Friday, December 3, 2010

Scott's Metaphysical Romances, Pt. 1

Deja Vu (Tony Scott, 2006)

Many of our ideas about how cinema works and what a filmmaker is grow out of an idea of gesture and intention. This is understandable: in the 20th century, cinema brought some of the grandest gestures in history. And because for most of that century, the methods of production in wealthier countries (and by extension those whose films were most frequently seen, and therefore formed the foundations of film theory: the United States, Italy, France, Japan, the Soviet Union and Germany) involved a division of creative labor—a director would at best instruct an editor and, with a few notable exceptions, never operated a camera or a microphone—directing became a question of large gestures and instructions. In turn, we came to understand and attribute authorship in cinema based on obvious gestures. The theories that form the foundation of both filmmaking and film criticism concern themselves not with small or subjective properties, but with grand designs: montage, mise-en-scene, camera movement, framing. All of these things could be called the "obvious properties of style."

Cinephilia set itself aside from mere film-buffery by becoming the hunt for small moments and small films, things that appeared to exist outside the realm of obvious gesture. Criticism sought to explain the tracking shot; cinephilia looked for the meanings of drifting cigarette smoke, stray glances and apparent accidents, and to divine the patterns of hats, cars and donkeys.

Over the decades, the practice of filmmaking has changed. Though it's still rare for directors to act as their own cinematographers, it's common for them to operate the camera when they feel like it, especially during handheld shots.

It could be argued that the ongoing switch to working digitally has been more revolutionary in how it has changed the editing of films than in how it's affected the aesthetics of the image. Though most directors still use a professional for the job, director / editors are increasingly common and a director is more likely to take an active role in editing instead of just writing memos and putting together plans. In her recollection of working with the late Eric Rohmer for a recent issue of Senses of Cinema, Jackie Raynal writes that the director hired her as an editor because she was good with her hands; physical editing takes dexterity and skill. On the other hand, most people (and this includes directors) can learn the basics of Final Cut Pro in an afternoon. Editing has moved from the solitary, poorly-lit editing room to the Steenbeck and into comfortable multi-screen editing suites. Nonlinear editing gives decisions fluidity; it's no longer a question of cutting and splicing, but of composing and arranging. It enables more intuitive approaches. In big-budget productions, the approach to editing has increasingly shifted from the fulfillment of plans to the construction of scenes out of moments. The director, who was once defined by an iron will, must now also have a hunter's instinct.

Combined with the increased input directors have into the mixing of the sound in their films (which itself has gone from mono to stereo to surround), the control afforded by color correction and digital processing of the image and the fact that even productions shot on film stock use video replays to judge takes instead of waiting for the daillies, on the increasing prevalence of improvisation (which nowadays pretty much dominates American comedy, which was once the set domain of the screenwriter), multiple-camera set-ups and dozens of takes, it can be said that filmmaking operates on a more minute level now than ever before. The reign of the art director has ended, and the reign of color grader has begun. Though much of the way film is defined and judged is still based on grand gestures—on obvious stylistic propertie—the people making films have a greater than ever awareness and control of the small moments that had previously been the obsession of the cinephiles. In essence, filmmaking has caught up with cinephilia while outpacing commonly-accepted theory and criticism.

Part of the reason the Tony Scott movies of the 2000s are disliked by many—and intensely loved by others—is the total lack of "big" gestures in his current approach to directing. These movies consist entirely of small moments, off-the-cuff images, strung together into something massive yet lacking an "obvious" grand design. No big plans, just hidden smiles. This makes Scott a harder sell than similarly-concerned directors like Michael Mann, who anchors his intuitive moments to grand ones, or Claire Denis, who presents them as the directorial gestures that they are. The party line on Scott is that he's an "empty stylist," a man who makes "technically accomplished" and therefore insubstantial films with too much editing. On the one hand, I probably wouldn't be here defending Scott if his movies consisted of shots that ran for minutes instead of seconds; on the other hand, I wouldn't think they were worth defending if that were true.

You've probably figured this one out: I don't intend to brush off Scott's style, nor am I going to defend it as candy, as sugary, calorie-free style, as "pure color" or "style-for-the-sake-of-style-get-over-it-and-have-some-fun-why-don't-you." Scott's recent films are beautiful, but beauty is not a question of surfaces (contrary to the old saying, it's "prettiness" that's merely skin-deep). I am here to defend the substance and morality of Scott's recent films, and a defense of the recent Scott is, at its core, a defense of his editing: the jitters, the saccades, the 250 BPM intercutting, crashing and burning that are integral to the hidden-in-plain-view heart of Scott.

Scott's three great movies of the 2000s—Spy Game, Deja Vu and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3—are metaphysical romances, though only Deja Vu is a romance in conventional terms. Spy Game and Pelham can be summed up in the words in which Howard Hawks once described A Girl in Every Port: "'a love story between two men," an unerotic fraternity that borders on courtship, and which, described in terms of conventional romances, whether straight or gay, would make Spy Game a melancholy story of break-up and reconciliation and Pelham a sort of mutant screwball comedy, where two men start the film as strangers set against each other and develop mutual admiration by prying open one another's faults. This is fairly traditional Hawks Territory, but what's integral to Hawks is presence, which isn't just a question of two or more people occupying the same constructed (i.e. classically delineated) space, but the same frame, whereas the relationships between Brad Pitt and Robert Redford in Spy Game, Denzel Washington and Paula Patton in Deja Vu and Washington and John Travolta in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 all exist across canyons of physical space, narrative time and, most importantly, editing.

So here we leave Hawks Territory and enter the historical domain of Frank Borzage—yet Borzage's criss-crossing of space and time sprouts forth from classical ideas about both, and the love story in a movie like I've Always Loved You (the most Borzagean of titles: a sentence that includes the personal aspect of love while simultaneously painting it as something beyond time) is impossible without a firm grounding; love can't transcend nothing—to break through, you have to make a wall first. Borzage's reputation as a "transcendent romantic" is misleading—not only because it fails to encompass his varied work, but because it denies the tactile, fingertips-and-nostrils physicality of those films of his that are romances. Scott, however, is genuinely uninterested in both concrete reality and linear time—in the fabled "clear delineation of space" or the defined boundaries between scenes that are supposedly the mark of, respectively, good directors and dramatic construction.

The inter-title timestamps that periodically appear in Spy Game become an almost Miikean joke in a movie where action folds in on itself constantly (one of the ways in which, as Ben Sachs has pointed out, the film resembles Miike's Negotiator) and where personal history is fluid. Scott's greatest asset (both to himself and to cinema as a whole) is his ability to work on a molecular level. It goes without saying that these relationships, these marriages-through-montage that involve an editing so relentlessly paced (if it can be said to be paced at all, because at one point a beat becomes so quick that all you hear is a steady tone) that a flow of emotions or actions overpowers any sense of when or where something is taking place, mirror the relationship of an audience to a screen. Scott starts at the endpoint—the relationship between the image and the eye—and works backwards; it's no surprise that the time machine in Deja Vu suspiciously resembles an editing suite.


nathaniel drake carlson said...

I get your point here and I certainly respect it but for whatever reason I still find it hard to get enthusiastically pro-Scott (and this is especially odd given the range of my taste). For me, of his 00's work, Domino is by far the best, the most genuinely thrilling and enthralling. It's the only one I have much interest in revisiting. The others you mention, particularly Spy Game, just seem to me to be ultimately rather torpid exercises in classical narrative mechanics encumbered by Scott's aesthetic brio. Domino gives way completely to his transcendent leaning excesses and we are all the better for it because in doing so the film itself sweeps aside the dominant dictates of narrative concern and replaces them with a pure prioritizing of the sensual, emotional or visceral. This allows for real transformation as the boundaries of genres clash and warp around one another, creating new temporal and figural spaces and advancing an agenda of pure aesthetic experience.

Still, as I've mentioned to you once before I think (in regards to Gamer I believe) all this owes much to the ground being broken back in '01 by Zalman King's utterly neglected Showtime series I really encourage you to take a look at that (at least the pilot) and I hope you will as more credit is due his accomplishment there, transforming his familiar and conventional seeming erotic fantasias into a melange of clashing styles and influences, an expansive universe of sensory overload. Beyond that, King infuses the amped up nature of the proceedings with fortified walls of self-referentiality, a kind of implied prison of delimited pop cultural horizons. This results in a portrait of personally sustained fantasy that is surprisingly melancholy and affecting; though never explicitly a critique it's an ethical dimension subtly communicated amidst the clamor of a mind entertaining itself to death. As with Scott, here too the editing is the overall absolute distinguishing element and primary means of comprehension. It's only through an acknowledgment of the flailing desperation the histrionics suggest that we can develop any sympathy for their human source.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


I'm still trying to track down a copy of the pilot of, based on your recommendation. Some Googling reveals at least one episode is on Hulu...

My feeelings on Domino--directed by someone I like, written by someone I like--are, to the say the least, mixed; I have to admit that it still seems to me like Scott's Skidoo. Maybe another viewing is necessary...

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

Addendum: It appears the whole thing is on Hulu. Off to investigate...