Biggest hit of the Browning-Chaney pairings. Burned alive in a 1967 vault fire. So alluring it's been reconstructed from production stills.
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(This was written for Hero Complex, but without Geoff Boucher, it's better seen here. Screenshots of Poltergeist will be added.)
The summer of ’82, the year the blockbuster became incidental. In order of appearance, Road Warrior (a sequel posing as standalone), Clash of the Titans, Wrath of Khan (the first reboot ever, and on a two-year turnaround), Poltergeist, E.T., Firefox, Blade Runner, The Thing, Tron. For many teens in the audience, it was the summer we began to ‘think-in-movies.’ Moviegoing kids of the eighties had eureka moments hooking us on the blockbuster as a kind of cognitive genre. My moment was the flickering coda of Raiders: The Washington Monument reveal, an engineered déjà vu that no one’s aware of. Sitting in the dark in summer 1981, I eyed our national obelisk, on the mall, framed in its reflection pool. We’d been shown one earlier as a model in the Map Room scene, then moments later as a fallen ruin at the Tanis dig, framed by Jones's surveying dumpy level. Spielberg and Lucas paralleled the U.S. as a present day Egypt. Popcorn films born in the 70s were now sending us dark commentary, blended incidentally.
Only ten months later I stand in line for the May sneak preview of Poltergeist on Times Square. To see Poltergeist a month early, we line up and watch the dead-on-arrival thriller House Where Evil Dwells. A ceremonial holdover of archaic film releasing rules, to get to Poltergeist the sell-out crowd has to sit through this unintentionally funny horror film set in Japan. Haunted soup was on its menu. A spectral samurai peers from a steaming bowl, the daughter cowering: “Mommy what kind of soup is this?” That got the biggest laughs, and there were more; it was like having a pre-recorded comic warm-up the crowd.
Poltergeist begins. The first thing that hits the audience is MGM/Leo’s new stereophonic roar. Then The Star Spangled Banner hails from the darkness. A few of us laugh right away as downfront, someone stands up patriotically. Color-crushed TV fades in extreme close-up, now everyone begins laughing as they realize it’s station sign-off, the universal signifier for insomniacs of the TV-age. As if continuing from Raiders’s coda not twelve months before, imagery of D.C. now appears on a television, linking both films. Television has come back to haunt us. The laughs fade as the audio dissolves from brassy stereo to creepy mono. The switch from automated ceremony to horror film takes only a few seconds and it’s encoded in a signal. A very blonde, sleepwalking girl touches her TV screen’s white-noise and static fizzes. Credits follow along suburban landscapes down into encroaching development. The trees that penetrate this suburbia stare down at the houses; bicyclists orbit a monster without leaves. The arboreal personified, gigantic and malevolent.
Then we enter at street-level, toy-level, the storytelling shows us electronic transmissions as a precursor to supernatural types. Poltergeist starts with two gags using signals. Racing radio-controlled cars cross, cutting off an adult on a bike. It’s an ingenious inversion of ‘cross-cutting.’ And the gag evolves seconds later into the signals crossing neighbors’ remotes. Two visual jokes about almost the same thing. Signals interrupt both the bike rider and the passing play the TV-party watches. There are thoughtful discrepancies: The children play an active game, the adults watch one.
Poltergeist is instantly cognitive. A visual story cues the audience in before the characters know what’s going on. A girl speaks to a television while her household sleepily gathers around. It looks like a mirror of a family drama on TV only here, the drama happens outside the TV, while it’s off signal. These children of the TV-age, Tobe Hooper and Steven Spielberg, employ the nation’s comforting boob-tube to scare us witless. The TV provides endless framings. This family Freeling (comically-named after Looneytoons director Friz) first encounter death when their pet bird Tweety dies ominously. A night later, before a dose of CE3K’s clouds during magic-hour, vaporous streams pass through the daughter from the TV’s white noise, and the ghosts begin laying siege. In rapid turn they create an invisible portal through the two younger children’s closet, kidnapping one. Cloned kitchens dissolve eerily, chairs and steaks travel, mirrors do not behave, trees attack in diversion. This trickery is treated physically rationally. And there’s jokes galore, both visual and spoken. An innocuous dialogue predicts coming terror: Craig Nelson play-dives from his bed, scenes later they mistake their daughter’s disappearance as a drowning in their unfinished pool.
While the film begins with daytime, wide vistas of tiny homes below, it ends night-marishly with a miniaturizing house folding into inner dimensions, consumed finally in light. Beatrice Straight and Zelda Rubenstein play respectively the logos and the mythos versions of the same ghost hunter archetype. Zelda is right out of Hooper’s world, Straight is from Spielberg’s. Most movies would embody this stabilizing persona in one character, here, the risk is taken to split observation into a competitive form of storytelling, and it pays off. Two women delineate the haunting. Zelda directs the return, Straight plays surrogate mother. The tennis ball Zelda uses to prove the portal works is instantly recognized as a comment from The Shining (remember, this is 1982), so everyone at the preview laughs. They get the TV references are sly taunts at a seemingly inert Shining, where a family escapes a hotel, here a family escapes to one (and ejects its TV). Of course, there are plenty of other references: VW Bugs spin upside down and there's mention of "indian burial mounds."
And the characters are developed in single scenes. Sometimes single lines. The young daughter previews the unknown she’s heading for through her bird’s funeral rites. The elder daughter knows the motel they’re going to; the haunting is a blessing in disguise for socially active Dana. These character moments are imprinted tautly into the film’s fabric. Even ye olde cap-covered-lens gag works. A ghost processional through the California split-level plays back on videotape like a sinister recall of a Twilight Zone’s broadcast. After her daughter’s retrieval, JoBeth Williams sports streaks of gray in her dark hair. A superhero’s mark she acquires supernaturally, it predicts a final role as her children’s savior. Even the audio delivers crazy data, Leo’s new roar is reused as a door guardian’s warning. But it doesn’t stop her, she finally pulls her children to safety from the mouth of the monster’s portal, a vision first invisible, now realized melting, seeping through their closet door. Spielberg slyly dresses the children’s room first in Star Wars sheets, where even a Darth Vader poster begins the film, tacked right next to the bilocating closet. Later the closet ends with the ferocious ILM master-effect trying to eat them. This isn’t the metaverse we inhabit today, with David channeling Lawrence through O’Toole while Elizabeth Shaw reduxes Lisbeth all in the same movie. Back then, the sly, circular portal back to Lucasfilm was Spielberg’s masterstroke of closed-universe storytelling. His are a type of American New Wave jokes, amping while folding seamlessly into its genre. And genres get blended by the joke, this is no longer horror or scifi per se, this is the blockbuster. The age it got smart. He winks at the audience to lure us deeper, not force us into self-consciousness. And Spielberg’s closed universe is doubling even further that summer, the first time he has two films opening the same season. It’s also circular, here the Freeling children’s closet is revealed and then rerevealed as their gateway to hell. Two weeks later, Elliot’s bedroom closet reverses our fears: it becomes E.T.’s sanctuary.
(This was written for Hero Complex, but without Geoff Boucher, it's better seen here. Screenshots of Poltergeist will be added.)
Frontline's four hour, two-night dissection of the financial collapse of 2008. Like its exemplary 1996 post-mortem of the Gulf War, Michael Kirk and Jim Gilmore describe in detail staggering omissions in oversight, clashes of personality, and a stunning presidential leadership vacuum as Bush neared the end of his term. Even more frightening, a majority of banks appeared not to comprehend the full extent of their leveraged holdings, employing companies like AIG to insure their riskiest securities.
The time has come to develop curricula in visual media literacy for all children K-12. For a country as media saturated as ours, it is dangerous not to teach children how images work, why we use them instead of words, how sequencing them alters their meanings, and what lies ahead for language once expression becomes liberated from the alphabet. Media is not a tool to be censored, it is a tool that must expand along every horizon to search for all knowledge yet unkown. Future modes of expression are what will elementally lead us to our next breakthroughs in the sciences and in the arts. Pivotal is the performance of violence, since its essential metaphor is the breaking down of old ways, old systems.
"The United States is the only developed nation without a national curriculum in visual literacy." Douglas Ruskoff Coercion: Why We Listen To What They Say 1999
As a Batman trilogy rooted mostly in despair, only the villains are allowed to take pleasure in their craft. And it's through pleasure that you can identify them, Lucius Fox, Ra's alGul, Talia alGul, Bane, Dagget. The heroes are the ones who suffer. Bruce Wayne has to fake his pleasure for the entire trilogy. With even Alfred playing it for the pure sacrifice of it, we can't be too sure Nolan isn't laughing about all this strained seriousness. He's famously taken a kid's hero and given him only adult concerns: defense contracts, wire-fraud, terrorism, seduction, and despair. These concerns might appear emotionally complex, they are adult. The undercurrent pathos is by way of Frank Miller's teenage form of masochism, it adds weight to all that shadow. The problem is, the emotions get torqued by this distortion: An abnormal desire for pain. The plot may be complex, but that's about it. Nolan divides his identities along very basic lines of 'good' and 'evil' and then makes it seem real. Photographic grain and undigitized physical gags shade a board game's black and white emotionalism.
By hijacking the opening of Star Wars, Nolan introduces his Vader-Bane with one flying vessel taking over another (Bane later crushes a throat a la Darth). Giving his masked villain a highlander's accent, Nolan seems to be hiding an ace Sean Connery in the mixing room, it's no wonder this all looks so Bondish. Bane is a vast improvement over The Joker's shrieking hysterics in The Dark Knight. Hardy's Bane manages to be both sadistic and tender. In every way this is a far superior film to Dark Knight. Nolan shifts from duel to ensemble. He serves up a group of supposed good guys vs. bad guys and switches their camps. He pairs them continuously, like a medieval dance. Devil Lucius Fox and Daughter Miranda Tate team up to both destroy and save Gotham from a similar atom smashing fate from Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne complies with retreading the first film by donning Begins's Ducard's/Ra's's goatee. A clever extended sequence, one of Nolan's best, involves a cater-waitress, a string-of-pearls, lifted fingerprints and a stolen congressman, ending in a dive bar shootout. The pearls were Bruce's mother's; his father's move to protect his wife's pearls became the trigger for their murder. Which means the pearls are the reason Batman exists. Had Joe Chill made it out of the alley with them there would never be a Dark Knight. The pearl necklace in TDKR starts off as a maternal memory that phases into a class struggle metaphor, becoming a window into a criminal's life. Nolan flips meanings when the pearls serve as a tracking device, leading Wayne to a 'benefit' with two potential Ms. Waynes attending. It's clever. It's so clever you start to feel trapped in it without an emotional connection to any one character. The film feels audacious, but so were Godfather III and The Matrix Revolutions, two films that couldn't pull off their muscular tragic deaths of key females. Here there is no 'real' tragedy. A bizarre death scene involving a truck is so strangely acted you aren't sure if Nolan is channeling Trinity just in case it's too much death for the repeater teen crowd.
The film is at its best when the stakes are mostly visible/local and Rises's first 2/3rds are active with a plot worthy of the best card-counter in Vegas. Gravely it slips into the usual foggy exile of third-acts, where the juggling has to pay off and here, unadulterated nonsense takes-over. Police are simplistically trapped underground for months, Bruce Wayne is trapped (with access to CNN) across the planet. A scarecrow's court seems pulled right out of Brazil. Class rebellion is employed as a ruse to armageddon (Nolan reuses the location of a 1920 anarchist's bomb, set in front of J.P. Morgan's old HQ posing here as the stock market). A Gotham under siege is not only ignored by the country at large, but a tired special forces insert merits a C- cinemascore. As Gotham suffers for months, vast resources of a surrounding country (and President) are left largely inert, forcing the audience to plea for Batman's return simply to end the film. A climax subplot involving a bus, orphans and a checkpoint falls as flat as they come. Plot devices from Inception and Begins reappear as well as some new ones: switched bodies & software (one of Nolan's best touches is to fuse the concepts of clean-slate and auto-pilot feeding the ending of Batman/Bruce Wayne). The error lies in the retooled legend of Ra's alGul, boosting the amperage but not the complexity of the villains. Had Bane been a dummy and Talia a digital venriloquist of sorts, then the villains' would be sharing an uncertain border. That's where what will be known as the best comicbook trilogy ever made for IMAX should have gone. Wordplay is at its height in TDKR, think about the double meaning laced in The Dent 'Act.'
Watch the swansong of celluloid in style: At LA's Century City IMAX, both ArcLights and NY's single-theater Ziegfeld and NJ's OMNIMAX Spherical Projection Dome at Liberty Science Center, the largest IMAX dome in the world.
Top: Paul Strand's Wall Street, 1915 Below: Aftermath of the 1920 unsolved bombing of J.P. Morgan Bottom: Same building at top, evidence still visible today.