TONY SCOTT | THE ARTIST
The tragic death of Anthony David Scott on August 19th has shocked the world, and nearly a month later nobody is sure why he jumped off that bridge. The trickle effect of when someone so prominent dies is immeasurable; people who have never even met that person are impacted in small, seemingly tenuous ways.
At the risk of having an NDA shoved down my throat, I refer to myself as an example; there was a possibility recently that I might get to work with Tony on an upcoming project. Because of his sudden demise, I don’t know where that project stands currently. Obviously as a young up starter this is quite upsetting, but what’s more upsetting is the loss of someone who contributed to my desire to become a filmmaker years before there was even a nuance of possibility in me working with them.
As many journalists have been keen to point out, most people considered Tony to be a purveyor of simple entertainment, while his older sibling Ridley continues to be seen as the more artistic, ambitious, talented brother who explores lofty themes throughout his body of work. However, the dichotomy between Tony and Ridley can be attributed to an old fashioned, bourgeois idea of what art is.
There is no definitive answer to the infinitesimal question, what is art? But I have long held the opinion that art can exist in all matter of shapes and sizes. I believe Tony impacted cinema just as much as Ridley did, and I believe there is equal artistic merit in his films. ‘Entertainment’ for some odd reason is a detractor when it comes to classification of art, but to entertain as many people as Tony did, is an incredible skill that demands appreciation. On paper, more people went to see Tony’s films than they did Ridley’s.
Filmmakers don’t set out with the same purpose, and it is inaccurate to judge films by the same criteria. Ridley wanted to explore feminism and male oppression in Thelma and Louise, and he succeeded to a great extent. Top Gun might be devoid of hard hitting social commentary, but Tony was never aiming to achieve that. Instead he mastered a style of editing and shooting that defined the now standard kinetic, near staccato framing of action cinema. His adrenaline fuelled sensibilities have informed some of the most exciting cinema in the last twenty six years, and to be capable of providing such giddy thrills for millions the world over is a wonderful demonstration of visual and audial artistry. Commercial, action orientated cinema such as Unstoppable is as divine and important as independent, theme orientated cinema.
Furthermore, by no means should action cinema be considered a lesser frame work in which to explore complex issues and three dimensional characters. Ridley has certainly evidenced this with the likes of Gladiator and Black Hawk Down, but so has Tony in less celebrated ways. Beverly Hills Cop 2 and The Last Boy Scout are great pieces of fun that don’t aim for deep insight, but in the likes of Enemy of the State and Man on Fire, to name a few, Tony not only provides visual fervour and breathless storytelling, he generates a fascinating, in depth portrayal of the characters and tackles some heavy themes and emotions.
Enemy of the State is iconic in how it was the first thriller to really expose ‘big brother’s’ watchful eye, I know many people who weren’t aware of just how advanced the world had gotten in surveillance until seeing that movie. Paranoia and the distrust of authority courses through seventies cinema, an era many critics hold dear as the finest time of cinematic output, and Enemy of the State fits into that mould perfectly, re-purposing the powerful themes of that era into a contemporary setting. Enemy of the State challenges the intrusive nature of government and highlights how we are all vulnerable to losing our privacy and basic human rights, our every move being recorded without our knowledge. The film is more relevant now than it was in 1998, demonstrating a longevity that earns it artistic credibility.
Man on Fire is an intelligent action thriller with an avant garde aesthetic; Tony Scott utilizes in camera effects and elliptical, almost dream logic, editing to create a dizzying assault on the senses that captures the raw intensity of the actions on screen and the protagonist’s fractured psyche, especially in a montage of Denzel Washington’s character, Creasy, during a night of binging on whisky. That montage is also evidence of some of Washington’s finest work, putting in a performance that in another genre may have drawn award’s buzz. It’s worth noting he and Tony devote nearly an hour to establishing Creasy and the bond he forms with Dakota Fanning’s character, Pita. There is an emotional depth to this film that few action thrillers can boast. And I’m sure the maestros of the nouvelle vague would applaud its experimental nature, such as its game changing use of on screen titles, which appear in ways that punctuate the ferocity of the dialogue and establish the tone and pace of scene.
There is a great piece of dialogue from Man on Fire uttered in only a way Christopher Walken can, which sums up my justification for considering much of Tony’s work as art, worthy of the same praise as Alien or Blade Runner:
“A man can be an artist ... in anything, food, whatever. Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece”.
Tony’s art was making action cinema as engaging and galvanizing as possible. As a filmmaker, I hope to one day be able to achieve that same great feat.
WORDS: ALASTAIR COLLINSON
ILLUSTRATION: RICHARD MANDERS