Archive for June 1982

Blade Runner

June 25, 1982


blade_runner_background1The debate has raged for 25 years now: Is Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), the haunted and self-disgusted anti-hero of Blade Runner, a human or one of the replicants (humanlike androids) he’s supposed to be hunting? It seems a moot point: No one in the movie is quite human. And this is certainly by design, and a gorgeous design it is. It explains why I always come away from Blade Runner impressed but slightly cold to it.

Ridley Scott marshalled a brilliant troop of artists and designers to realize the Los Angeles of 2019. No film had looked anything like it, though the visuals were heavily informed by the artwork in Heavy Metal magazine, specifically “The Long Tomorrow” illustrated by Moebius. Blade Runner unfolds in a drenched, smoke-filled inferno of neon and fluorescence, with the stink and steam of industrial waste and ethnic food mingling in what’s left of the air. What happened? The movie never says; the milieu doesn’t much figure into the story, which is structured as a detective story in futuristic dress.

Yes, even in the later editions where Deckard’s world-weary, much-derided narration has been retired, Blade Runner retains its noir flavor. It’s essentially cyberpunk Raymond Chandler, with the protagonist slouching through the city, poking his nose where he shouldn’t, and bumping up against colorful urban creatures. (“Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid,” wrote Chandler, though Deckard is both tarnished and afraid.) Yet a lot of the clue-following doesn’t make much sense; Deckard is only trying to track down replicants, not trying to get to the bottom of a mystery — there’s no big Chinatown-like conspiracy involving the Tyrell Corporation, which manufactures the replicants. Blade Runner is more of a what-am-I than a whodunit.

Deckard is a killer, and a good one — though, of late, a grudging one. Harrison Ford’s performance is a study in exhaustion and soul-sickness; his only light moment comes when Deckard puts on a nasal, nerdy voice to get into the dressing room of Zhora (Joanna Cassidy), a replicant who works as a stripper/snake charmer. Like William Munny in Unforgiven (written by Blade Runner‘s co-scripter David Webb Peoples), Deckard is a violent man who no longer takes pride in his brutal prowess. Yet even the laconic Clint Eastwood was able to give Munny some humanity, even some dry humor. Ford’s Deckard is at the outer limits of burnout. (Remember Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy thinks Marion is dead and he drinks himself into a guilt-sodden stupor? That’s pretty much how Ford is all the time in Blade Runner.) So he’s a tricky character to anchor such a massive and flamboyantly visual production — unless, as I suspect, director Ridley Scott considers Los Angeles the movie’s main character.

Deckard’s change of heart is supposed to come when he falls in love with Rachael (Sean Young), an advanced, nonviolent replicant modelled on the niece of bigwig Tyrell (Joseph Turkel). The heart of the movie is meant to emerge in the scenes in which the nonhuman Rachael brings out Deckard’s humanity. But by many accounts, Ford and Young didn’t get along during the long shoot, and it shows in their scenes together, which also carry the burden of Young’s ineptitude as an actress. She looks the part, but it’s as if she’s competing with Ford to see who can be the least expressive; she wins in a walk. There’s nothing going on between the actors or their characters — Vangelis’ score works overtime to emote for them as they fall into a hollow embrace.

There’s infinitely more going on with the other replicants: Brion James as the bitter, working-class Leon, Cassidy as the viciously mistrustful Zhora (she goes right from her intro scene to her death scene but makes her few minutes count), Daryl Hannah as the pixie-ish but dangerously desperate Pris, and most obviously Rutger Hauer as the perversely playful Roy Batty communicate with us far more vividly than anyone else in the movie. (Only William Sanderson’s amiable J.F. Sebastian, the toymaker who designs replicant bodies, suggests a beaten-down but still viable humanity among the film’s human characters.) The replicants seem to be split down class lines: Pris and Roy are punk-haired aristocrats who’ve fallen on hard times, while Leon and Zhora work among the scum of the earth (or off it). We sense more passion between Pris and Roy than we ever do between Deckard and Rachael. The meaning seems to be that humans have become so ground down by their squalid surroundings they’ve lost the ability to feel, while the replicants’ emotions are fresh, pure, not taken for granted (or drowned in booze, as Deckard’s are). And because they only live four years their experiences are all the more intense.

For all this, Blade Runner is some kind of classic. The visuals, the eclectic and depressive score, the oddness of the replicants’ (and their portrayers’) seeming to be in a different movie from Deckard — it all coalesces in a powerfully elliptical way that has attracted much somber analysis over the years. Deckard the mumbling blank has inspired reams of speculation — he’s a replicant, he’s the missing sixth replicant (for years, until the 2007 “Final Cut,” M. Emmet Walsh’s detective Bryant told Deckard that six replicants escaped and one died; now he says two died). Like Star Wars, though to a much greater extent, Blade Runner‘s rather simple story has acquired mighty mythic resonances among the fans.

Seen now, it wears its prestige a bit more elegantly, and we’ve seen 25 years of the movies, comics, and anime it influenced; certainly it’s stranger and more difficult than any comparable summer blockbuster in recent years. After this movie, Ridley Scott’s particular beer-commercial style got shallower and shallower, until he bottomed out with ugly hackwork like Gladiator; here, though, he still shoots like the same man who made Alien, and during the final Deckard/Roy face-off there’s a creepy shot of water running over a white wall, while lightning casts the shadow of Deckard’s gun and then takes it away — it’s very reminiscent of the final Ripley/alien face-off in Alien.

Blade Runner was far from the first post-human film, but it was the first to seem to revel in its machinery. Despite the bluesy, defeated tone — sold most heavily on the soundtrack — Scott’s heart is clearly with the replicants and the shiny sets. Though it’s a triumph of visual futurism and an ornament to sci-fi cinema as well as to cinema in general, I resist it on some level. It feels grouchy and impacted except for the moments of gaudy, bizarre violence, which have the same effect on the movie that Roy’s sticking a nail through his hand has on his rapidly dying nervous system — they jolt the movie to life, in a punitive, not entirely healthy way. This overstimulated opus about the soul of a machine is, paradoxically, a pretty soulless machine itself.

Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography

June 11, 1982

The first I ever heard of the notorious Not a Love Story: A Film About Pornography was Stephen Schiff’s scathing review of it in the excellent critical compendium Flesh and Blood. “A fuzzy-headed documentary,” he called it, excoriating it for being “an anti-porn jeremiad.” He was pretty much on the money. The film is useless as a serious inquiry into adult entertainment, but it’s invaluable as a snapshot of a place and time (early-’80s Canada) where a movie like this could be taken seriously. (It apparently continues to be shown in college seminars.) And it’s of obvious cult interest as a well-meaning anti-porn flick that shows copious amounts of the stuff it condemns. In form, and often in practice, it’s a lot like the roadshow quickies of the ’30s (Reefer Madness, Cocaine Fiends, etc.), which were at least entertainingly shameless about serving up bad behavior before administering the “moral.”

Documentarian Bonnie Sherr Klein (who later suffered a catastrophic stroke and wrote a book about it; her daughter Naomi is the author of the well-regarded leftist-anthem book No Logo) doesn’t exactly craft a seething hate letter to porn; she just gives a lot of time to the seethers (like Robin Morgan, a self-described “man hater”) and no screen time to any sensible, non-sleazy defenses of porn. It’s about as unbiased a film as a Michael Moore sucker-punch, only not nearly as funny (indeed, it’s pretty grim) or as biting. Even some of the more eloquent speakers here, like Susan Griffin or Kate Millett, seem to miss the point: The true sin of most garden-variety porn is not so much that it objectifies women as that it commodifies a sacred, intimate act. And let’s not pretend that male porn actors, chosen for their penis size and their ability to screw on command and ejaculate on cue, are any less objectified by the pitiless gaze of the camera.

Filmed between 1979 and 1981, Not a Love Story is by now hopelessly out of it; porn videos, for instance, were only just starting to emerge as an industry force — most of the film’s milieu is dedicated to peep shows, strip clubs, and porno shops — and the Internet and its role in porn weren’t even dreamt of. The movie’s central figure, the innocent-looking Linda Lee Tracey, starts out as an unapologetic stripper (she brings a sense of goofiness and fun to her work that the movie doesn’t quite know how to acknowledge) and ends up an anti-porn crusader literally shouting from a soapbox outside a peep show. If the movie were made today, Linda might start out as a webcam starlet — exhibitionism and voyeurism without risk or contact.

Klein takes Linda on a tour through the scuzzier outposts of the industry, and some of what we see is fairly gross and disturbing (grainy footage of a woman fellating a gun barrel, for example). But some of what we see is also relatively harmless and affectionate. Yet it’s all treated with the same alarmist doomsaying. Is the lustful male gaze really all that evil? What about the lustful female gaze? The movie doesn’t get into porn that women might enjoy (admittedly, there probably wasn’t as much of that around at the time as there is now), and steers completely clear of gay male porn and S&M porn with the female as dominatrix — two subgenres of erotica that blow Klein’s argument out of the water. Porn is set up as the straw man that incites rape, and there was a lot of that in the air back then: heavy metal caused suicide, Dungeons & Dragons warped kids’ minds, blah blah blah. Essentially we’re talking about fear of fantasy.

Funded by the National Film Board of Canada, Not a Love Story is a rare item for the non-scholar to find (I got my copy through interlibrary loan from Wisconsin!). Anyone interested in intellectual grapplings with porno and the representation of women in film should probably sit down with it at some point, whether one agrees with its thesis. But the clear-headed, non-agenda-oriented (that means not pro-porn, either) film about pornography has yet to be made — perhaps because porn speaks so loudly for itself.