Spielberg does not compose images... not in the way Hooper does. Spielberg excels at the dramatic, the pop image and the action image (not in the Deleuzian sense... probably). It's no disconnect that he cut his teeth on the sets of dramatic television at the height of its classical period, lending episodes of Night Gallery and Columbo his incredible savant eye whilst propelling the tradition of dramatically and psychologically-attuned camera work, melding the classical aptitude of Preminger and Mackendrick and Lumet with his soon-to-be realized interest in spectacular image-making, largely as part of the high-thrills action tale.
Hooper, on the other hand, is less attuned to dramatic emphasis and the keenness of image-making (let's call this his documentarist instinct). He composes images, like Spielberg composes images... but is much more propended toward atmosphere (which hovers at a noumenal level over the dramatic image), toward ideas and a mimetic relationship to the real rather than the pure images and a relationship to realism-cum-cinema. Hooper's filmmaking, thus, is invariably more severe, more demanding of emotional separation. It is the ideated image, or the atmospheric idea, which, suggested in the label itself, upends the dramatic idea in order to form in the air - the atmosphere - itself, always at a disconnect with the dramatic or psychological in order to become something more inanimate: like a metaphor or idea, instead of an appeal, an authorial motion (towards an effect). This "disconnect" and "inanimateness" works in an odd way, stripping much of the pop sublimity one finds in a Spielberg film or a Preminger film, but treating on the image a much greater capacity for outside analysis, for a documentarian's inexactitude, for finding reality's indeterminacy (and thus reality itself) in an inert piece of ideated art.
This disconnect lies at the center of the first image of this post, which does not psychologize young Robbie but views him as an object. This does not make Hooper an inhumane filmmaker, or an impersonal filmmaker, or a thoughtless filmmaker (there is thought behind even the [non-alive] idea), but one who finds his sense of empathy not by inhabiting a character but simply by observing them. Hooper of Poltergeist (and later of Djinn) is the most [neo-]neo-realist filmmaker in Hollywood, these ghost stories somehow embodying this disconnect between an ethnographic reality, which Hooper honors through his composing of inanimate images, and the invisible realm of the supernatural (or the noumenal, the pretense of the atmosphere that must be ideated), thus the concerted sense of ethnography that seems to run through these two pictures, albeit of two vastly different subsets (most importantly, besides geographic, one childish [Poltergeist], the other consumingly adult [Djinn]). In other words, the best way to study the impinging of the supernatural on our world is by being as "neorealist," as unimpinging on reality, as possible. The images he composes effectively work to inanimate the film. In disconnecting the dramatic and psychological aspect of framing, there is no longer a separation between the real world (in which there is no framing, no keen image-making) and the film. The idea of the supernatural thus reaches an uncanny apex. This is his ideation, his motivation to pure atmosphere.
Hooper "composes" this following image with no sense of dramatic narrative continuity, that's why it seems to go on much longer than is necessary: a medium-speed dolly shot into a close-up of Robbie, asphyxiated by childhood fear, motivating and motivated by nothing. What shot of Elliott in E.T. really compares, in its needlessness and its inanimate analysis?
These shots are unspectacular (though I cannot say those spatial relationship-delineating shots of the clown below are not terrifying, at least in first viewing), but Hooper has room for the unspectacular shot in his constructions, especially when cornered into a place of pure narrative service, as is likely the case here. Spielberg, meanwhile, is constantly trying to create an "image," often betraying his lack of investment in reality (in relationship to cinema) in the process. His clown sequence would have surely been more baroque (yes, I did call Hooper the more baroque artist earlier), the more adorned. Although there is not a great deal here to append to the larger conversation about noumenon and ideated atmosphere in this droll and childish episode with the clown doll, effectively communicated is the droll and childish narrative of any child's uncanny valley nightmare.
Robbie: *firing sound*
The film shock-cuts to a close-up of the clown, then cuts to another, more extreme close-up of the clown. I like to entertain the idea of Hooper's rough cut having no such inclination to milk the moment for all its worth. Invaders from Mars includes no such frivolity, despite having a make-up much like Poltergeist. There is also such a thing, though, as "When the time and tide calls for...", or "When in Rome," and Poltergeist is its own beast, of which Hooper, an intelligent and pragmatic maker of films, is surely aware, surely not begrudging Spielberg and Michael Kahn (if my hypothetical is to be assumed true) for making this moment as effective and pleasurable as it can be for an audience ready to be given the heebie jeebies - in an enlightened way.
In the shot below, a nonsensical wind blows through the clown's hair. I'd like to think this is Hooper and his spacious room for the nonsensical, rhetorical flourish (this is pretty much the entire game-play of the whole of The Mangler). The movies are both a place of seriousness and a place of play, and no dreary fact of shuttered windows can stop him from blowing a fan in the toy's face for a particularly representational glamor shot. "Are you ready for my close-up, Mr. Hooper?" one can say of this shot, but instead of Vaseline on the lens, we have an arch exacerbation of a child's fears.
The childish bombast of Robbie's "night terrors" sequence is truncated in order for us to be dropped back into the meandering adult stonerisms of Steven and Diane's bedroom. We last left them making ridiculous, real-time noises (Craig T. Williams doing impressions of water, as well as a weight-loss ad; JoBeth Williams's un-mother-like snickering) and we return to them in a similarly non-verbal state: the adult, leisure class homo sapien in their natural habitat. It's often counter-intuitive, but Hooper is as much interested in his creation of characters, of performances, as he is interested in the visual side of things. His naturalism isn't a simulated naturalism - that is to say, at least that's how he wants his films construed - and it is apparent through his sense of scene-creation and performance-directing. Again, Hooper has room for the unspectacular - and thus partly "documentative" - shot (Hooper's "ethnography"), although this elevated angle of JoBeth Williams in a diagonal exchange with her recumbent and presently gargoyle-like (by way of Daffy Duck) husband is an exquisite contrast to the perspective soon picked up when Robbie enters the scene.
"Storm's coming closer..."
It is an exquisite cinematic dialectics - of framing and contrastive frames - at play: long to wide lensing, angled to non-angled, mixed perspectives we're not entirely too sure of (the angle on Steven and Diane could be something of a POV from Robbie's stance, but rather it is more like an uneasy intermingling of the child's POV with the visual decadence he is not a part of, for we the viewers are with the parents while we are wide and distant from Robbie; we cannot, however, say that the shot of Robbie is anything approximating the POV of the parents).
Steven: "Hey, partner."
Diane: "Hey honey."
Diane: "Is everything okay?"
Let's not ignore the fact Diane goes in for one last toke before putting the joint out. There is a space for parents, somewhere within their brains, still independent from the responsibility of parenthood, a fact which will go to pot for the rest of the film, but that fact being something I have no problem with. Poltergeist, probably thanks to Hooper, presents a portrait of a section of life with observational spaciousness, putting us along no path of romantic formula, and it thus can go from a depiction of the homo sapiens in their natural habitat to a directed tale of those same homo sapiens fighting heroically to preserve the family without a true discrepancy in the realist portrait, due to the many little things involved in Hooper's least fascistic impulses. Poltergeist, after all, in the end, is about a family persevering, but not for the sake of uplift: rather, for facing a chaotic world of cultural and social baggage that leaves them as displaced as the ghosts that served up their reckoning.
The disembodied, wide perspective of Robbie cements itself as a divorced perspective, essentially morphing, through a pan, into the wide shot that joins Robbie with his parents. This strange, exquisite grammar is further propped up by the use of a lamp that ends up in foreground, strangely draped with one of Steve's shirts, as if to further denote the parents' adult imperfections.
Steven: "Come on, hop up."
Hooper's camera simply pans (Diane, inactive, fazed out), Hooper's discourse is in cinematographic banalities, his dialectic in the multivariant tones cinema can offer.
"I'm the wind..."
"... and you're - the feather!"
Steven: "Say goodnight to mom."
Robbie: "Goodnight, mom."
Diane (OS): "Goodnight, sweetheart."
A distant shot from inside the children's bedroom watches Steven carry Robbie in, then pans along with them to the boy's bed.
The father and son and their "collision" into his bed is objectified with this shot that faces the window currently in discussion, beginning a series of shots concerned with spatial relationship to the window.
"I don't like the tree, Dad!"
Steven: "That's an old tree... it's been around here a long time. It was here before my company built the neighborhood."
Robbie: "I don't like its arms... It knows I live here, doesn't it?"
Steven: "It knows everything about us, Rob, that's why I built the house next to it, so it could protect us."
(OS) "You, and Carol Anne, and Dana, and your mom and me."
Steven: "It's a very wise old tree."
Robbie: "It looks at me. It knows I live here."
Robbie: "How do you know?"
Steven: "'Cause I can count."
"You know what you do?"
"When you see the lightning, you count 'til you see the thunder. If you can count higher each time, that means the storms moving away from us."
Steven: "Wanna try it?"
This shot above reveals itself a very purposeful shot aesthetically, one of directionality and an angular off-screen suggestion, the window the third point (in a diagonal) just outside the frame. A pointed rack focus as Steven arches to face it essentially serves as suggestion for its elided, but explicit, unquestioned, presence.
Okay... one... two... three..."
"Okay, but I bet next time, you'll be able to count to at least four or five."
"Daddy, it's for you."
"Now you tell him to take a message, sweet pea."
"Dad wants to take a message."
Carol Anne: "It's too hot!"
"Goodnight, angel. Happy dreams, OK?"
Carol Anne: "Goodnight, Daddy!"
An elaborate shot of careful composition occurs next, below: Steven in florid motion in the foreground, donning his robe (in exquisite action-relationship to the previous shot), kept in soft focus while Robbie, in his bed, is sharp, the focus only shifting once Steven has exited the room and begins closing the door. This is all orchestrated in addition of a dolly backwards of the camera, as he exits, all leading to the inclusion of the frame of the door in the shot. This careful, visually mellifluous rendering of interiors, doted over with butter-smooth playing of focus and depth, is revived in remarkable ways in Djinn, his other ghost film, although it is also of marked importance in the likes of Invaders from Mars. This shot is a mirror of Diane's own exit from her children's bedroom, a potent structural repetition within this first quarter of a mundane domestic study.
Dana (OS): "I did not!"
Dana (OS): "Come on!"
Steven: "Goodnight, Dana."
Dana: "Goodnight, Dad..."
Steven: "Get off the phone, Dana."
Dana: "Okay, Dad..."
Robbie: "One... two..."
Carol Anne: "Three... four..."
(Thunder crashes loudly.)
(I guess there was only time to shoot one Tree FX shot, I suppose. Or it was deemed overkill to have two Mechanical Tree scares, which is actually astute.)
Here we go again: a separation from the dramatic and psychological apparatus of the camera, and a totally and completely narrative-halting drop into the completely formal. A Hooperian concept shot, devoted to idea and an atmosphere suggesting both the supernatural and the theatrical...
A contorting, slow, picturesque pull-out on the family in an indelible image of repose, Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter for the horror-fantasy set.
It's not just a pull-out, but a complete, moment-to-moment recomposing of the image elements within the frame through Hooper's snaky but fully controlled camera path.
... the supernatural is hinted by the ghostly POV perceiving the family from above, the theatricality in how the shot is ultimately far less a ghost's POV than one might initially think, instead rendering the room as simply flat, objectified space from the camera proscenium. It then, further, leaves the mechanical proscenium in order to become ghostly again with a "movement-symmetrical," parallel camera crawl back down and towards the television set. This shot plays out over slightly over a minute, which is an inordinate amount of time for a mainstream film ASL, and a shot where little to nothing is happening.
At its widest, it resembles a shot of a stage, the entire expanse of the room in audience view. This, rather than a ghostly POV, is further cemented by the return to a similar wide shot later on to take in the supernatural earthquake that occurs, Hooper deciding on a fusion of "theatrical" and "objective" to depict a supernatural event.
Again, the television image of the Iwo Jima statue is an unsettling suggestion of numerous things: a sickly congealing of bodies, such as the separate-but-one entities that inhabit the Freelings' household, the facelessness of our dead representatives, shadow figures and politicized specters of loss... more politically speaking, the hive-mind, the Mass Ornament, individuals perceived as one to promote the fascism of those cultural and social forces that demand our conformity, lest we escape and evade the sad fate of becoming our own future poltergeists.
I mentioned earlier the "woolliness" of Poltergeist, in companionship with The Funhouse and other Hooper films as opposed to Spielberg's utmost precision, or "keenness" of visuals. This sequence is made up of images that are, yes, "composed," and framed with deliberateness (we've got some POVs going on here, Carol Anne's and the TV's), but there is still a raggedness that seems to fall short of Spielberg's intent image-making. The images of Poltergeist lack the affect, the emphasis, and the romantic qualities of a Spielberg sequence. This sequence seems to me all Hooper, not asking for too much, depending on grammar over graphics.
These are indelible images, though, no doubt. A narrowing of perspective between Carol Anne and the TV eventually builds up to the shot-reverse shot culminating in her reaching out to touch the screen.
(The room begins to shake violently.)
Goldsmith's (brilliant) score is really working overtime here, switching stealthily from the cacophonous brass of his terror suite over to the chiming lullaby in order to usher in Carol Anne's immortal line with the appropriate playful creepiness. This massaging of tone and affect is definitely the sign of Spielberg making sure the mainstream, crowd-pleasing, and attention-holding blockbuster he set out to make is realized... but a producer often massages films to their liking, and a director remains the builder of the ground-floor components of the film.
Such action montage, though, with the introduction of the pool installers through close-ups of a shoe, an arm, etc. - is this precedented for Hooper? It is a cinematic trope not instinctual to Hooper at all, and we see one reason here a Spielberg script is such a heavy boot to crawl out from under.
One cannot say Hooper doesn't respond, though, to the images he created from the scripted text, and while it would be hard to find much freedom in the close-up shot of a boot, he seems to have found more room for painting with his personal brush the following shot of the tractor outside the window, a shot beginning stationary but then slowly withdrawing in another snaky Hooperian curve.
(OS) "Now listen to me, Jeff... no no, no no..."
Hooper's musicality with the edges of the frame isn't quite unheard of from other directors, but no one matches the sense of timing and the sense of surprise that one finds in Hooper's choreographing of the movements within his frames. Steven swiftly swings himself into the frame, as the camera continues its slow withdrawing, even his speech idiosyncratically timed to his appearance on the screen.
Steven: "... I'm not kidding!'
"I know, how could anyone sleep..."
"... during a 6.5."
"There was damage, yeah... the bedroom."
"I mean, there's stuff in pieces, all over."
Robbie: "Force field!"
Robbie: "Got my nose."
A camera crawl past the TV. This will become an important part of the larger scenic framework to be gradually revealed as the scene progresses, the deliberate and gradual revelation of internal structures being one of Hooper's greatest artistic instincts.
Robbie: "You're a big barf bag!"
Carol Anne: "You're a doggie bag!"
Diane: "Sweetheart... last night, when you said, "They're here"?
Carol Anne: "Can I take my goldfish to school?"
Dana: "You know, maybe the fault line runs just directly under our house. Wouldn't that be a scream?"
Diane: "(inaudible disagreeable reply)"
Robbie: "The ceiling got crumbs all over my bed!"
Diane: "Sweetie. Remember, last night? Do you remember when you woke and you said, 'They're here'?"
Carol Anne: "Uh huh..."
"The TV people."
Robbie (OS): "She's stoned!"
Dana (OS): "Oh yeah, what do you know about it?"
Robbie: "More than you! Ask Dad!"
- "Ask Dad!"
- "Ask Dad!"
Diane: "All right..."
"... give me this..."
Robbie: "It's not my fault!"
Diane: "... before you cut yourself."
The earlier shot of the push-in past the kitchen TV is paid off here. We return to the same image, but this time it purposefully draws Carol Anne out from her seat, catching her running to sit herself in front of the small TV:
Musicality and timing is the calling card of Hooper: Craig T. Nelson emerges into the shot from his previously demarcated position in the anterior half of the kitchen, which was previously kept completely separate (visually) from the posterior half of the kitchen that has housed his wife and children. The two spaces suddenly combine in a construction of evolving shot morphology that has direct correlates in moments I can recall, off the top of my head, from The Funhouse and Night Terrors.
Steven (patting Carol Anne): "Bye Sweet Pea."
Steven: "I'm outta here."
Diane: "Bye, honey."
Robbie: "I'm outta here!"
Diane: (to Robbie) "Uh-uh! You I can handle."
Robbie: "I got school."
Diane: "Yeah, well, breakfast first."
Robbie: "Alright, I'll just flunk."
The morphology of this shot reveals incredibly a third foot, individual from the first two functions it has revealed (the continuations of the previous ideas: the view of the kitchen table scene from behind the TV, then its joining of the spaces, through this shot, between Diane/the Kitchen Table and Steven/Kitchen sink cranny). Now, the shot has formed a new appendage, forgetting about what is before and behind it and tracking in rightwards towards Carol Anne and the TV (after Steven has left the scene - removing one element of direction - and all whilst Diane and Robbie have their little exchange, creating a polyphony of narrative layers and perspectival contrast within the camera).
This whole morning kitchen scene I find one continuous rolling display of Hooper's great, rigorous, and musical instincts. It is, moment after moment, a fabulous series of the most controlled and precise camera movements and plays with perspective. As Dana walks her bike to go to school, she passes both the leering construction men and the great V-shaped nook of the kitchen below bayed windows looking out. From action that was begun outside, Hooper picks up the action from inside with a musical camera pulling out from the tableau of a mother's watchfulness. Her back is to us, her face not revealed, a sublime instinct to musicalize an objectivity of reality, not to spell or wring out emotions for us.
Interestingly, Dana's supremely crowd-pleasing show of defiance is not in Spielberg's script, although such a placatory and gratifying bit of levity (as opposed to the uneasy thread it would be if Dana just walked away like in the script) seems like something Spielberg would have inserted, while Hooper would be more inclined to accept the implications of sexual darkness occurring in reality. Whether it was Hooper or Spielberg who decided to revise the scene, it is probably the best option, a work of elevated family entertainment best represented by promoting the demystification of bad behavior and a teenager's spunk. Or, like before, "when in Rome," and Hooper does not necessarily revel in negativity as much as other filmmakers do.
The stream of distinctly Hooperian cinematic rhetoric continues with the use of the established window shot of Diane to segue seamlessly into the next scripted matter-at-hand - the dog E. Buzz climbing on the kitchen table and Diane shooing him away - through the use of one of Hooper's offbeat destabilizations of perspective, mood, and viewer orientation.
Diane: (suddenly) "NO!"
Diane turns, smiling, but in a second's notice, she bellows out a reprimand, seemingly unprovoked. Without showing us what she looks at, Diane's sudden reaction to something unknown to us is a perfect and ingenious orchestration of the minds and sensibilities of the audience, one that goes beyond even Hitchcockian precision and enters a realm of Hooperian discourse.
One can also call this a trademark Hooperian "false scare," family to the rhetorical, self-reflexive scares that populate Salem's Lot and The Funhouse. These scares bring attention to cinema as a representation of real-life environments that can be manipulated - and thus, made metaphorical, representational - through the rigorousness of cinematic tools of framing and tone.
Diane enters this shot from the edge of the frame, the same way Steven entered it earlier on. The suburban household, so says Hooper, is a place of quotidian repetitions and unalterable materialism, in which the objects and artifacts that make up the space are a constant comment on our lives and psychologies. This modus operandi of a visual-cinematic art is, it must be proclaimed to the cinema world, revived and revitalized with new purpose in, again, Hooper's latest work Djinn.
Diane: "No-no, get down."
Diane: "Carol Anne, I told you guys to push your chairs in when you get done at the table."
"Oh honey, you're going to ruin your eyes, this is not good for you."
(*War movie sounds*)
Again we stay at a distance, before another threshold. The camera delicately adjusts focus between Diane in the foreground and the distance she traverses.
"What's the matter, E. Buzz?"
Hooper's observational but also fluid, sumptuous visual style consistently perceives its characters as figures separated from the camera, allowing the camera to constantly work with activated characters moving and repositioning themselves within the mise en scene in precise ways.
Diane: "What are you doing?"
This segment with "Pugsley" (Lou Perryman) announces the start of the famous moment involving the stacking chairs.
Again, the way characters enter the frame is given surprising, intricate blocking and choreographic precision, something which is seen everywhere in Hooper's films, notably a dancing couple in Spontaneous Combustion which is essentially "remade" in a shot in Djinn.
Diane: (sarcastic) "How is it?"
Pugsley: "Great, Mrs. Freeling!"
Diane: "Okay, Bluto, give me my cup."
(I've always thought that "Bluto" was a bit rarefied of a reference to direct at the pool guy.)
Pugsley: "You sure make good coffee!"
An off-kilter dolly-in movement into Diane as she turns around...
... ends with her off-center, so as to accommodate her movement forward, between frames, again to connect the two spaces of the kitchen which have yet remained unconnected - and will further remain until a later scene... that is, outside of the one single pan that will constitute the famous chair stack trick shot - essentially the climax of this "household morning" sequence.
There is only sustained silence as she stares at the disturbed table set and a small hand softly reaches up into the frame.
I'd like to call this a quintessential Hooper "non-scare," or "rhetorical scare," our second one in this short sequence, Carol Anne's hand creeping into the frame with not more than an ado.
Diane: "Jesus, oh, don't do that, honey!"
Diane: "Do you want to see mommy..."
"... lying in a cigar box covered with licorice."
Carol Anne: "Uh-uh."
Diane: "Did you do this?"
Carol Anne: "Uh-uh."
Diane: "You guys... I asked you not to pull the chairs out."
I know, don't deny it, the moment you've all been waiting for.
Hooper remembers the shooting of it and the dailies sounding "like a stampede of buffalo" (or something to that effect), the trick achieved simply by having crew quickly erect the preassembled pyramid on the table as the camera has panned away with Diane. A practical bit of sleight of hand, of trickery through misdirection - surely a pleasure to witness for Hooper, magic and the profession of prestidigitation being one of his early fixations as a child.
Diane: "TV people?"
Diane: "Do you see them?"
Carol Anne: "Do you?"
(The dissolve was definitely the way to go, as opposed to the jump cut envisaged in the script.)
Steven: "I tell ya, I think you're gonna really enjoy this kitchen. This is our latest development. We call it Phase 4."
A Hooper oner...
... made up of a constant, slow, curving and rightward crawl...
Woman: "Where do you live, Mr. Freeling?"
Steven: "Actually, we were the first family to set up housekeeping in the Cuesta Verde estates."
Man: "Oh, Phase 1!"
... the room viewed through the lens as a bubble-like enclosure, achieved by a wide-angle lens and a camera placed low...
Steven: "Yeah, we had to pass by my neighborhood to get to here this morning."
Woman: "Oh, that area with the lived-in look!"
Steven: "Yeah, it has that, but I think in a couple of months, you're not going to be able to distinguish Phase 1 to Phase 3... to..."
The blocking brings the characters up closer to the camera once. The camera adjusts but continues its crawling rightward motion.
"... You know, we have a saying around here. 'The grass grows greener... on every side.'"
(They all laugh.)
Steven: (almost sardonically) "Yeah, that's the way I feel about it..."
Man: "Honey, I can't tell one house from the other."
The blocking brings the characters closer to the camera, now twice (the camera finally stops crawling). The dialogue is finely blocked out and sectioned between the characters' movements forward, expertly shaping the scene and adding shades to Steven's character, who is already showing the cracks in his belief in what he sells, but who nevertheless commands this couple's attention the same way he does the adjustments of the frame.
Steven: "Well, you know something, I think you're right. But I think our construction standards are really very liberal."
Steven (VO): "... And that house was featured in last months issue of Time & Country... Come on, I'll show you the den..."
Diane: "Honey, come here, quick!"
Diane: "Hurry, before it stops again!"
Steven: "But the cans---"
I'll return to this shot in our next installment, for it perfectly encapsulates Hooper's elegant distanciation instincts, his painterly sense of image composure (utilizing objects, in careful arragements), and his conceptions of space, unraveling architectural interiors with precise and off-kilter framing.