Tuesday, December 30, 2014

THAS 2014: 'Poltergeist,' a Walk-Through, #2

Let's keep this train goingIt has been said of Hitchcock (and I have been reminded recently) that he is a director who sees the entire film in his head before a single thing is shot.  This is, of course, a chestnut of auteurist propaganda, a romantic notion that is merit to its own nugget of truth as much as to its propensity for generalization.  This conception mostly germinates in the finer instincts and keener inklings of cinema fans and their all-too-important, but impossible-to-corroborate, experience of watching, and the sway of their aesthetic perceptions.  The more a great scene seems planned to within an inch of its life, the more signifying of genius it must be - at least commercial genius.  The most concrete piece of evidence we have for seeing into the mind of a filmmaker is, of course, the storyboard.  In any case (and Hitchcock was indeed a storyboarder), Hitchcock is a filmmaker of this sort.  A grand manipulator, in other words, whose work moves so precisely (with such premeditation) so as to elicit emotion and involvement beat to narrative beat from the viewer.  The case is made so often for Hitchcock because of the particularly rich and symbolic nature of his films, perfectly cooperating with his techniques of suspense and expressive montage.  How does one not make films so tied to the images in one's head when the films themselves are so deeply psychological?  Spielberg is one of these "vision"-driven filmmakers, also.  If not so psychological, then he is at least a storyboarder.  Hooper is and isn't one.  What can be said to be part of a grand, assertive vision, of pictorialism or of entertainment (as much as one chooses to separate the two, the former most exclusively embodied by great "vista" filmmakers like Kubrick, Tarr, and Sokurov, the latter by the thrilling parallel action and other suspense mechanics of Griffith and Hitchcock)?  And then what is Hooper as a less dictatorial, more "reactive" artist/aesthete, devoted to an art of practice rather than vision, part of a class of "maverick filmmaking" or "fringe art" belonging to Cassavetes, rolling with his actors' punches, or any Outsider artist devoted to a way of life as much as s/he is to a tradition of storytelling (Brakhage, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Jon Jost, et al.)?  Well, of course Hooper is more genetically kin to Spielberg than he is to Jack Smith (at least in how his career ultimately developed).  And the best, most artistically-revered filmmakers combine both instincts, find their personal niche somewhere between the ideologically opposing methods of manipulating accessibility and naturalistic, raw audacity - Cassavetes, Altman, Guy Maddin (somehow!), all artistic democrats, it can be said.

Poltergeist is undeniably a work of packaged manipulation, every joint a contrivance of formula, every spring diverted to flow into that heaving, conscious group-body of the main-stream.  (With each viewing, Poltergeist's shortcuts and contrivances become clearer and more transparent.  How, exactly, does Carol Anne not blink an eye at the impossible physical phenomena of chairs stacking themselves instantaneously?  Why, exactly, does Diane never notice Robbie's bent silverware?)  Hooper is this and he isn't this.  This is why Poltergeist is such a Spielberg film, despite the fact Hooper, yes, directed the film.  What, then, can Hooper, the less-than-Hitchcockian yet self-professedly-Hitchcock-inspired filmmaker (who also professes his disinterest in storyboards), do with such a project that is so in the manacle grips of a mainstream tradition - that of systematically packaged entertainment, which is artisanship in its own right but often a complete negation of a democratic impulse in film art (in which film does not simply serve to feed every bit of information to the viewer, but instead insists on a mutual exchange, whether it occurs between viewer and the equivocal image, or viewer and the freer practice of an equivocal art)?  What Hooper can do is stay true to his approach as an artist of practice over vision, paying attention to things that carry no preponderance in what is planned, storyboarded, and envisioned before the actual act of staging it - that which is not sucked dry by the vacuum-packing of consumerist vision.  Does Hooper hold vision?  I'd say in the same way Hitchcock did - on an emotional, psychological, or intellectual level, rather than on a mono-consumerist entertainment level.  It leaks into the mechanical wind-up toy that is Poltergeist.

One cannot deny, though, that Poltergeist is a bit retrograde ("Hooper's worst film," to quote Robin Wood circa 1982).  Hooper's complacence with "Hollywood entertainment" is made clear in the fact that he made Poltergeist at all, a film which he, willingly, ceded his vision in order to execute another's (via his practice).  Along this line of thought (in which Poltergeist is a wind-up toy, a one-sided conversation), I must admit spending a whole series of posts on it seems more than a bit indulgent.  Is sheer aesthetics so valuable, in a work so neutral?  Is Poltergeist simply technical catnip, in the fashion of such cinema de jour as the latest David Fincher concoction, where a matter-of-fact dolly movement towards a frosty cat manages to fire off all sorts of film-nerd synapses (très chic!  Mine included), as a suggestive image but a servile one (to the overwhelming of narrative)?  (I am a Fincher and Gone Girl fan, for Fincher's fashionable irony is his perfectly devilish streamline into the mainstream, far preferable, in my opinion, to Paul Thomas Anderson's aesthetically regressive hijinks as streamline into the arty fringes).  Is such appreciating of niggling aesthetics mere whistling in the wind in the face of this week's release of Evan Goldberg/Seth Rogen's The Interview, in which liberal Hollywood takes on totalitarianism (and has a fun time doing it!) and many backs are patted for the sake of a work of naivety and cultural arrogance (despite its good intentions)?  Well, Poltergeist's images are really a matter of their self-serving fact - a selfish and self-serving beauty, like that of a flower or a vase, those objects of pure, mindless aesthetics - or the matter of a whole career (Tobe Hooper's).  Poltergeist justifies (and spites) its neutral existence by the fact of its special images, which is why I can do a walk-through at all.  It is a matter of art being less a matter of consequence and more a matter of context, of half-measures rather than full-measures.  Poltergeist is a half-measure - half-Hooper, half-Spielberg.  It makes little in the way of full measures - it was never going to win any Academy Awards - but it's probably more astonishing visually than half the films actually nominated that year.  It is a valuable piece to the whole of Hooper's career, due to the strength of its images, which retain Hooper's name, after all.

We open with the "Middle-Aged Man on Bicycle Beer Fun-Run" episode:

(Poltergeist is tonally noncommittal but aesthetically pristine.  This is what makes its low-common-denominator moments essentially cohere and work cooperatively towards the whole.  This comic, kid-friendly opening moment isn't so cartoonish as to become detrimental, isn't so removed from Poltergeist's overall make-up of sterile suburban images to feel like gratuitous fat.  It's a lucky strike that I find little obnoxious or overly egregious about Poltergeist, which may be chalked up to nostalgia, maybe to the powerful controlling hand of Hooper - despite Spielberg, who is reportedly said to have shot 2nd Unit this scene of the man and his beer-run, filming this ensuing RC cars moment as if it were a slapstick shark attack.)

This shot is what I like to call the Amity/Jaws/Spielberg shot: a flat, B-rollish shot of extras strolling past the information-unload of 4th of July bunting and bustling Amity docks-- I mean, a Cuesta Verde sales office sign. 

 "Get her in focus, boys!"

This man is ridiculous.

 "Here I come!"

This shot of the tumult of inanimate objects, ignored by the buffoonish and animated man, is effective.  It can perhaps be said to preface what will turn out to be Poltergeist's overriding fascination with the menacing auras and totemism of inanimate objects.

A great, sonorous establishing shot of the monolothic suburban edifice is beautifully used in joined purpose with the narrative thread of the beer-fetcher's hapless circling of the house.

A well-composed shot, above, racking focus between the storming-in man and Dana in the foreground.  Narratively, this gives us our first bit of character development with an (awake) Dana and, generically and expectedly, she is the unpretentious, snarky, insouciant teenage girl archetype, raiding an organic but gluttonous and methodless breakfast of assorted cheeses, celery stalks, and pickle.

Maybe-Hooper Shot #1, above.  A Hooper trope is the "multi-orbital" or "multi-vectoral" camera, in which the camera may be one sort of shot, most often a shot going in one trajectory of motion, but will then meld into a different sort of shot or different trajectory with complete fluidity.  This goes hand-in-hand with Hooper's disinterest in over-cutting and his interest in moving master shots, often more surprising and versatile than Spielberg's own propensity for moving master shots.

The shot above of Shaw entering the viewing room with the spraying beers begins with a vectoral pan following the moving Shaw, but once it lands on the group of men, it attempts a shaky revolution around the group, it seems with the wish to frame them in a precise way.

A splendid and percussive cut occurs between the roar of the raucous men and the unpretentious pop sing-song of Diane as she fixes up her children's bedroom.

Maybe-Hooper Shot #2: First, the presentational flourish of the Star Wars® blanket and its commercial images in the foreground of the camera.  A delightfully barbed display of commercial dissemination, especially as she whips it away like a magic trick, or a matador teasing his animal partner in the arena (we, the viewer, are the animal).

And another sort of multi-orbital shot is performed here, one which I like to compare to an early shot in Eaten Alive, where the camera revolves around Neville Brand as he sits on his bed and looks through a box of morbid miscellany, the corner of an American flag finally peaking in at the end of the revolution.

Here, as the blanket is put down, the camera begins a revolving motion that ends in the revealing of the bird cage.  As the camera revolves, Diane loudly bangs into a pair of children's roller skates, creating a mock-scare that seems very much in line with the mock, presentational, ironic "scares" of The Funhouse.

"Tweety?  Oh..."

... Oh shit, Tweety, couldn't you have waited for a school day?"

The de-sanctification of the young mother, as she drops a swear word and unceremonializes the matter of death and the children's pet.