A Portrait of the Auteur as a Young Artist
Published on August 3rd, 2012 | by Matt Cohen0
Atop the roof of a tattered, Renaissance-style complex, a steady rain falls as the soft glow of the sun begins to lighten up the frame. A bloodied and beaten Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is dangling off the side of the building. He’s hoisted up by brooding blond replicant Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), and before he has the chance to rise to his feet, Hauer delivers a moving, eloquent monologue that both beautifully quotes William Blake and aptly wraps the narrative, plot, and thematic notions implicitly together. Upon Hauer’s final word, the rain ceases and daylight peaks—for the first time in the film—just as a white dove flies away into the sky in slow motion, and Batty breathes his final breath.
Sitting in a robin’s egg-blue 1966 Ford Thunderbird convertible a hundred yards from the Grand Canyon, Thelma (Geena Davis) and Louise (Susan Sarandon), helplessly at the end of the line, are cornered by an arsenal of police. In a moment of pure camaraderie and desperation, Thelma turns to Louise and says, “Let’s not get caught…let’s keep going.” Louise agrees and the two zoom off toward their certain demise in slow motion as Detective Hal Slocumb (Harvey Keitel) chases after them. In their final moments, the camera pulls in tight as they clasp hands together, and a polaroid of the two friends flurries out of the car as they plummet off the cliff.
A gruff gladiator enters a packed Roman Colosseum and draws his sword as he’s greeted by a band of heavily armed and armored warriors. In a matter of a minute, Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) defeats all seven foes, beheading the last in a barbaric finale. As the crowd speechlessly stares, Maximus throws up his hands, sword in tow, and shouts: “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you’re here?” He then throws his sword down, spits, and leaves as the crowd roars and begins cheering, “Spaniard! Spaniard!”
These iconic scenes appear, respectively, in Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” “Thelma and Louise,” and “Gladiator.” Although they have little to do with one another narratively, or even in terms of genre, they’re all considered masterpieces. But as revered and lauded as many of Scott’s films have been, he’s had one of the most uneven and indecipherable careers of a major director in recent decades. From his early exercises in science fiction and fantasy, “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” and “Legend,” to his later experimentation in period epics, “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” and “Robin Hood,” Scott has never shied away from exploring starkly different genres. Though what distinguishes Scott’s career from auteurs whose body of work is markedly distinct and thus somewhat one-note, is a keen desire to challenge his abilities by not repeating himself. He’s a director whose career reflects a constant urge to not stay in any one place for too long. Moving from sci-fi to noir (“Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Black Rain”), to drama war (“G.I. Jane,” “Black Hawk Down”), sprinkled with a variety of period pieces (“The Duellists,” “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “American Gangster”), and other odds and ends scattered in between (“White Squall,” “Hannibal,” “Matchstick Men,” “A Good Year,” “Body of Lies”), Scott’s scattershot oeuvre is a testament to his hard-hitting work ethic. Indeed, the recent release of “Prometheus” marks the first time that Scott has revisited one of his old properties.
It’s easy to write Scott off as a director-for-hire, and in a way, he is one. Of the twenty features he’s directed, not one includes a screenwriting credit to his name (and what’s more, he’s only collaborated on more than one occasion with two screenwriters, Steve Zaillian and William Monohan). But the truth is that he’s an auteur-for-hire—a perfectionist so concerned with attaining his quintessential vision for whatever project to which he’s attached that he’s famously battled the very studios that hired him (it seems as though a week doesn’t go by during which a new “director’s cut” of one of his films pops up on my Amazon recommendations list). Perhaps the most well-documented account of such a battle is the one that ensued over “Blade Runner,” which has seven (known) versions, four of which are still circulating: the workprint version, the San Diego sneak preview, the U.S. theatrical version, the international cut, the U.S. broadcast cut, Scott’s approved director’s cut, and—finally—his final cut. It’s an exhaustive list but a prime example of Scott’s commitment to his art. He’ll fight for his complete vision to come to fruition, even if it’s twenty-five years later (when his final cut of “Blade Runner’s” was released).
Scott’s striking filmmaking style—with its grandiose production design, atmospheric lighting and mise-en-scène, and technical innovation—has produced some of cinema’s most iconic and memorable moments. Scott began his artistic career at the West Hartlepool College of Art, where he graduated with a Design degree before moving on to the Royal College of Art in London to receive a bachelor’s degree from the college’s Film Arts school. Scott’s love of fine art has defined most of his career, from his early work as a set designer with the BBC (at one point, Scott was assigned to design the iconic Daleks in “Doctor Who,” but passed on it to begin work on another project), to the hand-drawn storyboards he has sketched in tremendous detail for most of his films. Thus it came as no surprise that when Scott was hired to direct his first feature, “The Duellists”—an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad short story concerning two French officers in the Napoleonic Wars who cross swords in a series of bloody grudge matches over the course of their long careers—critics lauded the film’s lush, naturalistic, painting-like cinematography. Through the course of Scott’s career, most of his films can be best remembered as a series of gorgeously composed and masterfully framed sprawling paintings—a testament to the moving image in the most literal of senses. From the dark, smoky, noirish, futuristic urban jungle of “Blade Runner,” and similarly, “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Black Rain,” to the soft, sweeping landscapes present throughout Scott’s series of period epics (“Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “1492: A Conquest of Paradise”), and most recently, the infusion of both styles in “Prometheus,” Scott’s brushstroke is perhaps the most defined among modern auteurs (save, perhaps, for Wes Anderson’s pastiche palette).
Like the filmographies of his contemporaries Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater, Scott’s filmography is defined not by thematic variations within a single genre, but by common themes and narrative techniques carried across multiple genres. Although Scott’s most distinguishable trait is his elaborately designed sets and painterly mise-en-scène, he exhibits a number of commonalities that define his body of work. Certainly a discussion of modern feminism in film is incomplete without a lengthy analysis of Ridley Scott. Although “Alien” was a landmark in modern sci-fi/horror, behind its rapacious aliens and sleek sets was a radical narrative that pioneered femininity in fetish filmmaking. When first introduced to the crew of the ill-fated Nostromo, few would guess that Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley would turn out to be the hard-hitting, resourceful, and only surviving member of the crew. Less than a year earlier, in his breakthrough film, “Halloween,” the director John Carpenter had introduced Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis), a character who would become horror’s most tenacious damsel-in-distress and shape the formula of decades of slasher films to come. But it was Weaver’s Ellen Ripley who would transform the tropes of sci-fi/horror/action films completely. “Alien” was one of a small handful of pioneering sci-fi films to have a heroine at its center, but more specifically, a heroine whose nature was more assured than and superior to those of her masculine counterparts. Scott’s fascination with strong female leads would continue throughout his career, most famously in “Thelma and Louise,” which provided the visceral pleasure of two blustered and abused housewives taking revenge on the male libido , and “G.I. Jane,” which found its female lead making great strides to prove her worth among her male counterparts in the uber-macho military environment.
Considering that he grew up in a military family, it’s no surprise that Ridley Scott has revisited the genre numerous times throughout his career. “G.I. Jane” notwithstanding, Scott’s fascination with military stories spans many eras and cultures throughout history, but never ceases to find common narrative themes throughout. While “G.I. Jane” and “Black Hawk Down” find their characters persevering in contemporary military settings in the most seemingly hopeless situations set, films such as “The Duellists,” “1492: Conquest of Paradise,” “Gladiator,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” and “Robin Hood” still share a common sense of military camaraderie and perseverance, although within different historical contexts. The son of a Colonel in the Royal Army, Scott grew up traveling a lot, and in his early years went weeks—sometimes even months—without seeing his father. Through his military films, it’s clear how his childhood and his father’s influence shaped his sense of collegial harmony to overcome great obstacles within the military, but what’s most interesting about Scott’s childhood and relationship with his father that shines through many of his films is his fascination with the father/son relationship.
A conflict between a father and son is perhaps the most common theme within Scott’s seemingly disconnected body of work. In “Gladiator,” in “Kingdom of Heaven,” and even in “Blade Runner,” a character meeting his father for the first time as an adult plays heavily into the narrative. In “Blade Runner,” Batty kills his “father,” Tyrell, after meeting him for the first time, and in “Gladiator,” Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) murders his father Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). Even in Scott’s more atypical films, such as “Matchstick Men” and “A Good Year,” the theme of the loss or gain of a paternal figure is elemental in the development of the narrative. But what is Scott trying say about paternal roles in his films? As a former commercial director who essentially shifted that working ideology to film, Scott has more or less a personal detachment from his professional life. But his attraction to scripts with complicated paternal narratives is perhaps the best insight into Ridley Scott, the person, rather than Ridley Scott, the artist. (His brother, the director Tony Scott, seems to exhibit a similar fascination with complicated paternal relationships, particularly in the film “Man on Fire.”)
Despite these deep thematic commonalities throughout his work, Scott—more often than not—doesn’t get it right. Nearly half of his catalog is certified “rotten” on RottenTomatoes.com, and his biggest detractors write him off as nothing more than a commercial director brought on to do movies. It’s a fair argument, and one that’s hard to refute at times. “A Good Year,” starring Russell Crowe as a London-based investment banker who leaves his posh lifestyle for a vineyard he inherited from his uncle (Albert Finney) is dreadful, to say the least, but its faults mainly lie in the uneven script and in Crowe’s faltering attempt at comedy. In fact, its one saving grace (if you can go so far as to call it that) is the lush, pastoral wide shots of the sweeping Provence landscape that directly recalls the look of “The Duellists.” But in contrast to “A Good Year,” it’s hard to pin the blame on anyone but Scott for his abysmal “Silence of the Lambs” sequel “Hannibal.” Cartoonish in tone and far from the center of Jonathan Demme’s masterpiece, “Hannibal” succeeds only in being a well-manicured mess, as do his most well-documented critical failures “Robin Hood” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” But that’s part of Scott’s brilliance as an auteur—even when he fails, he fails beautifully, often with several memorable and iconic scenes that tend to stick with you for the long run.
Midway through “Prometheus,” the film’s harrowed heroine Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) becomes pregnant with an alien entity after a night spent with her infected lover Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green). As the alien rapidly grows inside of her, she staggers through the ship’s metallic halls, desperately seeking solace from the unknown terror brewing inside of her. She happens upon a self-surgical medical pod, commands it to perform a cesarean section, and frantically climbs inside, sealing herself in. Marc Streitenfeld’s gloriously brooding score builds as the fast-growing alien fetus thrashes around in her abdomen and the machine begins to slice her belly open with a high-powered laser. In what is arguably one of the most gruesome scenes of the year, a slimy, tentacled alien bursts out of Shaw, and as the machine quickly stitches her up, she commands it to sterilize and neutralize the horror that just crawled from her womb.
Though “Prometheus”’s muddled plot and confusing script have divided critics, one thing is unanimous: Ridley Scott’s visual flair is just as marvelous as ever. Scott plays to his strengths, as the film features a surprisingly effective and dazzling use of 3D (no doubt a rarity these days), as well as elaborately awe-inspiring set designs and mise-en-scène. It’s too soon to see whether “Prometheus”’s abortion scene is destined to become another iconic cinematic moment like the infamous chest-bursting scene in “Alien” or the ones in “Blade Runner,” “Thelma and Louise,” and “Gladiator,” but it’s certainly a prime example of a grand auteur still moving his brushstrokes in new directions after over three decades.