Saturday, November 17, 2007

I've Seen Things

In my life, I've heard many films called "an uncompromising vision of the future," and it is after some thought that I'm willing to make the leap and say that most of the other films that garnered this label simply don't deserve it. Blade Runner does.

It's officially been over a week since my last post. I'll use the excuse that I've been waiting, letting you all stew on what that damned eye could even mean. Also, that's a good excuse for me being busy and out of sorts this past week. Also, if you read the comments, my friend Andrew revealed his expert analysis of me, pictures on my blogs, and/or eyes by noting that the screen-grab in my last post in fact belongs to Ridley Scott's 1982 neo-noir, cyberpunk film, Blade Runner.

I recently had the opportunity to see what I came to realize was my favorite film at the AMC Empire 25 on 42nd St. in New York, in it's latest and potentially last "Final Cut" form, and on digital projection at that. The experience highlighted the aspects of the film that appealed to me going in, and made me realize things that may have always appealed to me without being so apparent.

Without art we would be nothing but foreground and live entirely in the spell of that perspective which makes what is closest at hand and most vulgar appear as if it were vast, and reality. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Even though the film opens with a text-scroll, explaining the setting and in as clearly as possible readying us for what is about to happen, and what themes are about to be explored, it isn't the narrative or the story that first strikes me in Blade Runner. It is unsurprisingly the aesthetic completeness that is what strikes me most about the film. The first thing that we see is fire shooting up over a dystopian sprawl. Even as the flying car we've been promised zips towards and past the camera, there is no mistaking this future for the clean, white-washed one of the Jetsons. There is something barbaric, something sparse in these opening moments of the film. Vangelis' magnificent score rolls in alongside the stunning visuals, and each note struck pushes us closer to the edge of our seats. We're about to see something, and we know it. The way the lightning strikes, and how the flame erupts upwards - it is as if Scott has captured that very point in the decay of a thing that resembles its own conception.

Appropriate, since in many ways it is the theme of irreversible decay that helps to keep the film relevant today. Screenwriter Hampton Francher's adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is less than faithful, but in the same way that a Miles Davis version of a Gershwin song isn't faithful; It comes with a change in tempo and pacing, which in turn bring along a turn of theme. While the book languishes in the question of humanity, navel-gazing as it attempts to answer it, the film successfully demonstrates the true difficulty of the question by posing it to us in the frame of activity, of a bustling city and quick, snap decisions.

However, it is in the film's ability to show us empty spaces, and thoroughly hollow time (all scored with haunting melodies), that it lectures us about the questions asked in the busy streets. The Tyrell Corporation's monolithic pyramid, J.F. Sebastian's funhouse apartment set inside of a desolate, lonely building, Chew's eye-laboratory,and (especially in the recent Final Cut version of the film) Deckard's apartment, specifically his balcony. These are places of contemplation and creation: the location of the Nexus 6's designs, Sebastian's toys, and Deckard's reclamation of his own humanity, in the form of affection for Rachael.

Ironically, it is in these locations that the differentiation between being a human, and having humanity, is revealed too. While Deckard may change, and become compassionate, he does so while it is revealed to us (and to him) that he is very likely not human at all. It is in Sebastian's world of imperfect (but self-aware) toys that we really meet the childlike Pris, and where we receive Roy Batty's treatise on what it means to be alive. And it is in the killing of his maker, Tyrell, in his plush, sky-high suite that Roy summarizes a core motif of cyberpunk as he asks "Can the maker repair what he makes?": That this world is beyond saving, and god, if there is one, isn't coming to the rescue.

What do I care about Jupiter? Justice is a human issue, and I do not need a god to teach it to me. - Jean-Paul Sartre

In fact, with Sebastian and Tyrell we have two stand-ins for god, both failures in different ways. Tyrell, for fear of being overthrown by his creations, has made it impossible for them live long enough to touch him, knocking down their Tower of Babel, so to speak, and causing them to lose faith in him, leading to his own death when they see that he is either unable, or unwilling to help them. (A common argument against the Omnipotent and Omni-benevolent god's existence is that in the face of disaster and evil, god appears no where.) Sebastian - himself a reflection of the Replicants' "accelerated decrepitude" (or vice versa - proves to fall to the opposite extreme of Tyrell. Instead of exerting mastery over the lives of things non-human, he bows his head to them, unable to resist the perfect beings that he had a hand in creating, and in doing so relinquishes any power he might have had over them.

It is no surprise that the philosophy that is explored in Blade Runner is existentialistic, as it has its roots in the noir films of the mid-century, which in turn were often cinematic tellings of early century hard-boiled detective fiction, which itself was heralded in France by the young existentialists for its examination of life. Just as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald detailed worlds free from divine order and rife with corruption and a dichotomic class structure, so does existentialism struggle with these themes, all of which are central to Scott's film. Blimps overhead remind us that the Earth is done for, and that (if we're rich enough) we should move off colony. Deckard's boss, Bryant, tells us that "If you're not cop, you're little people." And as the film's two gods are done away with - one going blind by his creation's hands as he died, and the other left alone to his mediocrity - we are left with the message that life will go on without them as much as it ever would've with them. "It's too bad she won't live," says mysterious but knowledgeable, cosmopolitan detective Gaff in reference to Rachael, "But then again, who does?"

The film echoes these early 20th century sentiments, while doing so in a then-30-years-from-now setting, emphasizing their eternal nature. And it does this so convincingly. Between the still awe inspiring sets and models, the most attention to extras I've ever seen, and the layer of Vangelis' musical brilliance, Scott creates a compelling world that makes the viewer concerned for its characters in ways that even some of the best film noir didn't. Despite the weight of the setting, it remains above all else a human story - using the force of the backdrop and atmosphere as a frame for the lives and questions which are center. It is by all means my favorite film.

I was assailed by memories of a life that wasn't mine anymore, but one in which I'd found the simplest and most lasting joys. - Albert Camus

But does that mean it is the best film I've ever seen? What does something being your favorite really mean? What does this mean about how and what I value? Sometime this week or next, look forward to my thoughts on these questions, with which I'll start a series in a new label-type: Meta-criticism.

1 comment:

Hex said...

I happened upon this post after a google search for images related to Blade Runner (sort of a funny story, last night I was sitting on my couch, and when I looked out the window of my apartment, a blimp was flying overhead with sort of a movie projector screen on the side of it -- I think it was filming for a football game/advertising the sponsor or something -- but instead of thinking "oh weird, a blimp." the first thing I could think of was this movie.)

Anyways, thinking about that incident, led me here -- and I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this, and pondering the questions it posed.