"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.