Sunday, December 10, 2017

THAS: Emotional Crescendos

Now if there's one major obstacle to Hooper's place of rightful ownership of Poltergeist, it is the presence of emotional climaxes to be found in Hooper's work.  For Poltergeist is filled with moments both large and small, cardinal and incidental, that mean to evoke emotion and further bring emotion to a head, like buttons (efficiently or emphatically pushed) to mend the dramatic seams, or studs embroidered along the dramatic lining.  But how often is this a common method of Hooper's?  And how is it a common method of Spielberg's, and how does it differ from these moments of Poltergeist?  If these emotional divertissements are implicit in Spielberg's script, what, on the level or timbre, pitch, and intensity, are they rendered in their fullest spirit by Hooper?  And what evidence of Hooper's interests in emotional emphases are there, where most of his instincts are devoted to subtlety, performativity (accounting for much of what is usually characterized as Hooper's shrillness or excess), and to limitations, technical, formal, and moral?  (Formal and moral limitations being ones of intent - limitations that are built into a conception of cinema; technical being adaptive, as Hooper could never mirror the illusionism of The Tales of Hoffman to such a direct extent of archaic on-camera magic as in The Heisters again, though he could allude to Powell and Pressburger in ways more sublimated - I must mention critic Scout Tafoya's intent comparison of Hooper to Technicolor fantasists such as The Archers and Max Ophuls in his recent tribute video essay to Hooper.)

This post is mainly concerned with the "What evidence?" question.  What are cases of Hooper, in his most reticent and consciously withholding early work - and it is conscious, whether imposed by technical and creative restrictions, in the form of cameras, creative relationship with cinematographers, etc., or self-conforming, to the tone and neutrality of a script and potentially moral story (I'd say most often both in conjunction) - do we have evidence of what he was able to pull out from himself for Poltergeist?  That is, in Poltergeist, he feels the need to elicit from us strong emotions.  He has the onus on him to provoke, possibly, tears.  Spielberg is often praised for these elements, honoring the sentimentality of his stories with his dutiful techniques: close-ups, sharp cutting, the montage of moving camera and graphical frames.  Hooper's rendering of Spielberg's sentiment is rightly praised (often misattributed), Poltergeist often regarded by fans as one of the most effectively "tear-jerking" horror films in cinema.  Naturally Spielberg ought to carry some of the burden of audience's devotion, but little do a large number of that audience realize that they are being swept up by a harder, more formalist revisiting of these common Spielberg tropes.  They are in fact being bamboozled into recognizing dramatic impressions from an arcane form that prioritizes full-bodied framing over froth, aesthetic fussiness over the basic and perfunctory techniques of manipulating dross.  But did he really pull off those practically soul-affirming moments in the film called Poltergeist?

What moments can we salvage, pointing to a meticulousness and an earnestness of dramatic and emotional emphasis, as precedents to Poltergeist?  What are the emotional moments of Hooper's career, pre-Poltergeist?  What are the Poltergeist-like crescendos of his early works?

Unlike Spielberg's claim to crescendo, movement harmony, and foreground-background interplay, Hooper's modification to the emphatic, emotionalized, big-budget fantasy, a meta-cinema, of sorts, moving away from his documentary stasis, is the precision and masochism of Hooper's frames to create a certain level of hysteria, in previous efforts, and, yes, positive emotionalism, in Poltergeist.  He does not just shoot spectacle, he does not just make action into a stagy, if dynamic, froth: Hooper concatenates it, any spectacle of bodies, into a specific matrix of demanding shots, still more about the stasis of frames than the bustle of actions.  Spielberg is too smooth, while Hooper operates at a distance that allows for so much of Poltergeist's surprising, unmotivated camera moves.

from 'Texas Chain Saw Massacre'

It might seem odd to present any moment of Texas Chain Saw Massacre as one of emotional culmination and emotional emphasis, from a work so cold and merciless, but we work with what we are given.  The film certainly does not share the sentimental mode of characterization and dynamic drama that allows the intent creation of emotional beats, which is what is made room for in most mainstream filmmaking, such as Poltergeist.  But this moment is an emotional apex nonetheless (coordinated to a moving camera), if a raw, guttural one, in which characters and drama are not individuated but made even more pure and denuded (and universal).  Hooper stares an emotion in the face through the use of a dynamic camera.  If not positive emotions, ones of warmth or heart-tugging ingratiation, it is still an emotional button push of total hysteria and terror.

As Spielberg's camera creates emotion through movement, here, too, we can see Hooper trying to access the limits of affective cinema through an "emotionalized" camera - one such usage and crescendo in a pre-Poltergeist work, joined to Sally's miraculous escape from the Sawyer farmhouse.  Our emotional zenith is her crash-landing, as arch and pitiful as that sounds.  It is a truly Hooperian equation of great emotion with great purity, from the disavowal of the self through emotion.  Hooper trades in universals, not asking that we must like or get to know a character before we can feel for them.  His characters are tabula rasa enough that each camera movement can write for itself, not just in accordance to what is dictated by the previous shot or the narrative.  The empathy is in the camera motion itself, not its enhancement of diegetic particulars, which are always pared down to the bone in Hooper's prioritization of the universal.


The moving camera of the emotional apex.

Another moment of emotional climax that utilizes a moving camera; a dolly movement used to enhance the emotional content of the scene.  As precedent to Poltergeist, this moment from The Funhouse is highly advantageous, as Hooper is not one to partake usually in extreme identification with his characters, such that he’d use the camera to enhance our responses to them; instead, he chooses to view his characters from a distance (and not just when executing visual gags).  Here, even, this fact of distanciation still stands, except he is willing to indulge a moment of, not just an emotional peak, but an intent meaning.

Amy is at the limit of her comprehension of events, finds herself looking down into a pair of gears grinding away before her, and, as she breaks down, crying, the camera goes into the smallest, most subdued dolly motion in towards her.  It is an emotional climax, built towards like a small crescendo, from a filmmaker who does not usually do this, but knows a crescendo from a spasm, an indication of deeper meanings from a whiz bang manipulation.

from 'The Funhouse'

The creeping camera, signifying of slow realization and emotional changeability.


Matthew H said...

I remember in Dan O'Bannon's screenwriting book he talked about the idea of hedonic adaptation and how instead of leading up to one climax, you can basically build from one climax to another and keep escalating the intensity - many Hooper films have that kind of progression which I'm sure is why he was interested in directing Return of the Living Dead. Most Hooper films get crazier and crazier up until the very end.

JR said...

I definitely see why Hooper would have been interested in Return as a screenplay, it boasts a similar escalation of already feverish events and a similarly extreme eschatological take on the world, as Lifeforce. He definitely agreed and vibed with O’Bannon’s tenets, which was already deemed Texas Chain Saw-like when Ridley Scott fashioned their film together on it. This type of screenwriting doesn’t leave much room for schmaltz or sentimentality, though.