Last Monday night, TCM aired Spielberg on Spielberg, a 90-minute romp through the master’s filmography led by the master himself. I didn’t get to catch it live, because I was too busy that night TV-Watching Spielberg’s all-too-painful Fox reality show, On the Lot, but I finally got around to firing up the program on my DVR this weekend. Like most good movie docs, it made me want to watch a boatload of films I’ve already seen a boatload of times. So I enjoyed Spielberg on Spielberg, and I recommend it. But one thing about it drove me up the wall, and I want to know who’s with me.
As SonS got going, we were zipping along through Spielberg’s movies in chronological order — Duel, Sugarland, Jaws, Close Encounters, 1941, Raiders, E.T. By the end of this, I’m getting excited, because I want to hear what Spielberg has to say about one of my favorite Spielberg movies, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I know he’s been down on it for most of his career, and I’m thinking I’ll finally get to hear why. But then, for some unknown reason, the doc jumps straight from E.T. to Jurassic Park, and for the rest of the night we’re all over the place, hopping from this film to that. Temple of Doom got no mention at all. Neither did Last Crusade or The Lost World.
After the jump, I’ll elaborate on why these omissions were egregious.
Spielberg is, first and foremost, an action director, the greatest of all time. Of course he’s more than that, but as good as his straight-up dramas are, they do not exist as perfect forms the way some of his action movies do. To put it another way: Schindler’s List is a great drama but it is not a perfect drama in the way that Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg’s best film) is a perfect action movie. And Spielberg’s action movies are routinely superior to the prestige pictures he usually makes immediately after or before a popcorn movie.
The Lost World is better than Amistad.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is better than Always.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is better than The Color Purple.
The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan are far superior to the rest of the movie.
And — here we enter cloudier territory — the superbly choreographed superdestruction of War of the Worlds at least gives the moral pretzel that is Munich a run for its money. And back in 1993, I argued like mad that Jurassic Park was a finer film than Schindler’s List; I’m not sure about that anymore, that might’ve been me just being a young punk, but at least it fits with my overall thesis, and is not that completely indefensible a critical position.
Which is to say: We should give Spielberg credit for what Spielberg himself seems reluctant to take credit for. If Spielberg, or Spielberg on Spielberg, assumes that Temple of Doom, Last Crusade, and The Lost World are lesser films than Amistad, The Color Purple, and The Terminal simply because they are less “serious,” then Spielberg — and Spielberg on Spielberg — are wrong. And since Spielberg is making Indiana Jones 4 as we speak, excluding the previous two sequels in a career overview like this only affirms the snobby and infuriating notion that he shouldn’t be making Indy 4 at all when he could be making his biopic about Lincoln instead.
Maybe I’m just sore that Temple of Doom got left out of the doc entirely. I’ve never understood why even Indiana Jones fans bash it; it’s 10 times more outrageous and daring than the inferior Last Crusade, which, though great in its own right, so obviously reeks of retreat on Spielberg’s part — it’s a virtual carbon-copy of Raiders, with Sean Connery thrown in. What do you think? Is Temple of Doom underrated? Is Raiders better than Schindler’s List? And man, have you been watching On the Lot? It steadfastly refuses to get very interesting!