Thursday, November 20, 2008

Indiana Jones: Anything Goes (3 of 3)

You may have noticed that Mark Mayerson is about to finish his invaluable 101 Dalmatians analysis. So I think it’s overdue to conclude my series on the use of color during the next few weeks. Besides, I’m happily surprised that I still get comments on these past entries. But before, here’s my third and final Indiana Jones post for the time being.

I’ve always liked to analyze opening sequences for what they reveal about the rest of the movie (or novel or play, for that matter). The Shanghai prologue in Temple of Doom certainly is a good example, even though contentwise it’s completely unrelated to the 96 minutes that follow. I was initially only going to write about the excessive use of colored light, but somehow I got carried away into another direction.

Excessively attractive

First I have to admit that re-evaluating it in the wake of Crystal Skull I liked Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom a lot more than I used to. I simply enjoyed the experience. Sure, the character-arc-prequel-confusion, the gratuitous violence and most importantly the blatant ethnic stereotype issues cannot be rationalized away, but as an action adventure it still is the ultimate rollercoaster in my opinion; even more so compared to current summer blockbusters that seem to have gradually replaced solid action sequences with frantic cutting orgies. There aren’t too many action directors nowadays who believe in the quaint concept that everything has to be staged as clearly as possible, because the audience has to be able to follow what goes on in order to be engaged in a scene emotionally. Ford and Hitchcock did (to name but the best-known). Steven Spielberg still does, even with an average shot length of 3.5 seconds according to David Bordwell. Well, Temple of Doom is pure entertainment; uneven, about as far from being art as possible, but still above average film making (just study the staging in any shot).

The audiovisual spectacle constantly reminded me of two theoretical concepts at work here: Kristin Thompson’s “cinematic excess” as well as Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attractions”. Before digging a little deeper into these concepts, let’s look at the structure of the whole film and especially the first 12 minutes (time data based on PAL 25fps):

Plot structure (bold: action scenes, italics: show numbers)

1. 00:00 “Anything goes”, main title musical sequence
2. 02:45 Exposition bad guys, Willie; Indy drinks poison, waiter is shot
3. 07:45 action sequence: quest for diamond and antidote, escape from club
4. 10:15 car chase through Shanghai, boarding Lao Che's plane
5. 12:45 on the plane without a pilot, jumping off
6. 17:15 boat ride: snow, cliff, river, Indian man appears
7. 19:30 establishing deserted Indian village, people and stones
8. 24:00 night time: escaping child comes to Indy, conversation with Short Round
-------------- end of act I------------------------

9. 27:30 next day: elephant ride, Willie in the mud
10. 30:00 campfire comic animal interlude
11. 33:45 Natives flee, forebodings
12. 36:00 establishing city, introducing governor
13. 37:30 introducing Capt. Bloomberg, disgusting meal progression
14. 44:30 bedroom screwball scene: attempted murder, Indy prefers statue to Willie
15. 51:00 Shorty and Indy in the trap, more or less rescued by Willie (hat under door)
16. 57:30 intro red cave, heartless boy sacrificed and burned
17. 62:45 Indy approaches the stones, Willie and Shorty captured
18. 67:00 Indy captured, poisoned and turned into a zombie
19. 74:00 Willie almost sacrificed, Shorty frees Indy saves Willie
-------------- end of act II-----------------------

20. 83:45 children released, Indy and Shorty fight goons and Maharaja.
21. 90:00 cart chase through the red caves, villain floods cave
22. 96:30 chased outside by water, showdown on the suspension bridge
23. 105:30 Indian village in full bloom
24. 108:30 end credits
-------------- end of act III----------------------

Very often sequels featuring the same protagonist have to be more story- than character-driven because his inner conflicts have already been resolved at the end of the first film. So in his second big screen adventure Indy has naturally become a static character (very much like James Bond used to be, just more human).

Anything goes: the common ground of musical and action adventure

But back to the opening sequence (1.-4.): The blazing red main titles (in a more modern typeface) are laid over a classic Busby Berkeley musical number: glittering revue girls choreographed on an abstract set with Kate Capshaw singing Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” in Mandarin. Everything is in stylish black and white (Berkeley’s musical revues were not in color) except for occasional spots or outbursts of glaring red. The only balancing element is a delicate blue neon light (and some silver and gold). This restrained color palette is maintained throughout the whole Shanghai prologue.
It doesn’t take much interpretation to associate the red pharynx with the fiery cave at the heart of the movie. And to be honest, the use of red isn’t very subtle anyway. This was the moment (about half a minute into the film) when I first thought of “cinematic excess” that sometimes is defined as stylistic devices that draw attention to themselves without advancing the story.
For comparison: Hitchcock (also a friend of primary colors) uses red caps in this still from North by Northwest (the Chicago sequence uses a similar color palette) not because it makes for a lavish picture, but to show the likeness of the porters and to single them out in the crowd.

Excess can also describe scenes that do not add to the narrative but to the experience (as many musical numbers in revue films do). Apart from the dance scene, there is a lot of excess in Temple of Doom in the action department. But all this is essential to the experience of an action movie. As can be seen in the plot overview above, most of the scenes can be enjoyed on a stand-alone basis without too much knowledge about the movie’s plot. Most of them are either chases or show pieces (just think of the shows underground or the disgusting meal presentation) that are however seemlessly connected to generate one great ride.
Like in a vaudeville or freak show we are presented with a progression of thrilling and funny visual attractions. Let’s not forget that motion pictures once were one of these attractions and people were looking in awe at Japanese dancers, later Broadway revues, then the parting of the Red Sea, car chases, eventually slashers and space cowboys. So according to Tom Gunning, a writer with profound knowledge of early cinema, the concept of a “cinema of attractions” has survived until today, parallel to - as well as absorbed into - narrative three act structure. I’d argue that Temple of Doom (while being influenced by 40s serials) is proof of that theory. In this respect it is not much different from a Bollywood extravanza (except maybe for the lack of a real love story).

Indy himself used to be more a darker character throughout Raiders but this time everything’s more clear-cut: the white man is the good guy (looking more like James Bond here, speaking several languages) while the bad guys wear black and vulgar Willie (Capshaw) is red and glittering. This way it’s also easier to keep track of the character’s in the mêlée.
Indy treats Willie more like an inconvenient object he has to take along than a love interest (Kate Capshaw’s character is less a tough 40s heroine than an annoying imbecile). His real partner is an orphan called Short Round, which also sets up the theme of Indy caring for children. From the moment they are together in the car we tend to root for the kid who virtually saves their lives more than once.

While we have seen that red was used for dangerous objects (explosives, the monkey spy, poison) in Raiders, here it is all over the place. So the poison Indy drinks is almost colorless and the antidote stands out because it is light blue. This won’t be the last time that Indy will be poisoned for a while. By the way, just look how the cinematographer made use of the blue neon lights as frames or guides.On a side note, it’s interesting how many round objects (remember, Mickey is constructed from circles to make him look gentle and likable) you can find in the setting for a rather tense scene: the table, the white lamps, the blue arc, the balloons (light) followed by the gong (heavy), the chinese lamps outside etc.

Colors beyond Shanghai

While the exterior car chase to the airport is more or less using the same black/white/red/blue palette (including the airport and the plane), change comes above ground. None of the following is very subtle, but it doesn’t have to be for a film like this. For one thing, Willie is now wearing Indy’s white suit (carrying her red dress with her) and Indy is back in his usual outfit. After leaving the plane, the colors change to the more natural and cold: blue, green, yellow (the boat) and brown.

Even later, when they arrive at the deserted Indian village (lots of browns that match Indy’s and Shorty’s clothes) Willie still stands out with her black and white suit as she is clearly the least adaptive of the three.

Obviously the mirroring scene in the end shows us a village in full bloom and colorful clothes as “life has returned to the village when the stone got saved”.
In the ancient city, among natural beiges and greys there are a lot of red clothed people, whereas Capt. Bloomberg, the English inspector without a clue about anything sports a glaring red uniform.
Before they finally enter the Temple of Doom, we can distinguish the two bedrooms during the parallel cutting by their respective colors (cyan vs magenta).

Down in the cave, most of the light is in primary colors: red (heaps of it), blue and yellow. While the jinxed people (including Indy) have red faces (the red lights disappear as soon as Indy is released), the stones project yellow light and down in the mine there are red, yellow and blue caves.
The carts are marked by blue (front) vs red (tail) light, while above ground once again the bad Indians are red and the good ones (under English supervision…) are blue like the antidote in the beginning.

So although there is excessive use of red here and there, the overall color scheme comes off as quite rigorously restricted but sometimes used more for effect than for narrative needs.

Thursday, November 13, 2008


The last four weeks were so busy that I didn’t even find time for Halloween and Election Day posts. Yesterday I had to deliver 13 loosely connected illustrations for a local precision tool company. Since they are domiciled in the countryside they also own four donkeys and a couple of goats.

So even though the basic story premise was rather quirky (a fantastic retelling of why the donkey is vital to their business) at least I had something to work with apart from the unphotogenic clamping modules that had to be included.

It also gave me the opportunity to revel in candy colors and kitsch settings. When I started out, I looked at Norman Rockwell (which I like a lot more than I thought) and Edward Hopper for inspiration. But way into the process I found out that some of the pictures turned out to be (unconsciously) more influenced by John Hench and Claude Coats.

it's always a challenge to make pastel...

... or primary colors look remotely good

As there was relatively little time overall, some of the character designs evolved during production. The goats, for example, became more cartoony along the way.

[all "paintings" digital over pencil sketches]