Friday, March 23, 2018

THAS: Hooperian Efflorescence

Concerning Tobe Hooper, there are three things he seems to not be able to get enough of: wallpaper, lamps and light fixtures, and the florid curvatures of arabesques.  Somewhat elusively tied to each of these is an odder predilection, as sublimated as it is plainly evidential, and this seems to be his weakness for bouquets.

A journey through Hooper's efflorescence is a journey through Hooper's career.  The floral pattern, the bouquet; the presence and opportunity of a bursting flora amidst drab or threatening environs; the flower print.  It softens what is unwelcoming, and even the image or the imprint of the flower takes on the brutality of its contrast - it becomes a threat itself (this becomes explicit in Mortuary, in which fungi, organisms also designed for bloom, spread in an environment both compatible and incompatible with it, representing both the presence and opportunity of disease and life, a malevolence but also the chance for something to grow out of the fecundated spores of abuse, as Bobby Fowler would testify).

The form and color of flower shapes: the whorl of petals, the slashes of palms, the nodes and petioles of the arabesque, all direct back to Hooper's interest in lines, which in turn directs back to his interest in forms.  The bursting of forms takes us on this journey through his history of seeing the image-as-bloom, in decor, in flora, in architecture, in graven wood, graven stone, in prints and costuming, in images and light.

A minor detail, but even minor details, like the flower print on the pillow that is propped behind Steven Freeling, accentuate Hooper and his images of flowers, emanating from figures like proof of a supernatural divinity, of a blessed state of nature.  If flowers have been for ages regarded as the principle denotative probability of truth and beauty as a divine thing, their proximity to the human beings in Poltergeist represent the film's truest belief in the supernatural, not the ghosts themselves.  Shapes take on extra meaning, even as they exist as mere set decoration "decoupage" on the film set: lamps litter the field of Poltergeist's household (as they do in spaces of Lifeforce, Eaten Alive), and their omnipresence merely underlines the curve of their shape, the otherworldly naturalism of their manufacture (nature = human nature, human nature = human design).  Such is the lamp behind the overgrowing Steven, a shape of light, a "bulb" (as of a flower).  A leaf illuminated, the image characterized by overgrowth.  Hooper's images are about the density of what they contain.

The bluebell lampshades I have mentioned in a previous writing, accompanying Beatrice Straight's insisted-upon storytelling journey into the afterlife.  "Angel's Trumpets."

A hanging lampshade of stain-glass, blossoming superfluity. 

The bluebells return as a crown of light for Colonel Carlsen, Lifeforce a film in which he would be crowned again, a King of Lights, the Prince of the Masculine and Feminine.  I will get to that later.

While we are on it, let us discuss the trucking-in "look of awe" shots so typically attributed to Spielberg.  I don't suppose a whole case of ownership can be made for one brief shot, for one of the more subtle and integrated, into the sequence-cloth, of the much-made-out-of "Spielberg face."  Could it have been filmed any other way?  I feel any filmmaker worth his salt would be able to find coverage of the two scientists with this degree of mise en scene, as opposed to the clumsier shot of the two in medium-long shot that is used to overlay the optical effects of the apparition dissipating into the air - which of course must have been Hooper.  This, though, is all Spielberg!  It is solitary, as the one recognizable Spielbergian trucking-in shot in the completed sequence, but I suppose we also have the truck-in shot on Dana as she witnesses the house in convulsions during the climax.  Yes, definitely a Spielberg film, what with all this evidential support. (This was an entire paragraph of sarcasm, if you didn't catch on that.)

Tangina herself appears as a burst of floral energy, another connection of the supernatural with mere nature's forms, in, what the shooting script identifies as, a "Hawaiian print dress."  The dress less communicates "tropical fun," though, than it does a prim, precise communion between the medium and the radiant energy of natural-divine forms.  Both vain and delicate, painfully bourgeois (church-ready) and backed by the power of her pure convictions, her flower-print dress and lilac bow express yet another union between the worldly and the otherworldly, that limited by human nature's petty concerns and conjured by humanity's inevitable, sometimes violent and unexpected, collision point with beauty, death, the insurmountable unknowable, the efflorescence's Creator - just like the bluebell lamp (man-made but shaped to be divine).

The bluebell lampshades in close.

More arabesque, the flowing lines of natural shapes, a foregrounded chair design to contrast - or equate? - the supernatural with the natural (or the metaphysical with the geometric).

Carol Anne's headboard is a confluence of many things: the arabesque, the flower shape, the outgrowth of a network of efflorescence and inflorescence.  It is an emanation of the child, a natural outgrowth the way Steven's pillow and its flower embroidery made him part of a network of divine, nature-kissed humanity.  It is her divine life, her ivory wicker efflorescence, a concatenation of angel wings (undercut by them being essentially peacock feathers).

Essentially, life emanates from her.  Wings, feathers, the branches of a young tree.

More of Hooper's headboards, in the fruitful shape of something both entirely banal (who hasn't come across those spray-gold, fake-iron headboards of the 80's and 90's suburban upwardly mobile?) and reaching towards something heavenly, in the manner of its shapes.  It embodies Poltergeist's constant interrogation of what constitutes the sacred and the profane.

We have journeyed through Hooper's shapes as efflorescence, in the form of lamps, lights, and material-work, but we must return to efflorescence as a representation of number, of the exponential growth of nature and un-nature.  By those terms, I mean nature and that which is not nature, somehow combined or fused.  This returns us to the idea of contrast, of inhospitable pairing, of efflorescence as the blossoming of nature's forms in places where it should not exist.  Thus, we get to wallpapers.

Steven and Diane are literally backgrounded by this profane/sacred dualism in moments of extreme unsettling.  They are outmatched and outnumbered by elements of a world of unnatural beauty and natural artificiality.  Ghosts are a mere example of this profane sacrality (and vice versa!  Funny how this vice versa cuteness always seems to work... Hooper works in constant dialects).  Flowers herald their disbelief, their wrestling with this concept of the beautiful, natural, sacred, unnatural profanity.  The efflorescence overwhelms them by sheer upholding of the pattern. 

It becomes a habit of the film.  Here, Diane faces down a beast unaware an object of almost equal totemic power sits with dignified permanence behind her.  If the beast is nature's fury, the flower-print glass lamp behind her is man's indomitability in mimicking nature.  It's the profane versus the profane.  Man can win, mimicry can become sacred.  Is that not the movies in a nutshell?  No one taps into this as much as Hooper.

Flowers make an appearance constantly in Hooper's wardrobes.  In line with how important wardrobe as imagistic and dramaturgic coding is to Hooper, Hooper seems to constantly adorn his female characters with a sign of their natural resiliency: the flower print.

From major characters, to even minor characters, one cannot deny Hooper's interest in floral patterns.  It's just one would never think they would get to say this about Tobe Hooper, but he seems to be a print man.  His textiles range from Amy's baby's breath skirt, to Mrs. Harper's severe, entirely superficial display of flower print.  Madame Zena's robe suggests an alternate mother figure to Amy, womanhood as an array of ingenuous and disingenuous, faded or crisply sterile, efflorescence.

The more homonym-inclined may wonder when I might confuse fluorescence with efflorescence.  Both, though, imply the nature of flowers: form, proliferation, and color.  The absorption of light in chemicals to create these forms (whether an out-of-focus lampshade or the shapes on the wallpaper) and color (efflorescence can often be multi-color, as evidenced by Hooper's bricolage bouquet arrangements or the alternating colors of Djinn's ceiling patterns) combines with their outgrowth through the frame.  Above, Amy and Liz create a sort of "color bouquet" (or a color bar, but not relegated to strict bar shapes), as they embrace the naturalness of fear and closeness while the two boys perform the more artificial constructs of bravery and cowardice.

Let's not forget Tangina's Hawaiian dress, as well as Dr. Lesh's skirt, also laden of flowers.  Marie Windsor's skirt in her first scene of Salem's Lot speaks to her character's aged vivacity.  Salama's prayer shawl is marked with flower prints, as is her mother's scarf.

We have jumped from elements in the mise en scene, to sculpted efflorescence, to prints, and we must make our way to architecture by going back to one of Hooper's earliest works, the still largely-unseen Down Friday Street, a short avant-garde documentary Hooper made between his Peter, Paul, and Mary documentary and Eggshells.  In this film, Hooper studies a number of old Victorian houses and their antique interiors, right before they are bulldozed to the ground.  In this early work, Hooper already shows his fixation on florid lines, nature-inspired sculpture, and decorative architecture characterized by floral shapes.  As mentioned, efflorescence is most noticeable in places where it does not naturally belong, and the cast-iron, stone, or wooden "flowers" found outside or inside these American Victorian homes speak to the human attempt to capture nature, to welcome God into themselves and their homes, unbeknownst to them that this attempt is merely part of a venal, superficial, mainly self-advancing prerogative in a way of life that will sooner or later die out.  The short soon shows nature encroaching back into these antiquated mausoleums of human complacency, in the form of razing bulldozers.  Still, the memories of these artificial "nature's forms" reverberate, even as nature itself - in the form of an angry hive of bees - reclaims its truer standing.

Stone leaves encroaching into the frame - a literal overgrowing into the frame.

A ceramic Eden is depicted amidst the other artifacts of new wealth, earthly and artificial, masquerading as the divine form.  It is contained entirely in this image of kitsch verdancy.

Floral wallpaper.

A zoom-in into the decorative wave-like arabesque of a staircase's carved banister. 

The carved ornamentation of a pilaster reminds Hooper of these shapes of nature, even if it does not outwardly resemble a flower.  The embellishments and elaborateness of it is a form of efflorescence, though - a literal excess, an overgrowth, in natural shapes and forms.

This Victorian vase is the blatantly status-signifying manifestation, or physical emanation, of the floral wallpaper, which is the more aesthetically and functionally sincere.

A stain-glass natural scene.

Another wood carved ornament below, this time attached to the frame of an armchair.  It is hard to tell, but it looks like it might be the head of some animal.  Again, nature is invoked in the establishment of earthly wealth.  The divine and the profane mix, the nature of forms and the human hands that create it.

The tacky fireplace, emblazoned with homey slogans.

This is Hooper's grammar.  Left to right, an object lesson in isolating the frames and communicating their relation through separation.  Hooper does this again in The Funhouse's car ride, in which the girls and the boys are separated, joined only by the skull and dice hanging from the rear-view mirror.


 Carved arabesque.

The stud decoration on a mammoth bannister, zoomed in on until it appears like a fungus, the spread of some natural, hive-like growth.

This interest in furniture persists through Eggshells...

Texas Chain Saw and its bone furniture... and I am most reminded, in Down Friday Street's interest in antique pieces, of Eaten Alive and the curved couch back-piece in Miss Hattie's parlor that seems to trap Harvey and Libby Wood in a flowing, vulgar-yet-affluent vise during their conversation with the Madame.  Forms and flowering, humans a mere part of the flowing decor of the universe.

Our journey returns us to Hooperian efflorescence as Hooper's fixation on flower print.  In Lifeforce, Nurse Donaldson appears as a vision in a cherry blossom robe.  She is the first true burst of color in the film that isn't the aftereffect of Carlsen's frenzied fugue state.

She becomes a beacon of life (and efflorescence) merely by standing in the frame.  She is soon buttressed up against her wall of color, contrasted to the drab men who seem to be there to threaten or endanger the vivid individuality she works so hard to sustain, through that wall of hers.

When the men first enter, it is truly a shock of color, an efflorescence of personality in a film meant to show the denudation of personality.

We return to Carlsen as a man crowned and adorned with finery.  The King of Lights, and the Prince of Peace, crowned with beads, in order to carry the burden of the Masculine-Feminine, to a sexless Transfiguration.

A truly L.A. efflorescence for the L.A. film: a wallpaper in a hospital is a sea of palm trees in The Dark (1979).  They envelop L.A. detective Richard Jaeckel in a dream-like representation of Los Angeles, introducing the character to us as a man as much belonging to this environment as he is juxtaposed to it.

Again, he is framed before this wallpaper, a man as much a part of it even as he walks away from it (the frame right above), leaving it, wanting to define himself not by the attributes of the town he protects but by the impartial work he does.  His image, that of the individualistic cop, the hard-nosed anti-humanist, will be torn down.

This wallpaper seems to return in the downstairs bathroom of Poltergeist, where Steven Freeling revives his wife and daughter.

Literal overgrowth above, the preponderance of leafy figures in the frame almost overwhelming.  As if they just emerged from the "primordial" world Dr. Lesh hints at in her big scene with Diane.

Efflorescence is more curving lines, a bedpost as another bluebell shape that encases the being of the dissolute, complacent, aging Hollywood psychic.

Wallpaper again, in the half-finished oasis of black roses in Toolbox Murders's Lusman Hotel.  They end as they begin: abruptly.

It doesn't seem to mean much, but even a minor character, like the mother of the teenage boy in Toolbox, wears an embroidered knit blouse with a sash of leaves upon it, and a skirt of floral print.

Our journey through Hooper's career through his efflorescence, his use of flower shapes, patterns, and prints, approaches its close, and we do so by ending at the middle, with what are three examples that spurred this post in the first place.

As in Djinn, in Spontaneous Combustion, a bouquet of flowers plays a large part in setting up the mise en scene in a major set of the film.  A multi-colored, blue and pink bouquet stands in the middle of the "Lisa's apartment" set, a strikingly apt addition to her apartment of already much neon pinks and blues. 

In one shot, it explodes like a firework between the two star-crossed lovers, a reminder of the beauty and artifice found in the act of loving one another.  For a bouquet is both beautiful and artificial, natural and contrived.  It is nature made kitsch, and, in a film in which kitsch is characterized as the purgatorial zone where a sincere man cannot eat, and a series of lies can finally set the man's doom into motion, then Lisa's bouquet at least insists there can be a happy medium between lies and truth, love and deceit.  In another shot, the flowers are an explosion from Lisa's head.  In the way the fire shoots from Sam's body, the bouquet spills her dreams and anxieties abstractly across the frame containing her.

Genie in Night Terrors wears a dress entirely of flowers, as she purchases a bouquet of red begonias from a seller.  Throughout the entire film, she is the most "good," in that Platonic sense, in this scene, so the old-fashioned flower dress represents both timelessness and goodness.  A timeless goodness.  Hooper, never afraid of contrasts, though, allows her falling victim - to the charm of the suitor with mysterious motives, Mahmoud - to also occur in this dress.

Angela Bettis moves between rows of large, round overhead fixtures, the pattern of circles making it resemble another spread of fungal growth on a surface.  Fungal spots, I originally called this image.  It perfectly encapsulates the decay and grief, the naturalness of death and decomposition, that is such a theme of this film.