Credit: Robert Zuckerman/Touchstone Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer, Inc.
by Daniel Gorman Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

Déjà vu — Tony Scott

July 3, 2023

Released in 2006 to mixed reviews and respectable, if unremarkable, box office, Déjà Vu was the third collaboration (of an eventual five) between director Tony Scott and superstar Denzel Washington. A slick, propulsive thriller, Déjà Vu has gradually amassed a reputation as one of Scott’s very best works. Indeed, Scott’s “late period,” spanning from 2004’s Man on Fire to his final film, 2010’s Unstoppable, represents a kind of experimental ethos not found anywhere else in mainstream moviemaking, then or now. No one has much use for the term “vulgar auteurism” these days; that short-lived phenomenon tends to exist now only as early-2000s nostalgia and Twitter memes. But if anything at all came from that furious blast of Tumblr posts, Blogspot missives, and The Auteurs chat rooms, it was surely the elevation of Tony Scott’s reputation. Less “respectable” than older brother Ridley, Tony spent much of his career fashioning mainstream blockbusters for uber producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, Don Simpson, and Joel Silver. After the disastrous release of Tony’s debut, The Hunger, it was several years before he got a chance to helm another feature film. Of course, that film happened to be the epochal Top Gun, a decade-defining bit of popular culture that cemented Tony’s reputation as a “style over substance” filmmaker.

Indeed, Tony never seemed attracted to prestige material like older brother Ridley, although this dichotomy doesn’t seem to have mattered much to the brothers during Tony’s lifetime. No doubt, both men were canny commercial animals, but while Ridley favored chiaroscuro lighting, classical montage, and the occasional tiny historical fiction, Tony was the impressionist, fashioning art objects out of mercenary material like Beverly Hills Cop II and Days of Thunder. As David Bordwell has written, Tony favored telephoto lenses no matter what the composition, the use of which “tend to flatten space and abstract the image.” Obsessed with audacious, striking visuals, Tony overloaded the frame with reds and oranges and yellows. Bordwell likens Tony to Michael Bay, counting their works as the premier examples of “intensified continuity,” essentially quicker editing and unmotivated camera movements that cut up and slice through cinematic space. Bordwell writes, “Man on Fire contains at least 4100 shots, Domino over 5000, but perhaps we will never know just how many. Long passages are built out of multiple exposures, superimpositions, stop-and-go motion, and color shifts within a ‘shot.’ The cut ceases to be a firm boundary as layers float up and slip away.” 

As many critics have noted, Tony was a trained painter before going to film school, and his images gradually take on the patina of action painting, particularly Pollock, all wild gestures and bold splashes as the frame quivers and destabilizes. Man on Fire and Domino are probably the purest examples of this practice (both have been compared to Stan Brakhage films), but Déjà Vu has persevered as a popular favorite because it splits the difference between a sharp, character-driven screenplay and Tony’s own predilection for wildly abstracted imagery. The trick here, also used in his earlier Enemy of the State, is to contextualize the visual excesses via a set series of parameters. In both Enemy and Déjà Vu, Tony’s wildest indulgences are confined to satellite imagery. It just so happens that in Déjà Vu, it’s satellites that allow scientists, the FBI, and ATF agents to look into the past, zipping through a set point in time like a fully-rendered 3D version of Google maps. Steven Shaviro goes further than Bordwell, calling this a disjunctive synthesisof old and new. Shaviro continues: “a synthesis that is not only seen on the level of diegetic form (narrative structure vs. attractions), but also on that of the technological means of cinematic production (century-old hand-cranked cameras vs. heavy digital processing) and on that of the ways that technology is represented within the films (a love for older technologies such as trains vs. a radical immersion in video and Internet-based technologies.)” One of Tony’s earliest defenders, critic Ignatiy Vischnevetsky makes a similar point in a different way, writing that “Cinema is supposed to be a medium of images — and yet… Scott’s images are often impressionistic to the point of abstraction, ‘unreadable,’ arranged in ways that don’t create any sense of a space or a chronology. The big, obvious gestures — causality-based montage, emphasized mise-en-scène, long unbroken camera movements — that are at the center of the most basic theories of classical filmmaking and criticism aren’t central to his best films.”

Of course, none of this talk of theory would matter if Tony’s films weren’t so massively entertaining. Déjà Vu has it all — action, suspense, deep state surveillance underpinnings, and a 21st-century take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo that traverses space and time itself. Reteaming with his Man on Fire cinematographer Paul Cameron, and ably assisted by long-time editor Chris Lebenzon, Tony created one of the essential post-9/11 texts with Déjà Vu. After a white supremacist blows up a passenger ferry in New Orleans, ATF agent Doug Carlin (Washington) is called in to identify the type of explosives used in the attack. He winds up finding the corpse of a young woman who appears to have been murdered before the attack and then dumped to make it look like she was just another victim of the explosion. Impressed by his deductive abilities, the FBI invites Carlin to sit in on sessions utilizing a new program they refer to as “Snow White.” The FBI claims that the program utilizes satellite imagery to render events within a certain window of time, always four and a half days in the past. It’s not long before Carlin figures out that the device is not just computer imagery, but an actual window into the past. He also gradually becomes obsessed with the female victim, identified as Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton). Using the Snow White program, the team eventually discovers the identity of the terrorist and arrests him. But Carlin is convinced that the machine can do more than simply identify a suspect after the fact — he wants to save Claire and stop the attack. So begins a complicated series of time-travel shenanigans, as Carlin first sends a note into the past, and then himself. 

For his part, Tony seems most interested in visualizing Carlin’s sneak peeks into the past, and events from the beginning of the film take on a new significance as “future” Carlin begins interacting with his own past. It’s intricate and complicated, but Tony and his screenwriters keep the twisty plot machinations clear and linear. On a narrative level, Carlin’s obsession with Claire almost threatens to turn creepy, but Washington’s aw-shucks charm and matinee idol good looks keep things pretty firmly in “romantic” territory. It’s a modern love story, mediated by surveillance and law enforcement, but real nonetheless. As Vischnevetsky writes, “Scott was an artist — specifically, he was a popular artist, one who worked in popular genres and idioms. He wasn’t a stealth intellectual. He wasn’t subversive.” For all his obsessive attention to layered, stacked images and wild, superimposed frames, Tony was a proud entertainer who believed in the power of pulp. His unpretentious temperament is sorely missed in today’s cinematic landscape. Better an overload of ostentatious visual ideas than the dearth we are faced with now.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 26

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