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Films on fire: Tony Scott and Christopher Nolan

"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:


The Elements of Style

"Even to a writer who is being intentionally obscure or wild of tongue we can say, 'Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand!'" -- Strunk & White, "The Elements of Style" (musical adaptation by Nico Muhly)

I love it when artists known for their work in one medium show a passionate investment in another. Over the weekend I stumbled upon composer Nico Muhly's blog. This is the guy who studied with John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse, made two albums of his own music (Speaks Volumes and Mothertongue), and has collaborated with Philip Glass, Björk, Antony and the Johnsons, Bonnie "Prince" Billy (aka Will Oldham, of "Old Joy" and "Wendy and Lucy") and Grizzly Bear, among others. And he's the composer of the scores for "Choking Man," "Joshua" and "The Reader." (The middle one is actually a pretty good movie.)


The Hollywood studio mentality in one paragraph

Kimberly Peirce.

The first time I interviewed Martin Short (one of my "SCTV" idols) in 1987, he told me an anecdote about his experiences in Hollywood. A typical encounter with studio executives would begin with something like, "Wow! We love you! You did this and you did that and we think you're great!" Followed, almost immediately, by, "And now that we've hired you, don't do that stuff anymore because that's not what we want from you. Just do it our way."

Here's director Kimberly Peirce on why nearly ten years elapsed between her last feature, "Boys Don't Cry," and her latest one, "Stop Loss": ... After "Boys Don't Cry," Hollywood came and offered me some very expensive projects, some very good stuff.... I had one project that I got almost to fruition, "Silent Star," about the unsolved murder of [the silent movie director] William Desmond Taylor in the 1920s. It was wonderful - the story of how Hollywood was built on an unsolved murder and a cover-up. We had it cast and ready to go, and the studio ran the numbers and they said, "We want to make it for x amount of money." And I said, Uh, all right. But then they said, "We don't want to spend that much, we want to spend 10 million dollars less." I said, Well, I don't know if that's a good idea, but I'll go ahead and make the adjustments I can. And they said, "Well, we don't want to see the version of the movie that we're prepared to pay for. We want to see the version we're not willing to pay for."Perfectly circular bureaucratic logic -- so beautiful in its impeccable shape that Franz Kafka and Joseph Heller must be laughing so hard they're crying....


The death of film criticism has been greatly exaggerated, Part I

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that only 3 percent of 18- 24-year-olds would have picked this still as their first choice to accompany this article, since it has nothing whatsoever to do with the contents of the article itself. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

"All in all, it's been a rotten tomato of a summer for America's embattled film critics.... It's no secret that critics have lost influence in recent years. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that among 18- to 24-year-olds, only 3% said reviews were the most important factor in their movie-going decision making. Older audiences still look to critics for guidance, especially with the smaller, more ambitious studio specialty films. But during the summer months, with studios wooing audiences with $40 million worth of marketing propaganda, critics appear especially overwhelmed, if not irrelevant."

-- The Los Angeles Times, asserting that critics are less powerful now than they never were. (8/15/06)

God, I love that paragraph. Go ahead -- read it again. One of my favorite propaganda techniques -- used in politics, journalism, criticism, you name it -- is to present evidence (or, better yet, opinion polls cited as if they constituted evidence) refuting something that was never true -- or even widely thought to be true -- in the first place. It's a form of genius, really -- like the opinion polls asking Americans if they believed Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11, presented as though it could be made true if a majority felt it was. (There's another term for this technique: Fox News.)

This propaganda trick is related to the Straw Man argument, where you attack a position somebody doesn't hold instead of the one they do, but you pretend they're saying something they don't believe instead of what they actually said. All it takes is a bad listener. In the case of this article in the LA Times last week, it's made especially compelling by the knowledge that Times management has wasted colossal amounts of money on a poll of youngpeopleoftoday, forcing good reporters like Patrick Goldstein to have to invent something to make it appear the poll's findings meant... anything.

Read that hilariously insignificant statistic from the Times/Bloomberg poll one more time (and take an extra moment to savor the deliciously insinuating phrase, "It's no secret..."): Only 3 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds cited film critics as the most important factor in deciding whether to see a movie. Conclusion: It's no secret film critics are losing influence!!! The mind boggles. What percentage of persons in this six-year age span cited film critics as, say, the third-most important influence? Fifth-most? And what did this same age group say five years ago, 10 years ago, or 27 years ago? The "3 percent" figure is so narrowly defined that it's not just meaningless, but exquisitely, absurdly. ludicrously so. Somewhere, Joseph Heller is laughing out loud. And think about this for just one second: How many 18- to 24-year-olds do you know who depend primarily upon adult authority figures (like critics), above all other influences, to make their media choices, whether it's movies, music, video games, TV, web sites, whatever? Three percent seems a bit inflated to me.

(BTW, what are the ages of the "older audiences" who "still look to film critics for guidance" -- and what percentage of them rank that guidance as the most important factor in making moviegoing decisions about those "smaller, more ambitious studio specialty films"? Man, oh man -- those pollsters ask specific questions! "What is your most important source of guidance for smaller, more ambitious studio specialty films?" But did this Times/Bloomberg poll yield only one quotable statistic? If not, why weren't others cited to put this one in perspective?)

This is the kind of story that is based on "overturning" assumptions that never were. News Flash: Bush administration officials may have underestimated when they said the invasion and occupation of Iraq would cost no more than $1 billion and was unlikely to last more than a few weeks -- or as Donald Rumsfeld said, "I doubt six months." The word, "Duh" was invented for these occasions. If you honestly did not realize how preposterously false the original premises were, then you might get fooled again into thinking the second non-story qualifies as "news." (Follow up story: According to the president, when it comes to Iraq, "failure is not an option" -- even though that is the option deliberately and consistently favored by his administration above all others 9 times out of 10.)

In about a year, expect another News Flash: Poll Reveals Young People in Teens and Twenties Notoriously Unreliable Poll Subjects.