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Gilbey on Film: Tony Scott, 1944-2012

A master manipulator of space and suspense.

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

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.