Gilbey on Film: Tony Scott, 1944-2012

A master manipulator of space and suspense.

Most of us don’t think we’re susceptible to the corny myths and delusions bred by cinema and by showbusiness in general. Then something happens which proves you can be as sappy as the next person in line at the popcorn counter.

That was what I felt when I heard yesterday that the director Tony Scott had died by leaping from a bridge in Los Angeles. The sense of rupture came, I think, not simply from Scott’s death, but from the nature of it. Things like that don’t happen in Tony Scott productions. People don’t usually commit suicide: they don’t really get unhappy or despondent, and they don’t lose hope; when something terrible happens, Tony Scott’s characters lash out against others. I know: suicide, especially such a demonstrably public one, is a form of lashing-out too. But what I’m trying to get at is the extent to which Scott’s death contradicts and complicates the myths we bought into with his movies.

When a man’s daughter is kidnapped in a Tony Scott film, he kills and kills and kills until he retrieves her (that’s Man on Fire); when a fellow has a grievance, he makes an entire city pay (see Scott’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, which replaces the brooding eccentricity of the original film with sound and fury and more sound); there can be moments of genuine suffering (such as when Dennis Hopper finds himself in Christopher Walken’s bad books in True Romance) but they don’t last - they get subsumed by the bullets and banter. People in Tony Scott movies certainly don’t jump from bridges unless they are dodging a fireball from an exploded tanker, or they have a bungee cord attached to one leg. Even in those cases, it’s a stunt man.

So the nature of Scott’s death will, I think, stick with us as long as anything in his work, because it reminds us what those movies helped us to forget: that there is something in life that can’t be vanquished by script-doctored dialogue, dazzling shoot-outs and slice’n’dice editing. It reminds us that he was human, whereas the films might have been made by a sophisticated machine with a devilish sense of humour.

Odd, now, to think of him as a British director, so completely had Hollywood blockbuster cinema adjusted to his way of talking. The critic Bilge Ebiri wrote yesterday of Scott’s breakneck, wipe-clean style: “If it sounds like I’m describing Michael Bay, that’s because I sort of am. What we like to think of today as the Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic was, in fact, originally the Tony Scott aesthetic (often deployed in films made for Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson). Only back then there was a lot more art to it.”

There was something unmistakably proud and painstaking about Scott’s approach which distinguished him from disciples like Bay. Both men have been responsible for movies that bludgeon the senses. But I doubt that Bay has any films in him as coiled and patient as Crimson Tide,  as loopy as Domino or as rampantly pretentious as Scott’s 1983 debut, The Hunger.

His hits, the ones that brought him back from the commercial failure of The Hunger, were Beverly Hills Cop II and a brace of Tom Cruise vehicles: Top Gun (Cruise with wings) and Days of Thunder (Cruise with wheels). But his best movies were not so commercially calculating. Crimson Tide is a taut thriller set aboard a nuclear submarine. An aborted emergency message is received appearing to order the loosing of missiles, but in the absence of certainty, a stand-off develops between the gruff, old-school captain (Gene Hackman) who wants to let Russia have it, and his lieutenant (Denzel Washington), who advises caution.

It’s a clash of ideologies, and Scott’s skill lies in his ability to keep that in mind while also delivering a masterclass in the manipulation of space and suspense. (It’s not one for claustrophobics.) Hackman and Washington are like grand masters poised over the chess board, with a flawless supporting cast, including James Gandolfini and Viggo Mortensen, as the massing pawns. Michael Schiffer and Richard P Henrick’s tight screenplay received some uncredited input from Quentin Tarantino (a friend of Scott’s since the director had bought the then-unknown young filmmaker’s screenplay True Romance). Tarantino added a nice touch to the racial tension between Hackman and Washington by coming up with the dialogue about Lipizzaner stallions; Scott kept everything on the boil for two hours straight.

There were other enjoyable and often audacious films: the time-travel thriller Déjà Vu, the wham-bam buddy movie The Last Boy Scout. And if you’re going to be foolhardy enough to attempt to remake Coppola’s The Conversation as a slick action film, you might as well make it as giddy and silly as Enemy of the State, in which Will Smith is divested of his spoils, his family, his clothes, his entire goofy, grinning persona. (There was also room for Hackman, who played the surveillance expert Harry Caul in The Conversation, to show us what Harry might be up to all these years later.)

Of course, I am not really deluded enough to believe that directors die the way they direct. But Scott’s death is so radically out of sync with the other public parts of his life that I wonder about the effect it will have on his back catalogue: will those pictures still carry the same sense of abandon now? It’s a sad occasion, and also a rather sobering one for anyone who looks at films and at real life and sees only the faintest demarcation between the two.

The late Tony Scott in 2010 (Photograph: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear