Sunday, December 10, 2017

THAS: Emotional Crescendos

Now if there's one major obstacle to Hooper's place of rightful ownership of Poltergeist, it is the presence of emotional climaxes to be found in Hooper's work.  For Poltergeist is filled with moments both large and small, cardinal and incidental, that mean to evoke emotion and further bring emotion to a head, like buttons (efficiently or emphatically pushed) to mend the dramatic seams, or studs embroidered along the dramatic lining.  But how often is this a common method of Hooper's?  And how is it a common method of Spielberg's, and how does it differ from these moments of Poltergeist?  If these emotional divertissements are implicit in Spielberg's script, what, on the level or timbre, pitch, and intensity, are they rendered in their fullest spirit by Hooper?  And what evidence of Hooper's interests in emotional emphases are there, where most of his instincts are devoted to subtlety, performativity (accounting for much of what is usually characterized as Hooper's shrillness or excess), and to limitations, technical, formal, and moral?  (Formal and moral limitations being ones of intent - limitations that are built into a conception of cinema; technical being adaptive, as Hooper could never mirror the illusionism of The Tales of Hoffman to such a direct extent of archaic on-camera magic as in The Heisters again, though he could allude to Powell and Pressburger in ways more sublimated - I must mention critic Scout Tafoya's intent comparison of Hooper to Technicolor fantasists such as The Archers and Max Ophuls in his recent tribute video essay to Hooper.)

This post is mainly concerned with the "What evidence?" question.  What are cases of Hooper, in his most reticent and consciously withholding early work - and it is conscious, whether imposed by technical and creative restrictions, in the form of cameras, creative relationship with cinematographers, etc., or self-conforming, to the tone and neutrality of a script and potentially moral story (I'd say most often both in conjunction) - do we have evidence of what he was able to pull out from himself for Poltergeist?  That is, in Poltergeist, he feels the need to elicit from us strong emotions.  He has the onus on him to provoke, possibly, tears.  Spielberg is often praised for these elements, honoring the sentimentality of his stories with his dutiful techniques: close-ups, sharp cutting, the montage of moving camera and graphical frames.  Hooper's rendering of Spielberg's sentiment is rightly praised (often misattributed), Poltergeist often regarded by fans as one of the most effectively "tear-jerking" horror films in cinema.  Naturally Spielberg ought to carry some of the burden of audience's devotion, but little do a large number of that audience realize that they are being swept up by a harder, more formalist revisiting of these common Spielberg tropes.  They are in fact being bamboozled into recognizing dramatic impressions from an arcane form that prioritizes full-bodied framing over froth, aesthetic fussiness over the basic and perfunctory techniques of manipulating dross.  But did he really pull off those practically soul-affirming moments in the film called Poltergeist?

What moments can we salvage, pointing to a meticulousness and an earnestness of dramatic and emotional emphasis, as precedents to Poltergeist?  What are the emotional moments of Hooper's career, pre-Poltergeist?  What are the Poltergeist-like crescendos of his early works?

Unlike Spielberg's claim to crescendo, movement harmony, and foreground-background interplay, Hooper's modification to the emphatic, emotionalized, big-budget fantasy, a meta-cinema, of sorts, moving away from his documentary stasis, is the precision and masochism of Hooper's frames to create a certain level of hysteria, in previous efforts, and, yes, positive emotionalism, in Poltergeist.  He does not just shoot spectacle, he does not just make action into a stagy, if dynamic, froth: Hooper concatenates it, any spectacle of bodies, into a specific matrix of demanding shots, still more about the stasis of frames than the bustle of actions.  Spielberg is too smooth, while Hooper operates at a distance that allows for so much of Poltergeist's surprising, unmotivated camera moves.

1
from 'Texas Chain Saw Massacre'



It might seem odd to present any moment of Texas Chain Saw Massacre as one of emotional culmination and emotional emphasis, from a work so cold and merciless, but we work with what we are given.  The film certainly does not share the sentimental mode of characterization and dynamic drama that allows the intent creation of emotional beats, which is what is made room for in most mainstream filmmaking, such as Poltergeist.  But this moment is an emotional apex nonetheless (coordinated to a moving camera), if a raw, guttural one, in which characters and drama are not individuated but made even more pure and denuded (and universal).  Hooper stares an emotion in the face through the use of a dynamic camera.  If not positive emotions, ones of warmth or heart-tugging ingratiation, it is still an emotional button push of total hysteria and terror.




As Spielberg's camera creates emotion through movement, here, too, we can see Hooper trying to access the limits of affective cinema through an "emotionalized" camera - one such usage and crescendo in a pre-Poltergeist work, joined to Sally's miraculous escape from the Sawyer farmhouse.  Our emotional zenith is her crash-landing, as arch and pitiful as that sounds.  It is a truly Hooperian equation of great emotion with great purity, from the disavowal of the self through emotion.  Hooper trades in universals, not asking that we must like or get to know a character before we can feel for them.  His characters are tabula rasa enough that each camera movement can write for itself, not just in accordance to what is dictated by the previous shot or the narrative.  The empathy is in the camera motion itself, not its enhancement of diegetic particulars, which are always pared down to the bone in Hooper's prioritization of the universal.


 



The moving camera of the emotional apex.





Another moment of emotional climax that utilizes a moving camera; a dolly movement used to enhance the emotional content of the scene.  As precedent to Poltergeist, this moment from The Funhouse is highly advantageous, as Hooper is not one to partake usually in extreme identification with his characters, such that he’d use the camera to enhance our responses to them; instead, he chooses to view his characters from a distance (and not just when executing visual gags).  Here, even, this fact of distanciation still stands, except he is willing to indulge a moment of, not just an emotional peak, but an intent meaning.

Amy is at the limit of her comprehension of events, finds herself looking down into a pair of gears grinding away before her, and, as she breaks down, crying, the camera goes into the smallest, most subdued dolly motion in towards her.  It is an emotional climax, built towards like a small crescendo, from a filmmaker who does not usually do this, but knows a crescendo from a spasm, an indication of deeper meanings from a whiz bang manipulation.

2
from 'The Funhouse'







The creeping camera, signifying of slow realization and emotional changeability.




Thursday, November 2, 2017

POLTERGEIST

Might as well get to the bottom of this.

Martin Casella, in a panel with Oliver Robins during Days of the Dead Indianapolis: "The thing that was so strange about that scene was there was a long hallway and we had to do this very, very complicated technical dialogue walking down that hallway... and we were all having trouble memorizing that.  And then all of sudden we got to a doorway [...] We opened the door and basically we saw a big giant blue screen that was absolutely blank. [...] What we got, though, was Tobe was behind the camera, directing, and they had the camera pointing at us through the doorway, and Steven was standing on the other side of the camera with a huge pointer, like you'd have in a classroom, and then Beatrice Straight said, 'Well, what exactly are we looking at?'  And Steven said, 'Well, we don't quite know yet.  We just know that all the things in the room are going to fly around and ultimately something is going to fly at you, probably a compass.'  So Steven stood there with a pointer, and Tobe would yell 'Action' sitting up on the crane or the camera, and we would kind of open the door... [...] The three of us had a discussion of what do you think we're looking at... [...] Steven had a pointer and he would literally stand behind the film and, over the dialogue, he would go, 'Look here! Look here! Look here!'  The three of us... we looked like idiots.  Like cats! ... And finally, then the very end, he would say, 'And now the compass is coming at you!' and he would stick this pointer in Beatrice's face.  And she would shriek and go like this.  And we felt like jerks standing there for about six hours shooting this thing over and over and over again."

So Spielberg was an enthusiastic helper/co-conspirator/fun-dad while Hooper stuck to business with the camera.

Casella: "It had been really complicated because that whole sequence [ed: the kitchen scene leading up to the face-ripping scene] took forever, because I had five different lights coming in.  There was a light coming in through the kitchen window, there was a light from the refrigerator, there was a light from over the stove.  And I didn't particularly like chicken legs at the time, and that was Tobe going, 'Oh here, put this chicken leg in your mouth'... And we were all in this kitchen - in a dark, dark kitchen - with certain lights coming through the window, and one camera guy; and Tobe was on one side, and Steven was there as well, and I had to basically... it was hard, it was really hard, because I had all these props.  I had to open doors, and make sure the light hit me the right way.  And I had to juggle a steak in a packet, and put a chicken leg in my mouth.  And put the thing-- it had to go exactly in the right place on the counter when I put it down, because in the grout in the tile, that was where the special effects guy was hiding underneath... [...] It ended up taking 46 takes, because of the lighting, because of the sound equipment, something would always get in the way.  The light would go out, the chicken would fall in the wrong place... [...] the maggot guy yelled 'Cut' once."

Marty in the kitchen is certainly a scene apiece with Hooper.  It merely follows Casella's movements throughout the kitchen, without the need to editorialize it with cuts or exaggerated actions.  It is capturing someone in an environment, raw and unaffected, with an individually aestheticized eye.

Casella: Finally, we did it and got everything right, and Steven was like, 'Okay, pal, it only took 46 takes' and I was, 'At least you got it!'  And he was like, 'Okay, now we gotta move into the bathroom.'  And all I could think about is, 'Oh no, this $100,000 prop that they've made.'  And I finally turned to Tobe and said, 'I have an idea, let's ask Steven to do it.'  And Tobe was like, 'Okay, that's a great idea.'  So we went to Steven and Tobe said, 'Marty's concerned that something's gonna go wrong with the gag,' they called it. He said, 'Why don't you do it?'  And Steven lit up like a 5-year-old, and he actually jumped up and down on the set going, 'Yes yes yes!  That's a great idea!'"

(Regarding the cut scene when Marty goes upstairs and is bit by a behemoth) "We shot the scene.  Tobe was actually working with everybody else, that was actually the scene-- the famous 'Who directed the movie?', it was Tobe.  For us.  (I know for Oliver, too.)  But Steven directed that [scene].  And literally, it was amazing.  I'd open a door and Steven would yell, 'Scream!'  And I'd just let out this blood-curdling scream.  And the guy would just hoist me about 15 feet up into the air. [...] That was fun.  It was fun, and painful.  And it was great, because it was Steven, too.  That was one of the days when it was just Steven and I, and he had a small B-camera crew just shooting us."

Spielberg shot B-unit, in accordance with the special collaboration between a munificent Hooper and the writer/producer Spielberg.  Fitting it would be an entirely Spielberg-directed sequence that wouldn't make it into the picture.

[Answering the question, "How much of it is Hooper's vision?  And how much of it is 'Spielberg as Oz'?"]

Oliver Robins, Days of the Dead in Indianapolis: "You know, it's funny, I thought about that, and that's been a question that I think will haunt us for the rest of the remainder of the history of this movie.  Bottom line, Tobe directed this movie.  But one thing that you really have to think or know about filmmaking is it's a collaborative effort.  And that's something I learned even more so in film school: everyone contributes to the process.  And people forget that Steven was the first writer of the movie.  It was his vision, it was his creation, he was also the producer.  And while Tobe directed me, every conceivable scene on the set, Steven was there always contributing his input, into script, into story.  And that's what every writer would want to do.  I've written things for television and I've wanted to put my two-cents in.  And directors always confer with me on what I wanted to do.  But in terms of who told me what to do on the set, where to stand, how the film was going to be shot, as a kid, I remember Tobe doing everything a director should do and needs to do.  And the DGA even looked into it years later, I guess, and they confirmed everything that I saw on set, too.  But bottom line is, it was a heavy-duty Spielberg film because it was coming from Steven's script.  And the way Steven had written the script, and I reread it a little bit recently, it almost reads like a shot list in such a way.  So if you're a director, and you're following the script to the writer's vision, you're probably gonna achieve something that is a Spielberg movie... Every sequence was very detailed, every line was a shot, pretty much, so if you follow that, you were going to make a Spielberg movie."

And so Hooper often diverges from the script (and storyboards) at specific times.

Hooper, in a Master Class held at MOTELx Festival in Spain, 2013: "I hate storyboards.  I mean, I have to do them sometimes for some special effects shot, so they can budget them, we can talk about how many elements are in them.  But I prefer to walk out onto a set and 'click together' [it]."

Casella: "I basically had the same experience.  On the first day of shooting something happened, and I've talked about it, so even when the DGA looked into it... it was the scene with the special effects on the little teapot again.  That first day, Tobe would whisper something in our ear and then they would yell action and we would do the scene.  Then Steven would yell cut and Steven would come around and whisper something in our ear.  And that went on for about six minutes and Beatrice Straight said: 'One director, please.  This has got to stop.'  And it went on literally for about six or seven minutes - you know, a half an hour at the very most - and she just said, 'That's not how we do this.  We have one director around here.'  And after that, Tobe did everything.  Steven had lots of input.  Like Oliver said, it was his script.  I mean, yeah... it was Tobe.  Other people will say-- You might get different answers if you ask other actors on the movie, interestingly enough."

You ought to watch the video and see how conclusively he puts it, the bolded part.  I like to think that's the last time Spielberg ever said anything to Beatrice Straight (outside of waving a pointer stick in front of her).

At a different Days of the Dead Q&A (Casella and Robins again) in Atlanta:

Robins: "(in media res) As a writer myself, you really want to protect that vision.  And you want to be able to step in and work with the director.  And Steven did that with Tobe.  As a kid, I really wasn't privy to everything that went on, but as far as I know, Tobe directed me, but Steven was there every day, and I know Tobe and Steven worked very closely together to bring alive a vision that Steven had in mind when he actually wrote the original script.  And he basically did what any writer would probably want to do, to make sure that what he sees on the page makes it on the screen.  And at the same time, Tobe was able to compliment it with all his super talents, because, you know, he directed Texas Chain Saw, and he brought something really special to the movie.  And, as an actor, it was wonderful to work with someone like Tobe, because he's the one who let me be free, let me improv, let me just be a kid.  I was so spoiled on that movie, because so many films after that, I didn't really have the opportunity to do improv, make up lines, and a lot of those lines actually did make it into the movie.  And you know, Steven as the writer allowed Tobe to allow me to do that.  That was my experience in terms of that whole controversy that went on."

Casella: "I basically had the same experience as well, which was, the acting notes that you would get mostly came from Tobe.  Steven was more concerned that we were getting the right tone.  Obviously there's certain camera moves in the movie that you watch and you go, 'Oh, that's a Spielberg move.'  When JoBeth runs down the hallway, that's the same camera trick that they do in Jaws... Steven was concerned with things like that.  I actually did a little 2nd Unit shooting for a scene that got cut that Steven actually did, he was in charge of that.  They were shooting the 1st Unit downstairs then there was a little sequence that I had to do upstairs, and Steven was there for that.  But otherwise, Tobe was the one calling the shots, sort of telling us what to do, in terms of acting."

James Karen (25th Anniversary Screening Q&A): "This always comes up... my answer is, Steven was the producer, a very strong producer who was on that set every day, and Tobe Hooper as the director was on that set every day, and it's Tobe Hooper's name up there, it's 'Tobe Hooper Film,' and I think people should just accept that.  We had a great producer and a great director."

Mark Victor (25th Anniversary Screening Q&A): "When they started shooting the movie, as a member of the Writer's Guild, we were on strike.  And while I was walking on the picket line outside, they were shooting the movie inside and I was going, 'OK, keep shooting, keep shooting.'  But I did get to spend a couple days on the set and I think it's like James said, I'd see a take and Tobe would [unintelligible] the scene and set it up and where to go, and Steven would come in and make some comments, which is not unusual."

Zelda Rubinstein (25th Anniversary Screening Q&A): "[I have?] a different view.  During those six days that I worked, I found Tobe set up every shot and Steven came in and made final adjustments.  So I think it's a split decision... I think for the most part, although Tobe is [??] a phenomenal director, that's a Steven Spielberg movie."

Let's not overlook the fact that the accounts conceding Spielberg always made "comments" or "final adjustments" (and really, what role probably exerted the greater influence over the ultimate outcome of shots, the person who initially set them up and thus conceived the framing, or the person who made some commments afterward?) were there the fewest days.

I just included the latter, pro-Spielberg half of that statement for Zelda complimenting Hooper, which is kind of her.  My theory is she may have intimidated Tobe a little, made him defer communication with her over to Spielberg.  The existence of conspiracy theories baffles me when everyone seems to be in agreement, probably the result of overzealous crew members and small-role players thinking they know the whole story.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

READ: Eaten Alive (1977)


"Tobe and I instantly clicked.  Tobe and I had this weird shorthand.  It didn't even come from respect, because we didn't know each other then.  It's just, Tobe will say three things, and I absolutely know what he means by one of them. (Hooper impersonation:) 'Uh-- uh-- uh-- Robert, now, you come around the back of the Cadillac and maybe I'll see the brake--,' and he'll say "brake light," and ah... and I could see the shot in my own mind's eye.

At least we can be sure Hooper filmed what is outside of the economical room where Buck and Lynette partake in some heavy petting (above, Hooper seen with shirtless, pre-swamp-dip Buck).  Naturally, there isn't likely an actual room behind that set door.

Below, the realization of the scene Robert Englund describes in his quote above, which may or may not be drawn from actual, reliable experience.  Still a good nudge for the idea that Hooper did shoot scenes with Janus Blythe.



"He'll say one thing [in his direction].  Then you'll be sitting around with Tobe and you'll be wanting to talk about something like that and Tobe will be talking about Gettysburg or Bull Run, or some extraordinary piece of literature, or some great movie that you want to run out and see immediately, you know, because he must have an IQ of 200.  So he can frame of reference everything.  We just sort of understood each other right away." - Robert Englund

"I started thinking about the content of the movie, and what the movie was.  I decided, why don't I Wizard of Oz this thing a bit?" - Tobe Hooper

"Well, the crocodile... it didn't do much, really.  It could open its mouth.  So you don't see a lot of it.  That made it really cool, I mean, it made that part of it cool (you saw its back)... Anyway, what the crocodile could do was: pushing it underneath the house, (laughing) there's a couple of shots you can see it.  Its arms goes this way (demonstrates), you know, like those children's 'quackie duck' toys that they push with wheels and the (demonstrates again) little duck's feet go round... and that's really what was in there, it's like one of those quackie duck wheels that made those--: (demonstrates, laughing).  And shooting it the right way and holding only on the shot for about 2 and half seconds..."

If anyone wants to really see Hooper's zen attitude toward the absurdities of his humble career, it would be in this 2006 interview The Gator Creator With Tobe Hooper, in which he is still rather youthful and sprightly, reminiscing on the experience of Eaten Alive of which he does say was "not that great," but still giggles and gleefully paddles his hands at face-level to demonstrate the joyfully childish image of the life-size crocodile's "quackie duck" feet.

We also now know Hooper was involved in the giant foam debacle's climactic entrance into the crawlspace of the hotel, and the ensuing chase after poor little Angie, as his reminiscence includes pushing it underneath the house.

“The experience of making it was not that great.  I have to say there was a lot of script shifting that I found later didn’t have to be… I didn’t find out until almost three quarters of the way through shooting this… [ ]… that the reason the financing was there was because I’d do the film… I thought, 'Boy, why did I ever go through a lot of shit’ when I find out, this thing was mine.  And all this hell I’ve been going through, which was many, many scripts, and producers– [cuts himself off to make a joke] The children would get ideas!  They’d come back and say, you know, Judd should throw a hand grenade in the crocodile’s mouth and get his head blown off.  And, I mean, it was every day… 'No,’ 'nope.'"

“So yeah, I’m happy for it and I’m happy that it’s out there.”

 Hooper shows a pride for the film, ineluctably tied to a sense of ownership.


One of the two photos showing Hooper with Stuart Whitman, and the only one showing Hooper with that featured deputy; shows, to a reasonable doubt, Hooper was shooting the police station scene.  We must also keep in mind this was a shoot that lasted hardly a month.  Twenty days might be more like it.  Isolated scenes away from the Starlight Hotel - such as the police station, the whorehouse sets, the diner, Miss Hattie's office - were probably shot in one or two days.  For instance, Craig Reardon recalls: "I don't think she [Carolyn Jones] was there more than a day or two."  And we can immediately scupper that small but still recurring rumor of Carolyn Jones directing parts of Eaten Alive.

"Tobe was voluble and social, but quiet.  Neville was expansive.  But I think that they both seemed to arrive at their art through interior means, then it came out.  They didn't talk about it.  There is not, on one of Tobe's sets, a lot of external conversation about your motivation or whatever.  In fact, he often uses just simple shorthand like, 'I want you to scream at this point,' 'I want you to do that.' But if anyone has ever seen Tobe talk at length about his movies or what he was thinking about, there's an awful lot of rational thinking that went on as to what he-- why he used this color, why he used this particular venue or atmosphere." - Craig Reardon

"The more I worked with the film and the screenplay and all of the players on board, the more interested I got in the characters.  Miss Hattie, who runs the whore house - Miss Hattie was a real madam who worked on the outskirts of town just outside Austin city limits, and was protected, I guess, for years." - Hooper, circa 2015

"It was really cool to see these people from-- like Carolyn Jones from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  She was just way cool, and a wonderful lady.  Like, she just loved being Miss Hattie.  She was just loads of fun.  And Stuart [Whitman] I got to know pretty well.  Actually, Stuart was best man at my last wedding... well, no, I'm sorry... he signed the certificate.  The witness." - Hooper, circa 2006

Real memories of the shoot.  A real sense of the Miss Hattie character, a real sense of propriety over what she and all the characters brought to the story.  This is the voice of someone with a sense of ownership and little shame over a work.  He remembers working with Carolyn Jones, and it was nice of him to correct his misspeaking about Whitman being a "best man," rather than just the witness in attendance.  I'm sure they were friends, though.

"The largest problem I had straightaway was I had been used to working with Arriflexes and NPRs and Eclairs, French cameras that you can pick them up and move them immediately.  Or even a large 35mm blimped Arriflex, weighed 100 pounds or so, but you could get it moved.  But I had an old blimped Mitchell, and those things are almost the size of a car.  It would sit on a crane and I couldn't make things move as fast as I'd been used to." - Hooper, circa 2015

"[I remember] almost halfway through the film, feeling an interference... or having suggestions imposed on me that didn't jibe with my through-line.  And so Mardi and I squabbled a lot, and, you know, that would cause me to pack up my stuff and head toward the stage door knowing that I wasn't... well, one time I made it out to the trailer.  Well, I had that feeling and I'm not sure I didn't get my way all the time by fighting and just, you know, screaming.  And at least what was on paper, what was scripted-- I don't recall-- I really don't recall anything that was crucial that wasn't there, once it had gotten locked on paper."

So, contrary to the claims that Eaten Alive was a compromised product, Hooper essentially claims that he got what he wanted (though he has always expressed how much better he could imagine it with greater, more opportune resources).  Eaten Alive was and is compromised, but Hooper is aware of these contradistinctions in the text and exhibits ownership and the satisfaction of a vision, despite the impositions and changeling footage (speaking poetically, meaning footage in the film but with a different mother, something present in most every film under the label of "2nd unit"), which can be deemed minor or merely serviceable.

TCSM / TCM 2

Cold to warm, hard to soft, the dynamics of the central human relationships of the Texas Chainsaw films.











Frontal Interrogation