Monday, August 13, 2007

DAY 13: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

When George Lucas captivated Steven Spielberg with his concept for the action-packed Raiders of the Lost Ark on the beach in Hawaii, Lucas also told his friend that he hoped it would be the first installment of a trilogy. The subsequent success of Raiders ensured that Indiana Jones would have another big-screen adventure and, once again, Spielberg stepped behind the camera as director. It was the first time in his career that he made a sequel to one of his own movies (he had been offered Jaws 2 but declined). What the two ended up creating was certainly a very different--though no less exciting or commercially successful--product than Raiders , but it also turned out to be a rather controversial--not to mention divisive--entry into Spielberg's body of work.

One thing that Lucas was adamant about was that he wanted this second Indiana Jones adventure to be much darker than its predecessor (just as Empire Strikes Back was darker than the original Star Wars). Although Spielberg agreed, he was never fully comfortable with the lengths to which the story went. It has been observed that the clashing visions of producer and director on this project (as opposed to how “in sync” they were with the first one) contributed to its schizophrenic nature. Spielberg has described himself as basically a “hired hand” on this particular film, using his technical skills to help make it as good as it could be but ending up ultimately "less-than-pleased" with the final result. As for why Lucas was pushing for a much darker, stronger tone to this movie (with strong, graphic violence and a narrative involving black magic, torture and slavery), he was going through a divorce at the time and has said that he just simply “wasn’t in a very good mood.” Without indulging in too much Freudian psycho-analysis here, it is interesting to me that at a point in his life when Lucas’ wife was leaving him, he felt compelled to include a scene in the film where a man has his heart ripped out of his chest.

The first thing the filmmakers did in conceiving of the story, that would come to be known as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, was to re-insert the set pieces that they were forced to cut from Raiders due to time and budget. To write the script Lucas approached Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (whom he had worked with on American Graffiti and who would later write the Lucas-produced Howard the Duck) in all likelihood because the two had a fascination for India, where this adventure was primarily to be set. Once again religion featured prominently into the film’s story but it was a different religion this time around. The Judaism of Raiders was set aside in favor of Hinduism (with nods to Voodoo). Again, Spielberg planned to put his comfort in telling metaphysical stories to good use.

Most of the original crew from Raiders returned (cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, second unit-director Mick Moore, casting directors Judy Feinberg, Mike Fenton, Mary Selway and, of course, regular Spielberg collaborators Michael Kahn, John Williams, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy). Notably absent were writers Lawrence Kasdan and Phillip Kauffman and replacing Norman Reynolds as production designer was Elliott Scott. The cast was composed almost entirely of new faces. Harrison Ford returned as Indiana Jones but John Rhys-Davies’ Sallah, Denholm Elliot’s Marcus Brody and, probably most heartbreaking of all, Karen Allen’s Marion Ravenwood are all absent. A whole series of new characters were created for Temple of Doom. Some of them appealed to audiences, some of them didn’t and, through the experience, Spielberg learned the inherent difficulty of making a sequel “is that you can never satisfy everyone. If you give people the same movie with different scenes, they say: ‘Why weren’t you more original?’ But if you give them the same character in a fantastic new adventure, but with a different tone, you risk disappointing the other half of the audience who just wanted a carbon copy of the first film...” Regardless of what we may think of the final product, credit at least has to be given to Spielberg and Lucas for trying to be original.

Spielberg shot the film in Sri Lanka, Macao and in soundstages at London. Once again, Spielberg came in under schedule and on budget. At one point during principal photography, though, a rather scary problem arose. During a fight scene, Ford severely injured his back to the degree that he could barely work (having to lie on a bed in between takes). He was quickly flown to America where he had a controversial papaya enzyme back surgery performed. Fortunately, it was successful and Ford’s recovery was swift (helped by the fact that the actor was in ridiculously good shape to begin with). Nevertheless, Spielberg did not have Ford for three weeks and since the character of Indiana Jones is in practically every scene in the film, continuing shooting was very tricky. Spielberg basically ended up using famed stuntman Vic Armstrong during that time, shooting mostly in "wide shot" or from the back of the head (when looking at the film carefully, one can tell when it’s truly Indy and when it isn’t) and simply inserting Harrison’s close-ups later. The sequence that most relied on this practice was the fight between Indy and the large Thuggee guard on the conveyor belt. As a result the editing of the sequence is not quite up to the usual Michael Kahn standards. This is understandable given the limitations, but other portions of the film also seem rushed and sloppily put together. Despite several brilliantly cut scenes, Temple of Doom is not edited nearly as well as Raiders.

Although the film did very well at the box office, the critics were not terribly kind to Temple of Doom. David Denby of the New York magazine wrote that it was “heavy-spirited and grating. The frivolous treatment of child slavery makes you slightly sick. This lurid and gloomy trash goes on and on, without a joke anywhere, and it’s not only sadistic and dumb, it’s oppressively ugly. That Spielberg should devote himself to anything so debased in imagination is unbearably depressing.” While it is perhaps a rather apt observation about the sadism and ugliness present in the film, Denby’s passionate critique is still somewhat harsh. It is inaccurate, for example, to suggest the film has no humor. In fact, the film is loaded with humor, albeit arch humor (including corny slapstick gags, sophmoric "gross-out" jokes and cartoonish wide-eyed facial reactions) as Spielberg was desperately trying to counter-act the “opressive darkness” of the film. The problem with the Temple of Doom is not in the lack of humor but in the balancing of the contradictory elements. The perfect blending of scares, thrills and laughs that Spielberg achieved in Raiders becomes simply a matter of excess in Temple of Doom.

The same can be said of the film’s structure and pacing. Spielberg once commented that his worst fear was boring his audience. The breakneck speed and dizzying array of incredible stunts in Temple of Doom displays Spielberg’s desire to avoid such a cinematic "sin." Unfortunately, in attempting to keep from falling off one side of the horse, Spielberg falls off the other. Roger Ebert once wrote: "There is a theory that action is exciting and dialogue is boring. My theory is that variety is exciting and sameness is boring." This phenomenon is demonstrated in Temple of Doom where, once the film starts running from one action sequence into the next without stopping for so much as a breath in between, the effect is disorienting and ultimately uninteresting. Indiana Jones becomes less of a character and more of a prop or stuntman (in some cases literally) simply being pulled from one direction to the other. As Author Douglas Brode writes: “It’s as if he and Lucas convinced themselves that most people would have enjoyed Raiders of the Lost Ark far more if all the human intrerludes had been taken out.”

Another major source of criticism was the film's main female character: the spoiled, gold-digging American nightclub singer Willie Scott (played by Kate Capshaw). In attempting to do something different from Raiders, Lucas and Spielberg decided to pair Indy with a woman who is not only far from his equal but really does not even belong in an Indiana Jones adventure (hoping, I guess, that the dynamic might provide humor). Throughout the film much of the intended comedy surrounding Willie's character comes from "fish out of water" scenarios. Willie's reactions to these situations, unfortunately, had the effect of not only getting on the nerves of the other characters (as she spends much of the film whining and getting scared by/screaming at just about everything she comes into contact with) but apparently grated on audiences as well. Some criticism came not just from a place of annoyance but from an offended perspective, a contention that Willie was a stereotypically weak and frivolous (always worried about her clothes and her nails) "male-fantasy" version of a woman: beautiful and sexy but with no real mind of her own. This reality was only aggrevated by the fact that the previous heroine was such a strong, independant character. Being a male, I don't pretend to fully understand or appreciate the concerns of the feminists who found much to dislike in Willie Scott. I will say (whether it to be to my credit or shame, I don't know) that I actually thought a fair amount of what she did in the film was pretty funny. I don't necessarily see Capshaw as "representing" anything--I always just took it all as a complete work of fiction and her wildly exaggerated character as just that--and while I absolutely agree that she is not the fleshed-out, interesting and engaging leading lady that Marion Ravenwood was (nor nearly as able a "partner" for Indy), I still prefer Willie to the extremely bland "heroine" of the third film (a woman who, as near as I could tell, had no character whatsoever but simply changed due to the needs of the screenplay). I'd take an obnoxious personality over no personality anyday.

Finally, one of the film’s most lasting impacts on the motion picture industry today is that (along with the Spielberg-produced, Dante-directed Gremlins, released that same summer) it was responsible for the creation of another movie rating. Parents with small children were particularly displeased with Spielberg, whom many saw as a sort of “Walt Disney for the 80’s.” The level of violence and horror in Temple of Doom seemed extreme to many, even coming from the man responsible for Jaws and Poltergeist. Although the movie was given a PG, it was becoming clear that the gap between “family” fare and so-called “adult” entertainment was wider than had been anticipated (Spielberg’s previous clashes over the ratings of his films proved this). Spielberg himself said that he didn’t think Temple of Doom was for anyone under the age of ten and he approached Jack Valenti (then head of the MPAA) asking if there could be another rating designated as midway between PG and R. Valenti acquiesced and, for the first time in decades, a new classification was added. Thus, PG-13 was created and to this day it’s is the rating that most studio executives aim for with their films (“grown-up” enough to appeal to young kids but not too “childish” to turn off teenagers and adults).

An interesting facet of Temple of Doom which I discovered recently (Thank you, Dennis Cozzalio!), is that it's yet another Spielberg film that seems to split people into two almost proportional and equally passionate groups (whereas something like Jaws is almost universally loved). Many regard it as the “black sheep” of the Indy family, not only the worst of the trilogy but perhaps even the worst of all Spielberg’s films (surpassing even the horrendous 1941, which it does bear some resemblance to at times). Still others--who oftentimes seem to be fans of 1941--find it an immensely exciting and thoroughly visceral piece of entertainment, the purest incarnation of Spielberg and Lucas’ desire to re-create the thrill-a-minute action serials upon which the Indiana Jones movies are based. Well, this may sound like a very diplomatic response, but I tend to fall about in the middle. I do agree that it is the least of the three (with Raiders being far-and-away the best and Last Crusade coming in second) but I do not think it is by any means Spielberg's worst film, nor even really a “bad” film. In fact, I think it's quite good and certainly superior to most movies made by Hollywood, either then or now. It may be rather dark and violent but that doesn't in itself bother me. I may not watch it with the same frequency as I do Raiders but every now and again I get a hankerin’ to revisit it (as I do with Last Crusade) and whenever I do, in spite of its many flaws, I always have a good time, which is (of course) all that the movie was ever intended for.


As Raiders of the Lost Ark did, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom opens with the old-fashioned Paramount logo. When it subsequently dissolves to a shot of an engraving of a similar mountain on a large gong, Spielberg is accomplishing two things. First, he is signaling to the audience that this truly is a sibling to the first film by opening it in the same fashion.


Second, he is sharing his usual affection for classic movies by referencing the opening sequence of George Steven's 1939 epic Gunga Din, which was in itself a parody of the J. Arthur Rank films that opened with an image of a gong being struck. Spielberg is essentially doing a "riff on a riff" while simultanesouly setting the stage for what will follow (like Gunga Din, the trio if heroes will battle India's Thugee insurgents, likewise taking place in a forbidden temple where the devil goddess Kali is worshipped).

The camera pans to a the head of large wooden dragon, out of whose gaping mouth a beautiful blonde woman in a red-sequined dress emerges. The main title appears behind her and the woman starts to sing a Mandarin-English version of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes" (whose title more or less sums up the attitude of the film). The camera follows her back into the dragon's mouth and the opening credits roll over an elaborate Busby Berkley-style number featuring dozens of dancing women.


While Spielberg once again demonstrates his fervent desire to direct a full-scale musical one day, he is also establishing the "rules" by which this adventure will operate: namely, that there are none. What started out as a believable nightclub act has turned into a fantasy which can only exist in the movies. This is another difference between Raiders and Temple. While Raiders' story did contain impossible events, there was always a consistent logic or plausibility to them. This film will sacrifice verisimilitude in the name visceral impact.

When the number is finished we learn that we are in Shanghai in the year 1935 (which the astute viewer will realize makes this a prequel: a story that actually takes place BEFORE Raiders, though there is no good reason for it to) and we are introduced again to Indiana Jones, this time wearing garb we've not yet seen on him: a tuxedo (an image which emphasizes the kinship between Indiana Jones and James Bond). Indy sits at a table and starts conversing with a Chinese hood named Lao Che--as with Raiders we are dropped right into the middle of an adventure already in progress and which ultimately has nothing to do with the film's main plot--in which they negotiate an exchange of the remains of the gangster's ancestor. The singer, whom we learn is named Willie Scott and is Lao Che's girlfriend, finishes her act and comes over to meet Dr. Jones and immediately a contentious relationship is set up as Indy uses her for a hostage to avoid getting shot by one of Lao's two sons. Eventually Lao receives his reward while Indy is paid with a large diamond and unwittingly drinks a glass of poisoned champagne to which Lao flaunts the antidote.

Soon pandemonium breaks out and in a typically Spielbergian sequence, Indy tries to recover the antidote as Lao's men try to kill him and Willie scampers after the diamond. At one point Williams actually works the "Anything Goes" melody into the score creating an association between the earlier musical number and this elaborately choreographed action scene (the connection is a very appropriate one; in many ways Spielberg's set pieces are like immense dance numbers). Finally, in the commotion Indy manages to escape out the window with Willie (who has stuffed the antidote down the front of her dress). The two manage to land in a car that just happens to pull up to the right place at the right time and we meet Indy's other companion for the film: 12-year-old Chinese orphan Short Round played by newcomer Ke Huy Quan (who, as it turns out, was a lucky find since he didn't come in to audition himself but accompanied his brother who was auditioning; I wonder what Thanksgiving is like at that household).


After we get a glimpse of the name of the club we were just in ("Club Obi Wan!"), Shorty speeds away through the streets of Shanghai (i.e. a studio backlot) and ends up at an airport where Dan Aykroyd, in a quick cameo, tells Dr. Jones that he managed to secure three seats for them on "a cargo plane full of live poultry." As he boards the plane Indy smiles triumphantly at Lao Che, but fails to notice the name on the door he is closing. Lao nods at his employee pilots and the plane takes off to the music of the heroic "Raiders March." Inside, Indy has changed into his "real" outfit (the jacket, bullwhip and hat) and--after telling Willie, since he's allowing here to "tag along," to try giving her mouth a rest--goes to sleep. Spielberg then re-uses the red line seen in Raiders to track the course of the plane.

While over India, the two pilots dump the fuel and jump out of the plane wearing parachutes. A groggy Willie finds the cockpit empty and wakes Indy up. Discovering that there is no fuel left and they are rapidly descending toward a snowy mountain range, Indy (straining credulity) convinces his two fellow travelers to jump out of the plane in an inflatable life raft. As The plane crashes into the side of the mountain, the three adventurers toboggan down the steep slope, over a cliff and into some rapids. Finally, tired, wet and cranky, they slow to a halt where they find an elderly Indian shaman standing on the riverbank, almost as if he were waiting for them.

He takes them to his village, an ominous, uninviting place where the inhabitants touch Indy and chant over him as if he were a savior sent to help them. Indy learns that the village has been under a curse since the maharajah of Pankot confiscated the sacred stone that protects the village. Ever since then the crops have died, the river has dried up and the children have all disappeared. Although familiar with the Sankra stone, Indy is skeptical a mere rock could have the kind of effect this fellow is describing. Indy is sympathetic to their problems but ultimately decides to travel to Pankot Palace not to help them restore their village to its former state but to retreive the stone--as he tells Shorty in a scene that features the trademark Spielbergian shooting star--for "fortune and glory." Again, the mercenary aspect of Indy's personality is brought to the fore.

After a long trek through the jungle via elephants--during which, Spielberg references a moment in David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai (a film shot near the same locations as Temple of Doom) with an image of thousands of bats sailing through the air--Indy, Willie and Short Round arrive at Pankot Palace and are greeted by the friendly well-dressed and well-spoken Chater Lal, prime minister to his highness. Lal is played by Roshan Seth, an Indian actor who appeared in Passage to India and Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, the film that beat out E.T. for Best Picture Oscar two years earlier (the fact that Spielberg not only cast Seth in this movie but later used Attenborough himself in Jurassic Park shows that clearly there were no hard feelings).

That night at dinner, a feast of unusual and rather unappetizing foods are served (including baked beetles, eyeball soup, and chilled monkey brains). This oddly adolescent episode--noted by reviwers as typical of Lucas and Spielberg but extreme even for them--jumpstarts the film's habit of pushing the situations to disgusting levels. Slowly the film is moving into "overkill" zone. Afterwards, the romance between Indy and Willie heats up. Unlike the relationship between Indy and Marion, there is no depth, sweetness or substance to this one (even Williams' love theme lacks the lyricism of the first one). It's difficult to believe that Indy is interested in Willie for any other reason besides sex. Still, as in Raiders, Spielberg never allows them the opportunity to consummate it. Their "affair" is interrupted by an attacker whom Indy dispatches with the help of his bullwhip and a ceiling fan. He then discovers a secret passageway in Willie's room which he and Short Round decide to explore.


It is here that the film's best sequence occurs. Like the various booby traps seen in Raiders, Indy and Shorty get trapped in a small chamber where the ceiling begins to lower on them. Soon spikes emerge from the ceiling and the floor and the two are forced to call out to Willie for help. It is a classic "race-against-time" adventure serial situation but Spielberg infuses it with a freshness and excitment that makes it seem new. He also, with the help of his editor Michael Kahn and composer John Williams, manages to perfectly balance the suspense and the humor. We are gasping practically at the same time that we are laughing. It is a masterpiece of timing; another example of a self-contained "mini-movie" existing in a bigger movie. At the last possible second, Willie manages to pull the lever that reverses the mechanism and save the day, getting completely covered with bugs in the process (the equivalent of the snakes from the first film). She runs into the now open chamber yelling to get them off her and Spielberg can't help but add a hysterical coda where, in her distress, Willie accidentally trips the wrong apparatus and the whole thing starts all over again (with John Williams' suspenseful music returning). This time, however, the three of them manage to escape the room before they are sealed inside and, in what has now become a legendary moment, Indy loses his hat but retreives it seconds before the door closes. It is the perfect capper to what I consider to be the most perfect scene in the entire film.

In the following scenes the occultish elements of the story are introduced and we see the main villain of the film for the first time: the Kali cult leader Mola Ram (Amrish Puri). Indy, Willie and Shorty all hide in a small enclave looking out over the Thuggee's underground temple (a hugely impressive indoor set lit very evocatively by Doug Slocombe with deep, sinister reds) and witness a horrific sacrifice. This is also where the film's most notorious moment occurs. Mola Ram casts some sort of spell over the victim, reaches into his chest with his bare hand and removes his beating heart. Impossibly, the man is still alive (once again demonstrating that this film bears no relation whatsoever to the actual world in which we live) and as he is lowered screaming into a fiery pit of molten lava where is burned alive, Mola Ram holds the man's heart aloft for the amusment of the crowd and laughs manically as it spontansouely bursts into flame. What makes this whole event particularly disturbing is that it is gratuitous. The sacrifice could easily have occurred without this extra added element and still been as potent. The "heart" scene, aside perhaps from revealing how evil the character of Mola Ram is, contributes nothing whatever to the plot or story and seems to serve simply as an exercise in sadism and ugliness for it's own sake.

When the worshippers vacate the temple, Indy emerges from his "hiding place" and starts to collect the three Sankra stones being displayed on the altar. As Indy holds them in his hands, Williams' music reaches intensely operatic (almost self-consciously so) levels. The look on Indy's face seems to indicate that he is himself under the "spell" of these rocks, thinking only of the power and glory they can bring him. He is about to leave but upon hearing a noise decides to follow it into another cavern--leaving Willie and Shorty behind to get captured by Thugee guards--where he learns the fate of the village children. They have been turned into slaves digging for the other two stones that the high priest Mola Ram needs in order to "rule the world." Seeing a guard beat a child, Indy angrily throws a rock at him. In doing so, Indy gets himself captured and thrown into a cell with Short Round where he learns from another young boy that he will be forced to drink the "blood of Kali," a magic elixir that will essentially turn him into a mindless zombie doing the bidding of his newly adopted deity. In what I think may be the darkest sequence in the film, Short Round is forced to watch helplessly as a reluctant Indy has the blood poured (from the mouth of a skull no less) into his throat and made to swallow. Gradually he gets "taken over" by the evil spirit and, with typical horror movie underlighting, starts to laugh sinisterly.

Short Round is put to work digging with the other children in the caves but while his captors aren't looking he hammers away at his own chains. Meanwhile, Indy stands idly by as Willie is prepared as the next sacrificial victim. Eventually Shorty manages to escape and make his way to Indy, but his pleading with him to wake up doesn't work. Indy strikes Shorty and causes him to cry. Soon Shorty emotionally sobs "Indy, I love you!" and shoves a lit torch against his bare skin thus breaking him from his slumber (how precisely Shorty knew to do this is never made clear). Awakened from the trance, Indy saves Willie, kills Chattar Lal, grabs the three stones and tenderly apologizes to Shorty (at this point Spielberg's "family" theme becomes apparent in the film; the trio have now essentially become their own little varaiation on a nuclear family). He then resolves to get the three of them out of there right after liberating all the children.

This would prove to be the last plot moment in the film. From the end of this scene to the finale, Temple of Doom literally jumps from one action scene to the next. First, Indy, Willie and Shorty free all of the children (who flee the cave in a mass exodus not unlike the Hebrews leaving their bondage in Egypt) before Indy "squares off" with the same large guard he encountered earlier, ultimately killing him with the aid of a rock crusher, and then escaping in a mine car. The ensuing chase was one of the sequences originally planned for Raiders but which the filmmakers were forced to excise. Through this sequence the film's identity as a metaphorical "roller coaster ride" finally becomes literal and it is a thrilling escapade indeed combining marvelous minature effects shots with actual footage shot on a full-size railway system constructed at Elstree Studios. At one point, near the end of the scene, the mine car leaps across a chasm and lands safely on the tracks on the other side proving, once again, that in this universe anything is possible. The laws of physics have no more reality than in a Warner Bros. cartoon.


The climactic scene of Temple of Doom involves a suspended rope bridge, to which Indy cuts the ropes causing most of the villians to fall into crocodile-infested waters below. This sequence is particularly spectacular as there are no miniature shots used at all (though there is some animation). The rope bridge was an actual bridge built over a real gorge (across which, incidentally, Spielberg could not go due to his tearrible fear of heights) and which the filmmakers had to actually destroy for the movie. Eight cameras ensured that the one-time stunt was properly captured on film. Eventually Indy defeats Mola Ram (with a little supernatural help from the stones themselves), retrieves one stone and climbs to safety. He then returns to the village with Willie, Shorty and a horde of children who are happy to be reuinted with their parents. Once again, Indy has beaten the bad guys, gotten the girl and lived to fight another day.

Although Spielberg has always expressed dissatisfaction with the film, calling it his least favorite of the three, he is nonetheless extremely grateful to have had the experience to work on it because of one supremely significant effect it had on his personal life. At the time of filming, Spielberg was with actress Amy Irving, who would soon become his wife, but before the end of the decade they would separate (bringing the painful reality of divorce into Spielberg’s life once again) and Spielberg would eventually fall in love and commit himself to someone else: actress Kate Capshaw, whom he met on Temple of Doom. When looking at the behind-the-scenes footage shot at the time, one can clearly see the two establishing a comfortable connection with one another and their enduring marriage (now approaching sixteen years) seems to be one of the precious few lasting relationships left in Hollywood. As Spielberg himself has said: “That’s the reason why I think I was fated to directed Temple of Doom. And so even though Indiana Jones wound up getting the girl... I really did."




TOMORROW: Spielberg's return to television

67 comments:

Joe Valdez said...

I can't recall reading one positive review for Temple of Doom when it came out. For me, this movie has aged supremely well.

It is embarrassing to compare it to Raiders. Philip Kaufman and Lawrence Kasdan wrote an epic film that transcended the Saturday afternoon serial, while Willard Huyck & Gloria Katz didn't have it in them to do much but copy and occasionally lampoon the Saturday afternoon serial.

Spielberg in second gear is still faster than almost any other action director in first gear. I'm crazy about the "Anything Goes" prologue, Short Round's hysterics, the choice of India for a setting, John Williams' spectacular score, and that the last half hour of the movie is essentially one action sequence.

Now that I'm over my crush for Karen Allen, I can even admit that Kate Capshaw is really good here. I watch this movie now and she;s funny as hell.

I'll take Temple of Doom over the Pirates of the Caribbean films any day. This was when adventure films were really adventurous, filled with wit and imagination.

Adam Ross said...

As I've said before, I have very strong (albeit biased) views on Temple of Doom, since it was the first real movie I ever watched. I'm going to try and post something about it on my site in a day or so.

Great analysis Damian, as usual. I think one of the underrated aspects of Temple is Williams' score, which I've always thought was the strongest of the trilogy. Williams keeps the same spirit of the "Raiders" score, but composed a slew of new themes -- Short Round's being maybe the most memorable.

Anonymous said...

I used to have this Marvel Comics adaptation of Temple when I was a kid (may still be around here somewhere, actually) that was clearly based on some version of the shooting script, as there was what would have constituted at least ten minutes or so of material not in the movie that made a LOT more sense. For instance: Short Round (and I find it wonderfully appropriate that the Temple Of Doom appreciation was posted the same day THE STEEL HELMET comes out on DVD) knew the torch would awaken Indy from the black sleep because, while working in the mines, he saw a guard get burned accidentally by a torch. The guard drops his whip and looks shocked, like he can't beleive what he's doing; the other guards quickly hustle him away. There was more like that, but I'd have to dig the comic out to remember exactly what. I do recall Willie Scott having a brief monolouge about growing up in Texas and how her grandfather was the ringmaster of a circus.

As for the film itself, I admit, objectively, it's not a very good movie. It's so the work of two guys who've just been dumped REAL hard; a film critic freind of mine once pointed out that, totally aside from the heart ripping, the protrait of Willie as a stupid, selfish, gold-digging whore, and all the other mysoginistic touches, the Temple Of Doom itself is dominated by a huge statue of an evil goddess...which you reach by penetrating a deep, fleshy looking pink and red tunnel! Every frame of this movie is imbued with one loud, clear, and evident subtext: that women are the devil, and love is hell.

That being said, I still find this a far more enjoyable and interesting film then Last Crusade, which is looking more and more like the DAY OF THE DEAD of the Jones films. That film is just like some horrible parody of Raiders, with some of the most pitiful special effects in a big-budget hollywood film. Temple is a great example of an over-the-top 80s excess effects extravaganza. On that level, it works. But, even though I have my reservations about the fourth one, I have no problem beleiving it's going to trump both Temple and Last Crusade.

Burbanked said...

I'm really of the opinion that pretty much any Indiana Jones movie is automatically 72% better than most other action/adventure movies. That having been more or less not qualified in any way other than in my own mind, I'll also say that Temple of Doom holds a spectacularly appropriate place in the Indiana Jones canon and should never, EVER be dismissed as purely an exercise by Spielberg, Lucas, et al.

I'm always a bit baffled to hear Spielberg apologize for this. Why would this be so? It's a fun cinematic romp, it expands the characters and the narrative universe and it's got amazing action sequences. What's to be sorry for? That it's a bit darker, a bit unpleasant? Really, how is pulling out a man's heart any worse than watching Toht's head melt, his eyeballs falling out of his skull while he's screaming in pain and misery?

I will forgive every "inconsistent" character beat, every complaint about Willie Scott, every single moment that Temple detractors bring up for one narrative reason, brilliant in its simplicity: this movie IS, as you say, Damian, a prequel.

And what that means to me is that the character of Indiana Jones hasn't grown as a person and as a hero to the point he has reached by the end of Raiders. He's younger, brasher, more greedy and self-serving. Why wouldn't a handsome, man-of-the-world adventurer like Indiana Jones act like an overly macho ass, a rogue, to someone as superficial, silly and frivolous as Willie? He hasn't reconciled with Marion yet, he hasn't figured out that she's someone important, of value and true emotion yet - his character won't get there for a couple of years. Quite simply, this feeds into the old-fashioned serial nature of these films: the dashing, hopelessly stereotypical male hero and the damsel in distress. That the film is set prior to the events in Raiders only makes it more of a throwback - and therefore, a cleverly-crafted homage - to films of another time and place.

Denby's assertions about the ugliness and depression of the child slavery story beats are ridiculous. Of COURSE child slavery is ugly; doesn't that serve to set up the moment of triumph - both personal and in terms of story - when Indiana decides to save them? Doesn't that suggest a progression of character - from "fortune and glory" to something a bit more altruistic - that not only will he save the day, he'll save the children?

Fine, the movie has its dark and unpleasant moments. Oh well. But for anyone to suggest - let alone SS himself - that Temple has enough wrong with it so as to require an apology is, to me, outrageously silly.

And Damian, I originally found all that behind-the-scenes stuff with Spielberg and Capshaw to be kind of charming and quaint. He comes across as a high school sophomore trying to impress the head cheerleader. Was he still married to Irving at that point? Because knowing that, it seems a bit creepy. Maybe in the end THAT's what he feels he needs to apologize for.

Dan Owen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan Owen said...

I'm going to stick up for Doom. When I was a kid growing up, I'd watch Doom more than Raiders. As a kid, I didn't get the religious backstory to Raiders, so just saw it as a series of cool moments to savour (the idol, the snakes, the melting faces, etc.)

But Doom I could understand and identified with more: kidnapped kids, child slavery, gross-outs (snake!), dark humour, the "heart scene", Short Round's kung fu, the mine kart chase, the bridge scene... I lapped it all up. Come on, admit it... Doom has more stuff to just sit back and enjoy watching.

As an adult, I see Raiders as the better film, definitely... but Doom isn't bad. Critically, I can rip it to pieces now for its uneven tone and ugliness, but I'll always remember watching it as a kid and finding it strangely fascinating and far more re-watchable than Raiders.

As for Last Crusade? It's a good film, too, but I thought Connery was a lazy "dad gimmick" and the religious nature seemed too similar to the Ark. They should have done something with a different civilisation, imo. Like Indy4 is probably doing...

Edward Copeland said...

I remember how excited I was to see Temple of Doom, which happened to open on the last day of junior high so a large group of us went to see it. I was horrified by the result, which was the first time I felt I was maturing faster than Spielberg. The opening sequence was superb, but the rest was just awful, thanks largely to the talentless Capshaw. Maybe I would have felt different if Mola Rom had pulled her heart out. At least I would have gotten some sick enjoyment out of the experience.

Peet said...

Temple of Doom has always been my favorite of the trilogy, and although I don't agree with everything you wrote here, Damian, your article has helped me to understand why this part is viewed as infinitely inferior by so many.

I realize now that it's important to note that, contrary to the rest of the world, it was the first Indiana Jones that I saw. As such, I could impossibly be disappointed by the changes in tone, leading lady or what have you. I was able to love the movie purely on its own grounds. Yes, Temple of Doom is sublimely over-the-top, gross and cartoony, and yes, the stereotypes are all over the place, but it was clear to me that that was pretty much the whole point. As a first introduction to a filmic universe, it made perfect sense to me. As a continuation of an existing universe, I can see now why it rubbed fans of the first film the wrong way.

Having said that, I will never understand why anybody would prefer the dull, uninspired third part of the Indiana Jones series over this sensational piece of entertainment.

This is quite a project, Damian! You give me plenty to catch up on. Great stuff!

Mark Palermo said...

In a way, I consider this and Gremlins, which I saw theatrically at age 5, my intro to horror movies. Look at that top poster that Damian has up. It makes the movie look terrifying, which was a big part of its kid-appeal.

What makes Temple of Doom feel off-key as an entry in this series is that it doesn't cover as much geographical ground as Raiders and Last Crusade. Once they get to Pancott, they don't really move around again. But the breakneck feel of the movie makes up for it. I agree with those who say it's aging better than The Last Crusade.

Also, the film's humour is very aggressively un-PC. Not just in the perceived sexism either. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is basically a joke on action movie xenophobia. No Hollywood film had so tongue-in-cheek an approach to traveller's fears again until Eli Roth's Hostel--a movie that's leagues below this one. Even the food has bugs in it.

Spielberg apologizing for the film is a PR annoyance. If The Temple of Doom were well-received upon its release, he wouldn't be saying that. He's made the same sort of comments about the terrific The Lost World and 1941.

Steve said...

The Temple of Doom is my favorite in the trilogy as well.

What's weird is that I remember when it first came out, and everyone I talked to who saw it the opening week thought it was better too--faster, funnier, wilder. The audience I saw it with went crazy during the opening number and then went even even crazier during the roller coaster sequence. Everyone came out laughing and giddy. It was only when the reviews starting coming in, the critics' sour reaction seemed to put a damper on things. And then that whole PG-13 nonsense came out.

Frankly, I thought at the time and still think that it was too far-out and freaky for the critics. The audience was out ahead of the critics on this one.

I love the "tall tale" aspects of this movie -- the gross-out humor of the campfire sequence, the feast, and the tunnel of bugs; the roller coaster mine cart; and the great opening musical number. These sequences strike me as much more vivid than anything in Raiders. Yeah, it gets a little dark down in the fire pit. But you don't always know how far to go until you've gone too far. I think that was Spielberg's attitude here. There are crazier highs in this movie than in any other movie in the series. "Anything Goes" indeed.

TuckPendleton said...

Not much to add beyond the above. I will say, since the DVD set came out, I gave #3 the cursory spin, and I doubt I'll watch it again, ever.

But I really dig Doom, for many of the reasons stated above, and Burbanked stole a lot of my thunder by pointing out that it was a prequel, thus giving credence to a lot of the supposed flaws. Of course, some things about it will rankle, but I'll revisit this and Ark many times over the coming years.

(And is it just me, or does Raiders seem too damn long now? Maybe I am just getting older and crankier.)

Here's another great piece of writing on Doom, from the dvd release:

http://www.dvdjournal.com/reviews/a/adventuresindianajones.shtml

(About halfway down the page.)

TuckPendleton said...

The URL seems to be cutting off, so here it is:

http://www.dvdjournal.com/reviews/a/
adventuresindianajones.shtml

take out the line break after a/

Steve said...

Thanks for that link Tuck! DuPont makes many great points in favor of Temple of Doom -- yet still she seems to feel the need to qualify it all by saying that the film has "deeply embedded problems." Weird, considering that except for Capshaw's character she doesn't seem to have any major problems at all. She even likes the dark stuff. And her points about Ford's terrific performance and the gorgeousness of the movie are especially on target. I still have a clear memory how great it looked on the big screen when it first came out.

Cinephile said...

Damian--
Would you please write a bad essay? I'm getting a little tired of having to type "another fabulous essay" every time I read one of these, but-- another fabulous essay! (: All I can say is "ditto" to burbanked's excellent points, esp. those regarding the "prequel" quality of the characters and narrative. I remember being slightly disappointed with the movie when I first saw it-- something felt lacking, and I think I decided it was the villain, as Ram just isn't as interesting or dopplegangerish as Belloq, and that lack of a good bad guy does undercut the film's effectiveness somewhat, at least as compared to Raiders.

I actually like the film a great deal more 23 years later-- the first 1/2-2/3 is absolutely astonishing, an skillful, funny, and action-packed a movie as one could hope for. I find the middle section with Indy-as-slave a bit dull-- the film slows down and because it lacks the richer characterization of Raiders, there's nothing to really see or get absorbed in, just heavy-handed thematizing and violence (effective, yes, but not interesting). But I do love the final third of the movie, for all the reasons you and the posters have noted.

As for Denby-- that quote you used encapsulates all the reasons he's a poor successor to Pauline Kael at the New Yorker. I want to like Denby, who seems like a smart, conscientious guy, but he's such a cinephobe, and while he can be insightful about literature, every film review of his makes me think he walks into the theater holding his nose.

Finally-- yesyes, athousandtimesyes-- Temple is a much better film than the dull Last Crusade, which has Sean Connery and little else, and seems to be apologizing for itself at every turn (maybe that makes it the David Denby of adventure films).

Damian said...

The comments here are very interesting to me because for the longest time (until I saw the variety of responses to a "Temple of Doom-themed" question on one of Dennis Cozzalio's great movie quizzes, which you can read here) I thought everyone was about on the same page as I was: liking it but not more than the superior Last Crusade. Now I see that this film inspires passionate feelings from people in both camps. There are just about as many folks who love it as there are who hate it, which is why I called it one of his most divisive films.

I'd like to respond to just a few things in particular if I may:

Burbanked:

The inconsistencies that I've pointed out may become more forgivabel in light of the fact that it is a prequel, but I find that to be purely by accident. I don't get the sense that Spielberg and Lucas sat down, decided it was to be a prequel and then approached it as providing any sort of "backstory" or character development for the Indiana Jones character. I just don't think they brough that much thought to it. perhaps they did, but it still leaves me with some lingering questions. As Temple of Doom was set one year before Raiders, then what happened to Short Round? They seem very close by the end of this film. Did he run away from indy? Did Indy dump him, or (even more depressing) did Shorty die?

Also, there is a scene near the end of the film where Indy faces two swordsmen and hereaches into his holster to pull out a gun to shoot them. Of course, having lost his gun earlier in the film, it's not there. It is an obvious, and quite funny, homage to the now classic moment in Raiders (furthere emphasized by John Williams' score which briefly quotes the score from the "Cairo chase" scene). Indy looks up and smiles at the guards (all but winking at the camera) and then starts to fight them. It's a fun moment but again I think the lack of discernment on the part of Lucas and Spielberg is on display here. Since it's a prequel, Indy is repeating something that hasn't even happened yet!

Mark:

I'll have to disagree with your contention that Spielberg wouldn't have apologized for the film if it had done well. The film actually did do well at the box office (though it may not have been warmly received by critics); audiences loved it, but Spielberg himself was never satisfied. As I mention in my piece, even during filming he was uncomfortable with it. ow, obviously an artist can be "his own worst critic" and Spielberg certainly doesn't have "final say" on the quality of his work or lack thereof (and we are all more than free to disagree) but to assert that he's simply sorry because he's "following the crowd's opinion" on it is, I think, rather unfair.

Steve said...

I always liked that moment when Indy reaches for his gun in Temple -- it's funny in part because it's a prequel, and the gun gag from Raiders "hasn't happened yet."

Yet, of course, it has. It's a double wink at the audience over the whole "prequel" tomfoolery.

Damian said...

Oh, and I forgot to mention, Burbanked:

Spielberg was not married to Amy Irving at the time, but they were a couple. The two wouldn't marry until a year later and four years following that they were divorced. Spielberg and Kate were married about three years after that, so the flirtation seen going on in Temple of Doom is only a little creepy. Quite honestly, I find it rather innocent and sweet. I don't think either knew exactly what was happening at the time of filming. They certainly weren't "falling in love" with each other just yet (or Spielberg wouldn't subsequently have married Irving). They were simply, as I say in my essay, in the embryonic stages of "establishing a connection."

Clearly, however, it was a connection that was meant to be. :)

Ted Pigeon said...

First off, another insightful analysis, Damian. (And yes, I cheated on my vacation rule of not writing or reading blog entries.)

Temple of Doom is a every bit as good as Raiders... at least until the action starts. Until about the time Indy drinks the blood, I think Spielberg exhibits his amazing ability for visually conveying the wonder of narrative in large and small ways. The nightclub scenes, the village scenes and the jungle trek scenes were pure perfection, in my mind. Sure, the movie goes all over the place, but how that is a criticism of it, I'm not sure. That's the whole point of these movies: to be unhinged, balls-to-the-wall adventures. Even the scenes in the palace and the booby-trapped passageways en route to the temple are so evocative of adventure, dripping in atmosphere both visually and musically.

It's worth noting that John Williams' score has to be one of the out-and-out greatest adventure scores in cinema. He absolutely unleashes with the music that I can watch the first hour and ten minutes of the film at any time and in any state and love its for its pure movie-ness.

But that's just it. The movie is almost too good, too frenetic, too perfect in that duration that once it tries to outdo itself, it never quite gels the way it does in the first half. I like the slave children's march, the mineway chase, and the bridge finale, but they don't have the charm of the rest of the movie, not in the least.

It's interesting that Temple of Doom, in my mind, is similar to War of the Worlds in that regard. Both films are so good, so profound in their own ways (very different ways, mind you), that when they shift directions about ninety minutes in, the final acts do not even touch the first two acts in the respective films. It's funny that while Temple ramps up the action, War instead makes the fatal mistake of stoping its momentum, only to deliver more generic alien movie action thereafter. Nevertheless, each movie contains some of the most sustained, brilliant, and all around amazing filmmaking of Spielberg's career.

Damian said...

I always liked that moment when Indy reaches for his gun in Temple -- it's funny in part because it's a prequel, and the gun gag from Raiders "hasn't happened yet."

Yet, of course, it has. It's a double wink at the audience over the whole "prequel" tomfoolery.


I don't know, Steve. An artist can only wink at an audience so much before he is really just kidding himself too. Quite frankly, this feels like justification for sloppy filmmaking and careless storytelling. Don't get me wrong. I love the sword/gun gag in Temple of Doom but (as with the noisy sliding house at the final of 1941) the logical side of my brain cannot accept it. Maybe Spielberg was hoping people wouldn't notice (or just wouldn't care). Either way, I think that on this particualr occasion people are giving are giving him too much credit. Granted, maybe I'm not giving him enough but in truth all of this just makes me go: "Why not abandon the whole 'prequel idea' nonsense to begin with?" Temple of Doom is a completely original, isolated adventure with absolutely ZERO connection to Raiders whatsoever, so they might as well have not even given a date. It could take place before Raiders, it could take place after. Ultimately, it doesn't make the slightest bit of difference.

Steve said...

I think you're overthinking the whole "prequel" idea here as it relates to this particular gag, Damien. I know I laughed at the gag when I first saw it, and so did the rest of the audience. It's funny, full stop.

But then, I tend to take the idea of prequels less seriously than other people. CASINO ROYALE makes zero sense as a prequel from any number of perspectives, but I enjoyed it too.

I did like Alexandra DuPont's idea (in the link that Turk provided) that they made it a prequel so that Indy could come off as more roguish and Bogartesque at the beginning of the picture. If it was a sequel, he'd either still have to be fighting Nazis during WWII or the period would have to be post-WWII -- a little late in the century to still be fighting Thugees. Either way, it would be tough to depict him as an apolitical adventurer hanging out in India and China

Jeffrey said...

Just a few words on DOOM's ghoulishness, and Spielberg's disavowal of it:

I don't buy it.

At least, I don't buy his pushing it off on Lucas. If George bade him drink the blood of Kali, Spielberg enjoyed its effects just as Indy did. The proof is in their smirks...

Spielberg has always had a bit of the sadist in him, and it's something he's wrestled with since the beginning. He's clearly not comfortable this side of himself, or the effect he can have on an audience when he unleashes it.

DOOM is more from the id than anything else Spielberg has directed himself -he doesn't apologize for POLTERGEIST or GREMLINS in this manner- and I think that is really why he's so uncomfortable with this film in particular. Beginning with DOOM, he begins a process of apologizing for disturbing his audience - outside the film at first, but internalizing these dual impulses *within* the films as he continues.

Since DOOM, he has tended to subsume his attraction to violence mostly in big, historical statements - horrific events occur, but Spielberg includes these climactic remorseful breakdowns in his lead characters that are so outsize they clearly are being imposed on the material by the filmmaker.

He seems to have reached an apotheosis of sorts in MUNICH. Characters stand around gaping in horrified awe at the violence they've committed, a dark reflection of the transcendent gaze in his fantastic films. The much derided sex scene strikes me as the hopeful ultimate of his 'Schindler Loses It' scene - an all-out attempt by an artist too deeply in thrall to his subject to exorcise it away in love and sex.

I think it's a healthy development and hope it brings him some peace.

-Jeffrey Allen Rydell

Damian said...

Hey, I lauged too, Steve! I laughed right along with the rest of the audience when I first saw it. It still makes me smile to this day (it may not make me laugh out loud as the sword/gun gag in the original Raiders but that's neither here nor there). I'm not denying that it's funny nor am I suggesting that they shouldn't have included it. I'm just saying that, like a lot of the film, it doesn't make any sense! Apparently that's not a problem for some people and maybe it shouldn't be a problem for me either. Perhaps I am indeed "overthinking" it and I should just lighten up and take it for what it is: a throaway gag intended to amuse audiences. Nothing more. If so, that's fine, but there's a part of me that still feels like I need to allow my brain some small degree of activity when I watch a film, any film. I certainly don't want to overthink things--although I don't believe that I am--but it's hard for me not to think at all when I watch a movie (not that I am suggesting you aren't). I guess I just can't help but feel that if Lucas and Spielberg had put a little more thought into things while they were actually making it, I wouldn't have to now.

Damian said...

Also...

You are right, Steve, in that Casino Royale makes no sense at a prequel either, but it was never intended to be a prequel. It was always described as a "reboot" of the franchise, i.e. the first in a series of new Bond adventures. Thus, they can change whatever they like and it can be totally logical, reasonable and make prefect sense. Ultimately, Casino Royale ended up being IMO the best Bond film in over a decade (and I'm a HUGE 007 fan).

Peet said...

Jeffrey, you said:

Spielberg has always had a bit of the sadist in him, and it's something he's wrestled with since the beginning. He's clearly not comfortable this side of himself, or the effect he can have on an audience when he unleashes it.

DOOM is more from the id than anything else Spielberg has directed himself -he doesn't apologize for POLTERGEIST or GREMLINS in this manner- and I think that is really why he's so uncomfortable with this film in particular. Beginning with DOOM, he begins a process of apologizing for disturbing his audience - outside the film at first, but internalizing these dual impulses *within* the films as he continues.


Boy, do I agree with you, man! I nearly lost all hope for Spielberg in the lame years directly following Temple of Doom, for this very reason.

Jeffrey said...

See, to me- even though it's sometimes derailed the story he's supposed to be telling - this impulse is absolutely riveting to watch displayed. It's just so naked.

Burbanked said...

Damian, I think you're right to some degree that Lucas and Spielberg may not have set out to craft a prequel from the ground up. We're all very familiar with how Lucas approaches those kinds of "I planned this all along" narratives.

But I have to think - I have to believe - that filmmakers worth their salt do not craft these things by accident. Beyond just Spielberg and Lucas, there are, of course, Huyck and Katz involved, as well as whoever else helped in story development from the Paramount side, as well as Ford's own portrayal at work here. Between all of these disparate entities, there must have been some kind of mandate, mission or goal that the prequel-related story beats and character traits should be there - or else, as you say, there's no point to doing it that way. I spent way too much time in Hollywood story meetings quibbling about silly, inconsequential narrative beats that weren't related to a multi-jillion dollar franchise to believe that these things happen by accident.

That having been said, I think your point about Short Round is excellently made and could have easily been dealt with at the end of Doom. "Say, Short Round, ready for another adventure?" "No way, Dr. Jones, you almost got me killed! Time for me to retire!"

And I think that the pistol/sword bit is just one of those things: a fun wink at the audience while showing blatant disregard for logic or good continuity sense. Cinema is filled with them, some successful and some not so much. If I REALLY wanted to be a revisionist/apologist, I'd suggest that Jones shooting the guy in Raiders was simply out of a sense of relief that his gun happened to be in his holster that time.

But I won't suggest that. Or did I? Rats.

Noel Vera said...

Whaa--Kate Capshaw talentless? Like, she was a total klutz in Dreamscape and The Love Letter? Do not agree.

Possibly my favorite of the three movies. Well, it teeters between the given and take of Connery and Ford in the third one, and the brilliant stunts in this one mixed with sadism (refreshign to see Spielberg's playfulness collide with a more adult cruelty). Yes, India's not well represented here, or even well photographed, but Gunga Din is arguably a racist piece of white propaganda and you can still appreciate that as a slapstick remake of The Front Page.

James said...

Hi there Damian and all the rest of us now wrapped up in this movie viewing - writing marathon.
Temple of Doom was well reviewed by Pauline Kael (often overrated I think) when it was released.
What I love about the film now, as opposed to when I was twelve years old, is that a lot of its entertainment for me now comes from its romantic comedy aspects. Films change as we change. I think the film also serves as a perfect example of Spielberg's longstanding impulse to make a musical: the sequence that concludes the action in the mines is virtually a piece of ballet that , for me anyway, is up there with parts of Buster Keaton's The General.
James Clarke
www.james-blueskies.blogspot.com

Piper said...

Damian,

Your post inspired me to watch this again and I did so with my son.

What's interesting is that while it is darker in some ways, it is probably the most entertaining to kids. The dinner scene and the bugs and the mining car chase all appeal more to children and don't hold up well as I have grown. And Shortround is all about the kids.

The opening is brilliant and I had no idea there was such conflict between what Lucas wanted and what Spielberg wanted so it makes sense that this movie is all over the place.

I myself don't care much for Doom and think it is the weakest of the trilogy. The bug scene that you praise in your post to me doesn't make sense with the story. Indy is being saved by Willie? Nah. Never happen. It was at this point that it becomes obvious that this is less a movie for Indy and more a movie for Kate Capshaw.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Wait a minute. Sean Connery has retired from acting?

Jonah Falcon said...

"When the number is finished we learn that we are in Shanghai in the year 1935 (which the astute viewer will realize makes this a prequel: a story that actually takes place BEFORE Raiders, though there is no good reason for it to)"

It's called, "Writing out Marion Ravenwood".

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