#2 - Patience of Storytelling / Cinematic Tangibility / Sensibility - The Enigma of Susan Pt. 1
Hooper's camera floats in space, floats in time;
soaks in a complete trinity of the spatial,
the temporal, and the emotional:
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.
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.
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.