Saturday, September 12, 2009

Larry Knapp: Tony Scott and Domino — Say hello (and goodbye) to the postclassical

Tony Scott and Domino — Say hello (and goodbye) to the postclassical
by Larry Knapp
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Enemy of the State and Spy Game shake the foundations of Scott’s style with tenebrous images and CGI-powered shifts in space and scale motivated by telecommunications and surveillance technology. But it is with Man on Fire and Domino that Scott achieves an inexorable level of authorial expressivity — when the intrusive legacy of Nicholas Roeg, if not Sergei Eisenstein, Stan Brakhage, and Jean-Luc Godard, turns the postclassical into a ferocious assault on an increasingly hapless and anesthetized spectator. No longer content with amplifying the editing and glutting the mise-en-scene, Scott resorts to staccato patterns of concentrated subjectivity to suggest something is tragically wrong with the American psyche.[7] As Scott recounts:

“With Man on Fire I had a rule of thumb — if Denzel thought it, I would see it. For me the movie was about paranoia, betrayal, and redemption, so therefore I wanted to work the inner psyche of Denzel’s mind.”[8]

Scott covers key shots with a 1910 hand-cranked “merry-go-round” camera tellingly nicknamed the “vomit comet.” The hand-cranked camera violates the integrity and stability of the image, allowing Man on Fire to bristle and flicker with the same intensity and instability of its troubled protagonist Creasy (Washington). This overt play on diegetic subjectivity — where Scott disturbs narrative order and duration with concentration cuts, freeze frames, unanticipated musical cues, variable frame speed, and other digressive techniques that foreground his camera work — becomes even more pronounced with Domino, which Scott has described as “heightened realism” and “a ferret on crystal meth.”

With Domino Scott gambles with the borders of commercial cinema (the film begins with the line, “Heads you win, tails you die”), eschewing all of the generic vestiges of Top Gun, transgressing style and thrashing narrative as if with a bludgeon (the first subtitle coyly reads “a true story…sort of”), metastasizing the pixilated Los Angeles of The Last Boy Scout and True Romance into a mad dash through mansions and crackhouses, all trembling with the same manic sense that something is amiss, absent, or just plain crazy. Screenwriter Richard Kelly meant for Domino to be a doomsday scenario of a culture in freefall, in which “everyone gets fucked,” the overarching theme of his own work as a director (Donnie Darko [2001] and Southland Tales [2007]) In addition to Man on Fire’s flashing, pulsating images, Domino features color-reversal film stock and cross-processing to bleed and distort the color palette and loosen the integrity of the film image. Scott shot frequently at 6 frames-per-second with intermittent camera movement to create “toffee trails” that suggest “bounty hunting on speed.” Domino qualifies as the first Tony Scott film that consistently destabilizes narrative order, duration, and frequency.[9]

Scott maintained a standard Aristotelian model of narrative development until Man on Fire, which surrenders to a tempestuous series of overlapping flashbacks, all motivated by Washington’s subjective crisis of faith and self-restraint. Domino adopts Man on Fire’s fractured narration and combines it with what Kelly calls a “TiVo-like” narrative construction that opens with the epilogue, then flashes into what appears to be an in medias res exposition which then shifts to a front-credit sequence that assaults the spectator with a flashforward preview of the film’s characters and motifs. The rest of the film functions as Domino-Vision, shifting back and forth in time and memory as Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley) trades narrative agency with fellow bounty hunters Ed Mosbey (Mickey Rourke), Choco (Edgar Ramirez), Alf (Riz Abbasi), and a panoply of characters that motivate an episodic road trip of the United States on mescaline.

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