Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Spontaneous Combustion, the Miracle Film

Hooper is a filmmaker who works constantly outside his means.  His imagination is continuously short-circuited, his imaginings never served by practical considerations, always falling beyond his means, not to mention people's understandings.  Add to this perhaps the limits of his own powers, and certainly his industry constrictions (though that latter point will not be a focus of this post).

Would you believe me if I said Spontaneous Combustion, as it now exists, is actually three-quarters of the actual film it was initially conceived as being?  This would not be a surprise, left merely as speculation, for the final product is littered with what seems like gaps, logical empty spaces where strands appear forgotten, connections entirely left for the viewer to complete on their own.  This has always been part of Hooper's methods, professing repeatedly his feelings against the act of explaining everything away for the viewer.  It is his fidelity to reality that prevents this act.  But Spontaneous Combustion actually most recalls a Seventh Victim-like phenomena (that is, the Mark Robson/Val Lewton 1943 Satanist thriller, which also lost many scenes in the final cut).  These are films so symbolically and openly, naively dramatized, that when the cuts, deletions, and shooting foibles started happening, they still retain that strange, ineluctable symbolism to their very shape and very movement... almost enhanced by the moments deemed "taboo" now forbidden from our view, as if their advances to meaning might have been too great for mortal eyes.

Spontaneous Combustion is a film that should have had three months or six months for production, but had a month, give or take.  None of the fascinating practicalities of its making nor persons on the set, beside Hooper himself, could come near to understanding the titanic endeavor of creating a miracle film, one almost from the get-go not meant to exist in any state but an embattled one.  Hooper's vision was much too grand, too sensitive, too much of a concept from the very onset - a hooked and brambly crystal showpiece (much like the chandelier in the film) a mere lost filming day from shattering completely, forcing its way to existence despite all practical factors and a world against such fantasias (don't worry, Spontaneous Combustion has several times more mature the metaphorical treatment of mother!, perhaps closer to The Fountain in its humanist excesses; but we should be comparing Hooper to surrealist symphonists like Vigo and Fellini, trenchant symbolists like Vonnegut or Pynchon, rather than the recent salacious fantasies of a Hollywood bad boy).

It should have not have had to build every one of its sets to a hurried specification.

It should not have had to battle anything, such its nature as a miracle film.  It was conceived to be a miracle, something uncommon in the market, but it instead became a miracle in its metamorphoses, its battling survival, its phantom forms; multiple states of existence; its lingering pure-mission that extends over all talk of it and all remaining parts and parcels of it, permeating atemporally from Hooper's pure-mission back then in March of 1989 and extending to now, where its influence is still felt in the possibilities of this world [this art] to always speak to a higher mission.

That it was endeavored at all, that the idea such a "large" - spiritually and logistically - film could be pulled off under such constraints, is miraculous in itself, but Hooper had to have enough belief in the story that such constraints might have only goaded him to tell it to any extent he can.
"Containing very little in terms of commercial viability, it plays out like a TV drama written for the screen, and that is meant as a compliment.  Little to nothing happens in this film, other than the explication of nuclear history and the sacrificing of oneself for the power of love.  There is no powerful mystery in this film, just random displays of feelings." (Excerpt from my Revista Detour essay)

The Spontaneous Combustion shooting script is now available for anyone to read.  I will provide a link soon (watch my Twitter account @jayjayabramzon).  Yes, whole subplots were removed.  The final act is totally rethought and reconstructed.

The script is a purest horror film, angled away from the melodramatic love story/martyr's tale of the simplified film.  Suddenly structured incredibly similar to Djinn, the hand-off of the story from Dourif's Sam to Cynthia Bain's Lisa is even more clear and decisive.  It instigates Lisa's own prolonged descent into paranoia and persecution, the status of "traitor" shoved onto her by the ever-punitive fabric of American living - that is, one of constant and everlasting self-defense.

Sam becomes a monster.  He is the classic post-experiment mad lunatic-by-circumstances, the Mr. Hyde or megalomaniac Invisible Man after they've imbibed or injected their serums.  The mother's lullaby - "Use your power, " "Our love will save the world" - suddenly plays its proper function.  Hooper's environmental, nuclear tirade becomes more explicit and radical, tying him even closer to Kiyoshi Kurosawa and his agitated environmentalist films: Sam comes to the conclusion his "purpose" (remember Lisa's chart reading: "You're a very important man... with a purpose") is to eliminate half the world's population using his power as an electrical being, to be a reset button for the world, one "diseased," "infected," and ridden with "atomic blisters."

The ending is not the simplistic fable of love conquering hate, purification through redemption, but salvation as an untold descent into nothingness, Sam's protectiveness over Lisa manifested as the dispersal of all his "fire" into the filaments of a crystal world because he has no love to hold onto, as this immaterial "atomic man."  I have seen this ending.  It exists (not in as full-bodied a way as scripted, know now; the script is quite "out of its mind," almost Zulawskian levels of physicality and hysteria), in yet another miracle of this film that - in a world of production and consumption that never rewards simply intentions, would hardly think to recognize works jump-started out of seemingly a pure epistemological need - should never have been attempted in this such realm.  I was shown a VHS dupe copy of a rough cut, unfinished FX work and all.  And it might not work, it might not have any lasting usage, without the rest of the material that was cut, the cut scenes leading up to the ending, which is the material that largely sets up Sam as a monstrous spectral figure.  Without that, we do not know Sam wrestles with what his "purpose" is, leaving the original ending with only half of its existential quandaries.  This is all in footage which I have not seen.  But if you are to believe me, also believe that the original ending contains a final image that seems to recall McCabe & Mrs. Miller's final moment, and seems to match it in power and the allegation of the world as an atomic explosion of life and salvation and death, that humanity - after deeming itself the center of things - can only peer, and peer, and peer into, the atomic, fractal milky ways of eternity.

We have this original ending existing, in some form, out there, like Sam himself in the original story, but we don't have him over the phone with Lisa laying in a bank of "silk clouds" with a "marble sky" (that of her skirt and apartment floor), somehow telekinetically being with Lisa but in a different, atomic world at the same time.  We don't have Lisa feeling the weight of America's history as the world proclaims to her, "Death to traitors!"  We don't have Sam questioning whether God exists for an atomic being.

This is the essence of Spontaneous Combustion's miracle existence, that a work of such beautiful aspirations can exist as an ideal that never can actually exist, but can indeed exist.  This post is the first motion toward this, this lasting life for an ideal that may never be matched, materialized, known, or even could ever have existed by any realistic expectations in this temporal moment, and in whatever philosophical grandeur the cinema will prove to hold in this existence we've chosen.  Never matched, in other "temporal moments," except perhaps in ways greater than actually existing; in its not existing.  What doesn't exist is eternal.  Like Sam.  What we have is a thing of beauty, and what we don't have is a thing of hope.  This goes towards the film's "miracle" nature.


Stan Giesea said...

I love this post! Very fascinating, insightful take on this wonderfully unique film.

JR said...