Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Elements of Landscape

"The stage is set" should be the maxim subconsciously before almost all of Hooper's films.  Set design of importance is prima facie on a Hooper shoot, with the burden of proof (for now) falling upon every tawdry domestic space in a film of his littered with the stray rubble of a material life.

Wide and unvaried shots of the stages set so often play into his construction of cinema, and soon enough markers or landmarks of his interior landscapes begin to emerge as focal points (in their outlying - the literal garnishing of the frame), embedded in a "sequence system," counted on to recur.  The props that populate his sets' interior designs begin to take on a symbolic life, begin to become cues of an interior life of the characters they emerge to represent, or, more believably, simply become allegorical markers of the geographies of the human drama, giving material immediacy to the pressing emotional landscapes that exist alongside the material, physical one (this is practically the entire idea behind The Funhouse, props of all things commenting on the folly and irony all around human existence - making their presence known through recurrence).  It is geographic idée fixe... the sedimentary layers of an unraveled cinematic denuded space... Hooper's visuo-grammatical monomania... and the idea of film being as presentational as theater, set design retaining its expressive abilities across the mediums.

Scene 1

In these consecutive Poltergeist scenes, the lamp at the left of the stage, a fixture positively floral in being - a burst of otherworldly efflorescence, boasting its bluebell-shape shades - is given prominence through the wide landscape shot and a strict series of narrowing perspectives on it.

Scene 2

Its suggestive presence is emphasized early on with the most extreme perspective on it used initially.  It sits besides the irascible, personally slighted Steven.  I can go on to say its Lily of the Valley glass pieces are an overt suggestion of such flowers' religious connotations, the propitious shape of heavenly tears or church bells juxtaposed alongside the skeptical Steven.  More to my liking, I proclaim this manufactured product, made for wholesale - modeled after blossoms sometimes called "Angel's Trumpets" - toots Steven's own horn, sharing 50% of Steven's frame, supporting him and his disconsolate secularism, drinking buddy and representational mirror now of his emotional position of resistance in the landscape.  In the wider shots, the lamp exists, trying to steal attention away from Tangina or the heavenly staircase.  It is in fact (that is, not in fact...) a fellow secular landmark like Steven, combating the otherworldly with its otherworldly beauty, made of factory glass.

Funny how it is Steven who seems aglow in vibrant shades of ectoplasmic light - his resistance has now become the segregated world of fantasy, in relation to the now-banal supernatural that is now their "ordinary."

Landscape soon shifts away from the fixtures and adapts to the moving elements of it (that is to say, the people).  Stripping itself finally away from the wide shot of the array of furniture, lamps, and recording equipment, Hooper now reconfigures to a landscape of bodies, which is simply another landscape that must define itself via recurring elements. 

These recurring elements of landscape are simply the three moving persons, whom we see recur by their merging into Diane Freeling's previously-perpendicular-to-them plane, as fine an establishment of geographic marking and landscaping as the above use of the ideologically dualistic lamp.


Anonymous said...

Poltergeist is more Tobe Hooper than people like to admit. People think that because of TCM he couldn't possibly direct children while disregarding Eaten Alive,Salem's Lot, and The Funhouse.

JR said...

Point well made, anon. It's a lasting and willful favoritism towards the other filmmaker, which we'll have to tolerate due to Hooper's lesser appeal.

Stan G. said...

John Kenneth Muir, in his book, EATEN ALIVE AT A CHAINSAW MASSACRE, makes, I think, and excellent case for Tobe's authorship of POLTERGEIST,

JR said...

Hey Stan -

I need to get my hands on that book again. I had it at my disposal when at Berkeley, taking it out almost ritually sometimes, but the blog was still in its weaning stages. His LIFEFORCE thoughts were very influential for me.

Anonymous said...

Me again..I have been fascinated by Poltergeist's authorship for years. As a kid it terrified me, which Spielberg movies normally didn't. Texas Chainsaw 2 terrified me as a kid. Never read Muir's book but I am tempted. I would love to talk about this in way greater detail but the space is limited. In the Texas Chainsaw Companion a Hooper associate says that Hooper would throw fits on the set to show his authority and that is when him and Spielberg "had a tiff". There is no doubt that Spielberg was the production boss and had final say. This was make or break for him as a producer as everything else that he produced, aside from his movies (minus 1941)weren't hits. At the time Poltergeist had more commercial potential than E.T. so I think that is why Spielberg micromanaged so much. There is a man who claims to have worked on the set who trolls Poltergeist and Spielberg boards making claims that Spielberg was the true director. His credibility has been questioned by me numerous times. He states that it was a Hooper film in pre-production only and on the first day Spielberg took over due to slow decision making on Hooper's part. One thing is absolutely true, it was sold as a Spielberg film because Spielberg was ascending his film dynasty heights, which at the time was coming off of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hooper's name meant little to anyone who wasn't peeping out Fangoria.

JR said...

It's a question that may forever be unanswered if Hooper is to remain so reticent (which is likely) and Spielberg so diplomatic (which means him not just coming out and saying he had to take up the reins at some point or another). We may just have to respect their silence, as it may be the best way for them to respect the idea that each didn't make the film without the other.

I am, of course, inclined to honor Hooper's professed feelings of almost-total ownership over the film. Spielberg's micromanagement and the persisting accounts are a thorn in the side, but too circumstantial. Even it didn't seem like he was in charge of his set, doesn't mean he wasn't. Stuff like that.

It seems like too many bad feelings are attached to the event for talk ever to be more than a minimum. We may have to take it as it's been offered to us, sans conspiracy: both were on the set always, both taking hands at managing and decision-making. Unsatisfying, but a pleasant opt-out for two creative people who want to remain civil.

JR said...

But your wish for full disclosure is my wish. :) Just think that POLTERGEIST is in a long tradition of Hollywood backstage controversies and how we're still wondering about much of those.

Anonymous said...

Spielberg probably had a hand in the special effects more and did second unit stuff. Michael Kahn has said that Spielberg shot a lot of stuff for it. There a behind the scenes pic, one of the few, that has both Spielberg and Hooper on the set for the tree attacking Robby. Spielberg is pointing to something and Hooper's mouth is agape, which Oliver Robbin's is too, which makes me assume that Hooper was directing Robbins and Spielberg was either creating an eye line or commanding the crew to move the tree.

The movie has plenty of camera movements that Hooper utilizes in other work such as the camera trucking in at a low angle (parent's bedroom scene and in the hill top cemetery. It also has a a few ominous shots of the Freeling home exterior, which is a Hooper trademark seen in most of his work from TCM to Mortuary and Toolbox Murders.

And even a few of the crew has Hooper connections. Craig Reardon worked on Eaten Alive and The Funhouse. Dottie Pearl did make-up in Poltergeist as well as Texas Chainsaw. Lou Perryman has connections to Texas Chainsaw 1 and 2 and had a role as a construction worker. In an interview with Deadpit Radio Perryman said that Hooper directed him yet some claim that he is just covering for him out of friendship. Dude can't shake it away.

Hooper himself seems to have been edged out of the creative process because he claims that he had an idea for a ghost story years before. So yeah, if I were him I would be refusing to talk about the directing chores as it pretty much destroyed his mainstream career.

JR said...

Yeah, let's get into the nitty-gritty of it, I mean why not?

Special effects and 2nd Unit, definitely. What seems irrefutable is that pic of Spielberg in front of James Karen and Craig T. Nelson in their climactic face-off moment ("YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEADSTONES!!"), Nelson gripping Karen by the lapels in front of the house... of course, Hooper may be just around the corner of the frame.

The parents' bedroom pot scene is totally Hooper. The slow camera crawl beginning the scene, and especially that little construction with Nelson diving off the bed. Those exterior establishing shots are very Hooper, although Spielberg employs similar ones in E.T.. I've no doubt these have Hooper's special touch, though, in their tactility and repetitiveness.

I have a feeling notions of Spielberg being always present and "adjusting" every one of Hooper's shots is much overblown in people's imaginations. So much of the compositional decisions seem like Hooper unquestioned, such as the near-constant wide lens imagery.

What we need is open, good-humored putting on-the-record of apocryphal backstage drama, such as Hooper ever walking off the set or Beatrice Straight's dignified mediating.

Finally, have you ever read the script? It is often very different from what is on the screen. I feel if anything, Hooper's big input was pulling out lots of superfluous comic elements.

Anonymous said...

"What we need is open, good-humored putting on-the-record of apocryphal backstage drama, such as Hooper ever walking off the set or Beatrice Straight's dignified mediating." The most that I have have seen in modern times is an Onion AV Club article..

AVC: Some things have been written about the clash between Spielberg and Tobe Hooper. Was there an active tension on the set?

CTN: No. Never. Uh-uh. Steven was prepping E.T., so he was getting ready to do that, but he was also executive producing and very involved with Poltergeist, so he was on the set, and they would share responsibilities. There was never any tension that I saw.

There was also a clip a few years ago from a horror convention where Oliver Robbins and Martin Casella speak of the authorship question. I would check it out in case you haven't yet. They both say Hooper directed. Casella did allude to the infamous Beatrice Strait comment of "One director please" after a conflict of differing directions from both filmmakers. Casella oddly went on to say that they used to joke that all of his scenes were with Tobe and everyone else kid and say that they were in the Spielberg movie while he was in the Tobe Hooper movie. Whether or not that everyone else was directed by Spielberg and Casella directed by Hooper or whether or not Casella's scenes like the steak crawling, maggots, and face peeling off seemed more like a Tobe Hooper movie is unknown

I have caught some of the script before.The final movie itself is a perfect mix of Hooper and Spielberg and one of the great haunted house movies.

In that Frank Marshall produced Making of, which is pretty much all Spielberg talking to special effects crews, Hooper can be seen (quickly) directing Robby getting eaten by the tree in the backyard.

The picture you mentioned with Nelson and Karen is strange but I never understood why it was used for a publicity shot if Spielberg was so weary about being found out as the director of the movie.

JR said...

So the record needed to be set is that a lot of those stories aren't in fact true! (Or just way exaggerated.)

Yeah, watched a lot of those Robbins and Casella interviews (and read a recent 'Poltergeist'-edition of Rue Morgue, in which they're the only two willing to talk about the film now!), and they just seem to cement my general view of things: Hooper was directing, getting his vision in there; Spielberg was there also, making sure things ran smoothly, being hands-on, making some of the more technical decisions. I think Casella's comment is a reference to him having the two big Hooper-y horror scenes (the steak/face-ripping, the deleted monster bite sequence [which, ironically, is the one scene we know that was shot entirely by Spielberg]).

All the publicity and PR material does seem a little bit unfair to Hooper. I'm finally beginning to get a little resentful about it. :P But it is a perfect mix, yes.

Anonymous said...

I never picked up that Rue Morgue issue as finding a bookstore around here is harder than it should be. I was mostly interested in Craig Reardon's comments as he seems to be honest. On the Eaten Alive commentary he does mention Hooper walking away from the end of production. For all the times Hooper has walked away from projects (The Dark, Venom) it should be noted that he was allegedly on the Poltergeist set every day. It was a special effects movie and Spielberg had previous experience with them, nto to say Hooper didn't but not in the same league.

I found this quote from an old Fangoria interview with Hooper, which I don't see accredited enough in the authorship debate.
Tobe Hooper: It seemed to me that the relationship between Steve and I was analogous to the relationship between George and Steven on Raiders. I thought, at the time, it was one of the best working relationships I'd ever had between a producer and director, and all of this was news to me. It came to my attention just a few days before the picture was released. I think it's really a shame....It's been personally damaging. It's a tough business."

Oh and I think Hooper is way more honest than Spielberg. After all Spielberg was a producer on the Twilight Zone and threw John Landis under the bus and avoided any type of legal ramification that the accident brought on, which a producer should have had to deal with.

JR said...

No comment.... the Twilight Zone incident is awful business about human error that I sincerely hope all parties faced with profound personal effect, even alleged of acts of callousness. Artists are fallible, producers also (Spielberg being both those things). Culpability is a malleable thing and a painful thing also to face. The business is corruptible and hopefully things were learned.

But sorry for addressing the world for a minute... thank you for sharing that whole Hooper quote. Bottom line for me, Spielberg makes some beautiful films, Hooper makes some very specially beautiful films much like Poltergeist.

Anonymous said...

Spielberg HAS made beautiful films. Heck, I even liked War Horse, but stuff like TinTin and The Terminal were very weak for me. My opinion, Hooper from Texas Chainsaw on to Texas Chainsaw 2 is pretty good. I do like his Masters of Horror outputs as they are way better than anything else that show produced. There is some stuff even in the Mangler that I think has some classic elements of his but that is a pretty ridiculous movie. Hooper's classic aesthetic took a turn around Spontaneous Combustion but can still be seen in everything he has done except for Night Terrors and Crocodile.

Hooper seems to thrive on collaboration and his better movies are products of that. Once you get involved in the realm of direct to video it is hard to turn out anything memorable. There was decent stuff in Toolbox Murders and Mortuary but not enough to deem Hooper relevant to the modern horror masses. Here is to hoping that Djinn fares better and so far it doesn't seem like it. I still would like ot see that but fear that his vision has been tampered with.

Anonymous said...

This will be my last comment on this as you have clearly moved on with other posts. Whatever happened on the Poltergeist set couldn't have been that traumatic, well maybe for Hooper's mainstream career, but Spielberg did hire him again to helm an Amazing Stories episode and the pilot of Taken.

P.S. It is nice to know that Djinn has a distinction of not being straight to video.

JR said...

Another good point that I happen to believe - stories of deep behind-the-scenes ire are heavily exaggerated (or fabricated; stories exist of Hooper punching holes into the set after principal photography, or walking off the set with half the crew).

Stan G. said...

Very interesting conversation, guys. Just let me put in my two cents.

The fact of the matter is that there are no hard and fast rules regarding a relationship between a producer and director. On any given project, the director may be clearly in charge on the set while the producer takes a back seat. On another, the roles may well be reversed. To be sure, there is no manual to dictate the respective roles of producer and director. Every experience is different.

To hear Hooper tell it, Spielberg was keen to work with him on a project, and together they decided on the subject matter (a modern day ghost story, a genre that had fallen out of favor at the time), so Tobe was always more than just a director-for-hire.

However, on POLTERGEIST, Spielberg was not only a novice producer, but being a (hugely successful) director himself, probably asserted his authority in ways that a more seasoned producer might not have. Also, having co-written the screenplay, he was certainly emotionally invested in the project and perhaps understandably proprietary towards it. (Remember as well that Spielberg was at the time deeply involved in pre-production on E.T., which could only have served to distract him from the day-to-day operations on the set.)

All this being said, my feeling is that Hooper was as much the director of POLTERGEIST as he was of any other film bearing his imprimatur. It's just that the relationship between Hooper and Spielberg was probably less equal and potentially more volatile than most. I see quite clearly the influence of both men on the finished film, and I think that its quality speaks to the success of their collaboration.