Saturday, March 10, 2012

THAS: Scene from Poltergeist


A Scene from Poltergeist (1982)


It really doesn't matter who is responsible for this scene, as it may be one of the most stupendous ever in the history of film, as far as my estimation goes.

It does a whole slew of things within its six minutes. Besides it literally providing a whole serving of scenes for the audience (it begins a neutral scene, then cranks up into a taut suspenser, then eventually becomes a sentimental paean, then finally ends with an unabashed horror stinger), it is most notable for its feats and somersaults of scene construction, such as its having every progressive moment (in this rather episodic sequence) be in complete flow and cohesion with the moment before it. It's a six minute scene that jumps around in narrative functions, yet never lets up on its uniting craft of handsome baroque aesthetics and ultra-sophisticated shot rhyme, and somehow manages to make every progression of the scene part of this single, continuous, fluid visual symphony of a whole sequence. All this achieved with non-stop composition and technique that is absolutely exhilarating.

As much as Poltergeist is criticized for being unabashedly commercial, it claims a rather baroque aesthetic peculiarity in its having a screenplay that can build entire set-pieces around 5-7 characters fraught in a room, all simultaneously at heights of emotion and action, some characters await in the background anticipating the unexpected, the remaining sublimely appealing the camera itself - and practically us, the audience - in perpetual sublime prostration.

It's a beautiful narrative novelty, this plot that motivates multiple players to move in beautiful, opportune regiment in the confines of the background - shifting about in the enigma that is a haunted house - while a sorrowing mother speaks to ethereal worlds above the camera. The film ends up with two pivotal scenes built around this conceit, and the two scenes alone give Poltergeist a rather lasting artistic residue. Hooper/Spielberg/Leonetti take full advantage of this, playing exquisitely with foreground/background interplay and a camera that constantly repositions itself and creates exquisite formations with the fluttering bodies. The only other film I can think of that has such an enviable set-up is perhaps Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, which is made up of a series of powerhouse scenes involving the Joan Crawford character facing off a posse of townspeople in the confines of her single-lobby casino [I recently posted an article written by François Truffaut, where he does indeed say this about Johnny Guitar: "But the interest [of director Nicholas Ray] lies in elsewhere: for instance in the very beautiful positioning of figures within the frame. (The posse at Vienna's is formed and moves in V-shape, like migratory birds.)"].

Things I most love in this scene: 1:33 - The "Hello Sweat Pea" shot with Craig T. Nelson and Beatrice Straight popping into the frame (likely a very Spielberg cue, *sigh*...); how that shot segues directly into the wide shot following; the sentimental pull-ins (it's a Spielberg knack, yes... I'll say I don't think it's quite beyond Hooper...); 2:22 & 2:28 & 2:40 - absolutely delectable rack-focusing; the mannered architectural shots (signs of Hooper) ††; I literally my whole life will never get over the formations contained in this scene; 3:06 - drool worthy character formation and moving camera...

And it goes on, but I have added distracting YouTube Annotations® on the excerpt video [UPDATE: This since has changed, I had trouble getting around the YouTube copyright policies and it is no longer a YouTube video] that more-than-explicitly spell out my idolatry over this sequence. Spielberg and Hooper should've become a permanent co-directing team.

†† Architecture
(the persistence of the ceiling)
(the angularity of the walls)
(that tree)
(those cross beams)


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