Friday, September 30, 2011

The Indelible Scenes, #1

The Indelible Scenes, a series of film scenes that have had the greatest impact on me.

If there is one thing that separates modern film-making from classical film-making, it is the formulas of style that have inundated modern film (there's a bit of the paradoxical in that statement, formula not being homogeneous and conforming, but proliferate, differentiating, "entrepreneurial") and so often distract film artists from the virtues of that which does not manipulate and overexcite, that which does not seem to have at their disposal the complete catalog of styles and techniques, formulas and niche sensibilities, stockpiled over history. The genres and sub-genres and stylistic (or marketable) trends resulting from this do not necessarily need be a bad thing, and can indeed result in great pictures, but the negative consequence is the calcification and loss of skills and assiduity, and the cultivation of superficiality and mediocrity.

Somehow, it is the simpler, more limited and thus more present camera, and basic sense of film grammar, that most effectively bypasses lacking, placating sensory/emotional appeals, and goes straight to the meaty heart of visual story-telling - that underlying alighting of this medium of visual parable-making, of writing with an eye, of making brush strokes with visually-recorded space. It trumps the acrobatics of style - the bastardized, shallowed rhetoric that film-making often comes to rely on now - in its confidence in the simple.

The great magic of black & white films were that they were essentially exercises in contrast, of 50%/50% fields of understanding. Never was there too much visual information or stylistic noise, for only was there the alternation of blacks and grays and the visibility of these black and grays across fields of white. There was the clarity and purpose known of by filmmakers free of the distraction of the extra cinematographic possibilities brought about by color and advanced camera technology. How well scenes back then could direct your attention, and graphically depict the darks from the lights, the backgrounds from the foregrounds, the sparkling of those lights against the celluloid firmament, and be simply, philosophically contented with the observant beauty found in simply that.

Aesthetic-critical angling aside, the following scene will always remain one of the most beautiful and beguiling, strange and wonderful scenes I will surely see, in an entire film that probably fits those same superlatives... The physical presence the phantom Irena holds by means of her singing, which is treated with such tactile sense by the shots chosen and the accompanying sound design... the wide shot of Irena in the garden, and the beauty of the camera's pull-ins closer to her... the brilliance of the musical conceit, a symbolic/inadvertent musical counterpoint occurring between the two carols being sung in subtly implied opposition...

#1 - THE CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE - Christmas Visitations

Merry carolers.

(Another Anglo carol.)

A child's watching morphs into ignoring, at the sound of another singing voice coming from outside.

Irena (Simone Simon), outside, sings in brilliantly arranged counterpoint the French carol 'Il est ne, le divin enfant,' that, while yet a Christian tune, still serves as a tingly, foreign subversion and opposition to the bland singing inside.

The sound design is actually a great part of what makes this scene so wonderful. As Amy, the little girl, goes back to the living room to pick up her gift for Irena from near the Christmas tree, Irena's voice is lost and the carolers' singing is predominant again.

A conspiratorial glance at those gathered around the piano, and at us. After all, we, the audience, may be against her, too.

And then, as Amy steps outside, Irena's singing becomes the foreground sound and the voices inside effectively become the counterpart to Irena.

Une etable est son logement,
Un peu de paille, sa couchette,

Une etable est son logement,
Pour un Dieu, quel abaissement.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

THAS: Scene from 'Salem's Lot' #1

#1 - Rhetoric / Structure - "Have you finished your homework?" "Oh yes. A long time ago."

It truly is a matter of a rhetorical camera for Hooper, a camera whose attentions and formulations are always poised towards a strange and unaffected communication, one grounded in awareness of the vocalizing presence of the camera, a soft baby-step Brechtian, a pointedly critical-minded, intellectualized formulation of craft. Despite Hooper's intellectual lacking and the lack of appropriate pretension in his works seen in most conventional perspectives (which I acknowledge makes Brecht allusions specious at best), he nevertheless always proves an intellectuality in practice (or of practice): an intellectually-derived film-directing specialism, that I would venture to say is rarely matched even by some of the greatest, most masterful filmmakers nonpareil.

While many filmmakers' practice is to fall on heavy affect or sentimental appeals to create their cinema and beauty (whether a piled-on sensuousness, a smorgasbord of viscera, gratuitous experientiality, any aesthetic overload of fancy visuals, artsy poise, rote kineticism... the list goes on...), it is Hooper who shockingly resists the obvious shit, and whose very instinct seems to be for the truly sophisticated shit. By those colloquialisms, I of course mean his craft remains striking and composed whilst being shockingly free of strategies smacking of overtness, like dripping pathos, or saturating visual decadence, or declarative intellectual postures, or wham-bang action shots, or anything that can strike a critical viewer as style without any real rhetorical meat. When a moment from a Hooper film really strikes me, I do not feel I was taken aback by emotional manipulation, or deviated by fitful style. Instead, it's so often a feeling of being critically impressed and critically glad, because his affects and flourishes are not narrative or genre stratagem (whether that genre is horror-thriller or emotional drama) but highly rhetorical form, and they are always backed by his soft-Brecht, ambivalent-to-narrative, teensily-constructivist "artist's distanciation," and also by how natural and non-aggressive are his artistic imperatives. These are imperatives of emotional sensitivity and a bottom-line cinema grace -- not stylistic coolness, or mere narrative/dramatic servitude, or kitsch, or politics (which, yes, makes Hooper not a piece of the political Brecht). His aesthetic beauty is not found in mere aesthetic beauty, in pretty images, or stealth genre-stylings - which all, regardless of their aura of quality, can topple into the realm of the "generic" (the idea of pure artistry in cinema being tied to ambivalence to genre is something I looked at in a previous post) - but in rigor: in his constructing every moment of a film with a moment-by-moment sense of sophistication and meaning in form, neutral to effect and genera.

Take this scene from Salem's Lot that initially posits to survey a strange and fantastically adorned room, panning leftward over the array of figurines, toys, masks, jars of effects, etc. A mockingly, theatrically, "menacing" musical cue plays over the by-all-other-accounts non-menacing tour of this room full of "scary," theatrical, but most assuredly utterly harmless, items.


And then, the camera arrives on Mark Petrie, who is in the middle of his own quasi-theatrics at the moment [rehearsing lines for the school play]. This within-shot segue does a number of things: it creates doubly the presence of the observing, performed-for camera; it creates a dynamic connection between Mark's interest in the fantastical with his current creative/performing act [he also is the writer of the play he is rehearsing]; and it creates a striking refraction of "'dramatical' energy" from a third-person camera to a vaguely "2nd-person" audience-address:

But the shot doesn't end there. After a brief sticking on Mark performing towards the camera (above), he is made to perambulate tour-guide-like to his right, across the field of space that the camera already showed us mere seconds ago (cinematic rhetoric if I've ever seen it):

Thus, Mark literally, visually, becomes owner of this domain, he and the camera insisting we characterize the space along and with Mark himself, and flying in the face of the first cursory tour with its add-on "creepy" music. Mark guides the camera like a literal tour-guide, and Hooper follows suit as the tourist, and suddenly the room becomes even more marvelous in its banal reality as simply this quiet pre-teen boy's prided room of specialties. Mark enters the space we've already seen, but becomes framed and backdropped by the elaborate display, cementing the link between Mark and his identity, a boy with an innate interest in fantasy and creativity.

Mark is made to step boldly toward the camera, as he becomes further lost in the process of creating/performing/perfecting (not to mention story-telling, of the mysterious dark past of Salem's Lot):

The sound of the door opening breaks Mark (and us) off from the purposes of the telling. It is his disapproving Mother, detachedly framed:

A stunningly surprising follow-shot goes suddenly wide on Mark, and further cocoons him in his personally-made space. The shot also pulls in towards him:
... and the return-shot to the Mother musically follows suit, pulling in towards her at a matching speed:

"Oh, Mother... Danny and Ralphie Glick are coming over after they finish their homework. We're going to rehearse."
"Have you finished your homework?"
A final stretch of pull-in towards him as he replies his climactic punch-line, a matter-of-fact - and inherently self-congratulatory - reply of: "Oh yes. A long time ago."

And after a final word from the unhappy parent, annoyed by the noise he's creating perfecting his play, she closes the door on his slightly shamed face. This is a totally new angle to him - before, he didn't have an ashamed bone in his body about his work, until his Mother came in and told him his "whatever he was doing" was bothering his father doing his "monthly taxes." And so, a new emotional angle is treated with a new camera angle:


He shrugs it off, or tries to. And finally we see him begin rehearsing again, the old Mark we knew - who had no thoughts but for his play - slowly returning... but never fully. With this slowly-leavening reversion of self, the camera activates itself again, following again his movements of performance - now being some slow, tentative steps forward:

A rather trademark multi-orbital, or multi-plane, Hooper shot occurs here. While the camera at first just follows and tracks-in laterally to follow Mark's walk forward, he soon stops and so does the camera. But at his stop, the camera begins a circling orbit that brings us slightly around on Mark's face, ending the scene with a beautiful final beat on a suddenly doubt-filled visage.

(And as the scene cuts on the roving camera that curves around Mark, it cuts abruptly to the next scene, of the David Soul and Lew Ayres characters having lunch. One active camera, dreamily floating, gives way rhythmically, rhymingly, to another active camera, a harsher one, this one beginning medium on Ayres then matter-of-factly pulling back and revealing Soul seated eating next to him. The shot's active exclusion-then-inclusion of Soul works to tie him as the spiritual predecessor to Mark, the frame "revealing" Soul - ta-da - while the image of plaintive Mark above still lingers, persistence-of-vision-like, in our heads.)


The sequence above of Mark in his room very clearly reflects a scene from Toolbox Murders that I looked at in a previous post. Looking at the Salem's Lot scene, the first shot, labeled (1), presents Mark from a predominant perspective of his right side. Shot (2) has Mark standing with his front straight toward us. Then Shot (3) finishes the portrait, throwing at us with striking decision an angle on his left side.

Almost-identical strategy occurs in the Toolbox Murders scene:
"This third shot is the final puzzle piece to closing off the two previous shots. Shot (1) was of Luis working from his back. Shot (2) was of Luis (and Ned) at work from the side. Shot (3) is a shot of Luis at work from his front."