Saturday, December 4, 2010

Scott's Metaphysical Romances, Pt. 2A

In Spy Game, Redford and Pitt play CIA agents; Redford, once Pitt's mentor, arrives for his last day of work to discover that his former protege has been captured in China and that their mutual boss has decided that it's not worth it to rescue him. Throughout that 24 or so hour deadline before Pitt's execution, when Redford must tell the agency about his often difficult relationship with his old friend while also slyly engineering his rescue (partly, it becomes obvious, out of a sense of guilt and a newfound acceptance of his friend's life apart from him), Pitt is unconscious on the other side of the globe. In the lengthy flashbacks, they're as likely to be separated as together, occupying different spheres even when sitting across from each other at a table.

The framing cuts them apart and then the editing glues them back together until it becomes clear that their camaraderie isn't a question of professionalism and day-to-day interaction (the seeds of many of Hawks'—and Johnnie To's—most complex relationships) and is in fact an emotional bond existing on some kind of "more subtle level." Sure, ok, this is the usual male weepie hokum, but it's in movies more than anywhere else that hokum finds its greatest opportunity to be profound. At the speed at which the shots change, almost spinning, this idea is unable to be carried as a clearly-discernable metaphor; it simply becomes the accepted reality of the style. It's a bond that's already extant at the start of the film, and which we become privy to through rhythms; after a while, it's simply assumed that any shot of Redford will soon be followed by a shot of Pitt, regardless of where or when the two them are. Scott's intuitive approach—which eschews most conventions of setting up a scene (sometimes one will start only to briefly cut back to another one) and construction (unrelated shots from other scenes will be edited in)—lulls one into intuitions.

Scott's directorial technique uses a very large number of cameras and very few takes (at least for a modern Hollywood movie). It requires a finessed and detailed acting; as in certain kinds of theatre, a performance must function when viewed from any angle. It also gives performances an off-the-cuff quality, because these same actors who must act in all directions are also unable to grind a scene down to its bones over the course of a dozen takes. There's a lot of improvisatory fat, especially in Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, which—as a movie about two flawed men talking to each other over a radio—is nearly an epic of just-guys-shooting-the-shit hard-boiled one-liners, set-up & punchline games and epigrammatic nonsense.

Even the characters who start out as Michael Bay-like caricatures of authority (James Gandolfini's unpopular mayor, John Turturro's negotiator) grow into likeable people through a profusion of jokes and asides, more or less the same way as strangers stuck in the same place might come to be on friendly terms (it helps that both characters do not devolve, as their equivalents in Bay movies do, into punching bags for third act violence, but instead are shown to be helpful and worthwhile people). There's something genuine and uncomfortably intimate to this union of foul-mouthed voices who occupy the same screen but whose bodies are never in the frame together; when Travolta says to Denzel Washington, upon finally meeting him near the end of the film, "You're taller than I thought ... and good-looking, too," you know he means it.


Guillermo Krain said...


Glad to see Tony Scott getting some serious love treatment. Whenever I see a Scott movie, I think: a) this is one arty motherfucker, and b) it feels like he is up ahead of everybody else.

I agree that Spy Game is a masterpiece, and one of the things that generate that weird emotional frisson that you're talking about is the way Scott uses the non-diegetic aspects of Pitt and Redford (the exact same type of aging pretty-boy) to sort of fuse them as the same person. I don't think it's wrong to think of these films as Resnais-esque.

I also just saw this same effect (psychic as opposed to functional parallel cutting) you describe so well used briefly in Wajda's Danton -- where he suddenly cuts from the scaffold to Robespierre, as if he were perceiving it, a love connection at a distance.

It also like to put in a good word for Man on Fire, the best adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano we've seen yet. Love the subtitles!

Domino, I also think unfortunately is a conceptual misfire. It's exactly the film his enemies accuse him of making all the time. Maybe that's the point?

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


1) I have to admit that the more I think about Domino after NDC's comment, the more I want to revisit it.

2) Better than the subtitles: the discovery that Denzel Washington has a great voice for the Spanish language.

Lee-Shu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee-Shu said...

I remember that moment when I saw "Last Boy Scout" for the first time. Also it was first Scott's movie I've ever seen. In some ways that movie was similar to others, but it wasn't. I was feeling kind of mysterious electricity coming from the screen. Those frames, face close-ups, editing and overall picture composition. I loved this style and I'm still in love. Today I'm one of few who see something outstanding in this style of editing, framing, tempo and multiple camera filming. Nobody I know understands my feelings about that, so I'm kind of freak in my friend's opinion. But Tony Scott is true god of filmmaking and he can tell you what he needs in couple of seconds instead of twenty minutes by any others directors. Three, four or maybe six frames and you know everything. You don't know that because some people on the screen were talking about it for ten minutes but you feel it already.

Sorry for my english.

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