Friday, April 29, 2011

Spontaneous Combustion (Tobe Hooper, 1990) 1

By all means, Hooper has made two "art works," or works that strive towards art, or, two films that betray his unabashed artistic longings and pathos-soaked dramaturgic aspirations at their fullest - these being The Funhouse and Spontaneous Combustion. These are two films driven by full-bodied narratives and tonal designs, unceasing attention to compositional nicety, and deeply sensed, highly ingrained poetical structures which orient these narratives and tonal designs away from accessibility and literalism, and toward delicate, lyrical structure and rich symbolic expression. Both certainly align with assumptions of what ought to be deemed Hooper's "most personal" projects, The Funhouse being his first "picked from the litter" screenplay choice as an established studio director (choosing it over sharp and highly worthy genre scripts such as Piranha and Wolfen), and Spontaneous Combustion being his first feature undertaking after his self-prescribed post-Cannon detox, developing his own brainchild (credited as he is with the story, and co-writing) under independent producers.

Spontaneous Combustion may be one of the biggest contradictions in the history of movies: a work filled with enough missteps, prat falls, and own foots being shot to cost Hooper two careers, but that may yet be one of the most richly conceived works of dramaturgical ambition and unrecognized surfeits of pure artistic giving ever attempted. (Considering the film's reputation, pure artistic self-abnegation for his art might be the name for it here.)
... It is a film undeniably burdened by the failings of an untreated screenplay and a low-privileged production (and a 90s-era genre one at that), but as often is it susceptible to these pitfalls as it is in complete transcendence of them.
... A story of an essentially preposterous sort, but that meets preposterousness halfway with its utter fervor and belief in its story, and all that runs beneath it. An unintentionally "cheesy" movie that nevertheless looks and feels exactly how it wants to look and feel, the ardent, blushed-faced compassion of its dramatic enterprise never totally inextricable from the pie-faced product that has resulted.
... Still a mystery is its production history and how faithfully realized is Hooper's initial vision, and highly tempting are rumors of more producer interference being at fault for the film's failings (hardly would it excuse them all), and yet the final film still shows adamantly a powerfully clear vision seen through and to a considerable degree realized, sporting probably Hooper's most beautiful narrative designs and story concepts, his most passionately ascendent cinematic symphony, and his most intricate and far-reaching thematic and poetic threads.

"To find an article or interview where Hooper spoke at length of the changes made to Spontaneous Combustion would be of great service, because what remains of the film hints at a well thought-out and designed horror film."
- Michael Worrall in his review at High/Low
"I really love the way that movie [Spontaneous Combustion] is made as a drama..." - Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Self-abnegation might be a bit dramatic, in my use of it earlier, but the suggestion there is that Hooper really went out on a limb, in that his 90s comeback feature is, willfully, a non-horror film. Spontaneous Combustion then, hardly qualifying as a scare film (and by all means, it was his only one outside of Eggshells at that point), is instead a perfect passion play, in its methodical observation of a man martyred (and painstaking account of the martyr's pain), and another one of Hooper's real-time approximating, course-of-a-night narratives (as is the characteristic of the theological passion: coinciding the depth of suffering the sins of the world with the stellar compaction of lifetimes worth of pain into the course of the followed hours, supernovas of minutes); a grand opera, in its sequential set pieces of operatic emotion and teary melodrama; a Greek tragedy, with explicit claim to a dualistic anti-hero in Brad Dourif's impotent-powerful protagonist - experiencing his hero's downfall through blocks of hamartia and anagnorisis - and exhibiting both the antiquity classics' cosmic portents and eternal human drama. Hardly fashionable is its unusually tender storyline that, as Kiyoshi Kurosawa in his quote above implies, chooses to unravel like a soap opera (one of loftier concerns than the daytime ilk, of course) in its minute-by-minute account of the passions and anguishes of the romantically entangled, and the lascivious people encircling them that tear and hold them apart.


"... Spontaneous Combustion, a conspiracy film that's not driven by exalted mystery so much as a sad trickle of readily-apparent information."


Spontaneous Combustion's true ambitiousness is in how intimate it is, how consistently tender are the emotions it devotes itself to displaying, and how explicitly the plot is driven by simple human interaction: its heights of great warmth, its intractable failures of communication, and its terrible, fiery crescendos. It is the story of a single man's history and downfall, yet it infers about the entire world with a truly reaching sense of scope and allegory.

After a long-form prologue set in the 1950s (the film practically starts off a period film), the story travels to the present to center on high school teacher - and orphan from birth - Sam/David Bell (Brad Dourif), who through the film slowly pieces together his history as a child of nuclear experiments (all this, though, already clear to the viewer from the prologue). Naturally, these experiments have endowed him with special "fire" powers that suddenly (due to ambiguous forces both human and divinely wrought) begin to manifest themselves -- this ability bringing destruction to him and those around him. Somehow involved is his seemingly innocent girlfriend Lisa (whom the film centers on almost equally to Sam, the film's attention strikingly handed over to her at pivotal points); the town nuclear mogul and man-who-raised-him Lou Olander (William Prince); and also the powering up of the controversial new super power plant in the city.

To an almost self-exultant extent, the film suggests itself as a tale of love: parental love lost, regained; romantic love false, mistaken, doomed; and love in opposition to fire, ultimately, being powerful. Secondly, it's a highly fearful, quasi-historical semiotic meditation on nuclear power: the prologue's scientific fantasy of the US's recorded nuclear testing history (represented as either all hush-hush secrets or rah-rah kitsch) gives way to the more banal, modern day energy debate, teachers and students at Sam and Lisa's school sporting armbands declaring their position on nuclear power and their very modern-era awareness of all its facets. Thirdly, it exists as a neon-Gothic symbolist fantasia, in which the ubiquity and entropy of light, electricity, and destructive energy signals apocalypse. K. Kurosawa's films, particularly Pulse and I'd also presume Charisma - an apocalyptic tale of arboreal mania in the same way this film is of nuclear mania - seem no doubt highly inspired by this film. Like many of Kurosawa's films, it's an aspiring piece of magical realism, in which metaphors build on metaphors build on the real and banalities of life and the human condition. Anger equals fire in the film; suns beget sons beget parasitic fathers; a nuclear plant looms like a monster, and an energy blowout becomes an inadvertent supernatural summoning. It's a film where contrivance, by condition, always has a deeper shade of poetic underpinning, such as the coincidence of birth dates (all easily forgotten: Hiroshima, deathday, is the atomic man's birthday... so easily forgotten - or kept secret - are they, it happens to be declared the birthday of the new power plant) or Sam's entire life contrived unbeknownst to him; and the convolutions of the conspiracy may point to plot holes, but simultaneously point to the inevitable uncertainties of the grandest plans, and the messy miscommunications of even the most competent-seeming, top-level machinations.

How funny that, all these things combined, this can come off as Hooper's ultimate hippie film: a tale of love, a tale of organizational nefariousness, and a cautionary one of highly anti-nuclear energy sentiment. It may also be his failed masterpiece.

/To be continued/

1 comment:

Rodney said...

For my estimation Hooper's run from TCM to TCM 2 was his classic streak and starting with this one it has been more uneven than even. Still this isn't a terrible movie and has excelelnt framing and camera composition. Some of the effects are good for its time but the plot is the one thing that muddles this down. Brad is actually pretty good in it but the climax comes off as too anti-climatic.