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.

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