Friday, June 30, 2017

THAS: 'Poltergeist,' A Walk-Through, #7, Part I

"The most inclusive description of the art is that, termite-like, it feels its way through walls of particularization with no sign that the artist has any object in mind other than eating away the immediate boundaries of his art, and turning these boundaries into conditions of the next achievement." 
- Manny Farber, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art"

For Hooper, each frame, each "encounter" - which is moment to moment, just from being behind the camera, dictating its natural regard, witnessing the regard that is dictated - with, perhaps, the artful collusion between saintly naturalized framing (of-the-world, of-a-nature-of-it, his "dictating" but the moment of capturing something, unalloyed, before it) and then the liberties allowed through his ideas of a camera of movements and special optics (a cinematic one that may change with each new permutation of a world, that is, a set, and the spirit of it, vindicating Hooper's idea of each new production as something to approach with fresh eyes, a new "spirit" to explore, even follow reverentially, contrasted to Spielberg's consistent movie-worlds that allow all of his films to feel the same), is a realizing of a next achievement, images that imprint, without impressing, explaining Poltergeist's dignified frames and poetics of image, even when cut into a stimulation-oriented action flurry.  The achievement is not the execution of a set-piece, it is the accumulation of particularizations tailored to Hooper's sense of observation, tone, and internalized visual schemata (often one of textures and colors), perhaps applied to superficial images tied to a pre-given story or even a pre-visualization.  For every edit or image that may represent Hooper's agency as a legitimate image-creator here adulterated, made impure or even influenced, there is the adjustment that makes all of Poltergeist, all its spectacle, images and framing, and the rhyming therein, seem of a piece, seem blended by virtue of the rain-blurred and nocturnal cinematography of Matthew F. Leonetti that is shot as if this is all really happening, as if tone and image cannot be spun or manipulated if the indexical before it is systematically there.  This is a tenet of poetic realism, which will add affect to the image through a pure aesthetic regard, but will never manufacture the image, or editorialize it.  For Hooper, the art of cinema is a deictic one - he will not speak through the image, necessarily, but he will employ his artistry in the recognition of the context before the camera, or, to his distinction, even the context around it.  Such recognition of what is there to be reacted to is a regard of incredible punctiliousness, scrupulousness, and minuteness.  So it is that a cohesion is created from being behind the camera, seeing what is before it for what it is, pulling back where a Spielberg might make editorial.  It is also a camera devoted, seemingly, to a triumph, an achievement (and the next achievement), of individual frames and the running of the frames 24p.  Capturing what is in front of it will create the cohesion, the flurry of storyboarded ideas kept in reins to the immanence of the index before it.  We'll see this respect for tone and pure immanence in the horror sequence ahead, a chaotic scene of Hooperian inflected images but non-inflected happening, stripped to the bones of any fat, free of the affectations you'd see in any Spielberg horror sequence, for example, the underwater apparatus that drags poor Chrissie left and right, like death being represented by an appendage of a roller coaster; the similar piling on of danger imagined as a cavalcade of malfunctioning household features and appliances, and a little boy who thinks they're merely sounding off to play in Close Encounters; the invariably character-driven, not aesthetics-driven, terror imagery of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which always must have an innervating function in regards to beset fictions of characters.

So Hooper, as an artist, can be generalized thusly: he is an artist of cinema, one who does not go into a project wanting to put forth some grand, set-in-stone vision, but merely to provide his artistry as a sort of applique, so as not to let his cinema fall by the wayside.  Applique is a sewing of many different parts, of various colors searched avidly for inspiration - thus, a particularization, not a mandation; an application, not an orchestration.  This is why he doesn't work with storyboards, professing a dislike for them.  His sense of art is studded with enough principles, and sturdy visual ones at that (although not exclusive to that), that he need not the details be etched in a eureka moment on a tablet.

Spielberg is a "big idea" guy.  He comes up with heavily pre-visualized films that take grip of heady, visually conceptual elements.  Such the maw that envelopes a little boy of a monster tree; the two parents who come racing into a backyard storm front; and the beseeching mother before a group of people staring at a static-filled television.  (Such the lights and sounds and Vilmos Zsigmond cinematography that beset a mother and her child in their rural home in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.)  And he is such a strong practitioner of tropes that it is often hard to think of anyone but him executing them, especially when he writes them into the very screenplay.  But take into consideration other stylistically similar products from the 80's "Toy Factory" age of Hollywood, films characterized by heavy whimsy and the mission to create set-pieces of Rube Goldberg and Busby Berkeley extravagance, and also marked by heavy producer-writer-director relationships.  I can cite two very similar ones to Poltergeist, and don't take this as an admission of guilt: Spielberg's 1941 (written by Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale, executive produced by John Milius) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (executive produced by George Lucas), in which there is no doubt about the filtering of ideas, from various sources, from a certain time and age with a certain mise-en-scene du jour, through the voice of a strong, authoritative author and stylist.  It is the same idea with Poltergeist, Hooper a less authoritative author and more a subversive one.  This is the first such 80's confection that receives the certain applique to resemble something of a European art film - something of concerted thought rather than mere affect - in moments (though 1941 can be said to have a certain Tatian flavor to it), and a more determined consideration, yes, imitation, and, further, modification of Spielbergian staging, image, and ideas/set-pieces in others.

Spielberg's moments of sublimity come attached to intense bursts of affect, to images and staging labored over.  Such intense mental energy devoted to certain minutiae would seem liable to leave chaff littering the wings of his staged diegesis.  Hooper's sublimity is one attached to intense bursts of mise en scene, affect, character, and narrative less of a concern, images not labored over but part of a pure, seemingly unstaged mimesis in which painterly principles act as a fractal that affects the reality/the indexical into becoming something staged (perhaps in a Spielberg-like way), into becoming a unified pattern of dense images refracting the staged movements of bodies.  The prioritization of abstract, fractal framing - the very essence of Hooper's geometric eye - makes the staging seem incidental, thus more natural.  This is as opposed to staging and then the camera reacting to that, as if the movements were planned for the camera, a natural fractal dimension of art non-existent.  The fractal leaves no room for chaff, for images with no meaning or no cohesion, or perhaps images with too much affect, as self-congratulation is often at the expense of aiding meaning in those around it.  Hooper's fractal patterns imbibe Spielberg's theatrical, foreground-background staging and spit it out as something natural, something shaped by forces but waiting for the lapidary to come in and simply reinforce that nature.  There is a polish, and idea, to the image, perhaps you can even call it narration behind every frame, for an outward gesture is made toward a first-hand presentation of the camera - not just narration as a stooge-like facilitation of diegetic involvement.  Rather, the camera is a true writer by being simply a modifier of reality through (visual) language, not a copy-editor who sees language only as a manipulable tool for an overarching, perhaps agenda-ridden, narrative.  Spielberg's saving grace is that he stages so well, with such a sense of emotional fabulization, but the fractal nature of Poltergeist and its natural cuneiform of base images does not exist elsewhere.

Since we've steered the conversation toward the issue of input and output, what forces go into a project and what we can possibly measure when coming out the other end, we'll start with the storyboards this time.  I refuse to believe Hooper had no hand in the determination or drafting of these preliminary storyboards, as minimal and perhaps solely verbal as it may be.  I suppose we may never know.  But was he as peripheral in the pre-production phase as he was made to be in the post-production phase after turning in the initial cut?  Doesn't quite seem as likely.


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