Thursday, 8 December 2016

Have you ever retired a human by mistake?

Blade Runner
(1982)

(SPOILERS) There seems to be an increasing temperament of late that it’s okay not to like Blade Runner really all that much. Which is fine; no motion picture cow should be taken as sacrosanct. Not even Citizen Kane. I can’t say I remotely agree, though. Blade Runner’s a rare picture that only improves with each viewing, even given the best attempts of Sir Ridders to undermine its ambiguities and greatest strengths. But that’s the philosophical subtext, never Scott’s strongest suit, and given the rest of his filmography, it’s almost as if he tripped into it here. Where Blade Runner truly excels, exhibiting its director’s talents par excellence, is in world-building. This is an environment beyond any he has created; the uber-influential used future is a masterpiece of texture and ambience, a profoundly melancholy dystopia that nevertheless warmly embraces the viewer in its toxic arms.


And that’s principally because a fundamental part of what the picture is, every bit as much as the visuals, is the music. Vangelis’ score is entirely transportive, entirely mood-setting. It’s impossible to think of the film and not think of its soundtrack. And it’s like nothing else, standing apart from even the rest of the composer’s catalogue. From the repeated intonation of the projected geisha billboard to the sublime Memories of Green, it’s an amazing, aurally immersive experience that invests one in the cinematic landscape like no other (except, maybe, on a different level, Morricone’s contributions to Leone’s spaghetti westerns). It may well be that not going with Vangelis for the sequel is the right move (we could end up, like The Force Awakens re John Williams, with a pale imitation of past glories), but Jóhann Jóhannson has some enormous shoes to fill.


Bryant: I’ve got four skin jobs walking the streets. I need the old Blade Runner. I need your magic.

So much has been written about Blade Runner, I thought I’d take it as read that the sum of its parts represents a work of unalloyed genius and concentrate on a few areas I consider worthy of comment, be they ongoing areas of debate or slight tarnishes to an otherwise spotless copybook (for what movie is perfect?) One of these is: just how good a Blade Runner is Rick Deckard?


I mean, apart from it being entirely intentional to portray him as unheroic (he kills two replicants, but they’re both women, and in neither case is the depiction celebratory – he shoots Zora in the back, even if she goes down in a tragically beautiful slow motion crash, and Pris is left thrashing about like a wounded animal – and Batty very pointedly comments “Proud of yourself, little man?” There’s nothing seductive about the violence in Blade Runner, in an imitative sense; only Deckard’s gun is cool, and he doesn’t do anything cool with it).


Even buying that Deckard is out of the loop, it’s baffling that he’d be entirely clueless about the Nexus 6, that it’s a model given memories, and which is apparently significantly different in appearance to the average skin job (which makes you wonder how difficult it mustn’t have been to detect them previously). He generally appears to be remarkably ill-informed about the job he’s the best there is at. The philosophical end of the spectrum seems entirely foreign to him (“How can it not know what it is?”), which again suggests that before these Nexus 6s came along his job was fairly meat and potatoes. He doesn’t seem to have met Tyrell before (you’d have thought the industry would take briefings from those who policed its faulty hardware).


We’re told in the introductory text that, following the Nexus 6 mutiny, replicants were declared illegal on Earth; does Deckard know this (in which case, why doesn’t he know about the Nexus 6s?) and how does it match up with his saying that replicants coming to Earth is unusual (if this is pre-their being banned, does it mean that off-world replicants wouldn’t want to come there, so the Blade Runners were only investigating those that were Earth-bound? Even though the introduction specifically states they were used off world?) And post banning, do non-Deckard Blade Runners mostly sit around twiddling their thumbs?


Part of the problem is the feeling Ford correctly identified when he said Deckard was a detective who didn’t do any detecting (hence the inclusion of the scales scene, and the photo analysis; I’ve seen this picture loads of times, and I’m still never quite able to follow the photo magnification moves into the mirror image. It seems like clever detective work, so I’m forced to accept it). He’s encumbered with being a receptacle for exposition he should be aware of ("Memories! You're talking about memories!"). When he asks Rachel if the Tyrell owl is a fake, her “Of course it is” only really needed a “you twat” at the end. Whether or not he’s just playing dumb, he certainly comes across that way at times.


Rick Deckard: Say kiss me.

But it’s also an interesting, interior Ford performance, inexpressive and unsympathetic; you can see why the suits got nervous and Scott agreed to add the voice over, because Deckard goes no way towards meeting the audience halfway. At the centre of the picture is a romance that operates in an entirely functional manner. There’s no chemistry between Ford and Sean Young, and no real emotional bond between their characters.


The pivotal scene of “rough love” is admitted by all concerned to have been misjudged, where Deckard gives the woman what she doesn’t know she wants, forcibly (alternatively, and thematically, it might be seen to work; he treats the replicant like everyone else treats replicants, as a subordinate, a slave, to be done with whatever he so wishes, to behave like a pleasure model, à la Pris). Michael Deely suggested it had lost something in the edit, and Scott copped to the harshness in the way it was pushed probably being his fault, commenting that it was one of the least successful scenes, and that more words were needed. Katherine Haber said it “lacked tenderness” and didn’t come out the way it was meant to. Hampton Fancher observed that “Harrison turned it mean”, and he certainly has a bestial look on his face during the scene that says the opposite to Vangelis’ accompaniment.


I always felt Young was the picture’s weak spot, in a similar manner to Kim Greist in Brazil. Now I’m not so sure. I think it’s more a problem of Rachel being an entirely functional plot point; she doesn’t exist in her own right, unlike the other replicants. He reason to be is to reflect off Deckard. So, while Scott composes her and comports her stunningly, there’s no real emotional component, and no real insight into why either she or Deckard are supposed to feel what they feel towards each other.


Even this is justified to some extent by what is regarded as the picture’s greatest strength, that the nominal human relationship is far less resonant that the ones between the replicants, in particular Roy’s feelings for Pris. The parallel unfolding and insights regarding these two at JF Sebastian’s digs are affecting and involving in a way Deckard and Rachel simply aren’t, complete with the weird, skewed, domestic scenes between the trio, calculatedly manipulating the tragic Sebastian, but not in an entirely dispassionate manner.


And Hauer is just magnificent, in the way he holds himself, in the pauses and inflections (Scott called him naturally theatrical, in a positive way, and he’s quite right), the lingering dialogue; it’s this kind of element, the willingness to present non-naturalism in a natural way, that Scott has very much lost.


Roy Batty: Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it? That’s what it is to be a slave.

Of course, Batty and Pris are slaves who know they’re slaves; Deckard isn’t even aware of his inner processes. Whether or not he’s a replicant, he’s entirely a prisoner of his milieu (“If you’re not cop, you’re little people”). Even Tyrell is a slave, at least in the unfilmed conception of his character, where Batty kills his replicant, as seen, and then travels to the top of the building to find the real corpse of his designer in a sarcophagus (“It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker”). The only free agent is enterprise itself (“Commerce is our goal here at Tyrell”, Tyrell informs Deckard).


Rachel: Did you ever take the test yourself?

But the abiding point about Deckard’s is he/isn’t he a replicant status is one that Scott has rather beaten into the ground with his active insistence on a definite (and affirmative) answer. As Hampton Fancher commented in the Dangerous Days making of documentary “I don’t think anything should show Deckard’s a replicant. If you think that, you’re already wrong. It’s just a question mark is what’s interesting” Which is exactly it.


The intimations from Villeneuve that this aspect will be honoured, and Fancher being the writer of the screenplay, at least suggested Blade Runner 2049 won’t get stuck on elucidating this point in tiresomely Scott-like fashion (see him botching the space jockey in Prometheus for further evidence). But we’ll have to see. Sequels often talk a good talk and fail to deliver.


Aspects like Deckard’s glowing red eyes or deleted dialogue (“You’ve done a man’s job sir. But are you sure you are a man?”), and even the all-important unicorn addition run the danger of incrementally underlining the point too much. I’ve always been sceptical about the need for the unicorn, even though the Gaf’s origami is meaningless without it; it strays into leading by the nose.


Indeed, I admire the passion with which Frank Darabont holds forth his own take, that Deckard’s dream is merely a result of “thinking about her implanted memories”, which is very much extra-diegetic, but has its own acceptable logic. I agree with Fancher, that the idea should be there, but it should equally have no definite answer. Scott’s “You don’t get it, you’re a moron” summation is exactly why he’s become such a banal filmmaker since… well, it started when Legend went belly-up, sadly (Sebastian's toys display a level of incidental playfulness the director just can't replicate when he goes all out for humorous characters in his next movie).


Darabont over-states his case, but winningly so, and I think he’s absolutely spot-on when he says “The story really only works if Deckard is human. The entire theme, which is very sophisticated, unravels”; it’s a journey of a man rediscovering his humanity, and it takes those who are not human to show him. Sure, have the ambiguity, but that’s intellectual ambiguity. The emotional resonance is divested from the film if his status is black-and-white. As Peoples says, though, the picture isn’t answering the question, it’s asking it; it’s only the blundering Sir Ridders who’s divesting it of mystique (as he is also doing to his Alien origins).


I also revisited the original (well the original international) cut on this occasion of watching The Final Cut, something I hadn’t done in a quarter of a century; I think the last time was probably a cinema screening (the first time I’d seen it projected) about a year before I saw the then new “Director’s” cut on the big screen. I have to admit, the DC never seemed like a night-and-day thing, the way all the reviews raved about it at the time. I was far more wowed by being able to get the proper soundtrack, having previously had to make do with a pale imitation.


And, looking at the deleted scenes, unless there’s a whole raft of stuff that didn’t end up on the DVD release, there isn’t really that much thematic content that’s missing from the picture. Alternate versions of scenes with extraneous and unnecessary dialogue, but only a few scenes that add real value. And even with those, one can see why they were excised, as they pin down details where a sense of it all is more appropriate. 


So, the visits to Holden are interesting, but being told the replicants “aren’t just a bunch of muscle miners any more, they’re no different to your or me” further undermines the case of Deckard being particularly good at his job; if the replicants were that easy to spot, presumably anyone could do it. The scene where Bryant and Gaffe are observing the second Deckard-Holden conversation is my favourite though, with Gaffe giving the answers his boss wants to hear (“I spit on metaphysics, sir”), even though that too is ultimately reinforcing a point that can be readily discerned (the replicants are looking for God).


Deckard: Replicants weren’t supposed to have feelings. Neither were Blade Runners. What the hell was happening to me?

I never thought the original voiceover was something awful, probably because it was the only version I knew (Del Toro – “I love that voiceover!”) Even now, revisiting it, I don’t find it that intrusive (on the other hand, watching some of the deleted scenes, it becomes a barrage of unnecessary, indigestible over-enunciation). It isn’t like there isn’t clunky dialogue in the movie itself (“Talk about beauty and the beast. She’s both” is a line that could easily have come courtesy of the writer of the narration). I mean, it’s ripe, sure, but there isn’t even that much of it.


It’s only the ending, as Darabont attests, that grates horribly, from the forehead slapping obviousness of “I don’t know why he saved my life” to the logical, thematic and visual atrocity that is the final, beautiful unsullied landscape of The Shining footage, and the comfort blanket of Rachel having no termination date (“I didn’t know how long we’d have together. Who does?”) If anything, the version of the voiceover Scott had in the pipe was even worse (“I watched him die all night It was a long, slow thing. He never whimpered, he never quit…”)


Now, though, I’m so familiar with the Director’s and Final Cuts that it does seem entirely unnecessary. Divested of it, the world and its themes are allowed to breathe, as is the aural depth. It’s actually understandable, given the admissions of repeat viewings being necessary to really appreciate the merits of the picture, that its reception was frosty. That said, you had The Film Year Book calling it an “intriguing mix of high tech and low pulp” and recognising its awards merit even if came up short (BAFTAs aside). Pauline Kael’s review recognised its visual prowess, but felt it fell short elsewhere (which is much as Darabont voiced, although he caveats that it was around the third time he saw it that its depths were revealed; the brilliance of the scale disguised what it did with the story).


You actually can’t argue with Kael’s criticisms of Scott’s approach (or indeed logic holes, such as why Leon needs a Voight Kampf test if visual records of him are held), but it would be interesting to learn if she modified her opinion on repeat viewing, if she ever watched it again. I love her take on Hauer, though (“a shoo-in for this year’s Klaus Kinski Scenery-Chewing Award”), even if I entirely disagree that his “gaga performance” is all wrong. But Kael, in succinctly summing up the picture’s narrative defects, also highlights that in the wholeness of it all – which, admittedly, she doesn’t fall for – they don’t matter; it’s simply that her first viewing, as pertinent as her criticisms are, isn’t the whole story.


Some of Scott’s tweaks on The Final Cut are, like the things Roy Batty has done, questionable (the added gore seems deaf to a picture that trod that line just about right, and if “I want more life, father” is thematically more resonant than “fucker”, you can never unhear the latter in that scene), but in the balance of things it is seamless and sensitive.


I have to laugh at some of Sir Ridders’ pronouncements, though (“My danger is I tend to get very cerebral” he noted when discussing how his sensibility was closer to Fancher’s than Peoples’. Contrast this with Dick’s observation that Scott’s take on replicants was the opposite of his, in which the replicants were less than human and reflected Deckard’s lost humanity; “he regarded that as an intellectual idea, and he was not interested in making an esoteric film”), since they’re at variance with everything he’s put on screen for the past 20 years. But in Blade Runner you can actually suspend disbelief that Scott’s a very cerebral guy, if only you ignore his relentless, post-operative voiceover.




Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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