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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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