Thursday, June 30, 2011

THAS Announcements

First order of business: the AMPAS - the oh-so-reputable Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences - Research and Preservation website recently came out with a replenished database of archival production art from a host of historical movies, one of which is Poltergeist. One such Poltergeist document is Steven Spielberg's hand-drawn storyboard of a chunk of the "Living Room" sequence (see this document at the AMPAS site here), that sequence I so heavily singled out in my "On 'Poltergeist'" post as a thing of beauty... and strongly suspected was an example of Hooper's directorial mark. Instead, here we have evidence showing Spielberg drawing out frames seen verbatim in that finished product, and also painstakingly formulating the scene's pristine character formations, with careful namings scribed over stick figures (and this latter aspect - the scene's careful and continual blocking formations - being one of the major things so beautiful about the scene). Besides adding more evidence to the rumor of Poltergeist being essentially a Spielberg-directed film, this new Exhibit A seems to strike out the idea of Hooper being the sole "artist" of this particular scene - an idea I'll admit to have been freely, unreservedly entertaining, until now. Fucking AMPAS, amirite?

Well, there was some minor crestfalling when I made this little discovery, but alas, it is also something I feel needs to be posted here at THAS in immediacy, as an un-ignorable part of the chronology of this blog and my progress in cultivating the idea of Hooper as a serious filmmaker. Of course these four sheets of paper do not totally prove Hooper's complete remove from the creation of this scene - for one, it's hardly the entire scene and heck, they're just some storyboards!; two, who was calling the shots on set, the actual day of shooting, is still an important factor; and three, perhaps this storyboard was collaborated on? Quite possibly? But anyway, niggling over Poltergeist is one of the least things I wanted to do with this blog, so I'm willing to throw the baby completely out with the bathwater here and hand over this film completely - but, of course, not, for as long as Hooper claims (though they may just be claims...) that he does feel an ownership of Poltergeist, and that he (of course, whether Spielberg rumors are true or not) had a major part in the production, the idea of his mark being on Poltergeist must be kept alive, and pondered, until complete disclosure proves otherwise.

Ultimately, really, this new find ends up serving mostly as a firm reminder to me that, as much as I want to, I cannot dismiss Spielberg, and that he is not the complete slouch I'm always tempted to mark him as being. That the whimsical, soaring, sprightly choreographing of this scene is starting to seem, yes, very much like primo Spielberg stylization that I have indeed seen in his films -- much more than what my brain was telling me previously. Still not a fan of the man, but he is undoubtedly responsible for a good helping of dynamic, magical cinematic symphony of his own sort throughout his career (that is, symphony of his hyper, crass, Big Mac filmography...).

To wrap up, a possible loss on the Hooper front, but a minor, foreseen one.

Order of business #2: I shall from now on start creating blog posts on here for every ANNEX post I write, so as to encourage and provide place for comments or any discussion concerning those posts. I shall also start going back and creating blog posts for all prior ANNEX posts (with matched dates of publishing) so those can also be commented on or discussed by anyone wishing. This will also make my posting seem more abundant, so hooray.

Will there be more non-Hooper related blogging? I have been considering it, as a fruitful strategy to exhibiting my tastes and giving my appreciation of Hooper some proper broader context, but whether this shall come to pass is up in the air.

This ANNEX<->blog backlogging will be of a completion period TBD, and shall be worked on at my own pace (likely a slow one).

Those are all the orders of business.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

THAS: Tobe Hooper and Genre, Tarkovsky, and Godard (and Rosenbaum and Ishaghpour)

(Responding to the question, "How have you changed as a filmmaker since the days of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?" in his Rolling Stone Middle East interview:)

"A lot of films that I’ve seen made, particularly for the commercial market, in the U.S. have become more-or-less action films. Quite a lot of them anyway. There are a few films where a story is actually told. I take film as seriously as I did in the beginning, and I love it as much. It’s just that the world has changed. I’m not crystallized – I’m aware of that and so I change with the world. At least, I do my best."

Tobe Hooper has never been called the most articulate or outwardly cerebral person. His answer above to the question posed to him is characteristically unformed in thorough, nuanced expression. But what he lacks in fully-fledged erudition and speech prowess, he finds in sincere artistic belief and aesthetic point-of-view that is so preeminent in his thought patterns, it has a tendency of cropping up even in his most mumbled exhortations. The quote above is totally suggestive of Hooper's totalizing artistic viewpoints, while his bumbling verbalization proves in itself an alternative path to clarity: like his films, there's a certain shortage of finesse, but this only heightens the purity of his meanings and the sincerity of his thoughts and practice. His faulty, rambling tongue still suggests that of a philosopher (if of a lower rung) and a philosopher's brand of deeply thoughtful circumlocution, and held in the non-cohesion of his improvised words is still more incorruptible philosophical intimations than superficial glance suggests.

Returning to the quote above, what else to call this statement that finds it apt to lasso all rote, genre-arbitrary "commercial film" under the designation "action films"? One can pose that he is not really choosing his words, but then still, what an inadvertent - or escaped! - nugget of intellectual parlance emerged from this intellectually unassuming filmmaker! How else to define his bold contrasting of "action films" with "films that tell a story" besides as evidence of a totalizing view of "film-as-art" (or film as something to "take seriously," like a physical, lasting artifact) set in opposition to a view of "film-as-action," "film-as-spectacle" (or film as a series of invisible manipulations, ones that end up ultimately all-but-disposable afterwards)?

"Tarkovsky once avowed that the only genre that truly interested him was film itself. 'The true cinema image is built upon the destruction of genre, upon conflict with it,' he wrote in his book Sculpting in Time, adding that filmmakers such as Bresson, Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, Kurosawa, Dovzhenko, Vigo, Mizoguchi, Buñuel, and even Chaplin created their own genres and that 'the very concept of genre is as cold as the tomb.'"
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, quoting Andrei Tarkovsky, from "Critic With a Camera" (Rosenbaum's review of Chris Marker's essay film/video project with Tarkovsky-as-subject One Day in the Life of Andre Arsenevish [a much-recommended, very informative article])

I suppose I should stop making excuses for Tobe Hooper. He is by nature a maker of "art film." As a maker of accessible commercial product, he likely cuts in second-rate, but as an artist of the severest caliber, he is really one of the rarest and few. It comes to light: being, ineluctably, a genre director in commercial Hollywood, he really does seem to stand alone as a bearer of art film instincts in his field of peers - art film instincts of the practically European mould, as delineated upon criterion based around the filmmaking purity (in contrast to film contrivance and film sentimentality) of such clear masters as Fellini and Antonioni. To clarify "film purity," an easy example would be to think what the Dogme 95 founders aimed to create in their imposition of their "anti-over-production" guidelines over form: ponderous though they were, but formulated in order to battle the crassness of plot-driven, genre-driven (one guideline is the explicit prohibiting of genre work), diversion-driven instincts, and emulate a "pure cinema" of pure substance.

I wholly appreciate the film works of artists across the board and across the movie-making, story-telling spectrum, but Hooper truly does seem singularly lofted in the creation of an art-with-a-capital-A in the realm of genre Hollywood. Efforts are abound: nice try, George Romero... close but no cigar, John Carpenter... and no thanks, really, Mr. Spielberg. Hooper strikes me as the one filmmaker whose artistry is not dependent on the "type" of film he is making. As Tarkovsky put it in the Rosenbaum excerpt above, or as he put it again: "I do not believe that the cinema has genres - the cinema is itself a genre."

Perhaps Romero, Carpenter, and Spielberg excel at whatever new project they are taking on - whether usual (zombie dirge, creepy suspenser, soaring adventure, respectively) or adventurous (again respectively, sly Hitchcock appropriation [Monkey Shines], sentimental romance [Starman], or docu-drama epic [Schindler's List]) - but the unshaken instincts toward the functional and accessible always remain, formed within the expectations and pleasures of the genre they currently work under. With Hooper's special and peculiar regard of the craft, I do not go into one of his films expecting a "type" or "genre" - for example, a suspenseful picture that I demand better be suspenseful, or a drama I demand move me to tears. His efforts toward a special type of artful construction in cinema-telling transcend the expectations of manipulating story and manipulated stimuli. It's like going into an art-house film by, archetypically, Fellini, and knowing you do not expect Toby Dammit to be valuable as a mere horror film, or any of his latter-day works to be anything but a series of stylized, fabulist loose episodes, free of hard-and-fast narrative development and resolutions. You do not want a popcorn horror film, you do not want escapism or manipulation, what you want from a Fellini film is the blatant art - and always-and-generally you expect to be moved, in that particular aesthetic way (Kantian tenets of beauty, again), by just its being the distinctive work of a poetic filmmaker. So then, barely do I feel compelled to characterize Hooper's filmography as one of a "horror director." His films are worthy not because they are good horror films, but because they are films made richly. Films made with frequent effort for emotional or thematic richness, with craft and construction that always is motivated by the art of uncommonly graceful form, and of emotional investment - of emotions mature, audacious, far-reaching, never cookie-cutter - always interwoven into that form.

And so, in this sense, Hooper is fit alongside those great European art film directors, whose work are not perceived by genre and genre's formulated satisfactions, but by a predominating style of lofty formal idiosyncrasy and thematic/aesthetic richness (even if not always to some great, consummate extent with Hooper), aspects that persists across the borders of genre and "action" and the gratifications of such. And this all seems to make much sense when we think back at what we know of Hooper himself: a proud, true-blue cineaste, of international and all varieties of cinema, who loves to talk cinema, a "Critic with a Camera" [no more clearer in Hooper than in the quote at the top of this post]; a person who thought an avant-garde docu-fiction-hybrid picture was actually an advisable first feature-length venture; and lastly, as a horror director who didn't really want to be such, and has often mentioned his mostly-unfulfilled wish to direct all types of film.

JLG: The entire planet is willing, as I still am myself sometimes on a Saturday, to go and watch an American film with an ice-cream cone, rather than going just from time to time to see a proper film.
YI: Because it was made with a view to leisure-time entertainment, Hollywood people never denied it: they proclaimed it as their sole aim. They never claimed to be producing art, it was you and your
Cahiers friends who transformed Hollywood into great art.

JLG: There's never been art history in America, art quickly became connected with money...
- filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and art scholar Youssef Ishaghpour in their conversation publication Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century

In the excerpt above from the JLG interview book (released in 2000, conducted to discuss his recently completed, multi-hour video project/collage film Histoire(s) du cinéma), Godard and Ishaghpour discuss in the chapter "The Loss of the Magic of Cinema and the Nouvelle Vague" Godard's "love-hate" relationship with Hollywood and Hollywood escapism. In the same chapter, Ishaghpour extends the idea of art made not in a vacuum (but in a commercial world) to literature and painting, and acknowledges the thin, or genuinely vacillating, line that exists between the rabble and the admirable ("YI: ... I believe that from a certain moment cinema was divided, in the same way as literature and painting in the nineteenth century: Flaubert had to separate himself from the serial writers, but not Balzac and Hugo; Courbet and Manet had to stand up against the grandiose painting that predominated in their time."), and cites Welles, in his movie-making, as an early crosser of these boundaries ("When Welles arrived in Hollywood... he went looking for the museum").

Hooper also embodies this push-and-pull, desire-and-repulsion of the "dream factory" era of cinema that he grew up watching and admiring, a push-and-pull that is evident in his work within the "toy factory" era of the 80s. Never was he out to set himself away from Hollywood, but his instinct to subvert it or deny it, or, perhaps, elevate it and frame it (transforming it, so as to be for "the museum"), has always been with him. As he admired the grandeur and wonder of films by Huston and George Sydney and DeMille, I presume he absorbed them not as if they were "entertainment"--- but as if they were of the Museum. When he noted framing and mise en scene in the cinema, and when he later found himself framing shots and judging lens lengths in his head, it was not because he wanted to emulate and recreate the sweeping escape, but because this magic constituted a physical art, an art of thought, awareness, and the real world.

This particular viewpoint of his shows effectively in his work in a number of ways. It shows in his universal, generalized, ambi-genre and ambi-stylistic aesthetical and theatrical proclivities. It shows in his content: The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Eaten Alive, The Funhouse, and Lifeforce all conceivably "abstract films," subversive, subtext-filled meditations on deprivation and dysfunction, innocence and suffering, sex and biological anxiety (that last one explicitly with Lifeforce). I'd say mostly, it shows in the degree to which Hooper is not a "toybox" filmmaker, or a "fun" filmmaker, where money and unlimited resources, technological or theatrical, are the foremost avenue to cinematic success via unconstrained audience wowing and audience sentimentalizing (even the explicitly nostalgia-driven, kids-pandering Invaders from Mars contains more aspired, self-aware oddity than plain, sweeping, "family-friendly" escapism).

"YI: What had a destructive effect on cinema was the generalization of television and the relations of communication established by it. The result's been passage from a world of magic, illusion and fiction to a world of fake and simulacrum, where it's sufficient to show all the available money on screen and hope that will yield something."
- Cinema: The Archeology of Film and the Memory of a Century

Motivated not by novelties such as effects, technologies, fads, sentiments, and spectacles, the "Hooper restraint" I've previously tried to describe (mostly as it applies to his "film grammar", in the THAS post "The Film Grammar I") is partly his discipline in not throwing all opportunities for such things previously mentioned onto the screen, willy-nilly, in transparent preoccupation with manipulation over meaning - over the hush of thoughtfulness, and the artistic resonance of having some degree of inscrutable layers of emotion, meaning, and depth. As a result, his films always come off with a flat-rate "maturity" to them - an instinctual impulse of somberness and complexity working against the escapist, hyper-stylized, saccharine, and ostentatiously kinetic factory output that came to characterize Hollywood through the 80s. This maturity is a result of this restraint and his "misplaced" principles that aim toward the niceties of cinematic stylization and complex sensibilities, as opposed to the placation of bombast and wholesomeness.

"So horror has become very glossy and commercialized?

Oh yeah, absolutely. And also the films in the beginning of horror have created great works – archetypes – that people now follow. They think there are certain things that you have to do, and that you need to do. I feel like all those rules should be broken because, if they’re not, you don’t have a new place to travel to."

- Tobe Hooper, Rolling Stones ME interview

In essence, there is always something quite sober about Hooper's films. Hooper's films are always subversive. Never is he out to be a mere spectacle-maker, a populist, or a sentimentalist. He is not a kid-in-a-toybox filmmaker, and this is further ensconced in the markedly adult or subversive themes that litter his films. Whenever his visual dynamism rears its head, it's always in the service of emotion and sensitivity, not, in fact, dynamism. Hooper doesn't make "action films." His directorial formulations are rarely formulated in plain order to enhance "the action," but very primarily formulated around ideas and emotion. His stylization is never manic, never overly breathless and endlessly over-emphatic (thus insistently accessible), a trait that characterizes even the most sublime work of commercial masters like Spielberg and Dante. And even his "frivolous" films always seem to carry moments of artfully conceptual emotional texture and gravitas, which makes much sense, as even the overriding inanity of the material does not suppress his raw investment in film craft -- the craft as art ---- art as the realizing of serious, thoughtful, challenging emotional and aesthetic aspirations.