In Memoriam: Bounty Hunting on Speed and the Rareness that was Tony Scott or…the Difficult Thing that is Silence
“Once the narration is recognized as arbitrary rather than logical, the viewer is free to ask why individual events within its structures are as they are. The viewer is no longer constrained by conventions of reading to find a meaning or theme within the work as the solution to a sort of puzzle, which has a right answer. Instead, the work becomes a perceptual field of structures that the viewer is free to study at length, going beyond the strictly functional aspects.” – Kristin Thompson, The Concept of Cinematic Excess
“I REMEMBER a young man – a man still young – prevented from dying by death itself” -Maurice Blanchot, The Instant of My Death
In his recent work The Last Holiday: A Memoir Gil Scott-Heron wrote,
Since I have lived in the United States of America all of my life, I have seen too many deliberate distortions of events and too many slanted pieces of our history and lives to feel that I can correct them all or even put a good sized dent into them. All I can say is that if the truth is important to you, understand that most things of value have to be worked for, sought out, thought about, and brought about after effort worthy of the great value it will add to your life.
It will come at a great price. The time and sweat invested in that pursuit may cost you in hours and days you cannot use in other directions. It may cost you relationships that you would give almost anything else to develop, with some who cannot stand to come in second to anything. The passion with which you commit yourself to something intangible may well turn away the very support that could sustain you.
What you will need is help that exceeds understanding. There may be disruptions on every level by those you try to touch, who shy away from you because understanding is not what you are looking for. Your only hope for stability on the levels of togetherness beyond understanding is trust. Anyone who claims to love you knows they will not understand every element of these things you need and that is where trust must carry you two the rest of the way. The truth you are seeking to write about, to sing about, to make sense of for others is something that you pursue not because you have seen it but because the Spirits tell you it is there.
These words circled what was to be my initial article. They seemed appropriate for the embrace I intended; a highlight of a particular artist and particular masterpiece so often dismissed. In no way was this meant to be a remembrance. I started writing it before. But life has a strange way of things and since I began writing this Tony Scott committed suicide.
I am of the mind that Tony Scott is one of the greatest artists of the 20th and 21st centuries. No caveat, no bracketing such as “filmmaker” or “action-director” or “visual stylist” or any other segmentation that often occurs whilst referring to his work. He was a brilliant director, a brilliant artist and by and large a brilliant human being. He represents some of the best that can be asked of someone actively curious; someone actively moving forward and continuing to question the world around him. His films are brilliant because they are imperfect. They utilized material often delegated to the dregs of narrative inclination. He pushed visual and sound design to levels now duplicated ad infinitum, but with a heart and soul that injected it with far more quality than it necessarily required.
He often drew attention to his roots in painting. Making the connection film naturally has to the canvass. “Every stroke or every color impacts another and you build film on the canvas and you get ideas from the last stroke.” Over time the painter seeped further into the way he put things together, exercising the language and what it means exactly to make a film.
This was accelerated by the use of old technology. As Larry Knapp, in Tony Scott and Domino – Say hello (and goodbye) to the postclassical, states,
Scott covers key shots with a 1910 hand-cranked “merry-go-round” camera tellingly nicknamed the “vomit comet”. The hand-cranked camera violates the integrity and stability of the image, allowing Man on Fire to bristle and flicker with the same intensity and instability of its troubled protagonist Creasy (Washington). This overt play on diegetic subjectivity-where Scott disturbs narrative order and duration with concentration cuts, freeze frames, unanticipated musical cues, variable frame speed, and other digressive techniques that foreground his camera work-becomes even more pronounced with Domino, which Scott has described as “heightened realism” and “a ferret on crystal meth.
Via the hand-crank he fulfilled the promises of his early cinema. The painter took hold and utilized the narratives we have all come to believe we understand completely. He was able to complicate their execution, not only presenting a visual and sound platform uniquely his own, but also subtly putting in play huge questions about myth building, memory, morality, mortality and the meaning of life as seen via the circus act that it has become.
Completeness came to be with his masterpiece Domino. And yes, I do say it’s a masterpiece. While often thrown off as excess to the nth degree, it is difficult to say that is a fault of the film and its narrative when that is exactly what the film is about. As Knapp goes on to say,
Domino works on a constant level of overstimulation, with sudden shifts in narrative range, camera perspective and sound design. The film’s exposition sets the baseline with its elliptical cuts, farrago of languages (English, Spanish, and Pashto at one point) and ambient sound (a strategic sound bite and close-up of Lawrence Harvey from The Manchurian Candidate muttering, “part drug, part light-induced”), and the jarring shifts from Domino’s opening interrogation with Taryn Miles (Lisa Liu) to Domino, Ed, and Choco’s in medias res confrontation with Edna Fender. Excess rules in Domino as characters fiend for Mountain Dew, overindulge in pornography (Howie, one of the counterfeit First Ladies, muses that in ten years time the United States will reach the saturation point of APATT – All Porno All the Time), unwittingly overdose on mescaline, and blow up an RV and a Las Vegas hotel with C-4 explosives.
The film’s narrative, like poor Locus, is dismembered by frequent asides, digressions, instant flashbacks, and a number of subjunctive sequences that present one scenario, reverse it, then replay it with a different outcome. Many of the narrative cause/effect links follow a “heads you live/heads you die” logic, reflected in Domino’s narrational admission late in the film that everything is determined by chance:
“It can be dangerous when you don’t know what to expect from a situation, when you have absolutely no idea what could happen next.”
Domino presents the contemporary United States as an overmediated sensorium, a postmodern flow of random, meaningless consumer artifacts that form one long dangling modifier. There is no escape from pop culture – intertextuality abounds as characters quote song lyrics, drop celebrity names, and ponder random images on a nearby television screen.
And within this extensively complicated arrangement of space and time is a heart and soul. Characters trying to survive the best way they know how. All encumbered by the lack of truth. The sort of true story that becomes more and more about how we tell the stories of our lives, what we believe is the life we are living and how that compares with the life we are being told we are living.
Domino was a passion project for Tony. It took him over a decade to finally get it into production and it was only after finding a partner in Richard Kelly (of Donnie Darko fame) who could care for the narrative the way he saw it best playing out. As Kelly outlines on the commentary track for the film, “What you’re seeing is an interpretation. It’s like a fever dream kind of experience of Domino’s life. What’s interesting is to think where the truth ends and the lie begins. It’s sort of her state of mind…” Down to the acronym for the bounty hunter’s TV show (B.S. for Bounty Squad) displayed prominently over the video footage captured for the reality show, the film is an over assembly. It’s a presentation of the state of things (“A society sort of crumbling” as Tony says.) and how exactly we find a soul amidst the clutter.
According to Richard Kelly, Tony Scott was a punk rock sort of character and with Domino he created his finest comment of the oversaturation we exist between from within the bowels of the system itself. It’s a reflection, a mirror for the here and now. And with that, some might say he concluded his narration. The films that followed, while each quite good, are somewhat of a figuring out stage. They are more polished and seem a response to the negative feedback that became Domino as a whole. For many he’d gone too far and needed to pull in the reigns a bit. I see these last few films as attempts of a new order. He had gone places with Domino (as well as Man on Fire) and his hand-cranked camera. So, where was the next hurrah?!?!
Over the next few weeks much will be made of the man as the media turns its wheels. While the state of cancer now being reported offers some bit of understanding, I am deeply saddened and lost by what has happened in the last number of hours and wish it could be rewritten the way he did with Déjà vu. I want to anticipate where the future would have taken his work. As with his brother, age seemed to be treating him well with an endless spirit for cinematic happenings and if given the opportunity we may have seen a wholly new stage of expression being birthed with what are the films that came after Domino.
For now though, we must go and bid another wonder adieu. “Without death, everything would sink into absurdity and nothingness.”¹I cherish the work he left and the steady climb with which he built his overall philosophy. So rarely do we get what could be deemed a complete journey as one might interpret his cinema; one piece at a time coming together to its ultimate end-cap.
- Maurice Blanchot, The Work of Fire, 323-324
Any time Gil Scott-Heron is quoted, a written work becomes essential reading.
Garrett, while I may not share your intensity, I’ve always been fond of Scott’s work. On paper, his projects often seemed to me to be little more than popcorn entertainment, but there was something more to his films. After reading this, I’m thinking that little something might be his painterly ways because I’ve always been totally engaged with every scene, every visual flourish, that he delivers. (When a big budget videogame like Max Payne 3 rips off your aesthetic from Man on Fire, you know you’re a talented “painter”.)
We’re a less entertained, less thoughtful audience without him.
So glad you were able to gleam this from the article. I think the fact that he was a painter for eight years before getting into filmmaking and the fact that he continued to identify with being a painter over a filmmaker goes a long way to opening up what I believe is a much more valuable bulk of expression than many have been willing to identify. He just needed a really big canvas. There is quite a bit to chew within his films and I think, whether one is a fan or not, it is hard to deny that he was trying to do something. He was constantly evolving and expanding what he saw and what he wanted to say about it.