Wednesday, August 22, 2012

R.I.P. Tony Scott

Sunday nights are usually a high point of the week for me -- friends, drinks, and bar trivia (more often than not a victory). Not so this past Sunday. We had just wrapped up a second place finish when I found out that director Tony Scott had killed himself. Any sense of revelry immediately fled. I leaned back in my chair and let out a heavy sigh. What the fuck.

For those who don't know, Tony Scott was an action movie director. Wait, that's not exactly right -- Tony Scott was *the* action movie director. Simply put, the modern action movie -- love it or hate it -- is what it is because of Tony Scott. Scott's combination of slick, stylized visuals, frenetic camerawork/editing, and elegant action choreography set the template later followed by myriad directors, including Michael Bay, Guy Ritchie, and Oscar winners Quentin Tarantino and Kathryn Bigelow. His fingerprints, while not on any Oscar statues (unless it's an honorary one down the line) are nevertheless on billions of dollars worldwide since he first splashed onto the scene with Top Gun (the best bad movie of all time) in 1986.

But enough of the history lesson. I'm not writing this because he influenced some of my favorite directors, or made billions of dollars, or was indirectly responsible for Kenny Loggins's "Danger Zone," a timeless ballad and metaphor for the fragility of human existence. While most of that may be true, I'm writing this because I felt -- and still feel -- a personal connection to some of his movies. He's just an action movie director, I know -- Beverly Hills Cop 2 isn't exactly Schindler's List. But just like certain moments in your life have a soundtrack, some have video cues. And Tony Scott's movies are playing on the walls of my neural networks.

One of the first non-kid's movies I have distinct memories of is Top Gun. I couldn't have been more than 4 or 5, but I definitely remember my parents watching it on VHS at our shitty place on Windsong Dr. in Sedona, AZ. ("Danger Zone" is almost definitely responsible for me remembering this -- see? Timeless.) This leads me to wonder if my mom was a Tony Scott fan, because I remember watching The Last Boy Scout and The Fan for the first time at her place after my parents split up. She was the "cool mom" of divorce story clich├ęs, the one who let us watch rated-R movies. It's very likely I wouldn't be the cinephile I am today if I were only restricted to the PG-13-and-under fare my dad allowed. So, uh, thanks, Mom (and Tony).

But far and away the movie that gets the most synapses firing for me is Man on Fire (probably his best film, right up there with True Romance). I first saw Man on Fire a few hours after my first girlfriend and I broke up for good (and a few years after my mom died). I thought it would be just what I needed -- loud, dumb, and violent -- to help me avoid thinking about the emotional turmoil I was going through, maybe provide an outlet. Man on Fire is loud and violent, yes, but one thing it's not is dumb (and Scott's movies rarely are). In fact, it it's pretty smart, and I found myself relating to the "man on fire" conceit in the theater that night. I saw a little bit of myself in John Creasey (Denzel Washington), a man who'd lost everything and was just sort of adrift in life, drinking his way through life with a burning in his soul. I mean, I was only 20 -- I really thought I had just lost everything.

And I won't lie, I lived like that, like Creasey, for a few years -- drinking, burning, trying to find the bottom in a new city. I eventually did, and, like Creasey, found that the bottom sucks pretty bad, as well as the means to pull myself up again. While I didn't save Dakota Fanning, or have sex with Radha Mitchell in a deleted scene (damn she's fine in that movie), I did finish grad school and eventually become a teacher. I've even shown Man on Fire in a class or two and gotten my students to see beyond the loud and violent parts and see it for the smart movie it really is.

And that's the thing about Tony Scott movies, and why he'll be missed so much as a director -- there was always more to his movies than just gun fights or explosions. You can't say the same for most Hollywood directors (especially not Michael Bay, whom I still love though). His movies had heart -- and I won't pretend mine didn't hurt a little on Sunday night when I first heard the news, and then later on the drive home when all those memories coalesced in my mind and I realized exactly why this celebrity death had me reeling.

Celebrities die all the time, and there's never any shortage of Facebook updates, Tweets, even blog posts when they do. I usually find these "tributes" trite at best, and narcissistic at worst. But sometimes someone whom you've never even met dies, and only then do you realize that they've made an impact on your life. That's what happened on Sunday, and it's taken me until now to put it into the right words. So, Tony, thanks for the movies, the memories, and the indelible connection the two will always have in the auditorium of my mind. Sad to think there will never be more. I hope you're partying with Heath.

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