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.

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