Monday, March 12, 2018

Everything I Know About 'Poltergeist'

Every tweet with every piece of information I have tweet-compiled on Poltergeist.  #17 in total.  Apologies to any privacy boundaries I may be crossing, but I have officially transitioned into a DEFCON 1 level DGAFness about things.  It feels good!

A teacher, Ralph Langer, visited the set of Poltergeist, and gives an account of his visit.  One day, in which they filmed part of Diane Freeling's attack where she is dragged onto the ceiling.  Spielberg was not present that day.

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Hooper selling Lifeforce as a further realizing of his commercial style.
(He offers the idea that he and Spielberg share a lot of interests in terms of visual style.  It may have never been a matter of Hooper aping Spielberg's style (this is implicit in him saying Lifeforce has a "Tobe Hooper look," unequivocally, but it sells better when looked at askew as a "Steven Spielberg look."  They have always been drawn to the same things in cinema, particularly classical Hollywood, and Hooper made Poltergeist with the good faith that Spielberg would let him fully explore his developing aesthetic concerns, seeing as how their stylistic goals come from a similar place.)

Following Mick Garris's testimony about Poltergeist on his Post Mortem podcast, I used it as an opportunity to univocally claim my answer to a previous query about Hooper's involvement in the pre-production on Poltergeist.  An opportune out-of-context extraction presented itself in Garris making one seemingly unambiguous statement, in an interview of mostly polite hedging and justifications for eyewitnesses' dogged doubts.
(I had previously asked, was Hooper as impotent (so alleged) in the pre-production phase of Poltergeist as he was in the shooting of it?  GARRIS: "ALL THE PRE-PRODUCTION WAS DONE BY TOBE."  At another point he also makes the statement, "Hooper was deeply involved in the pre-production.")

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Following my dissatisfaction with Garris and his overly honest account of the set on his podcast (Garris's deference to being truthful is fine, but his biggest betrayal is him saying the words "directing" and "Spielberg" in the same sentence, and I quote, "Hooper directed that movie... Spielberg had a lot to do with directing that movie, too." Way to finally bring the debate to a close, Mick... I get making concessions to Spielberg's contributions and constant presence on set, but can you at least make one value judgment, perhaps a percentage or ratio of Spielberg:Hooper?), I jumped on more assertive tweets he and Caroline Williams made in the aftermath of that podcast, in which they were replying to followers.

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(Caroline Williams calling Spielberg a "backseat driver" may be my favorite thing.  It seems perfectly in line with my view of events: Hooper was in control, but he would let Spielberg have a biscuit or two - as long as it conformed with his view of the film.  Hooper was the true driver, tolerating what he must, but with the ability to approve or veto any and all suggestions.  Garris's tweet finally shows he may be able to make an evaluative judgment.  In his podcast, he says two additional things: "Yes, I would see him climb on the camera and say maybe we should push in on a two shot here and do this or that there, and Tobe would be watching, Tobe was always calling "Action" and "Cut," Tobe had been deeply involved in the pre-production and everything, but Steven is a guy who will come in and call the shots.  And so you're on your first studio film, hired by Steven Spielberg, who is enthusiastically involved in this movie.  Are you going to say, "Stop that, let me do this"?  Which he did, Tobe directed that movie.  Steven Spielberg had a lot to do with directing that movie, too." and
"I understand how people can perceive it otherwise, but Tobe was a terrific filmmaker.  And I don't think it was that Steven was controlling, I think it was Steven was enthusiastic as a filmmaker who has celluloid running through his veins, and nobody was there to protect Tobe... [but] Tobe was there throughout, Tobe's vision is very much realized there, and Tobe got credit because he deserved that credit, including Steven Spielberg said that." It sounds, to me, like a lot of attempts to explain the continued clashing accounts of the set.  I think above, in his tweet, he realizes he can finally make a clear judgment, free of the interpretability of defensive and reactive speech - without the pressure of the microphone and the dialoguing with both Williams and the context of the issue being brought up again.

 I think it's clear Garris's position.  "Both made the movie," if in differing capacities.  But in this comment, I chose to highlight something that I've always constantly questioned, something which I think should be obvious, and which I again chose to extract as a final statement of fact: Garris states, "Tobe was heavily involved in the storyboarding, too."

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A BTS still of a clapboard in front of the staircase set shows, not just "T. Hooper" on the slate (which has no significance, I'm sure slates still read the director's name, even when its 2nd Unit shooting), but "R. Edlund" as cameraman.
(This could be solely for VFX, considering there's a "V" next to the scene number and Edlund is behind the camera, but it is happening rather early in the shooting schedule (June 30th), so I'd like to think JoBeth Williams's stunt double is being prepared to tumble down those stairs in any second. (A specter was supposed to be superimposed at the top of the staircase in this scene, but this idea didn't make it into the final cut.))

A BTS still that shows Hooper standing in a rain slicker watching over the shooting of a scene in the pool.  I erroneously identify the man on the right as Craig T. Nelson, but it is actually JoBeth Williams being filmed, who you can see submerged in the water at the bottom of the frame.

A BTS still of Spielberg on the very first day of shooting.
(I stand by my first thought: Annoying.)
(Back off, Spielberg, I know it was Hooper's idea to shoot from behind the tombstones... (I don't know, but I'm putting it out there anyway.))

 A random bit of hearsay from an online poster who seemed to not have any actual source.  I can believe this, though... I also repeat something I've always repeated about Rubinstein's account, that her most objective, impartial statement on her time on the Poltergeist set is actually the following: "It was a split decision," she stated, between Hooper and Spielberg, both apparently always present.
(Me: "true... not true... true.")

An account by a horror filmmaker about asking James Karen about the directorial credit of Poltergeist.  "[Karen] jumped down my throat" (presumably in defense of Hooper).

Excerpts from primary source material circa-1982, interviews with cast and crew from newspaper publications like the LA Times.  I took to this one from JoBeth Williams particularly, who states very clearly, "Our director, Tobe Hooper," while characterizing Spielberg as a sort of "big picture" man.  What is a director, also, but someone who takes the "babies" of others (the writers, the producers, the studio execs) and does what he or she can to emancipate that baby from its cloying, protective parent?

 My descriptor explains it all: "A turgid, possibly untrue on-set story."
(Detailed is the account of Steven blowing up at Hooper for not being able to finish a scene between Beatrice Straight and her assistants, in which they are tasked to deliver a bunch of scientific gobbledy-gook.  Allegedly Beatrice Straight went to bat for Hooper, claiming the dialogue was impossible.  Spielberg wrapped the set, went home to do rewrites, then brought them back the next day, after which Hooper finished the scene with no problem, with his actors.  Spielberg then apologized to the entire crew for his flare-up.)

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 Another primary source excerpt from the time of the film's release, Hooper to the L.A. Times.
(Hooper's claims of ownership: "I directed the film" (I was not a pushover to Spielberg.)
"I did fully half of the storyboards" (Spielberg may have been a child on the set of Poltergeist, but I gave the film its look from the very pre-production.)
"I'm quite proud of what I did" (It is the things people will not pay attention to that I am proud of, the small things I determined, and so if I need approval from anyone for the mark I left on the film, it can only be mostly from myself.)
"I can't understand why I'm being slighted" (I can understand, my mark is the imperceptible, Spielberg's mark is the scary tree and the roller coaster finale.  But I can say I don't understand to perhaps suggest to people that the small, the imperceptible, is just as important as the big stuff.)
"I love the changes that were made from my cut" (I and Spielberg had similar goals, another reason not to ignore my position as director.)
"I worked for a very good producer who is also a great showman" (Spielberg let me show you what I have got, by working with me and not against me.  I have always wanted to work in this idiom of filmmaking that Spielberg finally allowed me to.)
"I felt that was a plus, because Steven and I think in terms of the same visual style." (Ibid, above.  This picture is me.)

Another testimony from Hooper, answering the question at the 2010 London Frightfest Event.  Spielberg was a "presence" on set.  It makes the film no less his.

An interview with Hooper on YouTube that seemed monumental in that it mined the most Poltergeist stories from Hooper than I had ever personally heard.  He talks about Heather O' Rourke, as well as the director controversy in an achingly honest way.  "No one got this shit but me."  Oh, Mr. Hooper, you were going up against The Steven Spielberg.  Accept your lot, and the fact you are one of a kind, the one fate chose to carry this Great Subjugation to the Great and Untoward Spielberg.

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 Martin Casella's farewell to Hooper on his Facebook page.  Pretty self-explanatory.

An interview with Oliver Robins I found, in which he gives his account of Hooper being the only one who worked with him, in a full director's capacity.

Finally, another article about Hooper's Q&A at London Frightfest, with a little more details.
(Hooper: "Poltergeist was "definitely my baby: I designed it, I directed it, it has my 'feel.'"
Not sure how much that was paraphrased, but it's really all I need to fully attribute the film, with all its Spielberg-isms, to hell or high water, to Hooper and Hooper alone.

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 are 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.