Monday, June 4, 2012

THAS: Lifeforce


"The web of destiny carries your blood and soul back to the genesis of my life form."

The quote above - spoken by the female space vampire who has fallen in love in order to harvest a world (for starters, we can try making sense of that) - directs us to two essential things about Lifeforce: first, its blatant incomprehensibility, and secondly, its strange, New Age undercurrents that - while incomprehensible - are clearly deeply embedded into the film's screenplay and entire conceptual design.

Lifeforce, first of all, is based on British writer Colin Wilson's science fiction novel The Space Vampires, which I suspect provides a lot more explanations and sense to the proceedings. Not having read it, we must go off what the film alone gives us, and while explanations I cannot pretend to give, I can posit that the screenplay harks back to various quasi-sources I also cannot say to have read but speak to the film's ultimate take on energy beings and soul collecting: these, possibly, are Heindelian mysticism ("Christian occultist" Max Heindel, who wrote a bizarre manuscript titled "The Web of Destiny"), the general esoteric sciences, where science and religion are fused (a subsection of study in which the film's Dr. Hans Fallada would surely fall under), and, of course, the Stoker vein of vampire mythology. What unites these is each their own revisionism with Christian beliefs, as we see their new concepts still entrenched in Christian symbols and values such as crucifixes, souls, and notions of virtue, but simultaneously trying to adapt it to their pet "New Age" ideas of science, life cycle, and ageless energies. And so Lifeforce, in its being a weird, sci-fi, revisionist amalgam of all these sources, reveals its deepest spine, its beguiling mystical goals: to be its own wrestling match and revision of very core concepts of religion (as you see, very New Age), most prominently that central idea of it all, the persistence of life.

"That thing won't be back for another 76 years. And we'll both be dead."


On the other hand, Lifeforce also provides a very down-and-dirty, earthy look at uncontrollable sexuality and disease... perhaps a bit pithy and supercilious, some may argue? I am mostly indifferent towards criticisms along those lines, not perceiving any gross conservatism in the film, and more so perceiving - and applauding - its slight-of-hand suggestions about the fluidity - and equality - of sexuality. Allowing Steven Railsback to deliver on a lip-lock with Patrick Stewart - a riotously mundane climax to what preceded as an intensely otherworldly face-off, reacted to with equally riotous alarm by his two companions in that scene - is one of the film's most satisfying gestures, inexcusably snipped out in the heavily-edited US cut (which no one should watch).

But then we have this theological element.  In the end, it proves to be what ultimately delivers, with a spectacularly open-ended denouement that comes off almost like a grand science fiction validation of certain pagan/New Age values of sex celebrated (all stages of it, from copulation, to feminine fertility, to birth).  Sex (here nothing less than an egalitarian "shared penetration" of both male and female) and birth is proclaimed the glorious exploding atom at the core of that ubiquitous idea of "the circle of life," which one can interpret the film as depicting a monstrous and galactic extreme - and, in keeping with the film's wily ideas about sexuality, is something that indeed persists even following phases of total destruction and catastrophe (including our - humans' - own personal sexual catastrophe).  In other words, the film depicts sex as dysfunctional as it can be, yet knows it is the core of humanity and the gleaming hope - of life-giving, life-receiving, of our ongoing provenance - in every person's eyes.  This is why Lifeforce - in its greatest moral gesture - can be a disaster movie yet one that ends on a strangely affirming note, without fortune or order, or moral positioning, in any way regained or saved.  The film knows sex, and its wisdom is found in how it does not condemn it, for we all partake in it. The film's wily, whimsical look at sex, as well as life cycle, can be seen by just looking at its beginning and end.  The film begins in massive Fallopian tubes, then ends with the droves of lifeforce flying out to space into a complete genital union (massive shaft and umbrella-ovum at the end), rather triumphantly, to who knows what implementation: a seeding of life energy from our little world into the unknown equality of the rest of the universe. If O'Bannon, or Hooper, were a little more of intellectual giants, that of the Kubrick variety, Lifeforce could have ended with its own incarnation of Space Baby.


It is in the character of Hans Fallada, who is given an emphatic moment to express how he truly has found his Alternative Belief, that Lifeforce gives away its concerns of religion and why we seek it - as a harborer of greater mysteries and more unknown journeys. The Fallada character is cleverly kept out of all the action of the film, left to the deep, encased recesses of the government facilities and laboratories while the military man and astronaut follow the insect trail of blighted unfortunates who acted as they would and indulged their hormonal impulses. His return appearance in the climactic act of the film may stand unaccompanied as the one triumphant pay-off in the film: the sole character in the story imaginative enough for transcendence, welcoming Peter Firth's bullet and elating at the thought of dying -- at joining the millions of "souls" that fly as lifeforce towards a celestial collector and a journey past the stars: persistence of life greater than any mundane notion of lasting consciousness and "heaven," I'm sure he no doubt believes.

In keeping with the dual nature of the film (half carnal misadventures, half procedural discovery; half messy sexuality, half demure conversations between suited men about these things such as sexuality and religion), Fallada is thoroughly contrasted by the characters around him, him being someone prepped for the transcendental while everyone around him are persons steeped in the religions of their profession, of societal functionality -- or, in the case of the vampires' wretched victims, the religion of the unpretentious Id. (The two are often in clash with each other, which is directly depicted in Carlsen's inner battle between duty and the lure of the Space Girl.) Some of the film's more convincing moments of thematic aptitude are found in Fallada's interactions with these characters around him, notably his "disappointing" conversation about the after-life with a curious but thoroughly hayseed Caine, and his ruffling the feathers of the uptight pathologist (the same one later sucked of his lifeforce when successfully "seduced" by the zombified security guard) in an early conference room scene when he refuses to reciprocate with Fallada's nuanced ideas about life and death.


Lifeforce seems to become almost a mystical text in and of itself, as metaphor preconditions sense and the life cycle imagery seems to be what the very narrative was built around. If only the film made more of an effort to coordinate its wild metaphors, which are thoroughly sublimated within convoluted popcorn narrative. But nevertheless, Lifeforce may very well objectively be the Hooper film furthest down the rabbit hole of his abstract and surrealist inclinations, a film that is very much metaphor before it is anything else.

This not only applies to its gonzo Freudian premise, though. It also applies to its very explicit and offbeat goals of tone, found primarily in the very depersonalized, macro, representational landscape it almost wholly functions along in regards to narrative, drama, and character. It is a film that is to a notable degree removed from resembling in any way a conventional sentimental narrative. This is half attributable to it being almost half-parody film -- a comedy of representation that takes on British (or military) persona in practically the way Airplane! takes on airline ones. This parodic "taking on" of persona is perhaps most clearly displayed in the interlude wrought within Steven Railsback's mind, where he (and Hooper) psychically invoke visions of the space vampiress's seduction of a middle-aged man suddenly by way of a Benny Hill sketch - or perhaps in the short sliver of the film where Hooper cheekily returns to America (most specifically, Texas), over-demonstratively depicting a troop of US soldiers approaching Carlsen's escape pod with a structured series of rushing, over-energized traveling shots along soldiers' boots trampling on mud, and accompanied by an hilarious overdub of juiced-up American accents.

"Easy, easy!" "I said take it easy now!"

But even when not being parodic, the film is one of mimicry and representation -- for one, of public behavior and professional designation. The capacity with which we get to know any of our characters is in a purely public and professional mode (varying across fields of military, government, and scientific), which of course acts ironically against the film's main subject of sex and all the shame and energy that fluctuates on its unpredictable terms -- and that now the characters are made to discuss simply as a matter of total necessity. (In a film full of artifice, the expository discussion of calamitous sex is the film's most underlying artifice!) Either we are witness to the world of professionals crumbling, or we are getting glimpses of the insect trail, the "civilian organisms" represented either as dulled-out perverts or the silly zombies of the climax -- in either case (the latter being a bit unfortunate, near ruining the film, I must say), they add up to a rather removed representation of humanity as termite masses. The only audience stand-ins we have in the film are then the government men, removed of personal history, and with that decision of O'Bannon (and in Hooper's cinematic realization), Lifeforce forgoes being that conventional sentimental narrative and embraces its rhetorical distanciation, its presentational tone, its thoroughly British manner. If I call Hooper a rhetorical filmmaker, Lifeforce is his most blatant rhetorical exercise: removed of conventional drama, he's made instead a tonal cocktail containing "blockbuster action film," mystical-theological parable, British film, and British sci-fi-adventure, Quatermass-style.

The film gains in its choosing the right one to finish itself off with: the final minute leaves narrative resolution to be expressed in such grandiose parabolic shorthand - the moment of Carlsen and the Space girl's souls flying up into the spacecraft, with Caine gazing after them among the corpses at the steps of St. Paul's Cathedral - that the action-fest facade disappears in a pure visual aria of heavenly bodies flying upwards toward the genital mother ship, striking more a chord of earth's celestial doomsday being temporarily deferred more than any threat being summarily vanquished.

Wet Dream

This sequence is a marvel. A brilliant display of choreographed movement, spatial possibility, and a very specific, uncannily precision sequencing of shots. It also further communicates the void of our subconscious, the vulnerability and unknown anxieties of Carlsen (what did he think was behind him when he turns in that shot above?), and more than cleverly and rapturously fuses a nightmare's terror with an erotic fantasy.
The Witching Hour.

(I think the much more typical instinct would be to push in on Carlsen before he springs up screaming, but Hooper decided to pull back. He also makes it a delayed movement, the camera stationary for a second before beginning its backwards motion - thus it becomes an unmotivated movement, the clear act of a very analytic camera-eye.)

Hooper also has the camera halt before Carlsen springs up. This is, of course, to have his face right at the proximity he wants it from the lens after sitting up, but it also further imbues the camera with the characteristic of analysis -- wise to the emotions and psychology of the character, and so also to their movements and the exact timing and extent of their movements.  Such inspired calculations it creates, in order to achieve such precise and exquisite design, in order to imbue and embody striking emotion and psychology.

The camera jumps to behind him, then he turns. He does not turn, then the camera jumps. The camera is the threat, although really it is the camera knowing his heart and the vast unknown of anxieties that trouble him in the void of the night...

... It is also the camera playing exquisitely with the geometries of its space, the interaction of these geometries, the nature of surprise, and the thinking machinations of the camera itself, which does delight me in the barbed way it makes him turn away, then have to turn back to the direction he was already facing in the first place -- this barbed cruelty to the human mind not only the nature of surprise, but the nature of repressed psychology. Finally, the bat effigy suggests almost a pageantry of the Monster, flying in like a parade balloon, embracing the artifice and the representation that is this bat creature (although actually a true remnant from his memory, as one of the dessicated corpses from the alien vessel). Further, Carlsen has been transported to the cathedral setting that will only later be revealed as the hiding place of the Space Girl. But placed in this unknown setting of stone arches, the dessicated bat corpse takes on the resonance of being a ritualized statue, a gargoyle or sacred beast ripped from our own Gothic minds.

Wings descend, now in the form of the Space Girl shrouded in some ceremonial veil.

Carlsen's defensive gesture of raising his arms up suddenly morphing into a pose of prostration, vulnerable to the act of unclothing, is seriously mind-blowing dramaturgy -- a prime example of an ingeniousness and inspiration on Hooper's part that is rarely rivaled in acuteness.


This moment is a stunning highlight in the film. A bracing display of emotional melody, emphatic feeling, grander meaning in aesthetic gesture, and the truest combination of visual ostentation with seriousness of thought and deepness of expression. This moment communicates a profound dynamic between three people, dealing privately in tiny quarters, all to reveal a bit of their private selves, all stand-ins for their relative feelings toward a truly consequential sexual behavior (masochism); it fixes its antenna to the feelings of these characters it puts into a circumstance of total sexual candor, revealing their feelings and vulnerabilities and the choices one makes, one's held deeply in the marks on her back; it invokes a grand gesture in this exposure of her private self and the men who feel obligated to grasp it, one in an intensifying mind-meld (and thus a state of complete sympathy and pity) with that obscur objet that is this assailed woman, the other a stoic military man whom the camera sympathizes with when he cannot help but recoil at the sight of the violence one would inflict on him or herself.

An intimate scene, all about self-revealing and searching in the deepest recesses of our psyches, contains imagery of doubles, in a mirror and as shadows cast on the ceiling.
... Also, a picture frame in the background that one can assume has the woman in it -- as a tiny, innocent girl, with her father.

"She wants me to hurt her... You want to stay? Otherwise wait outside!"

"Not at all..."

"... I am a natural voyeur." 
The sexually-ambivalent military functionary Caine -- who dresses keenly but betrays no sexual appetite, whose stable relationship is the one between him and his No. 2, whose non-sexuality comes to a great head when he takes on near the end of the film the remaining male vampire's come-on ("It'll be much less terrifying if you just come to me") with a one-liner of his own and an awkwardly over-sized sword -- here finally gives a little bit away and admits to all-too-practical voyeurism.

The camera sits with him, a theoretic of watcher and watched thoroughly set-up in the very content of the scene. Hooper's camera actively works to cue us to this theoretic with a disciplined separation of the two spheres, and the "seating camera" seen here is very much florid strategy going to creating this spatial relationship (of separation).

The low angle seen next is clearly at least in reference to Caine's POV (though its not being explicitly Caine's POV makes it an even more striking shot).

With unexpected aptitude in mocking sexual play with a masochist, Carlsen rips off her robe with rabidness.

Caine can't help but sit up at such a show.

"Are you in there?"

Suddenly, he wrenches her forcefully in one direction...

... revealing the scars on her back.
At the reveal of the scars, the camera suddenly pushes forward.

Even our natural voyeur recoils and the camera, in mirror motion, pushes forward on him.

Carlsen takes the sight in himself, then continues his violence.

This moment - the momentary, almost inadvertent directing of attention to the nurse's scars - is a scene of the most striking nature, and creates chills in its strange beauty. It is Profound Cinematography: a moment of truly divined camera musicality that further rings with grand meaning, worldly understanding and worldly sight, and the quietest compassion. It is the forcing of our gaze towards a matter calling for compassion, barely tied to narrative, with an explicitly presentational flourish, one that unites the elements of bold cinematography and bold, gestural performance to communicate a moment of true human impact in an aesthetic way.

After this sequence that continues with Carlsen and the woman melding totally with a kiss, then ends with her collapsing, Hooper finally allows for a shot combining the two sections of the room:

Carlsen gently puts her to bed, and Hooper gives us another one of his elegant shot/reverse-shots that rings with sensitivity and emotive generousness, creating a gentle dynamic between the traumatically wrested woman, Carlsen's watchful back-of-head, and his turn to the camera/Caine, communicating the end of their trial here with this woman.



This moment is transcendental, and a moment about transcendence. An intent dramatization of a man's holy advancement (and his literal ascension), ironically confined in doleful steps forward of his, then an agonized stagger backwards (then a wretched death-topple onto a stool top), but imbued with all the grandeur of a high priest's walk to and from the altar. This is achieved through Hooper's elegant yet strident camera that both ambles back and falls forward with the dying Fallada (the character pictured above), the question of whether in gross pity or morbid reverence to the errant ecclesiastic left up in the air (ambiguity supplying Hooper's characteristic richness to cinema aestheticism).
Intense religiosity becomes a threat in Fallada's opening arms;
the outcome of a bullet to the chest is Hooperian ballet;
a trinity of movement becomes Fallada's consecration of the faithful (forward, backward, then falling to the ground).

"Where is she, Fallada?"

"She's in the cathedral."

"She's been there since she escaped. Rather a nice touch, don't you think? The crypt of kings and queens."

"Stay where you are."


"Stay where you are!"

He stops and opens his arms wider, welcoming Caine's small, petty act, welcoming the bullet.


Downward.  Falling to his knees.

"Here I go."



||||||||Wet dream,

It's all out of order, but I suppose that sums up life cycle mysticism. Birth, death, sex, hormones, purpose found in these things, civilization, career, religion, society, art - with the exception of the last one (well, the nurse might have been the arty sort), these are all present in Lifeforce, and whose to say which are the chickens and which the eggs?

Lifeforce is an uneven film that never brings its thematic points to a head, nor provides explanations, rules, and logic enough to make it satisfying on a conventional level, but it is still something of a remarkable film.

The End?


Filip Önell said...

A terrific write-up on Lifeforce... the best "naked-vampire-alien-chick-turning-people-into-zombies-and-bringing-about-world-Armageddon-film" ever made.

Like most of Tobe Hooper's work, Lifeforce is wild, chaotic, deranged and hysterical. And I do enjoy films that are just so unrestrained.

JR said...

Thanks Filip, you're too kind! And it certainly is the best of its very specific kind (although succubus/sexy vampiress films aren't too few and far between, not that I'm caught up on the genre).