Questioning humanity in Blade Runner

Questioning humanity in Blade Runner

 

poster available at: http://mules9.com/bladerun

I think the first time I really contemplated mortality with an adult mind was after watching the “Tears in Rain” monologue of replicant Roy Batty. At the time, I suddenly found the idea of  being human, with a finite existence, all at once liberating, exhilarating and immeasurably sad and terrifying.  Also, I suddenly found immortality and eternity equally terrifying. Like many of the critics of the day, I didn’t quite grasp the clairvoyance of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). It was darker and more profound than I could understand. But by so effectively blurring the lines between robot and human, the film forced me think, or inspired me to think, on what it would really mean to live forever, on what it means to be human, and if there is any real value in empathy.

I always enjoy bleakness and gloom in films, and I have always been attracted to dystopian themes, especially in dense urban environments, and I am not sure why. Maybe it is the contrast of the hopelessness of the future with the relative banality of the present day that clarifies drama. Perhaps it appeals to that melancholic introvert in me. Whatever the reason, I find these settings ideal for a story.

There are many superficial qualities of Blade Runner that have garnered much praise (Click here for a synopsis of the movie): clever use of light, gritty and realistic sets, the use of rain and water, the prophetic ideas of future society, the unmistakable (and strangely dated yet timeless) music of Vangelis, the poetic dialogues and monologues in Hampton Fancher´s script.  By superficial I don’t mean frivolous. Any one of these elements alone would have made an impression, but they would not have had the

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Rachael, beginning to suspect that she may not be human like she´s been told.

collective power of all of them together.  I think the contrasts are particularly powerful in Blade Runner, and they go well beyond a simple human-robot dichotomy. The extremes of light rapidly change from blinding to pitch. The squalid and impure environment of the city and the lavish quarters of a well-off CEO. The violent Batty who searches for a longer life and the tender, beautiful android who does’t know she’s been manufactured. The architecture of the Mayan-esque pyramid of the Tyrell Corporation building set between towering modern skyscrapers. The loner amongst the masses. These contrasts are layers that enrich the film and allow us to understand the characters and the extremes that they represent, and therefore we begin a new understanding of what it means to be human.

Those who label Blade Runner parody rather than a fine work of pastiche simply haven’t really seen the movie. Openly adopting film noir, weaving the running narrative of a reflective, lonesome and detached man on a hapless mission of redemption in a post nuclear holocaust, Blade Runner showed us how human good sci-fi can and should be. And the results could have been disastrous, but they were not. The humanity and nostalgia complement what might otherwise be just another example of our lazy concept of an automated, hyper-computerized future (most of modern science fiction).

Picture: Warner Bros.

Part of the dystopian feel comes in the form of a sort of Marxist critique of capitalism and how an all-encompassing corporate environment isolates and delegitimizes the individual.  The decadence in the movie, perhaps seen to some as exaggerated, is portrayed as a direct result of a specific system run rampant on the world. We have all seen what the excesses of commercialism and capitalism can do to the mind, soul, and our sense of creativity.  In Blade Runner, it seems to me this theme is purposely pervasive and hyperbolic. Over everything (also quite literally, with blimps and police patrols above) looms an imposing presence, the towering god-like presence of the Tyrell Corporation, a complex but intentionally crafted system governing an ethnically diverse population that is so desensitized that it isn´t interested in human connections. Yet it somehow operates, albeit in an overwhelming chaos where the dreams and desires of humans are rendered almost meaningless (and those of a robot less than meaningless).  Deckard is a loner (it seems by choice), the replicants are slaves who, in practice, are assigned a wholly meaningless existence other than servitude to the all-encompassing system. The inherent worth of both humans and replicants is gauged by their productivity. Around each English-speaking character is a sea of humanity speaking a foreign language, intensifying the isolation and the interaction between those characters. Talk about a plausible dystopia.

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Inside the lush office of the Tyrell Corporation.

Another aspect of Blade Runner that has left an impression on me is the idea of memories and our concept of remembering.  Replicants receive fragmented memories from their creators, contrived ideas, sometimes drawn from reality, other times constructed.  Deckard, whether or not he himself is a replicant, is forced to contemplate the value of memories and how they validate our sentience (and perhaps more importantly, the “sentience” of artificially manufactured androids). Our distant memories are often dubious and our connection to the past can be tenuous.  Sometimes we invent or embellish past events, sometimes we block out the traumatic ones. Sometimes a smell or a song will bring back a feeling or a vague memory that we can´t quite precipitate. But it seems that these memories are a large part of what separate us from artificial intelligence. I find that Blade Runner, amongst its many questions, asks: In the end is there all that much that would set us apart?

 

 

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Christmas Reading

The prospect of time off to write and read instills a deep sense of happiness and calm in me.  These are some of the books that I’ll be taking to the mountain village of La Granja to read between wines and writing. Click title links or book cover image for more info.  Reviews to come later on this blogito…

Merry Christmas!

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Michel Faber’s book Under the Skin, whigh the excellent film was based on. After researching the story itself, I found that the book reveals much that the (well done) minimalistic film kept hidden.

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Admittedly, I haven’t read much historical fiction, but I trust Gore Vidal to be reliable and honest in a way most other writers cannot be.  If one can separate the man from the work (his occasional grumps and stupid rants), he reveals a talent for writing that could make a 657-page account of Lincoln worth reading.

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Largely unknown to Americans, P.G. Wodehouse is a treasure for many readers of English. His particular sense of humor is lauded by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry, amongst others, and that is all I need to discover a new way to laugh.  This is a collection that is recommended by Fry.

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I discovered Ted Chiang in college, a light of hope for those in the short story field, and I remembered him recently. He has a wonderful way of mixing sci-fi and literary short story. The new film “Arrival,” a truly intelligent alien film (for a change), is based on his story “Stories of Your Life,” and delves into the linguistics of communicating with an alien.

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Christopher Hitchens admired our third President in ways that have been largely forgotten in today’s indentity politics and partisan climate. But Hitchens, of course, was a measured, objective and balanced study, and when writing about subjects that can be politicized and hijacked, there is sometimes little more valuable in nonfiction work.

 

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Miguel Delibes wrote a historical novel on the turbulent time of the late 16th century Castile, during the Spanish Inquisition and the Age of Discovery. Set in Valladolid 4 years after the Junta de Valladolid, and at the time of Martin Luther’s beginning of the Protestant Refromation, this novel will serve to inform.

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I have been wanting to read this one for as long as I’ve been interested in travel and reading (and writing). An essential in the library of any travel writer, in my opinion.

 

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Antonio Machado is a treasure in Spain, one of the greats of the “generation of 1898.”  I have a lasting interest in literature that is engaged with the landscape of a place.  This book is a collection of poetry about Castilla, a place near to my heart and home.  Presented bilingually, as any translation of poetry should be.

 

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Camilo José Cela is another Spanish treasure, and a Nobel Prize winner who is profoundly connected to the landscape of places where he lived and visited.  Another essential read for those interested in the culture of Spain.

 

Two Favorites from Werner Herzog

Two of my favorite films, both work of Werner Herzog, that remind me of true story telling and human struggle through eccentric characters.

Fitzcarraldo, a film in which the crew actually hauled a ship up a mountain and back down the other side.  An incredible story, accentuated by the always insane Klaus Kinski.

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Aguirre, Wrath of God.   A fictionalized depiction of the Spanish search for El Dorado, and the frenzied megalomania and insanity that may have resulted. Herzog has some raw scenes in this one that will remind you what cinema should be.  Incredible movie from start to finish.

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My best films of 2014

Venus-in-FurLists fever is fleeting, and it catches me at this time of year, as if I´m attempting to itemize my life suddenly before the bell of reckoning rings on New Year´s Eve.  This list of films isn´t really even a best list of 2014, as some of them are from other years, which I´ve only discovered, or got around to seeing, this year.  For me, movie watching has usually been an intensely private activity, and each film affects me differently and makes me think about something in an unexpected way. But these are share-worthy.  Of the 1200, more or less, films released in 2013 and 2014, there are a few missing from this list, and there is probably a reason for that.

First, movies I haven´t seen that I am reluctantly excited about:

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard)

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)

Life of Riley (Alain Resnais)

The Galapagos Affair ( Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine)

Gaby Baby Doll (Sophie Letourneur)

Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)

Thou Wast Wild and Lovely (Josephine Decker)

 

 

Diplomatie Volker Schlöndorff   2014

A historical drama that depicts the relationship between Dietrich von Choltitz, the German military governor of occupied Paris, and Swedish consul-general Raoul Nordling. A fictionalized account of an important moment in history, when the world almost lost the City of Lights.  Both actors are thrilling to watch, even as the ending of the story is already known.

Jodorowsky´s Dune — Frank Pavich   2013

The story of cult film director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ambitious but ultimately doomed film adaptation of the seminal science fiction novel.  A great account of the kind of eccentric the world needs as a guide through the creative void that is Hollywood. An incredible documentary.

The Grand Budapest Hotel — Wes Anderson 2014

A hilarious, perfectly cast, Eastern Bloc alpine fantasy made by Wes Anderson in all his stylized, curating madness.  Ralph Fiennes is brilliant and the props and cardboard scenery form a perfect homage to past genres.  Anderson in top form.

The GatekeepersDror Moreh  2012

An honest, revealing documentary narrated by the voices that carry weight, featuring interviews with all surviving former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli security agency whose activities and membership are closely held state secrets.

The Missing Picture Rithy Panh — 2013

Rithy Panh uses clay figures, archival footage, and his narration to recreate the atrocities Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge committed between 1975 and 1979.  Another rare documentary that is subjective yet effective and educational about human evil and appalling atrocities that are easily forgotten or never really known at all.

The Rocket Kim Mordaunt — 2013

A moving film about innoence amidst the ignorance of elders and the poison of superstition.

 

A Most Wanted ManAnton Corbijn  2014

A Chechen Muslim illegally immigrates to Hamburg, where he gets caught in the international war on terror.  One of the last demonstrations of Philip Seymour Hoffman´s impeccable abilities.  An intriguing if slightly slow-moving story that rings true in today´s fatalistic political reality.  It is complex and bleak, just as in John le Carré´s world.

Venus in Fur –Roman Polanski 2014

A delightful version of David Ives´ play, with just the right amount of perversion and plot twists.  A great script, wonderful performance by Emmanuelle Seigner.  Wonderful use of a small stage and minimal cast.

Under the Skin — Jonathan Glazer 2014

A cold, bleak minimalist movie about an alien who visits earth to seduce men to dark places in order to feed them to her unseen master.  It may be beneficial to the viewer never to have heard of the book on which it is based.  Set in dreary Scotland, the unnerving atmosphere is perfectly complemented by a soundtrack that drones and grinds you to a hypnotic state.

 

LockeSteven Knight 2014

A one-man cast set in a driving car. I love movies with small casts and simple settings.  Wonderfully suspenseful through a great performance by Hardy, who negotiates with, by all accounts, a flawless Welsh accent.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive — Jim Jarmusch   2014

A dark vampire movie, set completely at night.  It never pushes itself to the ridiculous, as most vampire films do.  The acting performances are perfect, although many looking to repress their faculties of imagination (an approach to film viewing that I´ve found disappointingly common) may find the story slow and without bite.

 

Ernest & Celestine — Stéphae Aubier, Vincent Patar, Benjamin Renner  2013

A sweet Belgian animated film about a mouse and a mischievous bear.

The Last of the Unjust — Claude Lanzmann 2014

An essential documentary with depth that doesn´t trim or edit details.  Over three hours long, this film demonstrates that it is most often unwise to condense historical depictions to standard, audience-friendly formats.

From imdb:

A place: Theresienstadt. A unique place of propaganda which Adolf Eichmann called the “model ghetto”, designed to mislead the world and Jewish people regarding its real nature, to be the last step before the gas chamber. A man: Benjamin Murmelstein, last president of the Theresienstadt Jewish Council, a fallen hero condemned to exile, who was forced to negotiate day after day from 1938 until the end of the war with Eichmann, to whose trial Murmelstein wasn’t even called to testify. Even though he was without a doubt the one who knew the Nazi executioner best. More than twenty-five years after Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s new film reveals a little-known yet fundamental aspect of the Holocaust, and sheds light on the origins of the “Final Solution” like never before.

Nymphomaniac, Volume 1 — Lars Von Trier 2014

No one can gorgeously ruin your day like Von Trier.  Notwithstanding a beautiful lead actress, a provocative title, and the director´s reputation for instilling simultaneous feelings of dread, arousal, fear and wonder (as with my similar view of Gaspar Noé, I divide my movie-watching life into two parts, the innocent and the tainted, divided by the trauma of Von Trier´s “Antichrist”) there is thankfully little that is sexy or lustful in Nymphomaniac.  Instead, what is shown to us is an image of violence and hopelessness that is tied together (or should I say tied down) by beautiful imagery. What Von Trier does (as he does best, when he´s not pissing people off) is to weave a story out of seemingly nothing, using, some may say abusing, simile and metaphor in a way that renews the vitality of the process of storytelling.  Still, there is plenty to be scandalized about in both parts of this movie. Apart from Charlotte Gainsbourg´s mere presence, Volume 2 is mostly a disappointment.

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A Hotel in the Mountains

o-GRAND-BUDAPEST-HOTEL-POSTER-facebookThere is something about the calculation of Wes Anderson that interests me, hopefully not because of my own OCD-driven obsession with symmetry, but probably because there are genuine moments and themes that emerge, successfully, from all the apparent zaniness and hyperbole.  Often he manages to conjure meaning unexpectedly and, in retrospect, under wholly irrational circumstances.  The actions and events in Grand Budapest Hotel are often impossible, and settings are sometimes unabashedly as fake as View-Master slides, yet there is a genuine satisfaction steeped in a suspension of disbelief that all-out Jerry Lewis slapstick would never allow.  Add to that a quixotic main character, M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), a hotel concierge who is a silly anachronism himself (always an interesting character to me), and whose dialogue is well-crafted and at its best when it breaks from the rigid posh spewing he so earnestly tries to maintain.   Some of the funniest moments are when he is forced into tantrums or self-mockery, and the most touching moments are when he unknowingly forgets all about his superiority complex.

Admittedly, the traveler-adventurer boy in me laps up the simple nostalgia of Grand Budapest Hotel, set in an old Europe on the brink of fascist incursion and with its consistent allusions to alpine life in vaguely Eastern Bloc settings (check out these silent scenes from 1931). And I also have a soft spot for characters who childishly struggle to make the point that style and quality are important, however silly and pretentious they may come off in the end.

Some of the now standard Wes Anderson annoyances, (for some reason, when I see purposefully placed taxidermy or emulations of Bob Ross paintings, I want to stab a hipster in the beard with fork) are in danger of causing distraction by way of blatant catering to a certain demographic (the cult followers of Wes Anderson, for example). Is it really necessary to set up every scene as a curated window display? Even Stanley Kubrick must have suspected that such obsessive attention to detail could come off as little more than marginally interesting manifestations of compulsion.  And I wish he wouldn´t  be obliged to include the same faces in different clothing (Owen Wilson, Bill FanckMovie2-221x300Murray, Jason Schwartzman, etc.) whose cameos detract from the movie and seem to serve little purpose in and of themselves; that cuteness wore off three movies ago.

 But Anderson has proven that he can be effective in crafting well-adjusted nostalgia with a story driven by a narrator, a much-used formula that is so often botched by others (ehem…Woody Allen). Perhaps this will be considered an example of when a director didn´t ruin it for the rest of us once he realized he could do whatever he wanted.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Trailer.

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And some other movie bits that I´ve been stuck on lately:

A great long shot in Leos Carax´s ¨Mauvais Sang¨in which is now a nostalgic epithet of the bygone age of the radio and the joy of its unpredictability, and an expression of the dense weight of being in love and self-absorbed.

A video essay on Nagisa Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970).  An intriguing mix of the hero tragedy, photography and art, and social change and pressures, in the pervading setting of a modern city.

The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Video Essay)

And some groovy links for movie-goers

Cinephiliea and Beyond 

Traffaut: Interview with Hitchcock

vertigoDavid Rakoff wrote that, “[nothing] assails the writer’s credibility more than the pleasant childhood”.  This could be extended to movie-makers, and it is tempting to dig for a troubled past in the artist, particularly an artist who likes to put an audience at unease, like Alfred Hitchcock.

To François Traffaut’s, the prospect of an interview with Hitchcock must have piqued again his interest in the relationship between childhood experiences and artistic expression. Traffaut had a troubled childhood, as beautifully shown in his Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows), and he begins this engaging interview with Hitchcock with a question about a story, sensationalized as it turns out, of his father locking him up as a very young boy in a police station.

The rest of the interview, held in 1962 while The Birds was in post-production, ends up being an education in the value and definition of drama and suspense, through the engaging voice of Hitchcock, and of his history of cinema, with some surprising insight into his movies, Vertigo in particular.

For the entire audio collection, click here.