Thursday, June 11, 2015

THAS: 'Djinn' 1

Joining in harmony the many filmmakers who are given the chance to develop "late-period" work, dispelled of the early brio to burst upon the scene with more easily categorizable (or unorthodox, but at least self-categorizable) work, there is a certain synthesization that occurs in the elder statesman's output, freed from the desire for grandiose productions, instead allowed to focus their energies on realizing their most inherent concerns and formal curiosities through stories and means stripped of exteriorized expectations and pared down to their bare essentials.  Djinn, for Hooper, presents an absurd reduction of his pet concerns and conceptions in the same way Rossellini's late output boiled down his interest in historical analysis (through baroque frameworks), or Oliveira his interest in historical perspective through structural frameworks.  Cronenberg, last year, provided with Maps to the Stars the clearest reduction of his recurring visitation of matters concerned with the intersection between humans' baser impulses and simultaneous spiritual and intellectual transcendence (recurring and ever-delineating, his being in his own, quite impressive elder phase of critical self-actualization and rare degree of success, finding respect and funding through increasingly lauded "intellectual" works, a feat of meritocracy not even the ever-highfaluting Coppola could achieve): in Maps, he shines a light on the industry he is currently a part of, finding it the ne plus ultra of human transmogrification, with no science fiction or biotechnology needed - just a different kind of fantasy, involving some Fresnel lights and this gauche, everyday realm already in his backyard (to elaborate further on the refreshing and excellent Maps to the Stars, Hollywood mutation proves another innately political act of transformation that encompasses both the rises and the falls, positing the entertainment world as explicitly radical and revolutionary - considering that we are able to hold a mirror to its incestuous myth-making and somehow find "liberté" within fate, Hollywood fate both insipid and transcendental, monstrous and ineffably human).  Maps to the Stars seemed to me the truest Cronenberg film in years, as it does not work within any genre boundaries but simply teases his neurotic themes through an ever-flattening absurdity, and, in that way, it directly recalls the late-Hooper Djinn - absurd, minimalist, and profound in its own right.  The works of Alain Resnais also grew ever more conceptual and fantastic as he entered the digital video age, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa, in the midst of his digital transformation, is also a filmmaker of reinvention, experimentation always a foremost concern even in his forthrightly genre work, entering his later stage with a branching out into films (often absurd) of pure form and light (Kurosawa hasn't made a shadowy film since Pulse).

Djinn is the dissoluble remains left behind from the evaporation of Hooper's expansive career experimenting with distanciation, expressionism, sentimentalism, theatricality, irony and impressionism.  It is alternatively at one - that is, soluble - with Hooper's varied attempts in cinematic exploration, yet also, when separated, totally and materially unique, the result of the distillation of Hooper's richly aqueous career.  All commercial moisture is drained and what is left is the particles of his most undiluted eccentricities and experimental impulses.  Even Spielberg embraced a theatrical minimalism with Lincoln (before reverting with a purer form of Ford idolatry in War Horse), although Spielberg does not so much "pare down" as he does "grab unduly for the hearts of the populace," barely finding himself were it not for himself being the heart of the industry (of myth-making) itself.  Spielberg creates Fordian myth, full of archetypes; Djinn is perhaps the closest honoring of the fairy tale the cinema has achieved - strange, inexact and free of the formulaic modifications of mythological/commercial packaging, instead allowing a sense of mundane reality to be warped by the uneasy lessons of fantastic circumstances, allowing its moderately-budgeted production to be carrier of a small-scale dramatic storyline curious about the topics of relationships, culture, cultural placement, superstition, and modernity.

Djinn's images I find incredibly comforting.  DP Joel Ransom's RED One cinematography is flat and almost documentary-like, and, as utilized by Hooper and screenwriter David Tully's tale of denizens of the modern GCC, suggests the fairy tale's capacity for dropping everyday figureheads into the harsher realms of storytelling.  What is cinematic about Djinn is in its ideas, not its images and any sort of industrialized sense of photography, whether Cronenberg's digital poise or Spielberg's traditionalist beauty.  Djinn is sandblasted (desert pun not intended) of cinema, without detriment to it as the film is incredibly striking as a visual piece regardless.  It has no tradition in cinema, all the better to present a modern fairy tale and the old world Ras al-Khaimah that slowly infiltrates the modern seaside highrise of the film.

It's a fascinating addition to Hooper's interest in stories of modern versus old traditions, in cultural states of flux that impinge on each other, a thematic lineage seen through Texas Chain Saw Massacre (and Eggshells) to Lifeforce and Night Terrors (films in which sexual cultures both arrest and propel spiritual or moral progress, and in which geographic-cultural boundaries are very specifically placed).  Like Texas Chainsaw Massacre's Sawyer clan expanding into 80s capitalism for its sequel, here the djinn have passive-aggressively expanded their domain into modern real estate, both representing it and subverting it (just like the Sawyers), both welcoming and damning the materialist humans who have claimed their mastery over such matters of modern life.  Djinn, within its non-pedantic bones, is about modernity and the anti-compromise with modern humans' questionable trajectories, here on a remarkably relevant scale of global purview (integral to question the film its vagaries: why does the film's heroine Salama commit the pivotal crime she does?  What is the true focus of the djinn's cruel manipulations?  Is not globalization an inherent part of modern development?  All this simply connects back to the clash between the husband and the wife, a localizing of East versus West concerns, and the djinn's aggressions are explicitly a reaction against these diverse but interrelated syndromes of a modern world).

The opening portion of Djinn (its main passage, that is, past the prologue with the American backpacker) is pure rituals of family.  Djinn's family is one of the most remarkable I've seen in a film personally, Hooper's representation a sweet and ever-so-slightly ironical concentration of all the unreality of family.


There is something I find terribly unimaginative about editor Andrew Cohen's work for Hooper.  The above scene is terribly curt.  I am not saying he is a bad editor, nor not a talented one, but that his editing rarely goes above and beyond in sculpting any of the works he has done with Hooper beyond Hooper's rather plain directorial frameworks, in taking control of scenes, stretching them to their potential, whilst they are often marred by images and feelings not left lasting enough, or by unfortunate over-cutting.  But going along with the fact that he is no Thelma Schoonmaker is the fact that Hooper is no Scorsese, either.  They have complimented each other well, Toolbox Murders being filled with a number of expert moments of beautiful fluidity, Dance of the Dead harnessing the expertise of Cohen's fast editing put to exquisite and melodic use, and, in Djinn, it's to not get in the way of Hooper's "project of normality," of cinema without cinema's grandeur or mystery.  Djinn is plain and grounded, its montage unshackled to a certain level of freedom, a resistance to any dogmatism of the image, cinema less of cinema but with ideas and reality placed in the forefront.  Genre cinema is proven it can be something else.

A fascinating dichotomy is instantly created by the introduction of, not one, but two religious talismans gifted to Salama by her superstitious mother.  One wards off envy, the other evil - the film once again complicates the matter of what the threat is, of what complex ideas and emotions really endanger this couple.

The Mother of Mother-Bitch shots, 
and that is completely complimentary.  She is awesome.  

The parents are cunningly utilized to steal the show early in the film, their quips and humor resounding in the dual purposes of levity and simultaneous characterization: they are old-fashioned patriarchy and matriarchy as vaudeville tokens, the family clearly serving as the two protagonists' first encounter upon arrival with the successive slidings of the old versus the new.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2/Stretch shot.  "Inwardly-rebelling gal faces down a hallway" shot.

Scene from Eaten Alive #2 / Eaten Alive 3


 A Scene from Eaten Alive (1977)
DP: Robert Caramico

A scene of perceptible artistry lies imperceptibly underneath Eaten Alive's ostensible exterior of haste.  With the bar scene in Eaten Alive, something rare occurs in the exploitation movie annals, a scene of care and actual artistic reflection is present in a B-movie production, and a sort of "high-end" infiltration happens in which narrative is endowed with the sense of an art piece, privileged with higher meaning through deliberate and profound craft.

A scene of both textured, balletic sound design and balletic choreography of moral characters.  Hooper's cinema is at large gravely moral, and this scene stands as one of his most outwardly demonstrative a confessional of the world.  Buck (Robert Englund), a previously introduced character, enters the frame, orders "Dos!"  Most importantly, though, are the two townie bit players who ramble off deplorable attitudes, offering the film's sense of moral viewpoint through counterexample. 

The Southern boys' conversation carries over even as it leaves them, words empty of content but full of contempt: "Show them old boys what it's all about."  Hooperian composition is in prime form here, the pan over with Libby and Sheriff Martin pulling out and eventually gliding across Buck's reentry, part of the billiards-playing group.  A hanging pool table lamp is used as one of Hooper's elegant foreground elements, always important in his visual rendering of decorated sets and the perspective-creating around human drama within enclosed spaces he so often emphasizes.  More than intimate drama, though, here he creates an entire worldly microcosm: separated, antagonistic, and conflict-riddled.

One of the Southern boys replies to his companion's bluster, their conversation still carrying over the soundtrack: "Yeah."  "Aw!"  "Yeah we did."

The snippets of speech from each party, expressively highlighted in the mix, is the clearest act of communication to the viewer.  It is the evocation of character and worldviews; in the eloquence of its execution is the clearest poetry and lyricism possible from narrative cinema.  Lynette is introduced, as is Buck's friend Marlo, making a play at the table, and who will figure into the scene prominently in a little while.  As he strikes out, he makes a cry of frustration, does a little dance step as he reassures himself (overheard on the soundtrack), "That's all right!"  In the background, the awkward, fish-out-of-water "Cowboy," as I will refer to him, is also introduced.

The intricate and involved single take shot has concluded, but the scene does not relinquish exquisiteness, whether it is in the accentuation of the barroom colors, the artful composition of bodies, or the rich metaphor of the dramatic components themselves.  The Marlo/Cowboy segment to come is certainly one of the strangest and possibly indiscernible segments in the film, but it is also one of the most risky and carefully considered passages as well.  Marlo, Buck's friend, bullies the timid Cowboy, taking a beer from him.  The two townies look on, put out in their space.  The scene escalates when it looks like Marlo aims to pick a fight with the Cowboy, urging him to "Stand up!"  Meanwhile, a jauntier country-rock tune has started on the jukebox (part of Eaten Alive's non-stop medley of country songs, evocation of both the world's shared melancholy and insouciance).  Adjoining shots of Buck and Lynette visibly reveling in Marlo's antics bring together - with considerable affect, the two-shot of Buck and Lynette a true affection-image of joyful insouciance - the two sections of the room.  What's also interesting about this scene is that the Cowboy has clearly been directed to be as marble-mouthed and inexpressive as possible, not a discernible word from him spoken.  It is an expert, sensitive way to further splay the dichotomy, to express in almost symbolic terms the extreme differences between the bully and the victim. 



The peak of the encounter is given all its import with a frame literally backed up against the wall.  It is the logical and graphical culmination of the scene, where the two players await what happens next in a frame that faces them off in a close medium shot.  This a scene that I can't say is "deceptively simple" - for it is simple - but a scene can be simple and simultaneously very finely considered.  Hooper crafts another dialectical, ideological encounter with the same sense of philosophical weight and striking mise-en-scene as in all his other films of often rampant dialectical, philosophical weight.  This digression of a scene is, contrary to popular thought, no slouch, and this tense and poignant shot of a stand-off is completely privy to the purposes of the entire episode.  Hooper is no flippant filmmaker, nor vapid one.

What is pointed about the situation is that, while the aggressor is a friend of Buck's, the victim is a valueless quantity - a loner, a loser, even a possible pervert (no complete innocence in this scene).  He is also taller and bigger than Marlo.  The bar scene is essentially about a spectrum of masculinity, cruelness, and violence, with the ineffectual Cowboy providing the essential foil to the bravado and maliciousness - of physical and verbal violence - around him.  Buck's bailing out of Marlo is an interesting observation made by Hooper and Kim Henkel, who wrote the film: that the meanest run in packs and even the bigger nice guys always lose.


I depict this entire sequence, despite little commentary, because, yes, the dialogue in Eaten Alive does matter.  Most important is that slight moment between Libby and the Sheriff, when he asks her: "How long has it been?"  The clear intention is for that remark to visibly throw Libby off, thinking it an allusion to sex or intimacy.  I have written about the importance of Libby in the film before, and this moment further demonstrates her role as the emotional center of the film - not an irreproachable one, for, as is seen here, she suffers hang-ups of her own, but still a figurehead of kindness and reason that completely encapsulates her awareness of her unfulfilled desires (this is why we must witness her stripping scene later on - her nakedness-as-metaphor is the point) and her struggle to be a figurehead of goodness, despite her barest humanity being on display: moments of testiness exhibited with her dad, and, now revealed, the hovering and suffocating stresses of her life and upbringing.  This is the "chameleonic" figure of goodness I described her as before, one who must exist for the sake of the film's moral center, but not without showing the many counteractive faces someone carrying that burden still must exhibit in the act of living our complicated existences.

This is why the rather sloppy, perfunctory zoom-in on Libby's face as the Sheriff excuses himself to confront Buck is still imbued with an artistry far beyond its production values and entering into a realm of pure subtextual purpose, Hooper giving import to the perceptions of Libby, burdened with her extra(-narrative?) purpose - as moral point of gravity - even as she is growing witness to the sickness, violence, belligerence, and confrontation that is constantly surrounding her.

Sheriff Martin's approach of Buck is a shot that carries two important Hooper tenets: a layering of narrative and visual elements in the frame, and the setting of the stage from a previously-established fixed point of perspective.  Regarding the former, Marlo is seen in the background sneaking away and exiting the bar entirely in the midst of Buck and the Sheriff's exchange.  Regarding the latter, the camera sweeps along in a revolution around the hanging pool lamp as the Sheriff enters Buck's designated "zone" of the dramatic "stage," this area of the billiard tables fixedly viewed only from beyond that hanging lamp.  Later, when Sheriff Martin exits, the camera executes one of Hooper's timed and deliberate movements, finally pushing past the hanging light only as Buck irately prepares to take his leave with Lynette ("Take off your star, you egg sucker"), effectively closing out this scene and its playlet of tense and philosophically heavy confrontations (between Marlo and the Cowboy, between Libby and Sheriff Martin, between Buck and Sheriff Martin).  And the scene ends by coming full circle, with a final glimpse of the two boys at the bar we began it with.