Friday, October 19, 2012

THAS: Scene from Salem's Lot (1979) #2

#2 - Patience of Storytelling / Cinematic Tangibility / Sensibility - The Enigma of Susan Pt. 1

Shot 2

Hooper's camera floats in space, floats in time;
soaks in a complete trinity of the spatial,
the temporal, and the emotional:
 his cinema is characterized by a tangibility: simple, plain, and perspective-grounded,
unmediated by technology, meditative,

As Susan makes her decision to ring the turnkey and acts upon it, the camera, with much
 tangible physicality, decides to slowly pan down along her arm, along with her
motion... then slowly pans back up her arm again, as the decision is now
irrevocably acted upon, without recourse to taking the action back.
This notion of action without recourse is held within her troubled
face that the camera has perceptively returned to.

Shot 3

A jarringly displacing cut as we're suddenly removed from open space with a character in it, transported suddenly from the human-inhabited to the completely graphical: a liminal, ambiguous perspective-drawing of gingerbread colors and Dutch-traditional molding (inadvertent, surely, but perfect in its suggestion of a Grimm fairytale, little Hansel and Gretel at the entrance of the witch's cookie-cut walls, and, here, as in a storybook, drawn too flat to make much of dimensions).

Anyway, we cut to this shot in order for Susan's hand to slowly emerge into the frame, sinking in from above like a hand of a God, which Susan ultimately is, as master of her fate, bearer of her ultimate decisions.  The thin line between captaining your own soul versus the pull of circumstances, like living in a small town, family, or the control of mind-captivating vampires, is a constant thread throughout the film.

This shot is the definition of a meaningful breath, a totalizing decision on Hooper's formalist part.

Shot 4

What exactly Hooper's doing here with this moment, I'm not entirely sure. Within the film's rather disjointed narrative, it's not clear of what purpose Susan has here in her visit to Ben Mears's boarding house.  This of course means any possible dramatic import in the scene isn't exactly on the surface.  Yet, while the narrative context does not provide us with an overflow of meaning, what we can have no doubt about is that Hooper created this sequence with meaning in mind.  It is in his very design of it, his very molding of cinematic form, which makes concerted effort to play with the patience of both time as well as space, as the pivotal camera movement mid-sequence (the pan up and down Susan's arm) suddenly cues us in to the tangibility of space and our movement through it (only so much felt when we slow down to a certain tempo).

For Hooper, camera angles are not merely where a camera falls in order to catch an action, but explicit means of storytelling.  It is not just mise en scene: it is also structural forms, rhythmic communications, and formal deconstructions.

The narrative import of the moment isn't entirely clear, either, besides merely serviceable ideas about Susan's fearful potential energies and willful falling into danger, further purported in the following scene where Susan drives to the Marsten house for no discernible reason, which is both vague in a wonderful, fatalistic way, but also vague in a barely satisfying way.  Susan is certainly one of the more fascinatingly drawn characters in the film, but the film still does not go far enough to define the social statements it wishes to make with her character -- our passive heroine who is fated to succumb to whatever pulls her, her general entrancement and passive seizure by diaphanous fears/desires (fear and desire being something which Salem's Lot suggests are often one - its two main characters, after all, being a horror fan and a horror writer [that is, a writer who plans to write a book about a haunted house]). But this enigma of Susan, it's ultimately too thin.

But Hooper's visual design - it remains thick with meaning, despite his not pushing explicit recognition of such in the content.  I often wish Hooper's films were more ostentatious in their pretension, threw their greater meanings and rich layers in your face - but no, Hooper's modesty precedes him, and his idea of "meaning" is not demanded from his material but found, very naturally to him, in the sincere depths of his visual constructions.

Hooper is one of the few Hollywood film directors I can say tells with a true patience of storytelling.  It is true patience, that which does not try to divorce itself or hold itself above narrative, thus realizing some self-made apogee of self-made form - for example, the novel "slowness," told through strategies, of many the Eastern European art house filmmaker - but instead, that which sees narrative through the patience, that does not dismiss the mimetic value of narrative, and thus uses the patience as a true filter of real-life (the filtering of which, into art, defines mimesis).  Hooper's film aren't made to be tight and snappy, or even slow and snappy - Hooper knows how to create with true sensibility, the evocation of true inner self through external forms, and this is not preconditioned with a strategy but can manifest in whatever form for Hooper, no matter whether applying himself to "straight narrative," or something freer and more abstract.  Hooper does not trade in strategies. Thus he is not bound to one, so his serious and gentle artistry flourishes or shows itself across so many limit lines.

If any other filmmaker evokes Murnau or Dreyer, it is usually either mimicry or stylistic excess.  Hooper knows of sensibility, and carries his philosophies of life, emotion, and death as a genuine aspect of his rigorous art, not simply as the add-on to an action narrative, and in that way he evokes Murnau and Dreyer in all truth. This moment of the doorknob, no matter being devoid of meaty narrative context - in its being simply a construction in and of itself, a composition, a sculpturing of cinema, all those ways I've before put Hooper's rarefied scene craft - sings of a clear deliberateness and nods toward greater resonances: fear, petrification, decision, action, the fleeting moments of all of those things.  The camera flirts with her movements.  His camera's panning along with her arm becomes not just a pan, no, it suddenly internalizes the temporal and physical expanses of this art!  It is a puzzle piece going towards the edit that brings us to the graphic tabula of door and doorknob: a spare and empty frame that posits the eternally beckoning existence of The Decision before that of the Decision-Maker.  It is death, as Salem's Lot so often purports to be completely about.  A doorknob becoming death, just as an abandoned building becoming purgatory in Dreyer's Vampyr, or an ocean-rocked mast becoming death in Murnau's Nosferatu, is absolutely a sign of sensibility, one absolutely authentic, primal in its artistry, its unmediated naturalness of invention and perception, its magician's capacity to imbue the most mundane with profoundness through its spare, unprocessed, but complexly mimetic faculties.

"But I know an artist such as you, whether a believer or not, will understand that structuralist cinema can recapture sublime poetry through primal images that are spare, eloquent in their poverty - syntagmatic, as my friend Roland Barthes would say. Something between Dreyer and Pasolini - with just a hint of John Ford, of course. As long as it reflects the death throes and decay of our capitalist system, a Western can claim to be militant. That’s what Lukacs says. We’ll create historical characters sociologically contextualized."
- Fictional Italian producers describing a fictional film in Fellini's Spirits of the Dead segment Toby Dammit.

Salem's Lot is baroque and arcane in its best moments, evoking of unnaturalness and the uncanny, of deep and pervasive and historical psychologies, in the same way Nosferatu and Vampyr are (Kiyoshi Kurosawa also has a sense of the uncanny and historical that is no doubt a kinship with Hooper - and with their entire beloved horror genre, of course).  Fear, death, the gothic values harkening to our deepest vulnerabilities and universalities... this moment from Salem's Lot may be quite decontextualized - as in we don't know exactly what's being said with it in terms of the context - but its lacking context suggests its amazingly sustaining purposes: a pure and universalist allegorical construction, a single cinematic moment given the worth of artistic self-sufficiency - as a resonant Gothic gesture, a sensibility gesture, a patience gesture, a mimetic gesture, a universal gesture.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

THAS: Scene from 'Invaders from Mars' #3, Pt. 1

#3 - Construction - Old-Fashioned Inspiration

A scene that begins under a pall of overwrought menace transforms effortlessly into a scene of unbounded warmth.  Seedy stylistics give over to family dynamics in one fell swoop, Hooper drawing only the subtlest line and a most unburdened, gossamer distinction between his low art of horror and his high art of feeling.

But first, Hooper's heightened wide-angle mise en scene is embodied in David's walk up to his house, the camera swooping from behind in a disembodied float above him, the house a looming beast, a picturesque facade.

The household being now an alien and unwholesome presence, a leering Steadicam "POV" picks up the scene from the inside and proceeds to float behind the boy, bobbing on its handheld mount, a lurid camera style suggesting a ghostly voyeur at his heels.

The camera stops in its tracks at the threshold of the room so as to allow another delicate, deliberate hand-off of the camera to a continuous perspective, now in front of David. It tracks back with him in continuation of the path David takes, as he heads deeper into the house.

The wide shot / pull-wide

Another Hooper trope: the pull wide that starkly comments on the enactment of cinematic perspective.

A remarkable gravity is lent to Hunter Carson's performance and the character of David by the simple virtue of the camera's devotion to his real-time venture into his house, culminating in the expressions of exasperation that fly across his face when he finally stops in front of the TV (or camera) - a moment pictured above, ending with him throwing his jacket down and cuing the pull wide.  Tied to this (Hooper's utter storytelling patience) and his remarkably precise aesthetic choices (characterized by extremely holistic and precise stylistic intents), the pull-wide is purified from all other objectives and takes on a sole function of profound, cinematic-emotional gesture.  The jar of the pull wide -- or the perspective change between the "creepy Steadicam" overture and the "introduction to the 1st Movement" that is this wide shot (Hooper very much working in his characteristic mode of symphonic filmmaking, creating sequences that consist of various structural, stylistic movements, linked together into a larger musical work) -- throws us into a state of heightened emotional awareness, half evoked by the heavy-hearted David serving as a stark physical anchor between the two shots, and half by the raw, naked feel that imbues this sudden wide-shot of the living room.  After all, the shot is a demystification of David's internal perception (a reveal of the troubling space he finds himself in); it uses David as this totemic emotional beacon, frozen in his embossed dejected posture; the static-kept TV is awkwardly revealed as another matter-of-fact prop (along with the rest of his sullied household) to his burdened state-of-mind; and the too-high-key lighting serves as another hint at the unreal place he has found himself in life.  Indeed, the shot is purified of strategy -- outside of being a keen, deeply empathetic insight into the plight of a character.

This wide shot and its raw demystification of place (as well as its weird, artificial lighting) suggests a theater stage that is set for us: David a player in a grand drama, the theater being that medium (in contrast to film) where little more is possible for the audience to give and receive other than great emotional identification (to give?) and genuine emotional empathy (to receive?  Is it the other way around?).

The theater thrives not on verisimilitude but on an explicit act of mimesis (the copying, mimicry, and artifice, of and towards reality, that is the basis of age-old storytelling), aware of its artifice and thus an act of witnessing and empathizing (rather than cinema's rampant psychologizing) - thus its being the origin of grand tragedy.  Same goes for Hooper's cinema, which often pulls wide and partakes in that idea of mimetic distance to reveal the theater of its drama, the stage of its grand guignol.  (This deserves its own post in the future, but I'll say that this principle of drama is definitely put to explicit use in Eaten Alive, with its stage-bound setting, and The Mangler, which builds to a climax involving five indirectly-related characters enacting a senseless pell-mell of conflict, death, and petrified witnessing all in a single, room's-worth of flat, unembellished space).

With his recurring sense of the theatrical (and the dramatic, rhetorical resonances found in it), Hooper's camera is thus not of a common, bromidic reliance on the cinematic manipulations of sentimental psychology, emphatic point-making, or the neutrality of diversion.  Instead, like theater, it is aware of the performance: the plastic, the performative, the mimetic, the self-reflexive - the multidimensional act of witnessing (and, thus, deep empathizing).  Hooper consistently melds basic narrative with the artistic sensibility of the presentational, creating some of the purest examples of dramatic narrative as art. 

(I suppose it would be impertinent not to point out that it is indeed Lifeforce on the TV.)

Another sequential cut from David's back to David's front.  Back to front, back to front - in a double cycle, the scene embodies its structure of directionality and linearity, of David's unvaried linear path and the camera's straight-and-narrow triangulation of it.

A shadow crosses in the background, across the sun's striking trace of the stairs and bannister.

The robot comes alive!
... and triggers a timed dolly movement, the camera gliding forward towards David.

"David Gardner.  Feed me!"


Above, an unstoppable camera motion.  The entire idea of the shot's composition is contained in the idea of the motion, not what is needed to be captured by it.  Even as Hunter Carson slides out of the frame, the shot is still exactingly utilized, a (inadvertent?) celebration of the Vertovian kino-eye, where novelty supersedes function, experiments of unpredictability trump the storyboard, and the cinematic frame can be revolutionary in its spontaneity.

But back to the warmth.  Laraine Newman, of SNL Coneheads fame, plays David's mom.  I really love her performance, as well as all the main performances in Invaders from Mars.  Hunter Carson, Karen Black, and Newman and Timothy Bottoms as David's parents.  All find a perfect balance between quirkiness and true, grounded emotions, of fear, thoughtfulness, anxiety, surprise, happiness... adrenaline and constant bewilderment, with regards to Carson and Black, who pursue adventure; dementia and robotic emotion, with regards to the parents, who quickly become body-snatched by the martian invaders.

Newman - who would pursue a fruitful series of collaborations with Hooper (so far as I see it) with her role in Hooper's splendid "Amazing Stories" episode Miss Stardust (to receive an entry here at THAS in the very near future) and a walk-on bit in his "Perversions of Science" episode Panic (not splendid, but stylistically fun) - is quite effective in her role here, inhabiting moods with all the flux and shadings of real life and not movie-life, such as going from mother to wife to irritable neutrality, from affected and idealized to unaffected and grounded.

Seated next to her son, the scene takes on the warmth of family dynamics, imbued with real emotion due to Hooper's patient, subdued artistic act of creating with stretches of plodding time.  His rendering of a family tableau here carries an innate grasp of realistic, unembellished, but highly symbolical emotional space: a superstructure of emotional habit - mother and son attempting a semblance of normal activity in watching TV - overlaying an inevitable undercurrent of deeper feelings, which is a nagging worry over the AWOL father.

A slow dolly-in begins when the Mother finally addresses her son's visible anxiety.

"Dad's weirded out."
"Oh, you know your father..."
"Don't worry!"
Her smile fades, though, and the shot suddenly begins to fade...
... out...
... into a shot of...
... a slowly ticking clock...

I really ought to like Invaders from Mars much better than I do, for it contains some really, really lovely and inspired uses of the dissolve - which is perhaps my favorite cinematic device (since it is used to such enormously poetic ends in that masterwork The Birds).

Hooper's camera is a height of subdued inspiration in cinema, and by cinema - that is, his cinema is inspired by cinema and its rich, long history across genres and nationalities.  It is never afraid to surprise with a vast storehouse of eloquent cinematic tools, both novel and traditional; to come up with multifarious (of many different variations) and multi-layered (of many deepening layers) "tricks" of sensibility and form with a subtlety, constancy, and gracefulness unrivaled by even the most outwardly moving of films and their filmmakers.  Here in the shot to be described, if anything, Hooper seems to reclaim Hollywood stylistics that seem lost in his era: a very careful attention to human movement as placed in patient time, with such a purely elegant, consciousness-infused camera.

This graphic fade out to a clock is a cinematic device that seemed to have died with old British pictures, but here it is, revived again with all the elegance intact, thanks to Hooper's refined sensibilities.

In the best tradition of classical cinema storytelling, this is not just a pan across objects, an introductory flourish - no, it is explicit analysis of dramatic narrative and explicit visual storytelling. Here, a camera-eye hands itself off between the presence of clock, to son's hustling feet, to son, to mother, to phone, and so on. (This "graceful phone scene" - where a camera, through profoundly plaintive camera motion, takes in a character's act of picking up a phone - is essentially remade in an integral scene of even higher emotion in Spontaneous Combustion).

"Now I'm worried."

Unbounded warmth congeals in this most old-fashioned flourish of a shot.  A son joins his mother, a mother concedes to her son, and a communal action is taken, all conveyed through a camera that is generous and good-humored without betraying the nuance of darker emotions nor the artistic aspect of the scene's cinema (that is, the "symbolical enactment" - the mimetic artifact - that is the camera's precise, traveling motion, its "composition of movement").

To come: Part 2, where the possessed Father returns and effectively sucks out all reserves of warmth (which kept the two characters pretty well sustained in the scene just looked at) left in both his wife and son.