The news of Tony Scott's unfortunate death, which floored all fans of ballsy film, came this Monday afternoon when I was already moping to my saddest Spotfiy mix at work, mulling over the last full season of our old Mayan calendar existence... maybe. Mourning for the first fallen soldier in the first day of fall cohered my melancholia, already awash with all the sad chicks in my headphones. I knew I needed to revisit DOMINO (2003) when I got home. It may seem an odd choice from his impressive repertoire, but I think it's his most personal film, almost a righting of the wrongs of one of his first films, THE HUNGER (below), from 20 years prior (1). That was just a vamp story, but it could have been great, but for Domino, well, Scott was good buddies with the real Brit bounty hunter / Laurence Harvey-daughter it's based on, and his respect, awe and affection is palpable, inspiring Scott far past his usual style surfeit. It goes deeper than any mere romantic fancy or extended music video notion. It's genuine admiration for a girl who lives up to feminism's promise. It gets him over.... well... most of his own hurtles.
Scott's films tended to be both overrated and underrated in equal measure, at the same time. Like his older brother Ridley, he's a master of light and sound who'll go the extra distance for just the right shot, and that's not always a good thing. The both fall prety to second-guessing and over-editing, the mega-budget leaves them paralyzed with options denied the tougher, leaner filmmakers, the sort who never have time or distance to lose sight of what their original vision was in the first place. That said, Tony's films especially deliver consistently and he's left behind a legacy of beautiful and true moments, even if the films around them don't completely hang together. He was a courtier of reckless abandon in life and in cinema, like John Huston, Sam Peckinpah, Sam Fuller, Abel Ferrara, and almost no one else. It's rarefied company, and he deserves his place at the shooting range/gaming table.
Perhaps he's right now up in the crazy clouds, carousing with the real-life Domino Harvey, who died at 35 of a possible drug overdose (ruled as heart attack) the year their film was released. Maybe she's waiting at the bottom of the ocean (in my conception of the afterlife, the bottom of the ocean and the highest clouds are on the same level), with a devil's bounty hunter badge for him. If you ever see him in the DVD extras to his films he always seems like he's got one eye on the exit or the horizon, half-fully engaged, half-recoiling from the acres of hangers-on and crew and cast all wanting something from him all the time, sone decision or calamity. So he was always talking about, and filming films about, ducking off into the sunrise with nothing but a gun, a suitcase of money, and a Hawksian woman. If you have the gun and the Hawksian woman, why do you even need to make a movie? Because he still can't get away from himself, except by working.
It's important the girl is the right girl and is not afraid to wear lots of black eyeliner or kill a man execution-style. She mustn't preach anti-gun violence / non-smoking / condom-conscious moral reform code or credo as so many A-list stars do in their contractually smoke-free films.
Scott never bowed to the PC reformers: in his films everyone smoked, because he liked to film the sunlight through half-open Venetian blinds and the curling smoke hangs very nicely in the rays, defining them against the slotted darkness. And like Hawks he knew the profound bond created by sharing cigarettes, and that they're cool regardless of killing their users, and if you thought it was wrong to smoke indoors on a film set, for the health of the crew and the easily-influenced kids watching at home, then go fuck yourself. If you got cancer, well, you know what to do. Make it quick. Anything that kills you makes you cool first, let it kill you coolly, too.
Art with Scott bowed not to PC thuggery. Words can't express how rare or wondrous that attitude is in a land where everyone talks about being bad and subversive while having fainting spells and calling their lawyers if the road takes them even remotely close something like a genuine edge.
A small insufficient tribute, here are three of Scott's dangerous women, in reverse chronological order:
Keira Knightley as Domino Harvey - DOMINO (2003)
Even if you've seen it already and it just gave you a headache, watch it again, and then again, and you'll still be soaking up the details. Maybe Domino doesn't actually kill anyone (that I recall) but she does break an actor's nose just 'cuz he's a douche and if maybe the big mob stand-off climax seems like cliched overkill and much too similar to Scott's earlier TRUE ROMANCE climax, you can bet he tried the script and plot a dozen different ways before realizing this was the best and most cinematic way to go, and was full-well aware of its derivative Hong Kong-ishness and it being ultimately unlike the real Domino, whom he knows, as I've said. And as she says in the film, if she told us the full truth it would have to be sanitized so she wouldn't go to jail or have mobsters on her ass, and Scott knew it would be better to just lie bigger than truth smaller. And didn't Hawks steal from himself, too?
Besides, they do too much mescaline very convincingly. That forgives a lot, in the Acidemic book. Did they actually do some with Scott out in the desert for prep? I'd believe it.
Plus, Knightley's white satin beauty and adamantium razor cheekbone toughness are backed up by a strange and effective roster of side players: Christopher Walken, Delroy Lindo, Mo'Nique, Tom Waits, Mena Suvari, Macy Gray, Jacqueline Bissett, Dabney Coleman and Lucy Liu. Even against all these hard hitters, Kierra kills it.
Patricia Arquette as Alabama - TRUE ROMANCE (1993)
It's both hard and too easy to dig up misogynistic subtext in Tony Scott's films, but he loves showing super strong women who love their man and aren't disgusted if he still reads comic books, stays indoors watching kung fu on a sunny day, and kills people.
An example would be the way Alabama finds Christian Slater's murder of her pimp incredibly romantic... when we in the audience and Slater grit out teeth the moment she learns, expecting a long moral harangue about the wrongness of violence, like Liz Hurley might lecture Austin Powers on casual sex, or John Connor his Terminator about "you can't just go around killing people." Instead, she's not even merely turned on in some sadomasochistic way but genuinely moved. And we love the way she later--in a hotel room in LA while Slater's off getting burgers, oblivious--faces off against a hulking mob goon (the future Tony Soprano) in a fearless deadpan mix of slurred casual evasiveness--lowly letting her bag of womanly tricks and feints run empty with a resigned, chiding chuckle, mixing coy laughter--leading to sudden, brutal, outside-the-box retaliation. It's a triumphant bit of acting and a ballsy move on the part of the director to film it so artfully and savagely.
I personally like TRUE a lot better than QT's directorial debut, RESERVOIR DOGS, which gets better as it goes along but has a painfully overwrought beginning (after the awesome diner scene) with much too much of Tim Roth yelling in pain like a little punter and fake blood and monotonous grey concrete decor. Alabama is ten times tougher than the whole damn lot of those dudes, save, naturally Lawrence Tierney; you can imagine her getting gut shot and just laughing about it while never trying to deny her mortal terror. That sort of chutzpah we really don't see again until Daniel Craig finds a way to laugh uproariously through his own ball torture in CASINO ROYALE. Scott saw that women had to be tougher and stronger than men every day, and loved them for it, as we love them always, now, through his eyes.
Wherever they're looking now, we'll miss them.
1. The Hunger- a postscript, 8-13 - this was just on TCM - it's pretty upsetting because parts are amazing, especially everything with David Bowie, who modulates his rapid aging so superbly you forget what age he even is in real life. Deneuve is also superb and was initially to be my third dangerous woman, but Scott's vision really fails him, not least because the next lover Deneuve chooses is Susan Sarandon, a bad choice as she is in full moral piety mode, sabotaging the whole damn thing because she objects to killing people three times a week for the next 300 years, and as if the whole 'bad faith' angle wasn't bad enough (it's sunk better films than this: Interview with a Vampire, We Own the Night, Near Dark, The Lost Boys) Scott cranks up the jump cuts back and forth across time and space so now you can't even kill a person without intercutting ceiling fans, Bauhaus videos, and a crazy baboon. Good lord Tony, why make a lesbian vampire film just to suck the 'dirty kick' out?