Monday, January 29, 2007

The Zeitgeist Finds Tony Scott

Careful: I'm not making an endorsement here. But I would like to say that Tony Scott is one of the most interesting filmmakers in Hollywood today, precisely because he so baldly extracts essences to be found in contemporary commercial cinema.

This means to a large extent I'm talking about capitalism, I'm talking about the market, I'm talking about the production of the new (through destruction). Family? Plenty of family-less characters in his work (and plenty of surrogate families brought up in response). Where are the great heterosexual unions ("romances") in his films? They seem to be presented as ghosts, enigmas, lost chances at best. Everything is about an image, an ideal ("top gun," communism, boy scouts?, civil liberties, television celebrity, and in his newest, Deja Vu, it's about rescue-before-terror, or turning back the clock, or time travel, i.e., it's about the act of imagining a pre-disaster world, pre-9/11, pre-Katrina, etc.).

His most liberal film may be Enemy of the State, which is not subversive, not leftist; but is very Clintonian. It has as its assorted "good guys" black people, working class people, anti-war activists, and ex-government rogues. (This is clearly its most progressive element.) The villains? Rich white men exerting great surveillance and military power to achieve what they want and cover themselves in the process. This is the face of the First World, a mirror of reality (Marxism) presented openly but with the funhouse twists of the market ideologies and illusions (accountable government, bedrock rights, and that great one, revenge).

[Notes for dabblers in esoterica: Gene Hackman's character, a retread of Harry from The Conversation, is the rogue who revolted from the NSA and works against it now; he's called "Brill" (librill, liberal?). Also, the villain (Jon Voight's) birthday is listed as 9/11/40. Whoa! Freaky, maaaaan.]

Deja Vu is kind of a ridiculous film that I saw after reading limited recommendations by a few intelligent cinephiles (such as
Michael Sicinski, as well as Christoph Huber & Mark Peranson). I don't think it's very good, or very smart, but it is certainly intriguing. A man (Denzel Washington) has to try to stop a crime that has already happened, by way of (ludicrous: everyone admits as much) time travel mechanisms and some weird physics/phenomenology. Everything is focused on the emotional resonance and resolution, however; on the possibility (very faintly suggested, never asserted or delineated) of the spiritual over the merely physical (i.e., logical, rational). When disaster comes knocking, we look for reason away from rationality--the film shows (and is complicit in) an allegory for the post-disaster push we Americans ourselves have taken to, lemming-like, in the last several years.

More and more often I notice that new commercial films use incredibly stylized lighting & color ... not just for something like a flashback or a virtuosic scene, either but throughout the whole thing. Tony Scott is a poster child for this development. It would be profitable for us to begin reading the current Hollywood crops in comparison to the technicolor spectacles of classical Hollywood, an earlier kind of ruthlessly efficient system, in whose artifices of space/color/time/philosophy we can accept so much ("we" as cinephiles, historians), but whereas now we may be inclined to snort derisively at the so-called "MTV-style" of quick editing and bold colors, when it's clearly another self-conscious movement into pure fantasy and spectacle (vernacular sense) and artifice rather than an ineptitude, a slippage from the naturalist templates (color palette, acting style, narrative progression) most often in display from the late 1960s through the 1990s.

Domino may be the guy's best film, there's a chance I'll return to it here in the future, but I'm in no rush ...


David Lowery said...

I thought Man On Fire was a pretty striking blockbuster-cum-experimental film - it elevated action filmmaking to a new level; it was like a summer spectacular directed by Guy Maddin (I especially loved the use of subtitles).

But I thought Scott wasted all that potential with Domino, which I genuinely hated (save or the three minutes or so with Tom Waits). Granted, a lot of my problems with that film had more to do with the script than Scott's direction of it.

Daniel Kasman said...

Okay, after shooting down Deja vu you really need to write about how Domino is the guy's best film. But definitely count me with those who, like yourself, find Scott's work some of the most fascinating coming out of Hollywood right now, even if it isn't very good.

"to begin reading the current Hollywood crops in comparison to the technicolor spectacles of classical Hollywood..."

I was just thinking about this while watching the Ocean's 11 remake-pastiche Smokin' Aces this weekend, which, like the two Charlie's Angels movies and some of Michael Bay's recent work, gets some incredible color work out of both filters and post-production effects. Some moments of those films can be quite independently beautiful for the palette alone.

ZC said...

I'll have to see Man on Fire.

As for Domino thoughts/defense--all right, it'll come eventually. For the record, I don't think it's an under-the-radar masterpiece or anything like that. It's certainly not Scott's most competent piece of high-octane entertainment either, that would probably be Top Gun or Enemy of the State or one that I haven't seen yet. But Domino is the film of his that I think has the most complex relationship to its own images, the way it presents them and the way it prompts us to react to them (as knowing parody-forays into violent, melodramatic, probably racist and body-fascistic forms of "mass culture").

It's like corporate fast food, a really big greasy hamburger--Tony Scott knows his hamburger is mostly fake, it's totally a product for consumption & indigestion by "the masses." But instead of disguising/marketing the junk food as healthy or delicious or whatever, he just amps up the trashiness (calories, fat, artificial flavoring), builds the appeal on that. The foundations are shaky but the structure is so unusually dense that parts of it keep together. The honesty is ... not really "refreshing" ... but perhaps a certain type of "invigorating." For me anyway.

(Disregard the food analogy if you like, I was just thinking of how good a burger would be for lunch tomorrow ...)

andyhorbal said...

Your burger analogy reminds me of the infamous "Good Morning Burger" from The Simpsons:

We take eighteen ounces of sizzling ground beef, and then soak it in rich creamery butter. Then we top it off with bacon, ham and a fried egg.

I think I feel the same way about Michael Bay that you do about Tony Scott...

Anonymous said...

Now, hold on just a minute, Zach. I think a better than "twinkie defense" of Tony Scott can be mounted. Your thoughtful comments on Domino, I think better apply to something like Top Gun. But let's remember that TS is also the man behind the lush full length Bauhaus video The Hunger.

Haven't caught Deja Vu yet, I agree with some of the other critics that Domino is really terrible, a total misfire. But Man on Fire is a beautiful film -- a very loose, unpretentious adaptation of Lowry's Under the Volcano, and shows what TS is really good at using montage for almost silent era expressionist effects.

Another TS film I recommend is Spy Game -- a doppleganger film with two aging pretty boys Brad Pitt and Robert Redford as time separated images of each other -- you can't get any more fuckin' Markerian than that!!

I think one can make a great case for TS as an avantgarde artist subverting the cinema with megabudgets -- the true fullfilment of the Godardian ideal.

And I really think that in the future all films will look like TS's -- that is, they will emphasize the tactility and sensuousness of hypermontage - over the static frame and information heavy decoupage of neo-classical cinema.

People have a hard time with the dazzling array of meaningless angles, whip-pans, whip zooms, textual superscriptions -- to me it's the return of constructivist (cubist) cinema -- TS is closer to Vertov than anyone since, and his films demand to be watched as film objects, almost frame by frame.

ZC said...

Anonymous--stimulating comments, thanks. I watched Man on Fire the other day. It's very interesting; I don't think it's particularly good. (And of these last few in the saturated-color heavy surveillance footage pop culture floating-subtitles style, I still think Domino is the best.)

I don't agree that Scott is "subverting" the cinema. How are you defining cinema here? I don't see him subverting anything, unless it's in the really basic sense (from a Marxist perspective) that the bourgeoisie revolutionizes life itself, that Scott is in the cinematic vanguard of the capitalist class, making the sorts of innovations that--you predict, I somewhat concur--the future will instill in films in general (tactility, sensuous hypermontage).

As for Vertov, let's keep in mind that the instances in which he's a tiny bit like Vertov are still spread like a net over very basic movie-movies. Really Vertovian though? The films have plots (Domino less so than the others I've seen, actually), bald sentimentality and ideological operations more in line, structurally, with Eisenstein ("play the audience") than Vertov ("inscribe means of production onto the product [images]"). I think on this level alone, Ferrara (post-1995 the two may be thematic doppelgangers--sleazy vulgarians, one a capitalist on the side of neoliberalism and blockbusters, the other an anticapitalist on the side of crime and marginalia) would be more Vertovian.

You've brought up some fascinating points though. I'll see Spy Game and The Hunger soon.

Anonymous said...

Zach wrote:

"The films have plots (Domino less so than the others I've seen, actually), bald sentimentality and ideological operations more in line, structurally, with Eisenstein ("play the audience") than Vertov ("inscribe means of production onto the product [images]")."

Vertov's films have "plots", "bald sentimentality" and "ideological operations" too, if you want to go there... watch Three Songs of Lenin to see these in full effect.

But to me, it's interesting that a vast majority of critics whine about Scott's obvious "formalism" to the detraction of their beloved content, i.e. ideology, usually in the first graf of their review -- to me this means that to a small but significant degree, TS is indeed subverting the cinema by making films that call attention, as you say above, to the means of production -- one is always reminded that we're watching a "film", he doesn't let you dream away as in the classically "transparent" film.

I think his mise en scene is worth careful analysis -- to me it's more like kinetic, constructivist sculpture rather than capital N "narrative", but: just the wacky supertitles alone, place Scott in a Godardian, reflexive mode. One needn't be as blunt as Vertov or JLG to get the point, indeed, if a filmmaker was that obvious, he would certainly be as marginalized as those two were in their respective ideological arenas.

Anonymous said...

I forgot to add: TS is also Vertovian in the sense that he wants the camera to be everywhere. Spectacle is predicated (at least to me) on a relatively fixed POV and framing. The ideological operations of film rely on this. Scott makes the camera (i.e. our eye) move completely "unnaturally", and renaissance depth goes out the window with it (thus Scott's preference for the space distorting long tele lens); it's as if the eye has become unhinged from it's socket and has become some kind of restless camera-insect.

tomdwayne said...

finally someone comes out to praise tony scott. i didn´t like domino at all, and thought man on fire was interesting because of how dark and dirty and just plain violent it is. but my favorites are true romance and last boy scout. lbs might have one of brucies most underrated performances, and true romance is like a prism of 90s cinema, only that it´s a diamond in the rough (not really a prism). everything that came post-pulp fiction was there - just not as refined. the dialogue, the pop soundtrack, the hongkong references, the violence, and probably the greatest mexican standoff ever. weirdly there´s this differentiation between movies and merchant-ivory type film, written by tarantino - and if you compare this with pulp fiction, well i guess this would be the movie, and tarantino delivered his own merchant-ivory version of his kiind of cinema - which isn´t to say true romance is better than pulp fiction (or is it?!).

ZC said...

Anonymous--notice I didn't say Vertov lacked plots, bald sentimentality, etc., but that Tony Scott's employment of such seemed to me more in line with Eisenstein than Vertov. Observation noted about the omnipresent camera!

I'm hoping to look and re-look at Scott some more over the next few weeks. He's really kind of fascinating. Not like Ridley--I think that Scott made three really good features in a row (all of them "better" than any TS film I've seen, I think), but every RS film I've seen post-Blade Runner has been awful, sometimes partly because he strives for real, "classical" feeling but he's using effects much like Tony's. TS has accepted the postmodernity of his environment, started to wring things from it rather than harkening back to an age and conventions his style is predisposed to avoid. Whether I like his films or not isn't really important; it's the problems they provide & work through.

Tom, I haven't seen True Romance or The Last Boy Scout, I'll eventually get around to it ...

tomdwayne said...

i haven´t read the entire essay by manny farber, but from what i gather, i would say ridley is like the white elephant to tony´s termite.
like you said: ridley strives for something, for classical feeling, for meaning, for saying something, and tony just does bmovies with bigger budgets - the question of bmovies, termite art and a-budgets has to be discussed anew anyway.
in a classical environment ridley would make the a-feature, and tony the b-feature of a normal double bill.
what a bill that would be: black hawk down + crimson tide, black rain + last boy scout, blade runner + dejavu, perhaps? (haven´t seen it yet).

David Marin-Guzman said...

This comment is a little late but I wanted to say that Tony Scott is ripe for a political ideological anaylsis. I truly abhor his films. I think he combines the extremes of liberal decadence with right wing vigilantism (brutality becomes self-realisation, vigilantism is more personal than political). My analysis of Deja Vu was that this was Scott's apology for George Bush incompetence over Hurricane Katrina. (Not as crazy as it sounds - check it out,

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