Saturday, May 12, 2012

Director Spotlight #7.4: Ridley Scott's short films

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. May’s director is the eternally meticulous Ridley Scott. Today’s entry covers a few miscellaneous entries in Scott’s filmography.

Boy and Bicycle Grade: A as a student film, 68 (B) as a work in Scott’s filmography

Ridley Scott made a name for himself in the film world with his towering masterpieces Alien and Blade Runner, and with his underrated debut film The Duellists, which won the Camera D’Or (Best First Film) prize at the Cannes Film Festival. But Scott’s first work as an filmmaker was his 1962 film Boy and Bicycle, a 27-minute short he made as a photography student at the Royal College of Art in London. The film isn’t brilliant by any standards, but it does show that Scott’s talents as a filmmaker were striking even at an early age.

The film follows a teenaged boy (Scott’s younger brother Tony) in working class London, riding his bicycle around to escape his family, smoke, and hang out on the London beaches. There’s not much of a plot, but rather a rambling internal monologue from Tony about his life. The film resembles an art-school version of the Angry Young Man films that were popular in Britain at the time (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Billy Liar). Tony Scott isn’t much of an actor (he would go on to be one of the lousiest directors in the business, with films like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, and Domino under his belt), and his internal monologue is so disconnected that it barely counts as anything more than background noise. As a piece of storytelling, Boy and Bicycle is weak sauce.

But then, the film’s draw isn’t the storytelling, and at this point Scott is only a photography student. And what gorgeous photography it is. Scott uses the working class London locations to his full advantage with his black and white film stock- it’s a towering city with a fog that seems to cover the world. Scott photographs the seaside as a gorgeous contrast to the crumbling buildings and shacks in London. The smokestacks, bridges, posters, and dripping water in a dilapidated shack are all lit with a low light that would be Scott’s calling card in his next handful of films (The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner). It’s by no means a stunning display of filmmaking, but it’s an atmospheric start to a master of atmosphere.

1984 Grade: 93 (A)

Scott would use his talents to his advantage as a commercial director in the 70s before getting his big break in film. As a side note, he also notably almost directed the second episode of Doctor Who, “The Daleks”, which would have meant that he would have designed the menacing aliens that have terrorized the show’s characters over the years (from what I understand- I’m not wholly familiar with the show). After the release of Blade Runner, Scott was called back into the commercial work to direct a commercial for Apple’s Macintosh computer. Dubbed 1984, the commercial is widely regarded as one of the greatest advertisements ever made. It’s not without reason- 1984 is a minute-long showcase for everything Ridley Scott does well.

In a futuristic dystopia, a large group of men and women march towards a giant room. They have shaved heads and drab clothing, and they all look virtually identical (with the exception of a few who wear weird face-masks reminiscent of the facehuggers from Alien). They sit before a giant blue telescreen where a Big Brother figure shouts propaganda to them. The commercial cuts to a woman in shorts and a tank top with a Macintosh logo on it. She looks like an Olympian dream, and she runs whilst carrying a sledgehammer. Police officers dressed in all-black can’t catch her. As she reaches the room, the Big Brother figure shouts “we shall prevail” as she swings the hammer through the air, tosses it, and smashes the screen. The assembled masses look in awe as a powerful wind sweeps through them. The announcer says that the Macintosh will show how “1984 won’t be like 1984”.

Scott’s meticulous control over production design is astonishing in this commercial. The sets are all incredible, and they’re filled with a heavy, oppressive fog that only adds to the ambient noise and hums. It all gives an eerie quality to the proceedings. The people, meanwhile, are all dressed in baggy grey uniforms. The woman contrasts them: she wears shorter clothing, and her short blonde hair provides color to a colorless world. When she smashes the telescreen, a heavy wind sweeps the fog out of the room. A more human element has been brought in, and it’s simply awe-inspiring. The influences are clear- Orwell, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (the marching oppressed masses in a futuristic world), and likely Scott’s own sci-fi works. Scott uses his expressionistic lighting and camerawork (including a dynamite tracking shot at the end), and the commercial stands out as a one-of-a-kind advertisement.

The symbols might be less interesting than most Ridley Scott works- the girl is Apple, the big blue screen is widely believed to be IBM, and the masses are…well, the masses. Apple and Steve Jobs had more to do with the content of the commercial (IBM’s Big Brother vs. the liberation of commerce), but the craftsmanship is pure Ridley Scott. What does it say, though, when perhaps the best of Scott’s post-Blade Runner works is a one-minute commercial?

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