Monday, January 10, 2011

Some Notes (Kant Rears His Head)

"Of a representation that I call pleasant I say that it actually excites pleasure in
me. But the
beautiful we think as having a necessary reference to satisfaction.
Now this necessity is of a peculiar kind. It is not a theoretical objective necessity..
.
It is not a practical necessity... But the necessity which is thought in an aesthetical
judgement can only be called
exemplary; i.e. a necessity of the assent of all to
a judgement which is regarded as the example of a universal rule..."

- Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgement

I suppose to mark the New Year for the Tobe Hooper Appreciation Society, I now further my attempts to reaching some semblance of a simulation of a simulacra of an academic argument on Hooper's qualities by bringing Kant and his aesthetic philosophy into the picture, to characterize Hooper as a filmmaker most demonstrative of Kant's ideas of the aspects (of the concept) of ideal aesthetic "Beauty," the kind that Kant proposes we arrive at through ideal aesthetical judgment. If such an attempt seems specious, then it is at least of complete circumspection, as I make it with full awareness of Hooper's doltery amidst his delicacy, and that it puts stock in avenues of aesthetic thought and a particularity in favor of Hooper's particular stylistic mannerism (as an exemplar of such aesthetic thought) over empirical quality and the commensurate success of his pictures.

"It is true that taste gains by this combination of aesthetical with intellectual
satisfaction, inasmuch as it becomes fixed; and though it is not universal, yet in
respect to certain purposively determined Objects it becomes possible to prescribe
rules for it. These, however, are not rules of taste, but merely rules for the unification
of Taste with Reason, i.e. of the Beautiful with the Good, by which the former
becomes available as an instrument of design in respect of the latter."

The circumspection is made, though, for, in the same way Kant's beauty is not located in the objective attributes of the Object but in the reflected aesthetic nature of the Object (aesthetic being the auspice of Taste, while the reflection [via the faculty of Reason] is ïdem quod the "intellectual satisfaction," and together they form the "rules" with which an aesthetical judgment on the Object's nature - as one of ideal Beauty or goodness - is made), in a similar sense Hooper's qualities are not found simply in the content of his films but in an underlying philosophy running through his approach to visual expression and filmic artistry. The "rules" with which I attempt to define and push this representation of Hooper's filmmaking as exemplary of aesthetics of Beauty and the Good, and thus posit a universal, fundamental cognition with which to view Hooper's films as worthy of a universal Taste and Reason, are the main consistence of this blog.

"Hence, it is the universal capability of communication of the mental state in the given
representation which, as the subjective condition of the judgement of taste, must be
fundamental... But nothing can be universally communicated except cognition and
representation, so far as it
belongs to cognition. For it is only thus that this latter can
be objective; and only
through this has it a universal point of reference..."

Hence, it is the capability of communicating the given representation - i.e. that which gives an Object its fundamental aesthetic worth; that worth which can be applied to "cognition," and not sensation, "in general" - universally that is the main goal, and the main goal here. Representation is the only thing, according to Kant, that can be universally communicated; that can hold an innate objectivity; while Taste is the subjective condition (and together they consist the judgment).

So, if you aren't too big on Hooper, perhaps we can skip the hurtful blows and chalk it up to a matter of Taste?

Representing Hooper. With hope to return (I am considering perhaps with an utmost methodicalness) to directly quoting Kant and his Critique of Judgement at a later point, I will move on now with...

Some Notes.


A topic often abused and mishandled in casual discussion - always belabored, little deciphered - is the dichotomy between the commercial film and the art film, and the further adumbration suggested from such a split (immediately more useful), viz. a muddy-parametered, qualification-begging teeming of contrasting duals rending the qualities of film craftsmanship in twain: ~ the escapist impulse as opposed to the rhetorical one ~ the imperative towards manipulation versus the one towards the presentational ~ processed sentiment versus the perceptive camera, raw and austere.

So far as the "commercial" and "art" qualifications matter - that is, outside their literal, namely practical sense (as in the no-brainer sense of classifying a James Benning film as opposed to a Michael Bay film, or in what film distributors make a living out of convincing you they are authority on) - and mostly in the sense I am putting forth, the "commercial" and "art" nominals prove dogmatic but useful, in service of the dogma - personally held - of film as a medium for artisanal depth and not just viewer satisfaction, one in which the artist, him or herself, embodies a depth: a passion and genuineness for the tenets of aesthetic beauty and its mature moral properties, in the most Kantian sense [italics to words directly borrowed from Kant] - humble and free of benefits, in the subtlety of its technique and the elementariness of its simple humanity; "teleological" and of Reason-invoked moral ends, or purposes (i.q. "purposiveness," to follow Kant's lexicography); thoughtless of provoking the explicitness of catered "style" (so often formulated and so, in some fundamental sense - particularly at its most catering - always unoriginal [the anathema to Kant's view of the "genius"]); thoughtless of provoking an inclined interest, and instead, universal-minded in its formal expression; all this, rather than film as just a vehicle for "commercial" diversion or persuasive effects, paltry gratifications and stylistic embellishment, or as a feature-length sensory cruise, in which "cruising" is the main order.

This is not to say diversion and persuasion are always, or even generally, empty and unworthy endeavors - most certainly they are not; nor that they cannot be imbued with true aesthetic passion and genuineness. Without wish to devalue the attributable series making up the former in those "twain" pairs I gave at the end of the first paragraph of these notes, or the cinematic riches (and yes, aesthetic passion) achieved in disregard of this admittedly rigid framework of the cinematic sublime, Tobe Hooper's sensibility is revealed by its remarkable purity in this keenest regard: a purity found in its passion and genuineness - and, thus, simpleness - in aiming for form (beauty), feeling (humanity), delicacy ("humbleness"), and abstraction (non-commercialism) with the natural innocence of knowing nothing else; artistic height striven for without the normal impulses toward flair, fashion, thrill, convention, and the benefits of such. Free it is even from the proclamations of didactic intellectuality, another badge of Hooper's artistic "naturalness" [note: a semblance of Nature is another one of Kant's critical attributes of the Beautiful], if also one of his deficiency.

Hooper reveals his artistic approach by taking up the gamut of the latter attributes in those dichotomous twain extremes, his cinematographic choices being most innately characterized by this chosen range, so often sparkling in their inspiration, yet untouched by the easy affects and the materiality (that is, the materiality of goals, agendas, ambitions of fashion, etc.)* of diversion and persuasion.

* although (to again disclaim, hopefully tempering a bit this extravagant
laudation I am currently bestowing upon Hooper) this "materiality" I
mention - in the worthy endeavor - is wholly inadvertent, and often
even guilty of no crime.

Some notes:

1. The escapist impulse as opposed to the rhetorical one. Hooper's films seem to have little interest in the ordinary conveyance, manipulations, and diversions of narrative plot and convention. In this large sense, of pretense in narrative (or should I presently call it "anti-narrative"), just think of all his genre films that hardly seem symptom of their genre:

* Eaten Alive, a slasher film which structurally prevails itself with odd drama (albeit under-formed) over mechanizing cat-and-mouse suspense sequences or narrative momentum
* The Funhouse, whose only notion of suspense seems to be long silences and stretches where the film slows down to a crawl
* Lifeforce and Invaders from Mars, would-be sci-fi thrill-rides that instead choose to involve one more in the way of wild revisionary dreams than like anything they serve to homage
* The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, the latter film much more valid as mirror film than as mock slasher sequel
* Spontaneous Combustion, a conspiracy film that's not driven by exalted mystery so much as a sad trickle of readily-apparent information, and Night Terrors, an aimless, hare-brained production without doubt, but embraced by Hooper as the experimental narrative it essentially is and fancifully aestheticized as such.

Rather than any of these films ending up mostly exercises in genre thrill (and despite much of their content ostensibly not warranting much more than that), Hooper's agenda is never the mere indulging of genre techniques (like one can say [great] filmmakers like Scorsese and De Palma absolutely do), and so, in a general way, his crafting never seems tainted by the whiff of frivolity or superficiality, or imitation and disingenuousness.

In place of the momentum of the expository, the titillation of games of plot, the appeasements of schemes of tone, the encouragement of adrenaline rushes, and other such efforts toward escapist satisfaction, Hooper's tone and telling seems disinterested in indulging in any sort of "riffing" and all those customary tics of viewer engagement, at least the kinds removed from his overarching enterprise towards creating the emotionally expressive and the visually lyrical over narrative chockablock. These "tics of viewer engagement" are habits of the craft in most films, and not at all a necessarily bad or damning thing, but it is of such foreignness to Hooper's artistic sense, it acts as an effective catch-all to why Hooper deserves a pedestal all his own.

2. The imperative towards manipulation versus the one towards the presentational. Superseding narrative functionality (see Scene from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre II #1 to see Hooper imbuing what should be rote narrative interstitial with the unity of his unwavering commitment to presentational grace, making it very much a part of the unity of "TCM 2-as-gallery-piece"), not only Hooper's narrative but his cinematographic stylization also exhibit a disinterest in manipulations and flashy diversion. This may seem against the fact, for one way Hooper avoids ordinary narrative conveyance is through his heightened camerawork, but this heightened camerawork carries a restraint and/or structure that is antithetical to hollow visual grandiloquence or mere stylistic opportunism. This restraint and structure stems from his constructing of scenes with rhythms and patterns that evoke a sense of the cinema's equivalent of prose's metrical text (so perhaps it is "TCM 2-as-epic-poem"? Spurious? Okay, "TCM 2-as-verse-novel-of-some-uncharacteristic-sort," then).

Lyrical form, as it is, is not much of a means toward manipulation, most certainly narrative-wise. Instead, poems evince through the very candidness of their aesthetic form, and expression takes full priority over stimulation, simulation, the chicest style, and the most persuasive professionalism (poetry, after all, seems the most democratic and liberally approached of all art forms, with the least notion of "professionalism" mincing at its raw, amateur-night fringes). Anyway, it is the former - raw form at its most nicely sculpted - that Hooper has most interest in. Following in this framework, one can see him almost as a beat poet in filmmaking: a bit clumsy in utter commitment to a style, a style characterized by both its elemental technique and the ease with which it is fumbled, but finally convincing when that commitment yields the true, real power of its element.

Scenes in a Hooper film take on a regular scheme and meter structure themselves, and so build the greater structure. Rote narrative, that which tugs the audience as it goes along as plainly as possible, is in contrast to Hooper's shapely Ming vase sequences, or singing free verse stanzas, which pull you in with each successive movement of visual-metrical display. Just recall the Chainsaw films, both consisting of segments in their 3rd quarters devoted to the observance of nightmare lairs using fluid series of crawling dolly shots. These dolly shots can be seen in the first Chainsaw during that first hysterical scene of Sally in the cannibal house, bound and gagged in a chair. The scene is ruled by these crawling, distant, and observing shots taken from a common distance at the anterior of the house, as if the camera takes on the viewpoint of chosen observers embedded in the horror show, but also bound never to pass this 180 line (which, obviously, describes an audience member). Hooper's sculpting is in his creating this rarefaction towards an observational quality, and his meter in the way these distant, stage (or holding tank)-evoking wide shots conjoin with the movement of the specimens before it, like the skitterings of the Hitchhiker, or the painstaking transportation of Grandpa to where Sally sits tied up.

3. Processed sentiment versus the perceptive camera, raw and austere. What we see in that sequence from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is to a lesser degree audience manipulation, and to an even lesser degree narrative or emotional authority, but directorial work that is raw and unprocessed, manifesting of a camera's plain, observing eye, and wish to see and understand. This is without making grandiloquent and unequivocal visual gestures, or the most accessible of emotional and intellectual dictations. His camera is stylized, but in a way so as to be capricious and reactive, not unequivocal and mechanically formulated. In its animation, and his is an animated camera, it moves as if in response to the movement of the players and the feel of the drama, and while this sensibility of camera certainly constrains his range and often defers polish, the discipline it offers is invaluable. It is a thinking camera-entity - one that is feeling and un-elevated, though, as opposed to other things, such as slickly neutral, or coldly voyeuristic, or of pedantic mechanism (think Argento's highly formalized, highly academical style - despite their narratives being pure pulp, Argento's films are very rich fodder for the film theory course). An "un-elevated" camera is at the root of the most empathic of filmmakers (I've compared this sort of capricious, unmistakably human camera-eye to Bergman, and I've before connected it to that of Charles Burnett while watching his quasi-documentary Killer of Sheep, which itself might make some useful comparisons to Hooper's own university film/cultural document/time capsule/verité roots Eggshells - once Watchmaker Films hurries up and gets that one on DVD). Hooper successfully characterizes himself with the candidness of the sprightly, emotive, perspectival camera he employs - one that comes off as a seeker of its intricate, delicate aestheticism, not a lord of it.

As a painting cannot divert you from your judgment of it with further tricks of the trade and the equivocation of the viewer response, there is no process or gimmick past Hooper's aesthetic treatment of his screenplay. As poetry is of little opportunity in creating narrative diversions, it also simply and most literally has no other dimension beyond the written content (and the sometimes heightened visual of the text or typeface). Likewise, Hooper creates lyricism with the least use of dimensions or accoutrement that scream "state-of-the-art" or laborious processing. Hooper's most artful passages are artful in ways that place a minimum amount of dependence on things such as:
* the stirrings of musical score
* the absolute grandeur of the cinematography
* the gratifyingly unquestionable success of a shock or thrill
* the fanciest and quickest of editing
* or the most declarative of emotion.

Hooper's films have little interest in effects, in manipulations, in the ordinary strategies, pedantry, or aggrandizement of stylistic persuasion:

** Just look at the scores of his earliest, most self-derived and self-informed works, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive - lo-fi, self-composed cacophonies of mere ambient noise - to see how emotional dictation through a manipulative soundtrack is not in his instinctive repertoire. + Of course these scores dictate emotion, but they do not manipulate it across a spectrum, with light music for one moment and then menacing music for the next. Neither do they really dictate it, in that they never drive it toward highs or lows. + The Funhouse and Lifeforce's traditionally big orchestral scoring, even, are largely sparse and mostly ironic.

This speaks to Hooper's view of his films as units of mood and form and presentation, not narrative diversion, and his films as installation pieces of odd, distinctive, aesthetically mindful purpose.

** Notice how Hooper's "suspense" isn't suspense at all. He's not interested in the success of the effect, but the rhetoric of the effect (an intellectual interest, to return to Kant, on Hooper's part, in his "ideal judgement" of his cinematographic choices), never more clear than in The Funhouse's serial dampening of its scares and tensions.

** His sentiment never seems like egregious sentimentality, for it is always put into perspectives by Hooper's perspective-informed, observing and empathic camera: Poltergeist's maternal resolve is treated as an entire set-piece, weaved into a sequence that doubles as a choreographic number; the way Hooper's camera enhances a story of star-crossed lovers in Spontaneous Combustion is by creating an unerringly plain sort of watchfulness over the two central characters, its reactive, observational quality trailing them with alternating close-frame intimacy and wide-framed caution, affecting a position of inability to predict their next moves as they get caught in the situation around them they fail to control.

Hooper is not a filmmaker of reinvention nor of the cutting edge, and, as many art-minded filmmakers of the world, his style follows a self-proposed traditionalism he has staked for himself. For Hooper, this involves little processed, cosmetic, or conventionally sentimental about his films. Those things often encourage emotional complacence: narrative engagement as a thing to pat yourself on the back for in itself, then forget about the emotional places it takes you once it's all over. Hooper films avert unmitigated escapism - they take you to places of aesthetic - representational - particularity, with formal purposiveness, and that fact in itself most often ensures the greater emotional and soulful effect, one which encourages consequence and lasting effect (and "judgement," and "intellectual satisfaction") from your taking part in viewing the artifact (the nature of the plastic arts: fine art, installation art, etc.) - not just gratification and the inclination for more.* Hooper's films are artifacts of artistic purpose in the fundamental sense, and it's no wonder Hooper's films are often described in reviews by analogizing them to arcanely simple Objects (i.e. Eaten Alive as blood-stained music box).

* "Now that a judgement about an object... as pleasant... expresses an interest
in it... from the fact that by sensation it excites a desire for
objects of that kind;
consequently the satisfaction presupposes not the
mere judgement about it, but
the relation of its existence to my state...
Hence we do not merely say of the
pleasant,
it pleases; but, it gratifies. I give to it no mere approval, but
inclination is aroused by it; and in the
case of what is pleasant in the most
lively fashion, there is no judgement
at all upon the character of the Object, for
those who always lay
themselves out only for enjoyment (for that is the word
describing
intense gratification) would fain dispense with all judgement."

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