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The Real RocknRolla: Tony Scott’s Cinema of Surfaces

 | Director Profile |

  BY Satish Naidu

Tony Scott with Denzel Washington

Curtains. Television screens. Windshields. Venetian blinds. A train bursting through the bubble of middle-class calm. A young man’s dead body. A gun barrel. A brick wall. The Mexican boundary. A dead woman’s hands. Number 11 jersey. A baseball cap. The reflection off the glass top of a table. A disc. Orange Boy. Orange girl. The wrinkled skin of an old woman.A match swipe. The cigarette held between the fingers and against the lips. No eyes there mind you. No windows into the soul. Just the skin lit green. Just the fingers with blood stains. And the lips, with blood on them. And the cigarette. This might not be, strictly speaking, a demonstration of Bazin’s notion of depth and realism. Which happened to be the case with a lot of movies that were being made around the Eighties in Hollywood, and a movement, intentional or not, well and truly consolidated into the Nineties. A decade where I suppose the dispositif of narrative cinema changed quite radically and, which in many ways, embraced and propagated the post-ideological fascination with what I often refer to as the cinema of itself. Or to offer a more scientific nomenclature, it could be labeled the cinema of surfaces. The origin was of course in the Fifties and the Sixties, in films such as Vertigo (1958) and Point Blank (1967), in the films of Nicolas Roeg, and the band of Eighties were nothing if not cinephiles, seduced by the appearances and the accompanying illusion.

The real action was in the text, and it’s only fair that Steven Soderbergh sort of summarized it with Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989). Where the narrative architecture of the cinema of the Fifties and the Sixties was preoccupied with the presence of a gun and the accompanying political implications, the Eighties and the Nineties often found themselves enchanted by the sheen of the metal. The form of the gun, or the sound of a gunshot, and the ensuing reverberations were of equal if not more interest than an underlying theme. This was to be the decade (along with television) that probably inspired the Nineties to be the agent that transformed the close-up from an event to the default currency, and in a movie like the Speed (1994) where almost all of the conversations even amongst the bit players are via close-ups, one gets the notion of the growing individualization that was to be one of the standard features of a lot of media in the ensuing years.

There was Ridley Scott whose Blade Runner (1982) assumed, in many ways, the status of a flag-bearer for the post-modern loss of identity. Yet in the manner in which the overarching tone of the diegesis informed his style, Scott betrayed the essentially modernist approach of form-function-union to filmmaking. One might even make a similar claim for Adrian Lyne, whose little cutaways have a reflexive relation with the narrative. There was David Lynch, and for someone having a background in painting he displayed a remarkable suspicion for surfaces. There was Michael Mann and Tim Burton, expressionists, one sensual and the other a little hardcore, and yet all of these filmmakers carved an essentially static moment. Mann would have mirrors and television screens and windows reflect their view back at William Petersen, and through his languid aesthetic he essentially created landscapes that didn’t feel time-bound. [1] Their cameras still didn’t prefer to deal in close-ups, and chances were any given frame would present itself to be our desktop wallpapers.  

Nosferatu falls? (The Hunger, 1983)

Tony Scott was probably the one mainstream filmmaker during this time who combined the one-two punch of close-ups and a dynamic approach to his compositions. What Jim Emerson often refers to as one-thing-at-a-time filmmaking, Scott was interested in the rhythms that held two accompanying shots. He favored motion in his frame at the expense of any great detail, dealing in match-cuts and juggling between frames through something close to synchronization of motion. Maya Deren’s A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945) could be a frame of reference here. What Ignatiy Vishnevetsky in his essay describes as metaphysical romance, where characters in his later movies, especially guys, seem to “bond” with each other overcoming the spatial gap of different images, is nothing but the harmony Scott seems to discover in these bodies in motion.

Yet, none of these films seem to attain the pure sensuality, sensuality that is not limited to a body or a couple of bodies within a frame, than the opening of his first commercial feature The Hunger (1983). Sunglasses and leather wear and brightly lit skin and lips and iron-meshes collide into each, providing for a glorious hodge-podge of association. Figures sway against the smoky shallow background, each completing the other’s motion across spaces not yet mapped (there’s a crazy monkey thrown into the mix), and genders and equations and identities are written and rewritten. It is a play of surfaces and actions, signs if you might call it, referring to nothing overarching but merely seeking unison in the moment. Every edit is what makes for the preternatural. That is until the narrative kicks in, which happens to be the case with most of his later films, and yet everything The Hunger is about is already established within those initial few gestures. Man of Fire (2004) is the oddity here, which happens to introduce its protagonist through a similar phenomenological abstraction. All the horrors of everything the Clint Eastwood characters have ever done might have been covered up by those layers of wrinkles, but it is not merely montage (in this case, a volcanic mountain) that Tony Scott invokes to suggest Denzel’s Washington’s tortured soul. He literally burns him on the film, exposing every pore on his skin that is ready to perspire in that heat, and the multiple exposures create something close to an epileptic seizure. Here, one might argue that I’m suggesting something that David Bordwell is dismissing here, when he claims -    

“On the same grounds, every awkwardly-edited film could be said to be expressing dramatic tensions within or among the characters.”[2]

Valid it is, to catch the B.S., but Scott, in his more inspired moments, created phenomenological experiences on film, i.e. experiences that could only be created and felt on film (don’t know if digital can mimic double exposure and flicker to its visceral extreme),and experiences that, like the very best of montage,were intersubjective. And much of it had to do with the way he shot and juxtaposed and contrasted skin tones and textures. The silken Madeline Stowe in a world of sun-burnt sweaty mostly ragged surfaces (Revenge, 1990).Kiera Knightley in a room full of huge shirtless Latin Americans gangsters (Domino, 2005), and it is amusing how Scott uses his love for surfaces to address his content, in this case Domino providing the head gangster a nice little lap dance for some information. Or to take that theme to its poetic extreme, Catherine Deneuve in a room full of her old lovers (The Hunger), where identity is nothing but a disguise and the self is both defined and limited by the immortality of the skin.

It is this surface, this demarcation between the interior and the exterior, where the secrets are hidden and identities forged. There is in his films a prevalence of cavernous spaces and thin membranes keeping the outside world at bay. Curtains and Venetian blinds.There is nowhere Tom Cruise’s character or we would call his home than the race car (Days of Thunder, 1990). And I wonder about the old woman and her cave (Loving Memory, 1971), and how much more personal and hence sinister it turns out be than the caves her brother explodes. All the walls with all those pictures of the young Gil Renard, the Little League Star that explain The Fan (1996). What’s more, the only witnesses to the queen vampire’s entire history, from her days of blood sucking as a Pharaoh to a modern seductress, are those white curtains. And while we’re speaking of histories, I suppose there is Youtube space for a montage charting Tony Scott films, from Loving Memories (a dead body) to The Hunger (the body of a phallic woman) to The Last Boy Scout (television) to The Fan (pop culture) to Enemy of the State (surveillance) to Domino (reality television) to Déjà vu (time), and how these elements so melodramatically invade the fragile private spaces. Or, even within The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009), I suppose one could examine all the membranes – between the hostages and Ryder on the train, between Garber and his bosses, between the working class and the Mayor’s merry men – without fearing an inconsequential exercise.

It is the struggle within these areas – the spaces, the family, the society, the traditions, the country – the great genre filmmakers of the past – would make their most definitive (subversive and deeply personal) statements. Winchester’73 (1950) is about a lot of things, but that final frame, with the girl in the arm and the buddy in sights speaks more about the love-hate nature of domesticity than any film I’ve ever seen. While someone like Anthony Mann’s men yearned for domesticity, Tony Scott, much in conformity with the nature of popular cinema since the Eighties, wanted his completely domesticated men to feel the need to be heroes again and preferably in the eyes of their women. This probably is his version of the “American dream”, where a patriarch doesn’t simply rule the territory but earns the respect to rule it. While Top Gun (1986) and Days of Thunder are about boys being absolutely terrific at being boys, with grown mature no-bullshit women learning to respect their boyhood, The Last Boy Scout (1991) offers an even more concrete version of the dream complete with an image. The film’s is something of a Chinatown (1974), and the dream being chased is not an elusive woman, but the woman within the home. When the film is done, Bruce Willis, who has defeated the baddies and kicked the mayor’s would-be-assassin off the flood-light, dances against a stream of blue and red while everyone applauses. His daughter respects him, his wife loves him. The fantasy is complete.

The American Superhero (The Last Boy Scout, 1991)

The Fan
is almost a “revision” of The Last Boy Scout, and Robert De Niro’s Gil Renard is something of a defeated version of Willis’ Joe Hallenbeck. Enemy of the State (1998), while completely ambivalent as far as any concrete statement on surveillance is concerned, does provide its smug lawyer the opportunity to get back his marriage and also preserve the sanctity of the “American way”. And by the time Tony Scott incorporated the same personal/popular stakes for Chris Pine’s character in Unstoppable (2010), this fantasy had long become one of the most tiring aw-shucks-not-again clichés in the Hollywood machinery. Two films stand apart starkly in Scott’s filmography in this regard – The Taking of Pelham 123 and Revenge – and they seem to be oddly placed for an auteur (what Quentin Tarantino calls a Unique Voice). Not that I’m a big fan of straight-jacketing an oeuvre into one specific statement, but Pelham especially for the fact that it comes just an year before Unstoppable, and that both films deal with working class trying to fight their way through two of the major catastrophes the country has had to face this decade, it’s interesting to read the friction between the writer (Brian Helgeland, a “Unique Voice” considerably darker, pessimistic and dare I say cynical) and Scott, who seems to be falling head-over-heels in declaring Walter Garber another great working class superhero. Pelham is so self-aware at so many levels it is practically its own shrink and its own critic. While Scott is bathing in Garber’s newly-found glory and respect, who’s carrying a gallon of milk as his wife has demanded of him, after just having shot a man a few hours ago, Helgeland’s script makes us quite uncomfortable, something we do not feel in many Scott films. Enemy of the State is supposed to be a cautionary/horror tale against the evils of surveillance, but when the film, in another of those cases of adolescent one-upmanship, turns the tables and starts bugging the houses of the men in power, it just completely misses the bus of what it was about.

Vietnam? (Revenge, 1990)

This is the ambivalence that a lot of action blockbusters during the Eighties and the Nineties seemed to suffer from, and even in Scott’s black-and-white us-versus-them oeuvre Revenge presents the most fascinating oddity.That is until Scott himself butchered it into conformity with his director’s cut and avenged the wrong that was meted out to The Hunger (the ending doesn’t make a lick of sense). While smug American cowboy displays his coolness by freely wandering into the Mexican territory in the film’s opening moments, which might remind one of Top Gun, Revenge, based on Jim Harrison’s work, is quick to bring to mind Vietnam and cause us to believe this little tale is something of a parable. Anthony Quinn plays that tired cliché of an old gangster having a trophy wife, a wife who wants to be a mother but he wouldn’t let her ruin her precious body, a curvaceous body the American cowboy falls in love with, and yet the film, in its theatrical version, cut by the late Ray Stark, was a dirty messy film that didn’t provide for easy answers and didn’t yield to easy allegories. Quinn’s gangster does treat his wife with a great degree of warmth (as a scene by the pool suggests that is edited out in the director’s cut), and the runaway affair between the woman and the American is something of a heartfelt romance that finds its note with the death. One can imagine where Costner’s directorial debut Dances with Wolves (at one point Revenge was to be the one) found its tone and pacing, and through the languid pacing each of the supporting players get some sort of individuality and respect. The director’s cut chops everyone out making us wonder why would someone so selflessly serve the American, and although it removes every bit of warmth from the marriage providing for a degree of entitlement, the essential question at the heart of the tale – autonomy versus righteous justice – still bleeds. But one thing remains though – the Director’s Cut, with its woman nothing but a sexy body that causes the dispute, with its good-guys versus the bad-guys dynamic, with the juxtaposition of the wounded body of the American crawling on the sand as his smug self flies above (the Scott of the Aughties would’ve obviously shot it differently, as you would so easily imagine), is undoubtedly the Tony Scott film of the two versions.

Which is a funny thing, this business of being a “Tony Scott film”, and what does it stand for. The careers of Michael Bay and John Moore are practically built around that identity, that aesthetic and its inherent adolescence. And of course the ambivalence. It was filmmaking through crescendos, a fetish for our working-class national heroes. Behind Enemy Lines, with its love for kinetics, with its us-versus-them, with its hatred for bureaucracy and ridiculous politics, with its self-righteous excursions into non-American territory, with its father figure rescuing a bright pupil, with its every moment an excuse to have an helicopter shot, is practically the same movie as the Tony Scott film that was released on the same week of November 2001 – Spy Game. A case of promoting American exceptionalism, if you might want to label it as such. What’s Domino but an early uncritical version of 127 Hours style performance of a performance, a film that might as well have been titled Being Domino Harvey.

Or, could we just look at the Tony Scott oeuvre as the cinema of wish-fulfillment. Of the simplistic fantasy of righting a wrong. A desire for seeking an alternate reality. Not that it takes us anywhere, or ought to be glorified, and even though in cases like Revenge it might rub the wrong way I guess there’s space for the Scott brand of escapism. This concession suredoes ruin a lot of the action picture. But then he will always be the guy, despite the sloppy tension-diffusing filmmaking, despite Motor city Detroit offering nothing by way personality so much so that it might as well have been Los Angeles, who wanted Clarence and Alabama to live. From One of the Missing to Loving Memories to The Hunger to Top Gun to Revenge to Days of Thunder to Crimson Tide to Déjà vu (2006) Tony Scott, like any person who ever breathed fresh air, dealt with death and fantasized of overcoming it. That little convent is where Miryea Mendez dies, and Scott is gracious enough to provide for a hill overlooking it. Cheesy as it may sound for a NASCAR picture, Cole Trickle tackles his own mortality by driving for his friend and saving from a fatal accident. And then, there’s Doug Carlin, chasing not merely mortality but time itself in what might be one of the definitive car chase sequences of all time. It doesn’t matter he leaves a dozen other vehicles on the bridge looking ahead at a long stint at the nearby hospital, or maybe worse, but the single-minded urgency is exhilarating. And poignant, when I’m reminded of that little story of a Southern soldier trapped in rubble all by himself with his own gun pointing at him. I think of him, and I think of the Agent who dies himself and leaves notes all over for an alternate timeline version of him to follow them and save the day. Déjà vu was about Claire Kuchever and her death, was about a dead woman desired by a man, and only someone like Tony Scott could’ve double-reversed it all and made it about the death and rebirth of Doug Carlin, a man needed by the woman. I wouldn’t want to sound too melodramatic, but when I think of the filmmaker on the bridge, a part of me still wants to believe he was looking for something.Or maybe he left something.

 Note: For whatever it is worth, amidst the digital versus film debate, Tony Scott, with that single-fluid-shot concept in Déjà vu, might have given us a starting point for what the digital as a medium ought to strive for. Not to mimic film, because the concept of a shot is meaningless here, but to traverse space in a wholly different way.


1. William Petersen appeared in Michael Mann’s Manhunter (1986) as FBI agent Will Graham.

2. David Bordwell, Nolan vs. Nolan. http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2012/08/19/nolan-vs-nolan/