Friday, December 18, 2015

THAS: Miscellany (On Night Terrors; Career Analogs; Hooper Article)

On 'Night Terrors'
Like most works of calculable, multivalent, and most likely an artisanal and thus extremely personal sort of craft, such works tend to congeal and become more cohesive the more time you spend with them.  The idiosyncrasies and creative choices become less jarring and more of a piece, tied to a vision and unifying function.  I find this is often the way of music, which is largely more about the whole rather than the parts, more about conceptual instinct than it is about "intellectualizing" every bit of the construction.  Meticulous construction does come into play, but it is not the main point, rather it is the result of the overarching vision, which entails a truer freedom (with instincts often associational) that in turn entails room for imperfections, which entails the necessity of a harder vision of a harder inspiration and harder connections (as Godard put it, as put to the reader in my previous post, in his King Lear film: "The more the connections... are distant and true, the stronger they needed to be").  In the creation of a film work, an intellectual whole is more often than not impeded by intellectualizing parts, which is characteristic of those who are technicians of story - those who seem to simply transpose a screenplay, ridden with momentary concepts and narratological mechanics, onto the screen, lacking that special freedom, that sense of continuity, that room for association, while little effect is actually done by the enhancing of elements of style or of visual indulgence.

The conundrum (that truly entices) of Hooper's Night Terrors is that the whole that congeals, that makes itself more apparent (the more time spent with it - as its most inspiring tics and lucid passages lose, slightly, their element of surprise) is its faithfulness to its sources, its self-aware, almost self-sabotaging competence in recreating the Euro-trash products of the 70s (some of which do transcend the inheritance of their time of manufacture).  In initial viewings, its script seemed nonsensical, Hooper's naive artistry and seeming incapacity for conventional thriller beats enlivening but simultaneously making incoherent the script Harry Alan Towers signed off (he who produced a number of Jess Franco films) and that was initially to go to Ken Russell, a far more outré but also more conventionally "capable" filmmaker.  Re-watching the film makes clear the boilerplate narrative that is intended of, once more, another Towers-produced erotic exploiter, while its thriller aspects would no doubt have flourished under Ken Russell's oversight, switched to White Worm, pulp-luridness mode with a dash of the Victorian lampooning he is so erudite and accustomed to with regards (such as in his odd, personal, and slightly underrated Gothic).  What surprises here is the competence of delivery I had undersold Hooper, who follows the weaving twists and turns of the erotic thriller with a general fealty.  Also "imposed" is the genre's luxuriating alternation between erotic set-piece and random bouts of exposition, Hooper successfully and obediently planting all the foreshadowing shifty-eyes and markers of paranoia customary to these films, in the given narrative parts.  It is almost dispiriting - almost.  He nevertheless goes the more subdued route natural to him, not quite achieving what he professed was his "Ken Russell picture," but successfully harkening back to Jess Franco's reign of oneiric art, gauzy and meandering erotics weaving in and out with the boilerplate (boilerplate ever since de Sade) murder plot.  The film almost seems to put its full faith in the value of its exploitation film roots - again, almost.  It is in the "almosts" that lie Hooper's personal craft.

I like to think of the film in microcosm as that scene of Genie (Zoe Trilling) weaving in and out of the debauched crowd of Chevalier's "rich fools party," the graceful capturing of a sensible participant (meaning Trilling) in a sea of misfits, as she floats through their midst with a watchful, skeptical, and soon disinterested eye, mirroring the film's own distance and "fish-out-of-water" status in the relationship between form and content.  Not caustic or undermining, though, Hooper's formalism drifts, understands, and finds the inner dignity in what it must observe and the screenplay it must serve (just as Genie makes herself present, and truly takes stock, of the party's attendees), dignifying fools and formula at once.

Career Analogs

The conundrum of Night Terrors, what Hooper does that entices so much, is enter a constant dialogue with the "narrative of mechanics" - that is, with the Towers screenplay that must be transposed and taken seriously, to some degree, for art cannot take itself lightly, and art that is obligatory is a defeatist art.  An art that does not believe in, to some degree, the story it is telling cannot enter into useful dialogue (just an impertinent one).  Hooper entices with a rigorous dialogue between the form and his content, one that does not condescend or self-celebrate, only asserts yet another attenuation of narrative convention by essentially questioning the very core of any film that would follow such a plot at face value (not that it is a bad plot - again, art should not be self-defeating - but that it is a burdened plot).  This is what Hooper did in The Funhouse (with the teen slasher picture) and Lifeforce (with the sci-fi epic). Where Jess Franco inserts poetry into the paradigm of the Euro-sleaze production, Hooper inserts personal thematic inquiry.

What makes me love Night Terrors so particularly is that it is perhaps Hooper's most straightforward "narrative of mechanics," that subordination of the cinema to plotting and piece-meal narrative event that I decried above.  It is a film whose indebtedness to its genre antecedents, in large part lacking most of Hooper's usual narrative predispositions, is a departure for its usually very particular filmmaker, and the imprint of such a thoughtful and opposite filmmaker - entering into a dialogue with the film's very make-up, successfully erecting the spitting image of an erotic thriller but somehow peppering the suggestion of its own lack, that it can have holes poked through it - leaves it slippery and constantly reaffirming itself in miraculous ways, without vainly tearing it asunder.  The feign of servility to its formula is the only way to truly confront it, "servility" more accurately described as a Socratic equality, and the constant, miraculous wit of it is found in the dialogue being performed with a "perfect" facsimile.

The trade-off made for this bit of true enticement - seeing Hooper work with a script that seems contrary to his habits and inclinations for narrative - is that Night Terrors does, in fact, feel like a B-side in Hooper's filmography.  It is not quintessential Hooper, it simply contains some of his most interesting intents.  It is the light-hearted Elena and Her Men to Renoir, the Under Capricorn to its Hitchcock.  What Night Terrors lacks is the unitary course of time, the unitary location, the disinclination towards intrigue and what-will-happen-next plot indefiniteness.  Hooper's choice of stories, usually, are always steeped in the inevitability of the void, or sacrifice.  Here, a judicial fervor is wielded, both narratively and formally, the finale an unequivocal meting of justice, ex aequo et bono (in contrast to the usual sigh of irresolution and melancholy finishing many of Hooper's films), while Hooper presides over the order and the law of the sequences (dreams weave with reality, historical snippets - made meaningful even though largely specious and clumsy; this film is, one can say by design, not Paddy Chayefsky - invert the present, and Hooper's cinematic backcountry is held to his thoughtfully writ constitution).

Career Analogs


I do love Night Terrors, though, which does function on a conventional level, a fact which both momentarily disturbed and then forged my love.  Its most illogical plot points became somewhat explainable; its sense of build-up, where I had previously sensed none, came to the fore.  This realization began by threatening, slightly, Hooper's lustrous work as a maker of connections rather than narratives, but soon the unwelcome logic of the narrative of mechanics began to congeal, itself, into something else, simply strengthening and making more robust the aspirant moral structures that pinned tightly the film's various threads, like a cloth doll affixed together by straight pins.  It was the film's self-reflexive intelligence, the existence of the logic being like a second organism in the same host body as Hooper's artistic inquirer.  Within this host body, it is not so much that there is not enough room for the two of them, but that they must be in constant relation to each other.  It was the realization of this dialogue between content and form, of the ability of something to be both competent and subversive, of something to be both somewhere on the fringes of the acceptable (such as an erotic picture) and dignified where ever it stands.  In an almost-inversion of my default stance on form trumping content: Form must be self-critical.  Content must be valued and of value.

Night Terrors represents to the strongest degree what makes Hooper's work so stimulating: they are constantly about themselves; about their relationship to their subject matter, the world, and our (and his) standards for "entertainment," qualified as a "popular" art, but a high, intelligent art nonetheless.  Djinn seems to have Hooper enact his most trickiest feat of form/content/context interrelation in his storied career: he places himself under the magnifying glass, erecting the "international film" by not hiding the fact of his cultural neutrality, all while the characters in the film wrestle with that very issue.

Genie's "journey" through the party scene continues with her meeting Chevalier (Robert Englund), the rupture point at which her journey becomes less about her drifting and more about the hard-and-fast oppositions and triangulations between her, her host, and his various guests (including Sabina, her companion whom she arrived with).  The conversation is depicted through a series of precise, segregated frames.  What better depiction of the evolution of conversation, and the accompanying stakes?  Precise like battle strategy, segregated like battalions.  Night Terrors is a film of conversations, encounters, and the underlying battle and transformations beneath every one of them.  As Hooper's films are conversations with themselves, this scene is the perfect embodiment of Hooper's self-reflexive rhythms and his spirit of inquiry.  Night Terrors exists as his B-side, an outré piece of unmarketable niche filmmaking, one that stews in its imperfections, but that is also the greatest expression for Hooper's controlled instincts and search for the ethics in art.  Night Terrors is the battle between form and content, the tug-of-war between shoddy provenance and a genuine artist's curiosity and respect.

Career Analogs

(A temporary low-quality picture until I can get a high-quality capture.)

Hooper Article For Revista Détour

ICYMI: I wrote an article for the online arts/photography/literature/film publication known as Détour (Revista) (@tdetour), run and organized by some very illustrious writers/critics/cinephiles in Spain and which is currently in the midst of their Edition No. 7.  They premiered my long-form article this last spring in their Edition No. 6, and I was beyond honored (check out their Facebook page or their blog for a sense of the sheer swathe of art, life, and culture they put a magnifying glass to).  

Premiered in a Spanish translation that I cannot thank Détour co-editor Óscar Brox enough for finding it worthy of his invaluable efforts he put in translating it, they were also kind enough to publish it in English.

Naturally, I already regret my wordier instincts in the English version of this article, but that's the way the publishing cookie crumbles.  Warning: Contains Nuri Bilge Ceylan potshot, which I apologize for but do not retract.  Note #2: This also marks the moment I stop being patronizing towards Hooper's Toolbox Murders.  It's a great movie.  The single-take shot of Angela Bettis with a beer while conversing with her husband is a stunner.  The dissolve to police lights as she is rescued by her husband is an image to treasure.

As for the article, I hope you enjoy it.

Friday, November 13, 2015

JLG's KING LEAR as Primer for the work of Tobe Hooper

The greatest artists have a knack for association.*  It is the characteristic of art that is built from the ground up, and a sense of the ground up is a factor non-negotiable in the free association of ideas and helpful communications.  Meanwhile, most ignobly, on the opposite side of things, are the films built from a package, suited for the studios and filled with insurances (the most basic being have your film contain characters, a genre, and a plot).  Only the most grandiloquent, predetermined, and elephantine (as in the kind that is White) associations survive a film built on previous elements: that is to say, the truly associational is propounded first by the complete separation of a work from its source, or from the outsized predetermination of its associations (thus what I speak of is much further evolved - into the substrata, away from the comprehensible - from the schematic associative qualities of the likes of Charlie Kaufman).  A work cannot allude if it has come to be its source itself.  It cannot associate if it is confined within the parameters of concept.  This is why genre films are incestuous (why Kaufman films are White Elephant), whereas Godard films are associative.

* (This sweeping statement is arrived at through the basic postulate that the greatest artist, this side 
of Hitchcock, is Jean-Luc Godard.  Scattered along the sides of that triumphant diametric are Agnès
Varda, Chantal Akerman, Tobe Hooper, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Straub-Huillet, Pasolini, Syberberg, etc.
who allow their liberation with the form to honor both sides of the spectrum freely, independently,
and, in those most irrepressible and enlivening of them - such as Varda, Hooper,
and Kurosawa - in fusion.)

This idea of adaptation that allows for associative freedom consists the very theme of the film of King Lear made by Godard in 1988, which was smuggled through with Golan-Globus money (or as the film cheekily dubs it, the "Cannon Cultural Division") and provides a King Lear with no plot, no genre, no - or some - characters.

"And then, suddenly, it was the time of Chernobyl."  

"And then, suddenly," not "And then suddenly."  The accentuation is important, for it is delivered as if the event was instantaneous, the result of coming after or over the course of this very title card.  The utterance makes it so, and Godard's magical realism here proposes a present tense, not a recalling of the past.  Hooper is known for his spaces out of time (as is what makes him tailored to Schiller's principles of aesthetic universality), but what of his time out of space?  His compounding of time suggests the basic principle of tragedy.  His abstraction of it brings him back to Godard, and his non-time.  Their work and its nebulous time proposes both the experimental immediacy of their topicality and the eternal quandaries of it.  

A character in King Lear states, about editing, it is "handling," he says, "physically, the future, the present, the past."

The present the film fabulizes is made the present (as opposed to the future) because daring artworks create epochs freely within themselves, and art is not separate from the current times (one of the things art can allude to), or from all-time.  These are associations of time, crossing even into the future.  Prognostications into the future make up heavily the subject matter of Spontaneous Combustion, Djinn, both placing edifices in the landscape that are not currently there (power plants, high rises).

The pronouncement of its hypothetical apocalypse is placed over Godard's signature signifier of absence, his title cards, which are themselves the very basic building blocks of communication, themselves embodying the "nothing," the very notion of ground up, from which he builds.

Chernobyl, the arbitrary but pointed catalyst, stridently represents the modern times.  Arbitrarily, it brings about the evacuation of all things, then, as ironic bathos works, brings them all back again... except for culture, art, and Shakespeare.  Compare, the arbitrary catalysts and strident representations: the gas shortage crisis in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halley's Comet in Lifeforce.

"Peace, Mr. Shakespeare.  Come not between the dragon and its wrath."

Power and Virtue.  One can say that this is the central dialectic at the heart of almost every Hooper film.  A central blank slate, or receptacle of virtue or human essentiality, is placed against figures of corruption and compromise.

Godard's King Lear, with much freedom, adapts the central relationship of Lear and daughter Cordelia into the contemporary container of a supposed father and daughter (played by Burgess Meredith and Molly Ringwald), traipsing curiously about Nyon in Switzerland, this iconographic unit both busy transcribing a manuscript about Bugsy Siegel and simultaneously doubling as actors (perhaps themselves) playing out the drama of Shakespeare's Lear.

At the risk of dampening the sense of complete spontaneity in the film's associational play of subject matters and truly inspirational stunt casting, what is feeding into this scenario is the multiplicity of Godard's creative preoccupations at the time: Godard creating associations with himself.  Prior to cutting the deal with Menahem Golan for King Lear, he was indebted to a brief creative relationship with Francis Ford Coppola and Tom Luddy at Zoetrope Studios, winding down from his Dziga Vertov Group and essay film/agitprop phase with the plans to return to the idea of the "feature film," in turn proposing a Hollywood project about Bugsy Siegel entitled The StoryThe Story, which was reportedly to be about a filmmaker's inability to make a movie about Bugsy Siegel, the legendary mobster who created Las Vegas, is itself being adapted in King Lear, a film about power and virtue, art and commerce, the act of adaptation and artistic sabotage, all of it associationally come together subsequent to the death of his mobster film.

That his allusions within King Lear of the story of Bugsy Siegel and the provenance of Las Vegas comes from his own behind-the-scenes contract roundelay may seem precious at first, but this cannibalization of his previous American project into his current American project proves to be the most appropriate way to dissect his fascination with the story of Siegel's commercial ascendancy.  It puts into further relief the struggle of adaptation and the strength of Godard's voluminous association: the nobility of a Shakespeare adaptation is the vessel in which to explore the contrast between art and virtue, embodied by Shakespeare and Cordelia, and business and commercialism, embodied in Bugsy Siegel, Lear/Learo, Burgess Meredith's domineering faux-mobster father figure, and the very parochial system of feature filmmaking itself.  Godard's wish to free himself from the latter is the basis of his associations. 

Meredith's dictation to Ringwald's Cordelia - neurotic, amended, dense with personal intimations - is the perfect manifestation of the drama of power at the center of King Lear.  The layers of reality between performance, literature, history, and retelling is a blurring of it,  blurring that makes its way into the more experimental and associative of Tobe Hooper's work.  Reality and story find a special layering in the superstitious heart of Djinn.

It should read, "All of these..."

Legend and myth (the former based in reality, the latter not necessarily) cross here in King Lear, Siegel and the film's mob Lear, "Learo," compounded into the same universe.  Truth and fiction vie for superiority, meanwhile Siegel's empire is spoken with the quality of myth.

"El Dorado of the sea" may as well be one of Hooper's forbidden houses.

That should read, "... in its gigantic maw,"

Meredith's addlepated, dissipated gangster, beyond all logic, dictates the endgame of his kind ("isolated men...") through Godard's poet's view.  "The system swallows up the gangsters," as does the funhouse to the mutant, the inbreeds to the Texas big rigs, the aristocrat to his own perverse lineage.

 That should read, "I find I'm alone, felicitate, in your dear highness's love."

The dilemma of the failure of communication.  This is a theme that makes up Hooper's Spontaneous Combustion, which is Hooper's own King Lear adaptation.  (Power and business of an English kingdom is divested in Lear.  The father figure's divestment of a half-century old experiment and his atomic power empire makes up the drama of Spontaneous Combustion.)

The drama is made purely out of associations in these two most free and inquisitive of adaptations.  The associational allows for a drama made of scenarios, verging on sketches.  The "nothing"/"no thing" from which they build presupposes it.  Characters take on symbolic attitudes.  The works of Hooper and Godard both tend to take on blossoming meanings.

Repeated twice in King Lear is a single statement about art in the "post-Chernobyl" world.  It is the film's definitive anchoring point, its clarion call.

"I don't know if I made this clear before, but this was after Chernobyl.  We are in a time when movies, and, more generally, art, have been lost, do not exist, and must somehow be reinvented."

And there we go, we have Hooper's mission statement.

Power and Virtue.  Virtue Versus Power.  Permutations often play a greater role in the associational work, or the Hooper film.  How many times does Sally jump out a window?  Also: the flashbacks that permeate Lifeforce.  The structural peculiarities of a Hooper film are beyond the margin.

Against this fabulous sequence of Molly Ringwald's Cordelia looking through pictures of Fuseli, I can say I am glad Hooper has no scene to his credit of a character flipping through illustrated pages of a book as the images flash via expressive montage across his or her subconscious.  He may have come close in Toolbox MurdersJaws's brief encapsulation of cold scientific technicality is some standard pop psychology, while Godard connects the page with the bodily, the very processes of the mind and seeing.  Later, he will show a hand on top a copying machine, like some fusion of x-ray and printing press: our selves and our bodily processes exposed, bared before all, by an invasive sort of body scan and the dissemination of the image.

Light and, in relation, the image, is a topic of King Lear.  Shakespeare's writing is supplanted by the film medium, and a sort of friendly competition between them runs through the film, Godard's "image" over "words" being used to define life.  But it's not life, Godard says, it is "only an image."

The free and untethered creation of images is the only path to the associational.  The image cannot be bound by either story or life.

 "The image is the pure creation of the soul."
 "It cannot be born of a comparison."
"But of the reconciliation of two realities."

That should read, "that are more or less far apart."

"The more the connection between these two realities are distant..."

The statement should read: "The more the connections between these two realities are distant and true, the stronger they needed to be."

As I said about the associative work, it is less a comparison between similar things, or the absorption of one thing into another, but the connecting between two entirely separate things.  "The more the two realities are distant, the stronger the connections can be."

Light and cinema, or light and image, are, of course, intertwined, and presented as such by Godard.  Whether a light bulb being played with to cast shadows on toys or a sparkler being slid inside the light-bouncing confines of a shoebox, Godard makes material light the way Hooper often does.

 "Two realities that have no connection..."
"... cannot be drawn together usefully."

"There is no creation of an image."

There certainly is a connection between the two realities of the razed stone abodes of old Ras al-Kaimah and the luxury unit that now stand in its place, so Hooper attests by his conjoining of the two realities, and so an image is created.  Worlds and times apart, but brought together in association.

That should read, "An image is not strong because it is brutal."

  "... or fantastic."

That should read: "But because the association of ideas is distant and true."

"But because the association of ideas is distant and true."

"The result that is obtained immediately..."

 That should read, "... controls the truth of the association."

 That should read, "Analogy is the medium of creation."

It should read, "It takes the resemblance of connections."

 "The power or virtue of the created image..."
  "... depends on the nature of these connections."   

Hooper's connections prove quite useful and true.

 "What is great is not the image..."
"... but the emotions it provokes."
"The emotion thus provoked is true..."

 "... because it is born outside of all imitation."
"All evocation.  And all resemblance."

In all this theory of the image, what we need is a simple recapitulation, or reinstatement, of the straightforward.  King Lear repeats it a third time, like a rallying call:

What is this a world of?  No art.  What do we need?  Complete and total reinvention.  Tobe Hooper is one of the filmmakers who understands this.

Finally, we can return back to the beginning, when POWER and VIRTUE first flashed across our screen, and Shakespeare's descendent laid out his mission to us.  "So, by special engagement with them [The Cannon Cultural Division] and the Royal Library of Her Majesty the Queen, I was engaged."  And so are we, in special pursuit of art and the image, in an age of Chernobyl and no-art, no-connection.

"My task: to recapture what had been lost."  And so, out of the thicket and into the clearing.  Out of the brush and into a world of adventurous and daring art.

To come: Hooper and Hitchcock, Hooper versus Olivier