I was talking to a woman I know about my Tony Scott Disorder Theory. That in his last two films, Man on Fire and the sadly neglected (though profoundly insane) Domino, Tony Scott has done what his brother Ridley Scott had done with Blade Runner: given us the most hallucinatory accurate visual embodiment of the disordered madness of early 21st-century life. The cinematic equivalent of “the pyrotechnic insanitarium” we inhabit (from the title of the critic Mark Dery’s book—more on this phrase later).
I was going on about the way certain films and certain filmmakers (and their cinematographers) had indelibly changed the way we see the world and ourselves, just through the cumulative effect of the never-before-seen look of their work.
For me, Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Peter Brook’s King Lear, Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Oliver Stone’s JFK (not for the idiot conspiracy theory, but for the faster-than-the-speed-of-thought fluid film-stock-shifting look), Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and, most recently, David Gordon Green’s George Washington and All the Real Girls. (If you haven’t seen the last two, especially the former, you’ve missed something inexplicably powerful and almost mystically beautiful.)
1) The Redness of Red
Anyway, she interrupted me to say something typically smart and allusive about “the redness of reds.” She was recalling something she’d read years ago in a Jane Kramer “Letter from Europe” in The New Yorker, a reference to a Berlin director, Hartmut Bitomsky. He’d made a film called Die Röte des Rots von Technicolor (The Redness of Reds in Technicolor) in 1972. He was lamenting the loss of the look, the vision of the world beheld by those who saw the original Technicolor films with their, well, Technicolor reds, a redness that has now seeped out of the aging prints and become a kind of cheap-rosé toxic cloud that diminished what was once the shamelessly carnal scarlet lipstick of its original industrial-strength palette.
By the way, “the redness of red” is a common buzz-phrase in the philosophy of mind, when the perennial unanswerable question is asked and analyzed: How do you know that what you see as red, your “redness of red,” is the same as my redness of red? Couldn’t my redness of red look like your blueness of blue? How can we know? This is an aspect of what’s called “the problem of the qualia.” But you knew that.)
Anyway, with the appearance and disappearance of Technicolor red, its evaporation into a metaphor for a memory, a whole way of looking at the world was invented and lost. What struck me was the power, the impact that the memory of that phrase, the redness of red, had on the filmmaker and on my friend. And the way the power can disappear, the vision can be lost.
I mean, I still love Blade Runner, but it will never have the vision-changing impact it had when I first saw it. Then, it was a sudden glimpse of the implicit future; now that it’s been incorporated into everyone’s vision, it seems more a nostalgic, almost antiquated futurism.
Sometimes we’re not even aware of the way films change the way we see things—or, as in the case of Tony Scott’s Domino, which practically nobody saw (but which I want everybody to see), the way a film captures, purely with its look, the way we look. Holds a mirror up to our distorted nature. (You can still catch it on Time Warner’s “on demand” movie channel as of this writing.)
It stars Keira Knightley as Domino Harvey, the real-life—now dead—daughter of original Manchurian Candidate actor Laurence Harvey, a wild child who went from being a runway fashion model to a white-trash bounty hunter, before—this is not in the film; it happened a few months before the widely ignored October 2005 opening—reportedly dying of an overdose in her bathtub while facing up to 10 years in prison for a federal meth-trafficking rap. (In her own way, she was keepin’ it real, no? Her death gave the film a grave retroactive credibility). Just your ordinary English girl in America.
I think most critics didn’t know what to make of Domino. (I still don’t really know myself.) There was just too much damaged information in it. Too much sleaze, from the low-rent (a Ron Jeremy type denouncing our “all porno, all the time” culture) to higher-grade classy sleaze (Christopher Walken!) to medium-grade smarmy sleaze (Mickey Rourke!) and back to low-rent “reality” sleaze (Jerry Springer!).
And I think Tony Scott has suffered somewhat from being the brother of Blade Runner’s Ridley. And, of course, for having directed the risible Top Gun. And so what Scott has been doing in his last two films—Man on Fire starred Denzel Washington in what I thought was a beautiful, melancholy take on a hired bodyguard in Mexico City, who loses, avenges and then regains the child he’s supposed to protect—just hasn’t gotten the respect it deserves.
2) The Greenness of Green
What is he doing? Well, I wouldn’t claim that he’s the only one who does it, or that every technique is his invention, or that it doesn’t partake of techniques pioneered in avant-garde TV commercials or Brazilian cinema (or that he didn’t cop a plot device from Point Break in Domino). But I would say he’s taken it to another level. Synthesized its incoherencies, taken them to the max.
He’s made films that—more than just about any mainstream films I’ve seen recently—have embedded violence and violation together in its very molecular matrix. His films seem not to be made from film stock, celluloid—rather, a creepily cellular green slime-mold emulsion, electro-slime, poison neon green. The green of Love Canal.
The colors themselves are a violation, almost an emotion. The motion itself is an act of violence 24 frames a second. All the images are as if from an illuminated manuscript of Satanic verses.
What you notice is the greenness of the green, the poison green making a mockery of the secular worship of Greenness. Then there’s what he does with movement. Nothing moves at the right speed. Images are violently sped up, violently slowed down and chopped up. Motion is violently violated, almost a metaphor for emotion violently violated. Early on in the film, Keira Knightley’s Domino says that she loves bounty hunting because “I can live the nasty and not do time for it.” Domino the film does the nasty to the time in it. Nothing proceeds at the same pace, everything is out of synch, everyone is out of their minds, and it seems to have something to do with life as we live it now—with, as Hamlet put it, the time being “out of joint.” Disjointed, disorienting.
In the introduction to his acutely observant if somewhat deranging The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium, Mark Dery explains that he got his title phrase from another writer, Judith A. Adams, who was describing the early twentieth-century nightscape of Coney Island, with its madly beautiful illuminated Dreamland, and the fire that consumed Dreamland, a blaze that broke out “in Hell Gate, a boat ride into the bottomless pit.”
“Pyrotechnic insanitarium”: It’s a phrase that Mr. Dery argues “perfectly captures [a] signature blend of infernal fun and mass madness, technology and pathology,” one that mirrors our contemporary condition better than any other two-word phrase I know. In the last two films of Tony Scott, Man on Fire and Domino, to use Mr. Dery’s phrase, “Dreamland is burning again.”
Some might say that in praising Tony Scott’s disjointed, disordered recent films, I’m violating the so-called Fallacy of Imitative Form, as they called it at Yale: the “fallacy” being that art shouldn’t excuse its own disorder by blaming it on the disorder of Existence.
But I think this disorder—Scott’s Disorder, let’s call it—is intentional, carefully calculated, indeed, artful. And since he uses two different gifted cinematographers on each film—Paul Cameron and Daniel Mindel—it is his responsibility. Of course, now I’m violating one of the other fallacies they warned us about in New Haven: the Intentional Fallacy, the search for the author’s intentions as the privileged reading of a work of art. Oh well, it’s all about violation, isn’t it?
When I say I prefer the commercial failure Domino to the modestly successful Man on Fire, which uses almost all the same techniques and used them earlier, it’s because Man on Fire risks being seen as a Hispanicized version of Orientalism. Risks suggesting it’s not modern life but Mexico City life that is sickeningly violent. Rather, I believe that for Man on Fire, Mexico City is a metaphor for a world on fire, for the violent insanity beneath the surface of our ostensibly more placid part of the hemisphere. In Domino, American life itself is more deeply disturbing than anything in Mexico City.
Not that Domino neglects the racial subtext of everything American. There is that weird—what degree of reality is this?—realistic “episode” of the Jerry Springer show in which one of the characters goes on with a “flow chart” to show her different ways of naming the racial fissures, fractures and fusions that have destabilized the notion of what’s “American” in the first place. She wants to bestow official recognition on categories such as “Blacktino,” “Chinegro,” “Japanic” to reflect the fracturing of unofficial identities. As if a “flow chart” can capture the flow.
And did I mention that there’s an important, underplayed Afghan plot buried in the mix? And then—and this gives Tony Scott a lot of credibility with me—he casts Tom Waits as some possibly deranged, possibly enlightened desert-dwelling prophet, “The Wanderer.”
Domino may not have been a commercial success, but it will be a cultural referent longer than many movies that make more money. It’s our flyblown, electro-slime “Wasteland.” Our Dreamland Burning.