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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era