Another Green World

 

This article is part of the critical project Tony Scott: A Moving Target in which an analysis of a scene from a Tony Scott film is passed anonymously to the next participant in the project to respond to with an analysis of his or her own.

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Writing about a specific scene in Scott's oeuvre becomes a confused task when looking at the later films. This is precisely because more often than not scenes and spaces bleed into and away from one another in a way which dissolves the very idea that scenes can be autonomous. But let's try anyways: Unstoppable. A final film—but not really, perhaps too small when placed beside Déjà Vu or Man on Fire. Or maybe not...

The climax of the picture: Denzel Washington's Frank, a cantankerous man of duty and precision, barrels down freight car by freight car locking the manual brakes of the film's titular force. Will (Chris Pine) holds position in their locomotive as it drags down the speed of the runaway train before it derails into the nearby towns. Outside of and around Frank's pursuit of the conductor's cabin exist four other narrative spaces: 1. Frank's daughters watching the news feed at Hooters (don't ask), 2. the ground operations where Connie (Rosario Dawson) and co. coordinate with Frank and Will, 3. Will in the aforementioned conductor's cabin, and 4. Will's wife at the anticipatory finish line of the pursuit. The only thing unifying these numerous locales, from our perspective, is the television image; that of the news teams and their helicopters gyro-cams suspiciously substituting in for establishing shots while at the same time indistinguishable from the cinematic image in their granular texture (being that of 35mm). Much like how Creasy's fits of rage in Man on Fire inflicted themselves upon the surface of the film, smearing (the go-to word for Scott, I know) Denzel's ferocity across sequences and successively destroying the spatial coherency of the respective scenes which triggered them, here the threat made towards space comes in the form of the televisual image—born from the spectacle inherent in the film's locomotive McGuffin.

While these images do not consume the cinematic ones surrounding them, they actively endanger the space of the individual much like the way the television crew of Lewis' The Ladies Man briefly destroys Mrs. Wellenmellon's mansion, with their montage and their stupid cameras which commodify and codify people into a schema: that of spectacle (see: Debord). And yet unlike Mrs. Wellenmellon's mansion, these gyro-cams televisual images are optimistically incorporated into the overall structure of any given scene and in this one they fluidly match with the close-ups of Frank's feet and legs as he breathlessly leaps between carts. So in many ways Frank's pursuit towards the front locomotive, stopped short by a gap too big for his wits, becomes as much about authentically announcing his own image in the confines of television as it is about the pursuit of the train.

So where did that clumsy middle-brow assessment of Tony Scott begin? Those Paulettes with their reductive tagline "style over substance" have, over the last decade, missed how carefully attuned his "style" (whatever that means) is to his characters. This particular scene testifies to the way in which spaces (the train, the headquarters, Hooters, etc.) are all painted with the same kineticism: the cyclical gyro-copter shots which paint the pursuit of the train are recreated on a small scale in the HQ. Of color and light: each location is lovingly cast with the same vibrancy of a cold autumn morning. Of zooms: which hone in on and are carefully attuned to every gesture, highlighting but never inflating/betraying the emotional ticks of these characters who, like the Man on Fire, are entrusted with the task of not only stopping the train but of taking control over the film's surface, the image—their image. Where Creasy failed and retired into the narrative, Frank and Will succeed as announced by the film's final shot (barring the tacked on epilogue): that of a gyro-cam now liberated from its televisual veneer thanks to this unlikely bond made between these two men in the insular space of their conductor's cabin. It is a space which is realized in a way which hopefully distills what I've been trying to say about Scott's world: shifting between long lensed mediums, a tracking shot which rotates around Will and Frank—ostensibly serving as a two-shot, and scattered mediums from within the cabin—the space of the cockpit is realized in a kind of three dimensionality which absolves categorizations of interior and exterior, eschewing stasis in exchange for velocity and force. But preceding any of that, the television thread et al., this maximalist mise en scène finds its resolve in Tony's most moving words on directing: "I love reaching in and touching these worlds I've never touched before." From this joie de vivre we can perhaps pull that Tony's intensified continuity as action painting comes from a place of curiosity, ecstasy—an attempt at keeping up with a world too busy for static shots and too beautiful for dead ones. In this way, Unstoppable, a quaint picture which happily invites the categorization of minor, becomes in every way a final film, an old man's film, but also, painfully, the film of a man not done with making movies just yet.

Will: "It's like one day everything is going okay then the next it's all falling apart faster than you can put it back together.."

Frank: "Yeah, never too late though!"

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  • H. K. ‡

    Kurt this is awesome. You definitely do justice to this unique, and unintentional, farewell.

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