Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls (1962)

Carnival of Souls just seems like one in the odd string of unlikely early 60s art films centered around ontologically questioned and decisively blonde female protagonists. That is, as far as my initial count goes, L'Avventura in 1960, this film in 1962, and The Birds the following year.

Made in 1962 on a budget of $30,000 by through-and-through mid-Westerner Herk Harvey, who made only this one narrative fiction film in a whole career of making educational and industrial films for Kansas-based Centron Productions, Carnival of Souls was completed in a short three weeks by a crew of under ten people. But Harvey apparently wasn't out to just make a quickie creep-fest:
"We hoped for the look of a Bergman film and the feel of Cocteau," remarks Harvey on the commentary track of Criterion's deluxe DVD. (Source)
If more indie horror filmmakers thought this way, the world (or Blockbuster's New Release shelves) would be a much better place.

Unfortunately, at the moment I do not have up my sleeve the analysis this enigmatic, visually rich film so deserves, but I will say it's a film of an exquisiteness that strikes me as very easy to miss if one doesn't engage with it past the obviously meager production values and the self-consciousness of its essential pragmatism, seen in its adorably modest plot, screenplay, and aesthetic.

For now, I'll take the easy route and make a photo blog entry in honor of the film, to single out some potent visual cues and knockout images that stuck out at me during the most recent re-visit:

Begin with the object.
Then Mary reaches in.

Begin with the objects:
the material is a prism with which to view us.

Artificiality of Environments. The stunning opening credit images: Art Deco naturalism. Geologic modernity. Progress-minded futurist outlooks on humans' evolved emotional awareness is perhaps only a misreading of what is just an increasingly refined sense of enhancing emotional banalities - a refinement much like rock formations smoothed and beaten against a stream.

The world, to Mary Henry's displeasure, spins like it does, without the endorsement of Mary Henry.

But she always comes out unfazed - in fact, even more on top of things.

(It's a shame that in the process, the company she was currently rolling with had to be officially, permanently crossed off the MVP list: Hot Wheels Hannah and Burn Baby Betsy, now official denizens of Drag City, Underworld)

Mary Henry is "out of our class," as the film puts it at one point. She finds a suitor particularly convinced of her sophistication:
Director Herk Harvey himself, as 'The Man.'
Mary is too good for this world.
She doesn't much care for being in it.

Understandably, sometimes. Which is what makes the film so beguiling - I find there's much to marvel at in the character of Mary Henry. The film comes off somewhat ambivalent about her plight. The wholesome advice and sanctimonious admonishments of priests are tinged with their incomprehension and dogma, and the amorous Mr. Linden's more than a little boorish and pathetic. Thus, the film begs the question if Mary would really be missing much if she stopped resisting the beckoning souls.

Well, she gets what she asks for.
Perhaps the dead know how to enjoy themselves, better than the living?

Mary, in her lifetime, hadn't been anything near the quintessential modest woman, but in the throes of her newest courtship, she finds herself with a newfound camera shyness.

Read-this! Reviews:
Kindertrauma on CARNIVAL OF SOULS

Saturday, October 17, 2009

THAS: Miscellany You Need to Know About! #1

Hooper on the set of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2
(source: TCM 2 Special Edition DVD)
Michael Worrall's excellent, props-worthy somewhat-positive review of Spontaneous Combustion at his unfortunately little-updated Wordpress site "High/Low: Thoughts on Film by Michael Worrall."
I'm the overly effusive commenter who left the review a response at the bottom of the page, which Mr. Worrall was very kind enough to reply to! Thanks man!
(2) THAS: Questions I'd Want to Ask Mr. Hooper
  1. "Tobe Hooper, for example, traveled around the country a lot doing films about experimental educational programs right after the Kennedy administration, when exciting things were happening in documentary films. He made more than sixty documentaries and probably that many special education TV spots. In so doing, he's been tear-gassed in Memphis on the anniversary of Martin Luther King's assassination and been in a crowd with Ted Kennedy in a riot."
    -Excerpt from book Making Movies by John Russo
    During the 1960s and your twenties, you worked as a documentary cameraman. In regard to your documentary work (or anything, really, in this part of your career before making Eggshells and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), was there any work or creative output that you feel you can particularly be proud of?
  2. What scenes of Eaten Alive did you not direct, if you did in fact leave the director position prematurely to the completion of principal photography for the film?
  3. Poltergeist. Sorry, can't help it. What's yours to claim and what's that other guy's?
(3) THAS: More on the theoretic "Hooperian"
One aspect that distinguishes Hooper's films is an innate neglect of the opportunistic formulas and diversions of "entertainment" filmmaking, and the formalistically utilitarian tendencies of filmmaking. Hooper approaches his filmmaking not with the mentality of a craftsman or cobbler, showman or even dramatist (Carpenter's abilities as a potent, accessible dramatist is probably the factor with which he is most elevated above Hooper as a filmmaker). He approaches filmmaking seemingly with only the mentality of a through-and-through aesthete. In sort of the way The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Funhouse were made to resist the easy pay-offs of the slasher genre, Hooper's films do not trade in the practices of construction that lead to the enveloping escapism or low artistic bar of the ordinary film. As an aesthete and channeler of sensitivities through image and image rhythm, Hooper is not afraid of his own artistic excess, and it is often at the striking expense of manipulation, thrill, and placating emotional concessions. As an aesthete and one wholly committed to the aims of an aesthete, his filmmaking does not partake in much of any manner of narrative or stylistic frivolity (such as slackened "comedy relief," or stylistic "breakages" that suggest employment merely "for effect" and accessibility). His style is staid and non-compromised throughout the extent of the film, in a sense of commitment to an unassuming vision of mood and emotion that is unconcerned with "hipness," sleekness, plain-spokenness, or gratifying a viewer - only in putting out all the graceful, visually expessive filmmaking he can muster (which some may argue isn't all that to get worked up about - I argue the counter, obviously. Note my distinction, though: true, it may not be much, in that he's not Renoir, but I think it is something to get worked up about). This unfortunately results in much of Hooper's non-skills and the stuntedness of Hooper's communicative breadth (which I sense is only eclipsed, briefly but shiningly, in the satire-infused montage motions he makes in the opening sequence of Spontaneous Combustion).
But it ultimately means Hooper is an artist. He aims not to please, but to express. It's true nary is there a constructed suspense sequence the likes of a De Palma film, and who knows if he could pull one off, but his preoccupations manifest themselves elsewhere, in aspects that sacrifices easy pay-offs ("entertainment value") for the whims of his artistic sensibility. Story and thrills will go out the window to make room for his particular sense for expressiveness. He never tries to be "clever," in that notion's most banal sense - he only seems to do what his artistic instincts tell him to do. Thus, his films come with little in the way of elements pre-processed and overly formulated, which is his handicap in one sense but also that which allows him to avoid the cheapening practices of "popcorn" filmmaking - that practice that makes the here-to-please studio films capable of swinging between grand dramatic sweep and pre-fashioned engagement tactics, such as the aforementioned "comedy relief" (which is, most of the time, at some degree, manipulative and sentiment-driven, a concession to viewer's sense of comfort and self-possession) or satisfaction-seeking thrills. These tactics strike only that aforementioned chord of "frivolity," as a distraction from the film's dramatic or thematic focus and as mere means to "impressing the audience."
This mentality seems far from Hooper's mind when making a film. Most people see only feebleness on Hooper's part resulting from this, but I find myself completely inspired by it, even as his works frustrate me in their unevenness. At least it is appropriate, then, that his one and only critically elevated work does in fact personify the special touch that is Tobe Hooper: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a slasher film that's hardly a slasher film, that forgoes accessibility and the escapist diversion of "regular films" for an "above-regular" ("extra-ordinary") commitment to emotional [nightmarish] vision. He may not be much of a salesman, but I think he really believes there's a high standard in beauty and sophistication in what he sells. How much quality this results in is, of course, up for debate - but I'm always up for that line of debatin'.
(4) THAS: Tobe Hooper and Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Japanese filmmaker Kiyoshi Kurosawa, maker of the brilliant horror film Cure and the haunting J-horror progenitor Kairo (Pulse), is a fellow devotee of the works of Tobe Hooper.

Exhibit 1: Kurosawa's book Mon effroyable histoire du cinéma (French translation title), a review by website Midnight Eye which you can read here, and which describes Hooper's "constant presence" in the book and a chapter "devoted entirely to his films." Hooper is "nothing less than a master in the eyes of Kurosawa."

Exhibit 2: The horse's mouth. Well, the horse and his translator. I had the thrilling opportunity to attend a Q&A with Kurosawa when he presented his latest film Tokyo Sonata at the San Francisco Asian-American Film Festival in Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, where I got to field to him a question, which I prefaced with an acknowledgment that he is the man for being a Hooper fan and, likely, the most high-profile proponent of Spontaneous Combustion (which, sources have reported, he's named as one of his personal favorites) to yet exist. That takes balls and a brilliant mind (both of which I'm sure he has). Anyway, he happily put on record his admiration for Hooper's work and even mentioned the fact he has met and "interviewed" him.

I then got to shake hands with him outside the theater. Hot damn!

Exhibit 3: Picture I got of Kurosawa at the PFA that evening:

Oh yeah!:
Kiyoshi Kurosawa outside the Pacific Film Archive at Berkeley, March 14, 2009