Saturday, October 8, 2011

THAS: Scene from 'Invaders from Mars' #1

#1 - Construction - "Is this a joke?"

This is a scene from Invaders from Mars, which can be pretty fantastic, despite my seeing it as one of Hooper's more frivolous, less lofty, less "deep" efforts. Adult undercurrents, subversive elements, and mature emotional horizons have less place in what is essentially an attempt at a pure kid's adventure film (of course, a darkly surreal and dementedly off-the-wall one) and also a modest mood piece - an atmospheric entrance into a child's wild mind.

But Hooper always treats emotions and characters seriously, and so even Invaders of Mars has moments to latch onto for startling graveness and sobering emotion, or, alternatively, for a gentle warmth and sobering grace, both of which can be found throughout the film, embedded in Hooper's elegant film craft. Much in the same way of Hooper's two other Cannon films, Hooper creates the fine line between his stories' blatant over-the-top elements and the moral, dramatic, and emotional seriousness that still can reside in any story, and he manages to straddle the line between the two with real artistry and resonance. For instance, it is the common tendency to make fun of little Hunter Carson's performance as David Gardner, for his funny faces and funny running (it is probably one of the greatest questions I can pose to Hooper for the world, whether Carson was directed to run in such a way, arms always flailing like a defunct windmill), but watch the film again and notice how unfiltered and anti-precocious Carson's performance can be, and how earnest and serious the performance is often moulded to be. The faces and line deliveries he makes may often be funny and unflattering, but they are diffuse and unaffected, and hold a naturalness and sincerity that justifies the steadfast attention Hooper gives to this kid's face and its turmoil of boyhood gravitas. Carson and his rather unpolished acting really is an important part in giving the film the down-to-earth quality it possesses, as it can be said to be a film made up mostly of shots of his face, either gripped in exaggerated alarm or steeled with the insistence on being the tiny hero of this outsized adventure. [The film has David as a constant central, perceiving character much in the same way The Funhouse has Amy and Night Terrors has Genie, or The Birds has Melanie Daniels].

The shot above, for example, is from the moment in which Carson delivers a brilliantly earnest (brilliantly pained), brilliantly unpretentious* reading of the line "Is this a joke?" to his mind-controlled parents, and is just one of the many insistently naked shots of his face and facial expression, frozen in some state of deep discomfort, deep disgust, or utter graveness. This performance has a certain way of coming off as simultaneously overacted and underacted, due to Hooper and his camera's insistence that we need not only one reaction shot of the height of a person's emotional reaction, but that there are numerous reaction shots, charting not only the stasis, or the build-up, but all the contortions and grimaces of a face always in reaction, at points where it does not even know what emotion it is headed to. Watch the film again with this in mind, and with the idea that Carson comes off as a boy with no actorly pretensions (as most boys do not have), and his perceived half-acting may then become a highly effective performance: an unpolished but multivariant and committed one (by virtue of the formalist focus Hooper gives to Carson's imprecise skills as a physiognamous actor) that really presents to us just a regular kid, with all his clumsy emotions, thrown into a world of fear, confusion, and early-age heroics.

* One can compare it to one of Caroline Williams' brilliantly unpretentious line deliveries
in TCM 2 - any one of the uproarious things she pleads at Leatherface, whether "Are
you mad at me?" or "I don't think this is going to work out." Carson later in Invaders
from Mars
delivers at least one more brilliant, brilliantly unpretentious line reading,
responding to his alien-Father's beckon of "You don't know what you're missing" with
a succinct and hilarious, "Yes I do."

But this is not a post about Carson's performance, but one about the sense of gravity and seriousness Hooper will bring to any story with his emotional instincts and peaks of formal craft.

Here now is one such peak, a moment of terror treated with alarming sonorousness and juxtaposed beauty, and an earned example of inflated form, of emotional and metaphorical formal construction, employed in service of emotional meaning, and I'd say Bresson-like in both its precision of construction and in the construction's boldly artistic almost-awkwardness: its complete disregard of the cleanliness of the cut, of the conventional invisibility of editing deicison, and of the avoidance of any editing decision that is in the least bit jarring.

#1 - Construction - The Almost-Awkward Construction.

David has had just about enough of his parents' strangeness and gets up to wait for the school bus outside:

"Give your mother a hug."

The shot below is a quick cut. It is short and instantaneous. It is sudden and emphatic of attack, of unwanted contact, of the swoop of a Death scythe, of a faceless mother-impersonator and her lack of humanness, like a bewigged puppet stooping on strings.

Cut to:

The jarring quality between the two shots, or at least the nature of their piecing together, is barefaced and unabashed: as said, the active "grabbing" shot is an unusual quick-cut in the film, and, even if it is not actually the case (it may be sole virtue of the former shot's oblique composition), there is still the slight sense of a mismatch of positions between the shots (notice, actually, she grabs him on his arm, but in the wide shot, her hand is on his shoulder). I will not say it was absolutely intentional, but the jarring quality of it is at least markedly not-avoided: the bold artistry of composition given priority over the cleanliness of it.

This slight awkwardness is what makes this moment come off as formally risky and artistically motivated, and is what instills it with emotional and metaphoric vision. It is Bresson-like scene craft - Bresson who focused on parts in close-up instead of wholes, captured discrete blocks of movements as if abstract gestures of structured moral perception and metaphoric experience, and who resisted polished and seamless editing in his work, welcoming the occasional jarring imprecision of an edit. He searched for the continuity of life with that unmistakably Bressonian raggedness of continuity, where he'd have a person walking to a bench, cut away, then cut back to them sitting themselves on the bench but with a sense that time was somewhat eclipsed or elongated, and so the act of walking to the bench (and then the act of sitting on it) is pared down, or somehow temporally off beat. This works to make every motion of a character represent an essential emotional action or emotional experience.

Here it follows that if the "grabbing shot" is a decisive emotional beat that places us within the visceral experience of the characters - of the pounce, of its suddenness, and its characterizing of the Mother-monster - then the following shot, too, is decisive: a tableau, wide, with characters in arrangement. The cut is clearly meant to be an instantaneous match-on-action, but the act of the cut still suggests there is still that microsecond between the cut where David and Mother fall into the reality of the scene: into the reality of the freeze caught in the next frame. The slight sense of mismatch, of editing not meant to be "clean" but actually meant to be a bit ragged, supports this idea, and the visual-metaphoric power, purpose, and intention of it. The relative stillness of the second shot, put up against the quickness of the lunging shot that preceded it, gives the shot its heightened sonority. The camera pans in slowly, utterly graceful. The wide reveal of their arrangement emphasizes their assumed roles: David, reluctant but powerless, Mother, poised, alien-possessed.

Dad looms dominantly, but brilliantly separate (in askew scale), from Mother and son.

The pan-in does not just get closer to them, it altogether reconfigures the position of the bodies in the frame (aided by the subtle shifting of the actors). It pushes the parents to the right side of the frame (Father still at odd, striking disproportion to the foreground-enlarged Mother) and David to the left, Carson shifting very inconsistently in the frame, and so lending majorly to the composition the dynamic, spatial flux we sense as the camera is in movement.

Mother drops on her knees. Exquisitely beautiful is the slatted sunlight her emotionless face falls into, the camera and its composition despairing futilely for the warmth that is wholly absent in this should-be-beautiful shot of motherly tenderness.

How tight she hugs him, even changing her arm position to squeeze him tighter, as if the alien mind itself actually wants an inkling of what it is human emotion is like.

A stiff, puppet-head of a mother.

POV. Hooper has mentioned the importance of POVs to him as a filmmaker, citing Hitchcock as the master of this technique of jumping in and out of the heads of characters, as the moments call for it.

And even when we think we've all but abandoned the idea of the Mother as human at all, we take one last cut back to her face, the camera still melodramatically panning in and then holding a split second on them - as if humoring us that hope that the alien actually does achieve that inkling of human feeling it so convicted to acting out (Laraine Newman's expression in the below frames always gets me; there's something about it, as if the alien is actually starting to believe in, or become attached to, the act of love it plays out... that the film takes this one last poignant, emphatic look, as if still searching valiantly for the humanness lost, really exemplifies the "humanist impulse" I feel Hooper very often betrays, as a very instinct within him):

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