Sunday, June 30, 2013

THAS: Lifeforce, Pt. 2, Notes on "Schlock", & 'LIFEFORCE' WEEK KICK-OFF

A film whose sheer and plain unorthodoxy is the claim to its specialness, somehow often unperceived: a barrage of deliberateness confused for "cheese," an exquisite neutrality confused for schlock, the delineation of content - entire textual meaning - seen as expository dearth, and a series of tonal contemplations, scene upon self-contained scene, viewed as the plodding death of over-encumbered movie-plot.  Lifeforce's tone and constant rhetoric, its intents (which includes its humor) and grand design, are too precise, too elegant.  The comprehensive thoughtfulness of design is, in fact, contrary to cheese; the eschewing of the cheaper ploys of audience satisfaction, anywhere below finding deep satisfaction in the neutral zone that is wit and distanced rhetoric, contrary, in fact, to schlock.

If I could make the claim that there is nothing, in fact, "schlocky" about Lifeforce, then let me just say there is nothing schlocky about Lifeforce, just as there is nothing schlocky about the Sistine Chapel -  outside of their painstaking and highly intricate narrative-space-time compactions of genesis stories, perhaps involving the humble, finger-outstretched touch of a powerful, generative otherworldly being and many nude people.  It's a little sensational, I suppose.  Perhaps a little mental exercise is in order: one in which we attempt to let go of all 1-to-1 notions we have of the signposts (and attendant pleasures) of schlock, such as nudity and wanton spectacle.  If we let go of this notion that pleasurable nudity and a prerequisite of whiz-bang spectacle are guarantors of schlock, then maybe you'll see there is little to no reward in applying the label to so purposeful a work of art.

Nothing of such specific, multifaceted, elegant design can be schlocky, if we are to be attendant to all connotative ingredients of the definition, which so often includes conditions of inattention to craft and inelegance of thought.  The idea that this work is emblematic of inattention to beautiful craft and a crudeness or shallowness of moral thought is truly a matter about which I must adamantly disagree.

So what if Michelangelo is working with some seriously sleazy Old Testament subject matter, replete with talking snakes, drunken Noah exhibitionism, and calamitous natural disaster?  The Sistine ceiling is a feat of technical skill and meticulousness, of complex visual scheme involving intricately arranged dimensional space, and of rich, allegorical storytelling and bold structuralist concept, as Michelangelo literally collapses the conceptual realms of the story he is telling with the medium he works in (fresco that is part of a prodigious piece of architecture), conflating the epic-theater telling of religious tale with the sublimely formal architecture -- architecture being something both sublimely aesthetic and sublimely rigorous -- of the structure that exists to promote it: the gods, prophets, angels, and icons literally drape and exist within the painted, fictive "ceiling architecture" Michelangelo renders through glorious illusion, and simultaneously uses to compartmentalize and thus compact the Book of Genesis history he depicts.  The stories are enacted embedded within a symbolic framework of glorifying architectural display, history held within the very rafters, the characters acknowledging their presentation atop the plinths and afloat the cornices, draped and leaning across the rib of columns that otherwise exist to divide their separate dramas, emerging or dimensionally interacting tromp l'oeil-style with the network of arches and beams of the allegorical fictive architecture while simultaneously blending seamlessly into the pendentives and actual architecture. *

* This is primitive Brechtian idea here, the laying bare of the medium (the grand chapel) - primitive because it is before modernism discredited the idea of seriousness and formalist substance being capable in the mainstream's traditional storytelling, such as the religious establishment's erection of bombastic monuments for their narratives; sounds much like Hooper's place in his Hollywood art-making, where he embodies a push-pull between the threat of frivolousness and his belief in cinema-in-general's substance: he makes sentimental, commercial narratives to a degree but severer creations to a greater one; he is traditional but non-traditional, populist but highly formal, ostensibly a part of a commercial system (Michelangelo had Julius II, Tobe Hooper had Menahem Golan...) but somehow manages the creation of transcendental work through personally-upheld artistry.

And so similarly exists Lifeforce, as no film so purposeful, enigmatic, and elegant, painterly in design can be done in the service of "schlock."  As Michelangelo's Genesis happens across the allegory of architecture, painted in his style with fresco, Hooper depicts the genesis of mankind by creating an allegorical action film, painted in his exquisite style with the camera.  It is the manipulating of an action film (laid bare is the medium: those British sci-fi action films Hooper loves so much, serving as his architecture and framework - cinema his temple - with which to hang his own rich vision, achieving the rarefied concept while simultaneously blending in seamlessly the affectionate homage to those 60s British sci-fi films) to accommodate a story with deeper allegorical tendrils and a lofty rooting in a moral spiritual outlook.  Thus, as Michelangelo conflated his Book of Genesis with the architecture of the great temple dedicated to its telling, Hooper conflates his genesis spectacle with the vessel of the action movie, in which the divinity of life persisting, on Earth and elsewhere, is conflated with action movie pay-off and resolution (the great profound point in the film's finale - perhaps cheesy, mostly beautifully enigmatic - being in how the Space Girl is "defeated" with the sword, but in an act that is actually a greatest romantic gesture, suggesting one lover not being able to be destroyed without the destruction of the partner; the Space Girl is banished but with her "love" in tow and the order to seed their collected energy elsewhere).

In conclusion of my Lifeforce/Sistine Chapel bait-and-switch attempt, we can say that Michelangelo had the Roman Catholic Church and Tobe Hooper has the film industry, either being very likely establishments where making art is not necessarily the highest priority.  But if they both aimed to create works contrary to the schlocky commerce often involved in their respective institutions, then lets deem pinning down Lifeforce or the Sistine Chapel as "schlock" - regardless of how innocent your intentions may be (I too crave the pleasure of good schlock now and then, but gross that it is used brazenly as a selling point - I'm looking at you, Scream-Factory-Blu-Ray-release-back-cover...) - as the greatest insult to them.  We would be defining these works by those aforementioned 1-to-1 signposts, preconceived by us via knowledge of the institutions they work within and the less-inspiring norms that may come out from them (a Cannon film with chaste T&A, so it must be for 12-year-old boys!  As I said, Lifeforce's claim to specialness is truly found in its contrariety).  

Ignoring those things, we can then see what vision of theirs - Hooper's and Michelangelo di Buonarroti Simoni's - is shown: so intriguing, so beautiful, of such exquisite forms and of so grand a cohesion; steeped in a richly perceiving or richly presentational view of the world.  

So retire the descriptor "schlock" in the act of applying it to works of art.  After all, an act of which there is no reward just isn't one worth doing, especially one that so forwardly presumes that an artist would for some reason aim for some "good" level of "badness."

An insult to the utterly serious work that is the space-vampire-nudie-opus Lifeforce:

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Matt H., writer at Cinemachine and co-host at An Alan Smithee Podcast, has completed his blog breakdown of Tobe Hooper's The Funhouse, which now stands as integral companion writing to the film - first of all, indispensable for realizing the wealth of text and subtext in it, but also providing a look at a bunch of other goodies that make The Funhouse such a piece of 80's filmmaking (like a tie-in novel!).

On a similar note, if you ever watch the perverse monster-movie 80's reboot TerrorVision, then Matt's review over at Cinemachine is also essentially the only piece of writing on that film you need to read (both because of its exhaustive incisiveness on contexts of the social and political sort, and because of the tiring repetition of needless humoring that is what consists all other writing on the film).  And actually, some of his best moments happen at his podcast's blog, so wade through that too.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Introducing the "About THAS" page, which now lives as a new tab in the blog header!

It partakes in first a bit of lengthy misdirection, sorry.

But the About section soon arrives in earnest, which you can read here:

A blog dedicated to the uncovering of the works and career of Tobe Hooper, whose breakthrough feature is famously the 1974 horror film The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but whose most famous film is only a first quarter entry in a career - before and after the notorious slasher - spent entering his earnest contributions to the existent repository of cinematic exploration: going from documentary and avant-garde work, before his break into Hollywood, to the ostensibly "Hollywood" product, in which he managed to combine the possibility of richness in mainstream narrative filmmaking with the radical disciplining impulses of staid and serious-minded beautiful formalism, and the radical view of a film as not just entertainment but as critical edification, cinematography not as a way for emotional or stylistic appeals but of a means of manifesting idea, meaning, and wisdom through the allegorizing and sublime capacity of the camera and film language.

Hooper, it seems clear to me, serves as one of the very great filmmakers, withholding of the classical ambitions, the thorough visions, and the self-curatorial refinement of the storied makers of "great works."  I aim to place him alongside the great populist, formalist filmmakers, from Ozu, to Hitchcock, to Renoir, Ray, Ophüls, and Welles, in the refinement of their products, the scope of their achievement, the poetry of their intents, and the spirit of their commitment to an art.

Hooper distinguishes himself even at that, in that his popular product is never so prosaically that.  Ozu embodied folk graces, Hitchcock had the symbolist angst, Renoir the humanist magnitude, but they all provided mainstream product that still prioritized a level of plot and popular accessibility.  Hooper's niche work in genre allowed him to play in genre realms of abstraction and metaphor that made the prioritization of pure aesthetics and a constantly allegorical cinema wholly available to him, an inclination that he notably manages to keep up throughout his span of work, so continuously of a humane and fabulist bent.

His form of through-composed camera musicality often seems most comparable to the similarly strident and symphonic camera of Fassbinder.  But even he distinguishes himself from Fassbinder, whose camera often betrays the ostentation of a "style" (and a "self-style," at that, though not to diminish the worth of self-involved, self-divesting filmmaking, or the strong personality art-maker).  Hooper is the one of the few filmmakers I'd be hard pressed to call a "stylist," as every flourish is borne first from idea and the most delicate and grace-minded cerebration.  Hooper may in fact be the fabulous bridge between mainstream entertainment filmmaking and the profound scholarly cinema of Jean-Marie Straub/Danièle Huillet, or Bresson.  In fact, Hooper's completely non-self-involved, universally concerned, unflappably kind approach to a "high art" exploratory filmmaking (and also his wholly egalitarian attitude and working methodology on set) reminds me much of Agnès Varda.

Plus two most staggering moments in his films get featured.