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, from 20 years prior (1). That was just a vamp story but for Domino, well, we was buddies with the true story Brit bounty hunter it's based on, and that affection is palpable -- deeper than any mere romantic fancy, a genuine admiration for a girl who lives up to feminism's promise.
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. Often self-hamstrung by second-guessing and over-editing, the mega-budget leaving him paralyzed with options denied the tougher, leaner filmmakers. Both Scotts are clearly visionaries, but both get lost in possibilities and completely lose sight of what their original vision was in the first place. That said, Tony's films deliver consistently and he leaves 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 among them.
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 (if it's possible, and with him I think it was), half recoiling from the acres of hangers-on and crew and cast all wanting something from him all the time, 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 girl, 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. They mustn't preach anti-gun violence / non-smoking / condom-conscious moral reform code or credo as so many A-list stars do in their smoke-free films. Scott never bowed to the PC reformers: in his films everyone smoked, because he liked to film the way sunlight through half-open blinds and cigarette smoke intermingle, and he knew the profound bond created by sharing cigarettes, and that they're cool regardless of killing people, 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. 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 bounty hunter jobs instead of just drug habits. Knightley is in good company with Mickey Rourke and Edgar Ramirez as bounty hunters scrounging around L.A. All three have no problem being balls-to-the-wall badass 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 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 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 deserves it and maybe the big mob stand-off climax seems like cliched overkill and much too similar to Scott's earlier TRUE ROMANCE but 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, but 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 anyway, they do way too much mescaline very convincingly. That forgives a lot, in the Acidemic lawbook.
Plus, Knightley's white satin beauty and adamantium razor cheekbone toughness is 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, like any PC-era antihero, are expecting a long moral harangue about the wrongness of violence, like Liz Hurley might lecture Austin Powers on safe sex, or John Connor his Terminator about "you can't just go around killing people." And we love the way Alabama faces off against hulking mob goon (the future Tony Soprano) in a fearless deadpan. Letting her bag of womanly tricks and feints run empty with a chuckle; mixing coy laughter and sudden, brutal, outside-the-box retaliations; 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 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.
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. Deneuve is also superb 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 suck the fun out?