Saturday, April 17, 2010

THAS: On 'Poltergeist'

Myself, in reply to 'Rodney' in the Comments of my October 17, 2009 post "THAS: Miscellany You Need to Know About! #1" (I hope you don't mind, Rodney):
I've been abstaining from making any proclamations about POLTERGEIST for a while now, but I will say the only thing I'm convinced about regarding POLTERGEIST, as of this point, is that it's a soup of contributions from both filmmakers, to the mechanical extent such that the only way to parse out who's responsible for what is to ask the filmmakers themselves just that: who came up with what, who conceptualized what, and then who shot what, right down to each sequence, shot frame, camera movement, blocking, acting direction, etc. And - be it not so simple, which it probably isn't (as anyone who has made a film will undoubtedly affirm, unless the stories about Hooper being off in rehab for some chunk of time are even more true than claimed) - what can't one or the other claim his own without acknowledging the integral collaboration of the other?

That said, overall I feel Spielberg to be the overriding creative mind at work. I hope to get into why at a later point in this blog, but Hooper's more abstracted rhythms and fluid camera seem only fragmentary here - which is also to take into account the fact that Hooper allegedly had little to nothing to do with the post-production process on the film. [Amendment 9/15/11: No great proclamation on how this effects the debate on authorship at all (POLTERGEIST doesn't seem much like a film made in the editing bay so much as in the initial storyboards), but for veracity's sake, this last statement about Hooper not being involved at all in post-production might be misleading - Hooper participated in editing, surely, for, as the legal director of the film, he got to turn in an "initial cut,"
alluded to in a 1982 Cinemafantastique article.  Spielberg then did his thing for a finalized cut.  Hooper is quoted in the article saying, paraphrased, "I liked the changes Spielberg made."]

If anything, one could make the claim Hooper served essentially as a co-Director of Photography (that is, if there weren't also his evidential interaction with actors to take into account), and likely the one very often left without anything to do, if on-set Spielberg is being the mastermind and Matthew Leonetti the appointed DP.

But regardless, Hooper must have been sole master and commander at some point or scattered points in the shooting, and whenever I watch the film, I try to, probably fruitlessly, pinpoint those moments where I recognize Hooper's fingerprints and his alone. If anything, I'd be perfectly contented just finding out what bits and pieces of it he, and he primarily, dictated - and if from a Spielberg storyboard or not, if from a Spielberg idea or not, etc. But then I am just already inclined to do that - pick his brain.

In short (too late), it's Spielberg's speech that I'm sure Hooper got more than a few good words in transcribing, with his particular sense of calligraphy.

And so are my feelings as of right now on the issue of Poltergeist. Poltergeist is studded in the snappy, friendly beats of visual jokes, clever edits, the fastidiously punchy forward movement of the script, and other such attributes of technical sheen characteristic of the uber-commercial-friendly film, all of which are not particularly characteristic of Hooper (which, yes, is both detriment and distinction). Eric Henderson's excellent review at Slant Magazine strips the film down to its skin and bones, its final word about this "wildly commercial" horror film being the uncannily apt two-fold statement: "It's one of the strongest films in either director's canon, and yet it's eerily impersonal. Collaboration can be a scary thing."

The film is certainly "strong." But, if I may plunder yet again from another review, from Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central, "Poltergeist remains that paragon of the 'good' movie" - and just that, is his point. As a staple of mine and many others' childhoods, it's a "cool" movie that, if I may say so myself, holds up remarkably well... that is, in the matters of "cool." If there's a more convicted haunted house film, I haven't seen it, for this film gives you everything you can imagine a haunted house film giving you and follows through on any niggling dissatisfaction with the sub-genre you may have previously had. What would be the most unmatchable display of haunted activity anyone could ever think of? A children's bedroom in which every single inanimate thing is possessed? You got it. What would happen if the mother, who of course still walks by that door every day, thought, with such understandable desperation, "Maybe I'll just walk in there? And things will just be back to normal?"? Boom, scene played, and to great effect. How to really make sense of the ghostly world, which must result in some seriously awkward soul-intermingling, no? How about armpieces and knick-knacks from across centuries and cultures materializing in one big pile? Check. What is the absolute mode of action in extremis for a haunted house that has completely blown its cover? Self-destruct into a tiny ball of inter-dimensional space? Wallah, instant eye-gasm for you conjecture-junkies.

But then in the matter of everything else, such as thoughtfulness and expressionistic risks, the film proves thin, ultimately saved from inconsequence by the in-built satirical elements and its solid hold on the human aspect of the story (further assisted by the strong performances and thorough writing). Without those, the film would be empty build-up to weakly contextualized ILM free-for-alls, especially that unnecessarily vague first climax, which comes and goes with little impression beyond the spectacle and narrative function.

On to Hooper. The best thing about Poltergeist is how elegant and untouched by cheesiness it is - a horror film in the same mold as Jaws. It is an absolutely polished product, with none of Hooper's awkward narratives and half-realized dramatic promises, which speaks to Spielberg's capable producing hands. Yet, even those insistent on Spielberg's ownership of the film cannot discount the presence of Hooper as the interloping hand of influence on the end product. The film may not seem like a Hooper film in a somewhat broad, macro sense - that is, in its unfailing professionalism and thoroughly appealing tone - but on the level of cinematic composition and rhythm, I'd make my claims in a number of instances. Often it is the small moments - fleetingly catching JoBeth Williams smell a rose in the background of a shot during Tweety-Bird's wake, or the slow pan into Diane's hand on the doorknob as she slowly shuts the door on her children's bedroom - that convince me Hooper's sense of cinematic rhyme, subtlety, patience, and standards for elegance is in work here.

Claim: Hooper creates sequences more "genteely composed" than piece-meal and hyper-edited. He puts together scenes in stretches of visual flow, feeling the emotional or choreographic rhythm of moments, going above and beyond in the intricacy of his stagings and the way those movements manifest themselves on the screen. Instead of visualizing by bit or scope, overusing the "good idea" of liberal editing and cutaways, and laying out shots step-by-step on a plotted diagram, Hooper lays out fluid shots in the creation of dense and patient time, as well as a dense, unified scheme of mise en scene, which then play out in ways wholly deliberate, and ways too delicate for a mere storyboard. This delicate sense of spatial and temporal prosody is found in Poltergeist's camerawork, and also one found throughout Hooper's career. Despite it not "feeling" like a Hooper film in certain ways, Poltergeist a number of times exhibits the subliminal, baroque control of camera and shot structure that I find in Hooper's films. It's the painterly composure, a constant sense of the camera-as-perceiving-entity, and the constant movement and crawl of this self-motivated, unprovoked camera.

But it seems proven that Hooper was likely less in control of the project than he is nominally credited, and even I will admit never did he create something as polished and slickly involving as this film. But, as I inevitably draw to an argumentative stalemate, I return to the suggestion, for those inclined to remove Hooper entirely from Poltergeist's quality, to think of it with the roles switched: it's Spielberg's film, but whose sneaky hands invariably got onto the making of the film throughout? To push that line of thought, I'll close with the following inflammatory statement: one 1982 film had Hooper and Spielberg, and another film only had Spielberg, and which one of those is the more Spielbergian, and which the more artfully exquisite and subdued as opposed to professionally accessible and hyper-stylized? (For the record, I think E.T. is a grand work of great warmth and entertainment - which is worthy art-making in its own right - with likely the more substantial story between the two, but Poltergeist shows the intermittent elegance of the baroque artist, rather than just the accomplished mark of the master storyteller; E.T. is often superbly affecting and well-done, but it's clearly a much crasser work when put up against Poltergeist's more elegant style and mood.)

But to conclude, with Poltergeist we get a film that is completely solid and completely safe, one that cancels out its chances at a personal skew - a personal, one-man's sensibility attached to it. As a result, the film has a certain blandness (with possible reprieves brought about by the devilish finale, and Jerry Goldsmith's highly memorable score). It lacks any and everything when it comes to a unique or nervous tone, whether this be an underbelly of perversity (Hooper...), or a misshapen lacquer naivete (Spielberg...), or camp, kitsch, high-nosed pomposity, clinical detachment--- anything. It's the funny reason such a well-made film, with so many disparate charms and adornments, feels ultimately weightless-- and has failed to be regarded as an integral part to either filmmaker's auteurist canon.

There is one sequence I am most curious about as to what extent Hooper had his hand in, such as whose half of the storyboarding the scene fell under - the one sequence I feel is Poltergeist's true standout. In the case Hooper was hard at work on this scene with his nimble sense of staging and movement, consider this an entry in THAS. In the case Spielberg was at the helm, then this is a little honorary to the man who nursed his illegitimate baby to the bitter end of maternal disavowal, wronged under the rigid strictures of the DGA-patriarchy. Or... in the case this was a team effort, kudos to both. Or maybe this is a case of neither of them and their respective genius being responsible for the loveliness of this scene. They, or Leonetti maybe, or whoever, just winged it and happened upon exquisiteness out of no where. Then this is just a random scene of excellence, unrelated to my auteur-hawking. In any case, it would be useful as a highlight in either one of their careers. It's a beautiful scene because of its unbridled devotion to the simple movements of its characters in a space, and its sculpting of the scene as a symphonic invocation of maternal fervor, all the camerawork and detail going towards an ornateness that is self-motivated and spare of novelty, motivated by the simplest beauties of staging and the truest effort to best inhabit the characters' caprice, as their moving bodies adorn the camera's edges and curves like those Ming vase designs.

In this way, this scene can be both filmmakers at their best without exhibiting their worst: Spielberg at his best - his ability to wring beatific emotions out in perfect calculations - without his indelicate hyper-stylization, concessions to spectacle and affability, and prosaic film school tics of ceaselessly over-emphatic novelty; and Hooper at his best - the delicacy of a reserved, limited camera; his subtle staging and quiet sensitivity, not dependent on a camera too vacantly animated; his rarefication of sequences into symphonies of visual grace - but without his failings as a director, which is his lack of polish and his constantly half-fulfilled potential in truly controlling the emotions and thought of the viewer into a bursting emotional height (his films are so often sludges of mood, beautiful by the second but building to nothing that would leave us particularly satisfied - which can be seen as both Hooper's virtue [his lack of interest in giving easy pay-offs, in exchange for moody ambiguity and emotional purity] and his flaw).


A beautiful shot, no less because of JoBeth Williams being radiant.
Contains four layers of depth, one being an arm that hugs the frame
like a hanging wreath.

Camera tracks up with Williams and back with her, depth still paid
with the most careful attention as heads exit the frame, lamps enter
it, and the glasses-wearing scientist looks on from behind at her
forward stride:
In culmination of the track, Steven emerges into the frame:
All players accounted for in our cut to wide. Beatrice Straight
looks up at Williams, while the little boy
and the glasses-wearing
scientist exchange spots in the background (completely in step with
each other, human movement harmonized like ceremonial regimentation) .

"Can you say hello to Daddy?"

"Hello Sweet pea."
After Carol Ann's reply, a cut to the delighting shot of Craig T. Nelson popping
up from behind the lamp, giving his greeting, then turning off the lamp before
descending back out of frame.

Beatrice Straight, in whimsical choreography, pops into frame immediately
after Nelson bows out, and her movement left is immediately matched to
her movement in the return to the:


A beautiful slow track-in towards Williams, in a scene full of beautiful track-in shots.

Nelson enters into the frame mid-shot.
Motion of the bodies is blocked wonderfully, precisely, throughout the scene. Followed by:

Absolutely superb, vaguely-distorting wide shot: all players accounted for,
depth of frame made sure to count, the spatial relationship of the
characters liberal and likely gladly abstracted for the purposes of the


Immediately after cut-away from SET-UP 1, Williams is made to instantly break away from the other characters (SET-UP 2), urgency-made-ornate, in her harried retreat back to the television.

Then: a beautifully timed cut-in to her at the TV. The upwards pan from the TV follows her movement in sublime identification with her zeal, the foregrounding of the lamp resulting in a stunningly elegant image.

And the stunning follow shot, wide-angle lens (which Hooper likes to use a lot) brilliantly utilized:

Track-in shot with Williams, from behind her.Cut to a frontal shot: main players accounted for, check (Williams flanked by husband, main friend); use of depth of field, check (Nelson near behind her, Straight placed farther out).


Not continuous with any shot preceding it, Williams now has her arms outstretched in a resplendent appeal, into the foreground of the camera, the camera backing up as she
makes her appeal in its direction - in immediate step with her and her irrepressible

Beautifully done, whoever!


(1) "Poltergeist" 25th Anniversary Panel Discussion

James Karen, Zelda Rubinstein, and 'Poltergeist' co-writer Mark Victor in attendance.
KAREN: "Steven was producer, a very strong producer, who was on that set every day. And Tobe Hooper is the director, was on that set every day, and it's Tobe Hooper's name up there, it's 'Tobe Hooper film,' and I feel people should just accept that. We had a great producer and a great director."

VICTOR: "I think it's like James said... I'd see a take, and Tobe would [...?] a scene and set it up [on where to go?], and Steven would come in and make some comments..."
(KAREN: "Which is not unusual.")
VICTOR: "No, not at all."

RUBINSTEIN: "I have to say [that 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 was a?] split decision..."

RUBINSTEIN: "I found - not to particularly disagree with you, Jimmy - but I found that Steven had a stronger hand [...?]. I think, for the most part, although Tobe is the nominal director... that's a Steven Spielberg movie."
And perhaps it is as mundane as that. Rubinstein, a big critic of Hooper, does not so much deny that Hooper had any role in the direction of the film as she does just proclaim the film a Spielberg picture in, what one can presume as, a very broad sense - which I myself would hardly disagree with.

(2) MAKING OF POLTERGEIST - Original 1982 Featurette

(3) Hooper himself on the topic:

... in an excellent, 2000 Onion A.V. Club interview with Keith Phipps:

O: History has shifted some of the credit toward Spielberg. Can you set the record straight on that?
TH: I've kind of talked that one to death, really. I've been asked that so many times that I feel the record should be straight already. The genesis of it came from an article in The L.A. Times: When we were shooting the practical location on the house, the first two weeks of filming were exterior, so I had second-unit shots that had to be picked up in the front of the house. I was in the back of the house shooting Robbie [actor Oliver Robins] and the tree, looking down at the burial of the little tweety bird, so Steven was picking those shots up for me. The L.A. Times arrived on the set and printed something like, "We don't know who's directing the picture." The moment they got there, Steven was shooting the shot of the little race cars, and from there the damn thing blossomed on its own and started becoming its own legend. Really, that is my knowledge of it, because I was making the movie and then I started hearing all this stuff after it was finished.