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…