Sunday, August 12, 2012

Some Mostly Incoherent Thoughts on Blade Runner

For reasons that'll become apparent, my Blade Runner of choice is the 1991 Director's Cut, not the 2007 Final Cut. So let's use that as the master version here.

In the opening salvo of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, we are invited to "return to link by link along the iron chains of memory" to "the city which used us as its flora." Blade Runner's hauntingly omniscient opening sequence extends much the same invitation. 

The credits tick by over otherworldly bursts of percussion that melt into delicate flute melodies that in turn disintegrate into sirens, then back to percussion again. There's a hypnotic cycle in the music - an ebb and flow, an interplay between strong and soft, organic and synthetic, which asserts itself before we are even settled into our seats.

Replicant as a splash of red, the music suggests a tumble down the text

The expository crawl - which wastes no time painting the word "Replicant" in red, a color that, from eye shine to blood, will be associated with them for the duration - rolls up at us like so many others have, but at this moment the music does an interesting thing: it descends, sounding momentarily like a falling bomb and giving us the sensation that the words aren't rising, but instead we are falling down past them and landing on the next image: "LOS ANGELES, NOVEMBER 2019." 

Vision is a treacherous thing here.

We start up where Kubrick's 2001 left off. A huge eye filling with light as it sweeps through a strange city.  Eyes abound, disembodied and artificial. Artificial eyes slumped over Chew's shoulders, the hole blown through Leon's eye, the disembodied metal eye of the VK machine. By the end, a demigod is blinded.

And of course there's that famous red eye shine. But what is that, exactly? It's like a wall over the pupil, keeping us from getting in. Like the reflection of the fire in the opening and Tyrell's Coke bottle glasses. Eyes are not windows or magic glasses in Blade Runner, they're one-way glass, mirrors keeping the world out. 

Hope in the future is tantalizingly out of reach.

But we have that one eye, that one enormous eye taking in the future - we'll never know whose it is. Roy Batty returning to earth? Rick Deckard in a spinner? Dave Bowman, back from Jupiter? At any rate we are beyond the infinite. We have become the star children and entered the next phase of our evolution. A new life awaits us in the off-world colonies, a new Eden in the stars if we can get there.

There's a refrain of rising in the film - Deckard scales the Bradbury, Spinners lurch into the sky, elevators glide up 97 floors. There's hope in the sky, past the fog and gloom on the ground. Tyrell's towers project spotlights optimistically into the air, and the rounded design of the off-world blimp - perhaps the only such design in the film - hints at a softer world beyond.

Scene transition as an invasive act - shades of Batty's return home,  Holden prying...

And so we enter LA from the air, sweeping into the Tyrell Pyramid. We don't enter the building through a fade or a splice, but from a series of violent sutures. Exterior chop interior chop exterior chop interior. It is as though we are forcing ourselves into Holden's room, as though our very presence is invasive.

Batty descends

But for all this soaring, Blade Runner is a film about those who fell, and about those who cannot rise to begin with. "Fiery the angels fell," Roy Batty tells us, his artificial brain mutating Blake's poem America a Prophecy, which in the original said "the angels rose." Later, Roy falls from the stars in Tyrell's elevator, the blood of his maker on his hands. Roy moves among the broken people inhabiting LA who, buffeted between huge plumes of fire and smoke, may as well have been left behind by a rapture.

Roy's misquote is part of an understated motif throughout the film, which little-by-little adds up to something big. Throughout the film, there's a constant background chatter of details that lie. Zhora's Esper Machine photograph is not of her, for example. This a famous "blooper," but it's crucial to the film's themes which go far beyond that literal nonsense.  The audio playback of Holden's shooting changes on every listen. Until it was "corrected" in 2007, the microscopic serial number on the snake scale was wrong. Even that close-up of Zhora running through the glass to her death was (again, until it was corrected in the '07 Final Cut, which while technically incredible, makes the film just a bit more prosaic) obviously not Zhora.

The 2007 corrected snake scale. I like the old one more.

Seems to me that each and every instance of someone looking at a printout or through a lens reveals more uncertainty. Even in the little way that the surveillance footage of Leon's interrogation is squashed into the wrong aspect ratio. Everything seen is suspect, everything is tainted by the inherent uncertainty of observation - that treachery of perception in which eyes are walled up private things and we'll never get to know what someone else has seen or done, or even if what we've seen or done is really there.

This is because Blade Runner is a film that does not distinguish between memories and dreams. 

That's important because Blade Runner is a film that, more than anything, worries about how we depend on the past.

I brought up Durrell's Alexandria Quartet at the beginning here, and that wasn't just idle epigramming. That work, probably the best 20th century British literature has to offer, is a series of four intertwined novels chronicling sex and revolution in Egypt from a series of different perspectives. The idea was to explore Einstein's concept of relative time and Freud's belief that every sexual encounter is a union of four people. It is essentially a sexy temporal Rashomon.

Blade Runner does something similar. It places the future and the past in a holistic moment - robot Kaisers march underfoot, androids hide among mannequins, and at the center of it all is a machine that howls like an animal. It's a startling approach, one which demands a lot from the viewer.

At the heart of this temporal confusion lie the Replicants, who are driven by two impulses: Firstly, a horrible ache for a past they can never have. They are without origin and this drives them to madness. And yet, who among the human characters has any blood ties, any roots? There's not a semblance of familial ties anywhere in the film.

The Replicants' second impulse, obviously, is the need for a future - that most fundamental human need for hopes and goals. And yet again, who among the human characters can make the same claim? Perhaps Gaff's terrifying competitiveness with Deckard, but that's about it. Rick Deckard - what the hell does he want? What does he do?

Deckard's lonely old memory waltz apartment and Bryant's photos and buffalo hunt lamp.

He lurks on street corners eating fast food, he lives in a strange museum-piece of an apartment which is decorated with antiques and - significantly - unidentified and lonely daguerreotypes. Many other characters have a similar attachment to old photographs. Leon and his "precious photographs," Rachel and her heartbreaking signed picture of her mom, even Bryant has a lampshade decorated with old buffalo hunt pictures. What does anybody in the film do other than strip cars and talk to eyeballs? There is no future left - perhaps in the outer colonies there's a pulse, but here there seems to be nothing to do but wait for death in their crowded hell.

It's unusual to see a film set in the future this enmeshed in the past. 

It makes me think of Young Mr. Lincoln, in which events play out with an eerie inevitability*, predicated on something similar to, but not quite, dramatic irony - we are shown pure - downright aggressive - myth making. John Ford, genius as he was, constantly articulated this point visually, framing Abe Lincoln with diegetic Proscenium Arches in nearly every scene. 

Other smaller frames, whether diagetic TV screens or carved out of the architecture of the scene

In Blade Runner, Scott is working with a different kind of myth - a pulp rhapsody which reaches back to a few key, diverse elements ranging from the wrath of the Old Testament to the lonely heroes of film noir, and he too uses a few constant visual elements to remind us of our tenuous sense of time and place. Our frame is constantly invaded by other, smaller frames. Little TV screens, neon tongues, windows, small fires, and the omnipresent smog which keep us in a literal haze, the lulling fuzziness of a memory or a dream - a world in which every cubic inch of foggy steamy air has density as though through water, a world in which each rare ray of light makes noise.

This haze overwhelms the film. The smog of LA complements the visual density and overlapping frames. The whole film with the exception of a few piercing close-ups has the dazed, dreamy sense of looking through murky water. The entire film adopts the visual style (long, overlapping fades) of the first few minutes of Scott's earlier Alien, which took place between sleep and consciousness, or possibly, counter-intuitively of Stan Brakhage's childlike present tense in Anticipation of the Night.

 Dazed and dreamy, as if just awakening.

There's also a cyclic element (look at how many light sources are intermittent), a jittery repetition in which sights and sounds play out over themselves - like the brief premonition of Deckard saying the phrase "orange body, green legs" (a moment that compliments the child Roy Batty murdering his father); Leon and Pris demonstrating their strength by dipping their hands into first freezing then boiling water; or the ultimate repetition-with-variation of the sentence "time to die," spoken first with hatred, then repeated with love.

Intimate memories that mean nothing. The photograph briefly comes to life, only reiterating its unreliability.

It seems like things repeat constantly in this world, flickering back and forth like that dragon's tongue over Deckard's head while he eats. The word "purgatorial" comes to mind.  Past begets future begets past, until it all collapses in on itself and this future/past tense speculative-memory-waltz collapses in on itself into the horror of the eternal present.

The past fades in the fog, some untrustworthy memory of a dream or dream of a memory or realization that your cherished family photo is of somebody else. The future has left you behind, spirited off on a blimp to some other world. So you're lost in a constantly repeating meaningless imitation of life until some machine-men, literal imitations of life, fall from the sky and liberate you from the trauma of disconnection.

The eternal present.

As usual in Ridley Scott's science fiction, it took artificial life to recognize the wonder that is life, to want to burn brightly - like Tyrell says to Roy Batty, and like Batty's favorite poet William Blake once said to The Tyger.

*"1837 is in context of 1865, of Lincoln’s immolation, of what shall have been. […] A matrix of tenses has spun webs around a Lincoln haunted by his future." - Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Movies (seriously dudes, read Tag Gallagher)

1 comment:


    Really enjoyed revisiting this masterpiece through your lens. Thanks.