Tuesday, April 25, 2017

THAS: Returning to a Scene from 'Poltergeist'

And we're back!  It's been a long time coming, and I had a number of planned updates in the works that life, writer's constipation, and an unstimulated, unstimulating mind (my own) has been keeping at bay - namely, a large post on The Funhouse and Melodrama, bringing home to roost a partly ironical tweet I made months back that stated: "If you insult SOME CAME RUNNING, you are indirectly insulting THE FUNHOUSE." Entitled "Hooper/Theory 1; Hooper the Non-Melodramatist," and largely referencing Thomas Elsaesser's consummate essay on the "sophisticated" 1950s American melodrama, I'd somehow make the case of the shared DNA between The Funhouse and Some Came Running, then posit Hooper's claim to this articulated subsection of film, before finally concluding it is actually his divergences from that popular form that define him.  Coming soon, I hope.

Before coming to the meat of the post, I'd like to do a quick miscellany of noteworthy Tobe Hooper-related items on the internet in the past months:

- UT Press's Eggshells Blu-Ray discussed in the last post was postponed until June, which is why I haven't been talking about Down Friday Street for the past three months.
- A French publication came out, available digitally, a short monograph on Hooper entitled "The Forbidden Territories of Tobe Hooper."  I unfortunately haven't had the time to Google Translate it at length, but it seems very worthwhile checking out.
- An excellent bunch of cinephiles hosting the podcast Wrong Reel did a mind-blowing episode devoted to examining Hooper's long career: this group includes NY's Kevin Maher, illustrious and crazily knowledgeable culture maven and host of comedy/variety/pop culture show Kevin Geeks Out; James Hancock, Wrong Reel host; Marcus Pinn (of Pinnland Empire); John Cribbs & Christopher Funderburg (The Pink Smoke).  The positivity and openness they take toward Hooper, his canonical work, and even the nooks and crannies of his career (Maher has seen it all!) is truly refreshing.  Find it here!  It's fun, funny, informative, smart, and insightful.  A must-listen.

And now to the post, I return to the scene in the living room where the Freelings and the paranormal investigators communicate with Carol Anne, a clear favorite of mine seeing as how often I choose to revisit it.  It is a scene seemingly shanghaied right out from under Spielberg's script and purview, a brazenly surreptitious display of Hooper's insurgent ends, quite possibly, from evidence gathered.  What an example of working slyly under the yoke of one's master and teacher with just the quick substitution, the innocent counter-determination of a scene's purposes, the "adjustments" made of one who doesn't wish to offend or reject outright the materials so graciously laid out before him, but will coax skillful differentiations when the headmaster is away.  I am loath to derail from the chronology of the Poltergeist walk-through series, for the matter of my anal retention, but a close examination of the script and Spielberg's quickly sketched storyboards (guideline storyboards to give to the storyboard artist) for the scene show a possible case of Hooper whisking the scene away to a more unearthly realm, diverging largely from Spielberg's precise (and precisely Spielbergian) envisioning of the scene, something more banal and action-oriented, but proved to be something Hooper could grab a hold of and spirit away with almost subliminal tweaking (this is often the way to characterize Hooper's exquisiteness of craft, as a sensibility so delicate it manifests in ideas almost as imperceptible as they are truly tangible, and truly excellent).  A certain amount of subterfuge and maybe double-cross seems to be at work here, Hooper a thief in the night and double-agent who takes his master's tools and notes and interprets them with his own countervailing (ideology) agency.

So we have 7 pages of rough storyboard sketches Spielberg drew (again, guidelines for the production's storyboard artist Richard Lasley).  These 7 pages prove Spielberg's attachment to his script and its realization, and the detail of how he saw some of these scenes.  The pages illustrate over half of the scene I call the "Living Room" sequence.


They match up essentially 1:1, screenplay to Spielberg's storyboard sketches, which means Spielberg was still working off the idea the script would be honored when he drew these.  You can see Dana entering on the right of the box labeled D, then confronting her parents and Lesh in the shot labeled E.  This entire bit involving Dana leaving is not in the movie.

The scene begins with a close-up on the television set, then pulls out as the image begins to take on the descriptions detailed in the screenplay: Ryan tapes a pencil microphone to the TV speaker, then goes to his recording equipment set up on a coffee table, screen right (S.R.), while "Tak" (eventually to become the character "Marty" in the movie) sets up equipment to the left (S.L.) of the screen.  The camera pulls out and Dana enters from the right.

In the first of Spielberg's rendering of staging and blocking, Dana faces her parents ("holding hands," standing S.R.) and Dr. Lesh, who stand in front of the bay window of the living room.

"It's getting dark, Mom.  I gotta go.  I'll call you from Trudie's."

Perhaps it was to be all one shot, the scribbling of "90º pan" (?) between frame D and frame E suggesting maybe a pan along with Dana that finally ends with her in frame with Dr. Lesh and her parents.


Robbie appears with Ryan and Tak in their frame above to deliver his quip: "She's got brains!"  That is Diane ("Mom") moving into Robbie and Ryan's frame, flipping the TV on.  If so, we have Spielberg marking the geography of the set in his own head, with a number of medium-wide shots (and maybe even a pan, with Diane to the TV, as box E - with Dana, Lesh, and Steve - follows up with the box above marked F, suggesting a continuous shot).  In any case, Spielberg's fluid wides suggest the tender, spiky, affective style of Spielberg, but also suggest a completely different tone than the one created in the existent film: a casualness, an interest in establishing characters as part of a congenial dramatic totality (let's call it sitcom-like, which is not an insult, as combining the congeniality of entertainments with the rarefying effect of cinema is a fruitful endeavor responsible for the works of Hawks and the great screwball comedies; but sitcoms are not one to use the techniques of close-ups, negative space, asymmetry, and the like), a visual-information-oriented displaying of pure external factors, rather than the inward-looking, inward-seeing aesthetic reflection of more closed-off, unorthodox, obfuscating frames.

Now the bottom two boxes on Page 2, showing Steven in the foreground with a lamp and Lesh in the background also standing near a lamp, is very similar to a shot that exists in the film.  It was one of the main reasons of a conciliation made between my mind on these matters and the insistent Spielberg claimants, that perhaps he did "co-direct," and that his visual sensibility - his lofty, sweeping, sentimental style - appears in this scene.  Certainly that possibility is still open to being true.  But as originally conceived, what we understand from the material is an approach and tone of an entirely different scene, in what could be part of an entirely different movie, with shots carried over.

The carrying over of the "dual lamp shot," Steven in foreground and Lesh in the background, is possibly the recognition of a potent image created by the undeniably gifted, supernal filmmaker who acts as his (Hooper's) benefactor, but it is also possibly a salvaging project, the recognition of a strong image by another image-maker, and the charity of carrying it over into a scene's design that is by all other points his own.

And so what we see happening in these bottom two panels of Page 2: Diane has just turned on the TV, which prompts Steve to turn off the lamp, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.  We might as well point out now the small thing, that Steven's smoking habit does not persist into the actual film.  One can say such cynical details are completely obliterated in the film, and I can say, generally, Hooper, as a conceptual filmmaker, is more about larger ideas and idealizations more than details.  Such is the shot completely transposed to a moment that speaks the opposite of cynicism (later in the scene).  The shot, cosmetically the same, becomes something completely different with the absence of a cigarette, with the absence of plot.  There is a level of exposition contained in the place this shot takes in the sequence, a level of exposition in the cigarette itself.  Hooper's cinema is one of removing details.  One instead delves into the "human" itself, the concept of the human.

And so, the scene consists thus far of a mobile camera capturing a single take shot that evolves between the following groups: TV/Ryan -> TV/Ryan/Tak/(Dana) -> Dana/Diane/Steven/Lesh -> Diane/Ryan/Robbie, if we are to believe frames A through F (as annotated on the left of the boxes) are supposed to be a single shot (fluidity on Spielberg's mind, perhaps good evidence he may have contributed to the dipping, bobbing and traversing one-take shot taking place in the upstairs hallway before Tangina, Steven, and Diane venture into Carol Anne's room).  Fluid, but also conventional.  It is a shot devoted to establishing characters, to unwieldy dialogue, to rolling out plot.

At this point we've also marked, finally, the commencement of the scene as existing in the film (it begins with Diane turning on the TV with a close-up of her hand on the set).


At this point, the scene seems to become a flourish of circling, swooping, and pushing shots: over the lamp as Steven turns it off, swooping around to Lesh and revealing the light of the den behind her (Page 2, Frames A-B, Page 3, Frame C)...

... over Diane's shoulder "to the TV screen and millions of particles of white air" (a "fast push in to snow"), 70º around Ryan listening through his recorder at Diane...

... until arriving at a classic Spielbergian composition of profiles in segmentation across a frame - here, Ryan, Tak, and the pointing camera, all facing the TV screen, which can be seen in the first box of Page 4.  It screams Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  This shot would be somewhat carried over into the film in the 70º pan around Ryan to configure him with the TV he stares at in amazement when Carol Anne's voice is first heard.  So would the shot of profiles in configuration.  But the placement, context, and even composition itself are drastically overhauled, even as their core visual ideas are carried over: more recognition of good ideas that must first, though, be rethought to fit a personal vision before they can be honored.


"I'll call her."  It must be said that at this point, the scene finally begins to resemble the exquisite product we eventually saw on the screen.  The flurry of swooping camera movements finally pauses to take stock of the entire living room, a locked-down camera at some far end of the set including all characters in-frame, centralizing Diane as she walks gingerly and hopefully to the foreground to begin her appeal to the ether.  And this breath-stopping moment exists in Spielberg's conception, kinetics halting for the divine appeal.  But surely Hooper took stock, also, of this moment of divinity from his screenwriter and collaborator.  And so, Spielberg's contributions reveal themselves - just at the moment we must go back and look at the actual scene, and find all the points at which Hooper committed his subterfuge.

Whereas Spielberg begins the scene with four dolly shots, the film's scene contains the sum of one in the same span of events.  Instead, what we have are singles taking a predominant role in the scene's design, plus close-ups, dense medium-wides, plus a dolly motion that transforms a medium-wide shot into a close-up simply by moving leftward, activating just placement of bodies and proximity to an axis.  The "Lamp Shot" is lifted out of the sequence (for use later), and Lesh is not perplexed, but smiles encouragingly at Diane.  She does put on her glasses, not in a shared shot with Steven, but in a CU single that makes her a totem, a figure to draw an emotional value from, rather than just simply a part of a narrative continuum, container for befuddled reactions.  This would be the first step in adding a valued content to the character of Dr. Lesh, rather than leaving her just a character-pinball in a whirligig, affective play-field.  This is the beginning of a startling process Hooper almost subconsciously pursues involving the "darkening," or "edgifying" (for lack of an existing term), of Dr. Lesh, all banal tics are stripped away, her formlessness now to be used to an advantage: to signify the caprices manifest in ambiguous emotional life; the unknown variable in a (family) unit so becomes that valued content - empty - for the rest of the family to fill, in their interaction, just as she is made to serve for the viewer.

Lesh, Ryan, and Tak congregate around the television as Diane starts her soliloquy.  Lesh points at the dog: "Look at the dog!"  We cut to an object shot of the dog in front of the den entrance.

One gets the sense that in the script, it is about activity.  As Diane pleads to Carol Anne, at least half of the party is concerned with the TV or the dog.  Everyone seems to be standing.  In the film, everyone is in repose.


As Diane implores, "Ryan almost laughs."

Ryan, Tak, and Lesh, converged, framed in a spatial arrangement, look at the dog.  If we recall, the three were grouped together as soon as the dog entered the living room ("Look at the dog"):

(Panel from PAGE 4)

This frame is another one that survives from these storyboard pre-visualizations, that Hooper borrows for the film, but it occurs at a completely different moment.  It is also fastened with a typical Hooper-styled low-angle and generous use of (highly graphical) negative space.

("Tell her to stay away from the light!")

"Ryan almost laughs" is transposed to "Tak almost laughs" in the storyboards.  The three look at the dog, but as soon as Carol Anne's voice starts to come from far away, "Ryan (bolts?) up startled by what he hears."  One can imagine this shot beginning with Tak and Lesh in formation, staring at the dog, but with only the top of Ryan's head in the frame.  Tak starts to "almost laugh," but quickly sobers up when Ryan stands up into the frame, the first to hear, and soon beginning a chain reaction of awed recognition at the sound of a tiny voice.

A TV POV occurs, "major TV flicker" across the three spectators' faces, "Mom" in the background, attentions turned "from Diane and back to the TV."

I should probably use this point, now, to mention Hooper's greatest apparent subversion: Dana does not leave the house for her friend's, she is present in the scene.  She spends most of the time seated, but is indeed present for the seance.  She is used with fascinating intent, a value of youth, incomprehension, femininity and jejuneness.  Why shouldn't we care about the teenage daughter?  Why should she not be present for the film's biggest scene about the family as a whole, confronting the supernatural?

They "strain their hearing, leaning forward, watching..."  Robbie joins them in a fourfold of profiles.

Hooper chooses this moment to unleash the flurry of tracking shots Spielberg had already expended.  The 70º pan around Ryan from one angle to a CU profile is used as a reaction shot to the voice coming out of the TV.  The shallow focus, foreground-background shot of Steven (FG) and Lesh (BG) by the lamps is slotted here.  That is, Steven does not turn the lamp off to initiate the seance: he switches it off to foster the communication.  It is like turning the lights off at the bedtime of the child.  A brilliant reversal: if you want, you can tell your bedtime story in the dark; if you want to rouse to life, you put to sleep (you soothe).  It's a paradox fit for Craven, and other masters of fantasy and dream.

This teleported shot inaugurates what seems to be Hooper's pure invention.  A rack focus to Lesh.  Lesh finally moves to Ryan and Tak/Marty, joining them at the television screen.  Something borrowed: the shot of profiles staring intently at the TV, now only Ryan, Marty, and Lesh.  An off-center dolly shot into Diane as she beams.  Dana crying, overwhelmed, on the couch.  Something probably borrowed: a push in to the static-flicking TV.  Medium CU, isolating singles of up to four separate groupings, communicating the breadth of space and the rifts and chasms of communication.


As Diane speaks to Carol Anne, all the characters inhabit the frame behind her.  The television is placed behind the appealing Diane, a brilliant visual choice.  As they begin to speak of the light, characters appealing to Diane by approaching her foreground space is also an idea originated in Spielberg's storyboards.  What Hooper does is take scenes of special inspiration and strip them of anything resembling straightforward exposition or sense of pure functionality.  He musicalizes them until they resemble "scenes" no more.  Spielberg's pushing-in A-B-C frames on Page 6 are a beautiful idea that give off too much information: Lesh appeals to Diane, Tak is in the background inspecting the TV, Steve approaches, the TV grows in prominence as the shot evolves.  Hooper's framing obscures this information, denying plot, even as he honors the visual design Spielberg bestowed him: a wide shot of players acting a drama behind a foregrounded central player; Tak expressing his skeptical opinons and "taking off," cuing a cut to a reverse wide revealing the stairs Tak bounds up.  But for every idea originated by Spielberg (the largest and most magnanimous being a scene depicted in wide shots of a living room, triangulated only as each "side" is "activated"; Tak only activates the stair-containing portion of the living room in his use of them, and we get the first wide shot containing the stairs), there is Hooper editing: No, we do not need the dog there, nor an idea so visually naff as the pointing video camera as another face in the arrangement of spectators.  No, Robbie and Dana are important.  No, this scene is not about action, it is about emotion and emotional values in flux.  Beatrice Straight's Dr. Lesh has taken on a sternness, suddenly, first toward Diane's unwillingness to see The Light as threatening, then exacerbated by Marty's insolent attitude, "It's not a hoax" delivered with scornful authority.  This is important, very important, to the scene as something more than its skillful construction, but about the frisson of unstable elements at a true moment of instability and disorder in human experience.  Lesh's surprising authoritarianism is that turn of the screw to make the scene more than about what it is: instead, it's about the complacency that exist all around us in the face of a truly capricious existence, one that can exist firmly outside the bubble of The Devoted Parents; the paranormal investigators are an unknown variable; the prickliness fomented through them is reality at play, put into play by a master of reality (Hooper and Hooper alone); the presence of authority - in a story of wholesome parents simply wanting their daughter back, of, supposing, a sudden "possession" of these strangers in the Freeling household by Forces of The World (indeed, Lesh perhaps nurtured such a penchant for headmistress-like propriety simply by being a professor and academic for all these years), of "professionals" vs Boho Nouveau riche parents, taking the family's personal business into their impersonal, unfamiliar hands - is a shake-up  of abstract emotional resonance.

We have run out of storyboards, but the screenplay continues on, revealing more discrepancies between script and film.  Tak/Marty's run-in with a beast is supposed to interrupt the scene, between the dolly shot uniting all six characters downstairs into a single shot ("Mommy, somebody's here!") and Diane rushing to the TV screen ("She's just a baby!").  The scene downstairs as it plays out seems unguided either by screenplay, which hardly accurately describes the actions ultimately displayed on the screen, or storyboards.  Two lamps are supposed to be upturned and smashed before the moment Carol Anne "goes through" Diane, implying a much more frenzied version of the moment, rather than the quiet, anticipatory build-up that has Diane creep to the stairs and be "touched" only once at the foot of them.  In the script, it may as well happen in the middle of the room.  Spielberg is not one for "centerpiece images," instead opting for an incessant stream of affective images that pummel you one after the other.  Here, we have centerpieces galore: Diane approaching the staircase, the dolly shot after Carol Anne's spirit goes through her mother, every single placed on a character's face - awkward, non-connective, too awkward to be Spielberg or to his liking, but beautiful.  An authoritarian Lesh reappears after the gale-force gust of wind, demanding to know of Diane and Steven the location of Carol Anne's abduction.  The mood swings are abrupt and thus almost metaphoric, as if Lesh is God (she is indeed their savior), capable of being angry and merciful at equal moment's notice.  More likely, she is made an exhibit of authority to create that friction between the fantasy diagesis of the film and the wider world of such caprice and harshness.  "Diane!  Where exactly do you suppose she was playing when she vanished?  Diane??"  Her confrontation with a suddenly smug Steven is another prickly interaction that communicates the same rarefied idea of human behavior as a symbolic display of eternal, instinctual, sometimes irrational archetypes and scenarios, thus not always indebted to realism, only to exhuming these "frictions."  If Lesh is a suddenly angry God, Steven must be a particularly rebellious Abraham.  This is the same noumenal instinct for complexity and dialectics that created the hot-and-cold dialogues between Sally and Franklin in Texas Chain Saw Massacre.  A much kinder Lesh in the script addresses Steven, a less anesthetized Diane answers for him, and Lesh "practically rolls up her sleeves" as she attempts to venture to the children's bedroom.  The spikes are not in there yet, replaced by tics, comic bits, and one-liners.  The design was there for Hooper, and so all he did - that's all! - was enhance it.