"A man can be an artist ... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." -- Rayburn (Christopher Walken), "Man on Fire" (2004)
While I've never been a fan of the late Tony Scott or Christopher Nolan, a few thoughtful articles in recent days have helped me see them in new lights, and got me to thinking about their resemblances as well as their dissimilarities. Several appreciations of Scott (especially those by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Bilge Ebiri, David Edelstein and Manohla Dargis), along with David Bordwell's incisive essay on Christopher Nolan ("Nolan vs. Nolan") got me to thinking about the common assumptions about these popular filmmakers, both of whom are known for quick, impressionistic imagery, intercut scenes, slam-bang action and a CGI-averse insistence on photographing the real world.¹ Regardless of what you ultimately make of their work, there's no question they've done it their way.
This is an attempt to look at both filmmakers through the prism of others' points of view, refracted in critical appraisals like the above.
Of course, Scott and Nolan have passionate admirers and detractors. Until Scott's shocking suicide last week (from a bridge, a landmark that figures hauntingly in the climaxes of several of his movies), I wasn't aware of many critics who championed his movies, but with a few exceptions the obits seem to have been more admiring than the reviews over the years -- understandably, under the sad circumstances.
Those who applaud Scott and Nolan's films see them as genre boundary-pushers (thrillers, action pictures, science-fiction, superhero movies); those who denigrate them see them as symptomatic of the debasement of resonant imagery in modern Hollywood movies. Both have been subjected to that worst of all critical insults, comparisons to Michael Bay:
"'Inception' may have been directed by Christopher Nolan, but Nolan's dreams are apparently directed by Michael Bay." -- Andrew O'Hehir, "Inception: A clunky, overblown disappointment"
"If it sounds like I'm describing Michael Bay, that's because I sort of am. What we like to think of today as the Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic was, in fact, originally the Tony Scott aesthetic (often deployed in films made for Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson). Only back then there was a lot more art to it." -- Bilge Ebiri, "To Control Something That's Out of Control: On Tony Scott"
One of Scott's notable defenders has been The New York Times' Manohla Dargis. She identifies him as a "maximalist" who used "a lot of everything in his movies: smoke, cuts, camera moves, color. This kind of stylistic, self-conscious excess could be glorious, as in his underappreciated film 'Domino' (2005)," which Roger Ebert also somewhat grudgingly admired, quoting a character to describe the movie itself as having "the attention span of a ferret on crystal meth." Dargis writes:
View image Emission accomplished!
"Ten Movies That Shook The World" (1977 - 1999), the semi-sequel to my piece on "How "Star Wars" Changed Everything," is now at MSN Movies.
"Beverly Hills Cop" (1984)
It's a comedy. It's an action movie. It's a fish-out-of-water story. It has Eddie Murphy. It's the '80s in a nutshell! Here we have the quintessential example of the "high concept" movie that has lit the light which is green at studios from Burbank to Culver City. I saw it with Eszter Balint, the then-18-year-old Hungarian-American actress who played cousin Eva in "Stranger Than Paradise." She told me afterward that she felt bad for the families of all the expendable characters who were killed in the gunfight and car chase scenes. With its (some would say rather callous) synthesis of comedy and violence, "BHC" (and Walter Hill's "48 HRS") brought a slicked-up exploitation-movie sensibility into the mainstream, paving the way in the 1990s for "Pulp Fiction" and its imitators.
"Top Gun" (1986)
A breakthrough in the portrayal of homoeroticism in Hollywood movies (we've all seen Quentin Tarantino's monologue about how it's the gayest movie ever, right?), as well as the apotheosis of the slick, MTV-style action picture produced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer (now just Bruckheimer, since Don Simpson OD'd on Tinseltown decadence). The deliberate, disorienting music-video cutting, the contemporary pop soundtrack, the shameless celebration of testosterone-injected buddy love -- it's all here, from Tony Scott ("The Last Boy Scout," "Beverly Hills Cop II," "Domino") to Michael Bay ("Armageddon," "Pearl Harbor") and beyond. One could argue that Adrian Lyne's 1983 celluloid video about the lady welder who was "a maniac, maniac" for dancing under buckets of water at gentlemen's clubs (aka "Flashdance") deserves this spot, but it lacks the militaristic gay element that became so prevalent in popular movies. "Brokeback Mountain" may have been sired out of "Red River," but "Top Gun" also blazed a trail for it.
Go here for the complete list and overview...