The movie as a surface

Posted by · 7:57 am · June 17th, 2009

Tony ScottJust the other day I mentioned the new-ish “Facebook for cinephiles” website The Auteurs and how it’s a breath of fresh for those of us who’d like to have certain classic films at the click of a button.  But in addition to the social networking component, there is also an editorial side to the site.

The Auteur’s Notebook features frequent contributions from former Premiere film critics Glenn Kenny (which is what brought me there in the first place some months back), but the blog also features other regular authors. One such is Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, who, as part of his weekly “What is the 20th Century?” series of columns, has shrewdly conveyed his sentiments regarding cinema and its constructs in the modern age.

Vishnevetsky’s most recent item concerns the leader of a film set, the director, and what that role has come to mean for a number of today’s working filmmakers.  It’s a fascinating dissection of a wide variety of helmers, from Abderrahmane Sissako to M. Night Shyamalan to Michael Bay. But what really caught my eye was Vishnevetsky’s classification of the prolific Tony Scott.

Here’s the key graph:

The thing about Scott is that he isn’t working towards an image; he’s discovered something beyond it: the screen. It’s offensive to many of us, because it violates the traditional distinction between the “cinematic” and the “televisual:” cinema is a frame while television is a screen. A movie projects us images to see in some sort of order, while a TV is a surface, images rising and crashing like waves. And, like waves, they are all part of an ocean, the same water returning again and again, as amorphous as the movie image is supposed to be rigid. Scott is uninterested in the distinctions created by edits, uninterested in the images individually: he is only interested in the movie as a surface, bubbling, boiling, sometimes dead calm, sometimes a hurricane. We’ve come to think of the image as a single unit that can be contextualized and subdivided; Scott thinks of the film itself as the unit to which elements are added or subtracted the way a cameraman might adjust a framing or a technician might adjust a light. Scott began as a cinematographer; he’s remained one, except now he applies a cinematographer’s logic to a movie instead of a shot.

Even though I have a weird soft spot for “Spy Game,” part of Scott’s post-“Enemy of the State” obsession with frenetic filmmaking, and certainly enjoyed classic actioners like “Top Gun,” “Days of Thunder” and “Crimson Tide,” I have to say, I agree wholeheartedly with Vishnevetsky’s assessment.

Furthermore, it’s fascinating to me that the excerpt above could be equally read as a backhanded slap of criticism or an even-handed analysis of a filmmaker with a process as viable as the next guy’s.

Read the rest over at The Auteurs’ Notebook.

→ 4 Comments Tags: | Filed in: Daily

4 responses so far

  • 1 6-17-2009 at 8:12 am

    actionman said...

    Tony Scott is the very definition of an auteur. Don’t be ashamed in admitting that you have a “soft-spot” for Spy Game — it’s a terrific movie!

    Did you see Pelham? Gorgeous movie. A tough, manly blast of cinematic machismo. Nobody does action like Tony.

  • 2 6-17-2009 at 9:40 am

    Davidraider88 said...

    Tony Scott is perhaps my least favorite director, especially in the last ten years or so. I hate his frenetic camerawork.

  • 3 6-17-2009 at 1:17 pm

    P-Dawg said...

    Ditto on the frenetic style because it really serves no point and, if anything, distract the viewer from the story. I can never completely bash Tony Scott, though, as I’m a huge fan of “True Romance”, “Crimson Tide” and yes, even “Beverly Hills Cop 2”. I wish he’d return to the basics. He makes better movies when he does.

  • 4 6-17-2009 at 9:03 pm

    Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


    Thanks for linking.

    I intended to write on Scott mostly because he was too distinctive to avoid (the same goes for Michael Bay). It was after watching Deja Vu in preparation for writing the piece that I came to appreciate his work, so, for those “turned off” by his style, I’d say that it’s something you should check out. It also suggests a certain romanticism in Scott that I’ve since tried to find again: I think in his other films, it exists only in the colors, but in Deja Vu it comes to the forefront.