If Only Ridley Were Tony's Keeper
In Tony Scott's Domino (2005), Mena Suvari plays an entertainment executive who describes her boss's (Christopher Walken) attention span as being one of "a ferret on crystal meth." Ironically, this throwaway line of dialogue effectively describes the editing style of its director. Commonly employing two editors on each of his films, Tony Scott's films are essentially case studies of an ongoing series I would like to title "When MTV Editing Goes Wrong." Keep in mind that I am not criticizing film style or shorter shot lengths here. Rather, I am criticizing film style when it is used as a crutch to overcompensate for the deficiencies of a film. The depressing realization I came to while watching the opening of his debut film The Hunger (1983) was that, for a brief moment, Tony Scott actually knew how to use editing for engaging purposes rather than visceral ones.
Take, for example, the film's opening. Scott begins the film in a discotheque featuring the British goth band Bauhaus performing their first single "Bela Lugosi's Dead." Scott makes it clear to the audience, in case they were not aware already, that this is a vampire story not following in the footsteps of Tod Browning's 1931 classic. As the band continues, Scott shifts to an editing style that is equally inspired by MTV as it is Alain Resnais (Last Year at Marienbad, Hiroshima Mon Amour). We watch as Scott intercuts the film's two vampires, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and John (David Bowie), trolling for the evening's bait with flash-forwards of them seducing and killing their prey at their posh New York City penthouse. As Miriam and John wash the blood off one another, he simply looks over and asks "Forever?" She kisses him back reassuringly.
One of the film's main strengths is that it is both abstract and economical. The vampire film, both then and now, has been drained of all its life. The audience's already has knowledge of the genre's mythological rules, so why remind them? The love story and obstacle are established with little dialogue, favoring imagery and music. Following the scene of their feeding, Scott cuts to brief glimpses of Miriam and John in 18th century Europe, complete with Franz Schubert's "Piano Trio No. 2," gives us some background on their coupling, and the music underlines their romantic engagement (used somewhat differently in Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon). John awakens, the glimpses established as his dreams, only to find himself losing his hair and beginning to age. Along the way, Scott utilizes a match-cut to establish the character of Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), a doctor specializing in anti-aging medicine.
In ten minutes, with the aid of Schubert and Bauhaus, maybe ten lines of dialogue, and roughly 150 shots, Scott has set the table for his vampire story. Judging from the first act, we assume that Miriam will exercise all of her power to find a cure to John's aliment, a sickness that also cost her previous lovers their lives. Yet, as the film nears the end of its first act, we become faced with the exciting possibility that perhaps both Miriam and the male audience do not want John to "grow old" with her and, instead, would rather see her joined by the sexy Dr. Roberts. Both Miriam and the XY members of the audience are not disappointed, as the second act climaxes (in all senses of the word) with the seduction of Roberts by Miriam in one of the sexiest love scenes committed to celluloid.
Yet, this scene serves as more than a turning point in the plot but an indicator of the film beginning to slide off the rails. The third act is slighted by a range of issues, most significantly the ambiguous ending. Whereas the beginning moments of the film were aided by abstraction, the mythological world these vampires inhabit crumbles nearly as quickly as their aged bones once Roberts and Miriam fully realize their relationship. Granted, the film's epilogue was the product of studio pressure and the desire for sequel potential, making the film's failures not completely attributable to Scott's direction or obsession with style. This said, the revenge of the scorned lovers comes out of left field and Scott's reliance on slow motion do not end the film on a high note.
That is not, to say that The Hunger is a bad film. As I hope my description will attest, the film's opening act, love scene, and ability to use both Catherine Deneuve's timeless beauty and David Bowie's other-worldliness to full effect are to be openly admired. In fact, Scott's ability to hone meaning out of abstraction is quite phenomenal and leads me to the conclusion that serves as title to this review: If only Ridley were Tony's Keeper. As many of the cinephiles here are no doubt aware, Tony Scott is the younger brother of Ridley Scott (Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator). The difference between the two is that Ridley is consistently able to mobilize style in service of some guiding principle. Sure, Ridley loses his way from time to time (Hannibal) but even at his most excessive, there seems to be a method to the madness. Perhaps Tony should allow Ridley to be his artistic Miriam, who screams "The hunger knows no reason! And then you'll need to feed, and you'll need me to show you how."
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.