World Out of Order: Tony Scott’s Vertigo

By Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson

Regularly dismissed by critics as an ADD action hack director, Tony Scott’s sixth collaboration with Jerry Bruckheimer has a title that can be taken as a provocation: Déjà Vu seems to invite glib puns about the recurrence of heated fast cuts and heavily filtered celluloid, of slick surfaces and pretzel plot twists wrapped around eye-popping explosions. Yes it delivers, but never mind that the director, for all his constant flash and stylishness, has long moved on from mere action work towards ambivalent psychological thrillers, employing an expressionist visual style corresponding to heightened emotions: his themes and structures cry out for old-school auteurist appreciation. Maybe the comparative restraint and metaphysical bent of Scott’s masterpiece, a surveillance-era post-Hitchcock concoction that dares to begin with a nine-minute bravura sequence of dialogue-free “pure cinema,” will help viewers see past the prejudices—though the incomprehension that greeted the magnificent, if meddlesome biopic-atomizer Domino a year ago, makes it doubtful. Ironically, it’s one of the most mind-boggling action sequences of recent years, in which some of the great Scott’s (henceforth referred to as Tony to avoid mix-ups with his pretentious brother) (1)   major motifs are condensed into one awesome pile-up of overlapping motion. Time to cut to the chase.

Discombobulated ATF agent Doug Carlin (Denzel Washington) races through post-Katrina New Orleans traffic, wearing some futuristic gadget, the “goggle ring,” one eye covered by a mirror-like device, chasing a terrorist bomber’s truck—four days and six hours in the past! Even more outrageous, as Carlin’s retro-vision breaks down, he blindly has to follow the directions of other agents who can still see the transmission, wildly swerving through the “real” daytime traffic while chasing the “virtual” nighttime villain—what was already a maddening split-view of alternate realities and disjointed time is given another twist as it’s pushed out of the realm of first-hand control.

“Control is an illusion,” Kidman already said to Cruise’s NASCAR driver way back in Days of Thunder (1990), and in hindsight it seems an announcement of themes, even style. Ironically, it also applies to the director’s experience on the movie itself: Rushed into theatres, it left him with little time to edit “over a million feet of film” and the depressive insight, “I was just a hired gun.” Is it a coincidence that quite a bit of Tony’s later work can also be seen as allegorical of filmmaking and its power struggles, or the problems inherent in, pace The Fan (1996), taking one for the team? What drives Crimson Tide (1995) if not an explicit battle for the direction of the sub (and, more roundabout, over the interpretation of reality)? And dubious image-production abounds, be it the satellite surveillance in Enemy of the State (1998) or the reality TV shenanigans in Domino (2005).

Even more upfront is the case of the fantastic machine used for investigation in Déjà Vu that turns (even more top-secret) surveillance footage to a window back in time for plot purposes, but clearly is foremost present as an equivalent of The Movies—it’s even named Snow White. Pointedly, Tony extends the idea to the visual media shaping contemporary experience, TV and internet broadcasts. The ridiculous quasi-science banter “explaining” Snow White expressly stresses the analogy: space (like time) may be folded in on itself, but it sure is flat, like a screen. And in a Tony Scott film, no screen is as great as the Jumbotron—already prominently featured in his superlatively incorrect Shane-Black-actioner The Last Boy Scout (1992) and the first Scott Free production, the underrated The Fan. Yet size serves to emphasize here: the growing romantic attachment of the loner Carlin as he follows the footage of a dead woman’s life, while discussions about the nature and ethics of movies, themselves windows to the past, ensue among agents and scientists, with the huge image presiding over the room. And of course the looming size of the screen approximates the condition of present-day viewing: a similar intrusion on privacy, as envisioned in Rear Window (1954), was a first-hand, cozy neighbourhood affair. Over 50 years later, Déjà Vu reframes it to fit the current era of second-hand, Jumbotron “reality.”

As an allegory about filmmaking and morality this may be as blatant as Minority Report (2002), but it’s more successful on every level: despite all the high-tech lure the grandstanding is undercut from the beginning. Where Spielberg’s omnipotent pretty-boy stand-in is composing his images from near-unlimited resources and with a graceful conductor’s movements, Scott’s collaborative team must content themselves with following the data-flow of “a single trailing moment of now in the past,” praying the camera is in the right place at the right time. But that also serves to underscore the televisual nature of the machine: as in Enemy of the State, or, as hinted at by the way Tony shoots the stadium in The Fan, the operators work like live TV directors, choosing the proper angle from various live feeds. (Indeed, all of Tony’s work in the last decade has problematized/satirized television; even in 2001’s Spy Game he can’t resist an ironic Baywatch glimpse…in the middle of China!)

But more importantly, Déjà Vu is upfront about the questionable nature of the whole government-funded enterprise; this is not about clearing your name (as in Spielberg). Saving the woman being watched, Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton), is not the goal, rather trailing her past will help the agents solve a terrorist bombing with echoes of both 9/11 and Oklahoma City. The projected futility of the investigation’s outcome for Claire makes Carlin’s obsession with her all the more poignant, but like in Vertigo the voyeuristic and necrophiliac aspects of his romantic feelings are foregrounded. “I got the weird feeling I’m being watched,” reads Claire’s diary after an uncomfortable Jumbotron-surveyed shower, and soon Carlin doubts the quantum physicists’ assurances that Snow White’s link from the present to the past is strictly a one-way affair. More effective is his touching prior assertion to Claire: “Don’t you remember we held hands once?” It is also quite sinister, since this happened during her autopsy.

The remark indicates the growing force of Carlin’s Own Private Vertigo, the seeming rationalist (Scott’s heroes are often government agents, and always Hawksian professionals) talking to an immaterial vision. Carlin is introduced as a somewhat unusual hero for Tony in that—the direct opposite of Washington’s Man on Fire (2004) protagonist—he is in control from the get-go: Everything is in order in his secluded private life (his isolation surely helps foster his romantic obsession), and his professional abilities are astounding. Carlin’s complete command of how to read a crime scene is established: Almost as soon as he appears on the river banks after the opening explosion, one of Tony’s typical elegantly swooshing (and precisely storyboarded) camera-arcs ends up on a position that will substantiate his authoritative claim that he’s “looking for what doesn’t belong.” The results of his inspection quickly lead to a demonstration of his no-less-flawless interpretative abilities, reconstructing the entire bombing for FBI agent Val Kilmer.

But even before entering the Jumbotron lab Carlin is touched by insecurity, maybe “something spiritual,” as he later insists, when he has a heated debate with the egghead physicists as to whether the woman onscreen is alive or dead. This sets up the typical Tony structure, which is announced by a series of characteristic images, focusing on hands: “Claire…she was beautiful,” Carlin says as he takes her hand on the autopsy table. Again this recalls Vertigo’s opening, the request “Give me your hand!” being unfulfilled by James Stewart’s Scottie, causing a death which casts a guilty spell over the film. Carlin’s quest, not motivated by guilt but by love, and made all the more moving by Washington’s soulful performance, likewise tries to overcome death. But a more striking parallel may be to Godard’s Vertigo gloss, Nouvelle vague (1990), a film JLG described as  “about a pair of hands meeting.” At first they don’t, causing the death of the initial Alain Delon character, and finally they do. Deja Vu is identical, just with some time-shuffling: Claire’s hands, first touched dead, have to be met again alive. Crucially, the autopsy is followed by Carlin’s visit to Claire’s father, and both men’s hands are prominently on display, almost suggesting a transference of the parent’s visible grief, as his absentminded movements are followed by the agent’s taking notes. (A scene in Man On Fire similarly uses Washington’s hands to delineate psychological weakness: a quick cut to his alcoholic bodyguard’s overeager grab for the gun betrays his nervousness and lack of self-confidence.)

And while Carlin continues to appear confident, he’s more vulnerable from here on, which intensifies as he nears Claire, and culminates with that psycho freeway chase: he then checks on her apartment, and to his puzzlement not only finds a magnet board message (“U can save her”) seemingly addressed to him, but his voice on Claire’s answering machine—both foreshadow Déjà Vu’s predictable time-travel finale, but also are surefire signifiers that Tony’s preferred central two-hander system is up and running. Starting with The Hunger (1984), his films centre on obsessive relationships whose blind pursuit threatens the order of things, and usually has terrible consequences for those unlucky enough to be around. The nature of the relationship is variable: Heterosexual romance as in True Romance (1993) works just as well as the homoerotic buddy-bonding of The Last Boy Scout or Spy Game’s father-son-constellation. The most extreme case—and the film with which Tony’s filmography starts getting interesting—is Crimson Tide, where the relationship between a nuclear sub’s captain (Gene Hackman) and his first officer (Washington) is framed in the most general terms (they obsess over whose view of reality is correct), the system of order is the most rigid (military protocol), and the consequences are the most momentous (Armageddon).

That Crimson Tide’s flaw turns out to be what every critic praised—the pop-savvy, dated Tarantino dialogue—is probably typical for Tony’s critical underestimation. Despite having forged a formalist delineation of psychology-as-colour that trumps Michael Mann’s formalism of objects, he’d already been written off as, at best, a vacant visual stylist. Admittedly his early work, though awesome-looking, is kind of empty. The Hunger is merely misguided retro-cult for its quintessential ‘80s smoke-and-blinds look and moronic mysticism, and although with Top Gun (1986) things—not least the speed of cutting—pick up considerably, it can only be termed a success in Tony’s desire to make “an audio-visual experience: rock ‘n’ roll stars of the skies.” Still, its enormous success must have something to do with how Tony’s expert use of flattened telephoto vistas, imposing red filters, sway-o-cam and slo-mo synched to Moroder-Faltermayer pulp kept the flattened, distracting stock character cutouts in check. (Its Reagan-era suppression-of-individuality-is-good message has been the template for much ambivalent and ironic revision in later Tony.) Beverly Hills Cop 2 (1989) is mostly notable for achieving within the first installment what it takes most serials forever to do: replaying the predecessor(s) as ritual and parody. And its largely montage-driven instinctive stylishness had yet to cohere. It was not to be on Revenge (1990), taken away and padded out by producer Ray Stark. But in the following three films a sensibility starts to connect. (Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout and True Romance are conscious superior revisions of Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Revenge, the former incidentally written by Robert Towne, Black and Tarantino.)

By Crimson Tide, Tony’s formalist tics not only had cohered into a personal style, they had also become the randomly applied conventions of postmodern blockbuster cinema. Thus sadly overlooked is Tony’s classicism, which extends far beyond the handsome look he brings to productions and the reliable, old-school ensemble acting (and his casts teem with future stars, from John C. Reilly in Days of Thunder to Jack Black in Enemy of the State), to a vivid gift for storytelling. When his rapid-fire edits are confusing, it’s because they’re supposed to be. Carlin’s out-of-control car chase finally leads him to a self-styled patriot terrorist (in another inspired bit of casting, Jim “Jesus” Caviezel—Denzel actually crying out the Son of Man’s name in vain when espying him mid-chase), and an oft-used Tony strategy: the specifics of the arrest are completely obfuscated, because they are beside the point. “This is not about revenge,” the terrorist says, “this is about destiny.” Movingly, Déjà Vu, proves him right (after all, he is backing up his claim with a metaphor about a bomb set by hand)—and it’s a fine counterpoint to the mock-nihilist conclusion of the preceding Domino: “There’s only one solution to every story: We All Fall Down.”

Indeed, Domino seems all about this obfuscation method, rendering the idea of biography quixotic in that “90210 world” of media proliferation. Although its jokey dialogue and oneiric construction show the stamp of screenwriter Richard Kelly, the doomed fever-dream atmosphere is closer to the hell-descent, filter-filled second half of Man on Fire than to Southland Tales, with which it shares a tongue-in-cheek-taste for the vulgar (un)realities of ubiquitous media texture. Opening with an aptly schizophrenic doubled “My name is Domino Harvey” (and with a 50/50 coin toss as guiding motif), Domino is saturated with all kinds of media detritus, images distorted by all kinds of filters, film-stock changes, hand-cranking, overexposure and phoniness (events get rewound and replayed in alternate versions), and additionally superimposed Godardian text shooting through in throbbing fonts. More than Natural Born Killers (1994), it suggests an avant-garde explosion realized on a blockbuster budget: Domino is a high-gloss Hollywood cousin of Pat O’Neill’s sensory overloads, both representing a world out of order. It’s no coincidence one comic highlight is about the absurdity of classification systems—a postmodern mix-up of race designations like “Japanic”—on Jerry Springer. By the time Tom Waits arrives out of nowhere, it seems logical—as if he’d just stumbled in from the soundtrack. The ending is a masterstroke in the opposite direction, capping an endearingly personal first-name parade of the actors’ images with the “real,” whatever that may mean by now: “My name is Domino Harvey,” now heard only once, accompanies the glimpse of the actual bounty-hunter, long since passed.

If Domino’s carefully designed confusion represents the extreme in Tony’s examination of order-as-illusion, in Man on Fire it’s illusion-as-order. A film as exceptional as it is difficult to embrace, it marks the culmination of the ambivalent political thrillers of Tony’s mature phase. Crimson Tide updates a cold war template similar to The Bedford Incident (1965), but ends in close proximity of Paths of Glory (1957)—in between composing movements between the two warring points of view, with canted angles less an indicator of the ship’s damage than of the increasingly shifted perspective of the obsessed protagonists. Both dialogue and visuals cleverly emphasize dichotomies, with the crucial Lipizzaner argument about black and white activating the film’s suppressed racial conflict, and adding Spain vs. Portugal to the mix—two forces who once divided the world, just like during the Cold War.

“In a nuclear world the enemy is war itself,” Washington’s First Officer may opine in that environment, but by Enemy of the State the war rages within, thanks to surveillance technology. Together with the stylistically quite similar, one-day-countdown-structured Spy Game, they comprise an ambiguous diptych anticipating 24.  Thematically prescient—and quite blatant in letting Hackman reprise The Conversation’s (1974) Harry Caul—Enemy of the State not only has a villain born on 9/11, but its pre-Patriot Act vision has grown in believability. When with one mouse click Jack Black gathers impossible amounts of information on a private citizen, it’s supposed to be a chilling intrusion, whereas in every other episode of 24 it helps save the US. Still, like Spy Game, with its foreign assassinations and trapdoor-backroom-agency-machinations at home, it suffers slightly from the tables being turned too easily in the finale. And lest someone claim Tony lacks an ironic sense about the technologies he ambivalently scrutinizes while using them for remarkable visuals, check out his opening credit being erased by white noise.

In Man on Fire, Tony’s credit is over a blindfolded (and earless) kidnapping victim set free in heavy traffic, and its protagonist may delude himself into retrieving a purpose in life: Washington’s lapsed CIA killer only sees “the hand of god” when he seeks revenge for the girl he was supposed to protect. The first half, detailing their impossibly idyllic relationship (incredibly, Washington finds rapport with that strange creature Dakota Fanning), is great lyrical pulp fiction in the way Tony had previously perfected in the best of The Hire BMW shorts, a hilarious remake of Performance (1970). The second half gets increasingly delirious, anticipating the reality-loss assault of Domino—and culminates, plot-wise, in The Passion of The Denzel. As an allegory of the post-9/11 American psyche it works to a degree, and is even somewhat provocative: born-again Christian going into the third-world danger zone to avenge and finding out he’s been deceived. As Denzel nears his Golgotha, it becomes clear only his elimination can guarantee peace. Still, some of Man on Fire’s more timely and persuasive aspects, like its vision of an increasingly beleaguered upper-upper class protected by privatized mercenaries, go out the window as things get personal: this is one of the repeated drawbacks of Tony’s chosen relationship structure.

But in Déjà Vu it’s a rousing success, because it is conceived around individual destiny. Self-confessed “hopeless romantic” Tony has found an ideal vehicle in a man who stakes his life to win his love. Certainly his credit suggests a more optimistic tone this time around: a family on the ferry, a Fanning-like child held high, innocently laughing. Of course they’re blissfully unaware of the impending explosion, but after Carlin travels back in time things happen anew, the ferry scenes from the long opening play out again, but with Carlin, Claire, and the terrorist on board. Beneath the expertly handled thriller plot resolution, there are remarkable déjà vu dualities in how the love theme plays out. First Carlin has to overcome Claire’s suspicions (how can he know so much about her?), then it’s Claire who must reconnect after the final twist (how can he know almost nothing about her?). As a broad fantasy about healing—after all it starts out with Carlin affected by the loss of someone he didn’t know—it justifies the New Orleans setting. But the terrorist’s claim that “sometimes a bit of human collateral is the prize of freedom” is rejected in a much more satisfying manner on a small-scale level by Carlin’s realization that the only human collateral he could accept is himself. His reward is a second chance. Tony’s is long overdue.

(1) A quick comparison of their early shorts proves which Scott was going to be the pompous artiste and which one the grand entertainer: Tony is the lead in Sir Ridley’s Boy and Bicycle (1965), an art student’s idea of kitchen sink revision. Tony’s successful adaptation of Ambrose Bierce’s One of the Missing (1971) proves that his vision of cinema precedes his commercial days. Among other things, it contains an introductory note prefiguring his time-date stamps, a backwards pan as recurring structural element, quick montages that intensify key moments, and beautiful compositions clearly inspired by Civil War-era paintings.