Friday, December 15, 2017

THAS: Anatomizing THE DARK

Asking for a friend - but how much of a movie can you shoot in four days?

Thanks to one Jonny Sambuca at the Tobe Hooper Fan Club Facebook page for finding and transcribing this quote:


"It was an unpleasant and totally impossible situation.  There was a conspiracy where the first assistant director [Cardos], who was a friend, had shot a picture before for these people and actually had been promised this one.  But Bill Devane wanted me, and so did the associate producer [Igo Kantor], and the actual producer [Edward L. Montoro], who produced Grizzly, The Day of the Animals, and had re-edited and distributed Beyond the Door." [Makes me wonder if Hooper was as avid a viewer of disposable genre fare as the ones he so knowledgeably calls by name here, even if the proposition was on the table to be working for these producers.  I imagine these were somewhat high-profile pictures, as this was a different time when every low-budget genre film got its time in the drive-in or Broadway theater spotlight.  So Hooper giving these films the time of day, as a movie-watcher, is less absurd than Michael Mann screening the Silent Night, Deadly Night remake for a taste of the current zeitgeist.]

"But this producer and I had a conflict that would occur daily.  He had a vision, and I had a vision, and they clashed.  I found myself not wanting to be a traffic cop... and consequently, I was not.  So I shot about four days of the picture after prepping it.  [ed. Emphasis mine]  In four days, I probably had five major arguments." [What he entirely means by this "traffic cop" comment is a little hazy to me.  If being a traffic cop implies following the directives of the producer, and so these directives essentially involved him "directing traffic" of actors, crew, etc. while the producer imposed his will, then the producer's directions may just have been either a total watering down of Hooper's trademark visual language or perhaps a total diverting of how Hooper saw and envisioned the characters and the story, and the producer was essentially trying to "direct" the film for him.  Short of that, since Hooper says he and the producer had their arguments, meaning he wielded his directorial power to some extent in his four days, the producer was, we can presume, watching like a hawk, being critical, trying to rush his process.]

"The producer [Montoro] should have directed the movie.  He did not confine his interests to story planning.  He interrupted something that was very personal, very specific, very well thought-out, well-learned-through-hardship style.  My vision of film is stylistic - which does not exclude commercialism.  There's no reason why a commercial picture cannot also be a dynamite film.  And the times we're in right now, it takes something to get those kids into the local theater.  However, it's also a matter of having, once you get them in there, a degree of credibility." [It's rare to get a statement of intent from the notoriously inarticulate, unforthcoming Hooper, so it's a treat to get it in the form of an indirect statement regarding a project in which his mission was taken from him.] [Now, in this comment, the question is how closely he felt attached and how closely he developed a vision of The Dark, as suggested in his comment about "prepping it" and then going into production for four days.  It may be very little.  But as far as I see it, the film has a "credibility" that I do not think would be there had Hooper not been involved.  In this comment, he mentions something that was "very personal," "very specific," and the question is if he is referring to The Dark specifically or if he is speaking generally.  He seems to digress into something general, but there is no denying he must have been applying this "personal" and "specific" style to The Dark.  So again, what exactly did he prep (at the least, it is certain locations they shot) and how does the extent of his preparations bleed into the film as it exists and was completed?  To what extent can we surmise  his involvement; to what extent did he think about the film, its script, and its cinematography, and how much influence could he have exerted before it was taken away from him?  What survives of it?  What survives, despite of and even in spirit with the film that was subsequently executed by the dutiful journeyman Cardos (whose distinctly amiable and gung-ho style I can appreciate), as aided by veteran cinematographer John A. Morrill, whose work, independently of a director, in such works as Kingdom of the Spiders and The Witchmaker, I find consistently incredible?  Is director and cinematographer discussion during pre-production, if such a thing took place, enough to instill a certain level of constancy in a film's mood and style, even when the director is replaced?  (I finally was able to listen to the voice of John Morrill in the commentary track of Kingdom of the Spiders, and it was a privilege to hear from his own mouth his feelings for and devotion to filmmaking.  Unfortunately and sadly, I believe he passed away about a year ago.  RIP.)  As much as I can admire Cardos's flamboyant touch in his films, such as in the likes of 1984's Mutant, it is his work with Morrill that most suggests a true classical sophistication, as if Morrill was as sensitive to style as his directors, and was able to hone it.  Morrill may very well be the "secret auteur" behind A Boy and His Dog, Kingdom of the Spiders, The Dark, The Hideous Sun Demon, and The Witchmaker.]

The story behind the production of The Dark is an unfortunate and secretive one, although probably less fodder for conspiracies than I may be want to believe.  Eaten Alive, Poltergeist, Hooper's 2013 novel "Midnight Movie" - all works of Hooper's that, true to his character, are saddled with questions of authorship.  Hooper proves a problematic auteur for many reasons, the sad fact that he has proven weak in the midst of conflagration and combativeness with many a studio and producer.  This has extended to the anemic financial and creative means he'd find himself working with in his 2000s work and the government censorship that afflicted his last work Djinn.  To add to this track record the possibly-jointly-composed The Dark is the straw breaking the camel's back.  The Dark differs from Poltergeist, from Eaten Alive, which are undoubtedly his works, in that it is, undoubtedly, unquestionably, a work with two authors.  Doubt lingers, but I have always maintained my admiration of the film, and evidence remains that Hooper's imprint is on the picture, if to a proportionally minor degree, evidence I will present later (in the post).  Hooper himself states he only shot four days.  Accounts vary, though, not because of some great, malefic design to obfuscate the truth, but because these things don't really matter to producers who are there merely to turn out a product and make a profit from it.  If a film has two authors, one an irrepressible layman stylist, the other a deeply conceptual artist, then so what?  As long as the film is finished and can be touted as a decent genre film by one director.  The details are unimportant, the existence of a deep-seated artistry in the margins of their profitable sci-fi/horror tentpole film completely incidental and not worth studying or finding the truth.  I speak mainly of Igo Kantor, who has mentioned, rather, two or three days that Hooper worked on it (Hooper, of course, may be the one who is mistaken), and who is less forthcoming about the reasons behind Hooper's ouster.  In a recent commentary track on the Code Red Blu-Ray release, Kantor weaves an incredibly tangled story about Hooper sneaking off during lunch breaks, going to the nearby clinics to obtain medication for an undisclosed health condition, and his returning to set in a daze.  The loyal and respectful Cardos, who is by all means a nice guy and a committed craftsman and maker of films, essentially murmurs assent of Kantor's account.  Apart from that, and without mention of Edward Montoro's creative bulldozing, the agreed upon stance on Hooper's firing is that, in those three days, Hooper fell a week short of schedule and he was formally let go.  The medication stupors were merely an incident of note.  Now there's no reason for these producers to need to show respect or courtesy to a man they worked only a few weeks with before severing ties with under less than amicable circumstances, but especially galling is the company line they tout in expressing, ostensibly respectfully, that Hooper was inevitably unfit for the job as he was only used to the independent productions and small crew he had while making Texas Chain Saw MassacreThe Dark would have surely been Hooper's cross-over into full-blown, high-budgeted, full-crew filmmaking, but they insist on a canned spiel about how Texas Chain Saw was filmed "over two years, off-and-on, on weekends," which is, of course, verifiably false.  I, for one, see only weak justifications for an outfit that sees fit to only care about easy filmmaking and the profit margin, and would pull the same stunt of distrust and lack of good faith towards another experienced filmmaker, Mark Rosman, on 1984's Mutant.

Now the fact of the matter is, how much of the footage was shot by Hooper, that exists in the film, if any?  This matter is, indeed, buried in contradictory statements and unforthcoming accounts.  It is true that a majority of the film is likely entirely realized by John Cardos.  There is no conspiracy to that effect.  But there is a minor infidelity that seems to grow ever more tangible, a denial of a film's worth - its "credibility" - by a negation and disinterest in its likely fascinating, complicated, and infused-of-artistry development.  I believe enough in this film that I have no doubt the pedigree of its many authors has lead to a beautiful, cleansing, if bastardized, rent, whiplashed, botched, film.  I have already lauded cinematographer John Morrill, one of the authors.  John Cardos brings vivacity of humor and a flamboyant camera to the proceedings, his mobile staging of populated scenes bringing effervescence to Morrill's precise refinement.  And Stanford Whitmore's screenplay is something to behold, a matter-of-fact poetry to everyday trial surely brought in - into this so-called creature feature, with a truly lofty sense - from his long history as a television dramatist and published author of an anti-war novel (he also wrote the teleplay for the Poltergeist-inspiration Twilight Zone episode "Little Girl Lost" -- creeepy).  But we may be being denied another author here, and this would be Hooper, who went into this project with the desire to lend credibility to a commercial endeavor.  I think the film exudes his trial and his effort, even as it was inevitably lightened by Cardos's hand.  I think Hooper set forth a mission that was inevitably realized, if marred by a producer who went laser-happy.  I think the film's inconsistencies don't fly in the face of a cinematographer who has some standards of serious art-making, and I think Cardos's gauche quirky theatrics enhance a film that is all about its tapestry of characters, plus a monster that may as well be a MacGuffin, considering how totally and completely it is stripped of any rationale or explanation by money-hungry producers.  I think Hooper saw a film of some dramatic higher purpose, a human ensemble picture similar to Salem's Lot and The Funhouse, and if he wasn't able to honor its coolness (he would have inevitably made it more dour, similar to Richard Fleischer grittying up John Farrow's noir confection in the notorious Howard Hughes cock-up His Kind Of Woman, creating an opposite effect than here, where the more whimsical Cardos came in and confectioned the work of a descendent of Fleischer), he was able to spearhead its poetic possibilities, such as a blind man who representationally appears before every murder, or the crossed connection when William Devane bumps into the doomed actor who essentially prances through the film like a lost lamb on the slaughter floor.  Perhaps all of this was in the script by Stanford Whitmore, and Hooper and Cardos are merely the cogs, working at half-capacity, to simply getting this script to the screen so it can bring joy to the one person: myself.  I think Hooper may still exist in the film, in the form of scenes he shot, and some evidence has presented itself.  It might not be much footage, but it's something, and, as Hooper himself would say, a film is merely a spirit that must be channeled, invisible forces that get something unique and variously influenced onto the screen.  No one owns a film.  Hooper has only ever done his best to bring this forth to the people who can see.

Not too long ago, a credible public personage/established screenwriter who had collaborated with Hooper revealed, somewhat publicly, the following: Hooper at some point alluded to the fact that when he finally saw the film of The Dark, he "was shocked at how much he had shot ended up in the final version."  Hooper would have "[disputed] getting director credit" (it's clear from the original account that Hooper means a director credit, not the director credit), by going to the DGA, but since he didn't do it upon the film's release, the ship had undeniably sailed.

Now for a person who shot only four days but was probably under the apprehension that all his footage would be scrapped, seeing any amount of your footage on the screen would probably come as a shock.  This story does not necessarily press quantity, but merely, you can say, the principle of the thing.  The idea of Hooper's work remaining in the film has experienced its own turgid arc.  John Cardos, in a first commentary recorded for the Shriek Show DVD, states that none of Hooper's footage was used in the final film because the DGA would not allow it.  But in the recent Blu Ray release by Code Red, in which a brand new commentary was released featuring Cardos as well as Igo Kantor, when asked the question by moderators, Kantor relents, stating uncertainly that maybe some of Hooper's little footage is in the film, "mostly not."  The preponderance of evidence thus points to Hooper's footage being in the film.  What to do with this possibility, then, is my own personal dilemma.

We can always question Hooper's meaning in his claim in a number of ways.  Perhaps he was being facetious.  Perhaps he was merely being bitter about the amount of work he did cultivating the film, and seeing it represented up there but by a different filmmaker's hand riled him to the point of making a specious claim about getting an ironic sort of credit.  Perhaps he confused his footage for an identical reshoot, and does that even happen? (Besides in Justice League and All the Money in the World and... I mean, films not made by cheapskate 70's production companies.)

So now it is simply upon me to make some completely unsupported value judgements about the film, and my theorizing of what Hooper may have shot.  This is going to be simply presented and to-the-point.  I have to think educatedly about a film's production schedule, about the pages per day of a normal shoot, about location access and whether things would be shot consecutively/on the same day/etc.  I do not know too much about these things, so bear with me:

* Igo Kantor, in the Blu Ray commentary, mentions a shooting schedule no more than a month.  Can this support an idea that Hooper, if shooting four days, may have shot 1/4 (to 1/5) of the picture?  John Cardos mentions spending a few days in the Fontana, CA winery where they shot the climax of the picture.  If that one sequence took two to three days, that even more favors more of a wealth of Hooper footage than if the film took 5 to 6 weeks to film.
* Now to get to what I think may have been Hooper-shot scenes.  I am going to have to suggest all scenes with Jacquelyn Hyde.  Why?  Even though I may very well be wrong, John Cardos does not have one word to say about Jacquelyn Hyde in any of his printed interviews or DVD/Blu-Ray featurettes.  He mentions Keenan Wynn, Cathy Lee Crosby, Richard Jaeckel, Biff Elliot, even the actor who plays the blind man, but he never says anything more than "Yeah, her" when Hyde is mentioned.  Not exactly incontrovertible evidence, especially since he was present during Hooper's days as well and thus would have been on the set with her, but this is an easy "in" for the De Renzy scenes, which exhibit a visually baroque and studied quality not present in even the most visually disarming, but essentially boilerplate, scenes that I may have entertained the idea as belonging to Hooper.  Hooper has a restrained touch, whereas Cardos has a "glam" touch.  Thus, some of my favorite moments are inevitably going to be Cardos-shot, as The Dark is a film in which I love each moment almost more than the last (except for the climax, which is sturdily shot enough but essentially lame and full of Cardos's trademark over-the-top stunt work).  There is a BTS shot of Cardos directing Cathy Lee Crosby and Keenan Wynn in the little cafe they have a lunch at, and that scene always gets me, from its initial dolly shot to the two actors' muggy performances (definitely a Cardos trademark), shot in a beautiful Panavision OTS (thank you, John Morrill).  The car chases, which I love, are no doubt Cardos, who has a flair for such things, as a former stunt man and stunt driver (plus they're not going to be shot in the first four days of shooting).

The De Renzy scenes, though, are marked by very unusual camera work.  These scenes would be, and that I would venture to be Hooper-shot: De Renzy's home scenes, her visit to the police station, possibly the yacht scene, though I cannot imagine Hooper going the whole nine yards and filming on a yacht with a full crew, then getting fired a day or so later.
* The 90% Sure: Assuming any of Hooper's footage is in the film, we can be sure of:
- Roy Warner (William Devane) gets the news about his daughter's murder at a payphone.  This was reportedly the scene during which the producers made the decision Hooper was just not working fast enough.  (But it's only a 30-second scene consisting of two shots from the same angle!)
* The 80% Sure: The most idiosyncratically Hooper-reminiscent scenes.  These contain camera movements or framings I tend to think no one else can duplicate:
- De Renzy's interior house scenes.  There are 4 separate, if brief, scenes inside her home.  1) De Renzy smokes and shuts off sports news. 2) De Renzy walks to the mirror and grasps her throat. 3) De Renzy shuts off sports news yet again, walks to mirror, is beset by vision of the monster and a supernatural windstorm. 4) Roy Warner visits the upturned home and finds a stroke-addled De Renzy in her bedroom.  Would it be logical to assume 1-3 were shot on the same day?  The lighting scheme never changes between them.  The only doubt would be the filming of the special effects sequence in 3, the winds ransacking the house, and also the question of whether 4 is shot in a completely different location than 1-3.  Are 1-3 a sound stage?  4 has some particularly Hooperian images, but it might be a location (an actual Beverly Hills home that they dressed to look wrecked) they must have used up most of a single day on.  I would put more of my bets on 1-3 as Hooper filmed than 4.
1)

  4)
- Roy Warner confronts Officer Mooney (Richard Jaekel) in the street outside the police station.  When Mooney gets out of his car, there is a swiveling camera along with him and this shot is in numerous Hooper works!  It's gotta be!  Plus, the use of the architecture of the body of the Corvette to frame the actors.
- I'm always struck by the cold, cold fear that Hooper did not work at all with Cathy Lee Crosby.  She's much too posh and buoyant for the low-key Hooper, who'd only worked with relative unknowns (then again, he did work with Mary Travers of "Peter, Paul, and", then later worked a few days with Oliver Reed, Sterling Haydn, Klaus Kinski, and Susan George).  But an initial shot in the broadcast room scene of the monitor banks that then glides over to Keenan Wynn, Crosby, and Jay Lawrence is the sort of awkward panning shot that occurs in so many Hooper films.
* The 70% Sure
- Mooney and Bressler's (Biff Elliot) office scenes.  These are two scenes, one involving De Renzy visiting them and the other involving a meeting with their Police Captain (Warren Kemmerling) and the police pathologist (Casey Kesem).  The latter is another risky proposition, positing Hooper worked with the one and only Casey Kesem.  Both scenes are populated with idiosyncratic and very particular camera movements and framing.  Perhaps they were filmed in conjunction, and perhaps the exterior scene between Devane and Jaeckel was filmed outside this location on the same day, for expediency's sake.

* The 50% Sure: As you can see, the probability has jumped down by a larger margin, as I am beginning to push the boundaries of my 4 day limit.
- Another police station scene, a department meeting to discuss the murders with the police pathologist, with less of the instantly placeable Hooperian tics, more a generic competency.  But my strategy is to place all common-location scenes in a tier.  If one scene greatly resembles Hooper in a location, then the probability of another scene shot in the same or similar location being filmed by Hooper is higher.
- The morgue/hospital scene and the bar scene.  I am really pushing it now with these two completely separate scenes shot in two different locations, but they represent a continuity in the creation of Devane's character and they really speak to me of Hooper's style.  Kantor and Cardos claim Devane was the most upset with Hooper leaving the project, and that Devane and Hooper essentially came up with the characterization together of Roy Warner as an ex-Easy Rider sort of hippie.  I can only imagine it was Hooper who could have given him such off-the-wall directions as, in the bar scene with Jaeckel, "Keep on coughing for some reason, you're either terminally ill or sick, i.e. it represents your soul!"


* Scenes That I Really Want Hooper to Have Shot, But Probably Didn't
- Scenes in the hallways of the news station.  There are two of these scenes: Cathy Lee Crosby, Keenan Wynn, and Jay Lawrence discussing Crosby's copy.  The second, Cathy Lee Crosby nervously navigating the station hallways and enduring a dread-induced elevator ride, before running into Roy Warner and going home with him.  Hooper loves his dread-filled elevator sequences, but it seems plausible for such a sequence to be pulled off by anyone.


- Keenan Wynn fleeing from an unknown/not-present fear in the parking garage of the news station.  This scene is integral to the film's thematic holism, but it can just as well have been executed by anybody.

- Two elegant scenes involving William Devane.  One, in which he takes a call in his home from his ex-wife's lawyer and that culminates in a slow track-in into a picture of his murdered daughter as a little girl.  The other, Devane ordering a burger at a drive-thru fast food place that culminates in an indescribably beautiful dolly-boom pull-out.

 
- Devane and Crosby first meet in a swanky restaurant (Devane bumps into Randy on the way in)
- The romance scenes between Devane and Crosby at Devane's character's home/Devane and Crosby plan out their investigation in Devane's character's home
- William Devane questions Vivian Blaine about De Renzy on her Courtney Sea Four yacht (Yacht, daytime)
* What we have left to possibly determine is scenes that were definitely shot by Cardos, aka show no special sign of Hooper.
- All murder sequences (no principle actors) and Murder Aftermath sequences (Principal police characters) (I love the "Murder Aftermath" scenes, which punctuate the film like a refrain and are pointedly shot, so these should belong in the "Wish Hooper Shot" section; these are paired with the murder sequences below in subnumerals):
1) The opening death of Warner's daughter (Santa Monica location) (Night)
2) The ice factory manager's death (Factory location) (Night)
2a) Mooney and Bressler question the gang youths (Factory location) (Night)
3) The burly vigilante citizen's death (Santa Monica location) (Night)
3a) Mooney, Bressler, and Police Captain Speer at the crime scene (Day)
4) The airline attendant's death (Burbank Airport location) (Night)
4a) Mooney, Bressler, and Speer oversee clean-up of the Airport crime scene (Night)
- Bar scene accompanying/preceding the burly vigilante's death sequence
- The gay protest scene outside the police station (Cathy Lee Crosby, Keenan Wynn, Richard Jaeckel, Biff Elliot)
- All connective driving scenes/"car mount" scenes (Crosby & Lawrence, Jaeckel & Elliot, mainly; I love these scenes, more "Wish Hooper Shot" fodder. ;_; I love Hooper car-mount scenes...)
- Bar-hopping montage of Devane and Crosby searching for the young actor (Two separate bars)
- Devane and Crosby find the young actor Randy (Jeffrey Reese) by running into his girlfriend at a bar.  Randy looks for his keys in the grass outside the bar and drives away drunk. (Bar #3)
- Nighttime car chase sequence (All principles, minus Keenan Wynn)
- The climax at the abandoned winery (Winery location) (All principle actors, minus Keenan Wynn)

I think I will have to accept that Cardos did indeed shoot 3/4ths of this picture, and so, inevitably, some of my most wished-for scenes for attributing to Hooper will not be the case.  Still, the question of what 4 days out of 20-25 days means still stands, and the verity of Hooper's claim that some of his footage is in there is a meaningful one, as it would make him a part of this movie and what is, to me, its anomalous existence as a work of deep, human, comic, and textural exquisiteness, mixed in with the visible tragedy of the forced commingling of high art and low.  Yet I cannot see Cardos directing the blind man to enter so abstractly into the scenes of the picture, a plot element he hardly seems to understand, if the Blu Ray commentary track is anything to go by.  I can't imagine him understanding the meaning behind the final close-up shot of a blind man's walking stick tapping down an urban sidewalk like a substituting of the monster, whose feet stalking victims was given the same treatment.  I suppose I can imagine him directing it, though, and perhaps it was just all in the script.  I imagine Cardos following the script like a bible, which I must thank him for.  But, again, what exactly was this "prep" Hooper spoke of, besides location scouting and planning out the shooting schedule?  Perhaps it was a concerted belief in the multi-facets of this screenplay.  Perhaps it was discussions with William Devane, maybe other actors, about what it would mean for them to play these characters.  I don't see Hooper waxing eloquently about the depths of his characters and stories to actors prior to shooting, but I can at least see him giving out the energy of someone who wants to make a damn good and damn meaningful film out of what is essentially a piece of monster nonsense.  His merely bringing together cast, crew, and cinematographer might have set this ship sailing in the right direction, at least relatively speaking, even as it would turn out mutinous.

I can only imagine what the film would be like if the monster remained an abused mutant boy and not a space alien.  It wouldn't exactly explain the strange occult reasons for his murder-a-night, victim-beheading modus operandi, perhaps some sort of psychological, Freudian removal of the face.  In the novelization (which I have read), the monster is a pirate ghost whose grave Warner tracks down in an attempt to vanquish his curse (if my memory serves me correctly).  Perhaps Hooper's contribution was to remove the ghost element.  But, like I said, the monster remains, for me, simply a device for the elements of greater interest.

So the anatomy of The Dark is something we must attribute to two, or three, or four creators.  Its soul remains the script, its body Cardos and Hooper, its blood running through its veins John Morrill.  Forever I will be grateful to all four of them, though, as it stands now, one of those authors' contributions remains cloaked in mystery and negation.  I will always be on the lookout for that missing limb, that phantom appendage, and the god (Hooper) that got away with divesting his bastard child, this illegitimate progeny, this Frankenstein monster self-mockingly begotten, laughing and singing sweetly its own existence, bringing something beautiful into this world without anyone - its predominant director, its producer, its actors - even noticing.  Perhaps Whitmore, Morrill, and Hooper did.

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.

1
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.

2
from 'The Funhouse'







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




Thursday, November 2, 2017

POLTERGEIST

Might as well get to the bottom of this.

Martin Casella, in a panel with Oliver Robins during Days of the Dead Indianapolis: "The thing that was so strange about that scene was there was a long hallway and we had to do this very, very complicated technical dialogue walking down that hallway... and we were all having trouble memorizing that.  And then all of sudden we got to a doorway [...] We opened the door and basically we saw a big giant blue screen that was absolutely blank. [...] What we got, though, was Tobe was behind the camera, directing, and they had the camera pointing at us through the doorway, and Steven was standing on the other side of the camera with a huge pointer, like you'd have in a classroom, and then Beatrice Straight said, 'Well, what exactly are we looking at?'  And Steven said, 'Well, we don't quite know yet.  We just know that all the things in the room are going to fly around and ultimately something is going to fly at you, probably a compass.'  So Steven stood there with a pointer, and Tobe would yell 'Action' sitting up on the crane or the camera, and we would kind of open the door... [...] The three of us had a discussion of what do you think we're looking at... [...] Steven had a pointer and he would literally stand behind the film and, over the dialogue, he would go, 'Look here! Look here! Look here!'  The three of us... we looked like idiots.  Like cats! ... And finally, then the very end, he would say, 'And now the compass is coming at you!' and he would stick this pointer in Beatrice's face.  And she would shriek and go like this.  And we felt like jerks standing there for about six hours shooting this thing over and over and over again."

So Spielberg was an enthusiastic helper/co-conspirator/fun-dad while Hooper stuck to business with the camera.

Casella: "It had been really complicated because that whole sequence [ed: the kitchen scene leading up to the face-ripping scene] took forever, because I had five different lights coming in.  There was a light coming in through the kitchen window, there was a light from the refrigerator, there was a light from over the stove.  And I didn't particularly like chicken legs at the time, and that was Tobe going, 'Oh here, put this chicken leg in your mouth'... And we were all in this kitchen - in a dark, dark kitchen - with certain lights coming through the window, and one camera guy; and Tobe was on one side, and Steven was there as well, and I had to basically... it was hard, it was really hard, because I had all these props.  I had to open doors, and make sure the light hit me the right way.  And I had to juggle a steak in a packet, and put a chicken leg in my mouth.  And put the thing-- it had to go exactly in the right place on the counter when I put it down, because in the grout in the tile, that was where the special effects guy was hiding underneath... [...] It ended up taking 46 takes, because of the lighting, because of the sound equipment, something would always get in the way.  The light would go out, the chicken would fall in the wrong place... [...] the maggot guy yelled 'Cut' once."

Marty in the kitchen is certainly a scene apiece with Hooper.  It merely follows Casella's movements throughout the kitchen, without the need to editorialize it with cuts or exaggerated actions.  It is capturing someone in an environment, raw and unaffected, with an individually aestheticized eye.

Casella: Finally, we did it and got everything right, and Steven was like, 'Okay, pal, it only took 46 takes' and I was, 'At least you got it!'  And he was like, 'Okay, now we gotta move into the bathroom.'  And all I could think about is, 'Oh no, this $100,000 prop that they've made.'  And I finally turned to Tobe and said, 'I have an idea, let's ask Steven to do it.'  And Tobe was like, 'Okay, that's a great idea.'  So we went to Steven and Tobe said, 'Marty's concerned that something's gonna go wrong with the gag,' they called it. He said, 'Why don't you do it?'  And Steven lit up like a 5-year-old, and he actually jumped up and down on the set going, 'Yes yes yes!  That's a great idea!'"

(Regarding the cut scene when Marty goes upstairs and is bit by a behemoth) "We shot the scene.  Tobe was actually working with everybody else, that was actually the scene-- the famous 'Who directed the movie?', it was Tobe.  For us.  (I know for Oliver, too.)  But Steven directed that [scene].  And literally, it was amazing.  I'd open a door and Steven would yell, 'Scream!'  And I'd just let out this blood-curdling scream.  And the guy would just hoist me about 15 feet up into the air. [...] That was fun.  It was fun, and painful.  And it was great, because it was Steven, too.  That was one of the days when it was just Steven and I, and he had a small B-camera crew just shooting us."

Spielberg shot B-unit, in accordance with the special collaboration between a munificent Hooper and the writer/producer Spielberg.  Fitting it would be an entirely Spielberg-directed sequence that wouldn't make it into the picture.

[Answering the question, "How much of it is Hooper's vision?  And how much of it is 'Spielberg as Oz'?"]

Oliver Robins, Days of the Dead in Indianapolis: "You know, it's funny, I thought about that, and that's been a question that I think will haunt us for the rest of the remainder of the history of this movie.  Bottom line, Tobe directed this movie.  But one thing that you really have to think or know about filmmaking is it's a collaborative effort.  And that's something I learned even more so in film school: everyone contributes to the process.  And people forget that Steven was the first writer of the movie.  It was his vision, it was his creation, he was also the producer.  And while Tobe directed me, every conceivable scene on the set, Steven was there always contributing his input, into script, into story.  And that's what every writer would want to do.  I've written things for television and I've wanted to put my two-cents in.  And directors always confer with me on what I wanted to do.  But in terms of who told me what to do on the set, where to stand, how the film was going to be shot, as a kid, I remember Tobe doing everything a director should do and needs to do.  And the DGA even looked into it years later, I guess, and they confirmed everything that I saw on set, too.  But bottom line is, it was a heavy-duty Spielberg film because it was coming from Steven's script.  And the way Steven had written the script, and I reread it a little bit recently, it almost reads like a shot list in such a way.  So if you're a director, and you're following the script to the writer's vision, you're probably gonna achieve something that is a Spielberg movie... Every sequence was very detailed, every line was a shot, pretty much, so if you follow that, you were going to make a Spielberg movie."

And so Hooper often diverges from the script (and storyboards) at specific times.

Hooper, in a Master Class held at MOTELx Festival in Spain, 2013: "I hate storyboards.  I mean, I have to do them sometimes for some special effects shot, so they can budget them, we can talk about how many elements are in them.  But I prefer to walk out onto a set and 'click together' [it]."

Casella: "I basically had the same experience.  On the first day of shooting something happened, and I've talked about it, so even when the DGA looked into it... it was the scene with the special effects on the little teapot again.  That first day, Tobe would whisper something in our ear and then they would yell action and we would do the scene.  Then Steven would yell cut and Steven would come around and whisper something in our ear.  And that went on for about six minutes and Beatrice Straight said: 'One director, please.  This has got to stop.'  And it went on literally for about six or seven minutes - you know, a half an hour at the very most - and she just said, 'That's not how we do this.  We have one director around here.'  And after that, Tobe did everything.  Steven had lots of input.  Like Oliver said, it was his script.  I mean, yeah... it was Tobe.  Other people will say-- You might get different answers if you ask other actors on the movie, interestingly enough."

You ought to watch the video and see how conclusively he puts it, the bolded part.  I like to think that's the last time Spielberg ever said anything to Beatrice Straight (outside of waving a pointer stick in front of her).

At a different Days of the Dead Q&A (Casella and Robins again) in Atlanta:

Robins: "(in media res) As a writer myself, you really want to protect that vision.  And you want to be able to step in and work with the director.  And Steven did that with Tobe.  As a kid, I really wasn't privy to everything that went on, but as far as I know, Tobe directed me, but Steven was there every day, and I know Tobe and Steven worked very closely together to bring alive a vision that Steven had in mind when he actually wrote the original script.  And he basically did what any writer would probably want to do, to make sure that what he sees on the page makes it on the screen.  And at the same time, Tobe was able to compliment it with all his super talents, because, you know, he directed Texas Chain Saw, and he brought something really special to the movie.  And, as an actor, it was wonderful to work with someone like Tobe, because he's the one who let me be free, let me improv, let me just be a kid.  I was so spoiled on that movie, because so many films after that, I didn't really have the opportunity to do improv, make up lines, and a lot of those lines actually did make it into the movie.  And you know, Steven as the writer allowed Tobe to allow me to do that.  That was my experience in terms of that whole controversy that went on."

Casella: "I basically had the same experience as well, which was, the acting notes that you would get mostly came from Tobe.  Steven was more concerned that we were getting the right tone.  Obviously there's certain camera moves in the movie that you watch and you go, 'Oh, that's a Spielberg move.'  When JoBeth runs down the hallway, that's the same camera trick that they do in Jaws... Steven was concerned with things like that.  I actually did a little 2nd Unit shooting for a scene that got cut that Steven actually did, he was in charge of that.  They were shooting the 1st Unit downstairs then there was a little sequence that I had to do upstairs, and Steven was there for that.  But otherwise, Tobe was the one calling the shots, sort of telling us what to do, in terms of acting."

James Karen (25th Anniversary Screening Q&A): "This always comes up... my answer is, Steven was the producer, a very strong producer who was on that set every day, and Tobe Hooper as the director was on that set every day, and it's Tobe Hooper's name up there, it's 'Tobe Hooper Film,' and I think people should just accept that.  We had a great producer and a great director."

Mark Victor (25th Anniversary Screening Q&A): "When they started shooting the movie, as a member of the Writer's Guild, we were on strike.  And while I was walking on the picket line outside, they were shooting the movie inside and I was going, 'OK, keep shooting, keep shooting.'  But I did get to spend a couple days on the set and I think it's like James said, I'd see a take and Tobe would [unintelligible] the scene and set it up and where to go, and Steven would come in and make some comments, which is not unusual."

Zelda Rubinstein (25th Anniversary Screening Q&A): "[I have?] a different view.  During those six days that I worked, I found Tobe set up every shot and Steven came in and made final adjustments.  So I think it's a split decision... I think for the most part, although Tobe is [??] a phenomenal director, that's a Steven Spielberg movie."

Let's not overlook the fact that the accounts conceding Spielberg always made "comments" or "final adjustments" (and really, what role probably exerted the greater influence over the ultimate outcome of shots, the person who initially set them up and thus conceived the framing, or the person who made some commments afterward?) were there the fewest days.

I just included the latter, pro-Spielberg half of that statement for Zelda complimenting Hooper, which is kind of her.  My theory is she may have intimidated Tobe a little, made him defer communication with her over to Spielberg.  The existence of conspiracy theories baffles me when everyone seems to be in agreement, probably the result of overzealous crew members and small-role players thinking they know the whole story.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

READ: Eaten Alive (1977)


"Tobe and I instantly clicked.  Tobe and I had this weird shorthand.  It didn't even come from respect, because we didn't know each other then.  It's just, Tobe will say three things, and I absolutely know what he means by one of them. (Hooper impersonation:) 'Uh-- uh-- uh-- Robert, now, you come around the back of the Cadillac and maybe I'll see the brake--,' and he'll say "brake light," and ah... and I could see the shot in my own mind's eye.

At least we can be sure Hooper filmed what is outside of the economical room where Buck and Lynette partake in some heavy petting (above, Hooper seen with shirtless, pre-swamp-dip Buck).  Naturally, there isn't likely an actual room behind that set door.

Below, the realization of the scene Robert Englund describes in his quote above, which may or may not be drawn from actual, reliable experience.  Still a good nudge for the idea that Hooper did shoot scenes with Janus Blythe.



"He'll say one thing [in his direction].  Then you'll be sitting around with Tobe and you'll be wanting to talk about something like that and Tobe will be talking about Gettysburg or Bull Run, or some extraordinary piece of literature, or some great movie that you want to run out and see immediately, you know, because he must have an IQ of 200.  So he can frame of reference everything.  We just sort of understood each other right away." - Robert Englund

"I started thinking about the content of the movie, and what the movie was.  I decided, why don't I Wizard of Oz this thing a bit?" - Tobe Hooper

"Well, the crocodile... it didn't do much, really.  It could open its mouth.  So you don't see a lot of it.  That made it really cool, I mean, it made that part of it cool (you saw its back)... Anyway, what the crocodile could do was: pushing it underneath the house, (laughing) there's a couple of shots you can see it.  Its arms goes this way (demonstrates), you know, like those children's 'quackie duck' toys that they push with wheels and the (demonstrates again) little duck's feet go round... and that's really what was in there, it's like one of those quackie duck wheels that made those--: (demonstrates, laughing).  And shooting it the right way and holding only on the shot for about 2 and half seconds..."

If anyone wants to really see Hooper's zen attitude toward the absurdities of his humble career, it would be in this 2006 interview The Gator Creator With Tobe Hooper, in which he is still rather youthful and sprightly, reminiscing on the experience of Eaten Alive of which he does say was "not that great," but still giggles and gleefully paddles his hands at face-level to demonstrate the joyfully childish image of the life-size crocodile's "quackie duck" feet.

We also now know Hooper was involved in the giant foam debacle's climactic entrance into the crawlspace of the hotel, and the ensuing chase after poor little Angie, as his reminiscence includes pushing it underneath the house.

“The experience of making it was not that great.  I have to say there was a lot of script shifting that I found later didn’t have to be… I didn’t find out until almost three quarters of the way through shooting this… [ ]… that the reason the financing was there was because I’d do the film… I thought, 'Boy, why did I ever go through a lot of shit’ when I find out, this thing was mine.  And all this hell I’ve been going through, which was many, many scripts, and producers– [cuts himself off to make a joke] The children would get ideas!  They’d come back and say, you know, Judd should throw a hand grenade in the crocodile’s mouth and get his head blown off.  And, I mean, it was every day… 'No,’ 'nope.'"

“So yeah, I’m happy for it and I’m happy that it’s out there.”

 Hooper shows a pride for the film, ineluctably tied to a sense of ownership.


One of the two photos showing Hooper with Stuart Whitman, and the only one showing Hooper with that featured deputy; shows, to a reasonable doubt, Hooper was shooting the police station scene.  We must also keep in mind this was a shoot that lasted hardly a month.  Twenty days might be more like it.  Isolated scenes away from the Starlight Hotel - such as the police station, the whorehouse sets, the diner, Miss Hattie's office - were probably shot in one or two days.  For instance, Craig Reardon recalls: "I don't think she [Carolyn Jones] was there more than a day or two."  And we can immediately scupper that small but still recurring rumor of Carolyn Jones directing parts of Eaten Alive.

"Tobe was voluble and social, but quiet.  Neville was expansive.  But I think that they both seemed to arrive at their art through interior means, then it came out.  They didn't talk about it.  There is not, on one of Tobe's sets, a lot of external conversation about your motivation or whatever.  In fact, he often uses just simple shorthand like, 'I want you to scream at this point,' 'I want you to do that.' But if anyone has ever seen Tobe talk at length about his movies or what he was thinking about, there's an awful lot of rational thinking that went on as to what he-- why he used this color, why he used this particular venue or atmosphere." - Craig Reardon

"The more I worked with the film and the screenplay and all of the players on board, the more interested I got in the characters.  Miss Hattie, who runs the whore house - Miss Hattie was a real madam who worked on the outskirts of town just outside Austin city limits, and was protected, I guess, for years." - Hooper, circa 2015

"It was really cool to see these people from-- like Carolyn Jones from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  She was just way cool, and a wonderful lady.  Like, she just loved being Miss Hattie.  She was just loads of fun.  And Stuart [Whitman] I got to know pretty well.  Actually, Stuart was best man at my last wedding... well, no, I'm sorry... he signed the certificate.  The witness." - Hooper, circa 2006

Real memories of the shoot.  A real sense of the Miss Hattie character, a real sense of propriety over what she and all the characters brought to the story.  This is the voice of someone with a sense of ownership and little shame over a work.  He remembers working with Carolyn Jones, and it was nice of him to correct his misspeaking about Whitman being a "best man," rather than just the witness in attendance.  I'm sure they were friends, though.

"The largest problem I had straightaway was I had been used to working with Arriflexes and NPRs and Eclairs, French cameras that you can pick them up and move them immediately.  Or even a large 35mm blimped Arriflex, weighed 100 pounds or so, but you could get it moved.  But I had an old blimped Mitchell, and those things are almost the size of a car.  It would sit on a crane and I couldn't make things move as fast as I'd been used to." - Hooper, circa 2015

"[I remember] almost halfway through the film, feeling an interference... or having suggestions imposed on me that didn't jibe with my through-line.  And so Mardi and I squabbled a lot, and, you know, that would cause me to pack up my stuff and head toward the stage door knowing that I wasn't... well, one time I made it out to the trailer.  Well, I had that feeling and I'm not sure I didn't get my way all the time by fighting and just, you know, screaming.  And at least what was on paper, what was scripted-- I don't recall-- I really don't recall anything that was crucial that wasn't there, once it had gotten locked on paper."

So, contrary to the claims that Eaten Alive was a compromised product, Hooper essentially claims that he got what he wanted (though he has always expressed how much better he could imagine it with greater, more opportune resources).  Eaten Alive was and is compromised, but Hooper is aware of these contradistinctions in the text and exhibits ownership and the satisfaction of a vision, despite the impositions and changeling footage (speaking poetically, meaning footage in the film but with a different mother, something present in most every film under the label of "2nd unit"), which can be deemed minor or merely serviceable.