It is not always easy to say what is bad about a bad movie. I came out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom feeling abused and cheated— but I was not sure why. The movie was no doubt guilty of racism, misogyny, heartless technical manipulation, and a hundred other sins—but had I not enjoyed films which wallowed in precisely the same sins? Adding to my confusion was Pauline Kael's powerful review (The New Yorker, 11 June 1984). Kael argues that Indiana Jones is a wonderful example of abstract filmmaking: Stephen Spielberg, she claims, has directed a great movie about the joy of going to the movies and the joy of making them. The film "is designed as a shoot-the-chutes, and toward the end, when the heroic trio, having found the sacred stone and freed the stolen children from the maharajah's mines, are trying to escape in a tiny mine car, and a shift in camera angles places us with them on a literal roller-coaster ride, the audience laughs in recognition that that's what we've been on all along." Kael must have sat with a different audience than I did. At the County Seat Mall (Valparaiso, Indiana), laughing recognition was in short supply. Little kids ran in and out of the theater replenishing their popcorn and candy reserves while the rest of us sat wedged together trying to breathe. Breathing was difficult at Indiana Jones, and not altogether because of the crowded conditions. While the gags, the stunts, and the incessant surprises continued, something was in the process of collapse. Perhaps it was my lungs. Perhaps it was the action up on the screen.
To acknowledge Indiana Jones as an object of interpretation may seem rather a faux pas. There is nothing to interpret, we are told. There is only—in Kael's word—momentum, a celebration of cinematic possibilities. This notion that popular art is a form of bastardized modernism, self-reflexivity transformed into pure fun, may apply to certain films. I suspect that the Spielberg-produced Gremlins is one of them, despite the didactic lessons with which it is punctuated. Indiana Jones is a different matter, however. Its aesthetic mode is trivialization or willed stupidity: it gropes its way towards a threatening, unnamed content only, at a vital moment, to treat that content in such an offhand, hey-man fashion that there is nothing more to say. We just sit around in a limbo of stupidity. We drool a little.
The first thing I would want to notice about Indiana Jones is the number of jokes focusing on food and drink. Some of these are pretty good. When Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) struggles to retrieve the antidote to a poison he has just swallowed, the struggle is exciting and funny. A little later our heroine Willie (Kate Capshaw) is compelled for politeness' sake to nibble at a meal of steamed entrails. Her dilemma (presented with pointed concision) is repeated at a banquet where successive courses include giant beetle, eyeball soup, and chilled monkey brains. In its infantile way, the banquet is wonderfully entertaining; we don't even need Willie's repulsion to enjoy the gross-out.
While these moments are entertaining in themselves, what finally counts about them is their number— and the way they keep sliding towards the subject of sex. Every time the movie dwells on food, it is also building up a relationship between Indiana and Willie. She has the antidote which he so desperately needs; he insists that she eat the entrails; she can't stand the eyeball soup, so he has to bring fresh fruit up to her room after dinner. Actually, it is this last move which begins the crucial central sequence of the film where the main characters descend to the Temple of Doom.
Note the sequence of events. Willie has been a tiresome nag all through the trip but she is grateful for the fruit. She and Indiana abruptly decide to go to bed together; however, they quarrel and he stomps off to his room. Each paces about, expecting the other to knock on his door. A giant Thug who leaps out from behind a convenient arras in Indiana's room tries to strangle him on the spot. With the help of Short Round, a resourceful Chinese orphan, Indiana dispatches the assassin and rushes back to Willie, who thinks he has come for sex. Instead of getting in the bed, he looks underneath it—and then, a few seconds later, starts fondling an erotic female statue with bulbous breasts. The breasts give way at his touch. Behind them is a hidden door into the Temple of Doom.
Spielberg has started to create a world with a certain kind of wacky narrative logic. We keep associating food and sex (not a very hard association to begin with: think of the apple in Eden) until we arrive at a critical pair of breasts. Breasts are both agents of nutrition and objects of desire. The association between food and sex is confirmed, once and for all. Now where do we go? Straight into the adventure. Push the breasts aside and we can travel on right to the Temple of Doom, where the same connections are going to come up again —but in a much more sinister fashion than before.
Down in the Temple —a vast, underground amphitheater—our three protagonists witness a strange ceremony. A Thuggee cult whose adherents have massed here in the hundreds offers up a sacrifice to Kali. "Although often represented as a terrifying figure, garlanded with skulls and bearing a bloody sword in one of her many arms, (Kali) is worshipped lovingly by many as the Divine Mother." (New Columbia Encyclopedia) Kali in her present manifestation demands a human sacrifice, an unfortunate young man who is strapped in an iron cage. The hordes below the main platform watch this operation dazedly, but get roused up when the high priest tears out the young man's heart. He survives this surgically precise if somewhat violent operation only to be lowered into a sea of molten lava while the heart flames, the crowd cheers, and a giant idol of Kali glows fiercely.
How has this extraordinary underground culture been sustained? Soon we discover its motive power. When Indiana is captured by the cult he is force-fed "the blood of Kali," thus lapsing into the same drugged state as all the other zombie Thuggees. The force-feeding scene is the most ghastly in the film. It seems much more violent than the mere tearing-out of a heart. I think that Spielberg's emphasis on this moment makes sense, given all that has come before. Our hero suffers a violation —a tube rammed down the throat —which feels sexual even though it has to do with food. Behind the allure of the breast-door is a much more formidable feeding mechanism, as though the breast could become an active agent sexually as well as nutritionally. The Divine Mother strikes again. A recent Rolling Stone article (19 July 1984) tells us that Stephen Spielberg loves women, that he has staffed his filmmaking corporation with almost nothing but female executives, that he is on genial terms with his mother, etc. Indiana Jones makes up for all that. Drifting anxieties about food and sex, particularly with regard to the female of the species, lead us towards a spectacle whose victims (all male) are controlled by a sort of rape-feeding. Reviewers have noticed that the Kate Capshaw character, Willie, has hardly a likable moment in the film and is constantly held up for ridicule. It seems important to add that this strategy is not an isolated miscalculation. Despite the fact that it has only one significant female character (I don't count Kali) Indiana Jones indulges itself in a systematic form of gynephobia.
Suppose that we're just a little bit sensitive to this kind of thing. Surely we will wonder what Spielberg is up to, why he is spinning his nightmares out just this way. I wouldn't think Spielberg himself asks such questions, but that doesn't make them any less valid. And the film, if not the director, provides some striking answers. The most striking of all comes when Willie herself is offered as a sacrifice to Kali.
The Thuggees didn't normally sacrifice women. In this case they are willing to make an exception. As the zombie audience and the high priest look on, Indiana—stupified by the blood of Kali—is directed to the cage. Apparently he is going to enact the heart-tearing-out ceremony all over again. He looks at Willie blankly. He is out of it. He does not tear out her heart. He does not even make a feint in her direction. Our first thought may be that Spielberg is being a sloppy storyteller, forgetting how his own gruesome ceremony works, but on consideration Indiana's aimlessness seems inevitable. Indiana is having trouble with the concept, much less the reality, of a breast. All that flesh, no? The heart is presumably encased behind it. Too much bother. Lower her into the lava, boys. And down the cage goes.
I love this narrative elision. It provides a great unintentional moment of low comedy. It also helps me articulate what's wrong with the movie. Horrors, blood, nightmares: no problem. Bring them on. Let the little kids in too. They may have bad dreams, but bad dreams can be useful. What I don't think I can tolerate is bad dreams in bad faith. If Stephen Spielberg wants to work out his private fears about the other sex or for that matter about other races and make a million bucks or seven doing it, let him. However, let's keep the nightmares honest. Reactionary anti-feminism must not founder when we get —as it were—to the heart of the problem. There is no merit in short-circuiting a line of narrative logic so elaborately and relentlessly developed.
I am not claiming to know how Spielberg should have worked this scene; I am only pointing out the dead end into which he has maneuvered himself and the consequent collapse of narrative intelligence. A few years ago I had an otherwise sensitive student who announced that he would be very worried about nuclear war, except that he knew he was going to heaven when it came. This mode of trivialization or willed stupidity is tempting for people under pressures they cannot very easily control (e.g., atomic warfare). Spielberg panders to such vulnerabilities. He takes a subject like war, sex, or religion, and reduces it to a heap of non sequiturs. Traditionally comedy is supposed to render serious subjects laughable, as when Sancho Panza thinks he is in some horrible danger but we know he isn't and so can enjoy his discomfiture. Indiana Jones is a kind of corrupted comedy. It engages serious subjects in order to reassure us that we don't need to think at all.
After the averted sacrifice of Willie, Spielberg attempts to stage two or three more climaxes. Even Kael admits that this latter part of the film is muddled: it is difficult—well-nigh impossible—for the movie to show us how and why various figures wake up from their induced trances. Neither story nor characters recover from their descent into the aptly-named Temple of Doom. All we can do is pretend that the trances never occurred or that somehow they don't matter.
Spielberg's most striking lunge in this direction occurs in the final, farewell climax, when Indiana and the high priest fight on a cliff with alligators snapping below. Our hero rants with heavy sincerity, "You've betrayed Shiva, you've betrayed Shiva." Again from the New Columbia Encyclopedia: Shiva "is commonly worshipped in the form of the lingam, or symbolic phallus. . . . his consort is the goddess . . . Kali." At Indiana's bidding (??) Shiva intercedes to see that the high priest is punished. This is the silliest deus ex machina in the history of film. The male principle is simply brought in to subdue the female principle, the rightful order of the universe therefore restored. Indian religion was not made up by Stephen Spielberg. He has no marketing rights to it. Its use in this particular way reflects something of Spielberg's desperation, as does a lyrical postscript in which the boys kidnapped by Shiva are released from servitude to the Divine Mother and returned to their real moms.
We come out of the theater more stunned, more mentally incompetent, than any of those hypnotized Thugs. Perhaps, if we like old movies, we think back to Gunga Din, from which the action and ideology of Indiana Jones are largely borrowed. Gunga Din is an imperialist, gynephobic film made with enormous brio. It has the courage of its prejudices. (It also has wonderful actors and a superbly-paced plot, but these advantages are secondary for my present purposes.) In contrast, the misogynistic or racist traps of Indiana Jones are set by a man beaming with childlike innocence, moved —I believe he would like us to think—only by the sure joy of momentum. Some roller-coasters are more dangerous than others. This one might break your neck.