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.


  1. Can't watch any of the first three Bourne movies without thinking of Tony Scott. Its like they were a homage to him. But for style and editing I can't go past Man on Fire as my favourite Tony Scott movie. Killer atmosphere too.

  2. Can't watch any of the first three Bourne movies without thinking of Tony Scott. Its like they were a homage to him. But for style and editing I can't go past Man on Fire as my favourite Tony Scott movie. Killer atmosphere too.