Friday, March 9, 2018

THAS: Scene from Salem's Lot #4 / Dramatic Tensions / Masculine-Feminine

Phantom threads run through Salem's Lot, inscribing the "masculine-feminine" qualities I have mentioned in a previous write-up, which also contained a framework of seamster/seamstress metaphors to bring it all home - the comported divination of masculine-feminine unification through constant dissolution and resolution of strong and weak traits, strong and weak threads, to create a work of art; a "the hardness of the needle and thread" sort of proposition.  Salem's Lot's durable delicacy is shown in how strongly it endures, despite the limitations and terms of its existence: the length, the source, the fragmented teleplay, the politeness of certain aspects of it.  I am over calling it any less than a masterwork of Hooper's, though, and this is because its limits divine themselves, work themselves out through Hooper's constant tailoring, and with the fragments of an article, one need only the hands of someone like Hooper and his uncommon judgment to sew them together.  If Stephen King's psychological tome predicates the believability of its small-town portrait through explicit verbal and behavioral ugliness and a realism via hard personal observations - of civil degradation, of a flavor expressly Americana - then Hooper and Monash's Salem's Lot has to clear a lot of room in its Hollywoodized, watered-down recreation of the ugly American population King can largely leave to our imagination.  If De Palma and Monash doubled down on King's psychological cruelties, in Carrie, through an intense femininity, the unleashed female id manifested in the powerful manipulations of both its main character and De Palma's similarly unleashed cinema, Hooper, with Monash, creates psychological cruelty through a pulling back, a Playhouse 90 (for which Monash did write) drama of masculine and feminine control, a truer artifice than either King or De Palma's histrionics, arriving at realism not as lurid vaudeville theater, but Chekovian refinement (in fragments).  This is a way to underline the unique success of Salem's Lot's complete lack of psychological cruelty, its observations through unreality - that is, its TV-mandated tameness, its out-of-reach grasping toward the vulgar, blue-collar pulse of King, or the intensity of his personification of psychological profaneness - and that this modal fineness is not succumbed to, is not at a loss of King's pummeling critiques, but is only tailored by Hooper to appear all-too-effortless as a mode of self-expression.

Hooper has never been a filmmaker of psychological cruelty, no matter how much we see Sally scream and suffer.  This is because he is never a filmmaker of condescension.  We are always there with Sally, we suffer alongside her, and she is never alone.  This goes for all his characters.  No character is an outcast, a lone figure, whose psychology is outside the reach of our understanding, of the film's phantom holism.  We may relate to Carrie, but we cannot observe her (through De Palma's overt style) without dissociating from her at some point.  Salem's Lot, with all its artificial renderings of its characters and milieu, is masculine and feminine because it never bemoans this stacked deck against it, this alignment with drama and artificiality.  Rather than rebel against it, this classical conscription, this domesticated televisuality, he works with it, using the shakier elements to mine the masculinity and femininity of its design, its lack, its triumphant recomposure (as either masculine or feminine).  Empathy is something different from identification, in that even if we cannot personally identify, we can still empathize.  Salem's Lot is this constant act of depersonalizing and reconstituting empathy through forms, across a wide spectrum of characters.  We at a moment identify male (perhaps with the lead character Ben), then quickly find ourselves dissoluble and reconstitute female, perhaps as we watch Hooper's camera study the unwavering libido of "Boom Boom" Bonnie Sawyer.  All are treated with the same amount of genuine curiosity, Hooper's thread poised to pass across all these pieces, like an assurance of quality.  Salem's Lot and its beleaguered superficiality, as an adaptation, as a televisually-transposed melodrama, is the perfect fodder to exhibit Hooper's tastefully-arrived-at honing of artifice and visual observation, in which we only get to know any character so much as to recognize what is human in them - what is recognizable, not what is different.  The artifice no longer matters at that point truest observational skill is attained.  Hooper can observe like no other.  In his control and within his abilities for reconstitution is the superficial nature of the screenplay, the obligation to be concise, the TV-formatted effort to dramatize the King novel, the too-old casting of a number of characters, played by character actors who, while excellent, are playhouse-ready, actors all-too-recognizably so.  The sincerity of Hooper's craft finds him searching for believability where others would embrace recklessness, and the thread that runs through Salem's Lot is the dignity of this search for belief in its sprawling tale, as well as the connections Hooper and Monash inevitably make by structuring the film in such a way, rendering it visually as a series of give-and-takes in which Hooper is poised to make such connections, if through instincts alone, despite its shortcomings in a completed verity.  Off to the winds Hooper the seamster/seamstress goes to make sure every fragment of Salem's Lot's exhibits the masculine-feminine artistry of "Loss Regained", Ruiz and Proust's stream-of-consciousness time travel of "Time Regained" replaced by Hooper's clear and reducible observations and summations of the numerous pushes and pulls, sums and differences, additions and subtractions (an arithmetic to art), between feminine and masculine (meaningless to Hooper, the "femininity" of the seamstress sacrificing for her work one and the same with the delicate "masculine" threads holding it all together), artifice and reality, collapse and recomposure.  This flat, televisual form and look becomes cinematic under the magnifying glass, where each seam becomes clear, where the "drama" of it is invisibly created.  Through this is revealed a subtle, formally manifested awareness of the dramatic tensions that underlie the film, phantom threads bespeaking the sensitivity and cruelty (a cruel sensitivity, a sensitive cruelness) of the maker.

#2 - Dramatic Tensions - Three chapters close in one sequence

Here is a passage from the film striking in all conceivable departments: the juggling of narrative, the cross-cutting of such (and the reasons behind such a device), the vision of a community, the subdued but resplendent quality of Hooper's actors and camera, the seriousness of emotive and cinematic qualities that shine through in combined subtlety and splendor, richness and aspirational craft; the script itself, which provides a sly and incisively punctuated conversation between James Mason's stranger and the town constable.

Beginning right after one of the film's most famous horror moment (vampire Ralphie Glick visiting, at the hospital room window, his older brother Danny), it starts simply with the droll illustrating of Straker's morning drive into town.

He carries the suits he is supposed to hand over to the sheriff, as possible evidence against him in connection with the disappearance of the Glick boy.

Cut to the scene's first notable shot, a view of the town from the preying eyes of the diseased house.  One of those Hooper shots that explicitly defy the single-function mentality of simplistic aestheticism, this shot does not just fly wildly in two directions or travel from a Point A to a Point B, but serves a formal experimentation not unthinking towards its dramatic and allegorical shading.  Engendered from its rigidity, weaving direction between a frozen town and a moving car, a mere pivoting transforming into a flying dolly shot.  Cut from one conceptual shot to another: Straker ensconced inside a mobile casket, his car.

The following is one of the "harder" passages of the film.  Cutting from the passive depiction of Straker on his drive, a conceding to a "soft" concept, we introduce one character (the nurse) in rapid succession with another (dead Danny Glick).  Three characters are here at the subjugation to montage, four if you include the clattering hospital tray.  What is masculine about this shock montage is answered by a return to the "feminine" shot of Straker inside his car.  I hope one realizes by now the "masculine"/"feminine" terms are largely arbitrary, contrastive rather than delineative, simply a pointer to an opposition of forms, a solubility that allows many different stark elements to be then threaded.

We can categorize this "feminine": the tapestry-creating of the numerous landmarks of Salem's Lot's, the influenced shots of the camera being passed off between two different things within an interactive geography.

And we can characterize as "masculine" the dissolution from "concept shots" back to sturdy narrative.  Straker leaves his car, walks across the street, and we cut to Constable Gillespie reacting to his approach, glimpsed through double-door blinds.

The precision and order of Salem's Lot is another dip into the feminine.  The following scene presents a confrontation through a moving master shot punctuated by evolving shot-reverse shot alternations.  It is the diversity of these musical movements within Salem's Lot that allow for the effective threading of dramatic stakes to come through.  Unlike the repetition (and bombastic repetition, at that) of many a serial drama, Salem's Lot exhibits new curiosities with each new scene: the solubility of a rich mineral tapestry, chemical compounds in tapestry with more compounds, combinations breaking down and reconstituting.


The theme of domestic abuse comes to a close in this very segment, making it an important passage in nature.  It is not a rare criticism for Salem's Lot, that its sprawling narrative threads are more than unsatisfactorily drawn and less than spectacularly closed, and I suspect a small amount of confusion is gained from the subplot concerning the married couple Cully and Bonnie Sawyer, such a prominent subplot in the first quarter of the film, yet quickly and summarily vanquished in tidy manner with Larry Crockett's (played by Fred Willard) death and Cully and Bonnie's driving out of town. In a first viewing, it could almost make you think the characters just vanish, but they are not as thoughtlessly dropped as it may seem: rather, they are simply wrapped from the story.  After Cully exposes the affair, and the night in which he strikes her, we see them simply leave town altogether, apparently as simple as packing up their things and leaving in Cully's business-on-wheels (a trucking and hauling business).

It is actually quite a satisfying and bracing conclusion - they disappear altogether from the rest of the film, and presumably survive the creeping plague of the vampires altogether as well.  Lucky them.  This is a resolution of a prominent double-shading, both as merciless as it is merciful, ironic as it is expected.  It is masculine in its cruelty, feminine in its passivity.  It perfectly mirrors the couple, the same way Hooper's panning shot between the two mirrors our assiduous sympathies.  We abhor the smug Straker, we alarm at the escaping Cully, and we are given a cold splash of water to the face in the form of the battered Bonnie, whose safety from the vampire onslaught is only ensured by her continuing bondage.  The dissolving identity of story and sympathies.  Monsters slipping through the cracks, as they've always done, this story or another.  The monstrous husband as a victim's salvation.  The story of Bonnie may very well continue on to King's Rose Madder, his novel about battered women united fighting off a patriarchal menace in a safe home.  That pan shot between husband and wife, ensuring our dialectic or dialogue of sympathies, makes the idea of liberation possible.  Our dissolving sympathies - here, from Straker to Cully to Bonnie - enable action, not passivity.  The threading of Hooper's tactile work allows for the dissolving, the reconstitution.  The wealth of shifting masculine-feminine connectivity ensures its existence as a work of art.

In this fluid sequence, three chapters are closed with invisible finality, an interconnected plight: the existence of Danny Glick, Constable Gillespie's half-hearted pursuit of Straker, and Cully and Bonnie Sawyer's residency in the town of Salem's Lot.

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