Thursday, September 25, 2014

Cinema Tales of Woe (A THAS Tributary)

There is a long tradition in film history of cinema works being taken away from their directors and reedited, reconfigured, rejiggered, or manhandled into something quite apart from their original form.  Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, Terry Gilliam's Brazil, perhaps Joe Dante's Explorers (rushed to release before a proper, satisfied edit could be completed).  Orson Welles is famous for his struggles against the powers-that-be of distribution, most notably the tragedy befalling Magnificent Ambersons.  This sort of thing has even happened to Akira Kurosawa and Sergei Eisenstein, so magnitude of historical greatness does not mean invulnerability to the wills of their contemporary moneylenders.

Many of these have managed to survive in critical regard, whether due to an eventual Director's Cut or simply the surviving strength of a vision running at a piece's core, bearing the marks of its contradictions to the tampering caused by behind-the-scenes machinery of test audiences, producer notes, and commercially-minded studio due-process.  A film like Mark Robson and Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim stands tall despite giving off the whiff of a script pared down to its barest bones.  There are no persistent stories of tampering involving that film, though, although there may well have been cuts.  Such is the nature of the film, that its perhaps-coerced shortfalls seem naturally tailored to its humble, poetic design.  So what we have there is a film that portends and preempts the encroachment of the money-minded suits, willing them to inconsequence by insisting on the naivety of its narrative spareness, a story and a piece of cinema conceived so purely of a poetic register that it can render itself so small and come off seemingly so impoverished such that there is no gleam-in-the-eye, salivating executive with designs for grandeur waiting patiently in the sidelines to chop away at a Great Director's offering of immense hubris (it is how Lewton maneuvered the studio with all his films: films so low-budget, so seemingly practical, no one behind-the-scenes with the simple aspirations of glamor and success would bat an eye at them).  At this time, Hitchcock and Selznick were tangling horns over their next Best Picture winner, Welles was puffing himself up to outdo Citizen Kane, and meanwhile the embittered sets of that weepie cursed masterpiece were being traded quietly into the hands of Lewton and Co. to do as they will humbly and under-the-radar. 

Those great embattled works come in different shapes, sizes, and circumstances.  Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Coppola's Apocalypse Now are gigantic productions that were pared away for pacing and thrift, but I would argue there is hardly - to speak excessively - an irretrievable loss to their essential DNA, whether as doofy war epic or social-historical wide open impressionist canvas.  Blade Runner suffered more a shake-up to its inner DNA, the old-fashioned voice-over added in at odds with Scott's thoroughly Modern Hollywood sensibility.  The idea of the New Hollywood "powerful madmen" such as Scott and Coppola and Friedkin suffering with moans under the circumstances of a surrendered final cut is a bit laughable to me.  As if their brazen work can be so "tragically" undermined when they, up to a very considerable point, already have so much control, so much commandeered ability to indulge their oversized, overtly commercial visions.  Delicate Seventh Victims they are not, which is why so much hubbub could be made over another bombastic deleted sequence or a 200-minute film being cut down to a mere 150-minute film.

Hooper's career, like Welles's, is rife with the surrendering of his films to final cuts partly to completely external from him.  Hooper's Lifeforce streamlined for pacing and quickness by its distributor TriStar, Spontaneous Combustion an unknown variable of tortuous post-production, and Djinn hidden away for two years to accommodate a reedit and additional scenes.  Hooper's works, though, are "Seventh Victims" compared to the films of his New Hollywood brethren.  They actually have something to lose if the money-minded suits stick their hands into the pot, confusing his genetically different work with those of the ballyhooed Hollywood technocrats that are his peers.

I find nothing more insidious and deleterious to aesthetic progressiveness than the place New Hollywood movies hold as works so excessive that they are the films that deserve the over-protectiveness of cinema historians, as if that excised two-million dollar set piece must be mourned for (Oh, the costliness of it!), or that one lost turn of the screw in the narrative is so essential to compliment the other narrative frippery surrounding it.  Hooper's works are Seventh Victims, delicate to the touch, but under the auspices of Hollywood delusions of grandeur (not protected by Lewton shrewdness... expected, tragically, to compete).  Films that ask no more of the studio financiers or of the worship of audiences other than respecting its deep-underneath, non-monetizable integrity.

Val Lewton figured it out, but the poetic genre film proved most abusable as a homogenized market took over the industry: the mantra of the studio towards certain properties - genre ones - became, "They hold no higher interest, higher values, or higher watermarks."  Their bar is set at zero.  Who thinks profoundly or poetically with the formula of a monster wreaking havoc over a string of victims?  Forget James Whales's Frankenstein, the rich traditional horrors of Bava and Hammer Studios, or Val Lewton's sprawlingly humanist producing oeuvre.  There is no higher thought there - so thought the producers churning out genre product in the late 70s and up.  Thus, they can be meddled with to ensure highest commercial profitability.  But, as I've said before, Hooper's interest in cinema is an interest in narrative, but by no means a commercial or a literalistic one.  It is an interest in the story as a conveyance of subtext, which is a combination of the context of drama and character with the graces of form and visual communicativeness, which must be fused through a combating of conventions of crass dramatic spectacle and excessive, novel visual entertainments in order to foster the contemplation of form and metaphor.  It is all fused together in a magical, delicate alchemy of humble drama and lofty cinematic conceit.

There is no more detestable an example of money-minded turpitude than what was enacted on the noteworthy work of John 'Bud' Cardos and the very talented cinematographer John Arthur Morrill (Director of Photography also for A Boy and His Dog, and who lent his services in camerawork to the 60s neo-realist triumph The Exiles, which offers a penetrating quasi-documentary eye on Native American youth in LA's Bunker Hill community) on The Dark, in which anything they could have achieved was entirely dismantled by a wish by the producers to wholly reconstruct the film as an "alien invasion" film, warping footage from its original purpose into something that entirely cheapened it and which would essentially throw in the garbage any good, creditable work done by director Cardos and his ingenious cinematographer.  No matter how much one values what is around it (I happen to value it highly), The Dark is a film literally murdered by a misbegotten attempt to do anything in their power to make this, in their eyes, "expendable" B-picture turn as much a profit as they can make it turn for them.

The snapshot above is scanned from the 1978 novelization of The Dark, written and released a year before the film was released in 1979.  In it, you can clearly see this production photo included in its pages of the filming of a character's death scene, in which apparently a large ice block was staged to fall on and crush the actor.  In the released film, this falling ice block is nowhere to be found - instead, reaction shots of the actor screaming in terror at something above him is cut together with close-ups of the monster's eyes as red laser beams are superimposed to appear as if shooting out of them.  The shot of the actor's face is then superimposed with a fireworks-like explosion to suggest the character has been blown up by the creature's laser abilities.

No matter whether the film would become "good" or remain a film lowly regarded if it were not for such tampering, such is truly horrific a case of a film and the work of its artists being totally, in one fell swoop, destroyed and, worse yet, disregarded by a thoughtless commercial imperative and uncomprehending, Porsche-driving Hollywood materialists.  Condescending to seekers of genre depth, crippling to traditions of termite art, even if the film with its integrity intact is something to be forever lost for this finite universe, the act done to The Dark may literally stand as the most vicious and unthinking thing I have ever come across in Hollywood lore.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

THAS 2014: In Defense of Franklin (A Post of 4 Parts)

A memorial to Marilyn Burns, 1949-2014, who tapped into something universal and vulnerable in Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  As Sally, she accepted a role that is simultaneously one anonymous and then immediately recognizable, and it was with a true conviction.  A brilliant actress and generous performer from one film alone.


The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is indeed better than ever.  Its 4K restoration does make it seem "as if it were filmed yesterday," which is more than apropos the film.  Hooper's films, it must be said, hold an instrumentality of a perennial quality: if upon season, they die, they can be renewed with new found fascinations, bloomed upon the most veiled stalks, and an ageless integrity, for after all a flower's aesthetic utility in aesthetic discussion is never in question.  His films, regardless of surface appearance (although Hooper's cerebral, cultivated form is the continued, roots-level respiration beneath even the most withered, period-dated aesthetics), are always planned for regrowth, the carefully-caretakered rose bush or fruit-bearing orchard to outlast even their caretakers, as they are always concerned with ever-renewable conditions (grim though they may sometimes be), as well as the ever-renewable depicting of them.  Texas Chain Saw's Song of the current times, Eaten Alive's wind tunnel of social ills, Spontaneous Combustion's love, technology, and (post-)modern living.  Poetic imagination in all of those to rival Nature's creating the rose, if I may be so foolishly bold.

In Defense of Franklin

I have never thought so ill of Franklin.  Socially stunted he may prove to be, is he really so beneath us?  Honestly, I am often quite taken aback by the vociferous disdainful opinions of him.  Does he really deserve so much imperious attitudes simply for being a little slovenly, a little lacking in social graces (he was assailed by early life illness, was he not?), for having been born with his keening, nasal voice, for such superficial irritants when he is actually part of a group of, really, more-than-equally-flawed teenagers?  Maturity may be beyond his ken, yes, growing into sloth for having his mobility taken from him at an early age or congenitally, and perhaps exacerbated by his parents and family life.  But do we not all know people in real life who seem hopeless in some way, yet persist through the self-governance of the unique positive qualities they may otherwise possess?  If he is hopeless, so are the others - in their own ways.  Otherwise, despite his insistence to repeat himself, to over-illustrate a point, to splutter incomprehensibly, he is a perfectly conversational human being - more than lucid, even. Certainly the most expressive... loquacious, genuinely introspective... of the dead-eyed teen bunch - and that may be my ultimate point - with Pam a close rival for the inner-articulative title.

I don't mean to claim the moral sensitivity Superior here.  I insist that's not the case, for the trivial matter at hand is simply legitimate first impressions, of which Franklin certainly does not give so good of one.  I certainly didn't like Franklin on my first viewing, so grating is his deportment.  So I'm not going to claim that "understanding" Franklin is the essential key to the picture, the "unlock code" to something like "the film's great humanity" or anything (though "great humanity" is indeed an attribute -- and the trumpeting call -- of most all Hooper films, including this one).  Please, make fun of Franklin all you want.  He, the portly whiner, the squealing-voiced and less-than-cleanly pampered one, who contributes to conversation and adapts to others only as it pertains to and caters preciously his particular whims and interests.  No gallant knight upon his iron horse is he (he doesn't take note of his disability more than the others do, certainly not as a noble, clear-eyed cross to bear, nor his armored steed from which to mine a dignity, but just as another reason things should be easier for him).  But a white knight is not any of our other teen characters, either.  Sages, none of them.

But for the sociological interest, I humbly argue: what does he really do to deserve the superior glances of contempt he generates?  Go "BOOM-schwick!" too many times to intimate a brutal air gun?  A storyteller's charming imprimatur!  Complain too much about the heat?  A conversational baby step, and, in any case, so off is he in his own, self-pitying world - quite understandably - why should he stopper himself?  For his vapid teen companions?  Is the repulsion of viewers mostly in response to the seemingly vulgar interest he displays in his family's slaughterhouse legacy?  Watch again... he suggests no backwards pride - but also no bourgeoisie disavowal!  His morbid enthusiasm for the subject has a journalistic depth that suggests a willingness to look a topic in the eye, not an uneducated conditioning.  Is it his babyish fears and mewling cowardliness?  Sally is our noble one.  Franklin is the true innocent in the film - the babe, the naif, the trembling lamb who shows to hold some tragically undirected knowledge about the hostile world that dooms them all.  An emblem of naivety, is what he is, and he is indeed made a victim for it.  Pam may have been Franklin if she wasn't so self-concerned, pretty, and hormonally tied with Kirk.

Franklin is the "key" in the picture, to a true connection with it, I've found, and wholly as he is -- so whether you hate him, love him, or tolerate him.  Moving on from my sociological study, thinking purely on the film, Franklin is crucial, the emotional center of the film: the naive dove, the child peacemaker between America's pampered middle class and the proletariat that is left to stew in the dregs of a nation's patriarchal, economic, capitalistic value system.  I'll admit it, I've grown to find him lovable, so increasingly apparent with each viewing is his guilelessness, his ingenuousness, his childlike knowledge and childlike fear.

Look upon what he does in the van scene: He engages in a discussion of his morbid family history, giving his indifferent companions an even-keeled lesson on his family tree.  "That's where our grandfather brought his cattle."  Upon Pam's righteous reaction to Franklin's account of cruel slaughter practices, he rebuts that "they don't do it like that anymore," and is so knowledgeable about the idea of progress.  Then think forward to when the hitchhiker is in the van and to the engaged manner in which Franklin launches an inquiry on better practices, replying in genuine conversation with the hitchhiker that he thought "the gun was better" (meanwhile, the hitchhiker replies back with the claim that the animals, in fact, "died better" with the hammer... yet that young Republican only follows up his statement with the exclamation about how the humans are put out of jobs -- thus the gun is not better...  Perhaps in line with his leisure-class interest in corpse art, the hitchhiker is the selfish one in the film - the truest villain and most actionable human being - and of course his reprisal comes a-calling in the form of a huge red semi and his becoming the very roadkill he morbidly collects).

Franklin's behavior with the hitchhiker is the best evidence of his innocence, being the only one in the group who talks to the hitchhiker as if he is a human being, even if he breaks the ice by first calling the guy Dracula.  Franklin is the kindest mediator in that situation (recall his peace pipe in the shape of relating on the subject of headcheese), and even in his fear later on, he is the babe in all his unfiltered vulnerability.  So, yes, I do reject the haughty scorn he sometimes elicits!  Why look upon a child as if he must be made over for next week's prom?  Now would I personally want to spend time with him?  There is the rub...

I underestimated Texas Chain Saw Massacre's poetic functionality.  "Sally, that's terrible, it's still going on," Pam chides early in the film, while the news blares its terrible sounds.  Texas Chain Saw is a film about inhumanity, whether it is the evolving times or the unevolved villains, the radio news being treated as weightless white noise, or the blind motions of its teenagers.  It is about indignity, and so appropriately does it begin with it, Franklin and Kirk affronted by the winds of industrial behemoths.  "Everything means something, I guess," Sally says conclusively towards the end of the first of a pair of pivotal scenes between her and Franklin, which reveal their strained but blood-bound co-dependence, for the film depicts a world made up of social givens such as class and family.  If one resists The Texas Chain Saw Massacre's common perception as being a nihilist text, we can instead take Sally's utterance as the one true sentiment in the film, certainly more so than the Pam's star-reading, Sally's survival-based pleading, the Sawyers' patriarchal axioms, and even the drunk old man's doomsaying in the cemetery.  All that other speech seems like play-acting, like things being said via habit, conditioning, or to provoke themselves and those around them, but Sally's concession of personal wisdom is pried from her by the increasingly agitated Franklin in what seems like the most genuine moment in the film (closely rivaled by Kirk's risible aside: "Franklin never was little...").  It must be the truth, then.  The tone of the scene isn't one about undermining Sally, but about sussing out a relationship in a moment of quiet inaction, getting the truth out of someone who is too tired to be lying.  The cinema of pacifism again.  Action less called for, truth above all else.  Against all the calls of nihilism, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre may actually give itself away in this moment.

So it may be a call to action, albeit a pacifist's one, directed at the soul: everything means something, so take notice.  (Do not launch a crusade on one thing, but mourn the madness all around.)  Those news stories mean something.  The stars may even mean something.  Sally and Franklin's relationship means something, certainly within the film.  Sally seeing her crippled brother bloodily massacred, a tie of hers to the world suddenly forever lost, also means something.

These are not just arbitrary horror movie happenings, and Hooper entreats the point implicitly with Sally's quote.  It is why, while we ridicule Franklin, we must not simultaneously disregard him.  If Texas Chain Saw is to be seen as a work of true seriousness and depth, it must not be recognized for having "one of the most annoying teen victim characters ever!" to heap scorn on, then see slaughtered, but for it all to mean something more.  So poor, unlikeable Franklin does.

The meanings become clear and legitimately poignant in two of Texas Chain Saw Massacre's smallest but most important, as I see it, scenes: the "pivotal pair" of scenes I mentioned earlier that occur between Sally and Franklin, mirrors of each other (separated by the scene of Jerry's death), both depicting emphatically the brother-sister pair and both playing out as "oners," scenes contained entirely in a single camera shot.  Hooper's camera moves elegantly and analytically along the contours of the scene, at an observing distance from the drama but in pointed harmony with it and the blocking of the actors:

"The Hooper Oner": Sally and Franklin

Jerry: "He's gonna get you, Franklin, he's coming to getcha!"
Franklin: "You don't think it means anything?"
Sally: "We'll protect you if he tries to get you..."

Franklin: "I'll bet it's about me."
Jerry: "He's gonna kill you, Franklin."
Franklin: "It probably doesn't mean anything, huh?"
Sally: "You worry too much..."
Franklin: "Well, he couldn't find us anyway.  I mean he doesn't even know our names!"
Jerry: "I gave him your name, Franklin.  I told him where you live.  I even gave him your zip code.  He's gonna kill you!"
Sally: "Jerry!"

The dialogue's bizarre deftness is worthy of Sartre, every line a charged capacitor for electric, salient meaning.  I've often decried Texas Chain Saw for not exhibiting the same degree of understated, metaphoric dramaturgy as seen in his other films, but this scene of a suddenly wry, concocted drama shows the seeds of Eaten Alive's subtly-wrought valorizing of its females, the subtle pertinence of father issues in The Funhouse*, and, most notably, Spontaneous Combustion's pure drama of words and personalities, where a banal lunch date scene at "Café Kitsch" becomes the allegorical crossroad between bourgeoisie drama and atomic age history.  This scene in Texas Chain Saw, with its metaphoric shading of Sally and Franklin (and Jerry) as fixed sorts of individuals - most notably Sally suddenly becoming Stolidness personified, quite constructedly morphing into a no-nonsense, pragmatic sisterly Yin to Franklin's emasculated, overly fanciful Yang - also connects the film's colossal horrors back to the minute absurdity of a brother-sister relationship (if without the horrifying signifier of a cafe name, although this side-of-the-road spot where the van stalls can be said to attain an existential quality of its own: the "natural" analogue to the Second Empire-furnished room of Sartre's No Exit or Café Kitch's upscale lunch spot, in which decor becomes civilization's hellish trends in which to suffocate and define existentially trapped individuals).

And so this scene does solidify each character through its dialogue, through its emphatic staging, within potent allegorical space.  It has each character speaking in a redundancy of their talking point (Franklin: "Should we be scared?"; Sally: "Don't be scared, Franklin"; Jerry: "Be scared, Franklin").  While Jerry plays the mercenary, almost stirring is Sally's initial proclamation: "We'll protect you if he tries to get you," ruled by a fearlessness and rationality the film is simultaneously working very hard to dash.

"I'll bet it's about me," a brilliantly absurd line surely worthy of making Franklin a Sartre-level character in his self-awareness, if a dumb sort: a mindless lamb still somewhat aware that it is his kind first that are the target of wolves.

Think about Franklin's very point of contention, a desire to know whether the mark in blood the hitchhiker made "means something."

Sally, the level-headed adult, a survivor without imagination, doomed to go mad, with the dependable banality of a line: "You worry too much."

Franklin back again with the very recognizable childhood fears of what a person can do with simply our name.  Jerry replying back, taking advantage of such naivety with the equally childish fear of what we fear a person can do with our address and zip code.

* On a side-side-note, if one is not familiar with the role of the "Dramaturge" in 
theater, they take texts being readied to be produced - that is, plays, typically - 
and enrich the process (and resultingly the play) through a subterranean act of
"thematic research."  They do not write the play, but, through their knowledge 
of its associated meanings and histories, can work to embellish it and can
often take to the role of "rewriting" or "revising."  Tobe Hooper quoted in his 
interview for Mick Garris's Post Mortem interview series: "[The Funhouse] 
was a script that I had a chance to work on and embellish..."

Sally: "What are you doing?"
Franklin: "I can't find my knife..."
Jerry: "That knife won't do you any good, he likes that knife, remember?"
Sally: "When did you have it last?"
Franklin: "Well, I didn't have it last... you had it last!  I gave it to you, remember?  What'd ya do with it?"
Sally: "Well, I don't know!  Didn't I give it back to you?"
Franklin: "No...  I didn't have it when I got outta the van.  You just never gave it back to me."
 Sally: "Alright, I'll look for it!"

Jerry: "Listen, I think I'll walk down to the creek before it gets too dark.  How do I get there, Frank?"
Franklin: "Well, there's a trail down there between them two old sheds."
Sally: "Can I go too?"
Jerry: "Oh, I think you'd better stay here."
Sally: "Alright..."

Sally: "I can't find it!"
Franklin: "Are you mad at me?"
Sally: "No.  I'm not mad at you."
 Franklin: "You really are mad, huh?  Oh, I don't blame ya..."

Let it be said, I find this scene remarkable, along with its addendum in toto, which I've included below.

*        *        *


Franklin: "You really didn't want me to come, did you?"
Sally: "Oh Franklin, I'm just tired!  It's been a long day..."
Franklin: "Sally... did you believe in all that stuff Pam was telling about Saturn in retrograde and all that?"

 Sally: "I don't know... everything means something, I guess."
Franklin: "You don't think that guy'll try and follow us, do you?  I mean, there's no way that he could follow us."
Sally: (Exhales peevishly, withdrawing herself)
Franklin: "He's probably afraid Kirk will kill him."
(A long pause.)
Franklin: "Sally?"
 Sally: "What now??"
Franklin: "Oh... nothing... nevermind..."



Now you may be wondering why I've included the dialogue for the first scene and not for the second scene.  Firstly, the dialogue in the first scene is essential.

Secondly, while both scenes are notable for their formal and dramatic gestures, the first, more unassuming scene proves the more remarkable, and thus deserves the distinction.  It is the more subtle and complex, as well as the more formally particular.  Both utilize the same omniscient, cued camera crawls (the second adding a foreboding low angle) but the first using this to make structurally vivid a scene of roundabout emotional dynamics (the scene consists of the camera doing two roundabout cycles of rigid back-and-forth motions), rather than simply making fearfulness grandiose, as in the second scene.

The first scene paints an indelible portrait of the brother-sister relationship coming to a standstill, ending in a detente after Franklin fluctuates between alienating and making soften his sister towards him.  The scene also puts a final bookend on Jerry, the emotionally traitorous boyfriend who exists only to drive, hang on Sally's arm, be cynically abrasive, and antagonize her brother.  But it is the sibling relationship that proves more enduring and less fragile, Jerry's bookend being that almost subliminal grace note of Sally reacting offended when he tells her to stay behind as he goes look for Pam and Kirk.  It is an alarmingly swift shift in the emotional winds and another wry case made for Franklin as Sally's most indelible attachment in the world.  The ensuing bumpy, alternately successful and failed conversation she and Franklin have becomes even more poignant in its imperfection when coming immediately after Sally is made to see the crack in her remaining, purely social bond.  Her annoying brother is actually her strongest foothold in increasingly dire circumstances.  Implicitly, we are witnessing here Sally falling back, almost reeling, to the safety blanket of her brother, imperfect he may be.

The moment where Sally lashes out at Franklin - "What now??" - that acts as the final punctuation to this scene becomes inadvertently a fascinating mirror with a moment in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, where a burdensome platonic relationship with the female protagonist is similarly treated with a moment of subtle, touching pause.

These are moments of tiny humanity in Hooper's films that become exhaustive with aesthetic and emotional, critical contemplation.  The emotions are so real in both moments, and they both serve to pinpoint the analogous emotional subplot shared between both films: a female protagonist caught up in her own forward-moving motion (Stretch's careerism and activism, Sally's social life and social graces) who, for brief moments, have something platonic and universal (a brother, a friendship) to remind them of what lies outside the vortex of fight, conflict, and battle they have mired themselves in (Stretch more actively than Sally, the latter guilty only of being stronger than her brother and unknowing):

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2: "L.G.!"

"Oh L.G..."

Tweets from a 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' 4K Screening

Yes, I do have a Twitter, which is linked to in the right side bar.  It is an infrequently-talky peek into a mind of narrow interests and exceeding tunnel vision.