There are many great friends of The Video Essay Podcast, but right at the top of the list is Scout Tafoya, one of the best and most prolific video essayists in the businesses. Scout was the final guest I interviewed for the podcast before the pandemic, so I have especially fond memories our conversation! You can listen to it here. Scout has also generously contributed commentary to both podcast episodes on the Sight & Sound poll of the year’s best essays. And so, when I learned that Scout was publishing his first book, Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, I immediately reached out and asked if he’d be willing to answer a few questions about it for this newsletter. Scout generously agreed.
Let's start with the basics! How did this book come into being? What led you to Hooper's work? You're such a prolific filmmaker and video essayist, it begs the question, why a written book?
Yeah, right, like I didn't have enough on my plate haha. My dad is an author, my brother's an author, there were books all over our house when I was growing up - there was huge respect for the written word and the people smart enough to do it well. My ambitions as a young person were your basic world-domination approach: be everything at once. And I kind of have, which is kind of cool looking back now that I'm in my 30s. I directed an off broadway play, I've made 30 feature films, 300 video essays, I've been in Film Comment, I wrote for The Village Voice, I recorded a country album and a metal album, I made friends with a bunch of my comedy heroes, and now I'm a published author. I used to lose sleep a lot more than I do now thinking about not being able to do everything I wanted to do and I guess having a resume that's a little more like the one I wanted to have as a 12 year old is somewhat to thank for that.
And speaking of younger me, I watched Texas Chain Saw when I was too young to get it but it stayed with me. I was obsessed. Bought it on DVD and just kept watching it and reading about it until I got it. But and I think a lot of film people will recognize this, Texas Chain Saw seemed like such a monolith that it just sort of didn't occur to me to seek out Tobe Hooper's other movies. You watch Jaws and someone will want to tell you to watch Duel. Watch Night of the Living Dead and someone will ask if you've seen Martin. That just...didn't happen with Texas Chain Saw. Part of that was because though his grammar didn't change, his subjects did. But the difference between something like Halloween and Christine being very obviously the work of the same director isn't something intrinsic to Hooper's work. You could be forgiven for not knowing that Invaders from Mars and Texas Chain Saw were the work of the same filmmaker but once you key into what he does well, you can't help but see the same mind at work, moving the camera like a chess piece around a skillfully manipulated and ornately carved board.
I've said this elsewhere but it was The Mangler that made me want to write the book. A bunch of my friends were writing books for the same publisher and I wanted to be one of the cool kids (as always) and so I pitched a book on Hooper because I loved The Mangler and there was just Nothing out there about it. Couldn't find a single scholarly article about it, and then realized it was because the trend of talking about Hooper like some addled one-hit-wonder had taken hold of film culture and nothing was going to dislodge it. So I thought, fuck it, why not be the crowbar that tries to unstick this man's reputation? The more I watched his loathed b-sides, the more I fell in love, the more the drive increased to make this thing happen.
You've touched on Hooper's work in the past, specifically in your video essay series "The Unloved" for RogerEbert.com. There are many obvious differences between creating a video essay and writing a book, but is there one less obvious difference that you found in this process and can share with us? How did your videographic work influence the book?
Well when I started writing I kind of had it in mind that the book would be kind of an Unloved book, that I was taking the same approach, to get people to think about this work in ways they might not have before. So that meant doing a lot of work on visualizing the action and the camera movements in the book, of creating a picture of these movies so that people who'd never seen them (and I had to believe that 95% of the people who'd be reading this book would not have seen his 90s TV work). I hadn't quite done that. Or rather, not purposely. Obviously some of it is pretty literal, and I got flak for that, but at the same time that was the approach that kind of made me fall in love with film criticism. I liked reading about movies I hadn't seen before, I liked getting a mental picture of them because that too was sort of like watching a movie, and sometimes it just in no way resembled the movie you imagined reading them. I like that space where the reader's imagination and the description of a work meet in the middle.
But obviously there are huge differences between writing a video essay or even just a traditional review and writing a book. There's the fact checking, for one thing, the ability to prove every single assertion. Usually you'll get a question or two from editors about things but this was a much more exacting process. And then there was the daunting task of sort of trying to think about how the book reads as a whole, as a piece of prose, blah blah, and my approach to that was just not to think about it. I didn't want to agonize because this book isn't about or my reputation as a writer or whatever self-serving macro concern might come up. It's about Tobe Hooper. That was always the guiding light, here, this isn't about me: this is about offering people a counter narrative to the one I'd been hearing my whole life about who he was and what the value of his art was. I was sick of being told he wasn't a great artist. So I just sat down with his movies with one goal: prove it. Prove this man is a true artist and is worth everyone's time.
You describe Hooper's "ardent cinephilia." How does one discern this in a director's work? Why does it matter in understanding Hooper's work?
So that stuff is always kind of the way to some cinephile's hearts. You think about John Carpenter and what's everyone's kind of first impulse there? Dissect the work, find out where it came from. He's such a perfect subject in a lotta ways because he gives away so little of himself in interviews, which means his critics have to work overtime to find him in the work. Of course he made that very easy. He remade the Hawks movie that wasn't directed by Hawks. What does that tell you? He wanted there to be more Howard Hawks pictures. That's your way in. Critics love a skeleton key. We have Orson Welles to thank for that, he gave us the modern formulation for artistic biography in Kane so when his life turned into one of Kane-like excesses and missed opportunities, everyone wanted to be the one to find Rosebud. Writing about Welles became a cottage industry, the movies he's supposed to have seen and not seen, made and not made. We love the big thing that unlocks someone's life story.
It's tidy, yes, but it's also very satisfying. For me with Hooper, speaking of Welles, it watching Texas Chain Saw for the 400th time and realizing that the famous shot of Teri McMinn walking toward leatherface's house was the same kind of shot that Welles uses to enter the Amberson's ball. Then I saw the Amberson's ball in so many of his movies. That cavernous space of anti-nostalgia eating George Amberson alive. It's in Eggshells, it's in Texas Chainsaw 2, it's in Invaders from Mars, it's in Dance of the Dead. The Amberson's ball and the carnivorous interior of the mansion, eating you as you count your money.
Also, cinephilia tends to legitimize you in the eyes of some people. I thought maybe that by explaining that Hooper was the modern Edgar Ulmer, someone who clearly had studied at the altar of Welles and Max Ophuls, I could open him up to people who'd written him off. You just never know what you need to convince people that someone deserves their time and attention but I was leaving nothing in the locker room, so to speak. I wanted to leave everything in the book for people to read.
In the excerpt from the book published at RogerEbert.com, you call Hooper "one of the most unsung film artists of the last 50 years" who has "one of the most exciting, free, and expressionistic bodies of work in the American cinema." After someone finishes and closes your book, what is it you hope they see differently about Hooper and his work?
That he deserved a book like this a long time ago, and much, much more. I want them to see him the way I see him: this was an old-school film artist, one of the best in the American cinema, and he ought to be treated like it. The man left behind an incredibly rich body of work and I just wish more people could see in it what I do. Talking with Ben and Kat Sachs and everyone at Cine-file on their podcast was one of the great pleasures of the last several months, because they saw in him what I did. I just want to change some hearts about him.
News & Notes
Last weekend I added (I think) all of the content produced by and in collaboration with The Video Essay Podcast to a new YouTube page. Please consider subscribing! I have some exciting plans for the space in the coming months.
MUBI and FILMADRID have once again put out a call for video essays. The deadline is May 16. More here.
“Videographic Criticism: Documentary Ethics, Reproductive Sequels, and Televisual Excess,” an event sponsored by the Department of Literature, Program for Critical Gender Studies, Sixth College, and Institute of Arts and Humanities, University of California, San Diego, featuring Elizabeth Alsop (City University of New York), Maria Hofmann (Wofford College), Kathleen Loock (Leibniz University Hannover, Germany), Neepa Majumdar (University of Pittsburgh), and moderated by Nguyen Tan Hoang. More here.
The Jarman Lab at Birkbeck, University of London presents “Conceal/Reveal: Pop-up Festival of Lockdown Essay Films” on May 21. More here.
Kevin B. Lee will be delivering a guest lecture on May 10 at the University of Groningen entitled, “The Future of Videographic Criticism.” More here.
A keynote presentation, “Making Nearby: On teaching and unlearning women’s filmmaking through the audiovisual essay,” by Catherine Grant for the Teaching Women’s Filmmaking Conference is now available online here.
“Tracing Relationships: Audiovisual Essays, Aesthetic Experience, and Poetic Practice,” a write-up on an event featuring the work of Catherine Grant and Christian Keathley.
On April 19, [in]Transition published their latest issue, 8.1. Watch here.
The AHRC-funded conference “Worldmaking around the world: rethinking the intersections of popular media, translation and LGBTQ+ activism across cultures” which will be held at the University of Exeter, 21st-22nd May, 2021, is hosting a video essay competition on queer media. More here.
CFP: Make Film History and the Essay Film Festival — In association with Birkbeck’s Essay Film Festival, the Make Film History team are currently looking for 12 participants for an archive-based filmmaking workshop. Application deadline: May 20. Details here via Screen Worlds: Decolonising Film and Screen Studies.
Screen Worlds: Decolonising Film and Screen Studies is looking for contributions to their website’s next wave of research and resources: films, audiovisual essays, interviews, toolkits, articles/essays. The deadline is September 1, 2021. More here.
D-NORMAL/V-ESSAY has put out a call for video essays. Essays shortlisted in their competition will be exhibited in their video zine and winners will receive cash prizes. More here. (h/t Kevin B. Lee)
Everything I create will always remain 100% free. But, if you enjoy this newsletter, The Video Essay Podcast, and the other work I do, please consider donating via Patreon. Thank you!