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.