As you have of course heard by now, director Tony Scott committed suicide on Sunday at the age of 68. The early rumor that he may have been recently diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer — which at least offered a plausible, if tragic, explanation for his decision to take his own life — has now been denied by his family. Which leaves us back to wondering what could have driven him to such extreme action.
Scott’s films have received mixed reviews overall, which you’d never guess judging by some of the tributes on Twitter over the past couple of days, some of which appear to indicate that Scott was a genius unrecognized in his time. Certainly there were ways in which Scott was a trailblazer — his Top Gun set a new standard for action movies, though some would debate whether that was a positive move for cinema — and certainly it’s understandable that fans and critics want to pay their respects. (I’m not going to link to any of those tweets because I don’t want to look like I’m picking on anyone in particular, because I’m absolutely not.) But I’m not sure that it fairly honors Scott to pretend that he was something that he was not. His movies could be enjoyable. Not all of them were. Sometimes they were a mess. Sometimes they were electric. Often they were somewhere in the middle. Perhaps he would have someday made a film that would be generally recognized as truly great — it’s very sad to know that his chance has now passed.
What is the best way to honor the life and work of a filmmaker who dies too soon? Should we watch his or her films anew? Does an untimely death change our perspective on the work? (Should it?) While it may be a very human instinct to be overgenerous in our appreciation of an artist, is that fair, to the artist, to the legacy, to ourselves? Should how a filmmaker’s work was received during his or her life change how we honor them after they die?
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