's nothing compared to the caricatures all the Indian actors are asked to play. They're murderous savages, wise witch doctors, crying women, and exotic diners (I'm so sure the regular Indian diet in 1938 included Snake Surprise, eyeball soup, and chilled monkeys' brains).
Who plays savior for these primitive savages? Why, it's Dr. Henry Jones, the American archaeologist! Yes, "Temple of Doom" is, more or less, another in the long line of Magical White Man movies. It's much easier to stomach than, say, "Blood Diamond" or "Men of Honor" since it's an action-comedy and not a Serious Picture, of course. And some may try to lean on that genre to make excuses for "Temple of Doom's" crudity. That argument could successfully be made by someone much smarter than I; one could say the original goal of the Indy trilogy (before it became a "quadrilogy" and invoked '50s sci-fi flicks) was to modernize the old-time serials of yesteryear, which, for sure, included plenty of racial stereotyping, and that "Temple of Doom" is merely aping a decades-old Hollywood tradition. Spielberg's producing partner, George Lucas, must prescribe to this school of thinking; the screenplay, by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, seems to have planted the seeds of "The Phantom Menace" and Jar Jar Binks. (Thankfully, Huyck and Katz pretty much doomed their careers a few years later, when they wrote and directed "Howard the Duck.")
But that really doesn't pass muster, does it? The fact is I love "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," and any excuses I make for its obvious shortcomings are just that -- excuses. I watched it -- really, truly watched it, instead of just having it on in the background -- for the first time in a long time last spring, before "Crystal Skull" came out, and I was taken aback by how much of it just seems ... wrong. (Not Mickey Rooney-in-"Breakfast at Tiffany's"-wrong, but wrong all the same.)
I don't think I'm capable of making an intellectual argument in its favor. It is a movie that I respond to on a pure, visceral level, and one that has been a part of my life for almost 25 years now. Our entertainments are not perfect -- for every Space Mountain, there is an Enchanted Tiki Room full of animatronic birds named Jose who talk about their siestas getting "chorter and chorter." And sadly, it seems that it's still "OK" to make fun of Asians in pop culture. "The Simpsons" still have Apu, and I bet a lot of people were laughing at "South Park's" "The China Probrem" for all the wrong reasons.
What do you think? Are the caricatures portrayed in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom" still hurtful, or are they so absurd that they lose all their bite? I lean toward the second, but that's easy for a white man to say.
. . .
For the record, the 30 movies I originally planned to write about appear below. I still plan to write about most of them ...
1979 Apocalypse Now
1980 The Blues Brothers
1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark
1983 Return of the Jedi
1985 Back to the Future
1987 The Princess Bride
1989 Field of Dreams
1991 The Silence of the Lambs
1992 Scent of a Woman
1993 The Nightmare Before Christmas
1994 Pulp Fiction
1995 Get Shorty
1998 The Truman Show
2002 The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004 The Aviator
2005 The 40-Year-Old Virgin
2006 The Fountain
2007 There Will Be Blood