I was saddened to learn of the death of Tony Scott. This was mainly because a man had decided to take his own life, leaving friends and family bereft. The circumstances surrounding his death, the causes of his leap from a bridge, are still unclear, and speculation is not my business. I didn’t come here to eulogise Scott’s work, nor even to defend it. If you do want to read an eloquent and spirited case for the artistic value of his films, look no further than Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s stirring appreciation. I have little that is terribly positive to say about Scott’s – I have always find his style so pronounced and his angular, dyspraxic cutting so distancing, that I rarely warmed to a Tony Scott film.I make exceptions for True Romance (though I haven’t seen it since it was first released, and I suspect that it worked despite Scott’s direction, and not because of it, on the strength of its script and its supporting cast), Crimson Tide (a ridiculous but gripping thriller that demonstrated how Scott could wring the best out of Denzel Washington), and Loving Memory, his debut feature film.
Looking back at Loving Memory, it’s difficult to imagine it as the work of the same man who directed The Fan, The Hunger, Man on Fire, and Unstoppable. The scenario is simple: a young man is knocked down and killed by a brother and sister in their car. Instead of reporting the incident, they take his body home to their isolated farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors, where the woman (Rosamund Greenwood) proceeds to talk to him, and dresses him in the clothes of their older brother, who died from wounds sustained in the War many years earlier. The corpse of the young man becomes a physical placeholder for their grief, which has kept the pair in a kind of arrested development; he wordlessly attends to his mining, she keeps house and makes tea. This isn’t a plot. It’s more of a situation, a glimpse into lives thrown into shock by death but offered a sliver of variation in their routine by the appearance of a (dead) stranger. The young man provides an object for the woman’s remembrances of her older brother. She sees no need to dispose of the body (just as she saw no need to get rid of her brother’s body or convert his bedroom), because she is no longer cognisant of the passage of time and thus oblivious to the inevitable onset of decomposition.
If you really wanted to look for signs of late-period Tony Scott style in Loving Memory, you might point to the tightly controlled cinematography: even in this early feature (Scott was in his mid-twenties at the time of production), everything is precise. Some of this was shot by Scott himself, but most of it is handled by Chris Menges, who had shot Peter Watkins’ The War Game and Ken Loach’s Kes, and who would many years later film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, another film in which an uninterred corpse plays a major part. Loving Memory differs in its pacing, though, from anything Scott would turn his hand to in the future. Here, the camera drifts, slowly moving towards or away from its subject or taking in a room, never interpreting what it sees as macabre or horrific, but lending everything the same dispassionate significance. Heavy backlighting shows up the dimness of the farmhouse interior, and the shelter it provides from the bright outside. There is great sensitivity to objects and fabrics, as the house clogs up with artefacts of the past; see especially the sly visual gag of the untouched cups of tea that build up at the feet of the dead houseguest. It’s like The Bill Douglas Trilogy crossed with Weekend at Bernie‘s. Actually, it’s not at all like Weekend at Bernie’s, I just fancied a showstopping comparison. All of these fine details are lingered over, shots dissolve slowly into one another, using the syntax of cinema to convey an indeterminate passage of time. This is a far cry from the Tony Scott renowned for annoying critics with the twitchy frenetics of his jaggedy editing. Under the auspices of the BFI Production Board (this was their second feature), Scott worked under budgetary restraints that kept the work short (under an hour, limiting its distribution chances, unless it could be double-billed with something of similar length), concise and efficient. I can’t help feeling that the mood and atmosphere of this kind of filmmaking was carved into abstraction by the older Scott, who could certainly maintain tension, but arguably at the expense of atmosphere, subtlety and the slowness that lets you feel the discomfort of time spent looking unblinkingly (continuously) in on troubled people in a troubled place.