Friday, 31 August 2012

Tony Scott

The style of Tony Scott is one of the most consistent and striking in cinema of the last decades. His eye, his vision, has been a constant source of pleasure for me at least since I saw Beverly Hills Cop 2 (1987) in my early teens, when I was immediately struck but the vibrant colours, rhythmic editing and smoke-filled interiors. It is actually possible that Beverly Hills Cop 2 was the first time I became conscious of style (not just story and actors) and possible the first time that I wanted to re-watch a film because of the way it was shot. Scott was my guide into the realm of aesthetics. So since then I have kept up with his work, and seen almost all of his films. He has his weaknesses for sure, and a lot of the early films are of dubious quality. But he did improve.

True Romance (1993) is often highlighted as Tony Scott's best film (he himself has said that it is his favourite) and although I like it a lot I still have some problems with it and the main one is its authorial schizophrenia. I am not sure that is an expression but what I mean is that it sounds like a film by Quentin Tarantino (who wrote the script) but looks like a film by Tony Scott. The characters and what they are talking about (such as Sonny Chiba kung fu movies) are Tarantinoesque, but the smoky, colourful, cluttered visuals are all Scott.

For me it was with Enemy of the State (1998) that Scott really came into his own as a major filmmaker. It is a thrilling ride, with a wonderful sense of pacing and great acting, whilst being both clever and focused. It also made screens, reflections and surveillance the central aspect of the story and the frame, and it remained so for the rest of Scott's career. He became more than just an image maker, he became an image-in-image maker. Here style and theme combine to make great films that also capture the moment, our moment in an era where reality-TV, cop shows, CCTV, NSA and social media makes everyday life a public spectacle and privacy a thing of the past. Surveillance is what Enemy of the State is about, and Déjà Vu (2006) too, but it is there in other films as well. (The influence of Tony Scott on the Bourne films is something worth pondering.).

Scott also often used live TV reporting as a way of telling his stories, very cleverly interweaving multiple modes of storytelling, which adds urgency and excitement but also is connected to the ideas of surveillance and loss of privacy, and loss of privilege. In Scott's last film Unstoppable (2010) this use of TV as an integrated part of the narrative is particularly pronounced. There is even a point when a railroad executive frustrated wonders why it is that he is getting all the information from TV and not from his crew.

"Scott's cinema in its current iteration is always one of perception and points of view.  All collide, overlap, coalesce and part; one of the challenges both inside the movies (for their heroes) and out (for us) is making a coherent sense of all these points of view." wrote Daniel Kasman on Mubi, and this is very true.

Another thing about Scott is his love of the real. This can be seen in two ways. One is his penchant for doing films "based on true stories" and for doing extensive research. Of course his films are not documentaries, but it was important for him that he had done the reading and before he made a film he wanted to talk to the men and women who had been there and done that. He was proud that parts of Man on Fire (2004) was shot in the houses were actual drug lords had previously lived.

The other way in which the wish of keeping in real can be seen is more relevant for the films, and that is Scott's disregard for CGI and the digital. When the ferry is blown up in the beginning of Déjà Vu it is not a digital trick, it is a real ferry and real explosives, captured by a set of cameras around the river. This visceral quality of Scott's films make them feel extra urgent and thrilling (and dangerous), and there is a dimension there that (as I have written about before) gets lost in the digital world.

Scott was also committed to his characters, and he seems to have had a big emotional investment in all the films that he made, at least the later ones, and this comes across in them. They are works of passion. Just look at Man on Fire for example. The first hour, slow and very moving, carefully builds the characters and their relationships, and then when the explosion of revenge and violence comes in the second half it has been carefully integrated, and made believable. But it is the ending that is the most impressive part of the film. Scott fought for that, because he felt it was the only honest ending, and it is good. All the rage has gone, and instead it is the happy acceptance of sacrifice, to give yourself up for what (who) you love. Denzel Washington is magnificent in the film, as he is in his other films with Scott. They were a great team.

The film has not many fans it would seem, and it has been criticised a lot for its theme of revenge and its portrait of Mexico City as a hell-hole, but I think it is unfair. There is no glory in the film, both Denzel Washington and Christopher Walken's characters are marked by death, they live in shame and, at least in the case of Washington, self-hatred. When Washington goes on his rampage he is like a robot. He does not come back to life until the very end, at which point he stops killing and instead chose sacrifice. He comes back to life in order for him to die in peace.

Another thing about Scott's films is how immersed in film history they are. They draw thematic and visual inspiration from earlier films, just think of the self-evident connections between Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Enemy of the State. Both Preminger's Laura (1944) and Vertigo comes to mind in Déjà Vu and in Crimson Tide (1995) they have discussions about submarine films. In Man on Fire you can feel both Hawks and Sam Peckinpah in the background, and likewise in Unstoppable. And Scott seems indebted to paranoid films of the 1960s and early 1970s, besides The Conversation. A filmmaker like John Frankenheimer looms large.

But above all the films all look great. It can be an autumn landscape, an interior shot on a submarine, or something as simple as Denzel Washington sitting in front of a blue wall in Man on Fire. Iit is obvious that Scott put a lot of effort in every shot. And using reflections in particular, of people looking at themselves while looking at others, to great effect. Style and theme in perfect harmony.

A final word on Unstoppable. It is a disarmingly unpretentious and single-minded film but man, it makes you feel alive! It does not feel like a film by a 66 year old man who has made films for decades, it feels like a film made by somebody who has just been told what you can do with film and now wants to play with it, and use it to its full potential. The force and enthusiasm, the powerful sense of the trains, of them being real, has me jumping up and down in my seat, like seeing a film for the first time. With digital cinema taking over almost completely and now with Tony Scott no longer with us, it is as if  a part of cinema history has come to an end. It began with the Lumière brothers showing a film of a train arriving at a station, it ended with Tony Scott making a film about a runaway train.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

"The Greatest Films of All Time"

I am back from my summer break and the first post of the season will be about last week's major list event, the release of Sight & Sound's decennial list of the "Greatest Films of All Time". It has generated a lot of blog posts, tweets, facebook status updates and face to face debates the world over, so it has been a very successful launch. It has also been attacked and ridiculed. The purpose of it has been questioned, it has been called racist, sexist and boring (the last complain was I believe from me in my initial show of displeasure on twitter and facebook). However.

Calling the list racist and sexist (and/or calling the contributors racist and sexist) is unfair. The list is the sum of  846 top-ten-lists from people all over the world, and it is quite possible that these lists were filled by works made in Africa, South America, the Middle East, and films by women. But even if every list was, say, gender neutral (having as many men as women filmmakers represented), the final list might still not reflect that due to the way the process works.

I made a top ten list (which I posted here three months ago) Of the ten films I listed only two would have counted had my list been part of the 846. By this I mean that La règle du jeu (Jean Renoir 1939) and Journey to Italy (Roberto Rossellini 1954) were the only ones on my list that were mentioned on other lists as well, so they would have been the only ones that ended up on the final list. My other eight films would never have been heard of again. So even if they had been made by female African filmmakers, that would not have mattered in the least for the final list.

It was inevitable that the list would end up looking pretty much the way it did. Why? Because in order to get many votes a film would have to be known by a large number of people. I think it is safe to assume that everybody who contributed had seen Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock 1958) and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles 1941) and it is no surprise that they come out on top. The Senegalese film The Price of Forgiveness (Mansour Sora Wade 2001) is a great film but since hardly anyone has seen it, it does not matter how good it is, it still could not win. The same is true for the magnificent Humanity and Paper Balloons (Sadao Yamanaka 1937). It is mainly due to statistics that these 50 films ended up on the list. Let's call it an example of the weak law of large numbers.

At film festivals it is often the case that they have an audience award. Everybody gets to vote on the films they have seen and the film that gets the most votes wins. Democratic and fair. Only it is not in the least fair. Film A might have been shown three times in a relatively small venue, perhaps seen by 250 people, whereas Film B was shown four times in large venues, perhaps seen by 2500 people. So even if 100% of those 250 who saw Film A voted it "the best", and only 11% of the 2500 voted Film B "the best" it would still get more votes, and that is not fair at all. There is something similar going on with this list.

So it is of course wrong to say that these are the 50 best films of all time. It is not even necessarily the case that the 846 contributors think that Vertigo is the best film ever made. It would still have ended up as the overall winner as long as enough people considered it good enough to be among the top ten. (It would be different if the contributors were asked to name just one film each.) But you could say perhaps that these are the most liked well-known films of all time. They are the films that are shown on most film history courses, they are the films most written about, they are the films that end up on these lists. It is a closed set, a self-perpetuating process. This is why I think this list is somewhat meaningless. It has been said that this is a cinephilic list, but it really is not. It should have been much more diverse for it to have been a cinephile's list. It has also been said that this list is great to use for newcomers, in order to explore cinema history. But again, it really is not. There is not much history there, too much is lacking. The only valuable purpose of it is to see what the lowest common denominators are among scholars and critics today, and its function as a water cooler subject at film journals and department of cinema studies.

What would be interesting is a list of all the 2045 films mentioned on the 846 individual lists. That list has the potential to be much more varied, interesting and historic.


This is not to deny that many of the 50 films on the list are very good. Some I find fantastic, and are on my top 50 too, namely these eight:
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau 1927)
La règle du jeu
Journey to Italy
Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa 1954)
The 400 Blows (François Truffaut 1959)
Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard 1960)
Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese 1976)
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai 2000)