Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Hooper Challenge

No, not a challenge posed by me upon readers (which would be foolish). It is one made ready for interested audiences to pose to Hooper's films. The Hooper Challenge goes as such:
Step 1: Watch a Tobe Hooper film at least 2 times, to a point where you can watch the film on mute and still follow the story, and, ideally, what is being established in each scene.

Step 2: Watch the film on mute.

To what extent are story elements expressed visually? How much is mood and tone conveyed through the visual alone? How much of character and dramatic dynamic? Just how active is the camera?

I have found this a good tactic in illuminating Hooper's particular cinematic touch. (An alternative to Step 2, for those less warm to the idea of sitting through a Tobe Hooper film on mute, is putting it on in the background while paying it half-attention, with the volume turned low.)

The idea is to be freed from the burden of plot, dialogue, and soundtrack (and musical soundtrack), the former two we can all admit are of vacillating quality in a Hooper film; the latter two being, for one, a major part of one's being mentally preoccupied by a film (which a point of the challenge is to undo), and two, often - more than we realize - a major factor in our (perhaps sometimes overly preponderant?) assessments of "cheesiness" in a film (for instance, in reaction to a bewildering Brad Dourif performance, or a synthesizer-heavy 90s film score).

Divested of the nagging deficiencies presented by a scattershot story and screenplay, or the camp-radar triggering brought about by dated music and questionable performances, or the mood-befouling mental (and time) commitment called for by auditory investment, one is much more free, in better spirit, and of clearer mind to notice how minutely expressive are Hooper's visuals...

... how rhythmic, structural, and lean is Hooper's scene-building...

... how ambitious are these attempts to manifest, through the cinematography, the emotional filigree and dramatic vigor he senses within his stories.

Shots follow shots for reasons...

... They interlock in sequence in a way almost algorithmic, the efficiency of his rendering of space, perspective, and the syncopated beats of actions and interaction seeming uncommonly computational in its artful preciseness.

Furthermore, his camera is an entity unto itself...

... an aesthetic eye, bound by the continuity of dramatic staging and by a never more-than-human, always perspective-informed observational restraint (his beginnings as a documentary filmmaker seem more and more formative with the more thought).

As some filmmakers create great art by emphasizing an inorganic, clinical eye, Hooper and his brand of aestheticism embodies a very organic and emotive camera...

An actor-and-camera ballet exists in his blocking of his players...

Shots are rich with textures and painterly artistic principles...

Pause his films at random and you will see a shot framed to a maximum of elegance.

The Challenge, actually, is the clearest implementation, on Hooper films, of the "Is it art?" test, an examination of which this blog is personally devoted to the extended study.

How does a Hooper film hold up as a painting behind glass?

Is it held tightly to strong, disciplining vision or does a dependence on its inherent existence as a commercial film cause its flab to show: shots of little importance falling by the wayside of the canvas, tone and dynamic left stagnant by not being conveyed visually, the artist's emotional superficiality and aesthetic frivolity betrayed by a similar ambivalence of the observing patron, in the environment of a noisy art gallery and not the escapist movie theater?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

THAS: Scene from The Mangler #1

What we have here is a scene of approximately a minute's length that manages to emphatically define its three, previously-introduced female characters, and encapsulate the external or internal ordeals they are experiencing, or will continue to experience, through a refined and structural sequence-crafting. The incident - burst, out-of-control steam tubes - is experienced and reacted to by each party, and the scene weaves into a careful tapestry their divergent paths as victims in the story.

The repressed and infantalized Sherry is relegated to reaction shots yielded from her own helpless paralysis, edited to a flurry with the object shots of Annette as the literal victim of the blistering jets of steam. The most elaborate attention goes to Lin Sue, whose combination of fear, cowardice, and also a willful (if desperate) self-respect sends her up the scaffold stairs to the upper walkway to plea for help and relief. Her ascent up the platform is mapped through three carefully interlocked shots. These three shots are rigorously devoted to delineating Lin Sue's flight, the bookending two of which are grand sweeps or pans from wide distances. Put together, they strikingly emphasize: 1) the physical as well as metaphoric moral expanse with which this woman is traversing, as well as 2) the chaotic and overwhelming combination of harried inadvertence, cascading fatefulness, and personal imperative that ultimately contribute to her fortuitous dark ascension to factory owner Gartley's lair - or, ultimately, as we will soon see, into a desired-for place of privilege, safety, and, yes (in her all-important eyes), endowment and dignity. These three shots will be labeled [1], [2], and [3], and their harried flow, cascade of motion, and personalized omniscience are what mostly provide this scene's special sense of artistic deliberateness.

A fourth shot with Lin Sue (which will be labeled [4]) shows her heading into Gartley's dimly lit anterior chambers. It is shown through a single panning shot (with wide-angle lens, as Hooper makes the decision to film most scenes within Gartley's office with a stylized wide-angle distortion) that tracks Lin Sue's walk towards the heart (or belly) of the room. What we have here is
a perfect visual illustration of Lin Sue's unconscious spatial abjection, to the spot most vulnerable to the predator's gaze; that is, right in the middle of the room. The combination of the camera's voyeuristic wide-angle disassociation and the stationary axis of the panning movement is distillation of the camera's (and our) helplessness to at all impeding this tell-tale woman's descent.

We cut away from her before she reaches her spot at the center of the room. After a quick cut back to Gartley, we cut back to her, only now - in rhythmic emphasis - decisively locked into place at the center of the room, pictorially flattened into an engulfing wide shot of Gartley's cluttered, cavernous den of vulturous wealth (this shot is labeled [5]).

This segment begins The Mangler's 1-2-3 sequence of outstanding cinematographic set pieces, which I've been working through backwards and the previous entries I'll direct to here:

Sequence A: the following.
Sequence B: Gartley entering his office and encircling Lin Sue
Sequence C: Lin Sue entreating Gartley from the bathroom

#1 - Tapestry - Three Women

Annette & Sherry

(a tracking shot that begins with Annette and Sherry, then ends in the emergence of Lin Sue into the frame)

Annette, Sherry, & Lin Sue

(a vivid spatial dispersion - the obstinate Lin Sue in isolated foreground, the neutral Annette with others in middle, and the troubled Sherry in isolated background)


Lin Sue



Lin Sue



(Annette is the one brought into Sherry's frame, as a passing blur crossing her line of sight, which reinforces Sherry's tunnel vision and incomprehension. The girl is only then, after the disruption of her frame, brought out of her shock enough to move and act, finally turning from her placeholding camera and whisking herself away.)

Lin Sue