Part of the Tony Scott: A Moving Target
critical project. Go here
for the project's description, index and links to project's other movement.
The varied responses I got back from my group—"mine" in the sense that it is the one I participated in, since Gina's contribution closes Movement B—seem to say as much about the participating critics as they do about Tony Scott's films and the overlap between the two: the perception of Scott's films and career. Thus many entries, including my own, despite the project's initial invitation to scene analysis, also include some kind of overview of Scott's career, whether tracing a development or an overall ambivalence. These instances seem indicative of two things: one that even in this fragmented online critical world it is difficult to zero in solely on specifics, that specifics often if not always invite a desire for grander contexts, frameworks, connections; and two, that because of where Scott existed in a commercial industry, in the kinds of films he made, in the spectrum of those films across his career, and in the variable (to say the least) critical response around his generally continuous commercial/popular success, his films as a subject "necessitate" a particular kind of address.
It should hardly be a surprise that it is last third of Scott's American career that gains the most focus throughout this movement of the project. (In fact, I was initially worried the movement would self-circulate, where everyone would just enter into and never leave a loop of Man on Fire - Domino - Déjà Vu, which thankfully did not happen.) Likewise, the most critical or ambivalent response to the director comes through films indicative of both his first American period (Hochhäusler's satire of The Last Boy Scout) and also indicative of a strain of Scott's filmmaking uncommented upon in this section, that of the sadistic, grungier, more grody side (Martin's look at Domino), which I'd loosely say includes along with Boy Scout and Domino, True Romance, Man on Fire, and the short commission Beat the Devil. Missing from this project, then, are some of the director's most iconic and brazenly commercial work like Top Gun and Days of Thunder. These films stand as far more indicative of what the industry and culture were producing at the time than Scott's later and more ambitious works, which may have been produced in tandem with, within, or even preceding an aesthetic zeitgeist, but nevertheless through their density of form and often unusual story mechanics stand to a degree outside the norm in ways that films like Revenge, The Fan, and Beverly Hills Cop II (all uncommented upon) do not. (The director's transition from his early British work into the American film industry is a narrative nearly untouched, and we're particularly thankful to Christopher Small for focusing on a film from Scott's most under-known period.)
Again, I feel drawn into the appeal of the broader picture, though it often seems that Scott when dismissed is dismissed broadly, as if his films, his style, his interests do not carry nuance and careful, complex enunciation, that these movies cannot be minutely beautiful or orchestrate elaborate expressions within mere seconds. I think they do, and the appeal for scene analysis was intended as a question and a challenge to see what participants can find, draw out of, or articulate from a Tony Scott film on a more granular level. That, at least, was my beginning; the form of this project, as has been discussed in its introduction, was intended for digression and divergence in all aspects: which films, what kind of scenes, what kind and form of analysis. How much or how little of this can actually be seen in the resulting project is one of its interesting aspects. I hope these pathways prove valuable to and for Scott's work and his audiences, who may likewise access his films through various means at various points in time and engage with them in different ways.
The contributions in Movement A are presented here as a continuum. To view the contributions as individual articles, see the links provided in the project's main index
- Three Dimensional Threat Space (Crimson Tide) by Daniel Kasman
- Heading into Twilight (Taking of Pelham 1 2 3) by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky
- Start Me Up (Domino) by Adrian Martin
- Black Hole Cinema (The Last Boy Scout) by Christoph Hochhäusler
- The Two Tonys (One of the Missing) by Christopher Small
- Men, Fire (Enemy of the State) by Adam Cook
- Explosions in the Sky (Domino) by Boris Nelepo
- Ashes of Time (Man on Fire) by C. Mason Wells
- I Was Born, But... (True Romance) by Joe McCulloch
- The Whirled View (Unstoppable) by Phil Coldiron
1A. Three Dimensional Threat Space (Crimson Tide)
by Daniel Kasman
In front of me is my laptop screen; beyond, outside the windows of the bus I'm traveling on, is the scrolling landscape. Already I'm approaching Tony Scott territory—I just need a crisis to precipitate outside that only my computer could explain. The wifi on the bus is down, however, so I cross my fingers nothing terrible out there will happen. But such an occurrence would be in a later Scott film, the Scott who preposterously, ingeniously included a wifi-connected laptop on a subway car stuck in the New York underground...and let a passenger secretly video chat with those on the surface. The film I just viewed on this bus ride, 1995's Simpson/Bruckheimer production Crimson Tide, was made before Scott became so enamored with time-space fragmentation and the tenuous connecting handhold of technology—a break made in 1998 with Enemy of the State and a subject which freed the director's form to move faster, overlap spaces and time, redistribute perspective, intensify the separation and attempted unification between what's happening in the world and what's happening in that same world as seen from elsewhere. Yet in Crimson Tide, made during the last high octane, high concept spurts of the slick, comprehensible 1980s action-blockbuster cinema model (cf: Robocop, Die Hard, Terminator 2: Judgment Day), we can see the Scott who emerges later into a world of post-modern paranoia and techno-schizophrenia. And all it takes is the setting and the genre of the submarine movie to bring it out of him.
The sequence that most crystallized Scott's later conceptual interests in Crimson Tide’s comprehensive catalog of all the things that can go wrong on a submarine—a checklist it is the duty of every submarine movie to complete, like a drill—occurs just after Lt. Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington, beginning his first of five collaborations with Scott), the second in command of the ship, has relieved the Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman) of his command due to a heated disagreement in nuclear launch protocol. The film's opening has set up the world's crisis, but one notably told as a television report using stock footage: a renegade Russian rebel inspires a civil war which threatens the world with uncontrolled nuclear strikes. The sub goes underwater as this is happening, freezing the world situation and transposing its hysteria to the submerged, isolated chamber drama on the ship. The outside world has faded to the foggy murk of the water encasing the craft, and all radio links to the outside world are severed. The two men in charge of the ship—Hunter and Ramsey—are thereby placed in a situation whose precariousness literally involves nuclear holocaust, yet their access to the world in which that situation exists has been shrunk down to a collection of isolated chambers of men connected through cramped passages and the limitations of communications technology on board the ship.
The mise-en-scène entirely reflects this perceptual isolation: master-shots of the “conn,” where the Captain and later his replacement issue orders, is essentially equipped only with a microphone to communicate to the rest of the vessel, CCTV monitors showing other sections of the ship, and a few dials related to the steering and depth of the vessel. This is not a boat or a spacecraft; there are no windows to the outside world, no big screens showing those inside what's going on outside. To find out what's going on, the Captain in the conn has to talk, through the radio, to his sonar and weapon sections, which are in different parts of the ship. Scott delineates these spaces through color-codes and lighting: the conn is ostensibly lit realistically with clear high-key lighting; the sonar room is coated in hyper-stylized, hyper-saturated blue-red with a powerful, sickly green emanating from the sonar screens themselves; and the weapons room is denoted through a giallo-friendly blood red. The activities in both of these “side” rooms, whose actual spatial connection to the conn and the rest of the ship is not clear, are always of heightened drama: detecting enemies or engaging weapons systems. As such, their mise-en-scène without gradation is always in an expressionist key, extrapolating inner states of anxiety and tension to outer qualities of the image. The conn, a location of the cool collection, order and rationale of the ship's leader, is thereby painted in the clarity of comparative “realism.”
However, following Hunter’s taking control of the ship, a series of events bring to a head the ominous, pervasive sense of danger surrounding the submarine. Through these events, the disparate, disconnected spaces of the sub are made to be unified through the simultaneous efforts in the drama of the crew and outside the diegesis by Scott’s image-making and editing. In short order an enemy sub is detected, it fires torpedoes, Ramsay/Hunter’s vessel evades and returns fire, destroying the enemy, but not before its final shot from that ship damages Ramsay/Hunter’s sub enough for it to start flooding, lose propulsion and begin to sink to “crushing depth.” In this sequence, as throughout the film, Scott emphasizes the way the crew perceives events happening outside of their actual biological range of perception, and the distance between those events and the responses to them.
As opposed to Scott’s later baroque expressionism where the heightened perceptions evoked by a film’s images don’t necessarily have any root in the real world, the strangeness of the events during the sub’s crisis and the crew’s perception of them are completely rationalized through the expectations of how submarines and the submarine genre work. One moment everything will seem fine, and in the next a man in looking at an abstract, glowing screen will see an oblong red shape which instigates near-panic. His perception of his screen is communicated to the Lt. Commander through the radio, who then tells the men in front of him to change the ship's course, and then radios sonar back for updates. At no point does anyone actually see a real, material threat their ship, to their lives. All they see are abstract representations, and the engagement to defend and later take action against these abstract representations are carried through via remote communication over disparate spaces—remote and disparate despite the fact that everyone is sharing the same overall space and sense of danger. (It should be noted that the audience does indeed get to see some of the underwater action, namely the two subs moving, exchanging fire, explosions. All are notably ensconced in the opaque, near-abstract no-man’s land of the ocean. Here space essentially as no meaning.)
As the sense of danger on the ship increases, Crimson Tide begins to cinematically unify these remote, isolated and disparate spaces and people. Scott lets the expressionism of the sonar and weapons rooms bleeds into the central conn space by utilizing flashing/rotating yellow warning lights to push the psychological anxiety of the crew and of the situation into the aesthetics of the film. The lights are flashing across all three spaces: conn, sonar and weapons (and later, the hold, which starts flooding), which, while remaining spatially isolated from one another, become aesthetically unified through rhyming/repeated textures of light on the screen. The sequence increasingly uses close-ups of crew members to increase the claustrophobia of the situation and emphasize the human, psychological pressure, but the effect is to create a collage of heads bathed in strobing, exaggerated lighting. Later in his career Scott became known for literally overlapping images on top of one another for a combination impressionistic-expressionistic collage effect, and while the editing and assembly of Crimson Tide remains conventionally representational and legible, Scott is approaching the post-production effects he will later create on top of the image by here increasing the visual density in his compositions, ratcheting up the lighting and color, and then rapidly editing them together regardless of discernible spatial arrangement. Later developments in the sequence similarly increase the abstraction of the images: a large leak in another section of the ship, presumably the hold, but whose actual location we are not aware of, fills the frame with showering water, which graphically functions like the green of the sonar room and the red of the weapons room to both delineate a space for the viewer at the same time it abstracts it into textured imagery of anxiety. Flashing yellow lights on top of the water spray complete the painting: we get at least four spaces that are all visually different yet swathed with similar psychological-emotional tones and image patterns. Danger combines with communications technology to unite fragmented spaces together, sharing anxiety over abstraction.
The final sense of the scene is of a three dimensional threat space: these men are living in a world where danger is unseen and can literally come from anywhere. In fact, space is so undefined outside the ship, and sections of the ship are so unconnected inside it, that the “direction” danger can come from isn't even under consideration. Something might happen at any place and at any time, which is why the external threat to the boat is global nuclear holocaust, totally encompassing. (A notable, smaller scale example: right after the ship leaves dock and submerges there is a random, unmotivated kitchen fire which kills one crew member.) This pervasive potential for danger explains the isolation of each room: a safety measure. It's the same reason the ship itself is submerged, to get out of the constant threat of nuclear attack above water. Yet the cost of personal isolation is debilitating perception, a reliance on technology to detect, access and interpret the world—think about the satellite tracking technology and recording devices of Enemy of the State, the apparatus of storytelling in Domino, the past-viewing screen and goggles of Déjà Vu, the MTA's subway monitor in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and the helicopter news coverage in Unstoppable.
The techno-sophistication level of Crimson Tide, despite operating on a nuclear submarine, is much more old fashioned—essentially walkie-talkies and primitive radars—as befits the genre, but is no less crucial. To purportedly be safe, a submarine must remove itself from the world; to purportedly be safe, its crew must disperse themselves across separate, disconnected spaces on the ship, effectively removing themselves from a spatially present community. What allows these removes to be possible is technology that makes up for the multi-layered disconnect from the real, physical world: radio to “talk” to those above water to understand what’s happening, sonar to “see” what’s happening in the water around them, the CCTV cameras/monitors and inner-ship radio communications to both see and hear about what’s happening inside the ship. The technology inside the diegesis is analogous to Scott’s filmmaking: it ties the world together. The film’s editing and image-making unify fragmented spaces and psyches—artificially, it should be pointed out—just as sonar blips and status updates screamed over a radio give the crew a sense of successfully stitching together a discernible reality. The sense of unification increases with the sense of danger and threat, because it is in these moments that the technology which effectively simulates this reality is relied upon, and used, the most. Thus as the plot’s perils increase, so does Scott’s stylization heightened in tandem—and the men on the ship, and the film itself, attempt a synthetic union of reality that will be necessary to overcome grave danger.
2A. Heading into Twilight (Taking of Pelham 1 2 3)by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky
The last few years’ critical and cinephilic reappraisal of Tony Scott—what a cynical person might call “the Tony Scott gold rush”—has largely focused on Scott as an artist: his collage editing aesthetic, his playful and expressive use of super-saturated color, his fondness for abstraction.
Scott certainly had some sense of himself as an artist. He was trained as a painter (a little-known fact: Scott animated the logo of Scott Free, the production company he shared his brother Ridley), and his intense work habits hint at a background in art school technique; instead of conventional storyboards, he would—like an oil painter preparing to work—make extensive sketches on the morning of a shoot. But he was also a largely unpretentious Hollywood filmmaker; the most accurate way to describe his work—especially the more visually playful films of his late period—is not as “art,” but as “entertainment informed by art.” Scott’s aesthetic adventurousness never detracted from or subverted the main function of his movies—to be entertainment. Rather, the things that make Scott’s films compelling as art—his sense of color, his penchant for warping and cracking space, his deliberate mismatches—are there to, first and foremost, makean entertaining movie.
By my side, I have a print out of the text that precedes this one. I’ve marked it up with a blue pencil. Half a sentence is underlined on the last page: “Thus, as the plot’s perils increase, so does Scott’s stylization heighten in tandem.” I’ve drawn an arrow from that underlined half-sentence to the left-hand margin of the page, where I’ve written and circled a phrase from earlier in the text that stuck with me: “threat space.”
Scott was an inventive high-stylist, though I don’t think style was the reason many of his films were so popular; rather, it was the use of style, the way he was able to pair a ratcheting of tension with an amped-up aesthetic. His approaches to visual stylization could border on the avant-garde (especially in late-period films like Man on Fire, which is pretty much a catalog of celluloid “extended techniques”), but they were almost always in the service of a sturdy, beat-based Hollywood story. In other words, Crimson Tide isn’t an “entertaining thriller with Expressionist flourishes,” it’s—and I think the preceding text does a great job of showing the hows of this point—an entertaining thriller because of its Expressionist flourishes.
Those unusual lighting schemes—including, if I remember correctly, a scene where the lighting in a frame goes, left to right, from red to green to blue (a visual play, I assume, on the RGB additive color model)—remind me of a different boldly, starkly lit “threat space” in a Tony Scott movie: the hijacked train in Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. I’m thinking specifically of the scene when Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) has to roll the ransom on a handcart over to the train and deliver it (along with himself) to head hijacker “Ryder” (John Travolta).
The hijacked train car is a familiar, even banal place made sinister by otherworldly lighting—big swaths of teal, with super-saturated blood red in counterpoint—and an odd arrangement of figures (all of the the seats are empty, no one is standing up; the hostages are face down on the ground, the hijackers are hunched down in the corners of the car). “Outside,” throughout the tunnels and streets of New York, the cops have a measure of control, but the inside of the train—a mobile “threat space”—is Ryder’s topsy-turvy, garish domain.
I’ve never read the novel Pelham is based on, but I’ve seen the other two adaptations. The protagonists of the 1974 film version (played by Walter Matthau) and the 1998 TV movie version (played by Edward James Olmos) are both police officers; one major difference between these first two adaptations and Scott’s version—and the change that really makes it a Tony Scott movie—is that the Garber character is a train dispatcher. He is—like the train engineers of Scott’s subsequent Unstoppable—not a person who ordinarily finds himself in dangerous or exceptional situations, and yet the dangerous / exceptional situation he finds himself in has everything to do with his profession. In Scott’s Pelham, Garber is the first person the hijackers talk to after they’ve taken over the train and—in part because Ryder prefers talking to Garber rather than the hostage negotiator played by John Turturro—becomes their point of contact. Near the end of the film, it’s Garber who has to deliver $10 million to Ryder’s crew.
Garber is given the cash in bags. While a SWAT team waits, he slowly pushes a cart loaded with the bags up to the stalled train. A brief establishing shot of the train emphasizes the curve of a section of track. It resembles the arch of a bridge.
This is a quintessential Scott visual / narrative device: the crossing over, the moment when a character (more often than not played by Denzel Washington) decides to trudge toward certain doom. I’m thinking, for instance, of Washington’s surrender to the thugs at the end of Man on Fire (which occurs on a bridge), or the scene where he climbs inside of the time machine in Déjà Vu (a bridge through space and time). Out of principle, the hero crosses the bridge over into the “threat space”—which is just roundabout way of writing “Danger Zone,” isn’t it?
The lyrics of that corny, catchy Kenny Loggins song—penned by action-movie theme song specialist Tom Whitlock, who also wrote songs for Over the Top and Navy SEALs (a movie I probably saw fifty times as a kid)—read like an item-by-item breakdown of Scott’s macho themes: “The further on the edge / The hotter the intensity,” “You'll never know what you can do / Until you get it up as high as you can go,” etc., etc. They’re all clichés. And yet what Scott did, what he excelled at, was making art—and, more importantly for my purposes, great entertainment—out of these cheesy notions about staring down death.
The first part of the scene—Garber pushing the handcart—only lasts a few seconds, but it’s fragmented across multiple shots and angles. It’s what you’d call “excessive coverage;” the scene—as linear in terms of action as any scene could be, with a clear point A and a clear point B and only one way to get there—could easily have been accomplished in a single shot (I imagine that a more straight-up formalist like John McTiernan would do it with a wide angle lens and a Steadicam, following Garber from behind as he approaches the train, lamp-lights streaking long horizontal flares across the anamorphic frame).
As it often does, Scott’s style breaks up space (that’s the irony of these “threat spaces” / “danger zones” / whathaveyou—they’re all spatially incoherent). Not only does Scott switch from wide shot to close up and back again, but he also mixes wide angle lenses with telephoto ones. Discussions of decoupage rarely touch on questions of lens choice—which is a shame, because focal length and depth-of-field play as big a role in how on-screen action works and moves as shot duration and angle.
Both types of lenses used for the scene are prized in part for their ability to distort space: wide-angles stretch it out, long lenses flatten. The effect is a subtle spatial wobble: the proportions of the tunnel change with every cut. It seems cavernous in one shot, claustrophobic in the next. Obviously, neither of these qualities carries positive connotations—they’re two different kinds of unease. It’s a canny piece of filmmaking craft; tension is created not by evoking uncertainty—the what’s-around-the-corner dread of a long take’s slow crawl—but by deliberately disorienting the viewer, mucking with their imagined sense of a space. (Despite these disorienting cuts, the sequence features no obvious continuity errors, probably because all of the shots come from a single multi-camera take.)
This leads up to the film’s big Moment of Anticipation. Ryder and Garber have spent the entire film talking over the train dispatch radio—a typical, space-warping Scott relationship. In a few seconds, they will meet face to face. As Garber approaches the train, the door slides open. Out steps one of Ryder’s henchmen, followed by the man himself.
The first “physical meeting” between Garber and Ryder is, on paper, a routine shot / reverse shot set-up—except the shots aren’t classically matched. There is, as in moment when Garber crosses the point of no return, a deliberate spatial / visual unbalance.
Ryder is photographed from a low angle. It’s a deep-focus medium shot which, in the anamorphic frame, clearly shows the blood-spattered window behind him. Garber’s shot is more of a close-up, framed roughly eye-level, space compressed by a zoom lens. The depth-of-field is very shallow; the henchman who walks up to Garber while Ryder is talking is a fuzzy shape, completely out of focus. The lighting doesn’t match either; in fact, Garber and Ryder are lit with opposite (but also—and this is very important to the film’s conceit of the two as kindred spirits, could-have-been buddies—complementary) colors. Garber stands in his orange safety vest, lit by a dim gold light; Ryder stands in a blue shirt in front of the bluish cab.
When Garber arrives, Ryder greets him, disarmingly, like a friend (“You’re taller than I thought!”) and makes idle banter, asking him about his wife and his health (“How much do you weight? About 220?”). During one of these banal questions, Scott cuts to another long-lens shot. The window of the cab briefly becomes an abstracted frame-within-the-frame—very literally, a portrait of Garber. Then, the camera refocuses from Garber’s face on to the surface of the window itself. Space shifts to another flattened plane.
3A. Start Me Up (Domino)by Adrian Martin
"Visually the film is quite impressive, something like a confetti storm in which the spectator never gets to rest."–Manny Farber, 1968
Participating in this writing game is a little like being crossed between Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) and Jean Genet’s Un chant d’amour (1950). Both prison films, both about Men on Fire. One implicitly gay, the other explicitly so. Alone in my cell, like in Bresson, I am doing my bit to chip my way through to collective freedom and enlightenment. And, meanwhile, I am being presented, like in Genet, with things—all kinds of things—to help me along, without knowing the identity of the other prisoners, before me and after me, who communicate through the gaps in the structure.
Gilles Deleuze, as it happens, spoke of both these prison films. We see much in them to do with a kind of image, or sequencing of images, which he influentially called an any-space-whatever. Disconnected fragments, glimpses, portions of space or place, knitted together—however discontinuously—along some quasi-abstract yet highly material thread: movement of eyes, passage of hands, sequencing of shots, aural counterpoint. Bresson, and all who mimicked his example (well or badly), represents one branch of research into the figure of the any-space-whatever. Tony Scott, and all who gravitate around what I once called a Hysterical Cinema, represents another branch.
My preceding, veiled interlocutor in this game has spoken well of Scott’s typical strategies of coherent-incoherent spatialisation—his switching between lenses that distort proportions (as well as our ability to gauge them as viewers) and create a “subtle spatial wobble”. I agree that Scott’s stylistic modulations are (almost) always matched to a plot beat, or a switch in tone/mood. As it turns out, however—like Oliver Stone, perhaps his closest cousin in the Cinema of Hysteria—Scott is never content with using just one strategy; he piles on his entire bag of tricks almost every time. In the bag: super-saturated colour, variable motion (or speed-ramping), superimposition, rapid editing, editing mismatching, hyper-coverage, and a host of yet-to-be-catalogued manipulations of sound on every level (dialogue, voice-over narration, music, soundscape).
This is where, for me, the most intriguing issues of critical and aesthetic evaluation of Scott begin. I will not pretend to be a complete champion of the guy, either before or after his sad and untimely death: the politics of Crimson Tide, Man on Fire and Top Gun stink (he was not, in any genuine sense, a subversive filmmaker). And often we can feel—as I often feel in the company of certified hysterical texts, whether by Friedkin, Joanou, Stone, Bigelow, Roeg or Scott—that the dynamics (and Scott’s films are certainly, relentlessly dynamic) are forced, imposed on the dramatic (or comedic) content from without, that the “amped-up aesthetic” (as my predecessor calls it) is a desperate attempt to create pace, excitement, interest, local colour, thick mood and some vague but ominous air of meaningfulness at literally every moment of the unfolding screen time—even when little of it (or, at least, not all of it) has been earned.
In an imaginary sense, critics (including some of the finest and most perceptive critics) were ganging up on Tony Scott—or what he represented—long before he actually appeared on the scene to coalesce into a 1980s mainstream phenomenon with The Hunger and Top Gun. This returns us to the notion of a Cinema of Hysteria, which is closely affiliated with what Robin Wood once tagged the ‘incoherent texts’ of American cinema in the 1970s and ‘80s. In a roundtable of writers associated with the illustrious British magazine Movie in 1975, Victor Perkins complained—his offhand, typical example of that moment was the use of the telephoto lens in Electra Glide in Blue (1973)—that stylistic choices were no longer following a clear logic or rhetoric accumulating over the entire span of a movie; their action, and the motivation for using them, seemed instantaneous and ephemeral, a new stylistic trick (or cluster of them) for each moment, or beat, or switch-around in a scene.
Manny Farber crabbed about it first. (Although, sometimes, he also celebrated it.) Referring to a raft of late ‘60s movies by Frankenheimer, Nichols, Kazan, Noel Black and others, he wrote in the introduction to the first edition of Negative Space: “Those who blew their cool in the 1960s were shipwrecked on spatial problems, among other things. So much is possible or acceptable in photography-acting-writing now that films expand with flashy camera work, jazzy heat flutters, syrupy folk music, different projection speeds, and a laxity about the final form that any scene takes”. Sound familiar?
We have ourselves a ripe critical problem here. Scott’s work begins with something that, faute de mieux, we can call postmodern cinema: it hinges, as many films since the 1980s (across all genres) do, on the attenuation of surface, on a busy, multi-layered effect, on precisely the expansion of screen moments. This cinema exists for the sake of a certain quite emotional (but not quite meaningful) high; it plunges us into a fuzzy state of sensate embodiment. On another level beyond the merely spectacular or stylistic (for no kind of cinema is only spectacular), Scott’s highly cultivated way of achieving his jazzy effects frequently courts contradiction, paradox, and generally impossible conceptual constructs as a way of ‘thinking through’ any hot topic at hand—but always nestled within, and chafing against, various solidly (sometimes depressingly) conventional Hollywood narrative models, through-lines, mythologies and ideologies.
So: I am going to take a single little bit of around twelve seconds—I almost called it a shot, but it’s not; once upon a time, in the old mise en scène of Minnelli or Ophüls, it almost certainly would have been one, unbroken shot—from Domino (2005), which rates among my preferred Scott films, alongside Déjà Vu (2006). The scene occurs about 17 minutes in. It is a tiny fragment of the school-to-college flashback reminiscence of tough bail-bondswoman heroine Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley), and its point is simple and clear: Domino doesn’t fit in, doesn’t want to fit in, and hates everybody’s guts. Moreover, she pretty much tells us just this in her voice-over narration: Scott was never afraid of what the aestheticians call stylistic redundancy!
There is a camera movement heading screen-right, going from an enormous number of college dorm girls (I count at the very least 40, maybe 50) packed into the frame and sharing a glee-club-like moment (they chant :“5, 6, 7, 8 …”) of scary euphoria, to the ‘reveal’ of a bored and exasperated Domino, perched safely behind a wall and defiantly smoking a cigarette. (For the record: the smoking bit of business is given in absolute by-the-rulebook continuity editing.) That’s the conventional core of this screen moment. But Scott introduces many small fluctuations—of shot-scale, of luminosity, of sound design, of pictorial legibility—that break up the passage into its atomic, frame-by-frame (and, on the soundtrack, syllable-by-syllable) particles. Indeed, ‘counting the shots’, as so many of us are trained to do with films, is often strictly impossible in Scott, and not just because they speed through so very fast: digital post-production treatments produce so many split-second reframings and variations on the raw footage out of the camera that one is left grasping onto flashes of light or breaks in sound layers rather than highly ambiguous ‘cuts’ to mark or (in musical terms) ‘score’ a scene’s modulations. And this is, understandably, what calls forth the experimental/avant-garde comparisons of Scott with Stan Brakhage or Philippe Grandrieux, and the appeal to abstraction as a vital component of this Hollywood pro’s work (as with Michael Mann’s). I strongly suspect, however, that abstraction is the wrong word to describe this aspect of Scott’s hyper-laid-on style. The aesthetic credo of Scott tends more to follow the famous old Rolling Stones song: if you start me up I’ll never stop …
Screenshots cannot convey to you the intricate sound mix over this particular camera movement, or the cartoon-like recourse, five seconds in, to a pixillated fast-motion send-up of this jolly gaggle of girls ridiculously bobbing from left to right; screenshots can, however, indicate (sans their brutal rhythm) the enormous fluctuations and extremes in luminosity that run throughout the entire film, literally from moment to moment, and that register to the eye as incessant and unmotivated (in any traditional sense) flashing.
How strange and surreal the screenshots from a Tony Scott movie turn out to be! They lend themselves to the random-pause game (pioneered by Nicholas Rombes and others for our digitally creative times) better than most films. And in fact, they reveal a lot to us about the micro-workings of his style—even if, as in Oliver Stone, ‘micro’ often seems to signal ‘a series of stylistic devices applied indiscriminately and in an identical fashion to every scene, no matter its content’, which would resemble the grouchy, prescient remarks of Perkins and Farber. But let’s keep riding the wave, and continue with the scene-fragment at hand.
Domino is revealed at the end of this panoramic set-up/installation. (It’s so weird when paused like this, it looks almost like a Miranda July or David Byrne performance-art extravaganza.) Even this tiny passage-in-real-space is not rendered with conventional smoothness: Scott and his editors (William Goldenberg and Christian Wagner) yank out a few frames to speed us, over a jump cut, to her side. Scott doesn’t then simply rest on the moment, as a hundred other directors would have been content to do; he soups it up. He cuts in (or the footage is digitally reworked) for a closer look at Domino; then back to the first vantage-point, but with another zoom-like movement into her—and then out again! Simultaneously, we are treated to a dissociated, two-plane image that becomes more disconnected and intense as its micro-seconds race by: the creepy girls-gone-wild on the left, Domino on the right.
Every commentator on Scott notes the enormous editing and spatial discontinuities, whether judged to be canny or just a big, chaotic mess. One cannot doubt that such decisions are contrived and deliberate: notice, here, the liberty taken within the given mise en scène arrangement of where and how the gang of increasingly Francis-Baconised girls are positioned in relation to their half of the picture and to Domino (whether in or out of focus)—eventually bringing just two or three of them up closer to the camera in order to concentrate upon and exaggerate their comic grotesqueness.
As Domino’s narration prepares to yank us out of this fragment—“then the hazing started”—and into the next, the moment (as often in Scott) reaches its zenith of stylistic mania, in this pictorial, washed-out, hyper-luminescent blur, literally just a few frames worth, well under a complete second.
Some celebrate this—or anything remotely like it, which is basically everything in Scott’s oeuvre—as an outburst of cinematic excess, the kind of paroxysmic frenzy or acinema normally repressed by classical rules and conventions. Others file it away as a typical, fashionable instance of intensified continuity. For me, neither label really fits, or explains what’s going down in Scott’s fiddly, pyrotechnical work.
It’s clear that, by any thematic reckoning, this moment in Domino is not any richer for everything Scott does to it; a much simpler bit of direction would have carried exactly the same point, more or less well. But, of course, films are not (just) about calculable points, or even the sum of their thematic structures; they are (also) palpable surfaces and immediate experiences, sensation-banks and emotional triggers. Which is where the champions of Scott get on board—and, more often than not, in the name of a newness in cinema, a species of newness we find, in a related vein, elsewhere, for instance in the work of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, or (a few years before them) McG (remember him?).
It won’t do to claim Scott as completely Other to Hollywood; nor will it work to box him inside every traditional, professional category. Pained nostalgia for a long-lost school of mise en scène filmmaking—which we read and hear about everywhere these days—is not the best or most useful response in the face of (at least) three decades of a Cinema of Hysteria. Because that hysteria, as it plays itself out on screen—as a cinematic physiognomy as Giorgio Agamben would call it—is not only fascinating in itself as an object of study, but also must, of necessity, be prompted (as hysteria always is, somatically) by some pretty pressing historical and social conditions.
4A. Black Hole Cinema (The Last Boy Scout)by Christoph Hochhäusler
The following text should be imagined as an Adam Curtis film that you watch on YouTube...
BLACK HOLE CINEMA (Helvetica white on black)
“How British commercials directors conquered Hollywood and ended the reign of story.”
Cinema is a black hole, sucking in the universe. In many ways, it's Wagner's wet dream, a Gesamtkunstwerk combining circus and photography, science and dance, opera and journalism and what not. Every turn the medium took in the past 150 years (let's be generous) was another “acquisition,” be it sound, color or 3D.
[We see images of big city traffic. People lining up for a movie. A star map. Suddenly: A shot of Bayreuth in the dusk. Hitler at Bayreuth, in the audience. Traffic again. People shopping. Leni Riefenstahl dancing and then bound to her editing table, putting together “Olympia”—the reversal of the jump.]
In the 80s, the threat cinema needed to address, tame and incorporate was advertising. There was a big bonus involved: the promise that filmmaking could eventually become an industrial design process like any other, an art form money can buy.
[People with silly clothes, dancing to silly music. Ronald Reagon jokes about attacking the Soviets. Huge billboards. A TV ad. A car factory. The design department. A designer shaping a clay model.]
Consequently, Hollywood hired a couple of Brits to change the game. Tony, Ridley, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson and others came to freshen things up, much like the nouvelle vague did before them in Europe. And they made the promised splash with some of the biggest box office successes in history. But things got out of hand. And while Godard and company have been declared saints of cinema (a death certificate for the audience), the pros from UK became critical pariahs.
[An excerpt of Tony Scott as a cyclist in Ridley Scott’s short. The Louvre-scene form Bande à part. A Variety ad reading “150.000.000 and still flying high”. Excerpt of a De Mille bible epic. Tony Scott saying that he stopped reading reviews “a long, long time ago.”]
Advertising always lived on the remaining warmth of an emptied shell. Because no one in this world (not even Michael Bay) can believe in the “value” of a brand or honestly think that products can make us happy, the practice of making commercials produces a schizo-attitude not only towards image, but towards the world.
[A semi-automatic weapon. Empty shells in a hand. One minute shot of Michael Bay, no action. Slogans: Just do it. Be yourself. Man in crude science fiction film. Superimposition of the same man beside him. People shopping. Street traffic. Tony Scott speaks about “location flavor” referring to a scene set in Berlin, shot in Budapest.]
In order to stay sane, the filmmakers working in advertising developed a parallel strategy. They detached themselves from “content” or “story” and started to direct bits and pieces—and made them shine. And the more they shone, the further they drifted apart. The rise of the close-up, a rare exclamation mark in classic cinema, became symptom and expression of this new age.
[Excerpt of Harun Farocki’s Ein Bild (making of a Playboy centerfold) and Stilleben (on food photography). An animation showing the drifting continents. A close up of Greta Garbo in Queen Cristina. More street traffic.]
Coming to Hollywood, the big challenge the young guns were facing was the problem of consistency. How to glue things together when story is not any longer king? Pumping up the volume of pop music and sound design was part of the solution. But it was not enough to win over the audience.
[Fast forwarding The Last Boy Scout. Ten “old school” directors: Hawks, Ford, Lang, Walsh, etc. saying the same three words: “a good story.” Teenagers with a ghettoblaster and neighbors complaining.]
Ridley's answer was art direction, the pretension of classicism through papier-mâché columns—a strategy that worked best in a period (or sci-fi) setting. He used the shiny armor of set design to make audiences forget the inconsistency of his vision and to fend off the hollow feeling that “he has nothing to say” (David Puttnam).
[Children decorating a classroom. Set photos of “Alien” and “Legend”. A montage that shows the elaborate make up process. Gérard Depardieu eating, on the set of “1492”. David Puttnam, who rants about his compatriots.]
After thousands of commercials, Tony was eager to follow Ridley's path. But lacking his brother's highbrow camouflage he was never offered a decent screenplay. After the critical and commercial failure of his first feature and years of waiting he was given one last chance: Top Gun, a script that was not only generic and gang-ho, but also utterly boring—much like the SAAB commercial that inspired it.
[Ridley Scott being knighted by the Queen. Alan Parker being knighted by the Queen. The SAAB commercial. Jerry Bruckheimer. Don Simpson in Days of Thunder (the lost performance). The 1986 bombing of Libya. Recruitment numbers rising after Top Gun. More bombing.]
He reluctantly accepted and learned a lesson that changed Hollywood forever. Top Gun was so bad, it needed him, badly, and Tony understood that only a dead script is a good script because it needed a director as a re-animator of an undead cinema as his bride. High Voltage was his answer since…
[We see a re-animation. Image quality suddenly deteriorates. Frankenstein’s monster walking. Static.]
You follow a link that promises Part II. But first a commercial.
[A very old fashioned club that says “Mustache only.” An extremely beautiful blonde girl is denied access by some tight-lipped waiter who carries a tablet full of xxx brand beer. He says: “Mustache only.” She steals one beer, drinks. Because the beer is so incredibly fresh and tasty, she now has a foam mustache—and enters. (Maybe it’s a dark beer?). Pack shot of the beer. Claim.]
Part II starts. But somehow there is a gap. The tone has changed. It seems to be a different film.
[We see an excerpt of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, the first scene that introduces McTeague. He finds a little bird and comforts him. A co-worker makes fun of him, hits the arm holding the bird. McTeague gets mad, throws the co-worker down the abyss. He barely survives. A title card says: "So was McTeague."]
Entrée scenes are part of an old vocabulary to establish a character.
[We see Shirley MacLaine’s first scene in James L. Brook’s Terms of Endearment.]
Like Stroheim in Greed, Shane Black’s script for The Last Boy Scout (Page 17) introduces Jimmy Dix’ character on an ambivalent note.
[We see the introduction scene of Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) in “The Last Boy Scout”]
Dix was part of some orgy by football players of the “L.A. Stallions.” He meditates above a sleeping beauty (we never see again), before walking to the pool front of the house where a mean football player (we never see again) seems to drown a girl because “she won’t blow.” Dix, a good man, asks the mean guy to stop because it’s “too early in the morning.” The mean guy underlines his meanness by commenting that Dix is expelled from the league and therefore should not tell him what to do. He continues to down the girl’s head. So Dix takes a football that is handy and throws it in the mean man’s face. The girl (we never see again, and barely see at all) can breathe again and Dix has reminded the world that he is a great athlete (“Best arm in the National League”).
In Scott’s film, despite the unspeakable “content,” it’s the colors that count. Forget about the character. He is paper anyway. How about a ballad of pink balloons? It’s not even kitsch. It’s not just “style over content,” it’s parallel worlds. Schizo-filmmaking. Remember Rivette’s Kapo-text? He was convinced that a director who reframes a dying prisoner is a scumbag. Watching The Last Boy Scout, the director reminds me of McTeague: with the bird in his hand he has no feeling for the co-worker falling down the abyss. A disproportion that is hidden best when pumping up a dead script…
5A. The Two Tonys (One of the Missing)
by Christopher Small
In the vast majority of auteurist writing on Tony Scott, his hefty, multi-faceted body of work is split misleadingly into three phases: the early “art films” (One of the Missing, Living Memory, L’auteur de Beltraffio, The Hunger), the proficient, sometimes boneheaded spectacle films (Top Gun through to Enemy of the State), and the later, more abstract films (Spy Game onwards). Around about the time of Enemy of the State Scott’s work underwent his famed aesthetic transformation; taking all of his preceding blockbusters and blowing them up into dense, super-edited mutant hailstorms of sound and colour. Today, a couple of months after his death, this approach in viewing the films as symptomatic of a larger trend in filmmaking can indeed be instructive, but too frequently suffocates the nuance in his work. The idolatry of the later films’ greatest achievements overlooks the boneheadedness of films like Déjà Vu and Domino and disparages the impressively well-crafted thrills of Crimson Tide or Enemy of the State.
My proposition is simply this: is Tony’s really an oeuvre divided? My feeling is that the films credited to “Tony Scott”—the unquestioned elder-god of the vulgar auteurists—and those “written and directed by Anthony Scott” reveal their similarities and differences in an interesting push-pull of conflicting visuals and thematics, but that in looking at the early films one sees that the most consistent line that can be drawn through all of this vast body of work is the obsessive impulse to complicate on a frame-by-frame basis: constantly “adding” in order to emphasise artifice and to fracture space and time, but simultaneously—through this very “mixing pot” style of shooting and editing—flattening broad gestures and grand designs into spectacular glass panoramas where the characters literally become their own psychologies. This applies to films as heterogeneous as True Romance, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, The Last Boy Scout, or Beverly Hills Cop II—or Top Gun for that matter, which as a movie I don’t think holds much water, but as a overblown, complex and vapid showreel for the U.S. Naval Air Force, with its stunning “Take My Breath Away” sequence, it never fails to bring home the bacon.
So as I watch his first film, a short adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s One of the Missing, I am reminded straight away of Man on Fire (the remake). Denzel Washington’s Creasy is a will-o-wisp flickering at the centre of an intense maelstrom. The soldier in One of the Missing finds his madness exploding outwards uncontrollably from his severed head. Slipping between nightmare and reality in a way that predicated (and surpasses) 127 Hours, the film as a whole—angular, disjointed and showy—is powerfully inward-moving and extremely puzzle-like. Man on Fire is a flurry of protean images, this film shares the same instability.
Scott’s roaming camera at first follows the soldier moving through the countryside, peeking out at him through cobwebs of thickety branches, observing his hunt for the enemy soldiers, but quickly moves into the space of his mind as a blistering canon blast buries him in the rubble of an already dilapidated building he was hiding in. The landscape of the film morphs radically. The soldier is pinned down, screaming, eyelashes flaked with dust, staring straight forward down the cold, dark barrel of his own rifle—only recently loaded—which is now poking out of the ruins in front of him.
Scott’s camera is maddening: he points it right into the soldier’s grit-caked face, zooming quickly in and out, stabbing, splicing. With eyes like the whites of eggs, and spittle gathering at his lips, the man becomes an alien figure—the sound of his wailing at this point is separate from the montage and is steadily blanketed by the same mechanised drone heard in Ray Gun Virus (Paul Sharits, 1966). A spider slowly crawls towards the tip of the gun, tenderly lowering itself into the darkness.
Perhaps it is just me who finds here an adolescent impression of that agonising scene towards the beginning of Man on Fire where Creasy points a gun at his temple, like the soldier willing himself to silence his agony. In both films it is the gun that fail to fire—the impotence of mechanism—but where Creasy sees it as act of divine providence channeled through the saintly young girl watching over him from her balcony, in One of the Missing the failure is a tiny flicker of mercy cruelly extinguished. On the night following Scott’s suicide, listening to the director’s commentary over this very scene in Man on Fire, a few ghostly words reached out from through the ether: “In my opinion the toughest thing anybody can do is to take their own life.”
6A. Men, Fire (Enemy of the State)
by Adam Cook
Enemy of the State: center(master)piece of Scott’s filmography, bridging the gap between two bifurcated halves of an oeuvre.
Scott has yet to depart the more conventional—still expressive—style of his earlier work, but technology begins to guide the narrative + aesthetics into the next stage of his cinema.
He anticipates the paranoia and national security anxiety that would heighten dramatically in post-9/11 America. Scott also anticipates his own post-9/11 cinema…
The opening credits, accompanied by Scott’s token stop/start musical score of orchestral rises and electro-rock crescendo bursts, a perfect distillation of late-Scott rapidity and abstraction.
Later: men, on fire, flee an explosion, alongside an (unstoppable) train.
7A. Explosions in the Sky (Domino)
by Boris Nelepo
Fire, explosions and flares always play their own choreographic role in Tony Scott’s films. A machine gun roars, belching fire, and Scott’s trademark editing obeys the winking of these gunfire flashes. In the breathtaking finale of Domino—perhaps the director’s most personal and definitely most fragile film—the characters go as high as possible: to the 106th floor of a Las Vegas tower, in pursuit of an explosion. As there they are greeted by the mafia: Welcome to the Top of the World.
Why go so high? Domino is devoted to the slightly naïve belief in the invisible hands of fortune, in the higher powers. The nature of this belief is superstitious rather than religious. Hence the playful refrain that the main character keeps repeating: “Heads, you live. Tails, you die”. She is, however, also visited by the mescaline god played by Tom Waits, who gives her direction. The higher powers keep sending Domino signs. She has known since she was a little girl—if the gold fish dies, there's nothing good worth waiting for.
Domino—the daughter of actor Laurence Harvey—is enchanted by cinema. The film keeps giving direct references to the visual art: The Manchurian Candidate, of course, Sunset Boulevard, Night of the Living Dead, the TV shows Alf and Beverly Hills, a hotel porn film (Deep Throat is also mentioned). And, finally, reality shows. In this film, Tony Scott takes a step away from post-9/11 cinema—which is embodied the most in Unstoppable. In the latter, family members are watching their loved ones’ heroic feats on TV, and they might witness their death on live air. In Domino, however, the father had died so long ago that his daughter’s personal memory is not that different from the collective memory—the screen image captured in The Manchurian Candidate, an eternal resident in the phantom lands of cinema. This is why Domino is rather more of a reflection about the essence of cinema then media. Not only the protagonist is obsessed by it, but also Scott himself—taking advantage of his legal right as the demiurge, he kills the characters more than once, right before our eyes, and brings them right back to life. We are so lulled by these resurrections that we can’t believe the finale with the long shootout is going to be so ruthless. After the make-belief deaths, almost everyone will really die. The harder they fall.
This is just how that final shootout starts—like it’s going to be just a fun, a game to light music, a dance. Alf, who had stolen money and sent it to his people for the liberation of Afghanistan, is holding a remote control bomb and his grip is weakening. His wounded friends are speeding down in the elevator. He is waiting for them to be far enough away so they’re not harmed when he finally blows up this tower. The bills and pieces of paper are flying around in a whirlwind, an image that is soon followed by a rhyme: when the money reaches its destination, it too ends up in the air, thrown around by children. This paradoxical shot, so typical for Tony Scott, bitterly demonstrates what most of the characters died for. Was there any sense in it? Well, for the beauty of the gesture.
Domino’s final words can now so paradoxically and tragically be applied to the director himself: “There is only one conclusion to every story… We all fall down”. Thank you for this lesson, Domino and Mr. Scott. In reply, I can just think of this quote from Psalm 145: “The Lord upholdeth all the fall, and raiseth up all those that be bowed down”, which gave the title to Samuel Beckett’s radio play. All That Fall.
8A. Ashes of Time (Man on Fire)
by C. Mason Wells
The dizzying shootout/kidnapping in Man on Fire comes a full 50 minutes into the 146-minute movie. Up until then, Tony Scott has offered little but extended set-up: depressed, alcoholic former CIA operative Creasy (Denzel Washington) heads to Mexico and takes a gig as bodyguard for a rich couple's young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Creasy learns the ins and outs of Pita's daily schedule of piano lessons and swim practice over several scenes, which Scott methodically covers in unfussy, stylistically sober fashion, focusing on performance, character detail, and milieu. When Pita is snatched under Creasy's watch, the character and the film erupt: Creasy and the kidnappers exchange a hail of gunfire and Scott unleashes a full-fledged impressionist assault unlike anything previously seen in his filmography, or anything in contemporary action filmmaking since mid-90s Wong Kar-wai.
“What I tried to do was get inside Denzel's mind,” Scott noted of the sequence; this quest for subjective rush led him to use a 1910 hand-cranked camera (varying the speed from six to 100-frames-per-second), reversal film stock, and a cross-processing technique on the celluloid. The camerawork becomes jumpier, the cuts come faster, washed-out color photography snaps to black-and-white and back again, and the effect smears everything into a continuous blur. "I think it feels like part documentary—part grabbed real footage—and part opera," Scott said, and his attempt to combine gritty realism with florid high-drama sets the template for the remainder of this “movie of extremes”—and its director’s career.
The techniques Scott experiments with here come into fruition in his subsequent features (Domino, Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable), as well as the underseen commercial shorts he made in between ("Agent Orange" and "Beat the Devil"). Each one is a fury and flurry of freeze frames, camera swoops, step-printing, double-exposure, triple-exposure, quadruple-exposure, jump cuts, smash cuts, cuts, cuts, cuts. Many critics have derided the orgiastic late Scott house style as "excessive," "spastic," or "histrionic," and while it's certainly not subtle (especially his affection for flashes of onscreen text, sometimes subtitling perfectly audible lines of English dialogue), it's undeniably his, a fully realized decoupage aesthetic that deconstructs dramatic beats into tangible sensory details.
Maybe Scott was seen as a threat to staid convention; directors who don't hold a shot longer than two seconds are viewed with immediate suspicion, but those who hold a shot longer than two minutes are instantly taken seriously. The irony, of course, is that under the sheen of his radical pyrotechnics, Scott was something of a classicist. Man on Fire's shootout scene preserves action cinema's most treasured virtue: visual coherence. He stages the scene with Creasy at one end of a town square and Pita at the other, separated by a distance of roughly 300 feet with the kidnappers and their cars right in the middle. Even amid all the visual noise of the scene, the audience is never left in doubt about spatial dynamics. Scott worked with classic plots, too—Man on Fire is built on on pure hoary hokum, ham-fisted and time-tested: a grizzled old pro strikes up an Unlikely Friendship™ with a precocious kid; the angelic young girl is placed in peril; the wounded man flies off on a rampage of revenge. As with our best B-moviemakers, it's Scott's sui generis style that (energetically, triumphantly) elevates the cliches.
While Man on Fire is certainly the most problematic of Scott's late pictures (it gleefully asks the audience to root for the grisly deaths of its one-dimensional bad guys), it still marks an important chapter in his evolution. Starting with Domino, Scott would push this cubist approach to greater and more productive ends—splintering his scenes, flying more freely across time and space, collapsing the narrative exposition directly into the action. He proved himself one of the few Hollywood directors willing to grapple with a world so overloaded with information and anxieties; viewers were left to breathlessly catch up—and we’re still trying.
9A. I Was Born, But... (True Romance)
by Joe McCulloch
The first time I saw True Romance, I couldn’t see a thing.
I had a window in my bedroom that looked out into the kitchen, and had anybody stopped in for a snack, there at one in the morning, they’d have seen the back fifth of the room bathed in a pulsing pus-green/electro-purple glow, like it was The Hunger all over again and Tony Scott had broken out the gels. All of the colors of the entrails of cable were on my television as I watched pay movies scrambled, solarized ghost images looping and looping—it was how I saw the adult movies, and TV Guide had assured me this one had sex.
Clarence Worley & Alabama Whitman fuck within the first 15 minutes of the film; regardless of the achronological structure of the original screenplay, I associate this occasion with Quentin Tarantino, the writer, whose Pulp Fiction my junior high friends and I would subsequently rent and find unconscionably boring: a sad, stalled cinema from a man in love with his dialogue. Movies should move, and crackle, and cut, and roar, we would say—paying no mind, it must be said, to the value of visual quality. Pretty pictures were shallow things; we preferred the substance of performance—guys kicking other guys; performance—and the adroit conveyance of script information in a brisk, non-intrusive manner.
All was academic in my bedroom; I heard Tarantino’s words, and, because editing can betray itself by audio only, I was content to invent my own decoration to surround the voice of Patricia Arquette, as I pondered what her face was like and squinted after her breasts.
The sex, however—viewed soberly—functions as a capstone to the sequence directly preceding, wherein Clarence shows Alabama around a comic book store. It is operatic. The dramaturgy isolates the couple at first, with Alabama seen from high above, bathed in darkness before a flood of light comes, beckoning her to pace the stage, left and right, in wonder. What a swell place to work. Clarence, in contrast, is shown in tighter quarters, associated with soaking blue pierced with red. Basic mise-en-scène: the character with whom we are made to identify is set close to us, while the digressive longshot of the character he desires becomes functionally ‘his’ sight, so that we enter him, viewing a Patricia Arquette lit into being. It is a descriptive poetry, this of Tony Scott’s.
But while Clarence is the one to physically descend to meet the woman, we know it is Alabama who has truly approached him. The two become surrounded by electric radiance—blue. The zones of Clarence’s desire, early on in the film, are always sites of illumination; rebuffed by a woman in a warmer-lit bar, he proceeds to the movie house (where he really wanted to go), desaturated and given a flickering glow by the cutting beam of a projector. The cinema is undoubtedly the heart of the matter, and Alabama must literally enter this place of love between a man and his movies from a paler Detroit exterior, nearly black and white, and lacking in sheen. This is the start of their romance. She is hot, dressed in blazing red, and draws the eye constantly while they eat pie under light filtered through window blinds, but this natural stuff cannot compare to the popping primary colors—blue, red—surrounding comics: another private passion for Clarence, one that he aches to share.
When we think of True Romance, we think of the young Tarantino, and this early work speaks plainly of his pop culture interests and his unvarnished fantasies of escape. I’ve heard the whole film attributed to him too many times to count. Yet Scott both understands his writer’s aims—communicating them softly through hue and stagecraft—and necessarily deviates. The original screenplay devotes several exchanges to Clarence’s favorite comic books, which Scott and his editors collapse into a rush of information. “You wanna see what Spider-Man number one looks like?” “You bet.” Suddenly we see interior pages from a totally different comic, and when we cut back to Clarence he’s describing a love story about “Nick” and the ring he got for his sweetheart that he wears on a chain, that he dives overboard to retrieve when a Nazi bastard tears it off, and the camera closes in on Alabama’s eyes while she listens, and then they are kissing, kissing before a field of blinding solid blue.
In his screenplay, Tarantino has Clarence elaborate on the story of “Nick” - it’s an issue of Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, boasting Clarence’s all-time favorite cover, the artist of which was Jack Kirby, a hard-bitten Depression boy who rolled with street gangs and served in WWII, where he worked reconnaissance in Europe and nearly lost his legs to frostbite. A frenetic, booming stylist, he would define the cadence of American action comics.
Among my favorite Jack Kirby comics are the ten issue of his continuation of 2001: A Space Odyssey. They’re completely worthless. But that’s one of the cool things about them, they’re so cheap. The best issue is #7, published in June of 1977.
From the Stanley Kubrick motion picture, Kirby drew special attention to the image of the starchild, which he dubbed the New Seed. There are many such evolved beings, zooming throughout the universe as little living stars, always observing.
A planet is consumed by war. It is a contaminated hell of a military-industrial sort, weathered down into fields of rock and iron. Two people are in love.
There are grenades and guns and all the other things Kubrick forgot, though Kirby, nine years after the film’s premiere, remembered the idea of evolution, and recalled, I will guess, his service in the conflagration of the ‘40s. It is like a Sgt. Fury of biblical scope. The lovers are shot dead.
Quentin Tarantino was reportedly upset when Tony Scott saved the lovers in True Romance. His screenplay had prescribed death for Clarence, in keeping with the ethos of his media idols. Elvis Presley, yes, but Sgt. Nick Fury didn’t close that issue out reunited with a surviving sweetheart either. Still, Scott insisted. “I just fell in love with these two characters,” he told Maxim in 2008, “and didn’t want to see them die.”
Tarantino eventually concurred, to the extent that the ending of the Tony Scott film of his script was fitting to Scott’s directorial approach. This sort of thinking would have been alien to me on my first viewing, when I worked up a reckless adaptation based on voices and music. Scott didn’t write the screenplays for any of his features after Loving Memory, his 1971 debut, and thereby might fall into the category of director-as-adaptor; even the staunch auteurist can approach this formulation when the writer is as total a presence as Tarantino, whom I have since warmed up to a great deal.
Yet I don’t associate Tarantino’s cinema with sensuality; I find him cerebral in his mixing and matching of movie samples, though his love is surely real. Scott you can call a cubist, but lashed to the temporality of sequential cinema images, the effect is inescapable visceral and experiential—in feeling, one might say, it is a logical extrapolation of the roaring jets of Top Gun and the zooming cars of Days of Thunder. And Scott feels Tarantino too, coaxing out the subconscious preoccupations of his Clarence, his alter ego, into a motif that builds with the anticipation of eros, boiling over the rim of loneliness: so blue.
The pair would next collaborate on Scott’s subsequent film, the considerably more box office-friendly Crimson Tide. Tarantino supplied uncredited dialogue work, the most popular assumed example of which is a scene where Denzel Washington dresses down a Petty Officer for getting into an argument over whether the one true Silver Surfer was drawn by Jean “Mœbius” Giraud or Jack Kirby. Everybody knows it’s Kirby, Washington cracks, Tarantino smiling, perhaps, knowing that Scott will direct him to say just that.
When they have finished making love, Alabama climbs out the window and Clarence follows, and she tells him about lies, the two lit harshly and fully on a precarious ledge high above a city. Tony Scott was a rock climber. This is an honest place.
10A. The Whirled View (Unstoppable)
by Phil Coldiron
“Of all the directors I’ve worked with, Tony, he’s the one I enjoyed the most, because working with him, you know that he’ll see everything, so everything can be so much more free, there’s no need to worry about the camera.”
I’d like for you to do something for me, it’s just a little exercise in something like organic cinema: close your eyes as tight as you can and look at the colors. That’s all. This might be easier if you find a light and stare at it for a few seconds first, though even if you happen to have a perfectly dark room available and choose to try it in there, you’ll still see some color (it’s called eigengrau—“intrinsic gray”— because naturally the Germans have a name for this).
I ask you to partake in this little experiment in service of making the possibly sad, and certainly lonely, point that the purest vision we’ll ever have as humans with more or less base-level optic and neural activity is something which is forever only our own, i.e., it’s impossible to share in this sort of looking—freed from all those narratives that trail away from every object we lay our eyes on—with a group, because the second your eyes open and you leave the loop that leads from lids through ocular alleys to brain and back, it’s kaput. You could grab some friends and all sit around together, eyes closed, confirming the fact that you can see without looking at anything outside yourself, but still, the fundamental quality here is solitude.
The filmmaker who’s gone furthest in attempting to overcome this fact is Stan Brakhage, and the furthest he’s gone is, as far as I can tell, his Arabic Numeral Series, a numbered cycle of 19 (or 20, depending on how you feel about the nominal hiccup of “0+10” being presented as such) films consisting of flashes of light, generally in the range of oranges and yellows that you might recognize if you tried the little experiment requested above floating in the blackest black. Working with absolutely no evidence as to the reason of their exclusion, I’ll just say it’s fitting that these films weren’t included in either of Criterion’s stunningly great Brakhage sets, because more than any issue of texture or movement, they depend on being viewed by a group of people in a dark room, a spatial and social context that allows them to do the pedagogical work of bringing people together in a shared vision. They’re basically a 3-hour lesson in how to look at the world at degree zero, a point of departure for a whole range of further explorations including the rest of Brakhage’s work, and, I’d argue, the films of Tony Scott (or at least those from the last decade of his career).
The thing about Tony Scott’s films is that they’re never very big. They’re the films of a man looking at the world and realizing that what’s already there—trains, and trains, and terrorist attacks, and kidnappings, and love, and friendship, and work—is enormous and fascinating and probably unknowable (and doesn’t need robots, Biblical-scale CG catastrophes, etc.) and deciding that he’s going to do everything he can to outflank it, moving constantly to try to get around those ends out there in the space of infinity and see it all. This, naturally, takes a lot of cameras. And so of course a lot of reactionary critics—the sort of guys who think that John Ford editing in camera is what made his films great—decided that this coverage-heavy approach meant Tony Scott was a hack with no vision, an editing room cobbler slapping together whatever vague semblance of coherence he could from all those zooms and pans and tracks.
Plenty’s been made of Tony Scott’s background as painter, a personal history that makes it both tempting and justifiable to throw around words like impressionism and expressionism, and as much as there’s a place for both of these (and many others) in any consideration of his work, both point toward something more settled than Scott’s films, which are, as much as anything, documents of the process of struggling to look at the world. The semi-circle tracking shot is Tony’s great metaphor for this perpetual incompleteness, a movement describing a space at the same time as it reminds us that there’s something lacking, the view from the other half that, for whatever reason, we can’t quite see right now.
This lack, the acknowledgement of the fullness of the world beyond what’s being shown, is what Serge Daney found to be the defining trait of “the image,” a concept he played off against “the visual,” all those processes by which whoever’s in power in a certain situation confirms their position by presenting it as if there could be nothing beyond it. (Daney discusses this in the context of the media’s presentation of the first war in Iraq.) The visual, for Daney, is “closed, looped, a little like the image of pornographic spectacle, which is only the ecstatic verification of the working of organs (and nothing more).” In its way, the visual is a pure vision in the same way that those lights dancing on your eyelids were, only they’re what the world of international corporate capital sees when it closes its eyes. The American mainstream media is something close to the perfect manifestation of this, insofar as every story is presented as ending exactly at the point where its being reported does.
Tony Scott’s final film, Unstoppable, a very simple story about two regular guys attempting to stop a runaway train, complicates itself in some fascinating ways, none more so than in its consistent use of mock news broadcasts (naturally tagged with a Fox logo) as running commentary on the action. Though they’re identified by all the graphics associated with contemporary news coverage and the interlace bars of filmed television, these images are still presented at the same ‘Scope ratio as the rest of Unstoppable, and fit seamlessly into the 30-minute montage that comprises most of its final third and moves restlessly and constantly from train cabin to control room to living room to exterior action to news coverage. On its original release these news inserts were the frequent subject of derision, the most damning evidence of the laziness of Unstoppable’s blatant and abhorrent conventionality (i.e., “here is a man telling you why this part of the story matters”), when in fact, at a modestly presented, though very, very smart, conceptual level, they’re the film’s heart. The train, the oldest and grandest of all the metaphors for cinema, becomes the image, the mobile, incomplete site around which all these gazes converge—two men looking out from inside, loved ones and bosses and all of America looking from outside—and the speed with which Tony Scott moves amongst all of these ways of looking brings them all into not quite conversation, but a sort of overlap approaching glossolalia, where even the news is restored as a space for images. Any single claim to presenting the whole world is shattered open by the dizzy force of so many eyes looking in so many ways at all those simple things behind it that can’t be flattened out. This, then, is Tony Scott’s great popular project.