Monday, November 11, 2013

THAS: The Conspicuity of the Gallery in 'Eaten Alive'

Holy shit a 35mm Eaten Alive is a gorgeous Eaten Alive.  Does, for ontological reasons, the transfer of this film have to be shitty?  Because there was an indolency of grain in this scarce Japanese film print, whereas grain rules the experience of the DVD print.

The film's vivid depth and non-depth - of its deprived, theater-like studio scenery - was presented in smooth pastel swaths instead of the disconcerting grindhouse pointillism we've come to associate with the film, the flat grainy wash replaced by an incursion of foreground element.

What a splendid way to realize Eaten Alive is, scene-to-scene, perhaps moment-to-moment, of a conspicuous aura of the "gallery," in which its disparate and prismatic plots - its ephemeral, almost multiple-personality segmentation - perfectly houses the gallery: the sequential display of divergent and minutest images, the diverse and congruent moving-images that occupy and self-justify their own unitary and transitory frames (1 frame frozen or 24 per s) but suggest profounder narrative and pressing drama, the "temporal portraits" of the film's every beat, disparate, striking, and self-bespeaking, giving off the brilliance of a distanced, aesthetic, deep, muted compassion.

We can name these images anything.  "The Horror of a Buckle-Belt."  "The Headless Woman."  "Derogation."  A seemingly dismissible moment involving a nurturing older black woman transcends the titters of grindhouse watchers and instills a wonder in some repeat viewers who sense its obligatory momentariness - in a movie about momentariness - is a sweet, mordant, with foresight rather heartbreaking affectation before the furthest plunge: a single moment of kindness and pragmatism amidst the cruelness that is but another exchange in a film about exchanges (prostitution, room and board, smack, a wallet photo, dinner, real estate, shame, consternation, an Electra Complex romantic transference, and Judd's constant exchange between Id and Ego).  "A Bank-Note For a Kiss."


 Right now!

At the "Right now!" typed above, the camera sets off on a musically-opportune, simultaneous pull-back and boom-up, which one can say occurs just as Judd is seen to be approaching her, but I'd say more so cued by the camera's own mechanism of omniscience and terrible ceremony.  For the shot begins with a zoom out which plays out to its full extent, then, after a mathematically concise beat of stillness, the camera sets off on its pull wide, as if dreadfully completing, by some obligation of cinema as moral machine, that preliminary gesture of the zoom-out -- completing its profoundly calculated, dolefully mechanized movement-path the camera has conceived of itself, that it affords to witnessing this girl's fate.  The camera's almost regimented full-stop before it continues its ever-widening is a wonder of Hooper's formal, discursive cinema of ceremony: like dance, like military parade, like ritual, where movements and regiments are performed to create meaning, Hooper conceives in cinema the same profound movement-formality (and so, the often terrible, automated resignations, like the clockwork of flags at half-staff) we bestow our real-life ceremonies of meaning-creating.  Like those real-life ceremonies - the dancing, the drills, the rites - there is that inherent distance, that intelligence of meaningful discipline.  The full-stop preceding the horrified widening expresses a thinking camera: the human construct of our ceremony, just as we perceive the human mechanism (the meaning) behind every sacred mass and its Eucharists, every memorial's raising of the colours, every cotillion's square dance.  It is a remarkably thinking camera, that of Hooper's cinema, and it takes a mind like Hooper's to realize truly rendering tragedy through human eyes might take putting it through the disciplined, analytical, and grace-informed motions of formality, finding vast affect through the existential embossing that is our algorithmic mechanics of ceremony.

This is the apex of what is a remarkable prologue to the film, practically a self-contained little short film, perhaps insufficient in narrative acts, but totally satisfying as a fatalist - but far from nihilist - portrait of a groundless death.  A moment that formalizes its sorrow, like detachments at a policeman's funeral, to climax a story we're morally begged to see: see the meaningless death of a girl who lived a life of stunning humbleness, even as a pretty girl and a whorehouse pet (all I can remember at this point is her absolute humility with Ruby - the brothel housekeeper - at her lowest point).

"Right now!" I exclaim, because this camera movement mobilizes me deep down, like a starter's gun of the soul, the dumb and inarticulate imperative phrase ("Right now!") - being used as a marker to the beginning of the exquisite camera movement - actually being an accurate representation of my soul's dumb and immediate reaction to the aesthetic idea, such that when the camera sets off on its carefully composed dolly movement, I feel like I want to run at the image, leap onto it and catch it, like snatching a Titian off the wall and feeling the oils become fresh against the canvas again.  It would be having an object of humane sensibility and such aesthetic sophistication within reach of the spirit, its thoughtful creation tangible in ones hands.  This may have been a common thought back when Renoir was making movies, but in Hooper's day and age, I am astounded at Hooper's ability to create such bold cinematographic beauty with half of his worthy contemporaries' pretense.

This is using cinema as - borrowing from aesthetic philosopher Michel de Certeau's concept of the idea - the "tragic topos."  The great end of things, beauty at its gain-free extreme.  By making beautiful - concertedly beautiful - her moment of doom, Hooper forthrightly, courageously, meets suffering and pain halfway.

Two slow, portentous booming-up shots are depicted above, labeled separately (1) and (2), both at the foot of the gate to the tragic place of madness, at the forlorn mouth of a multitude of upright wood.

Something akin to a horror Crash (the Paul Haggis one) of its time, I am definitely not above conjuring up the irony in my placing Crash and its boxing, contenting social chivalry against the indelible aesthetics of madness of Hooper's Eaten Alive.

It is also plain in its theatricality, deliberate in its intentions of staginess.  The continued use of EXT. CU "headlight shots" to suggest the idea of cars coming in and out of its studio sound stage, even though movement is limited but not impossible, is bold embrace of its conceptual nature, and the underlying drama of the film-unity is duly strengthened by it.


Unlike Crash's emotionalized mechanics, where every breakdown or outrage is causal and catalyzing of the interlocking of its stories, Eaten Alive depicts a more entropic world of non-causal and passive inevitable interaction, and is even more aware of inner-workings and patterns of the social world that have such indirect and pressing effect on those co-existing within it.  Judd's primal psychoses are one end of the centrifuge while Miss Hattie's business practice seems to be the other end.  Neurosis and rationality are the two poles which Roberta Collins's character both times completely willingly traipses into, ending up understandingly bewildered when the moderateness she expects morphs before her very eyes.  Her passivity in the face of fortune cruelly flipping on a dime twice on the same night is almost the greater testament to the ordeal she is put through (surpassing the brutal death) and her martyrdom at simply having to live that.

The fade out on Miss Hattie's final moment, while she repeats her derogation of the moral (at the very least) people around her, is an astounding act of collusion with the continuing life of amoral business.  It is stone-cold realism from a film that otherwise seeks to vanquish the masculine monster in the fairy-tale world of Judd's primitive Brigadoon.

Miss Hattie is the most constant component of the disparate stories of the film, moving and shaking the story of Libby Wood and her father, while also amazingly cropping up in the stories of Buck and, most remarkably, of Judd himself, talking about him in personalized but nonchalant terms, his mirror-ending of her in the deadly funnel created between them essentially condoned by her through the disavowal of the totally business-like.  "Judd, that old reprobate!" to say the least!  But in many ways she is the greater reprobate, being the broker feeding of the misogynist hunger.  "Never saw her before in my life" is her mechanical reply to the image of the dead girl, without millisecond hesitation, and it's almost a recitation from the lexicon of exploitation and misogyny.

Meanwhile, Eaten Alive's revolving and accumulating  poignancy goes from Ruby's well-meaning, if ill-fated, commiserations, to Libby Wood's well-meaning, if fruitless, kindness and sweet guilelessness.  Her scenes bring into the story the poignant exposition of her father's terminal illness and his last ditch effort to regain ties with the daughter he cast out, not to mention an implied undercurrent involving a transference of daughterly affection from the dying father to a not-exactly-seamly, Cajun-accented sheriff (played by Stuart Whitman), who seems to put on a temporary face of respectability and delicacy in order to humor the poor attracted girl.

Libby herself is the heart of the film, the film's traditional-mold final girl, who funnily becomes the third wheel of survival in the film's climax, latching onto the feminine stronghold of a mother and daughter, while becoming a latchkey kid before her very eyes with her surely soon-to-be-learned-of loss of both her sister and father.

The Libby character is meant to hold no designs, no pretensions, no facades.  Her kindness is her kindness.  Her naivete is her naivete.  In almost kinship with the wayward sister, who kisses the hand of the lowly housekeeper and kicks the rapist's body off of her with gusto even before he ultimately murders her, Libby is womanhood made universal, her "feminine" attributes in fact a sexless blank slate, her deaf and dumbness to the terribleness around her a shining example to both males and females, her innocence a dignified refusal of sexual objectification.

How strangely brilliant, then, is her stripping scene, which almost seems like a refutation of objectification.  Its utter lack of ceremony, its slackness, Crystin Sinclaire's vexing awkwardness of slouching body and unpretentious traipse, is the ultimate nail of masculinity on the coffin of femininity - making her fate under the hand of our house rapist seem rather unpredictable, as even if he kills her, she is anyway impervious to sexual subjugation.

Libby is our great human chameleon of goodly nature.  Before sexual object, she is a man-like woman.  Before a man-like woman, she is an innocent.  Before an innocent, she is a testy daughter and sexually-imprintable naif.  Before neurotic and daughter, she is a kind soul.  She cannot be judged for anything, much less along gendered lines.

Funny how Hooper goes from blameless Libby, to undecidable Susan in Salem's Lot, to cunning tragedian Amy in The Funhouse, (to any of the sexually blameless men's men and effete men in Lifeforce, to the sexually inchoate David in Invaders from Mars), to wise sensualist Genie in Night Terrors.  His stockpile of universal blank slates created for the explicit act of non-judgment seems unchallengeable.



Just watch the character go from lost daughter in the film's frenzied climax, to child-rescuing gallant and surrogate mother.

The malleability of womanhood: where, even in her virginal status (no way to know for sure, of course), Libby can capably mature, heroically and sexually, before our very eyes (as, to be a mother, one has sex).  Marilyn Burns's mother is malleable herself, from cruel, shrewish wife to ultimate fighter and savior-vanquisher.  Let's not forget the shallow sex kitten Lynette (Janus Blythe), who is made malleable by surviving.  Throughout, women's fighting chances (even with questionable representatives in Faye and Lynette) are deemed worthier than the stupidity of masculinity and patriarchy.

The entire strange episode in the bar, where the odd-duck, slap-happy buddy of Buck's targets a poor schmuck scoping out Lynette, only to have masculine tables turned every which way as the schmuck fights back, then Buck gets into the picture, then the sheriff does later, is a whole bit devoted to creating, in microcosm, the film's commentary on masculine norms, deconstructed via making it the fodder of slasher narrative.

It is not only the conspicuity of the gallery, but the contiguity of the gallery.  Eaten Alive's revolving-display plot is the perfect conduit of the gallery, which is the placing of disparate portraits alongside each other.  Alongside Libby's innocent obliviousness is Miss Hattie and her perpetual green eyeshade she dons (the unapologetic accountant she is), and alongside them is Faye and Roy and a lunking metal cannister tossed into the desolate waters, a potent image of the watery Id agitated into scabrous, roiling waves by the invasive action of similar male egos.

This is a truly remarkable scene, as Judd walks tangentially away from Roy, lost in an episode of PTSD fog while Roy attends to his manful duty - a literal breaking off of the male psyche into two directions.  Judd's ramblings invoke the gross commands of military program, not to mention the anxieties of the used-then-cast-off ("Most likely never... no, because of the way things are fixed!"), while Roy's actions reek of the unvalidated male and the over-compensatory.  Fay's jab at her husband is both repellent behavior (noxiousness in blunt proximity of her daughter) and deserved satirizing of her male-neurosis-addled husband.  (Apparently, for the film, the balance is weighed in her favor and she emerges the film's champion.)

The sharp, succinct cuts to Fay and Angie at, first, the sound of the shotgun firing, then Roy's final bow, sinking into the depths of the waters, are jaw-dropping dramaturgy and piercing writing in this supposed B-film.  Not to mention the apt perfection of reserving the monstrous Id creature at its most aggressive for the film's most castrated male psyche, a barbed middle finger to entitled males acting out due to issues of emasculation.

Even more so than Mel Ferrer's dignified bloodletting, William Finlay's demise is a grandiose danse macabre of male persona.  Buck's death, going with the idea that the death fits the person, seems almost glossed over, not only because of the distraction of Lynette, but for his being already one with the crocodile and creature-of-instinct inside him.

Overreaching for masculinity in life, Roy pas de bourrées his way to a beautiful death, his last aquatic wrestle with the crocodile a clear pas de deux in the precise way it is filmed.  On the road to redemption, the wife proves herself capable of some easy-temper, outside of the aggravating presence of her husband.  She ends the scene with a moment of finely contrasted calm, her bearings seemingly reclaimed and some sense of regret emerging about the previous storm of emotion, but made aching for its coming too late, after Roy has already paid for his issues.



The consanguinity of the gallery.  Films, and I suppose particularly 70s grindhouse flicks, are not the art gallery.  But Eaten Alive is blood related - first of all in its adherence to its concept.  Second in its consistency of its form.  The film's angles and margins are always justified in artistry.  The film's drama is justified in artistry.  Abstracted and richly metaphorical, Eaten Alive culls a symbolic narrative from suggestion and connections beneath its minute images, like paintings.  Its images and atmosphere keep on giving.  I find little more powerful than its final moments of Libby holding Angie, the adult one clinging to whatever strange, new responsibility she's been handed in a world revealed to be one of chaos.  She faces one way then the other.  Like Warholian pop art, creating new images and new meaning from the mere flipping of the image and reversing of color, this montage of a new, suddenly-seeing Libby evokes the Libby at the center of a vague world, every which way.  Hooper's ceremony of humanity can be seen in this use of about-face to evoke human contract, his ceremony of cinema in his ritual use of that which is suggested off-screen to evoke the vastness of the terms.  She sobs in protest, not letting go of what can be said to be her remaining purpose.


Matthew Hurwitz said...

The only downside to the Cinefamily's Japanese print was the omission of a key early scene, between Finlay and Burns, where he loses all composure and starts lashing out at her ("Why don't you just take that cigarette and grind it out in my eye?) AND his daughter by making dog noises, mocking the demise of poor Snoopy in the face of his responsibility for choosing to stop at an obvious rat-trap like the Starlight Hotel for the evening. It really helps underline the film's theme of frustrated male egos wreaking havoc. Maybe it was cut for being untranslatable in it's uniquely American neuroses?

Another odd feature of the print (besides the Japanese kanji on the sides of the frame)was the inclusion of final opening credits after Roberta Collins' murder - emphasizing the sequence as a prologue, which is appropriate since she's the sole female fatality in all the mayhem.

This viewing reminded me as well of the Libby character's touchingly instinctual maternal protectiveness towards little Angie - the whole frenzied climax crystallizes everything you've described, I've always loved how she immediately recognizes the danger for what it is and the film ends with three women sobbing and hysterical but ALIVE - as opposed to Finley, Mel Ferrer, and Robert Englund who confront Judd with bluster and never see their own deaths coming out of some dangerously misplaced feelings of respect among Southern gentlemen. The lawman Stuart Whitman lives, but arrives on the scene pathetically late and utterly clueless.

That said, her stripping scene is so odd. I don't blame our fellow audience members for laughing awkwardly at what feels like Hooper's sarcastic concession to exploitation quotas - she's not wearing ANYTHING under her overcoat! Yet as you describe, it's so totally matter-of-fact that even though she's beautiful, there's nothing sexy about it whatsoever. Janus Blythe, on the other hand...

JR said...

Great comments, Matt.

Totally loved the elongated opening credit titles. So much classier than the US cut's perfunctory ones.

Judd and Buck's relationship is always quite comical whenever I see the film - misplaced feelings among Southern gentlemen all around! Not to mention we practically see Judd come to the decision to be rid of Buck right there on the spot, after being "business partners" for some time.

I wouldn't, of course, deny that very very likely fact of nudity quotas. (The Janus Blythe T&A is on the record for not being filmed by Hooper.) But that hysterical fact of her being au naturel beneath her overcoat kind of speaks to her innocence, no? Haha, love it whatever the case.

JR said...

I knew I hadn't made this up! This is taken straight from the commentary track, a story told by producer Mardi Rustam:

"I think I had two people who did the casting for me, and I had the lady, who was my right hand person - Julie. She made all the arrangements, she said, 'I think this is good' and I'd listen to her. And then we'd present it to Tobe, and Tobe would look at it and he would say, 'Okay, I'll go with this instead of this.'

"Like, we had - I don't want to mention her name - but an actress to do a scene in the bedroom, take her shirt off, show her breasts, and she didn't want to do it. And so, Tobe said, 'Then in that case, I don't want her.' And he told me later on, 'I don't want her, bring me somebody else.' He said, 'Because that means a lot to the character.' What he was aiming at the character, that means the girl is lonely. She needs love, that's why she falls in love with Stuart Whitman."