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Mania Remembers Tony Scott
There will never be another Tony Scott…
By Rob Vaux
August 21, 2012
Tony Scott never won an Academy Award. Indeed, he was never nominated for an Academy Award, a sign of both his unapologetic commercialism and the Academy’s overall snootiness. But his films – good and bad alike – changed the face of movies in ways many Oscar winners never could. Scott, who killed himself yesterday after an apparent bout with inoperable brain cancer, reveled in commercial crowd pleasers, and his brazen kinetic style came to define popcorn entertainment for an entire era.
Like his brother Ridley, Tony applied an artists’ sensibilities to his productions… which his critics (and I rank among them) blasted as overtly superficial. They were all sizzle and no steak: pretty images that meant nothing and served merely to distract us from the utter lack of substance beneath. But therein lay the essence of Scott’s appeal. The image was the aesthetic to him. The visceral emotions they generated became the purpose of the exercise; we experience them almost in the abstract, with the story and characters providing the only basic pretense of structure to channel our responses.
More importantly, they didn’t look like anything else out there. Even in the latter half of his career, when every film school grad madly copied his techniques, his films stood apart from the pack. To paraphrase one of his characters, he never trusted air he couldn’t see. His quick cuts and MTV sizzle could be spotted a mile away, his characters’ faces constantly looming in front of hazy sun-streaked cityscapes. His technique carried an enthusiasm that less dedicated directors lacked. As openly corporate as they were, his films never felt cranked out. He spoke to us as an individual, using terms that the rest of Hollywood often adopted, but which came from an auteur’s perspective rather than a committee’s.
Unlike Ridley’s films, they never asked big questions. Instead, they dealt in intriguing hypotheticals and then left us to think about them while the sounds and lights crashed around us. What would we do with a suitcase full of cocaine? How would we respond if a vast government conspiracy turned its apparatus against us? If we were a naval officer and nuclear war were brewing, would we trust our commander to pull the trigger or fight like hell to confirm the order? Few of these questions had any bearing on practical reality, but they made excellent pretenses to put the actors through their paces.
That may explain why he attracted such top-notch talent to his corner. Denzel Washington was a fixture in his films, but the likes of Bruce Willis, Gene Hackman, Brad Pitt, Robert Redford and Will Smith also signed up with him. You rarely saw any flashes in the pan in his films; no fleetingly popular actors who would vanish a year after shooting wrapped. They all had staying power and while the big paychecks were a part of it, they also flocked to him because he would keep them center stage at all times. They never just shot guns at the bad guys or raced around in cars; they always grappled with something the audience could really relate to. We had to work to spot it sometimes amid the New Wave editing and thundering rock score, but when it shined through, it was a thing of beauty.
That brings us to his most iconic film: Top Gun, which along with Stallone’s Rambo helped define the action aesthetic of the 1980s. I won’t lie to you: I hate it. I hate it with the undying fury of a thousand suns. But it has endured over the ensuing thirty years, and its themes and visuals have become an indelible part of our cinematic language. “Goose” is the go-to short term for doomed sidekicks, latent homoeroticism never found a more potent couple, and the crowd-pleasing dogfight shots still stand as shining examples of technical artistry. I may not like it, but a lot of people do – and it wouldn’t still be with us without Scott at the helm. And now we face the disheartening reality of a cinematic landscape without that voice. A prolific career has ended too soon, leaving us to contemplate what might have been instead of appreciating what was. As sad as we are at the prospect, it also reminds us of the body of work he left us, a body that helped make the movies what they are. There will never be another Tony Scott… and cinema won’t be quite the same without him.