Tuesday 21 August 2012

On 'Acid Aesthetics' and Contemporary Cinematic Stylistic 'Excess' - In Memory of Tony Scott (1944-2012)

Last updated August 30, 2012
A video tribute to Tony Scott, "[A] vigorous and energetic filmmaker extraordinaire"
Filmmaking is like painting…Every stroke or every color impacts another and you build film on the canvas and you get ideas from the last stroke.
 [Tony Scott, audio commentary, Domino DVD]
[T]he minute a viewer begins to notice style for its own sake or watch works which do not provide such thorough motivation, excess comes forward and must affect narrative meaning. Style is the use of repeated techniques which become characteristic of the work; these techniques are foregrounded so that the spectator will notice them and create connections between their individual uses. Excess does not equal style, but the two are closely linked because they both involve the material aspects of the film. Excess forms no specific patterns which we could say are characteristic of the work. But the formal organization provided by style does not exhaust the material of the filmic techniques, and a spectator's attention to style might well lead to a noticing of excess as well. [...] Probably no one ever watches only these non-diegetic aspects [...] through an entire film. Nevertheless, they are constantly present, a whole "film" existing in some sense alongside the narrative film we tend to think of ourselves as watching. [Kristin Thompson, 'The Concept of Cinematic Excess', Ciné-Tracts, 1.2, Summer 1977, pp. 55-56]
Hollywood action scenes became ‘impressionistic,’ rendering a combat or pursuit as a blurred confusion. We got a flurry of cuts calibrated not in relation to each other or to the action, but instead suggesting a vast busyness. Here camerawork and editing didn’t serve the specificity of the action but overwhelmed, even buried it. [David Bordwell, 'A Glance at Blows', Observations on Film Art, September 28, 2008]
In classical continuity styles, space is a fixed and rigid container, which remains the same no matter what goes on in the narrative; and time flows linearly, and at a uniform rate, even when the film’s chronology is scrambled by flashbacks. But in post-continuity films, this is not necessarily the case. We enter into the spacetime of modern physics; or better, into the “space of flows”, and the time of microintervals and speed-of-light transformations, that are characteristic of globalized, high-tech financial capital.  [Steven Shaviro, 'Post-Cinematic Affect: On Grace Jones, Boarding Gate and Southland Tales', Film-Philosophy, 14.1, 2010]
The essential characteristic of the acid aesthetic is the employment of early twentieth century hand-crank cameras. Loaded with high-speed reversal film, they are manually cranked forwards and backwards during the shooting, and afterwards cross-processed in an inappropriate developer. The results are quite extreme and fairly unpredictable: multiple exposures within one or more images, high contrasts and de-saturated colors, abrupt visual jolts of overexposed lighting, increased grain activity and discernible smears, cracks and trails on the frame, which add an air of physical authenticity. Film becomes tangible in this aesthetic equation. The analogue form, generally masked in the classical continuity style, is revealed, indeed placed in the foreground. Footage from digital cameras further provides an occasional visual counterpoint to the stylized primitivism of the hand-crank aesthetic, presenting crisp, overly saturated images, which seem, by contrast, manufactured and purely synthetic. The result is a dialectic of control and chaos, with the latter as the defining crux. [...] What becomes clear here is that Scott’s acid aesthetics put on display the cinematic apparatus itself, the process of constructing moving images, both in analogue and digital form. The resulting casualty is the concept of filmic realism. The gained impression is not the order of continuity but the chaos of stylistic transparency, an illustration of the formal potentialities of film, unrestrained by storytelling conventions.
[...] A blend of analogue and digital filmmaking lays bare the inner mechanics of cinema, its texture, emphasizing the process of manipulating and creating moving images. Film, in this regard, can be conceptualized as an enormous canvas, to be filled with color. It is not a coincidence that Tony Scott was trained as a visual artist and generally views himself as such, a cinematic painter. Thus, he constructs rather than documents images, both in the camera and on a post-production computer setup. In Scott’s hands, cinema rediscovers its ability for overt stylization, not eroding, but at least de-privileging what Christian Metz calls the realistic cinema-effect, in favor of a display of cinematic technique. In the words of Lev Manovich, cinema is then “no longer a kino-eye, but a kino-brush”. And indeed Scott’s filmmaking transcends the mere realm of visual representation. Wielding the camera like a brush, and similar to Alexandre Astruc’s pen, the caméra-stylo, he sprays, splashes and splatters paint onto the canvas, producing an expressionistic chaos, reminiscent of paintings by Jackson Pollock. Notwithstanding the overt experimentalism, all this activity is framed by the generic conventions of Hollywood story material. The margins of Scott’s canvas are defined by the tenets of traditional and, with regard to Man on Fire and Domino, arguably quite clichéd narrative. In this regard, Scott’s cinematic paintings become more than just a display of style, namely an unrestrained sensory assault of visual abstraction that, in a postmodern twist of meta-textual discourse, exposes the process of moving image construction, and thereby reconfigures the traditional notion of what mainstream cinema should look like. [Excerpts from Matthias Stork, 'Acid Aesthetics: Tony Scott's Cinema of Chaos', SWTX Popular and American Culture Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 2012]
I have cautiously championed Tony Scott’s recent work because at least he’s willing to go all the way, however misguided the direction. From Spy Games on, he has stuck to the credo that too much is never enough. His technique is swaggering and undisciplined, mannered to the nth degree. Yet I find his fevered visuals more genuinely arresting than the safe noodlings of most of today’s mainstream cinema. Man on Fire and Déja Vu reheat their genre leftovers into something spicy, if not nourishing, while Domino, the cinematic equivalent of hophead graffiti, wraps its sleazy characters in a visual design apparently inspired by the glowing interior of a peepshow booth.  [David Bordwell, '50 Days of Summer Movies Part 2', Observations on Film Art, September 12, 2009, hyperlink added by FSFF]
Tony Scott’s need to push the boundaries of the postclassical into the classical-plus and the hyperclassical with Man on Fire and Domino suggests a growing impatience with intensified continuity and the postmodern condition. In Top Gun and even True Romance the audience can easily float with the surface structure and identify with the fantasy of transcending both physical space and cultural time. But in Man on Fire and Domino the audience cannot ignore the deaths of Denzel Washington, Edgar Ramirez, and Mickey Rourke, the irrevocable loss of continuity, and the status of the image not as synergistic decoration or digital simulacrum, but as a symptom and agent of cultural flux and despair. Even in Deja Vu, which retreats somewhat from the volatile aesthetic of Man on Fire and Domino, Scott makes postclassical narrative hyperclassical by allowing Denzel Washington to inhabit the past and present simultaneously. Deja Vu, with its post-Katrina New Orleans, opening terrorist attack, and urgent desire to traverse time and prevent the death of Paula Patton, suggests a shell-shocked United States unable to understand the past or ponder the future — Denzel, in a Butterfly Effect-like matrix of temporal frequency and repetition, dies in one narrative thread even as he emerges unscathed in another. Scott pushes the boundaries of narrative time and space so far he doesn’t need the vomit comet or Domino-Vision to achieve the same measure of indeterminacy. Man on Fire, Domino, and Deja Vu suggest that the only sin Tony Scott has committed is not to anticipate the hyperclassical and the classical-plus sooner. [Larry Knapp, 'Tony Scott and Domino — Say hello (and goodbye) to the postclassical', Jump Cut, 50, 2008]

Film Studies for Free was shocked, like everyone else, by the news of Tony Scott's death yesterday. Following the news, much of the day was spent reading online assessments of his important filmmaking career.

These frequently centered, of course, on the role of 'excessive style' in his work, and its (some would say, concomitant) lack of narrative motivation. The ground was thus laid for today's tribute list of more than fifty links to academic studies centering on the debates about cinematic 'excess', as well as on issues of intensified (or 'post'-, or 'Chaos') continuity in contemporary film aesthetics.

Rather incredibly, at the weekend, Matthias Stork, talented author of the video essay series on Chaos Cinema, had sent FSFF a link to a draft version of a new video essay featuring Tony Scott's work, which explored some related issues regarding contemporary film aesthetics. Following yesterday's awful news, Stork worked around the clock to develop that essay to provide an important tribute to Scott's work. You can see the video at the top of this entry, and also at Stork's Vimeo page Cine-Essais.

For more tributes to Scott, an essential round up is given at David Hudson's post devoted to 'Tony Scott, 1944 – 2012' at Fandor's Keyframe Daily website.

A very big Danke schön goes to Matthias Stork for all his essential contributions to this entry. 

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