But I love the diner scene. I would have loved to attribute it to Hooper, but, funnily, I had already justified it as being not: I reasoned, that it seemed cut from a very perfunctory cloth, and, while shot with inspiration, seemed almost conventional in its visual point-making. I imagined it was the very clever work of Robert Caramico (Eaten Alive's cinematographer and a pulpy sentimental fantasist long before Eaten Alive - just watch his and Richard Blackburn's Lemora and see his messy/expressionistic visual imprint shared between both films) channeling Robert Altman. But it seems Hooper indeed was on set that very final day:
(Screen caps from the Dark Sky DVD picture gallery special feature)
... and so I can now claim its highly apropos dramaturgic functioning as very clearly part of Hooper's (and Caramico's, both) design.
There's no mistake, then, in my initial reaction upon first viewing of the film: "This is Tobe Hooper's Robert Altman film!" (more so, I subsequently concluded, than The Funhouse, which does utilize the Altmanism of embedding supporting characters in the background of scenes, until his revolving ensemble fabric is satisfactorily created).
Indeed, the scene begins with an Altmanesque, free-roaming, multi-character single-take shot that utilizes Caramico's efficient and improvisatory 70s zooming, which does not exactly embody artistic polish (more so coming-in-under-schedule, speedy-as-a-point-of-pride filmmaking), but is utilized in order to follow a careful and sophisticated choreography: a stream of characters entering into and exiting out of the frame as they cross paths in the small bar, effectively seguing between them along the multiple camera hand-offs and singling zoom-ins.
(All one shot.)
As one character leaves the frame, another enters, a rough-hewn version of Hooper's poeticizing of human movement, shot on a pick-up day, still strong support to Eaten Alive and its thematic drama. Tics of Hooper's we'll see again: an extreme close-up element presentationally butted into our faces (the Lite beer bottle), only for it to pull away as we are immersed back into filmic drama (think to the horror mask self-reflexively held up to the camera by the Glick boy in Salem's Lot, or the scene beginning with R2-D2 in graven image on a children's blanket as Diane ironically wafts it in front of the camera before setting it down in the act of making her children's beds in Poltergeist).
We can continue thinking about this scene below, a brilliant configuration of time spent patiently with a sick and psychologically deprived maniac. A camera's revolution brilliantly swings the revelation of Judd's precious history into the frame, his war memorabilia carefully adorning his walls and an American flag only coming into view in the last second. It is concerted point-making of loaded semiotics:
The problem with trying to debrief Eaten Alive through the existence of Behind the Scenes pictures is that I know I will have to return to a number of these scenes again, as they deserve their own post, their own gallery space plaster wall panel.
For instance, one such scene for returning to is the following, which I may well believe is the film's most stunning and integral moment. The isolated and temporally specific act of a flight down a staircase becomes the ultimate internal moment, an irrevocable journey (spatially and temporally, as when on a staircase, one has no option but to go up or down it, and must spend the necessary amount of time to do whichever of those) with the madman through his entire being of psychosis, his entire struggle with his inner self ("Things happen... all according to instinct.").
It occurs after he has let the William Finlay/Marilyn Burns family into their room and is left with his thoughts about this new social sample that has landed in one of his rooms. The lower-placed camera, without an inch of impatience, allows him to slowly descend his way from a low-angle medium to a close-up, Hooper and his camera somehow knowing how to suggest feelings of circumstance and sickness beyond his and our control that simply make this an invaluable moment in the film: the moment we actually sympathize, concertedly, with the monster.
Long ago I had the idea for the post "Appreciating Eaten Alive #4: The Puppy Dog Looks of Neville Brand" (mirroring "The Patrician Stare of Mel Ferrer"). Such a pithy post has been jettisoned at this point, but I still hold the belief: that this film really hinges on these few moments when we inhabit the personal space of Judd. This is either the mythical Hades-angle here, or the pitiful "puppy dog" high-angle after he's reluctantly obtained drugs from Buck, or the wheeling, winding camera of neurosis that focuses on him as he rambles off at a tied-up Faye.
Roy, Faye, and Angie's first arrival to the Starlight Motel makes no grand gestures, but it is nevertheless a beautifully nimble, cinematically nuanced scene that brings to play the simple essence of Hooper's belief in careful staging, complex blocking, and the musical interrelation between frames that characters enter and exit from, in constant physical and emotional (and noumenal) interaction with one another.
Notice how carefully Hooper uses the singling frame on a character, but uses it to suggest their spatial relation with the other characters (a constant and emphatic Hooper trick, off-screen glances so regularly sources of vivid emotion - think of Hooper's exquisite eyeline matches, or the finale of Dance of the Dead, with all its fiery stares directed at non-literal embodiments).
Notice how Roy and Judd's forward movements in their frames are meant to lock in with each other (then musically merge when they come together in the single frame), while Faye is locked herself as the element left behind, made to stay put so she can simply stare off at her carefree daughter in a spectacular shot.
Notice how Judd's high-angle perspective becomes the rigorous point at which to view this strange couple, and how Judd's particular noticing of the pretty wife (who walks up to him in line, only after the husband has disappeared into his motel) allows for one single formal readjustment to the scene's established design (a zoom-in closer into Judd's face). Without breaking from the scene's rigorous pattern of singles (Eaten Alive a film about isolated spheres of different personages, Hooper's cinema in general about dialectic - the explicit contrasting between things, such that ideas and suggestions are created), the entrance of Buck is signaled simply, eloquently by Marilyn Burns's turn of the head toward the sound of a car radio playing another wistful country tune, the car belonging to Buck, a new player in her and the film's fleeting, interconnected, serious drama of life.
I'll finish with what will be its own post, if only for its conceptual simplicity and gallery-readiness as a concise visual idea, but which I'll happily give away the ghost here.
It is the use of lamps and lamplight by Hooper, used as a sort of visual substitution for the mind and the mind at work. The Starlight Motel's existence as the symbolic, representative space of Judd's psyche, the use of lamps here are a literal substitution for our brain's neural wiring that is so vulnerable to the switch, to the turning on and the turning off. Many is there a high-angle shot of Judd, ambling about the living area of his place, a person lost in the very confines of his own mind. Two entire set-pieces of his ambling are marked by Judd's visual bracketing by the very lamps that illuminate him or drop him into darkness, depending on whether we observe him turning them on (the first scene) or off (the later scene). Think to Lifeforce for more use of the lamp and its illumination: the lamp that fortresses Nurse Donaldson against Carlsen, or the one that swings above Carlsen when facing down the Space Girl in Doctor Armstrong's body. Also, the trailing overhead lamps down long hallways that represent Carlsen's adrift psychology, or that mark the otherworldly path of the sultry Djinn woman in the hallway of the Al Hamra seen in the trailers of Djinn. Think of the constant headlights in this film, which represent the flickering life of the human beings behind them, lights flicked on for the forward movement, for the journey, but quickly flicked off for journey's end. Eaten Alive, a film about the fleeting.