Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, August 20, 2012

"I'm not afraid to die..." Tony Scott and Dangerous Women

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)

You can badmouth Tony Scott but if you do, and someone bashes a high contrast emerald beer bottle over your head, DOMINO is the proof you had it coming and that a lot of punchy fashion models might be healthier mentally if able to work at bounty hunter jobs instead of just their drug habits. Knightley is in good company with Mickey Rourke (the boss) and Edgar Ramirez (smitten). All three have no problem being balls-to-the-wall badass even when just standing around in a laundromat in their underwear, and Tony Scott takes every opportunity to bash and savage the whinin' boys of the Hollywood industry when these bounty hunters get their option picked up. Knightley is so good as Domino that when she says "I'm not afraid to die," you believe her. It's not just idle MTV boasting.

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? 


  1. What a loss...

    Always loved "True Romance" and, of course, Tom Waits as what was probably a desert hallucination in "Domino."

    You're right - there IS a connection between "Domino" and "True Romance" that you don't see through most of Scott's other films.

  2. I love "Domino" and think that its his best film that I've seen. Not only because of the visual style, that I really honestly liked, but because of the acting, that you point out as being really strong, and it's true that Keira kills it through, one of the best female performances of all time.

  3. I think "True Romance" is highly underrated. His loss has caused the usual gasps in print, but this was the best thing I've seen written about him so far. Danke.

  4. For me, DOMINO just edges out TRUE ROMANCE as Scott's best film because, as you point out, it is his most personal film and the one where he took his cubist film style to its most extremes, even more whacked out than NATURAL BORN KILLERS (if that's possible). Plus, he got decent performances out of Ian Ziering and that other kid from BEVERLY HILLS 90210. If that doesn't deserve commending I don't know what does!

  5. But "True Romance" was true romance. The romance of love and violence. Of high ideals and low people. "Domino" was enjoyable, but I don't think I'll ever look back on it like I do "True Romance." Okay, back to the manuscript...

  6. This is a very nice tribute. Suicides always leave me scrambled and sad, then frustrated that people have to find a box of reasons to make sense of someone else's decisions regarding their own life. I admire your addressing his Mister Scott's life and work and not his death. My favorite of his films is True Romance; he was able to make a QT film better than QT has since. It had a real relationship in it, something QT has not done convincingly in directing his own words. I fully bought into Patricia Arquette's and Christian Slater being obsessed with each other, and I think a director has to have a good heart to sell a love story. Didn't he produce Clay Pigeons as well? John Lurie soundtrack, Aces. Rest now, Tony Scott, you will be missed.

  7. ...which is not to say Tarantino doesn't have a good heart!

  8. I think you may be right about Tarantino ... to a point. What Kiddo and Bill had, though, rang pretty true to me, though you didn't get to see all that much of it, but their final scene together never fails to get me.

  9. I accepted it, but didn't buy into it. It was more a creepy old mentor seducing - and controlling megamaniacally - his nubile young student than two people madly into each other. But aside from the psychomechanics of that angle, Tony Scott sold the relationship as the center of True Romance, as what True Romance was about. Kill Bill was just about revenge movies. Nicely done, of course, QT knows how to fill a frame, but it wasn't about anything else. I didn't think Man On Fire was great, but it was still about something. QT movies have slipped into what Stars of 45 was to the Beatles. Not to mention, Tony Scott just cranked them out!

  10. Johnny, I'll grant you much of that. You can see it as a creepy old mentor seducing the Bride. I think you can see it just as easily as an honest love. As a creepy old mentor who has seduced, I can safely say nothing I did ever looked like love. Kidding aside, it's great to have a civil discussion about movies on the 'Net. What next?

  11. Thanks Doug, you took the words out of my dirty mouth, so to speak. The older mentor / younger hottie thing has become the new pariah of relationships. Just walking down the street with a pretty woman half my age is enough to draw mean stares from nearly everyone I pass --particularly women over 40. Now that gay and interracial relationships are accepted---the 'permission to stare' du jour is the June-September (not as drastic as May-December, which would be Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in Love in the Afternoon) Good lord America is one fucked up puritan mood swing of a country... growing up in the 70s I never thought I'd wind up in the 1840s, and neither did Bill, or Norman Maine (William Holden in Breezy knows the stigma, respect).

  12. Oh please, don't mistake me for a prude. When Mister Burns married Anna Nicole Smith, I encouraged his children to go screw themselves for complaining. Max Von Sydow and Barbara Hershey in Hannah and Her Sisters? Woody Allen and his own son's half sister? No problem. I have had enough non sexual man crushes on artist mentors to understand the extra-devoted student mind, and young girls are never not worth paying some attention. However, if after a relationship runs its course and the mentor-ex dispatches a group of assassins to kill everyone in the new life the former interest has cultivated, and leaves her with a bullet in her brain, and later, having survived that, has her buried alive, well by golly I have to say that verges on Creepy Manipulative Mentor Abuse, at the very least.

  13. Well even Bill doesn't deny that his response was.... 'extreme.' And thanks for bringing up Max Von Sydow in Hannah... whom I fall back on as a reference for when I never want to go out and do anything: "Erich is going through a phase where can't stand be around people," and "I don't sell my art by the yard!" which I say a lot for no reason. But you're right... I'm not denying Bill deserved to five point death grip, in fact "we all got it comin'" one way or the other.

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