After muttering, “Wow. That sucks,” upon hearing the news of Tony Scott’s suicide, my first thought was, “When was the last time I watched one of his movies?” I believe have an exact date: October 14, 2005. That would be the day Domino entered wide release. In my review, I had this to say:
I can’t walk out of a Tony Scott film without feeling absolutely exhausted. His latest film, “Domino” is the “sort of” true story of Domino Harvey, daughter of actor Laurence Harvey, who walked away from the glam high-life of Beverly Hills to plunge instead into the risky business of bounty hunting. Domino’s neo-grunge lifestyle is saturated with all the grimy pastels that Scott can manage to pour into every frame; every frame is spliced with about a dozen others from different angles, effecting the woozy brain-pain of an all-night binge.
Back in those days, I was required to give star ratings, and Domino got two and a half of four. Not good; not bad. Passable.
When Craig Simpson reviewed Unstoppable, this was my comment:
Ha! I think this single sentence has articulated everything I’ve found infuriating about Tony Scott for the last decade. He used to be someone you could easily dismiss; now there are folks composing elaborate encomiums about how he’s eclipsed his brother, with a film like Domino being Exhibit A of his unpretentious mastery. I wouldn’t hate Tony Scott if it weren’t for the fact that it is now necessary to dismiss him more vehemently, thanks to his platoon of come-lately defenders.
Craig’s follow-up response made me laugh:
Like you, I don’t hate Scott that much. I barely think of him at all, until one of his movies comes out. “Unstoppable” looked like a tough thing to screw up, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Needless to say, when it comes to combining narrative momentum with a sense of visual space, Big Tony is not the young Spielberg. He’s not even the young Jan de Bont.
The film for which Tony Scott may be remembered is probably Top Gun. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it much, aside from saying things like, “It’s okay; not great.” Which is the truth. Even when I was young, it felt a bit sluggish, and when people quote the film or reference “classic” scenes, they often need to recreate them for me them frame by frame, because — apart from the awesome soundtrack — I simply did not find the film to be all that memorable.
Other of his films I have enjoyed quite a bit more. Beverly Hills Cop II is fun; the same is even more true of The Last Boy Scout. Crimson Tide, along with The Hunt for Red October and Das Boot, is one of the definitive submarine thrillers. Being a Tarantino fan, I have a soft spot for True Romance. Perhaps the most genuinely underrated film in Scott’s oeuvre (I quantify this by the fact that I haven’t seen it mentioned in any of the obits I’ve yet read) is Spy Game, in which two of Hollywood’s golden idols — Robert Redford and Brad Pitt — do their charismatic thing. I’ve seen that delightful film several times, even though its visual style is of a piece with all the things I came to disdain about his recent work.
I’m not a fan of Enemy of the State or The Fan. The short, Beat the Devil, about which Manohla Dargis waxes in her tribute to Scott, was simply terrible. (Although the BMW “Hire” series, which Scott produced, was pretty awesome.) Man on Fire was also pretty terrible, but more to the point, it was exhausting. The experience of that film, coupled with Domino, ensured my apathy toward his remaining projects. Not that I expect to hate them, or that they wouldn’t be competent. If anything, Scott seemed hellbent on bringing “flair” (or “panache,” if you will, emphasis on the quote-marks) to everything he did. Most of his movies were genre exercises, and until the aughts, he was not his own producer, nor was he usually his own writer (excepting early short films). I’ll readily concede to auteurists that he had his own style, and he certainly tended to choose projects that dealt with themes of masculine codes of honor and fraternity. I’m sure a pretty decent book could be written about the man’s body of work. Yet, at the end of the day, he was a hack.
This isn’t a knock against him. Hacks don’t get nearly enough credit when things go right, unless they’re dubbed “auteurs.” But virtually any project Scott did could have been done — probably just as well — by anybody else with his level of technical chops. Scott doesn’t have to be enshrined as a major or underrated artist for some of his films to have been good, and not every mediocre or bad film he did was entirely his fault. The system was good to him, and he gave the system quite a few hits. He cashed his checks and, more often than not, delivered the goods. Fine and dandy. What makes the difference is that Scott attained a recognizable brand name, and I think that led a lot of people to confuse the personality he lent to his films with the idea of them being personal films. So when I say that Tony Scott was a hack, I genuinely don’t mean it as a personal insult.
What brings all this to mind is an interview I heard on NPR, in which Audi Cornish confessed to Thom Grier, an EW editor who came on to talk about Scott’s influence, that he wasn’t the first interview choice:
Now, Thom, to be honest, we called several critics who will remain nameless here who didn’t want to talk about Tony Scott. While they respected his work, they didn’t necessarily like it. And I wanted you to help us understand why he’s such a divisive figure, considering how much money he made for Hollywood.
I’m not as interested in the debate about how “divisive” Scott was as I am in the fact that several critics were called upon to do what they ostensibly do best — talk about films and filmmakers — and they refused. They did not want to go on record about how much they didn’t like Scott’s work. This is puzzling. My hunch is that these critics didn’t want to be seen as spitting on the grave of a man who died in such a tragic fashion. As much as Scott’s family and friends may be hurting right now, what difference does it make that a critic pans his work after he’s dead, whereas they were perfectly comfortable doing it while he was alive? To me, this reeks of dishonesty.
It’s true that Scott was not a critical darling during his lifetime. The idea that his suicide should (or could) change all that is ridiculous. The fact that he’s dead now does retroactively erase the criticism that was leveled at him while he lived, and if critics will change their opinion of his work on the basis of the way he died, but not upon a re-evaluation of the work itself, that means that the critics are disrespecting the work. Offering a dishonest opinion is offensive to the subject and to the intelligence of those receiving it.
If it weren’t for that NPR interview, I probably would not have blogged about Scott’s death. He doesn’t interest me all that much. I felt compelled to open with an excerpt from my unkind Domino review, though, because it struck me that the multiple critics’ refusal to talk openly about Scott’s legacy was emblematic of the kind of dishonesty that corrupts public critical discourse. Fearing a backlash for saying the wrong thing (or saying the correct thing at the wrong time), it seems that a lot of critics are as much in the business of image management as they in the business of articulating critical thought.
None of this is to say that a person’s biography and the cultural context of his work (such as his suicide and the public reaction to it) can’t or shouldn’t play a role in critical discussion. But we can’t have critics be afraid to take part in that discussion. I’ll own the fact that I’m not a particular fan of Tony Scott’s work and that I’ve actively tried to designate him as aggressively mediocre. I sincerely doubt that his death at the age of 68 has impoverished world cinema by its loss. Family and friends of Scott’s will no doubt share countless stories of what a warm, inventive, loving, dedicated, wonderful person he was, and I am sure that these things are all true. I certainly pray that they can find comfort and healing as soon as possible. As a husband, father, and colleague, he was probably a great and generous man.
As a director of Hollywood cinema, he was a hack. We shouldn’t be afraid to be honest about it. If Scott is to be remembered at all, he should be remembered for what he did, not how the circumstances of his death reframe him.☕