Monday, August 20, 2012

R.I.P. Tony Scott



I used to think “Domino” would be the last movie we would ever experience as a culture.

My feelings for the film, which felt apocalyptic, stemmed from the unpleasant experience of actually watching it. I saw the film gather supporters even after it was released to poor reviews and nonexistent box office, though I couldn’t imagine any of them would see it a second time, with its propulsive soundtrack, Tourette’s-level editing and irrelevant subplots involving tabloid talk shows and show business personalities obscuring that the story surrounding a sexy female bounty hunter.

To me, it seemed like the farthest point we could push the art form: the tacky sensibilities of a loud, violent, incoherent blockbuster marred with the hell of non-sequitier-based experimental filmmaking. Both styles were belligerent, in a way, the film stuffed with lens flare-equipped desert fantasies, cacophonous R-rated violence, bleached-out color schemes and actors seeming to exist only on the periphery of director Tony Scott’s canvas: Edgar Ramirez, as Domino’s (Keira Knightley) love interest, seemed like he was speaking his lines from another movie playing on a screen next door, desperately trying to sneak into this one.

Tony Scott, 68, passed on yesterday, ending his life through suicide. I only hear distant rumors, ones I half-pay attention to. Rumors that made it sound as if Scott was a typical Hollywood hotshot, not afraid of a party, even at an accelerated age. He had a reputation as being something of a wildcard: in contrast to taciturn, sly brother Ridley, Tony was the life of the party. It came across in his films, particularly contrasted against Ridley’s. The latter brother was focused on cerebral, poker-faced entertainments that placed a premium on size, scope, and seriousness. Tony’s pictures were always more than a little crude, outlandishly adolescent fantasies that skirted the edge of comedy, more focused on old-school masculinity than Ridley’s fascination with Big Ideas. More importantly, both spent a lot of studios’ money, and they used it to blow everything up.



My favorite Tony Scott film might be the gleefully ridiculous “The Last Boy Scout,” which features an opening scene where a linebacker fires a gun into the defense on the way to the end zone before ending his own life. Scott would make bombastic actioners, though in his collaborations with Quentin Tarantino and Shane Black (writer of “Boy Scout”), it’s clear he valued the written word, even if that word was ludicrous. “Boy Scout,” which is both overcomplicated, and eventually predicated on the plot twist of a bomb strapped to a football, certainly fit that definition.

Scott’s interest remained firmly in the story’s pyrotechnics, though the script has a number of smaller character moments, eccentric one-on-ones and even heart-to-hearts, and Scott never obscures the prose. For a big, crowd-pleasing action comedy, however, Scott was still able to enforce his will over it: it’s still quite ugly and unpleasant, a neo-nourish narrative where women are props to be demeaned, and men must rail against attacks on their sexuality through cars, guns, and sports. Considering the smirky, typically pissed performance from Bruce Willis, and a vulgar turn from Damon Wayans, it is entirely appropriate. “The Last Boy Scout” also has the most acidic opening of any nineties-era actioner, with that linebacker shootout contrasted with the deliriously catchy opening credits for “Friday Night Football,” mixing in the show’s entrance music with the film’s actual credits.

I didn’t care for Tony Scott‘s work, but one couldn’t deny the impressive toolbox he brought to each set. In his early days, he cannily worked within the Simpson-Bruckheimer model to add a nasty R-rated edge to “Beverly Hills Cop 2,” and to contribute the attitudinal sheen that made “Top Gun” a favorite of all movie-loving alpha males. The turning point probably came at his commercial peak, teaming with Quentin Tarantino for the colorful “Badlands” takeoff “True Romance” and the propulsive Naval thriller “Crimson Tide” (allegedly co-scripted by an unbilled Tarantino). He’s had biggest hits than “Romance,” though no film more properly captured the Tony Scott aesthetic -- playfully experimental, gleefully nihilistic, and often painfully violent and vulgar. In a PG-13 era, Tony Scott was still proudly R-rated, and when you entered his world, you knew bodies would hit the floor, accompanied by a flurry of f-bombs.

Though it’s a ridiculous film, “The Fan” represents a crucial step in Scott’s evolution. The tale of a baseball superstar and the fan that wouldn’t let go was often ridiculously overheated, Scott fracturing the visual vocabulary of the film as knife salesman (of course) Gil Renard’s psyche breaks, pushed even farther by an incessant Nine Inch Nails score. And yet, “The Fan” (a vast improvement over a joke of a best-seller) features some of the best performances of any of Scott’s films: Wesley Snipes is wonderfully paranoid as a harried superstar who would always be looking over his shoulder even if there wasn’t a killer pursuing him. And De Niro brings unexpected dimensions to a cliché of a character, and his scenes with Snipes’ Bobby Rayburn crackle with a mixture of contempt, hero worship, and mental imbalance.



Scott’s editing techniques eventually became more abrasive, more abstract. “Man On Fire” came in 2004, pushing his aesthetics against a pedestrian Mandingo-With-A-Gun storyline and creating what some may consider a post-action film. Much of the violence occurs offscreen, though a large portion of it is seen multiple times refracted against itself, playing with the notion of onscreen time and geography. Appropriately, “Man On Fire” has the sort of narrow-eyed view of Mexico shared by the darkly comic Tilda Swinton thriller “Julia,” the only difference being the weirdly sweet message Scott places in the end credits thanking the film’s Mexico locations and praising them for being wonderful places, in spite of the hellholes we’ve just seen Denzel blast his way through.

Post-”Domino,” I had a dim view of the filmmaker, even though I appreciated that he toned down those stylistic perversions that littered that film. “Déjà Vu” was a dim actioner, though I concede it featured a few clever sci-fi action sequences likely similar to the ones film nerds anxiously await in next month’s “Looper.” And his last film, “Unstoppable,” is something I’ve seen probably five or six times already. I can tell you the progression of the plot, what occurs when, and how the story resolves itself, but little else, considering it seems like it’s always on in the background on HBO. For Scott, I feel that’s a step up.

He had always threatened to make a more “contemporary” remake of “The Warriors,” an idea I thought came from a bankrupt mind. In a similar vein, I found it audacious that he would attempt to remake “The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three.” To this day, I have not seen his version of the film, though I know it can never replace the matchup of Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, nor could it come close to the all-timer of a score by David Shire. Perhaps I held Scott in contempt. More than likely, I was afraid he had made a cruder, more violent, more vulgar version of the source material. Perhaps I have always been afraid I might secretly like it.

At this point, it’s difficult for me to process this, knowing that Scott, for all his questionable artistic impulses, was a large part of the contemporary film community. My gut reaction is to find “Domino” again, and to pair it with Godard’s “Film Socialisme.” It’s an appropriate time to consider that perhaps the man may have been more ahead of his time than we thought.

Rest in peace.

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