Monday, October 8, 2012

Tony Scott in Stills

Tyler and David at Battleship Pretension were kind enough to invite my babbling ass on to discuss the career of Tony Scott, a filmmaker I adore and for whom my respect has grown immensely in the last week after watching (or rewatching) nearly all of his films. I only missed a three-film chunk in the late 80s/early 90s, but it proved to be one of the most invigorating weeks of moviewatching of my life. Anything that I watch in the next week or so will inevitably feel like a comedown.

One of the elements of Scott's work that I addressed on the show (albeit in a sideways manner) was this idea that he's a filmmaker of surfaces, an accusation that has been hurled his way since Top Gun. Not only do I feel that's kind of a surfacey complaint (so much of the appeal of cinema is surface-level; to dismiss it is to dismiss the joy of the movies), but I find his imagery to be infinitely more substantial than many of his contemporaries. On the show, I said this would be a gallery of images too weird to describe, and we certainly have those, but more than anything, this is a testament to just how sharp a filmmaker he was. As incredible as he was with capturing (and creating) kineticism and movement, his single frames - if you can manage to catch them - are stunning.

I didn't have DVD copies of everything I watched - notably The Hunger and Enemy of the State - but I made do as best I could. So let's dive in...

Top Gun (1985)

Top Gun is a film relatively without the kind of visual dynamism for which we'd come to know and love Tony Scott. It's certainly handsomely framed and, of course, sharply edited, but its imagery doesn't leave one with much in the way of questions or doubts or lingering emotions. But I do love this frame for how he utilizes the mirror, both to reflect the reverse lettering of the bathroom sign (thus restoring it to what we'd see from the outside), and for the way Maverick (Tom Cruise) is, just for a moment, offscreen except for his reflection, as though a man whom Charlie (Kelly McGillis) could only imagine was about to enter her life. It's sort of grandiose, but the film is kind of absurd like that, too.

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

Even though Scott could have found a more elegant way to shoot this sequence, there's really getting around the absurdity of a football player carrying that ball, in a game, while wielding a handgun. It's one of those opening sequences that makes a certain promise that the film largely lives up to.

But what really struck me about The Last Boy Scout is its emotional core. Usually this part of a blockbuster feels obligatory, but there's a real honesty in the way screenwriter Shane Black portrays Joe's (Bruce Willis) marital and, especially, paternal struggles. And this is just a beautiful, evocative frame, certainly using Chelsea Field's beauty, but not exploiting it, and posing Willis in a non-threatening, uncertain position (his body turned away) within a frame in which he could very easily seem violent (what with the looking-at-her-while-she-sleeps and all).

The Last Boy Scout is, however, ultimately an absurd action film, and Scott gets away, for just a few moments, with the kind of abstraction that would define his later career.

True Romance (1993)

True Romance is all about sex and violence, and sometimes the intersection therein (Patricia Arquette's showdown against James Gandolfini remains one of the great, truly icky fight scenes). Though he'd push both to the limit in this film (and effectively so, I must note), I'm just as taken with the way he suggests each.

Crimson Tide (1995)

I didn't have a copy of Crimson Tide on hand, and it is a largely straightforward tension piece (which isn't to diminish it; I adore the film), but I did manage to find this image on DVD Beaver that effectively demonstrates the kind of visual sophistication Tony Scott could bring to such a story (oh, those colors!), enhancing what many would approach as a can't-miss premise and leave it at that. If nothing else, you gotta love his willingness to use the spotlight.

The Fan (1996)

Returning to the world of sports he so beautifully skewered in The Last Boy Scout, this time taking a wildly different, though no less absurd, approach, he moves away from the business end and right into the pure love of the thing. Or...something. First, you can't not love the image of a man wielding a knife in a company meeting, never mind Scott's frame-within-a-frame composition...

...but more to the point, the film deals largely with the metaphysical relationship between baseball fan Gil (Robert De Niro) and his idol, Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes), a new power hitter for the San Francisco Giants.

That's Gil, of course, in the foreground, looking crazy as all get-out, and Bobby in the background, looking very concerned over the knife-wielding maniac who's actually facing him, and Scott, once again brining the Jumbotron to abstract his imagery, illustrating how Gil built Bobby up to be this larger-than-life figure, but he is in the end, just a man, right now worried for his son's (if not his own) safety.

Spy Game (2001)

This is one of Scott's more straightforward films, but I was still taken with this particular image, in which everything else in the room is obscured by the state of the world (the map); only Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) can see straight through.

Man on Fire (2004)

This is where Scott really starts to bend reality to his whim, starting with the simply expository (yet evocative)...

...and moving into the downright weird...

...and hauntingly evocative:

Domino (2005)

I could break down Domino's imagery almost endlessly. It's electric and invigorating, constantly abandoning any notions as to what Scott could be trying to "say" with it in favor of some very pure expressionism. In the episode I talked about how Domino is a big moving picture, forgoing what we come to assume about editing and composition and busting open the process through the process itself.

I keep using this image of Domino laughing skyward as her body is separated into three segments because I just can't stop looking at it. It's haunting and evocative and the thing I think of when I talk about Domino being a picture that never stops moving.

The rest of the film is just loaded with imagery, but here are a few that stood out to me on rewatch.

On the show, I mentioned the moment at which Domino lifts two massive guns that tiny Keira Knightley possibly couldn't handle in "real life" as a defining moment for the film, and it is - it puts this purely in the realm of the cinema, the ecstatic truth, and true joy of the form. I understand the desire for story and character and all that, but a primary driving force in our (or at least my) love of cinema is to see images we could never see elsewhere. And really, how awesome is this one?

Deja Vu (2006)

Trying to pick only a couple of images from Deja Vu is a lesson in futility, so let's blow through these as fast as possible. It's a film absolutely overflowing with great imagery, be in this handsomely-framed evocation of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (to which Scott owes much of his thematic resonance)...

....or the way a dead woman can appear alive, igniting something in Carlin's (Denzel Washingston) soul....

....never mind the haunting touch they share....

....or the way Carlin uses a window into the past to become enamored with the dead woman, gradually asserting himself into her world without her knowing:

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

This and Tony Scott's final film play much more traditionally than his stunning threefer, but nevertheless allow for certain exciting elements:

Unstoppable (2010)

Here I was really just limited to the trailer, but I really dig the very basic set-up/payoff Scott creates visually:


Joel Bocko said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Joel Bocko said...

Some great shots here; kind of a pity no Enemy of the State though. I've always savored that scene where Will Smith and Gene Hackman duck into a diner for a few brief moments amidst all the mayhem, kind of evocatively calling back to an earlier period.

I haven't seen Domino or Deja Vu; I recently saw Man on Fire and found the frenetic technique (especially the tendency to type out words onscreen) rather distracting, if valiant in their boldness. The Tony Scott films I most enjoyed were entertaining stories more than formal experiences, like the aforementioned Enemy or also Spy Games, which you note is one of his more straightforward films. That said, I'm intrigued by the notion of him as a high-octane aesthete, which I've seen ventured before, but rarely with the gusto you display here.

At any rate, RIP...

Anonymous said...

That is kind of clever if they really used that angle in order for the audience to read the bathroom signs. I love how he pays attention to details.

-Keira Shipp

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