Friday, June 7, 2013

The riddle of Scott

Ridley Scott was once one of my favorite directors and he's still a pretty respected name in the industry, but largely for films I consider to be nowhere near his peak. Like John Carpenter, Scott is one of those directors whom I feel lost his way somewhere along the course of his career. If one defines success as making a ton of money, he still does that and does it better than ever before. If one defines success as making memorable films, one of his most lauded, Gladiator, appeared well past the point where I had abandoned his efforts as far less than his earlier achievements. In fact, Gladiator won him the only Academy Awards that he currently holds (of course, James Cameron swept the Oscars for the execrable Titanic...) What disturbs me about most of Scott's material, post-Thelma and Louise, is his placement of spectacle over story. When explosions and hundreds of extras are a replacement for solid writing and intriguing plot, you have what Scott has largely become and what Hollywood tends to be in love with: Big Summer Blockbusters!!!... that, of course, reside in one's memory for only about a week until the next Big Summer Blockbuster!!!

His early films, on the other hand, hold a place in the audience's memory because of the enormous attention to detail that was taken and the often gripping performances by the cast whom were given miles of story and nuance to work with. The Duellists is a fine example and Scott's first major film. The plot itself seems simplistic: Gabriel Feraud (Harvey Keitel), a dedicated duellist in Napoleon's army takes offense to Armand d'Hubert's (Keith Carradine) attempt to arrest him for his activity and, of course, challenges him to exactly that proscribed activity: a duel. When they're unable to complete the first encounter, Feraud makes it his life's mission to salvage his honor by finishing a duel with d'Hubert. The essential crux of the story is that Feraud and d'Hubert's personal contest is framed against the ongoing political situation in France. In fact, their series of duels is shaped by the success and final disastrous failure of the Napoleonic regime, including being on opposite sides of the Loyalist/Bonapartist divide upon the general's return from Elba. It's a story about personal ambition as one small part of a nationalist ambition; a drilled down focus, as it were, on the life and culture of the times in the officer corps.

Indeed, the film is most often hailed for its remarkable attention to detail in costumes, hairstyles, and fencing styles. It's that detail, that sensation, that atmosphere that tends to define Scott's early works when it was clear that he was determined to give the whole broad picture, even as he was focusing on the small interactions between characters. Focus in the pacing sense is also mirrored by the cinematography, as he demonstrates what would become a Scott trademark, in showing regular action from a distance and a tendency toward broad establishment shots that help set the mood of the scene. For a film based around the idea of personal combat, the action is genuinely secondary to what is motivating the characters; most notably d'Hubert, who wants nothing to do with the entire concept and yet is inevitably drawn into it by a variety of circumstances. On the one hand, I do think it deserved the Best Debut prize at Cannes. OTOH, it does carry that veneer of angst that colored many films of the mid- to late-70s.

His next notable work, however, was an example of a filmmaker and a studio defiantly stepping away from the order of the day and producing a film that stands out as one of the finer examples of science fiction filmmaking in the modern era. This was 1979, 2 years after the emergence of Star Wars. The proliferation of laser blasters and outer space explosions had spread to every corner of the film world, including James Bond. But not here. In Alien, Scott not only presented a less hyperkinetic situation, but he did so with characters that were industrial workers in an industrial world. No one was weighed down by prophecy or besotted by privilege. These were normal people doing a normal job who just happened to run across extraordinary circumstances. Furthermore, the story didn't start and stop with the unusual situation. Their interactions were about payment shares, command issues, ship security, the food, and everything one might normally discuss in an ore trawler heading back to Earth. And, again, the attention to detail is part of what makes the story work. They acknowledge the actual science of space travel by the very tagline of the film ("In space, no one can hear you scream.") Much time is taken showing the descent to the moon to answer the distress call and the difficult conditions on that moon. Again, the broad establishment shot of the descent gives the viewer time to appreciate the magnitude of the undertaking and how it's being engaged as much as the broad shot of the interior of the alien craft allows the impact of the moment and the age of the ship itself to become noticeable to the audience. In both cases, Jerry Goldsmith's score is brilliant, as well.

Notice how Scott doesn't end the action while he pulls back. There is no orchestral crash and a camera freeze. He just lets the continuing motion of the crew crawling into the chamber and the echoes and the brief, static-shrouded comments on the radio set the tone. In other words, he lets the scene play. It's wonderfully moody stuff which is exactly what the moment calls for and which would probably be hammed into irrelevance by many other directors, desperate for a "Wow!" moment. Scott, at the time, let the story tell the tale. Just as important, he let the undercurrents of the plot (the fact that Weyland-Yutani was willing to sacrifice them all and Ash (Ian Holm) was their tool to ensure it) appear without added emphasis. The audience was allowed to absorb the lines on Mother's screen and the actors' reactions without encouragement. Likewise, even in the charged moments where characters like Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) are frantic or yelling, he doesn't let that energy overwhelm the pacing. It's a restraint that is emblematic of his direction in those earlier years and which, sadly, was later lost.

What followed was a film that Scott has declared his "most complete and personal" and is one that I think is the finest science fiction film ever made and one of the best, regardless of genre... with a caveat.

Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? broke ground in many ways. Once again, it strayed from the prevailing SF model of the time, with the armadas and the armor and the lasers. Instead, it went back to a Dashiell Hammett-model of noir and used a plot of unusual thematic complexity, not only for SF of the time, but for Hollywood in general. It also, as originally cut, spent a lot of time allowing the audience to simply absorb the visuals presented to them. As film is a visual medium, one would think this would be natural, but it's rarely the case in major cinema that what is presented on screen can go unaccompanied by someone yakking about this or that element of the plot and/or the characters' reactions to what is happening right in front of them. Have an exciting car chase? Don't forget to interrupt it every 15 seconds to show the hero yelling "Oh my God!" when something else blows up. There was none of that here. We're shown vistas of Los Angeles, the towers of the elite, and the alleyways of the downtrodden, including where those who form the foundation of the elite's wealth also live. Statements are made about the future and about now, all by only what appears on the screen (along with, of course, Vangelis' brilliant score.) And here comes the caveat...

Because the version I'm speaking of is the so-called "Director's cut" as originally presented in the early 90s. Scott originally shot the film without Deckard's (Harrison Ford) voiceover, with Deckard's dreams about the unicorn, and without the tacked on Hollywood ending where he and Rachael (Sean Young) drive off into the test audience-pleasing sunset. Instead, the original cut ends with Deckard picking up the origami unicorn in the elevator and remembering Gaff (Edward James Olmos) shouting "It's too bad she won't live! But, then again, who does?!" Just that moment leaves open the essential questions that the film asks (and which Scott lets it ask) about creation, humanity, life, and perspective. Warner Bros., in its inimitable wisdom, distorted the theatrical release because it was afraid that audiences wouldn't understand those questions, but that's precisely the point: people aren't supposed to understand them because understanding implies answering and some questions aren't meant to be answered. They're intended to be posed and left to each individual to answer in their own way. Scott let those questions be posed and the studio butchered that process. Thankfully, the directors' cut release later ameliorated this to a certain degree and there are now seven different cuts of the film, happily released by Warner Bros. to cloud the issue even further. Hooray for Hollywood.

This clip is a great example of Scott's restraint, in which Deckard callously reveals to Rachael that her existence is a lie. She digests that while he transitions from thinking of her as an object to a person that has feelings (something he often lacks and the source of the popular theory that Deckard is so good at "retiring" replicants because he actually is one.) The camera is very patient, watching the changes come over them, and not changing pace even as the facts are revealed.

This trio of films marks the high water period for me in Scott's career. The attention to story, detail, pacing, and atmosphere are brilliant examples of filmmaking. There is an argument to be made that working with good material often produces good films. In the case of The Duellists, the inspiration was a Joseph Conrad short story, The Duel, in the same manner as Blade Runner. But Alien was an original screenplay; certainly a good one, but lacking a foundation in the "higher" medium of literature. Granted, he also benefited from such things as the artistic inspiration of H. R. Giger in Alien and that of Syd Mead in Blade Runner but it was the use of those visuals to tell a complete story in both cases that shows the hand of Scott most prominently. Indeed, later in his career, his films are still celebrated for their impressive visuals and set design. They're just used to enhance the spectacle, rather than the story.

Following that trio, Scott perhaps saw a route by which he could be deemed more successful (none of the three was a major hit; Alien doing the best) and began to conform to more Hollywood-like expectations with films like Legend and Black Rain. The latter film especially begins to show signs of formula in the, by then, tried and true Dirty Harry style. But they were also only moderate successes at the box office (at best) and he really didn't hit his stride, fame-wise, until the release of Thelma and Louise.

This was Scott's last truly daring excursion in topic matter as the film took on the subject of gender politics in a rather (ahem) direct fashion. It was reviled for that by some audiences (because, you know, there ain't no justice for you if you're male (and, even better, white) in this world) but became an instant hit because of not only the controversy, but the powerful performance of the two female leads, Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. In contrast to the aforementioned moody pacing, Thelma and Louise was a very bright and very aggressive story that Scott told in a rather hasty fashion. While it still falls into some degree of formulaic approach as a Hollywood "buddy" film, the fact that he was willing to be that aggressive on what remains a touchy topic for the hierarchy, as well as end it in a very non-Hollywood but story-justified manner makes it the last really good film that he has completed. One other element of the film is telling in Scott's career: for as fast as the story is, he takes over two hours to tell it. This became an issue in many of his later films.

The decade of the 90s produced nothing of any particular merit for Scott but what became his most famous film emerged in 2000 in the form of Gladiator.

Gladiator is Scott's most-heralded film and is almost universally loved except for those of us who bemoan the lack of actual storytelling in favor of explosions (Why are there explosions in ancient warfare? Hey, watch it and try to suss that out for yourself if you have three hours to spare.) This is the primary example of what became Scott's trademark for the past decade: glitz over substance. He had a wonderful cast (Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris) and a wealth of background to work from. I'm an acknowledged fan of Roman history and there are great stories to be told (and retold) and you can do it without inventing anything to go along with them. This holds true in non-fiction, as well. Want to read about the Gallic Wars? Read the book by the man who conducted them. Scott decided to take a fictionalized scenario, add historical trappings to it, and then proceed, which is all well and good. But the fact is that the story itself is completely linear and asks almost no questions about its own or our modern circumstances and can't even be used to draw parallels to modern culture. It's a cipher, used mostly to show off Crowe's talent and employ hundreds of extras (real and CGI) to create a spectacle. It unintentionally draws an object lesson about itself and the old "bread and circuses" aphorism, in which modern audiences will swallow anything completely thoughtless as long as you have big battle scenes.

But that in itself is almost a betrayal of Scott's earlier and respected tendency for detail because much of the battle scenes don't even make any sense. Unlike The Duellists, the costuming is largely wrong. No one used siege engines in a field battle. No one sane conducts a full cavalry charge through dense forest ("Hey! Your horse just tripped on that root... and you're dead.") Roman infantry tactics are completely ignored in favor of Hollywood-style single combat (among thousands of figures.) At the same time, the original script called for the gladiators to promote various products from the floor of the arena - which is what actually happened, in the same manner as former NFL stars boosting beer or razor blades during games - but Scott rejected the idea because he thought audiences would find it hard to believe. So, catapults and explosions are believable enough, but stuff that actually happened is beyond the pale. Check. This is where story (even HIstory) gets abandoned to make a bigger splash on the screen. This is where a director's previous work, now highly respected and immortalized for its subtexts and meanings, gets abandoned so millions can be made with tigers and trapdoors. In many ways, Gladiator is remarkably similar to The Duellists, in that it's about the driving obsession of one man indexed against the larger politics proceeding around him. The problem is that the later film utterly lacks the dramatic depth of the previous one, no matter how good the lead actor was and is. Furthermore, Scott took almost three hours to tell a story that could have been done in half that time. I was not entertained.

Scott also began to trend in an odd direction for a filmmaker who earlier seemed to favor projects that questioned cultural tendencies in that his work post 9/11 began to be almost a series of cheerleading escapades for US foreign policy, like Black Hawk Down, Body of Lies, and, most notably in a cultural sense, Kingdom of Heaven.

Once again, we see the travails of a lone hero in the midst of political and military activity that largely revolves around his Joseph Campbell moment, which is fine. It's bog-standard, but fine. The problem here is that, unlike Gladiator, where Scott shied away from the history to keep his story sound (the prerogative of any creative storyteller), in Kingdom he simply ignored it. What makes it even worse is that he employed a far lesser talent to try to carry the central role. If you're going to abandon history to tell your story, at least make sure you have an actor capable of telling it. Orlando Bloom is not that actor, even while surrounded by an otherwise excellent cast (Vera Green, Edward Norton, Ghassan Massoud, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson.) Furthermore, if you're going to take advantage of that cast's talents, you're better off doing it in your previously heralded moments of patient cinematography, rather than following the standard Hollywood route of quick cuts between mass actions, interspersed with your lead's anxious relaying of just how the battle is proceeding, which we've already seen in the five previous cuts.

Incidentally, I realize that not everyone is as interested in historical veracity as I am and, as noted, I certainly acknowledge the right of people adapting history to take liberties with it to make a story flow better (While Commodus did fight in the arena, he didn't die in it, but was instead strangled in his bath; that really would have let the air out of that scene.) But there are limits to all things. The city of Jerusalem is arrayed on a number of hills. That's part of why the city emerged as a trade and, later, cultural and religious center. It didn't sprout like a lone cactus as the only feature on the frying pan of the Negev as depicted in Kingdom. But, of course, a flat, open plain is the best way to show medieval trebuchets bashing through walls like a modern howitzer would, right? Except that said devices were never that powerful and both modern howitzers and medieval trebuchets hurl objects in a parabolic arc, so neither would function in the way the action is shown in the film. But that's OK because EXPLOSIONS! And, in direct contrast to The Duellists, the fencing techniques in the film weren't actually developed for another four hundred years.

But most damning (heh) of all is the fact that, in the end, there's no there there when it comes to the story. The film would have been far more interesting (and been carried better by its lead) if it had been about Ed Norton's role as Baldwin IV, the leper king. Instead, we got Balian, the common bastard blacksmith (he was actually one of the most powerful nobles in the Crusader kingdoms) becoming a hero for the ages and requiring a level of suspension of disbelief akin to what's required to believe in Genesis. There was no foundation to support that disbelief and, yet, Scott blamed the mediocre reception of the film on the fact that the studio had hacked it down to an hour-and-a-half adventure tale when he wanted to tell a three-and-a-half hour historical epic with the same flawed story. I've seen the director's cut. It does not rescue the film.

American Gangster has a similar problem. Here you have Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington. With those two actors, you should be able to work some real magic, right? Your basic plot is the gritty 70s (Mr. Tarantino to the white scriptwriters' phone!) and one of the most audacious drug rings ever known, in which kilos of heroin were allegedly shipped in the coffins of American soldiers coming back from Vietnam. I'd give a couple fingers to have the chance to write that story. But what comes out of it? Glitz, flash, and almost nothing else. We get a lot of scenes of Washington parading around Manhattan and Crowe doing the stereotypical 70s-broken-marriage-while-Serpico thing... but it's been done. There's no meat there. The film promises much and delivers little other than a sterling performance by Ruby Dee in a very small role. Scott spends as little time considering his characters' reactions to their respective ethical and organizational crises as he does in Black Rain, because it's simply more exciting to follow the action film formula.

Now I'm not even sure he's following any formula. I sacrificed two hours of my life to watch Prometheus because it showed up on HBO the other day. I knew it was awful. I'd been told it was awful. But I did it, anyway, because I'm still hoping for a return-to-Jesus moment even though I long since should have given up hope. It was, of course, awful. He utterly wasted the talents of people like Charlize Theron, Idriss Elba, and Guy Pearce (most people I've spoken to didn't even know he was in the film) and attempted to tell four different stories at once and told none of them decently. Once again, he blamed it on the fact that his original cut was too long for wide release, but one can only make that excuse so many times before people will begin asking why you're allowed to helm the production. I agree that the first compliment given to him for The Duellists 36 years ago remains true today: it was a pretty film. But pretty only gets you so far and eventually, it shows its age. So has Scott, unfortunately. I'm going to go watch Blade Runner for the hundredth time now.

Next: David Fincher.

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