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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:

A common knock against a director like Mr. Scott is that his movies are all style and no content, as if the two were really separable. Yet the excesses of Mr. Scott's style invariably served those of his over-the-top stories, like that of the enflamed title avenger (Mr. Washington) in "Man on Fire" (2004), who -- amid the saturated palette, liquid slow motion and a hailstorm of bullets -- vows that "anyone who gets in my way, I'm gonna kill him."


Dargis mentions the "superfluity of the visuals" in "Domino," and that is indeed the main criticism of Scott's (and to a lesser extent, Nolan's) movies: that they are jam-packed with superfluous frippery, overwrought and incessantly agitated like a hyperactive child desperately flailing about for attention. In his review of "Domino," David Edelstein described the approach, and if I could choose just one paragraph to sum up Tony Scott's work, it would be this:

Why film an action -- say, the lighting of a cigarette -- in one shot when you can do it in six? So you get match swipe, match flare, another angle (with a double exposure) on the flare, tip of cigarette burning, cigarette going between lips, character inhaling in close-up ... And the film stock changes in each shot, one green, one black-and-white, one overexposed ... And the sound of that flare is like a bomb going off ... and the cigarette isn't even a big deal.

In a 2010 work-in-progress post on his personal blog, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky defends Scott's hallmark "action painting" montage as one of his primary artistic strengths:

[Scott] is genuinely uninterested in both concrete reality and linear time -- in the fabled "clear delineation of space" or the defined boundaries between scenes that are supposedly the mark of, respectively, good directors and dramatic construction. [...]

It goes without saying that these relationships, these marriages-through-montage that involve an editing so relentlessly paced (if it can be said to be paced at all, because at one point a beat becomes so quick that all you hear is a steady tone) that a flow of emotions or actions overpowers any sense of when or where something is taking place, mirror the relationship of an audience to a screen. Scott starts at the endpoint -- the relationship between the image and the eye -- and works backwards....

David Bordwell described Scott's technique in his 2007 piece, "Unsteadicam Chronicles":

His framing is often restless, as if groping for the right composition.... A single shot may give us not only changes of focus but jumps in exposure, lighting, and color; sometimes it's hard to say whether we have one shot or several. The result is a series of visual jolts...

Scott, trained as a painter, pushes toward a mannered, decorative abstraction, aided by long-lens compositions and a burning, high-contrast palette.


In "Nolan vs. Nolan," DB discusses four primary ways in which filmmakers can innovate, which are worth thinking about with regard to both Nolan and Scott: tackling new subject matter, developing new themes, formal strategies (treating plot structure or narration in innovative ways) and style ("the patterning of film technique, the audiovisual texture of the movie... new techniques of shooting, staging, framing, lighting color design and sound work").

As the previous excerpts indicate, some critics make a case for Scott as a stylistic innovator. In "Smearing the Senses: Tony Scott, Action Painter," IV begins his postmortem defense of Scott by positioning him as a misunderstood master:

More often than not, innovation resembles deficiency. Jean-Luc Godard couldn't tell a story, Yasujiro Ozu never learned the 180 degree rule, Robert Bresson didn't know how to direct actors, D.W. Griffith first didn't understand that the audience wanted to see the whole actress and not just her face and then didn't understand how you were supposed to make a talkie -- and, toward the end of his career, Tony Scott made movies the wrong way, never letting an image hold long enough for the viewer to figure out just exactly what was going on.

The party line on Tony Scott is that he was a "stylist," a man who made popular, "technically accomplished" and therefore insubstantial films; he had a good eye and he was "influential," but he just got carried away with all those camera angles and all that editing. There was just too much of him.

In contrast, Nathan Lee described the aesthetics of Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer this way, in his 2006 review of "Déjà vu":

These dudes aren't exactly paragons of innovation, unless taking rhetorical hysteria to awesome new heights counts. As the opening credits roll -- by which of course I mean roll, zip, flicker, fade, zoom and swerve -- you get a good solid smack of the Tony Scott touch. The man never met a strobe cut, filter effect, or inexplicable helicopter shot he didn't love, and love to inflict on the humblest scene.

It's possible, I suppose, that Lee and Vishnevetsky are seeing and describing the same things. I think of Scott as less a "stylist" than an "anti-stylist," someone who took any conventional notion of "style" out of any organic context and pushed it to an absurd extreme, beyond parody, into self-immolating flamboyance. Perhaps he was determined to exaggerate and inflate the very idea of ridiculous technique until it blew up in your face. Maybe the very obviousness/obtrusiveness, the splashiness, the strutting all-too-muchness of Scott's bravado can be said to be "innovative" -- or, at least, unprecedented at feature length (since it was commonplace in '80s and '90s TV commercials, MTV videos, interstitials and veejay segments long before it came to dominate mainstream theatrical films).

In what some of us see as machine-tooled bling, IV sees visionary, abstract poetry:

Scott's image-idealism is what drove him toward abstraction. He was a restless filmmaker -- an avant-garde action director -- who could have easily settled into any number of chic styles (he was capable enough in all of them), but instead kept pushing aesthetic boundaries. That is: he believed enough in the power of images to no longer follow the rules by which they were supposed to be made -- to truly paint instead of merely photographing, to collage and compose instead of editing and constructing. In the most conventional, codified medium imaginable, the big-budget Hollywood genre movie, he made reckless, kinetic, colorful, wrong-way art -- all without ever stepping outside of the medium's basic narrative codes and conventions. His works is an object lesson in how, even within the most restrictive limits, it's possible to be limitless.

I can appreciate this view, even if I don't find the argument ultimately convincing -- because rather than letting the film express itself through style, it feels more like thick globs of technique are being laboriously applied to it at random. If that sounds too fanciful, consider this: In his essential 1980 Film Comment piece, "Style vs. 'style'" (three years before Tony Scott made his first film, "The Hunger") Richard T. Jameson wrote about the difference between style (the essence of movies) and ersatz "style" (mannerisms, decorative effects):

"Energy" has become the new cliché of film criticism, which is a damn shame since the cinema is a medium of energy... "Energy" as a cop-out for mindless noise and jitter is reprehensible. But energy, sans quotes, can be lucid, multivalenced, aesthetically informed, and beautiful in ways unique to cinema.

RTJ invokes moments from Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" to illustrate:

Form finally compels its own content. Music becomes light, gesture, mathematical formula, the patterns described in space by a celestial craft in motion. The metamorphosis of reality, the rediscovery of possibility, the translation of an idea into visual action: what movies do: why movies exist. [...]

This is energy as style, style as energy. It's radiant because it's been defined by a cinematic sensibility: What Spielberg's seeing and the way he sees it are one. Unfortunately, some filmmakers approach their medium not as a way of seeing, but as a way of showing. They seek to travel on found energy rather than generate their own. [...]

As the old saying has it: Style is not the fusion of form and content; it is the content. Along these lines, I wrote here in 2007:

If film is first and foremost a way of seeing (and I believe that to be the case, even if not everyone sees seeing the way I do), then what we see in a shot, or a series of shots, is as important as... as anything. The movie is what the film does, as the mind is what the brain does.

(If you don't like the word "shot" because it smacks too much of old-fashioned, outmoded pre-digital montage -- photographing, editing, constructing -- you can substitute "image.")


Compared to Scott, Nolan's non-linear approach is relatively straightforward and expository, though he's also fond of fragmenting time, narrative and action. DB writes:

"Insomnia" has over 3400 shots in its 111 minutes, making the average shot just under two seconds long. Rapid editing like this can suit bursts of mental imagery, but it's hard to sustain in meat-and-potatoes dialogue scenes. Yet Nolan tries.

In lectures I've used the scene in which Dormer [Al Pacino] and Hap [Martin Donovan] arrive at the Alaskan police station as an example of the over-busy tempo that can come along with a style based in "intensified continuity." In a seventy-second scene, there are 39 shots, so the average is about 1.8 seconds -- a pace typical of the film and of the intensified approach generally. [The ASL of Scott's "Domino" is 1.72.] [...]

The scene's development and the actors' line readings are emphasized by the cutting; the lighting and framing remain almost unvarying (though there's also an occasional slight push-in during an establishing framing). These aren't innovative choices, having become conventional, gradually but firmly, since the 1970s.

Scott told Kim Morgan that his influential (now mainstream-accepted) editing approach was initially inspired by the splintered style of Nicholas Roeg's 1970s films:

I'm pleased that I do influence things. I see it on television mostly, things like "C.S.I." It makes me happy when it's done well. When I did "The Hunger" (1983), I called up Nick [Roeg] and said, "I think I just ripped you off -- I ripped off 'Performance,'" and he said, "Well dear boy, as long as you did a good job, I don't give a fuck!"

The noticeable difference is that Roeg's "Performance" (1970), "Walkabout" (1971), "Don't Look Now" (1974), "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1976)" and "Bad Timing" (1980) use impressionistic editing to tinker with the elastic properties of time, memory, consciousness -- to reflect the characters' unsettled states of mind -- and that's only occasionally true of Scott and Nolan's movies.

As DB writes of "Insomnia":

Somebody is sure to reply that the nervous editing is aiming to express Dormer's anxiety about the investigation into his career. But that would be too broad an explanation. On the same grounds, every awkwardly-edited film could be said to be expressing dramatic tensions within or among the characters. Moreover, even when Dormer's not present, the same choppy cutting is on display.

I've encountered similar arguments to explain Nolan's shambolic way with action ("It's supposed to be messed up and confusing -- that's what it's like for the characters"), although the sequences themselves don't play that way, and that isn't what Nolan himself claims he's trying to do. He's wants to keep it real, gets plenty of multi-camera coverage, but counts on scale (IMAX) to deliver thrills other filmmakers achieve through other means.


In "Unstoppable" (2010), Tony Scott's final feature and probably the one I've enjoyed the most, the momentum is built into the premise (a runaway train), so it doesn't have to be manufactured. Yet it still displays irritating mannerisms, including an abundance of zoom-lens push-ins and -outs, which are used indiscriminately -- not just to underscore tension at peak moments but even during ordinary conversation at the beginning when Chris Pine first meets Denzel Washington at the train yard. I find this to be an irritating tic (like highlighting, underlining and over-punctuating each sentence with exclamation points!!!), but I can't deny that the runaway train gimmick is as much kinetic fun as the hurtling bus-bomb in "Speed."

Ignatiy argues that Scott's films are regarded as popular without being personal, creating a conundrum for film critics who don't know how to categorize him:

If I had to guess a reason for why Scott's later films -- several of which happen to be masterpieces -- aren't generally well-regarded by my colleagues, I'd say that it's because they (like most worthwhile films) don't fit into the commonly-accepted frameworks of filmmaking or film criticism. Cinema is supposed to be a medium of images -- and yet the later Scott's images are often impressionistic to the point of abstraction, "unreadable," arranged in ways that don't create any sense of a space or a chronology. The big, obvious gestures -- causality-based montage, emphasized mise-en-scène, long unbroken camera movements -- that are at the center of the most basic theories of classical filmmaking and criticism aren't central to his best films.

This makes Scott a harder sell than many contemporaries who share his penchant for impressionism and abstraction, like Claire Denis or Michael Mann; their styles -- half film history, half film future -- have a firm enough grounding in either Hollywood or "art film" tradition for their most abstract moments to register as clear directorial gestures. Scott's late-period style, however, has more in common with far-out figures like Philippe Grandrieux -- yet Scott's movies are identifiably "popular" and not personal, which leads to a sort of cognitive dissonance. They're Hollywood movies, but they don't work the way Hollywood movies -- or any movies -- are expected to work; therefore, they're assumed to be broken.

The thing is, they're obviously not "broken" because they do work like Hollywood movies -- at least the many for which they have served as models. Dislocation and abstraction are hardly new to movies (Buñuel, Godard, Brakhage, Roeg, and so on). But what is Scott doing with them? Bilge Ebiri has a slightly different take:

His long lenses flattened and almost abstracted the characters, and his use of slow-motion and heroic silhouettes caught small, fleeting moments and stretched them until they felt monumental. Indeed, Tony Scott movies often hovered on the edge of abstraction. In later years, his editing became downright experimental in films like "Domino," "Déjà vu," and "The Taking of Pelham 123." It didn't always work, but you got the sense - and here's where he proved himself the very opposite of a hack, something he was often accused of being -- that Tony Scott was constantly trying something new.

Or, if not exactly new, at least recognizably Tony Scott-ish. I think Bilge is onto something here: there are no small gestures in Tony Scott movies; only magnified, amplified ones -- blatantly identifiable as directorial mannerisms, as surely as if the director himself were stepping around to stick his face in front of the lens. Perhaps his cinematic action paintings are in some sense innovative and forward-looking (they've certainly been enthusiastically accepted by the industry and the audience). But to what end? I watched or re-watched most of Scott's films while working on this post, and I found some of them enjoyable, at least in part (particularly "Spy Game," "Man on Fire" and "Unstoppable"), despite their garish flare-ups of "style." (How I wanted to shoot down that helicopter-cam endlessly circling Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in conversation on the Berlin rooftop in "Spy Game.") Whether what they were doing was "new," I'm not so sure, but I give Scott credit for making his movies work harder than just about anybody else's.


But I couldn't get through "Domino" (Scott's most outré exercise) -- as dull, lifeless and riddled with visual clichés as any film I've ever seen. It reminded me of a LeRoy Neiman painted in shades of anti-freeze. Some have praised the moment when Domino (also the narrator) imagines a shootout and then rewinds the video backwards (cartridges pop back into a gun) because, well, that's not really what happened after all. Yet there's no playfulness or wit to the way it's presented; it's just another way to cram more stuff into the scene.

But, OK, we can disagree about the use of style in both Scott and Nolan's work. What else is going on? David Bordwell said in a recent e-mail:

I wonder if we could make a case that some filmmakers, especially in certain periods, don't focus primarily at the level of image/ sound relations but expend their creative energies on the overall structure and the narrative patterning. I suspect that these are the terms under which we'll have to defend most of contemporary Hollywood. The one-thing-to-look-at-at-a-time approach is endemic to what I called "intensified continuity," and that's the dominant approach to stylistic texture today. We can be pleasantly surprised to get a pictorially adventurous filmmaker, but most directors will be prosaic at that level (or use CGI to show us what producers call images they haven't seen before). The real action may be in ingenious plotting or fresh approaches to point of view, genre conventions, and the like.

In this regard, one part of "Nolan vs. Nolan" really got me thinking. DB writes:

Can you be a good writer without writing particularly well? I think so. James Fenimore Cooper, Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and other significant novelists had many virtues, but elegant prose was not among them. In popular fiction we treasure flawless wordsmiths like P. G. Wodehouse and Rex Stout and Patricia Highsmith, but we tolerate bland or clumsy style if a gripping plot and vivid characters keep us turning the pages. From Burroughs and Doyle to Stieg Larsson and Michael Crichton, we forgive a lot.

Similarly, Nolan's work deserves attention even though some of it lacks elegance and cohesion at the shot-to-shot level. The stylistic faults I pointed to above and that echo other writers' critiques are offset by his innovative approach to overarching form. And sometimes he does exercise a stylistic control that suits his broader ambitions. When he mobilizes visual technique to sharpen and nuance his architectural ambitions, we find a solid integration of texture and structure, fine grain and large pattern.

I guess it depends on how you choose to look at what's taking place in the movies. Ignatiy sees a formal strategy behind Scott's style in "Spy Games," which uses flashbacks, parallel action and other means to develop the relationship between the characters played by Robert Redford and Brad Pitt:

The images cut them apart and then the editing glues them back together until it becomes clear that their camaraderie isn't just a question of professionalism, but is in fact an emotional bond existing on some kind of more subtle level. Sure, this is the usual male weepie hokum -- but it's in movies more than anywhere else that hokum finds its greatest opportunity to be profound. Scott's quadruple-speed editing means this idea is unable to be carried as a clearly-discernible metaphor; it simply becomes the accepted reality of the style. It's a bond that's already extant at the start of the film, and which a viewer becomes privy to through rhythms; after a while, it's simply assumed that any shot of Redford will soon be followed by a shot of Pitt, regardless of where or when the two them are. It's a hoary old idea--comrades with intertwined fates, unable to leave one another behind--expressed with such conviction that it becomes powerful. Space and time bow to Pitt and Redford's friendship (which, of course, again brings to mind Borzage's love stories).

Scott's late period is rich with this sort of form-theme-plot unity. His hyperactive, impressionistic style made no attempt to accurately represent physical reality--and the movies, in turn, are about people who establish relationships that transcend physical presence while dealing with some concrete, physical threat which the relationship ultimately allows them to overcome. They are movies about the denial of physical reality made in a style that denies physical reality--and, occasionally, common sense--at every opportunity.

DB writes of Nolan's fondness for embedded narratives (the Russian-doll "dream" architecture of "Inception," for example) and parallel action sequences,³ concluding:

Trying to specify Nolan's innovations, I'm aware that one response might be this: Those innovations are too cautious. He not only motivates his formal experiments, he over-motivates them. Poor Leonard [in "Memento"], telling everyone he meets about his memory deficit, is also telling us again and again, while the continuous exposition of "Inception" would seem to apologize too much. Films like Resnais' "La Guerre est finie" and Ruiz's "Mysteries of Lisbon" play with subjectivity, crosscutting, and embedded stories, but they don't need to spell out and keep providing alibis for their formal strategies. In these films, it takes a while for us to figure out the shape of the game we're playing. [...]

... Nolan's work isn't perfect, but it joins a tradition, not finished yet, of showing that the bounds of popular art are remarkably flexible, and imaginative creators can find new ways to stretch them.

Whether you find those stretches to be promising or worthwhile is, of course, another matter entirely. But I like to try thinking about films and filmmakers in unaccustomed ways, even if it doesn't ultimately change my evaluation of the work itself. That's what movies are about: trying to see things through new eyes.


_ _ _ _ _

¹ Nolan, DGA interview (2012): "The problem for me is if you don't first shoot something with the camera on which to base the shot, the visual effect is going to stick out if the film you're making has a realistic style or patina. I prefer films that feel more like real life, so any CGI has to be very carefully handled to fit into that."

Scott, press conference for "The Taking of Pelham 123" (2009): "But in the real world, I get to educate and entertain myself by going and touching the real world and touching real people. And that's my way into movies. So, I love that and I bring that..."

Scott, Empire online interview for "Unstoppable" (2010): "I don't not use CGI because I'm an old fart, I do it because creatively things look better when the action's real."

² All writers have the same words available to them, but the language of Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Henry James and Joseph Heller is what I love most about them. My greatest delight comes from savoring the flavors and contours of their sentences.

³ Nolan, DGA interview:

Well, generally with the projects I'm working on, the script is based on some form of parallel action or shifting points of view, even when the story is linear. If you look at the last couple of reels on the Batman films, for example, they're all crosscut parallel action. What that means is, even though you shoot very specifically and efficiently, you have unlimited choices in the editing suite because you don't have to shoot complete continuity for a particular action scene. You can jump timelines or locations, so you have an enormous number of variables anyway.

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