Friday, November 13, 2015

JLG's KING LEAR as Primer for the work of Tobe Hooper

The greatest artists have a knack for association.*  It is the characteristic of art that is built from the ground up, and a sense of the ground up is a factor non-negotiable in the free association of ideas and helpful communications.  Meanwhile, most ignobly, on the opposite side of things, are the films built from a package, suited for the studios and filled with insurances (the most basic being have your film contain characters, a genre, and a plot).  Only the most grandiloquent, predetermined, and elephantine (as in the kind that is White) associations survive a film built on previous elements: that is to say, the truly associational is propounded first by the complete separation of a work from its source, or from the outsized predetermination of its associations (thus what I speak of is much further evolved - into the substrata, away from the comprehensible - from the schematic associative qualities of the likes of Charlie Kaufman).  A work cannot allude if it has come to be its source itself.  It cannot associate if it is confined within the parameters of concept.  This is why genre films are incestuous (why Kaufman films are White Elephant), whereas Godard films are associative.

* (This sweeping statement is arrived at through the basic postulate that the greatest artist, this side 
of Hitchcock, is Jean-Luc Godard.  Scattered along the sides of that triumphant diametric are Agnès
Varda, Chantal Akerman, Tobe Hooper, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Straub-Huillet, Pasolini, Syberberg, etc.
who allow their liberation with the form to honor both sides of the spectrum freely, independently,
and, in those most irrepressible and enlivening of them - such as Varda, Hooper,
and Kurosawa - in fusion.)

This idea of adaptation that allows for associative freedom consists the very theme of the film of King Lear made by Godard in 1988, which was smuggled through with Golan-Globus money (or as the film cheekily dubs it, the "Cannon Cultural Division") and provides a King Lear with no plot, no genre, no - or some - characters.

"And then, suddenly, it was the time of Chernobyl."  

"And then, suddenly," not "And then suddenly."  The accentuation is important, for it is delivered as if the event was instantaneous, the result of coming after or over the course of this very title card.  The utterance makes it so, and Godard's magical realism here proposes a present tense, not a recalling of the past.  Hooper is known for his spaces out of time (as is what makes him tailored to Schiller's principles of aesthetic universality), but what of his time out of space?  His compounding of time suggests the basic principle of tragedy.  His abstraction of it brings him back to Godard, and his non-time.  Their work and its nebulous time proposes both the experimental immediacy of their topicality and the eternal quandaries of it.  

A character in King Lear states, about editing, it is "handling," he says, "physically, the future, the present, the past."

The present the film fabulizes is made the present (as opposed to the future) because daring artworks create epochs freely within themselves, and art is not separate from the current times (one of the things art can allude to), or from all-time.  These are associations of time, crossing even into the future.  Prognostications into the future make up heavily the subject matter of Spontaneous Combustion, Djinn, both placing edifices in the landscape that are not currently there (power plants, high rises).

The pronouncement of its hypothetical apocalypse is placed over Godard's signature signifier of absence, his title cards, which are themselves the very basic building blocks of communication, themselves embodying the "nothing," the very notion of ground up, from which he builds.

Chernobyl, the arbitrary but pointed catalyst, stridently represents the modern times.  Arbitrarily, it brings about the evacuation of all things, then, as ironic bathos works, brings them all back again... except for culture, art, and Shakespeare.  Compare, the arbitrary catalysts and strident representations: the gas shortage crisis in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halley's Comet in Lifeforce.

"Peace, Mr. Shakespeare.  Come not between the dragon and its wrath."

Power and Virtue.  One can say that this is the central dialectic at the heart of almost every Hooper film.  A central blank slate, or receptacle of virtue or human essentiality, is placed against figures of corruption and compromise.

Godard's King Lear, with much freedom, adapts the central relationship of Lear and daughter Cordelia into the contemporary container of an alleged father and daughter (played by Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald), traipsing curiously about Nyon in Switzerland, this iconographic unit both busy transcribing a manuscript about Bugsy Siegel and simultaneously doubling as actors (perhaps themselves) playing out the drama of Shakespeare's Lear.

At the risk of dampening the sense of complete spontaneity in the film's associational play of subject matters and truly inspirational stunt casting, what is feeding into this scenario is the multiplicity of Godard's creative preoccupations at the time: Godard creating associations with himself.  Prior to cutting the deal with Menahem Golan for King Lear, he was indebted to a brief creative relationship with Francis Ford Coppola and Tom Luddy at Zoetrope Studios, winding down from his Dziga Vertov Group and essay film/agitprop phase with the plans to return to the idea of the "feature film," proposing a Hollywood project about Bugsy Siegel entitled The StoryThe Story, which was reportedly to be about a filmmaker's inability to make a movie about Bugsy Siegel, the legendary mobster who created Las Vegas, is itself being adapted in King Lear, a film about power and virtue, art and commerce, the act of adaptation and artistic sabotage, all of it associationally come together subsequent to the death of his mobster film.

That his implementation of an aborted project about Bugsy Siegel and the provenance of Las Vegas comes from such a literal source as his own behind-the-scenes contract roundelay may seem precious at first, but this cannibalization of his previous American project into his current American project proves to be the most appropriate way to dissect his fascination with the story of Siegel's commercial ascendancy.  It puts into further relief the struggle of adaptation and the strength of Godard's voluminous association: the nobility of a Shakespeare adaptation is the vessel in which to explore the contrast between art and virtue, embodied by Shakespeare and Cordelia, and business and commercialism, embodied in Bugsy Siegel, Lear/Learo, Burgess Meredith's domineering faux-mobster father figure, and the very parochial system of feature filmmaking itself.  Godard's wish to free himself from the latter is the basis of his associations. 

Meredith's dictation to Ringwald's Cordelia - neurotic, amended, dense with personal intimations - is the perfect manifestation of the drama of power at the center of King Lear.  The layers of reality between performance, literature, history, and retelling is a blurring of it,  blurring that makes its way into the more experimental and associative of Tobe Hooper's work.  Reality and story find a special layering in the superstitious heart of Djinn.

It should read, "All of these..."

Legend and myth (the former based in reality, the latter not necessarily) cross here in King Lear, Siegel and the film's mob Lear, "Learo," compounded into the same universe.  Truth and fiction vie for superiority, meanwhile Siegel's empire is spoken with the quality of myth.

"El Dorado of the sea" may as well be one of Hooper's forbidden houses.

That should read, "... in its gigantic maw,"

Meredith's addlepated, dissipated gangster, beyond all logic, dictates the endgame of his kind ("isolated men...") through Godard's poet's view.  "The system swallows up the gangsters," as does the funhouse to the mutant, the inbreeds to the Texas big rigs, the aristocrat to his own perverse lineage.

 That should read, "I find I'm alone, felicitate, in your dear highness's love."

The dilemma of the failure of communication.  This is a theme that makes up Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion, which is Hooper's own King Lear adaptation.  (Power and business of an English kingdom is divested in Lear.  The father figure's divestment of a half-century old experiment and his atomic power empire makes up the drama of Spontaneous Combustion.)

The drama is made purely out of associations in these two most free and inquisitive of adaptations.  The associational allows for a drama made of scenarios, verging on sketches.  The "nothing"/"no thing" from which they build presupposes it.  Characters take on symbolic attitudes.  The works of Hooper and Godard both tend to take on blossoming meanings.

Repeated twice in King Lear is a single statement about art in the "post-Chernobyl" world.  It is the film's definitive anchoring point, its clarion call.

"I don't know if I made this clear before, but this was after Chernobyl.  We are in a time when movies, and, more generally, art, have been lost, do not exist, and must somehow be reinvented."

And there we go, we have Hooper's mission statement.

Power and Virtue.  Virtue Versus Power.  Permutations often play a greater role in the associational work, or the Hooper film.  How many times does Sally jump out a window?  Also: the flashbacks that permeate Lifeforce.  The structural peculiarities of a Hooper film are beyond the margin.

Against this fabulous sequence of Molly Ringwald's Cordelia looking through pictures of Fuseli, I can say I am glad Hooper has no scene to his credit of a character flipping through illustrated pages of a book as the images flash via expressive montage across his or her subconscious.  He may have come close in Toolbox MurdersJaws's brief encapsulation of cold scientific technicality is some standard pop psychology, while Godard connects the page with the bodily, the very processes of the mind and seeing.  Later, he will show a hand on top a copying machine, like some fusion of x-ray and printing press: our selves and our bodily processes exposed, bared before all, by an invasive sort of body scan and the dissemination of the image.

Light and, in relation, the image, is a topic of King Lear.  Shakespeare's writing is supplanted by the film medium, and a sort of friendly competition between them runs through the film, Godard's "image" over "words" being used to define life.  But it's not life, Godard says, it is "only an image."

The free and untethered creation of images is the only path to the associational.  The image cannot be bound by either story or life.

 "The image is the pure creation of the soul."
 "It cannot be born of a comparison."
"But of the reconciliation of two realities."

That should read, "that are more or less far apart."

"The more the connection between these two realities are distant..."

The statement should read: "The more the connections between these two realities are distant and true, the stronger they needed to be."

As I said about the associative work, it is less a comparison between similar things, or the absorption of one thing into another, but the connecting between two entirely separate things.  "The more the two realities are distant, the stronger the connections can be."

Light and cinema, or light and image, are, of course, intertwined, and presented as such by Godard.  Whether a light bulb being played with to cast shadows on toys or a sparkler being slid inside the light-bouncing confines of a shoebox, Godard makes material light the way Hooper often does.

 "Two realities that have no connection..."
"... cannot be drawn together usefully."

"There is no creation of an image."

There certainly is a connection between the two realities of the razed stone abodes of old Ras al-Kaimah and the luxury unit that now stand in its place, so Hooper attests by his conjoining of the two realities, and so an image is created.  Worlds and times apart, but brought together in association.

That should read, "An image is not strong because it is brutal."

  "... or fantastic."

That should read: "But because the association of ideas is distant and true."

"But because the association of ideas is distant and true."

"The result that is obtained immediately..."

 That should read, "... controls the truth of the association."

 That should read, "Analogy is the medium of creation."

It should read, "It takes the resemblance of connections."

 "The power or virtue of the created image..."
  "... depends on the nature of these connections."   

Hooper's connections prove quite useful and true.

 "What is great is not the image..."
"... but the emotions it provokes."
"The emotion thus provoked is true..."

 "... because it is born outside of all imitation."
"All evocation.  And all resemblance."

In all this theory of the image, what we need is a simple recapitulation, or reinstatement, of the straightforward.  King Lear repeats it a third time, like a rallying call:

What is this a world of?  No art.  What do we need?  Complete and total reinvention.  Tobe Hooper is one of the filmmakers who understands this.

Finally, we can return back to the beginning, when POWER and VIRTUE first flashed across our screen, and Shakespeare's descendent laid out his mission to us.  "So, by special engagement with them [The Cannon Cultural Division] and the Royal Library of Her Majesty the Queen, I was engaged."  And so are we, in special pursuit of art and the image, in an age of Chernobyl and no-art, no-connection.

"My task: to recapture what had been lost."  And so, out of the thicket and into the clearing we go.  Out of the brush and into a world of adventurous and daring art.

To come: Hooper and Hitchcock, Hooper versus Olivier