Smearing the Senses: Tony Scott, Action Painter

On the late great.
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky

This text was begun in mid-to-late 2010.  I posted two work-in-progress excerpts on my personal blog in December of that year. Following Scott's death, I decided that it was time to revise and complete it.


More often than not, innovation resembles deficiency. Jean-Luc Godard couldn't tell a story, Yasujiro Ozu never learned the 180 degree rule, Robert Bresson didn't know how to direct actors, D.W. Griffith first didn't understand that the audience wanted to see the whole actress and not just her face and then didn't understand how you were supposed to make a talkie—and, toward the end of his career, Tony Scott made movies the wrong way, never letting an image hold long enough for the viewer to figure out just exactly what was going on. 

The party line on Tony Scott is that he was a "stylist," a man who made popular, "technically accomplished" and therefore insubstantial films; he had a good eye and he was "influential," but he just got carried away with all those camera angles and all that editing. There was just too much of him. On the one hand, I probably wouldn't have to routinely defend Scott to readers and colleagues if his later movies consisted of shots that ran for minutes instead of seconds; on the other, they wouldn't be worth defending if that were true.

While the last few years have seen Scott embraced by a certain cinephilic community (the Cinema Scope  crowd, the Mann-Scott-Baysian "vulgar auteurists," etc.), he remains, for the most part, a director of immensely popular and commercially successful films who has never been all that popular or successful with critics or "serious film types." His 1980s and 1990s films were frequent style-over-substance whipping boys (Dave Kehr on The Hunger: "plays like an anthology of the most annoying manners of the British mannerist directors: Tony Scott combines his brother Ridley's penchant for smoky, unreadable images with Nicolas Roeg's pointlessly elliptical editing"). His 2000s films were ubiquitous talking points in discussions about how Hollywood movies had lost all sense of space, pace, and editing. Scott's final film, Unstoppable (2010), was a rare critical success—but largely because it was seen as a "return to form," a redemption for the sins of Man on Fire, Domino, and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. (The question of how the once-lambasted style of the first phase of Scott's career came to be seen as form "worth returning to" will have to wait for a different, much, much longer essay.)  

If I had to guess a reason for why Scott's later films—several of which happen to be masterpieces—aren't generally well-regarded by my colleagues, I'd say that it's because they (like most worthwhile films) don't fit into the commonly-accepted frameworks of filmmaking or film criticism. Cinema is supposed to be a medium of images—and yet the later Scott's images are often impressionistic to the point of abstraction, "unreadable," arranged in ways that don't create any sense of a space or a chronology. The big, obvious gestures—causality-based montage, emphasized mise-en-scène, long unbroken camera movements—that are at the center of the most basic theories of classical filmmaking and criticism aren't central to his best films. This makes Scott a harder sell than many contemporaries who share his penchant for impressionism and abstraction, like Claire Denis or Michael Mann; their styles—half film history, half film future—have a firm enough grounding in either Hollywood or "art film" tradition for their most abstract moments to register as clear directorial gestures. Scott's late-period style, however, has more in common with far-out figures like Philippe Grandrieux—yet Scott's movies are identifiably "popular" and not personal, which leads to a sort of cognitive dissonance. They're Hollywood movies, but they don't work the way Hollywood movies—or any movies—are expected to work; therefore, they're assumed to be broken.

The earliest interview I can find with Scott is a Time Out profile from 1970 (republished in the booklet for the BFI release of his arty first feature, Loving Memory) wherein the then-26-year-old director cites Miklós Jancsó as a major influence. This might come as a surprise to many; after all, Jancsó's long-take pageantry and the amped-up, multi-camera quick-cutting of Scott's later work don't seem to have a lot in common. But at their core, these radically different styles are defined by how they abstract action; Jancsó turns the familiar (and, in the case of his historical films, politically controversial) into enigmatic ritual, while Scott's late-period method of shooting and editing transforms everything into blotches of color and movement.

A graduate of the Royal College of Art, Scott trained as a painter; in many ways, he never really stopped painting. His early films display an impressive knowledge of art history and technique; look no further than the incongruous Rembrandt lighting that pops up intermittently in Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). The bright collage aesthetic that dominated Scott's later work—which first appeared in Enemy of the State (1998) and came into its own in Man on Fire (2004)—shows the influence of one of his favorite artists, Robert Rauschenberg. In other words, despite the strong cinematographic sensibility that helped make his name in the first place, Scott was not a "photographic" filmmaker; his work does not concern itself with physical realities, whether actual or constructed for the benefit of the camera. He was a painterly filmmaker: at first an expressionist—prone to outsize lighting schemes and camera movementswith Pop Art tendencies, and later an impressionist whose style was more abstract than figurative. 

Scott's death—suicide by jumping off of a bridge—casts much of his work in a morose light. After all, doesn't Scott's suicide mirror the ending of Man on Fire, where Denzel Washington, his work done, meets certain death on a bridge? And don't all of Scott's collaborations with Washington hinge on the protagonist embracing one kind of self-destruction or another out of principle? Isn't Scott's work obsessed with the inevitable? Aren't his last two films—The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) and Unstoppable (2010)—set around trains, which are pretty much the most inevitable form of travel there is? Isn't Déjà Vu (2006) about a man who falls in love with a dead woman and then must (technically) die in order to save her? Aren't his earliest films—One of the Missing (1968), Loving Memory (1971), the made-for-TV Henry James adaptation The Author of Beltraffio (1976), and The Hunger (1983)—all extremely morbid? Wasn't Tony Scott obsessed with danger and death?

Yes and no. Scott was an artist—specifically, he was a popular artist, one who worked in popular genres and idioms. He wasn't a stealth intellectual. He wasn't subversive. No amount of minute subtextual analysis is going to turn him into Paul Verhoeven. 

Scott's work took every macho cliche about professionalism and danger at face value; this includes the tried-and-trued chestnut about death being the ultimate test of man's character. Obviously, he was drawn to certain subjects for personal reasons; it doesn't take a genius to figure out why a man famous for his intense work ethic and love of rock-climbing would make movies about hard-working professionals who find themselves in dangerous situations. 

Politically, ideologically, Scott's films could be muddled or even juvenile—but despite a fondness for Cold War paranoia (evidenced in Enemy of the State [1998] and Spy Game [2001], and, to a lesser degree, in Crimson Tide [1995]), Scott was neither very political nor very interested in ideologies. The working-class milieu that is so central to many of Scott's later films doesn't speak to some sly class consciousness as much as it speaks to a personal empathy for people whose jobs define their lives. 

And yet Scott was a great filmmaker and—at least in his last decade—a great artist. How? Why?

Half-hearted defenses of Scott's late period usually approach his style as visual candy—as sugary, calorie-free form, as "pure color" or "style-for-the-sake-of-style-get-over-it-and-have-some-fun-why-don't-you." Even his detractors—who, in the critical community, outnumber his supporters—usually concede that the man knew how to make a striking image. But the style isn't just pretty—it's substantial. Scott's smeary, bleary, Dayglo late-period aesthetic and jumpy, jittery editing have very little to do with how we perceive reality or with how action, movement and drama have usually been captured on film. This style is hallucinatory or maybe even hallucinogenic (Scott was, after all, a close friend of Timothy Leary), interested not in the world as it is conventionally portrayed, but in a perspective beyond the senses—one that is only visible through the camera and through editing. It is, in other words, a metaphysical perspective. No surprise, then, that Scott's three best late-period films—Spy Game (2001), Déjà Vu (2006), and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)—are metaphysical romances, though only Déjà Vu is a romance in conventional terms.

"A love story between two men"—that's how Howard Hawks described A Girl in Every Port. These words also sum up Spy Game and Pelham: an unerotic fraternity that borders on courtship, and which, described in terms of conventional romances, whether straight or gay, would make Spy Game a melancholy story of break-up and reconciliation and Pelham a sort of mutant screwball comedy, where two men start the film as strangers set against each other and develop mutual admiration by prying open one another's faults. This is fairly traditional Hawks Territory, but what's integral to Hawks is presence, which isn't just a question of two or more people occupying the same constructed (i.e. classically delineated) space, but the same frame. However, the relationships between Brad Pitt and Robert Redford in Spy Game, Denzel Washington and Paula Patton in Déjà Vu, and Washington and John Travolta in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 all exist across gaps of space, time, and, most importantly, editing. The same goes for the unbreakable bond between Washington and Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire, and the way the actions of Washington and Chris Pine echo one another in Unstoppable.  

Here we leave Hawks Territory and enter the historical domain of Frank Borzage—yet Borzage's criss-crossing of space and time sprouts forth from classical ideas about both. The love story in a movie like I've Always Loved You (the most Borzagean of titles: a sentence that includes the personal aspect of love while simultaneously painting it as something beyond time) is impossible without a firm grounding; love can't transcend nothing—to break through, you have to make a wall first. Borzage's reputation as a "transcendent romantic" is misleading—not only because it fails to encompass his varied work, but because it denies the tactile, fingertips-and-nostrils physicality of those films of his that are romances. Scott, however, was genuinely uninterested in both concrete reality and linear time—in the fabled "clear delineation of space" or the defined boundaries between scenes that are supposed to be the mark of, respectively, good directors and dramatic construction.

Take, for instance, Spy Game, the last film Scott made before his full-on embrace of visual abstraction. In the movie, Robert Redford and Brad Pitt play CIA agents. Redford, once Pitt's mentor, arrives for his last day of work to discover that his former protege has been captured in China and that their mutual boss has decided that it's not worth it to rescue him. Throughout that 24 or so hour deadline before Pitt's execution, when Redford must tell the agency about his often difficult relationship with his old friend while also slyly engineering his rescue (partly, it becomes obvious, out of a sense of guilt and a newfound acceptance of his friend's life apart from him), Pitt is unconscious on the other side of the globe. In the lengthy flashbacks, they're as likely to be separated as together, occupying different spheres even when sitting across from each other at a table.

The images cut them apart and then the editing glues them back together until it becomes clear that their camaraderie isn't just a question of professionalism, but is in fact an emotional bond existing on some kind of more subtle level. Sure, this is the usual male weepie hokum—but it's in movies more than anywhere else that hokum finds its greatest opportunity to be profound. Scott's quadruple-speed editing means this idea is unable to be carried as a clearly-discernible metaphor; it simply becomes the accepted reality of the style. It's a bond that's already extant at the start of the film, and which a viewer becomes privy to through rhythms; after a while, it's simply assumed that any shot of Redford will soon be followed by a shot of Pitt, regardless of where or when the two them are. It's a hoary old idea—comrades with intertwined fates, unable to leave one another behind—expressed with such conviction that it becomes powerful. Space and time bow to Pitt and Redford's friendship (which, of course, again brings to mind Borzage's love stories).

Scott's late period is rich with this sort of form-theme-plot unity. His hyperactive, impressionistic style made no attempt to accurately represent physical reality—and the movies, in turn, are about people who establish relationships that transcend physical presence while dealing with some concrete, physical threat which the relationship ultimately allows them to overcome. They are movies about the denial of physical reality made in a style that denies physical reality—and, occasionally, common sense—at every opportunity. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 is about two flawed men talking to each other over a radio during a hostage situation. Unstoppable is about the bond (first moral, then personal) of two working-class guys during a crisis. Man on Fire has a bodyguard hero hurtling toward his kidnapped charge, destroying everything in his wake.

"Victory over the inevitable"—that's what's at the core of the plot, aesthetics, and structures of Scott's final films. For all their fixations on death, these movies constitute the opposite of tragic art; they begin by putting their characters into a situation where they seem powerless or doomed to fail (the hurtling train in Unstoppable, the hostage heist in Pelham, the execution in Spy Game, the bombing in Déjà Vu) and then show how they are able to master the moment—to take control over reality.

But these are not exclusively grim films. They're fun, colorful, funny, goofy movies. They're also talky movies. Scott liked working with brash, loud screenwriters—Quentin Tarantino, Shane Black, and Richard Kelly all wrote for him early in their careers—and his films from Top Gun (1986) on are full of tough talk, hard-boiled one-liners, set-up-and-punchline games, pop culture analogies, and macho epigrams. The later films are no exception. Faced with a difficult situation, every character is ready with a crude joke, a riff, or a wisecrack. Scott's sense of humor went hand-in-hand with his late-period themes; every zingy quip brings the characters one inch closer to taking control.    

No film takes Scott's metaphysical visual-thematic idea further than Déjà Vu, a sci-fi love story that also happens to be the director's best film, the clearest expression of his late-period ideas, and, well, one of the greatest films of the past decade. Déjà Vu's central conceit and image is the "time window," a one-way time machine that can't safely send back a living organism and is therefore used to transmit pictures—a delayed feed of past events. A team of investigators sit in a darkened room, looking at the past on screens, trying to solve a mystery. One of the investigators (Denzel Washington, Scott's imperfect and angry everyman) falls in love with the image of a woman who has already died, and then tries to use this technology of past images to save her.  

If this sounds like a metaphor for cinema, it's because it is. The time machine resembles a modern editing suite. Its technology is at once a reminder of inevitability and past failures and the only tool that can be used to conquer them—a dead, fated world that leads to victory over fate and death. It's a romantic, metaphysical conceit—and also one that is profoundly old-fashioned and idealistic about the power of images to not merely supplant, but overcome reality. "Victory over the inevitable"—it might not make for much of a philosophy, but damn if it isn't a beautiful motto for movies.

Scott's image-idealism is what drove him toward abstraction. He was a restless filmmaker—an avant-garde action director—who could have easily settled into any number of chic styles (he was capable enough in all of them), but instead kept pushing aesthetic boundaries. That is: he believed enough in the power of images to no longer follow the rules by which they were supposed to be made—to truly paint instead of merely photographing, to collage and compose instead of editing and constructing. In the most conventional, codified medium imaginable, the big-budget Hollywood genre movie, he made reckless, kinetic, colorful, wrong-way art—all without ever stepping outside of the medium's basic narrative codes and conventions. His works is an object lesson in how, even within the most restrictive limits, it's possible to be limitless. Victory over the inevitable.

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