Film Crit Hulk Smash: INDIANA JONES AND THE FUNHOUSE OF DOOM

Hulk defends the most maligned entry of the original INDIANA JONES trilogy.

INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM IS A PERFECT MOVIE.

... THAT IS IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN KIND OF MOVIE.

FOR AS MUCH AS THE FILM IS CHARACTERIZED BY OTHER ISSUES -- LIKE ITS INFLUENCE ON THE CREATION OF THE PG-13 RATING, ITS BLATANT COMIC STEREOTYPING, ITS SHRILL WILLIE SCOTT, ITS MYSTERIOUS PREQUEL-YET-NOT-A-PREQUEL IDENTITY AND EVEN THE GENERAL BELIEF OF ITS BEING OUT OF PLACE IN THE INDY TRILOGY -- DOOM IS STILL A FILM THAT DOES ONE THING SO DAMN WELL THAT IT CANNOT BE DENIED: IT IS THE PERFECT FUNHOUSE MOVIE.

THIS WAS SOMETHING THAT HULK DIDN'T FULLY UNDERSTAND UNTIL JUST A FEW YEARS AGO, WHEN HULK SAT DOWN WITH A COUPLE OF FRIENDS WHO HAD NEVER SEEN THE FILM BEFORE. AND FROM THE VERY OPENING, HULK WATCHED THEM SCREAM, GASP, COVER THEIR EYES OR HOWL WITH LAUGHTER AT EVERY DAMN SCENE. IT NEVER ONCE STOPPED. WHICH IS FUNNY, BECAUSE EVEN THOUGH WE SO OFTEN DESCRIBE BLOCKBUSTERS AS "RIDES," THE PROBLEM IS THAT MOST OF THE TIME WE ARE USING THAT TERM TO DESCRIBE THE MOVIE AS A POSTURING BIT OF SLICK, BRAINLESS ENTERTAINMENT. BUT DOOM TAKES THE MENTALITY OF "THE RIDE" TO THE FURTHEST POSSIBLE PLACE (EVEN GOING LITERAL WITH THE MINE-CARTS). AND IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT, A RIDE IS A CAREFULLY ENGINEERED EXERCISE IN PROVOKING VISCERAL REACTIONS, AND WHEN WE LOOK AT THE STORY CONSTRUCTION OF DOOM, WHAT BETTER WAY TO DESCRIBE THE FILM? IT MOVES FROM BEAT TO BEAT WITH CAUSE AND EFFECT, CLEAR PURPOSE AND INTENT. IT’S PRACTICALLY A RUBE GOLDBERG MACHINE. GO BACK AND YOU'LL NOTICE THERE ISN'T A SINGLE "AND THEN" BEAT IN THE ENTIRE FILM, BUT INSTEAD EXISTS AS AN INTERLOCKING SERIES OF EMOTIONAL AND VISCERAL TRIGGERS THAT PUSH US FROM SCENE TO SCENE. AND SPIELBERG'S INTENT WITH EACH OF THESE MOMENTS COULD NOT BE CLEARER: SHOCK, SCARE, BRING LAUGHS, DREAD, CHEER AND DO ALL OF THESE THINGS AS MANY TIMES AS POSSIBLE. IT COMES RIGHT AT YOU. AND IT NEVER LETS UP.

WHICH MEANS IT SHOULD BE NO SURPRISE THAT THE REACTIONS TO DOOM TEND TO BE SHARPLY DIVIDED. WHAT CAN ACCOUNT FOR THIS? WELL, EVEN THOUGH WE CAN ALL ACKNOWLEDGE THAT EVERY INDIVIDUAL BRINGS HIS OR HER OWN SET OF EXPERIENCES AND EXPECTATIONS TO A VIEWING (AND THUS PROCESSES MOVIES IN DIFFERENT WAYS), THERE STILL TENDS TO BE TWO LARGE-SCALE TRENDS THAT ARE EXHIBITED IN POPULAR MOVIE-GOING. AND WHAT MAKES THIS FILM DISTINCT IS THE WAY THE DIVISION IN THE REACTION SEEMS TO FALL EXACTLY ALONG THAT LINE.

LET'S CALL THE FIRST TREND IN POPULAR MOVIE-GOING "LEVEL ONE,” AND IN THAT SPIRIT WE EXPERIENCE MOVIES THE WAY WE DO WHEN WE ARE YOUNGER: WE WATCH THE EVENTS HAPPEN ONSCREEN AND WE SO READILY FEEL THE EXPERIENCE AS OUR OWN. IT DOESN'T MATTER IF WE TECHNICALLY KNOW THAT MOVIES AREN'T REAL, THEY STILL FEEL LIKE THEY ARE HAPPENING TO US. WE CALL THIS KIND OF MEDIA-CONSUMPTION "INTERNALIZING" AND IF PEOPLE GROW UP AND KEEP WATCHING MOVIES IN THIS FASHION, WITHOUT DEVELOPING A FIGURATIVE EMOTIONAL CALLUS, THEN IT ACTUALLY TENDS TO LEAD TO A SOMEWHAT INDULGENT TASTE IN MOVIES. FORGET THE FACT THAT THE EASY TRANSFERENCE MAKES A VIEWER MORE FORGIVING OF A LACK OF DRAMA / PLOTTING / ETC., THE MAIN PROBLEM IS THAT INTERNALIZATION MEANS THOSE PEOPLE WILL SEEK OUT MOVIES THAT MAKE THE CHARACTERS (READ: THEM) FEEL GOOD OR POWERFUL OR LOVED OR REWARDED. IT'S A LAW OF EASY TRANSFERENCE. TOO MUCH CONFLICT FEELS BAD, SO MOVIES BECOME EMOTIONAL REINFORCEMENT OR COCOONS. AS SUCH, THEIR FAVORITE HEROES TEND TO BE TRANSPARENT, UNSTOPPABLE BADASSES (WITH A MERE FLIRTATION OF FLAW OR POWERLESSNESS, OFTEN THROUGH THE ILLUSION OF SELF-SACRIFICE AND GRIT). UNDER LEVEL ONE, MOVIES TAKE ON A ROLE OF ESCAPISM AND FANTASY FULFILLMENT.

MEANWHILE, THE POPULAR CINEMA-GOING TREND OF "LEVEL TWO" IS REALLY JUST A SMALL EVOLUTION. THE KEY DIFFERENCE IS THAT THIS NEW GROUP HAS SEEN ENOUGH MOVIES AND PROVIDED ENOUGH CONTEXTUALIZATION, SO THEY NO LONGER INTERNALIZE THE MEDIA THEY CONSUME. BUT (AND THIS IS IMPORTANT) BECAUSE THEY LOOK BACK SO FONDLY ON THE TIMES THAT THEY DID INTERNALIZE THEIR FAVORITE CHILDHOOD MOVIES, THEY THEREFORE SEEK OUT THE MOVIES THAT CAN RECAPTURE THAT MAGIC. THEY SEEK THE MOVIES THAT MAKE THEM FEEL LIKE A KID AGAIN. USUALLY THIS MEANS THEY SEEK ANYTHING THAT CAN PROVOKE AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE IN THEM AT ALL. SOMETIMES THEY DRIFT TOWARD HORROR MOVIES, BUT OFTEN IT'S TOWARD BIG VISCERAL ADVENTURE FILMS (THAT JUST SO HAPPEN TO BE WHAT THEY LOVED AS KIDS). IT'S NO ACCIDENT THAT THIS GROUP ALSO TENDS TO BE BIG SPOILER-PHOBES AND RELISH IN THE PURITY OF A CINEMA EXPERIENCE. IF WE ARE STICKING WITH CLUMSY METAPHORS, THE KEY DIFFERENCE IS THAT LEVEL TWOS ARE PURPOSEFULLY TRYING TO FIND SOMETHING THAT PIERCES THE EMOTIONAL CALLUS.

NOW, HULK UNDERSTANDS THAT THIS CHARACTERIZATION MAKES IT SOUND LIKE BOTH OF THESE GROUPS ARE HORRIBLE, CHILD-LIKE MEDIA CONSUMERS AND THAT IS NOT THE INTENTION WHATSOEVER. AFTER ALL, MOST PEOPLE WILL BE SOMEWHAT FORGIVING IF MOVIES ERR TOWARDS THEIR ORIENTATION AT SOME POINT. BUT THE DEEPER TRUTH IS THAT EVERY ONE OF US CONTAINS THESE KINDS OF CONSUMPTION HABITS. NO MATTER HOW MUCH WE CAN CEREBRALLY PUT OURSELVES OUTSIDE MOVIES, THEY CAN STILL SHAKE US TO OUR VERY CORE. THEY LIVE INSIDE OF US AND CHANGE THE WAY WE DEAL WITH THE WORLD. EVEN IF WE WANT TO CONTEXTUALIZE OUR NARRATIVE EXPERIENCE, DIVORCING OURSELVES FROM AN EMOTIONAL RESPONSE IS NOT ONLY IMPOSSIBLE, BUT WOULD LARGELY BE MISSING THE PURPOSE OF CINEMA-GOING TO BEGIN WITH.

AND THE ABSOLUTE PURPOSE OF TEMPLE OF DOOM? IT'S ONE BIG EXERCISE IN VISCERAL CINEMATIC TORTURE. SURE, IT REALLY DOES TORMENT THE LEVEL ONE INTERNALIZERS (WHO OFTEN SAY THE FILM IS "BAD", " DARK" OR "ANNOYING"), BUT BOY OH BOY DOES NO OTHER MOVIE SO DELIGHT OUR INNER LEVEL TWOS. NO OTHER MOVIE IS SO GOOD AT ACCOMPLISHING WHAT IT FEELS LIKE TO BE A KID AGAIN. IT GOES RIGHT THROUGH THE CALLUS. IT PROVOKES, POPS AND GROSSES-OUT IN A WAY THAT CAN ONLY BE ACCOMPLISHED THROUGH THE UNRELENTING EFFORTS OF A GLEEFULLY DEMENTED SOUL.

THAT WOULD BE MR. STEVEN SPIELBERG, AND IF YOU THINK ABOUT IT, NO OTHER FILMMAKER PROVOKES EMOTIONAL REACTIONS QUITE LIKE HIM. KIDS LOVE HIM. GENERAL AUDIENCES LOVE HIM. JUST ABOUT THE ONLY ONES WHO DON'T LOVE HIM ARE THAT SPECIFIC KIND OF GUY SOMEWHERE IN THE 15-25 AGE RANGE, WHO HAS RECENTLY JUST DISCOVERED THE JOYS OF AMBIGUOUS AND NUANCED CINEMA AND THUS VIEW SPIELBERG’S WORK AS ROTE OR LACKING -- WHICH IS COMPLETELY UNFAIR BECAUSE SPIELBERG'S CINEMATIC SUPERPOWER IS THAT HE IS SO DAMN GOOD AT SHOWING YOU HIS EXACT INTENTION WITHIN A SCENE. AND THE FACT THAT IT COMES OFF AS ABSOLUTE SHOULD NEVER MEAN IT SHOULD BE MISTAKEN FOR SIMPLE. BECAUSE IT'S NOT SIMPLE. IT'S ABSURDLY DIFFICULT. HECK, EVERY YEAR HOLLYWOOD TRIES TO CRAM IN JUST HALF OF THE UNDERSTANDING OF CINEMA INTO THEIR OFFERINGS THAT HE DOES AND FAILS, FOR THERE IS NO OTHER FILMMAKER SO ATTUNED TO THE SPECIFIC EMOTIONAL RESPONSE OF A POPULAR AUDIENCE. AND PLEASE DO NOT MISTAKE LABELING THIS TENDENCY AS CRASS MANIPULATION, FOR SPIELBERG HAS AS DEFT A TOUCH AS THEY COME.

DISLIKE IT ALL YOU WANT, BUT BEING NAKEDLY EMOTIONAL IS NOT MANIPULATIVE, IT'S JUST HUMAN. AND TO REJECT SUCH PURPOSEFUL CINEMATIC CONSTRUCTION IS TO REJECT A SMALL PART OF CINEMA ITSELF. IT IS TO REJECT THE "LEVELS" WITHIN OURSELVES. IT IS TO REJECT THE IDEA THAT SPIELBERG IS SIMPLY A PURE FILMMAKER; ONE WHO IS ALL BRAINS, HEARTS AND FARTS IN EQUAL MEASURE.

WHO ELSE COULD MAKE THE PERFECT FUNHOUSE MOVIE?

This was originally published in April's issue of Birth.Movies.Death., in honor of films celebrating their thirtieth anniversary this year. See The Class of 1984 at the Alamo Drafthouse this month!

 

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