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Tony Scott: Abstract Painter and Working Class Champion

Tony Scott, one of Hollywood’s most marginalized auteurs and easily one of the most exciting presences in that market, died recently of suicide. But this particular obituary will be less a mourning and more a celebration of his artistry. This artistry sharply divided critics and audiences alike, more specifically in the last 10 years of his career where his editing became swifter, his colors more extreme and his camerawork more hectic and subjective.

Anthony D. L. Scott was born in North Shields, Northumberland, England in 1944. Seven years the junior of more renowned director brother, Ridley, he attended the Royal College of Art in London, earning his Master of Fine Arts degree in 1972 with every intention to become a painter. Tempted by his brother, he soon entered the world of TV and film. His early TV work earned him accolades, but his first feature film did not. The Hunger  was received poorly, but soon galvanized a cult following. In 1986, he released what is arguably his finest achievement and the film most readily associated with his name; Top Gun. The butt of a number of jokes regarding its homoeroticism, it’s nonetheless a pretty spectacular piece of entertainment. With stunning aerial photography and almost equally impressive cinematography on the ground, it beautifully encapsulates Scott’s early aesthetic and visual obsessions. The angelic light bathing characters in a healthy glow through drawn shades, the metallic hues and the working class heroism all defined his pre-2000 film career.

Beginning in 2001, Scott’s painter-filmmaker approach really began to blossom. Spy Game was not far removed from the espionage thrillers he’d worked on for his last two features, but something changed. Abrupt, Brechtian title cards and seemingly slightly quicker editing signaled a shift that would see him re-evaluated by a number of highly regarded critics and film historians in the coming years. His 2002 short for BMW, Beat the Devil, cemented his new abstract cinematic approach with its garish color filters, hyperkinetic action-editing and remarkably short ASL. 2004 saw the release of the Denzel Washington-starring thriller, Man on Fire. Washington would go on to star in three more films of his, in each playing a similarly hard-nosed middle-aged man whose humanity and self-sacrifice granted him working class hero status. To that end, Scott never really gave up his fondness for working class types and generational divides. In 2005, Domino, written by Richard Kelly of Donnie Darko fame, was released to a heavy blasting by critics, receiving a 19% Tomatometer rating, the lowest of Scott’s career. Utilizing IBS as aesthetic device, the film told the story of Domino Harvey, a model-turned-bounty hunter. Scott’s new increasingly abstract and hyperclassical formula for direction brilliantly suited Kelly’s reality television-infused chaos narrative. Musings on post-9/11 racial fear and incisive commentary on the YouTube fame era make it topical as well as aggressively entertaining.

Critics like Michael J. Anderson have written extensively on Deja Vu, Scott’s first foray into science fiction — the genre his brother become so successful in. In 2009, Tony released a modernized remake of The Taking of Pelham 123. Grasping at the potential of the global financial crisis, Tony directly engages the collective post-9/11 consciousness as he had in Deja Vu to extrapolate and dissect our ability to come together as a multicultural, fearful nation to tackle a Wall Street-influenced threat. Finally, in 2010, he released Unstoppable, the film that will now be known as his last. Though Scott had engaged the surveillance culture as far back as Crimson Tide in 1996, the indifferent crowds filming the potential tragedy of a train blazing down the tracks with two men on board laying their lives on the line to try and stop it strikes at the heart of Scott’s ambivalence toward modern technology. A webcam on a laptop provided a constant line of sight for a young woman to see her boyfriend throughout the hostage situation in The Taking of Pelham 123. It’s human error that accidentally sets the train in motion in Unstoppable, though, and human ingenuity and bravery that eventually brings it to a stop. It should come as no surprise to those who have seen it, that Tony Scott held the 1970 film, Performance, in very high regard. Nicolas Roeg, infamous for his kinetic associative editing, did the cinematography for it in collaboration with Donald Cammell. A taste for Scott’s brand of cinema or not, he nonetheless held a consistent vision throughout his career; a vision of lower class heroes stepping above their station and into the world of classical romanticism. For Scott, the heroes of the everyday — the modest men and women with large hearts in thankless jobs — deserved a cinema to call their own.

– Chris Clark