To the overabundance of text, sounds, images—and moving images—in Tony Scott, we reply with something like our own. So let me (try to) keep this (almost as) short as a Tony Scott shot. Scott’s death this past summer would elicit film critics’ own counterpart to American politics: opinions and generalizations bandied between two camps who were, as always, preaching to their respective choirs. And needless to say, such discourses would be about as useful, informative, and interesting as American politics. For Scott’s work was hardly encamped: the outward liberalism of Enemy of the State, perhaps Hollywood’s most overt attack on our surveillance nation and the NSA, possible only before 9/11, concludes that only NSA aspirants can take down the NSA, just as Man on Fire, Scott’s outwardly conservative Big Heat for the Bush Era, concludes that only mob aspirants can take down mob motherfuckers. Repeatedly in Scott the mob will undo the mob, the hero will become the villain, the villain the hero—if one is to doff the high hat of morality. For all Scott’s formal flourishes, his characters are functionaries of their own ethos, and Scott’s decadent direction is nothing if not economical: by Domino, each gesture of the characters has become an almost extra-diegetic symbol and sign of their personality to accompany their speeches on the soundtrack. To all the shitty symbolism of post-9/11 Hollywood, women with their backs turned on the beach as objects of desires, whether in Malick or Nolan, Scott finds a symbolism that seems to spring from the actors’ hamming it out, often quite violently, in the scene.
So in Scott, we see every moment not only symbolizing a character or creed, but offering alternate variations off the last and finally undermining it as mere speculation, eating itself out: as Otie Wheeler’s video attests, one favorite late Scott technique is the repeated line, the official text recut by Scott into multiple recitations as different possibilities of a line-reading. Alternate histories. This project, with its schizophrenic perspectives and persistent amnesia, is my own attempt to start a new conversation about Scott’s work that might impersonate at the same time. The conversation, or connections and battling perspectives between the various pieces, is of course dependent on the critics themselves and their take not only on the assignment, but also, as is evident, on the actual work of Tony Scott.
And with that, I’ll leave the sorting, organizing, and meaning giving to you all because that, hopefully, is the fun part.
- Crimson Tide by Ryland Walker Knight
- Enemy of the State by Ben Simington
- Domino by Robert Koehler
- Déjà Vu by Steven Shaviro
- Man on Fire by Christoph Huber
- TonyScottDeathSong (Spy Game) by Uncas Blythe
- Another Green World (Unstoppable) by Kurt Walker
- With Each Touch, I Risk My Life (Domino) by Otie Wheeler
- Standard Op (Enemy of the State) by David Phelps
- Sp(eye) Gam3z (Spy Game) by Gina Telaroli
1B. Crimson Tide
by Ryland Walker Knight
Here we have a relatively simple scene from what I would argue is the pivotal Tony Scott movie, Crimson Tide (1995), in large part because it is, I might also argue, a relatively simple movie. In fact, when it came out, one of my dad's girlfriends liked to joke about how it's "the one with the two macho guys who just yell, 'I want to push the button!' and 'You don't get to push the button!' at each other for 90 minutes." That's putting it just a little too simple for my tastes, but, you get the point: the stakes are huge but the action is confined to talking (in a sealed set full of screens/monitors, I might add, but that's a topic for another entry in our project I hope) and a little horsing around with guns. Sure, there's an enemy sub that fires on our heroes, but that's just to keep you interested in what's really at stake: a negotiation of trust as the, excuse me, water mark for civilization.
So to kick this thing off, I chose the conversation that starts that negotiation in earnest. Denzel Washington plays "XO" Hunter, whom Gene Hackman's Captain Ramsey has previously interviewed from an unquestioned position of power. This is the first scene where they are presented on the same field of play (literally). This is the moment before the dive, before the film descends into its mechanics.
Hunter and Ramsey—I so desperately want to say Washington and Hackman—are standing on the sail, or "conning tower" per Wikipedia, admiring the view. Ramsey has offered Hunter a cigar, and says this moment, before the dive, is his favorite part of the journey, that he doesn't trust air he can't see. Already we have our first conflict ahead: the captain of the submarine doesn't like confined spaces, and he smokes. A cheap Hollywood joke, perhaps, but fitting for the structure of the dispute ahead for these two characters/men, and terrifically American, which is to say inherently hypocritical. In any case, they enjoy the moment. There is a sunset. Ramsey appreciates that Hunter allows a silence, then he lays out his rules for what will determine and no doubt motivate the central contradiction of perspectives that the film plays out. Ramsey tells Hunter he "can't stand save asses and won't abide kiss asses." This line is delivered over a shot of Hunter, thinking, letting those words register on him, as they apply to him. Anybody who has seen the movie knows that he does not look to kiss Ramsey's ass, though he does look to save the ass of the world.
Again, it's a simple scene, and by a lot of standards there is far too much coverage. There are over twenty edits inside two minutes, but each serves rhythm and performance. Amidst all the talk of his gifts for making images (and this sequence is really kind of beautiful to behold, especially with the windshield in front of our leads reflecting the swell of the ocean), Tony Scott rarely gets enough credit for the performances in his films. This scene has a lot of tones, going from magisterial to intimate and then to tactical before some levity and back to the grandeur of military process as the ship dives. Some might say it's the writing that's great, that the coverage dictates a fussy kind of editing, but the back and forth between the leads strikes me as quintessential Hollywood storytelling. The staging of the scene, how the films knows when to separate these characters, is a prime example of what makes movies a perfect medium for undertaking a conversation such as this movie provides. We might even boil down the tin drum melodrama that follows like so: it's not with guns or nukes or buttons, but with words that determine the ethical answer to any given conflict. Tony Scott movies put you in the mix of things as a consequence of the characters being in the midst of chaos and the thrill is our privileged remove to see how they react.
2B. Enemy of the State
by Ben Simington
Righteous-subordination-as-genuine-patriotism is the theme of Scott's Enemy of the State, a theme that's transferred over from his earlier effort Crimson Tide. Between the two projects, there is also a noteworthy role reversal: Hackman exchanges the mantle of Captain Ramsey’s blindly nationalistic aggressor for that of the justifiably paranoid super-hacker, Brill. Brill has been targeted Public Enemy No. 1 due to his cyber-civil-disobedience against the proposed “Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act,” a kind of prescient, long way of saying The P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act (which it turns out is actually a short way of saying: Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. Yeah, right, thanks guys). Will Smith as the ambivalently apolitical attorney Robert Clayton Dean finds himself forced to choose a side after unwittingly coming into possession of key evidence that could expose the corruption inherent in The Act, and Brill begrudgingly accepts responsibility to protect the naïve Dean while giving him an explosive crash-course in conspiracy “theory”...and practice. All of this sound and fury doubles as a moral lesson about the weight of witness during our satellite age wherein the fine line between voyeurism and privacy is rapidly narrowing, thus placing Enemy of the State amidst the admirable company of other technologically-minded “Cinema of Surveillance” classics (most notably The Conversation, but also Rear Window, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, Blow Up, Blow Out, Minority Report, Maps.Google.Com).
In the scene I've selected, Brill and Dean have just hijacked an untraceable car to finally evade their attackers after almost forty screen-time minutes of uninterrupted pursuit. They have also come to accept that they will both need each other’s cooperation if they stand any chance to survive. This thirty second scene has only five shots, all of which follow a simple shot / reverse shot structure while the pair breathes a shared sigh of relief while driving through a protective tunnel. Per the previous example, the simplicity of the editing showcases the performances: in this case, a decrescendo of exhausted relief after narrow escape. It visually compliments the increasingly even-keeled repartee between a reluctant odd-couple who have accepted their fates as unlikely action sidekicks, and it confirms their now-earned trust in one another.
What sets the five shots in this scene apart from a totally traditional framing and editing scheme is the lovely foreground reflection of passing freeway fluorescents that rhythmically pulses across the lower half of both camera set-ups. Positioned closely enough in each respective image to provide the cumulative impression of a single continuous frequency unifying the entire sequence, the reflection plays out kind of like an EKG reading and/or kind of how I would imagine a Barnett Newman zip to traverse its frame if it were animated. It makes this respite purr with lulling electricity otherwise absent from the original scripted material. Scott doesn’t prioritize an unobstructed view of the film’s current subjects but rather introduces a surprising, sustained graphic element laminated atop the surface of an otherwise straightforward scene. It declares its aesthetic significance equal to that of character and plot, and it provides a beautiful visual summation of the film’s high concept that no exchange of information goes unmitigated by some kind of outside factor.
In 1998's Enemy of the State, dialogue between two characters unfolds across an unassuming shot structure, yet the addition of a simple though salient aesthetic flourish becomes illustrative of the visual energy Tony Scott injected into his images.
by Robert Koehler
One of Tony Scott’s signature techniques for layering otherwise conventional shots and framing with aesthetic accents that can serve as metaphors for larger ideas is echoed in his use of moving image material imbedded in the movies themselves. He constructs his extraordinary thriller, Domino, as a feverish memory scape in which past and present overlaps, reverses, erases and recalls. Domino Harvey, the daughter of the great actor Laurence Harvey, has defined her life as a kind of antipodal existence to her father, leading her to the dubious and ultraviolent profession of bounty hunter. In a radical gesture because it lands on the screen so early in the playing time and before the viewer can fathom what’s actually happening, Scott places Domino with her crew in a trailer in a remote patch of the Mojave desert where a pile of stolen money has been stashed. But once again, a conventional action movie situation is exploded by Scott’s interest in visual surprise: What should attract Domino’s eyes during a tense standoff in the trailer but the flickering image on a TV screen of her father as The Manchurian Candidate?
This is strange on several levels at once. Actor Keira Knightley, in performance as Domino Harvey, is watching actor Laurence Harvey, not only in performance but also in a double performance with his character split between his normal self and a “triggered” agent of the Chinese government. Domino herself may be viewed as a double character, both her self as Laurence’s daughter (which this moment precisely posits) and as her invented self as an anti-daughter and a kickass bounty hunter. This doubling isn’t merely abstract in Scott’s view, but actually registers with Domino as she finds herself, for this moment, in the same place as the viewer of Domino the movie—as an audience to moving images, recognizing in the images of her father a parallel to her own existence and also as a memory trigger, a surreal alternative to the standard family photo album. The fact that a meth-head stashing wads of cash in her Mojave trailer would actually be tuning into The Manchurian Candidate on her TV, and the fact that it would be airing at just the time that Domino and her crew arrive on the scene, are equally strange. Beyond the radically multi-dimensional play of images, identity and feelings that are perhaps the paramount stylistic signature of Scott’s cinema, the moment’s radical essence lies in Scott not questioning the cumulative strangeness swirling through the scene, but taking it all in stride and expecting the audience to follow suit.
Scott is fascinated with his characters encountering and responding to the moving image and how the image serves as a mirror, as a Manchurian-like memory trigger or as a way of joining up with the audience watching them as if they’re aware of being watched (see True Romance for an especially baroque example, or Déjà Vu for a supremely ecstatic example). In this moment of Domino watching her father, this fascination intersects with two of the movie’s obsessions—the uses and abuses of television, and the image of Jesus as a powerful icon associated with both chance and destiny. This is actually the only time in the movie when the TV is conventionally used as a TV: In other scenes, TV is used as a literal weapon, as a target of abuse or as a highly corrupt business in which Domino and Co. are hired for a reality show covering them on their adventures. Of all of the many scenes Scott could have selected from John Frankenheimer’s thriller featuring Harvey, he selects the moment when his character blindly walks into a pool of water, conjuring the notion of Jesus (whose image is sometimes maniacally repeated throughout Domino) walking on water, suggesting the father as a failed Jesus figure in the eyes of the loving but disappointed daughter, as if Domino Harvey herself is the director of the images she watches from The Manchurian Candidate. Even as the daughter is pausing to be a TV spectator before the moment when she may face death, she watches her father plunge into water, not baptized but nearly drowned and shamed, an image both projected onto the daughter’s eyes and also a projection of the daughter herself, a multiple reflection of consciousness that anticipates Scott’s even more complex play in similar visual material in Déjà Vu.
4B. Déjà Vu
by Steven Shaviro
Tony Scott always likes to combine the old with the new. He is fascinated by the latest digital and electronic technologies, which he both uses to make his films, and also depicts within them. But he is equally fascinated by older technologies, like the trains that stand at the center of his last two films, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. These older technologies still persist alongside the newer ones, just as blockbuster movies, such as the ones he made, still persist in the world of video games and YouTube remixes. Even in our cyber-era, people still ride trains; and even with the shift to a virtual, computer-based service economy, people still have to physically drive, maintain, and manage those trains.
Scott's predilection for combining new media and new devices with older ones is evident both in the content of his films, and in their form. Especially in his late (post-2000) films, Scott makes use of digital image-and sound-processing programs; but he also retrieves and repurposes antiquated technologies (like the hand-cranked cameras used to delirious effect in Domino). A similar combination animates his treatment of narrative and character. On the one hand, Scott is a pioneer in developing post-cinematic modes of spectacle; he pushes the boundaries of genre filmmaking by scrambling his plots, by transforming and multiplying media forms, by using these media forms self-reflexively, and by developing an aggressively blatant "cinema of attractions." Stylistic manipulations of images and sounds are foregrounded, and seem to be indulged in for their own sakes. At the same time, however, these films continue to utilize all the traditional cinematic mechanisms of narrative progression, and of audience identification with characters. No matter how outlandish and exuberant his audiovisual inventions, Scott nonetheless manages to ground these in the (sometimes deranged) psychosocial experiences of his protagonists: Keira Knightley in Domino, and Denzel Washington in the other four late films.
Consider the scene, a bit more than a half hour into Déjà Vu, where Denzel Washington's character is first introduced to the top-secret viewing device that is able to peer exactly four days and six hours into the past. This technology is presented in a manner that is futuristic, but not excessively so. In fact, every aspect of the viewer is recognizable to us, because it shares the look and feel of high-tech, but actually existing devices: video surveillance and digital image processing equipment, plus something that looks sort of like a centrifuge (this latter is used to send artifacts, and eventually Denzel himself, back in time). The presentation of images and sounds through these devices is entirely post-cinematic. On the device's enormous video screen we see digital pans and zooms through simulated image maps, as one or another target is calibrated and acquired. It is only at the end of this process that the video image on the screen becomes conventionally "cinematic" in terms of lighting and camera location. And even then the image on the device's screen is framed by other screens filled with data, as Denzel and the scientists watch it from behind control panels.
At the same time that its look and feel remains entirely contemporary, this technology is entirely science-fictional, in that it gives us a "real-time" one-way link to the past. Paula Patton's character is dead in the "present" of the film, but she is still alive in the past moment that we, along with Denzel. are able to view. And this is crucial. The film insists, both in its dialogue and with the force of its presentation, that the past moment accessed through the viewer is just as "real," and indeed just as "present," as is the present-time action of the movie. The technological mediation of the viewing device, within the film, doesn't impede presence, desire, and identification any more than does the more traditional cinematic technological mediation through which we watch the film as a whole.
And so, as we watch extraordinarily fractured images, with a close-up on Denzel juxtaposed against the much larger close-up of Patton on the video screen, we get an exchange of identifications: we stare raptured at Denzel, who stares raptured at Patton, who glances around confused with the vague awareness that she is somehow the object of somebody's gaze. And it's here that Scott relies on one of the oldest cinematic mechanisms of all: that of an audience emoting-with the object of their gaze. Indeed, no director has ever brought out Denzel's star quality as Scott did in their five films together. The scene insistently calls attention to its numerous, and obstructive, mediations; and yet it all turns on the ways that Denzel—through the close-ups on his face—manifests confusion, anger, wistfulness, defensive humor, and finally a kind of transcendental yearning -- as he views Patton's figure through a strange, ambivalent intimacy-over-distance reminiscent, perhaps, of certain privileged moments in Hitchcock.
In short, Tony Scott embraces both the old and the new, when he routes traditional cinematic subjectivity through the fragmenting and alienating pressures of the most advanced technologies. He manages, miraculously, to have it both ways: to make a film that expresses both the cybernetic future into which we are rushing, and the now-receded modernist heroism of an earlier era; and to make a film that experiments with the best of the avant-garde, while remaining committed to mainstream action-movie values.
5B. Man on Fire
by Christoph Huber
When I started to get really interested in Tony Scott in the 90s, a friend of mine and I used to joke fondly about his signature text inserts of time and place (like “Occuquan Park, Maryland 0645 hrs.” over the very first image of Enemy of the State). Only after Scott fully entered his late, astonishing action painter phase starting with Man on Fire in 2004, did I realize we had instinctively hit on a key element of his work: Having studied art with the intention to become a painter before he ended up as a filmmaker, Scott had in some ways never completely abandoned his original plan—the most evident example being his animation of the Scott Free Productions logo. A similar interest drives his use of fonts and their effect within the design of the image, which also reached a new level in Man on Fire, for instance in his use of subtitles and their placement within the frame. He would even outdo himself (and challenge Godard) in the subsequent great-whatzit-“biopic” Domino not just regarding his use of manic text; but in many ways Man on Fire remains unsurpassed as his most impressive directorial achievement, even as it is not necessarily his best film.
Still, it inaugurated the most fascinating period of Scott's career with a bang—or rather, multiple bangs. In many ways, Man on Fire is the most delirious expression of Scott's curious blend of avant-garde abstraction, manifesting itself through somewhat experimental, often frenzied montage, but even more strikingly in painterly ways—not least all kinds of image manipulation—and traditional action film virtues, being able to create a highly propulsive drive and comprehensible story and character arcs out of elements that are not necessarily so: wildly impressionistic, at times unreadable images, split-second inserts that defy their place in the narrative (or at least, the viewer's mental map of it) or highly modernist effects that call attention to themselves, yet somehow never fully rupture audience identification. Scott had a unique key that enabled him to trangressively shatter the doors of perception, all the while giving the impression he merely opened them.
Man on Fire is full of such stunning sequences, not least the one some 25 minutes in, in which alcoholic protagonist John W. Creasy (Scott's axiomatic actor Denzel Washington), hired as a bodyguard for rich parent's nine-year-old kid (Lu)Pita (Dakota Fanning) in a hellish Mexico City, submits to one of his Jack Daniels-fueled nightmare binges, rotating camera, image flashes, sudden bursts of black-and-white and all, culminating in a suicide attempt he only survives because “a bullet always tells the truth.” Initially set to Linda Ronstadt's “Blue Bayou” (in a previous scene, he picked up a Ronstadt CD at a street dealer), the scene proceeds through different soundtracks, Creasy's deranged state of mind made palpable via voice-over flashbacks, but especially various intrusions of electronic music, going from eerie distortion effects to big-beat-ballistics, before settling on Claude Debussy's “Claire de Lune”—which continues playing, uninterrupted, over the next scene, despite a slight, but unmistakable advance in time and a change in place, exemplifying how the whole film (and subsequent Scott masterpieces) seems born out of its main character's state of mind. Moving on through a handful of other, completely different setpieces, the whole movement nevertheless takes over eight minutes, when a reprise of “Blue Bayou” in different, yet crucially related context closes the brackets. Man on Fire repeatedly unhinges its narrative in similar ways, but never goes off track—yet all its remarkable feats somehow pale in comparison to its opening sequence, which is a narrative unto itself that nevertheless manages to mirror, and thus encapsulate the entire subsequent story (and masterfully announces the singular breakthrough in technique this film represents in Scott's).
Opening with city views of Mexico City, shots of happy, ostensibly wealthy people strolling in the street and a car approaching in traffic, interspersed with various credits and making nearly full use of the arsenal of ferocious filmic and painterly effects applied later throughout the film—including staggering combinations of sped-up and slowed-down motion, blurred movements and freeze frames, repeated light dropouts, strange superimpositions suggesting loss of consciousness and sudden changes to black-and-white—after about one-and-a-half minutes a text insert sets up the plot:”There is one kidnapping every 60 minutes in Latin America.”, reads the first line, with one word appearing after another, before the second (punch)line comes in all at once: “70% of the victims do not survive.” The next two-and-a-half minutes finish recounting one such kidnapping as a high-octane-haze through which the images almost assault the viewer, even as they can be only partially processed (plus, the credits continue as a further distraction). The full impact only becomes clear upon reviewing after the film: not only is the modus operandi of the kidnappers the same as later with Pita (in which the ransom instructions via phone are, in another typical gambit, intercut with their execution, plus some entirely different scenes!), key sentences are uttered and the viewers actually glimpse some of the major players of “La hermandad”, the syndicate of gangsters and corrupt cops responsible for the crimes (and afforded, upon first mention, its own big caption in the image, the only one graced by quotation marks), like some kind of spoiler flashing by too quickly to understand.We have seen, but we are blind.
In a masterstroke, this jaw-dropping credit sequence is capped by the image of the kidnapping victim set free, tied and blindfolded, with huge stains blood from his cut-off ear, on the middle of a rush-hour motorway, his cries for help buried under roaring traffic passing by, all drivers studiously ignoring this shocking sight. Cut in closer, to a grainy freeze frame, as the last credit approaches: “Directed by Tony Scott.”
6B. TonyScottDeathSong (Spy Game)
by Uncas Blythe
“They say this place here is haunted.
Yeah, but only by a ghost...”
It’s a good way to burrow in, those SUPERIMPOSITIONS. Those defiant anti-subtitles. “I’m having FONT issues...” Walken whines somewhere. Me too. My favorite is in Domino: the fabulously absurd and banal, the “with Dad” that over-clarifies that the guy who looks nothing like Lawrence Harvey (who ever did?), that guy we’ve just seen in The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 is, in the diegetic account, still alive, and still her father in 1993. Markerian is supposedly the word for this.
Superimposition of text—against and over the weak image. Godardian buttressing. Or Pop Art. Or Tele-visual Density. Or further smearing on the frame. All those suspect culprits are tied in his movies to a certain re-mix aesthetic that was already present, incredibly, in The Hunger. But had to go underground as Scott worked his way up through the corridors of power to independence. And death.
That opening sequence in Man on Fire also tells us that we can think of his films as Ruizian objects, that is, as a series of infinite, impenetrable, indivisible films. Monads clustering in the mind according to their own oneiric logic. This is a heritage from the never static, recombinant and experimental world of advertising, and what drew him, fatally, into Bruckheimer’s orbit and into the flabby preludes of success.
It’s not enough to say that Scott is painterly (his brother, after all, could be better accused of this slur...) we should say which painter: Gerhard Richter. Who as a virtuoso youngster had already named and invented Capitalist Realism, and who actively re-engaged with photography and television, amid the post-war “weakness” of the image. But this can only go so far. A painter who zooms and demands you touch and live for a while in the installation or the non-site is what we usually call a sculptor or a Land Artist, which probably shows the limits of these eternally damned multi-media analogies. So, call the cops. Cinema is (was) impure.
Smack! The sound of the artist running up hard against the fascist critical preference for the “strong” image over the weak. The little man rage of cadrage. But this is nostalgia, mostly. Rather than a few strong, bruising images (check out John Ford, Goya or Turner or Riefenstahl if you’re not exactly sure what I mean), we have billions of weak images. Images for all occasions, diffused away on screens of many sizes, images like pouting cultural revolutionaries holding up Mao’s Little Red Book. Just another fucking crowd.
We may not like it. But isn’t the weak image the only honest, the only contemporary way to make them? That seemed to be the chief of his humilities, Tony Scott’s central artistic question. This made him a paradoxical spirit-comrade to Eno, always working towards the unmanly cinematic equivalent of ambient or generative music. But Scott had to pretend. And do it successfully. If the Hollywood Ideal is the rockstarish, Wagnerian total work of art, the perfectly “clear” and “readable” iconostasis, then Scott’s obsessive tendency towards abstraction, the insane hemorraging textures of Mexican movie poster lithography, and “weather”—of atmospheres co-existing uneasily with the death instinct (the train-like demands of narrative, the deal memo, and the pseudo-precision of sellable, selling advertising moments)—then these late films are the ultimate devil’s deals.
MISE EN ABYME: THE STYLE OF HIS ABSTRACTION
Re-inscribing coverage as surveillance. Adding screens to the diegesis so that they can function as wormholes to further abstraction. Anything to get away from the homely tyranny of the single camera, of the set-up, of generic intensified continuity mise en scène. Garrelian light leaks. Textures. A post-digital recovering of the “cinematic” artifact. Artisanal devices recovered from the impressionism of Gance, L’Herbier and Jean Epstein, double-exposures, hand-cranking...and not least of all, a Don Cammell-like devotion to the spiritual ellipse.
NARCISSUS MEETS DOCTOR FAUSTUS IN BERLIN.
Spy Game. A cold war rehash of Casablanca where Rick and Laszlo fall in love with each other at the pool’s edge, that is, with alternative love-distorted versions of themselves.
The scene takes place in Berlin, on a rooftop. Bishop, the idealist played by Brad Pitt, has just returned from a blown mission where the man he was responsible for has just been sacrificed to unclear shifting priorities above his pay grade. He confronts his own handler, the older, wiser and morally compromised Muir (Redford). It’s the key scene of the picture. And it’s essentially conventional in staging, a sort of classic version of intensified continuity.
Establishing shots are left, in the Scott style, to a gyro-cam on a helicopter circling the building. Muir, still in a tuxedo from last night’s embassy party, is sitting at a table and Bishop dashes up the stairs. When Scott cuts in, it is with his usual long lenses. The perfect chilliness of Redford, looking like distressed, rotting morocco leather, and whose wraggled face is here meant (as it did long ago in Downhill Racer and The Candidate) to symbolize a certain REDEEMABLE corruption, endemic to Cold Warriors or studio executives perhaps, is set against the “warmth” of Brad Pitt, the golden boy of the moment, appropriately a bit out of his depth, whose character is transparently telegraphed in the indicative as Boy Scout, who works and plays altogether too well with others.
Bishop accuses Muir of using people, trading them like baseball cards in a Great Game. Muir calmly defends the idea of the long game, of the impersonal and divine view of the master spy, an outlook that the disciple must eventually come to share, or leave the field. Scott’s camera jumps to stay on Bishop, with all his righteous energy, but is in turn absolutely held transfixed on Redford’s crags, as it seems to endorse Muir’s enlightened position. Muir tells Bishop to find another metier. Go on, walk, he says. And then comes the only real surprise in the whole scene. A ghost of a smile, a fleeting smirk plays on Bishop’s face. The “game” is still on. A recognition of a mutual destiny that must be played out.
Muir warns him that if Bishop does not follow his orders, if he “goes off the reservation” that his mentor will not go after him. He will not be saved. He will be crossed off. Muir stands up, Bishop mutters something petulant, and Scott cuts back to his beloved helicopter shot. It is characteristically strange of Scott to use this long shot from a moving platform to carry the final emotional punch of the scene. The kiss-off, the farewell line comes: “They (Muir’s generically implacable rules of spycraft) saved your life.” meaning literally, from a supposed threat of the previous night, but also recognizing his success in reeling the young man right back to the proper operational edge of near-but-not-total nihilism. Muir physically turns his back on Bishop, the whole world gyro-spinning as hot white steam from a vent partially erases their bodies. But what’s fabulous, and adds poignance to this virtuosic moment is that the camera “helps” to turn Muir’s back, emphatically wrenching us, as it reorients the staging. Letting the full weight of the scene fall on a chance glimpse caught from a far away helicopter. Not bad.
Now, in Casablanca, Laszlo stands for something. So Rick’s move towards commitment is also a political as well as an altruistic personal move. In Spy Game, when Muir later in the film acts to violate his announced principle of non-intervention, it seems it is to rescue another model of himself. Muir is always willing to pay the price when he is in the field, but surrounded by the cutthroat politicians at his show trial at Langley, he reflexively breaks his rule, so as to say: “I’m not like you.” So it’s less a Borzagean love story between two men, as Ignatiy suggests in his lovely piece, but something weirder still. Anticipating the pretentious New Age vanity of The Master, they are two versions of the same soul, transmigrated by the moral drifts of the Cold War. It’s as if the younger self, having chosen the personal, sacrificial path of idealism, compels the older version in magical traction to do the same. This is, again, another Markerianism that predicts the timecuts and shifting selves of Déjà Vu.
A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT CLUSTER OF FAUSTIAN THEMES
He jumped off a bridge. Inevitably, it casts a pall on things. Whatever the cover stories, what really killed Tony Scott was the power of middlebrow opinion, lamely expressed; a clumsy hit squad contracted long ago. A professional or personal need to be kewl attracted him to certain rubbishy stuff, like Tarantino, or Richard Kelly’s I-ching meets Hollywood Squares style scriptwriting. The subtext-free is always tempting. But subtext must always out, like Pasolini lucidly said and also discovered for himself1, at the final cut moment of your death. But there is also a triumphal rejection of something, too, in all this bleak history: the oh-so-polite fate of the sweet, genteel Englishman in Hollywood.
Beat the Devil to a pulp, Tony.
1. Pasolini, Pier Paolo, Observations on the Sequence Shot.
I must now tell you my thoughts about death (and I leave my skeptical readers free to wonder what this has to do with cinema). I have said frequently, and always poorly, that reality has its own language—better still, it is a language—which, to be described, requires a general semiology, which at present we do not possess, even as a notion (semiologists always observe distinct and
definite objects, that is, various existing languages, codified or not; they have not yet discovered that semiology is the descriptive science of reality).
This language—I've said, and always badly—coincides with human action. Man expresses himself above all through his action—not meant in a purely pragmatic way—because it is in this way that he modifies reality and leaves his spiritual imprint on it. But this action lacks unity, or meaning, as long as it remains incomplete. While Lenin was alive, the language of his actions was still in part indecipherable, because it remained in potentia, and thus modifiable by eventual future actions. In short, as long as he has a future, that is, something unknown, a man does not express himself. An honest man may at seventy commit a crime: such blameworthy action modifies all his past actions, and he thus presents himself as other than what he always was. So long as I'm not dead, no one will be able to guarantee he truly knows me, that is, be able to give meaning to my actions, which, as linguistic moments, are therefore indecipherable.
It is thus absolutely necessary to die, because while living we lack meaning, and the language of our lives (with which we express ourselves and to which we attribute the greatest importance) is untranslatable: a chaos of possibilities, a search for relations among discontinuous meanings. Death performs a lightning-quick montage on our lives; that is, it chooses our truly significant moments (no longer changeable by other possible contrary or incoherent moments) and places them in sequence, converting our present, which is infinite, unstable, and uncertain, and thus linguistically indescribable, into a clear, stable, certain, and thus linguistically describable past (precisely in the sphere of a general semiology). It is thanks to death that our lives become expressive.”
7B. Another Green World (Unstoppable)
by Kurt Walker
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!"
8B. With Each Touch, I Risk My Life (Domino)
by Otie Wheeler
To me, this idea that the joy Tony Scott took in directing came from a curiosity and thirst for life seems essential to watching his films. What is cinema if not a window through which to touch worlds we’ve never touched before? What if Scott’s maximalist mise-en-scene, his persistent attempt–through sophisticated montage–to fit the utmost information in the frame, was the only way he knew how to express the combination of fear, adrenaline, and joy that he was always chasing (whether making films or climbing mountains)? Let’s remember what he said of the characters in Domino, “always chasing the dark side of life, always chasing their inner souls.”
The young American filmmakers have nothing to say, said Luc Moullet. It's as true now as it was then, and what Moullet said of Sam Fuller could've been said of Tony Scott: he had something to do, and he did it.
9B. Standard Op (Enemy of the State)
by David Phelps
"If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology. I don't want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capability that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return."
— Frank Church, Chair, United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, 1975
"The essence of Virginia republicanism lay in a single maxim: THE GOVERNMENT SHALL NOT BE THE FINAL JUDGE OF ITS OWN POWERS. The liberties of America, as the Republican party believed, rested in this nutshell; for if the Government, either in its legislative, executive, or judicial departments, or in any combination of them, could define its own powers in the last resort, then its will, and not the letter of the Constitution, was law."
—Henry Adams, History of the United States of America During the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson, 1801-1805
"This is a surveillance state run amok."
— Glenn Greenwald, November 13, 2012
Standard Op represents a tribute to one of the decade’s most contemporary directors, Tony Scott, by two prolific amateur filmmakers: David Phelps and the NSA. “Scott was a real talent,” said the NSA in a statement, “perhaps the only contemporary director who truly aspired to panoptical vision of every action at once from all angles and possible lighting—as we see when he pays homage to the agency in Jack Black’s televisual investigation in Enemy of the State. The amount of data in any two frames of Scott is tremendous, really what radar should aspire to.”
“He’s someone who’s been an inspiration to me for years,” said Phelps. “Just someone whose every shot is so powerful as a sign that they no longer needing to be tethered to the staid spatial or temporal discourses of reality. Really the one artist since Lang who could render reality superfluous.”
Both artists were quick to commend each other’s work as well.
“I love Phelps’ work,” said the NSA. “Of course we were all appreciative when he offered himself as a camera surrogate during the blackout as the security cameras were incapacitated. A true man with a movie camera: what better security camera than a human being?”
Phelps was quick to return the compliment. “The NSA! I mean, one of the giants of contemplative cinema alongside Costa and Tsai. All those long takes collapsing narrative time and production time into the real time of the shot… Warhol’s got nothing on the NSA’s Empire, which is 58 years long.”
As Phelps pointed out, however, that duration was not necessarily contrary to Scott’s schitzophrenic editing. “I think the NSA and I would both claim ourselves as working within the ‘School of Scott.’ Actually, the whole world really is the School of Scott. The image created in the image of the image.”
“Scott remains a defining influence,” said the NSA. “You look at the amazing movies the IDF has been able to release recently—the targeted killing of [Ahmed] Jabari, which we included here. It really redefines cinema: no longer recording an outside event but by using the camera to track and target the car it explodes, writing it—and then providing a record of its own unseen maneuvers. Talk about Caméra-stylo! And David [Phelps]’s direction of the scene is just sensational.”
10B. Sp(eye) Gam3z (Spy Game)
by Gina Telaroli
(FILL THE SCREEN, CRANK THE SOUND)
"We were a serious race. If you want other proof of it, besides our record in war and in politics, you only have to look at our art."
—Henry Adams, Mount Saint Michel and Chartes
"The attempt to write a formal rule book for targeted killing began last summer after news reports on the drone program, started under President George W. Bush and expanded by Mr. Obama, revealed some details of the president’s role in the shifting procedures for compiling “kill lists” and approving strikes. Though national security officials insist that the process is meticulous and lawful, the president and top aides believe it should be institutionalized, a course of action that seemed particularly urgent when it appeared that Mitt Romney might win the presidency.
'There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands,' said one official, speaking on condition of anonymity. With a continuing debate about the proper limits of drone strikes, Mr. Obama did not want to leave an 'amorphous' program to his successor, the official said. The effort, which would have been rushed to completion by January had Mr. Romney won, will now be finished at a more leisurely pace, the official said."
—Scott Shane, "Election Spurred a Move to Codify U.S. Drone Policy", The New York Times
"Video killed the radio star.
Video killed the radio star.
In my mind and in my car, we can't rewind we've gone to far.
Pictures came and broke your heart, put the blame on VTR."
—"Video Killed the Radio Star" by Trevor Horn, Geoff Downes, and Bruce Woolley