It's the last day of June, and it's time to draw my 30th anniversary examination of Ridley Scott's science fiction masterpiece Blade Runner to a close. Over the last thirty days I've added more than 22,000 words to this website, making this month the largest blog I've ever written by a considerable margin; I didn't write that many words on the dissertation for my Master's Degree. That's a reflection on the depth of my obsession with the film, its makers and its implications that has lasted for thirty years. I've tried to do justice to their work in the entries below and I must admit I've learned a lot more about the film in writing about it from a range of different perspectives.
I've tried to approach the task of blogging about Blade Runner seriously, and I've been drawing on resources that I've amassed over the last three decades to do so, as you can see here.
In particular I must thank Mark Kermode for his groundbreaking documentary On The Edge of Blade Runner, Paul Sammon for literally writing the book about the film, Future Noir, Judith Kerman and her contributors for the enlightening and thought provoking essays in Retrofitting Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer for his entertaining and informative memoirs All Those Moments, Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Daryl Hannah, Edward James Olmos, William Sanderson, M. Emmet Walsh, James Hong and the rest of the film's extraordinary cast, director Ridley Scott and his production team, designer Syd Mead, composer and musician Vangelis, writers Hampton Fancher and David Peoples, and - of course - Philip Kendred Dick, the author of the work the film is based on, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? All of the above helped to create and sustain one of the milestones of modern cinema, and they're why I'm doing this today.
If you're a fan of the film, I hope you've got something out of this month's blog. If you have, I'd love to hear from you. My contact details are at the top of the page.
The final question I'm going to ask myself about the film is an obvious one, but I suspect it might not be as easy to answer: exactly what is it about the film that got under my skin so deeply?
What does Blade Runner mean to me? Why do I still enjoy watching the film thirty years on, even though I've sat through it dozens of times? (I wouldn't be at all surprised if the count is well in to three figures by now - after all, that's only an average of three times a year and I know I manage more viewings than that...) Why have I devoted time and energy to memorising large chunks of the script, and even now find myself able to recall each line in the film before it is spoken? Why is there a "November 2019" patch programmed in to my Korg M3 synthesiser? Why is there a framed photo of Roy Batty on the sideboard next to me as I type this? In short, why is Blade Runner so bloody addictive?
I've made myself a big mug of coffee and I've got a couple of freshly-baked croissants on hand, so you can tell it's time to get serious. Let's try and come up with some answers...
Firstly I've always been an incredibly visual person. Design has always fascinated me. When I see work where the artist has clearly thought through the aesthetics of what she or he is trying to do, I start paying attention, because it shows. I love things that are clearly crafted with care and attention to detail. I know all about cramming in the tiny details: when Blade Runner came out I was spending most of my spare time drawing cartoons for Motörhead and sketching science fiction landscapes. If you look at the artwork I produced back then it's full of minutiae, with lots of borrowings from popular culture and nods to my influences. I loved things that looked cool. I loved beautiful things that were designed well (and needless to say I still do).
So when the opening credits of Blade Runner started, the sparse design of the Ladd Company's tree logo projected against a stark black background told me that this was going to be something that had been put together by someone with taste. There were no fake, airbrushed chrome logos to be seen. The accompanying trumpet fanfare was subtle and understated - there were no portentous rolls of tympani for these guys. The typography in the beginning crawl was elegant and well proportioned. I could tell instantly that this was a film made by people who did things properly, people I was going to like.
And then - that opening shot. The flood of orange light - I knew that wavelength. I walked home from the station in the winter evenings under a flood of sodium street lights that lit the path to my door. Even with the fireballs rising from the fractionation stacks and the flying cars, I felt I knew Deckard's city, belonged there. The colour palette said to me, "This is your world. You know this place." I'd never engaged with an SF movie on that sort of level before.
I wanted a science fiction lifestyle. I read 2000 AD every week, following the adventures of Judge Dredd and the mutant bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, who lived in the dystopian mutant ghetto of Milton Keynes (indeed a few years later, I was to find myself living and working in the Strontium Dog's home town.) Megacities and flying cars, then: that was what I expected the future to be like. Syd Mead's design for Los Angeles's police vehicles was utterly believable and painfully desirable. I was desperate to have a spinner of my own. The idea of being able to rise up and leave all the crap behind was - still is - incredibly seductive. And Mead's designs were utterly, breathtakingly beautiful. Even now, thirty years on, they're still sexy and futuristic. I still want one.
The sheer density of creation that Ridley achieved bears multiple viewings. There is so much going on in Blade Runner that even now I still pick up on fresh nuances. When the Blu-ray version of the film came out, it was a revelation. For me it's almost like the Mandelbrot set: there's a fractal level of detail in the movie that draws you in closer and closer, and it never stops resolving into finer and finer details. Yet unlike the ridiculous level of detail Michael Bay threw into his Transformers movies, for example, it never feels like it's too much. It's not about the pixels. It just feels natural. It feels real.
Up until I saw Blade Runner I'd never been particularly convinced by the visual look of science fiction movies. The futuristic worlds that I imagined in my head as I read the novels of Philip K Dick and his contemporaries never matched the sparse, uncluttered, antiseptically clean sets I saw in movies like This Island Earth or Things To Come. The actors strode purposefully across polished floors that you just knew were studio sets. The walls always looked as if they could be pushed out of the way as soon as the take was over, and of course they could. Even Ridley Scott's earlier film Alien was too glitzy for me, particularly Ash's little inner sanctum with its banks of LEDs looking like votive candles. The costume designs, particularly the spacesuits, were way too baroque. Even as a naive teenager, I knew the world of the future was going to be more complicated and messy and lived-in than that. When I saw the visual style of the Blade Runner environment for the first time, my reaction was simple: "Yes!" This was my idea of the future. It was plausible. I could see how we might get there from here.
On a more personal level, the movie spoke to the pessimism of a single, twenty-something young man living in the suburbs of south-east London. My younger self found plenty to latch on to with Deckard's solitary existence and the technological Aladdin's cave of marvels that was his bachelor apartment. Laughably, Deckard's world showed me something aspirational. I could see myself living somewhere like that, standing on my balcony with a tumbler of Johnnie Walker, gazing down on to the chaotic streets far below. Back then my reading of the film promised that even if you were a semi-autistic burnout like Deckard clearly was, if you just held on long enough and coped with enough of the misery of the city, somehow fate would intervene, you'd eventually get the girl and together you'd fly off into the sunshine and a pastoral, blissful existence elsewhere. And what a girl; Sean Young's Pre-Raphaelite beauty took my breath away.
At the time, too, I was obsessed with technology. I'd just bought myself a videocassette recorder (one that took Betamax tapes, naturally) and a nifty new digital watch that did things like tell me the date and measure time to a hundredth of a second. The future was going to be full of even greater wonders than these, and Blade Runner showed them to me. I wanted toys like Deckard has. The video phone, the inexplicable but incredibly flashy Esper; the cool car (at the time I was driving a Volkswagen Beetle which did a sterling job in getting me from A to B, but that was about it...) I ignored the dystopian aspects of the film; those could be dealt with by other people. More important was all the cool stuff that we would have in the future according to Blade Runner.
Each time I watched the movie, I got to inhabit that world for a couple of hours and I could share vicariously in Deckard's lifestyle. I suspect that the desire to be a character from the movie is why I started memorising the script and quoting lines from the movie. I wanted to be Deckard. I wanted to be Gaff (I could, after all, do origami.) Most of all, oh, how I wanted to be Roy Batty. Charismatic, decisive, self-assured, dangerous; Rutger Hauer's replicant anti-hero was the coolest man on the planet and he was everything I was not.
In 1982 I was also obsessed with music. My ambitions for developing a career as a successful musician had yet to be crushed. For me, Blade Runner sounded wonderful. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago I was already a big fan of Vangelis's music but even on a more general level my musical tastes aligned closely with the film's approach to sound. I'd been a synthesiser nerd for years and I loved productions that were drenched in reverb. When the opening credits started and that drum sound boomed out of the cinema's speakers, my jaw nearly hit the floor. As I said before, musically I know of only one other film that opens as strongly as Blade Runner does, and that's Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
If you're a synthesiser player like me, the sounds that Vangelis uses aren't particularly complex, which means that you can have a go at making your own versions. And he uses traditional instruments like piano and saxophone, too - so if you have friends who want to join in and jam, the music from Blade Runner is a good choice. It's familiar to almost everybody, so it gets a great reaction when you play it for them. And it still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I hear it - only the very greatest pieces of music do that for me.
So that, ladies and gentlemen, is my take on Blade Runner. My coffee's done and the plate of croissants is long gone. Tomorrow is July, and I'll be returning to more everyday aspects of life on the Internet and linking to some of my other interests and obsessions once again. I've had a real blast putting this month's blog together and I really feel like I understand the movie a little better. The Blade Runner content on the blog has always been some of the most-read stuff I've uploaded here and I hope that this month's blog will join them. As I said above, if you've enjoyed reading this, please let me know; my contact details are at the top of the page.
And now, I might just fire up my player and watch the film once again. Maybe I've inspired you to watch Blade Runner too. If I have, then this month has been totally worth it.
While I was writing the blog tonight, I heard a sudden whoosh of wind and feathers, followed by the plaintive calls of a flock of starlings in considerable distress. I went outside to see what the fuss was about, and found carnage...
The amount and sheer volume of alarm calls going on from the local blackbirds and starlings right now is quite extraordinary.
For today's 30th anniversary look at the film Blade Runner, I'm going to be examining its legacy: how the film has influenced not just cinema, but also wider aspects of popular culture. To start with we'll go no further than today's news from Google, who have just announced a new tablet computer with a somewhat familiar name...
The Future As A Place Of Entropy And Decay
In On The Edge of Blade Runner, Rutger Hauer says how one thing that Ridley said to him really struck a chord:
"The future is old."
The buildings in the Los Angeles of 2019 are "retrofitted" with additional cruft bolted on to them; the visual aesthetic is old brickwork, metal ductwork, and unrelenting rain. The dishevelled look of the buildings (and the principal actor) in Blade Runner rapidly became a visual shorthand for any director who wanted to convey a dystopian sense of the future, and even the most talented auteur - such as Terry Gilliam - wasn't averse to borrowing bits of Blade Runner's mise en scène from time to time.
Dick's character J. R Isidore is obsessed with the concept of kipple - unwanted garbage and litter - which he imagines will eventually choke the planet. The Bradbury Building, home to the character Isidore became in the film, is ankle deep in detritus. Water drips through the ceilings. There are puddles on the floor. This is not the shiny gleaming future of Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon, but it has become the future of Total Recall 2070 or Screamers (both based on other Dick works) and the world of Dredd and Johnny Mnemonic.
The future of Blade Runner, though, is a place of contradictions. In Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? San Francisco is described as being almost empty; emigration off-planet has depopulated the city to the extent that J. R. Isidore has an entire apartment building to himself. Ridley Scott's hellish Los Angeles is ablaze with light and at least as far as the streets that Deckard prowls are concerned, full of people.
What (or who) is there, then, to fill Eldon Tyrell's vast ziggurat? What mighty endeavour is taking place, releasing immense fireballs into the leaden sky? It makes more sense for all of this spectacle to be the product of ruin and demolition rather than progress and creation. The future is consuming itself. Waste and profligacy are likely to run rampant when an infrastructure designed for billions suddenly only has to provide for millions. But it can't last: the top is beginning to wobble, and Scott conveys this sense of impending catastrophe throughout Blade Runner. Not without reason was the film originally going to be called Dangerous Days.
Deckard, too, is a spectator to society's decadence. The society of the future is not a happy one. The casual misogyny; the overblown architecture and elephantine columns; the buildings left to rot and decay; the piles of garbage in the streets - the fall of man (or at least those left on Earth) is happening in front of the detective's eyes, in the best film noir tradition. Disorder is literally erupting around the inhabitants. Los Angeles in 2019 is a city that is winding down, it's somewhere that hasn't got long left - just like the replicants who have fallen from the sky to arrive here. Of those who are left, only multi-national businesses seem to be benefiting, which Ridley refers to in the commentary on The Final Cut version of the film as "industrial imperialism." Ridley goes on to suggest that the world of Blade Runner is being run by just two or three companies, adding "When it gets to one it really gets dangerous." He also explains on the commentary that his intention was for the world of Blade Runner to be the planet to which the crew of Alien were returning - so we can assume the other corporation in Deckard's time is none other than the Weyland-Yutani Corporation. The theme of an Earth in terminal decline, overseen by evil corporate bosses has been picked up by many directors since Ridley - one recent example (even though the action in the film takes place elsewhere) is James Cameron's Avatar (2009).
Rutger Hauer's striking appearance in Blade Runner - black coat, white hair and piercing gaze - provided an iconic figure signifying a heady melange of heroism, integrity, danger, physical superiority and unflappable cool. As I mentioned on Thursday, Roy Batty's similarity to a pint of Guinness did not go unnoticed by the brewery and the Dutchman found himself appearing on British television advertising a brand of Irish stout with lines like "Me? I sold up and moved to Earth..." Batty's look was copied shamelessly in other productions by all sorts of improbable actors. Perhaps the most improbable of all was the pop star Sting, who played the villainous Feyd in David Lynch's 1984 film Dune with an almost identical coat and haircut. Bryan Fury in the videogame Tekken looks rather familiar. Even the comedian Adrian Edmonson (Vyvian in the BBC TV comedy series The Young Ones) adopted Hauer's style playing the writer "Ace" in the Comic Strip's 1984 production Slags complete with bleached white hair and an indeterminately European accent.
Harrison Ford's performance as Deckard might not have been copied as slavishly, but within a year of Blade Runner coming out any number of movies featuring flawed detectives facing mental problems had hit the screens. Even Joe Turkel's performance as Eldon Tyrell had its imitators. Just look at the glasses in the last shot from the TV series Caprica...
The women in Blade Runner also made a significant impact on popular culture. Sean Young's appearance - a combination of futurism, 80s corporate power and devastating good looks all lifted from a 1940s film icon - has also proved irresistible to pop stars, fashion designers and casting directors alike. Daryl Hannah went on to become a huge star, but Pris seemed to take on a life of her own: a character dressed exactly like her appears in Prince's 1984 movie Purple Rain.
The "Blade Runner" Look
The way Blade Runner was shot rapidly became a cliche. Video games ripped it off wholesale. Every science fiction film seemed to be shot through dense smoke with inexplicable beams of light stabbing down from the ceiling and strange patches of reflections rippling on background walls. Matt Frewer's world in the TV series Max Headroom springs readily to mind, but there are many other examples.
For starters, Terry Gilliam took the piss out of the whole art deco and rampant ductwork thing in Brazil (1985). Blade Runner was particularly popular with Japanese anime directors - just look at the images of Tokyo in Akira (1988) or Ghost in the Shell (1995) to see prime examples. The beginning of Back to the Future II (1989), with its portrayal of a dystopian West Coast of the future complete with torrential rain and flying cars can't help but nod in the film's direction, including as it does one of Blade Runner's iconic spinners. The weird Emilio Estevez/Mick Jagger/Anthony Hopkins 1992 SF movie Freejack borrowed the "street people underclass" theme heavily, as did the following year's Stallone vehicle, Demolition Man (and notice that Dennis Leary's character, the leader of the street people, was a guy called Edgar Friendly...) Katharine Bigelow's weird millennial SF romp Strange Days (1995) is another nineties film that ramps up the use of neon and exotic background characters (and left-field technology) to convey an unsettling sense of futurism.
But of all the movies that I've seen which owe something to Ridley's masterpiece, the most heavily influenced is probably Johnny Mnemonic. Director Robert Longo's visual style is pure Blade Runner, from the opening explanatory crawl onwards. Keanu Reeves has to stand on a car to see over the heads of rioters, all wearing surgical masks, in the centre of Beijing; the Chinese cityscape of 2021 features megabuildings draped with advertising hoardings, indistinguishable from the Los Angeles of two years previous; there's a nightclub where everyone smokes; videophones are daubed with graffiti; someone gets their hand stuck in a vat of liquid oxygen (much less successfully than Brion James, it has to be said); spotlights continually stab downwards into Ice-T's lair, and the final confrontation takes place as the protagonists climb upwards. I understand from the author of the original story, William Gibson that the director intended the film to be a parody, but even so, its sheer over-the-top approach gets a little wearing long before ninety minutes is up.
In the 21st century, the film's influence is as strong as ever. Ronald D Moore cites it as a major stylistic influence on the Battlestar Galactic remake (and after all, he got Gaff - Edward James Olmos - to play Commander Adama in the series.) Christopher Nolan showed Blade Runner to his cinematographer Wally Pfister to convey the approach he wanted to take on Batman Begins (and Nolan cast Rutger Hauer as the scheming head of Wayne Enterprises.) Even the colour palettes of the two films are strikingly similar, rich in oranges and browns.
It should be pointed out, of course, that Blade Runner itself borrows prolifically from other films. Deckard's public safety inspector schtick riffs on the bookstore scene in The Big Sleep. Sean Young's costumes are copies of those worn by Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce. The owl that watches Tyrell's death references the watching owl in Bride of Frankenstein. Douglas Trumbull used the same visual effects techniques for the flying cars in Blade Runner as he did for the UFOs in Close Encounters of the Third Kind; the Off-World Blimp was shot in the same way as CE3K's Mothership. And if you look really closely as Deckard is flown over Los Angeles, a vehicle that Harrison Ford was quite familiar with is pretending to be a building below him.
The sound effects from the film crop up all over the place. The "Esper" noise has become convenient shorthand for computer wizardry and appears in F/X: Murder By Illusion and I've also heard it in countless TV documentaries, including On The Edge of Blade Runner as well as a bunch of video games. The strange booming racket in Taffy Lewis's nightclub is actually a default patch on the Emulator-1 sampler called Mexican Radio and it can also be heard on Orchestral Manoeuvres In the Dark's Junk Culture.
Vangelis's score for the film has been hugely influential, allowing a whole new generation of synthesiser players to take a shot at composition. Brad Fiedel, who composed the soundtrack for The Terminator is one example. Jack Wall and Sam Hulick, who wrote the music for the opening of the video game Mass Effect have doffed their hats publicly to Vangelis. I don't know whether the sample is from the film or not, but the loop of tinkling bells at the beginning of Garbage's Temptation Waits always reminds me of the chimes heard in the background as Holden waits to interview Leon. Even something as trivial as the washes of reverb that Vangelis used on the soundtrack have become a signifier for the future, particularly when you're showing the audience views of futuristic cities.
Finally today I'll leave you with White Zombie, who recorded their interpretation of the Tyrell Corporation's motto in their own inimitable way...
One of the things I appreciate most about Blade Runner is that it introduced a considerable chunk of the western world to the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. Although he'd been working as a stage actor in the Noorder Compagnie since the 1960s and had appeared in European productions including Paul Verhoeven's Floris TV series (in 1969, his first TV acting job) and Soldier of Orange in 1977, he was pretty much unknown in the US. In 1982, all that changed.
In Blade Runner Rutger plays Roy Batty, the leader of the band of replicants who have fought their way to Earth. The film, it's safe to say, hinges on Batty. While he's intended to be the antagonist, his performance elevates the role into something far more complex. For a start, there's the symbolism associated with Roy and his relationship to his maker, Eldon Tyrell. For instance, when Roy meets Chew (James Hong) he introduces himself by inverting a quotation from William Blake's America: A Prophecy. The original lines are:
Fiery the Angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll'd
Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc.
Roy's version begins "Fiery the angels fell..." Why the change? As leader of his band of fallen angels, Roy is placing himself in the role of the light-bringer, Lucifer. He has been cast down to Earth from a life in the heavens; he is in conflict with his creator; he is, in his maker's words, "the light that burns twice as bright." On the screen, Hauer's Batty positively glows with charisma.
Going back to Judith Kerman's collection of essays Retrofitting Blade Runner finds David Desser drawing strong parallels between Blade Runner and Milton's Paradise Lost. However, Desser notes that the concept of Batty as Satan is a bit too straightforward: there are also several allusions to Christ, not least when Roy drives a nail through his hand ("Not... unh... yet!") in the climactic chase after Deckard through the Bradbury Building. Arguably Batty doesn't just save Deckard at the end, he redeems him.
Just as the romantics were quite capable of seeing Satan as the hero of Milton's poem, so modern audiences have little or no problem in seeing Roy Batty as the true hero of Blade Runner. Rutger is a very bright guy so it's no surprise that he rapidly picked up on this. Presented with the opportunity to help shape one of the high points of modern cinema, Hauer grabbed on with both hands. He obviously developed a close and productive relationship with Ridley Scott, one that was very different to Harrison Ford's. In his autobiography All Those Moments, Rutger puts it politely:
"I also felt the Roy Batty character was written as a hero. That is what is so ironic about the movie. The protagonist, Deckard, was written as a schmuck. He is emotionally cold, a loner, maybe an alcoholic. And then the antagonist - Roy Batty - is written like a true warrior hero who has heart and soul and light."
When he was interviewed for On the Edge of Blade Runner Rutger was considerably more forthright:
"The replicants were all such great characters. And Harrison Ford's character is such a dumb character. He gets a gun put to his head and then he fucks a dishwasher - and then he falls in love with her. It doesn't make any sense. He is introduced as you know, this type of hero, but he's not the hero - he's the bad guy! His role didn't seem to fit him, or he couldn't make it fit. I know that that was going on. And I don't know why, but if, if he, if he would have been stronger, I would have not been so shiny."
Shiny is very much the word: it was Hauer who came up with the "I've seen things you people wouldn't believe" speech that (for me) defines the film, and Ridley talks about working with him on the final rooftop scene in Mark Kermode's excellent documentary On The Edge of Blade Runner:
"At three a.m. in the morning on the last day, and it's - we're two hours from dawn because we're nearly in the summer months I'm thinking, and it's already gone blue, so I go to the trailer and say to him 'Okay, you've got to get out there now, we're ready' and he said 'Look, I've got these words,' he said, 'I've just been noodling with them over dinner tonight,' (that was like one o'clock in the morning) 'um, can I just say them?' and I said 'Okay, say them' so I sat in his trailer and heard them and, er, that was it.
That was beautiful."
In the same documentary the screenwriter David Peoples describes Hauer's expression after he'd performed these lines on set as being "like a naughty schoolboy who's been caught doing something wrong," but everyone clearly recognised their worth. Ridley kept them in the movie and the rest is history: it was Hauer's Roy Batty rather than Ford's Rick Deckard who dominated the reviews of the film. It was Hauer's photo, not Ford's, that appeared alongside many of the reviews. Aside from the special effects, it's the "Tears in rain" speech that most people remember from the movie.
Blade Runner made Hauer a global star.
Here in the UK, reaction to the character was particularly enthusiastic. The Guinness brewery recruited him for a lengthy television advertising campaign that reprised his character from the film. It was a shrewd choice: with his long black coat and shock of blonde hair, he looked like a walking, talking version of the drink he was promoting. Hauer's catch phrase in the first ad, "It's not easy being a dolphin..." helped to ensure the adverts became some of the most talked about ads ever made. Hauer was somewhat bemused by the regard in which he was held over here. In fact, when he appeared on Terry Wogan's peak time live chat show at the height of the Guinness campaign, I thought he looked terrified. Speaking to Wogan he also admitted that, actually, he didn't drink Guinness. Needless to say the admission didn't harm his popularity at all.
After Blade Runner, Rutger became the go-to guy for directors making quirky science fiction and fantasy films. He returned to The Bad Guy role in movies such as The Hitcher and the original film of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with thrillers like The Osterman Weekend he showed that he was equally at home when cast as the hero. Favourites of mine include the ludicrous blind swordsman flick Blind Fury, the magical fantasy Ladyhawke, teaming up with Paul Verhoeven again for the medieval sword-fest Flesh and Blood, (in which he appeared with his friend and fellow Blade Runner alumnus Brion James) and the strange science fiction movies Salute of the Jugger and Wedlock, both of which also featured a pre-Twin Peaks Joan Chen.
He's worked steadily in both film and TV for more than forty years now, and his IMDB page has a welter of memorable titles on it, although I'm sure he'd admit he's also featured in one or two straight-to-video productions that are probably best forgotten. He's got a penchant for picking some truly bizarre left-field gigs such as the title role in last year's Hobo with a Shotgun, but in recent years he's also snagged some utterly superb cameos: when he crops up in movies like Confessions of A Dangerous Mind, Batman Begins, and Sin City he's still a hypnotically charismatic presence on screen and it's always him you end up watching, regardless of who he's sharing the frame with.
Long may he continue to grab that limelight.
Meanwhile in the present day, people are beginning to worry about whether their machines always act in their best interests. Columbia Professor of Law and Legal History Eben Moglen says our smartphones should have a responsibility to look after our interests rather than the interests of our service providers and the advertisers that buy access to us.
"We imagined that robots would be designed so that they could never hurt a human being. These robots have no such commitments. These robots hurt us every day.
They work for other people. They’re designed, built and managed to provide leverage and control to people other than their owners. Unless we retrofit the first law of robotics onto them immediately, we’re cooked."
It's interesting (if rather hyperbolic) stuff.
When I first saw Blade Runner back in 1982, one thing that disturbed me was the film's attitude to women. As I got older and saw more of director Ridley Scott's films I began to realise that what he was doing was effectively subverting both the film noir genre and the audience's expectations of that genre. But it's still not a comfortable experience: none of the three principal female characters in the film is treated well, and today we're going to look at how the film's portrayal of these women differs from the book's. Once again, page numbers in brackets are from the UK Panther paperback edition of Dick's novel.
David Desser, writing in editor Judith Kerman's collection of essays about the film Retrofitting Blade Runner examines Blade Runner's debts to one of literature's most famous synthetic human stories, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. In doing so, he draws interesting parallels between the role of monsters in SF films and the role of women in film noir:
"The fear of the monster is the fear of the Other, as the (psychoanalytic) fear of Woman is the fear of the Other. (...) In Blade Runner, replicants are feared as Other, as other-than-human, and therefore must be killed. Women in film noir and Horror are feared as Other, and must similarly be killed, or at least punished."
You'll see that this is absolutely the case with all three of the women we'll talk about today.
Rachael Tyrell (Sean Young) starts off the film believing she's fully human. Not only that, she is established in a position of influence and power as Eldon Tyrell's niece. When we first see her she is costumed in a ramped-up version of the 1980s archetypal corporate power suit, all narrow waist and exaggerated shoulder pads; her hairstyle emphasises her height; she is wearing blood-red lipstick. Jordan Cronenweth lights her like a thirties movie star. Although Rachael is strikingly beautiful, Ridley is at pains to show her as a successful, professional businesswoman, helping her uncle run things, self-assured and confident. When Tyrell tells Deckard he must give Rachael a Voight-Kampff test before he will be allowed to test a Nexus-6, Young's tiny sideways head-wobble and condescending smirk is a lovely bit of acting: 'I'll indulge you,' that smirk says, 'but understand that you are not operating at my level. You do not have my class.'
As the film progresses we realise just how right she is.
By the film's mid-point, her self-image has been destroyed. She's been shown that her understanding of reality is demonstrably false, that she can't even trust her own memories; "You ever tell anybody that? Huh?" sneers Deckard when he relates a couple of her childhood experiences back to her. He doesn't sugar coat the delivery. Why should he? As far as Deckard is concerned, she's just a machine - remember his contemptuous question to Tyrell at the conclusion of the Voight-Kampff test: "How can it not know what it is?" Rachel's biggest problem isn't her loss of power or status, however. As a replicant, she's on Earth illegally. Disowned and abandoned by her creators, she has a death sentence hanging over her and even when the film ends, that threat has not been resolved. Her only hope of protection is Deckard, and Deckard - shallow, materialistic, brutal Deckard - is not shy of applying that as leverage.
Deckard's relationship with Rachael is questionable, to say the least. He has no empathy with Rachael, no interest in whether or not she wants a physical relationship with him. Whether it was a result of Young's rocky professional relationship with Ford or the intent of the director is unclear, but the scene where Deckard and Rachel kiss for the first time is devoid of any romance or physical chemistry. Let's be blunt: it's an assault. Deckard is operating at a base human level far removed from the replicant's perfection. Deckard has no class whatsoever. In the commentary on The Final Cut version of the film, Ridley admits he pushed the scene too far, and that both actors were uneasy with the scene as it stood in the original release.
In 2000, Ridley said in Mark Kermode's documentary On the Edge of Blade Runner that Rachael :
"Had to look great, as opposed to me just going with an actress who's a terrif- I'd always go with the actor first, actor, actor, actor. Capability first, look second. But you know, stars usually have that kind of combination of both."
Casting director Katherine Haber says in the same documentary that when she was cast for the film, Sean Young was relatively unknown. What she says next is telling:
"Ridley works on visuals. Extensively. He - You know, he's a - a great - as a director he's one of the most brilliant visualists I've ever met in my life, and he saw something in her visually that he wanted."
I assume from this that Sean Young's job was to be dressed and presented as the ultimate film noir woman.
To borrow a term from film theory she is presented primarily as the object of the male gaze (and not just for the gaze of the film's audience, but also for both Deckard and Tyrell within the movie itself). From the quotes above it's pretty obvious that this was to be her main purpose in the film.
At the same time, in psychoanalytic terms Rachael is the subject of the destructive urge against the Other that motivates all the human characters in the film.
Putting all this together, the role would have been extremely tough for any actress. Aside from the vibe that this must have created when her scenes were shot, the production atmosphere was toxic (and not just from the burning truck tyres.) The cast and crew all worked at night, they soon got behind schedule and over budget, so the pressure must have been immense. Even worse, by several accounts the rookie Young did not get on with the far more experienced Harrison Ford. It can't have been a pleasant experience for her at all, even if, to borrow an expression from Terry Pratchett, the force of the narrative demanded that things happened that way.
Like Roy Batty, Rachael is a profoundly sympathetic character who has the audience on her side pretty much from the outset. But in terms of the language of film noir, as a woman she only has two choices: her character can either be the femme fatale (the predatory vamp who threatens the hero's masculinity), or she can be the damsel in distress. Rachel is very much the damsel, and spends pretty much the entire movie in distress. By contrast, in the book Rachael is a far more complex character. She is the Tyrell corporation's ultimate weapon: an android expressly designed to make bounty hunters fall in love with her and destroy their ability to carry out their jobs. I'll talk about one of the reasons why this should be so in a moment.
Only one bounty hunter - Phil Resch - has ever managed to continue his career after a night with Rachael (p. 149) and PKD's implication is that he was such a basket case that his continuing ability to perform as a cop is due to his complete inability to act as an authentic human being (although perhaps this is PKD having a dig at the inhumanity of his local law enforcement, too.) Rachael maintains her power throughout the book, going to Deckard's apartment and hitting him where it hurts the most: she destroys his most treasured possession when she throws his newly-acquired goat off the roof. She also maintains her status at the Rosen Association (the android builders who became Tyrell Corporation in the film), as we assume that if she has performed the femme fatale role successfully not just once or twice, but nine times (p. 150), she will continue to do so in the future. From the outset, the Rachael in the book is fully aware of her non-human status. When Deckard threatens to kill her, she tells him he'll be fined because he will be destroying the legal property of the Rosen Association (p. 151). She therefore becomes the embodiment of Dick's cynicism, cast in the femme fatale role rather than the damsel in distress.
Deckard's boss is blunt when he describes Zhora (Joanna Cassidy):
"Talk about beauty and the beast: she's both."
The character of Zhora is an invention of Fancher and Peoples - she doesn't exist in the novel at all. Rather than an exotic dancer, Deckard's foray into the world of entertainment involves an opera singer named Luba Luft. Luft is genuinely talented, and has successfully managed to earn a living as a singer. PKD has Deckard down as a bit of an opera buff, gets him into Luft's dressing room by a mixture of bluff and shameless geekiness and has him behave as a gushing fan. As I mentioned earlier this month, at this point the book diverges from the film significantly and Luft calls the police - actually a shadow police force that has been set up by another member of the android team - to come and arrest Deckard. It is Phil Resch, the cop who has been duped into working for this shadow force, who ends up shooting Luft. Deckard, of course, claims the bounty for Luft, justifying this by pointing out Resch wasn't acting legally.
Notice how the film chooses such a different profession for Zhora; the character shifts from purveyor of high culture to stripper. In the book, Luft has managed a successful recording career (although the fact that this is possible when the androids have only recently arrived from Mars is one of the ways in which PKD plays with blurring the boundaries of reality.) There are no adoring fans, glittering prizes and packed opera houses waiting for Zhora. In the film, she is reduced to performing in Taffey Lewis's seedy dive, the Snake Pit.
When Deckard appears at the Snake Pit in the film, his behaviour undergoes a bizarre change which I mentioned earlier this month. With a voice that has become a curiously nasal whine he bluffs his way into Zhora's dressing room so he can search it "for spy holes." While Zhora, who is effectively naked, showers and then dresses, Ford's character pries, capers and leers. The general consensus seems to be that Scott is getting Ford and Cassidy to invert the scene in The Big Sleep where Bogart flips up his hat brim and dons geeky glasses to spar with Sonia Darrin before nipping across the street to chat up Dorothy Malone's studious shop assistant, but it's a bit too much of a stretch for me. In the commentary for The Final Cut Ridley says that Harrison wanted to play the scene "like Jerry Lewis" and once you know this, his behaviour makes more sense: Deckard knows any canny replicant will be on the lookout for threats and he wants to present the smallest potential risk that he can. But it's still a profoundly unsettling performance. By this point the audience's sympathy for Deckard has likely evaporated, and their reaction will probably mirror the look on Cassidy's face which clearly says: who the hell is this guy? Even in a sleazy establishment like Taffey's, Deckard comes across as a parody, a comedic exaggeration of lowlife skeeziness. In fact, it's so over the top that it becomes impossible to take Deckard's routine seriously. He's being a dick; Zhora eventually elbows him in the stomach then karate chops him in the neck. It's clear (and very understandable) that at the very least she intends to beat the crap out of him.
Deckard is clearly outclassed when it comes to physical combat with Zhora (and with Pris, as we'll see in a moment). He very nearly ends up being throttled with his own necktie. When this happens, too, the audience is rooting for Zhora, not Deckard. But Deckard gets lucky. Fate intervenes and a chorus of dancers bursts through the doors, prompting Zhora's flight and granting Deckard a reprieve.
Joanna Cassidy describes the pressure everyone was under in On the Edge of Blade Runner, relating how everyone began to "super-exceed" their capabilities. Cassidy did so more than most - she wonders aloud in the documentary how she managed to avoid breaking anything while filming the street chase with Harrison Ford. After Deckard and Zhora's fight in her dressing room is interrupted, Zhora runs outside, shoving bystanders out of the way and jumping over cars in an attempt to flee. And all of this is Cassidy herself: she refused a stunt double right up until the shots where she crashes through a plate glass window. At that point stuntwoman Lee Pulford stepped in (and by all accounts suffered some serious gashes to her leg in the process).
This scene in the film shows Deckard at his most callous, as he shoots Zhora twice in the back (actually, it's the same shot filmed from two different angles, as the stunt was only performed once). Lying on the ground, Zhora's humanity has evaporated and she appears as a rigid, dummy-like figure, a machine. Deckard has retired the first replicant in the team.
We realise the stark reality of Deckard's earlier comments showing his attitude to replicants; Zhora has become just another pile of electronics and biomechanics. Only Leon is there to mourn her passing.
The second eldest replicant in the film was played by the youngest actor: Pris was 21-year-old Daryl Hannah's first major film role.
Pris is dismissed as soon as she's been introduced during Bryant's briefing:
"A basic pleasure model"
Despite Bryant's condescension, Pris is probably the strongest female character in the film. In the movie it's Pris who gets to demonstrate the superhuman capabilities of the Nexus-6 to J. F. Sebastian (William Sanderson), picking an egg out of a jar of boiling water, performing cartwheels and flik flaks, and quoting Descartes. Pris clearly has a strong emotional bond with Batty; the two behave as a couple, much to J. F. Sebastian's discomfort. In fact, when they are together Pris and Roy display more humanity than any of the human characters who appear in the film.
Like Zhora, when she fights Deckard Pris is clearly superior. Once again, Deckard rapidly finds himself outclassed and he resumes his duties as punching bag. The eye-watering stunt where Deckard appears to have his head twisted around between Pris's thighs serves mainly to take us out of the film; in reality, Pris would have snapped Deckard's spine like a twig. But once again fate intervenes and in flailing around Deckard manages to regain his gun. He gets off a single lucky shot that maims Pris, turning her into a thrashing, shrieking automaton. Remember, Deckard shot Zhora in the back as she was running away; Rachael retired Leon; with android number three we get the impression that Deckard only wins by accident.
In the machismo-riddled world of the detective novel, men must be physically superior to women - but Ridley subverts this utterly. Both times Deckard has to fight women, the odds have to be tweaked in his favour. Eventually Deckard gets round to putting Pris out of her misery by shooting her again, but we get the feeling he does so to shut her up rather than out of any compassion. By now we have no sympathy with Deckard whatsoever. It's Roy we're rooting for: when Roy finds Pris's lifeless body, he exhibits genuine tenderness - the only male in the film to do so. The howl of anguish that he utters morphs back into the howl of the cat we heard earlier accompanying Pris and we realise that a true predator is on Deckard's trail. Roy follows Deckard through the building to his date with destiny.
The world of Blade Runner, then, is far more misogynistic than the world of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. The film deliberately unbalances the power relationships between men and women that exist in the book. It's not so much that men have more power in the film, more that women have far less. Deckard's relationship with his wife is probably the best example of this: while he's not exactly henpecked in the novel, Deckard's interactions with Iran are used to undermine his feelings of power and superiority. In her struggle with depression Iran's role is to constantly keep him on the wrong foot, whether by programming their shared mood organ to generate unstable emotional states for herself or by badgering Deckard into fusion with Mercer (we've already seen how Deckard's materialistic obsessions effectively prevent him from enjoying the experience of fusion.) Deckard is most emphatically not a bold, masculine hero in the book. He's flawed, obsessive, scheming and weak. Professionally, Deckard is outclassed by his secretary, who is always one step ahead of him. By stripping Deckard of his marriage the film reduces both his humanity and his accountability. It's interesting that Roy Baty's wife Irmgard has also been excised from the film. In the world of Blade Runner, there seems to be no place for marriage, stable or otherwise.
The suggestion of Deckard's possible alcoholism in the movie (which is perhaps the real reason he gets the shakes, rather than his implied replicant status) may signify that he has other psychological problems too: his approach to Rachael is abusive, not romantic. The Deckard of the film is brutalised and coarsened, the typical protagonist of a film noir detective mystery, Sam Spade turned up to 11. None of this comes from the book.
About the only remnant of the original power structure in the movie is J. F. Sebastian's relationship with Pris. In the book, we read during their first encounter how J. R. Isidore daydreams about developing a relationship with Pris, getting her to move in with him and setting up home together. Pris exploits this ruthlessly; she is manipulative, prejudiced and callous. To her, Isidore is just "the chickenhead." When Isidore finds a living spider in the apartment building, Pris takes it off him and tortures it by cutting its legs off, one by one.
This sequence with the spider that best reflects the quotation, taken from an interview with an S. S. Officer, that Dick says inspired the main theme of the novel:
"The screams of the children kept me awake at night."
Dick was fascinated by the question of how someone could become so utterly devoid of empathy that they could say something like this without finding it even slightly questionable. PKD uses the Pris of the novel to reveal this theme, showing the truly inhuman side of android nature and the threat that this poses, which is presumably why people like Deckard are employed to hunt them down.
In the film, the expression of hardness that comes over Pris's face once she has persuaded J. F. Sebastian to help her and follows him into the Bradbury is an indication that Daryl Hannah understood Pris's nature very well. Notice the shape of the out-of-focus street lights behind her during this scene and the sound of the yowling cat heard in the background. The lights look like cat's eyes (another recurrence of the eye theme that runs throughout the film) and the cat, as the apex predator of urban life, is the role in which Pris is being presented here.
There is one other crucial aspect of the book which changes the relationship between Deckard, Rachael and Pris: we find in the book that Pris is the same model android as Rachael. "You won't be able to kill her," Rachael tells Deckard after he sleeps with her, "Because she'll be me." Pris may wear her hair differently but in the book she has the same eyes, the same face, and the same body as Rachael. PKD suggests that the challenge Deckard therefore faces in trying to retire Pris is so hard that Deckard will fail if left to his own devices. Fate intervenes once more, as Dick provides a convenient religious experience - an inexplicable manifestation of Wilbur Mercer - for Deckard which prepares him, and enables him to kill Pris. Even so, the android's death in the book is regarded by Deckard as almost accidental. His confrontation with the remaining androids, Roy Baty and his wife Irmgard, is over in a few paragraphs. There's no protracted chase through the building; it is Pris's death which acts as the moment of emotional release in the scene.
In an inversion of standard movie tropes that has become typical of Ridley's films Deckard has, effectively, triumphed over love. No wonder Ridley hated the happy ending.
If you know me, you'll know that I'm not what you'd describe as a fashion trendsetter. I've never really been one for designer labels and such things, but DAMN, I want Gary Oldman's Prada coat.
I'm off on my travels later this year, and much as it pains me to make the decision, I can't face lugging a big backpack full of very expensive (and very heavy) camera gear up the West Coast of America to Canada. Over the last year I've been looking for a decent alternative and I've been poring over the various camera review sites on the web to see what single-unit solution could stand in for both the Zoom Q3HD and my Canon 50D (and the half-dozen lenses that I use with it). Yesterday I made my decision and the winning candidate was delivered by courier to the office this morning.
I've ended up getting the 12-megapixel Canon Powershot SX40, which leapt to the top of my shortlist as soon as it hit the shops last September. It's what's known as a bridge camera - an intermediate design lying somewhere between compact point-and-shoot pocket cameras and the professional flexibility of the digital SLR. It also shoots full 1080p video (and 240 fps slow motion at a resolution of 320 x 240). It has some insane features, too - you can set up the self-timer so that it will take a photo two seconds after you wink at it, or two seconds after it detects a new face in a group shot (so you can set up framing on a tripod shot and then run round the front to get in the picture yourself); aside from the more common "beach" and "snow" settings it has an automated tilt-shift miniature scenery function (and the less said about that meme the better...)
But the main reason I've chosen it is the jaw-dropping optical zoom it's got. On a 35mm SLR the SX40's range would work out as a focal length of 24mm at the wide end through to an 840mm (yes, that's 840mm!) telephoto, yet it's small enough to slip in a coat pocket. I will, of course, be giving it a very thorough workout before I leave, and I'll put some of the results up here on the blog as well as on my Flickr photostream.
It's all very well having a nice camera, but it's also important to find something cool to take pictures of. Finding a 77-mile long salt lake that under the right viewing conditions can act as a perfect mirror is going to help in that regard, I think. Once your mind has figured out exactly what it is that it's looking at, the photos are stunning.
Tears is a thoughtful look at the film's history and its implications, covering an ambitious range of related subjects from Orwell to Star Wars and from Reaganism and Thatcherism to religion (and thinking about it, the latter isn't maybe that much of a leap, is it?) It's got a few shortcomings, it has to be said: Rutger Hauer's name is consistently misspelt and the contention that the 1990s was the worst decade ever for popular culture might have those of us who remember the 1970s scratching our heads, but considering Nathan wasn't even born when the Director's cut came out (he's still only 17!) it's an impressive piece of film theory. At the moment you can download all 130 pages for free, and I recommend doing so.
I've already written about how the synthetic religion of Mercerism that features in Philip K Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is completely missing from Blade Runner, Ridley Scott's seminal science fiction movie that was released thirty years ago this month. The other significant part of the book that's missing from the film is the way in which several characters encounter and care for artificial animals, and that's what today's Blade Runner blog is about.
In PKD's book, Earth has been devastated by "World War Terminus" and most animal and insect life has become extinct. As a result, owning a real animal has become a significant status symbol. With his typical cynicism, PKD suggests that this will generate a massive market for artificial animals. The less-well-off will buy them and pretend they are real. To underline the importance of this pretence, Dick even has one character - J. R. Isidore - work for a "veterinarian hospital" in San Francisco which is actually a repair shop for these artificial animals. J. R. collects malfunctioning robot pets, and takes them off to the "vet" for "treatment." PKD examines the implications of a market for artificial beasts and adds some baroque embellishments, using them to convey Deckard's woefully materialistic nature by his repetitive, compulsive consultation of his copy of Sidney's Animal and Fowl Catalogue. Sidney's is a paperback book, a sort of "used car" guide for real animals which gets regularly updated as it monitors whether a species is extinct or not and, more importantly for Deckard, the catalogue indicates a specimen's potential worth with guideline prices. Deckard is shameless, consulting his copy of the guide whenever he comes across an animal - even when it belongs to someone else (p. 12).
The loss of animal life gives the book a morose, heartbreaking edge that the film never successfully manages to capture. In much the same way that losing Mercerism leaves Blade Runner without much of PKD's original veneer of weirdness, the absence of the animals plotline reduces the sense of despair and terminal decline that Dick worked into the novel. Mercer resurrects Isidore's tortured spider in the book - the two missing themes are closely linked.
I mentioned last time that all that's left of the animal theme in the movie is one set and five lines of dialogue. The set is "Animoid Row" (it was called "Animal Row" in the book). In the original novel it's here that Deckard browses for a new pet, wondering what sort of real authentic animal he could afford should he manage to retire all the androids that Bryant has told him about. In the movie, it's the place where he does some detective work, establishing that the scale he discovered in Leon's apartment belongs not to a fish but to a snake, and picking up the trail that will eventually lead him to the replicant kick-murder squad operative, Zhora. Watch the establishing shot as the camera arrives at the stall: the flapping eagle that clouts Harrison Ford on the head also knocks an obviously stuffed vulture perched on a Japanese torii gate behind him. It pivots forward and begins to drop, prompting a rather hasty cut to a closer shot of Ford and the Cambodian lady...
In the film, Animoid Row is never mentioned by name. It's populated by stuffed fish, ostriches and eagles and animals but aside from the obviously robotic swordfish at the back of one stall there's no explicit identification of their authenticity; it's only if you've read the book or paid attention to Deckard's first conversation with Rachael that your assumption is likely to be that all the birds and animals are fake.
And that brings us to those five lines of dialogue:
Do you like our owl?
Of course it is.
Must be expensive.
When the scene was shot, Sean Young's second line was "Of course not." While this emphasised how rich and powerful the Tyrell Corporation were, the fact that real owls were still flying about made almost no sense at all - particularly given what we've discussed just now. In the book, Dick describes a devastated planet in which owls were the first set of species to go extinct - that's why "Scrappy" is such an impressive thing to display. Sean Young's words were therefore changed, recorded and dubbed on to the original footage. Even when you know this, it's difficult to pick up that what Ms Young's lips are saying is not what you can hear.
In the book, Rachael starts out by claiming the owl is real and maintains this even when the ever-obsessive Deckard brandishes his copy of Sidney's at her (p. 36) and shows her the entry listing owls, all species, as extinct. But in the book, too, Rachael initially passes the Voigt-Kampff test until, as he is leaving, chastened and defeated, Deckard notices that she always refers to the owl as an it. With one more question Deckard is able to establish that the girl - and the bird - are artificial.
I don't believe the audience was expected to extrapolate anything about mass extinctions from the five lines that remain in the film. There just isn't enough background information to go on. Strangely, though, this works in Ridley's favour as it is far, far more shocking when shortly afterwards we are shown a serial number engraved on the scale Deckard has given to the Cambodian lady (Kimiko Hiroshige) with the electron microscope. (Extra geek info as revealed by Paul Sammon: the image on the microscope's screen isn't of an animal at all. It's a micrograph of a bud on a cannabis plant.)
While Demis Roussos sings to Vangelis's music, Deckard gets a lead:
I think it was manufactured locally. Finest quality; superior workmanship. There is a maker's serial number... 990-69-47-XB71. Interesting!
Not fish. Snake scale!
Try Abdul Ben-Hassan. He made this snake!
From this point on in the film, animals don't really have anything else to do with the plot - well, not unless you count Zhora's snake (a four-year-old Burmese python called Darling who belonged to Joanna Cassidy in real life) in the dressing room scene.
In the book, animals continue to have a presence. Deckard is able to buy a living, breathing Nubian goat, only for Rachael to turn up at his apartment and throw it off the roof (p. 170). In his moment of abject despair at the book's climax, Deckard discovers a toad feebly writhing about in the radioactive dust near the Oregon border. His triumph is short lived when he shows it to his wife and she flips open its control panel (p. 180) to reveal that it is just another artificial organism.
Were Hampton Fancher, David Peoples and Ridley Scott right to drop the whole theme of animals from the film? I think so. The action moves forwards faster without all the exposition that the subject would require and dropping Deckard's obsession with Sidney's catalogue makes him a far more sympathetic character. A version of Blade Runner that preserved all of the book's quirks and obsessions would be a deeply weird beast and I have to say it, Blade Runner is fine just as it is.
Despite my background in training and educational psychology, it was the phrase above from Fight Club that popped into my head when I read Time Magazine's report of a recent graduation address by English teacher David McCullogh Jr. (the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Gaub McCullogh) at a high school in Boston recently. He didn't pull any punches. “You’re not special, you are not exceptional,” he told the little darlings. “You have been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, and bubble-wrapped, feted and fawned over.”
Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.
Maybe there's hope for us after all.
It's nine years today since I uploaded my first blog entry. In the early days each item was pretty terse. Any links I provided were accompanied by the barest commentary to provide context; occasionally I'd throw in a bad joke or a pun and very few entries ran to more than a single paragraph.
Since then, I've made a conscious effort to move from blogging to writing. These days I try to convey what each story means to me and thinking - albeit briefly - about the wider implications of what I'm writing about. I know I don't always manage this effectively, even now. Quite a lot of the time when I get home and start putting together the blog I'm too tired to work things through or expand my thoughts. That's why these days you'll find the longer blog entries appear at weekends, or when I'm on holiday; it's at these times that I have enough time to indulge in a bit of contemplation or introspection. This month that's definitely been the case, so I've resolved to make an effort to write more in the evenings. Despite my weekday lapses, I noticed when I checked my stats yesterday that this month's blog is already one of my top ten biggest. With the best part of a week to go there's still time for it to make the top five.
Why do I write the blog? Primarily it's because I find it a useful way of keeping track what I've been up to and recording interesting links I've found on the web. It's replaced the diaries I used to keep in the 90s (and while I was rooting about in the loft recently, I found them all in a box; I might go through them and add an "on this day" entry to the blog from time to time). But I also write it for an audience that I imagine are interested in the same sorts of things that I am. It's always nice to get feedback from people and realise that there are folks out there actually reading this stuff. If that's you, then welcome, and thanks for stopping by.
I must admit that the top of my head is feeling a bit tender this evening as I've been outside for most of the day. I went with some friends to the Love Food festival at Newark Park, a 450-year-old National Trust property just up the road from here near Ozleworth in Gloucestershire. It was a small scale affair with a dozen or so stalls, but it was well worth visiting and I was glad to see that a fair few people had decided to make a day of it.
I picked up some very nice cheeses from the Bristol Cheese Company stall: one was a jalapeno jack cheddar and the other was a much softer (but much spicier) cheese with jalapenos and chillies in it. I've just had some for my supper and it was delicious. I also picked up a great selection of sauces from the Upton Cheyney Chilli Company and I'm looking forwards to trying them out over the next few weeks!
After a lunch consisting of a very tasty serving of paella washed down with a pint of proper West Country cider, we had a look round the house and gardens...
It was the first time I've ever visited the place, but it was fascinating. The building started off as a small hunting lodge built in about 1550 but over the years it's been expanded and then extended again until it became the imposing residence it is today. As you can see from the picture above, the house stands at the top of a steep cliff. Below the house the wooded gardens slope down to a small lake and fields full of grazing sheep. Peacocks stroll about the place as if they owned it, occasionally emitting deafening, raucous cries and frightening small children. The rooms in the house were large and well-proportioned (I love high ceilings) and most had immense fireplaces on one wall (the staff say that thanks to its exposed location the house gets extremely cold during the winter and the owner used to welcome visitors to "the coldest place on Earth" when they arrived). All the same, the exposed location does mean that the view from the upper rooms is quite spectacular...
I would love to live in a house with a view like that one day. But for the moment my more pressing concern is to head off and apply some aftersun lotion, because my scalp feels like it's glowing.
I haven't finished with my Blade Runner articles yet. I notice the BBC have caught on to the fact that it's the film's 30th anniversary this month with a look at what parts of the film have come true since it was made.
Sadly, the article seems to be mainly a trawl through the BBC archive of tech company PR gumph for press releases that mentioned Blade Runner, so it's peppered with links to tech websites rather than providing fresh perspectives on Ridley Scott's or PKD's vision. And when there isn't any copy to go on, the article isn't particularly focussed; one early commenter chastises the writer for not realising that the "cityspeak" that Gaff is speaking is actually mostly Hungarian (in Future Noir Eddie Olmos observed that he always gets a big laugh when the film plays in Hungary because what he's saying is "Horse dick! So you say - you are the Blade... Blade Runner." )
The thing with writing about a film as widely-known and well-loved as Blade Runner is that you need to know your stuff. Paul Sammon's book, Mark Kermode's documentary and Rutger Hauer's autobiography are prerequisites, as far as I'm concerned. And they're just the starting points; this month I've been going back to the DVD commentaries and watching the Final Cut extras, trawling through my old cache of Starlog magazines, looking at old press cuttings and generally falling back on an obsession with the film that's lasted three decades and shows no sign of dissipating.
So for the remainder of the month I'll be writing about other aspects of the movie. Next time, I'll cover the other missing theme from the film: the artificial animals that Deckard and his neighbours all keep and how pretty much all that's left of this plot device in the film is one set and five lines of dialogue that are over in seconds. Stay tuned.
I took a day off from my Blade Runner ponderings yesterday to travel back to 1977 (and Cardiff) and one of my favourite shows from my teenage years: The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy was being performed live on stage at St. David's Hall. Most of the surviving cast were there: Simon Jones as Arthur, Geoffrey McGivern as Ford, Susan Sheridan as Trillian and Mark Wing-Davey as Zaphod all appeared on stage and the mere fact that I was in the same room as they were had me grinning like an idiot. They could have done anything, and I would have been delighted, but we were treated to a couple of hours of highlights from the Hitch Hiker's radio shows and I was ecstatic. Listening to their voices it was difficult to believe that it's been 35 years since the show was first broadcast. They sounded exactly the same and it's difficult to describe the joy this brought me.
Although he didn't appear in person, Stephen Moore had provided a freshly-prerecorded voice for Marvin the paranoid android. Marvin himself appeared on stage in the form of a rather spiffy puppet with a reel-to-reel tape recorder for a body and an old wireless set for a head. When he took his bow at the end of the evening, the puppet got the biggest cheer of the night which probably says something profound about the nature of Hitch Hiker's fans. He even got to perform his 1981 single "Marvin" with the rest of the cast providing backing vocals.
The original recording of Douglas Adams was used for the eternally unfortunate Agrajag, which played while producer Dirk Maggs flapped around Arthur with an umbrella. When DNA's picture was projected onto the set at the end of the night he got a very loud cheer. I'm sure everyone there was wishing he was still around.
The musical side of things was directed by the incredibly talented Philip Pope (who also provided a number of voices including a memorable turn as the Maître d' at Milliways) and the voice of the book was provided by Phill Jupitus. Phill also appeared, sans pants, as The Dish of the Day - a spectacle that we could probably have lived without seeing, it has to be said; Geoffrey McGivern had his hands over his eyes. Samantha Béart played Arthur and Trillian's daughter Random as well as the Nutrimatic vending machine, and got one of the biggest laughs of the night when she shouted "I'm a vegetarian!" from off stage when the Dish of the Day sought out takers for dinner. Simon Jones got an equally large laugh for adding "...and an incredibly long way away" immediately afterwards. There were one or two other cases where the cast ad libbed slightly. Phill Jupitus and Simon Jones both got in digs at Jimmy Carr, and best of all, Andrew Secombe's Max Quordlepleen completely lost the plot after talking to the audience in Welsh.
It was a great evening - although it was rather odd to come out of the theatre afterwards and realise that the House of Fraser store opposite was the department store that appeared in the recent Dr Who episode Closing Time. Remember, Douglas Adams spent some time as the show's script editor...
Today's Blade Runner blog concerns one of the two themes of the book that didn't make it into the movie, the "synthetic religion" of Mercerism. It was important to Dick: in the novel, Mercerism is introduced almost immediately. Mercerism is something that Deckard's wife Iran practices and we get the impression that while Deckard gets something out of it, he mainly joins in to reassure his wife. The strangeness of Mercerism is integral to establishing the strange, distorted atmosphere of the story and while I can understand Ridley's decision not to incorporate it into the final movie, it does mean that much of that veneer of weirdness is lost.
Make no mistake: Mercerism is one of PKD's weirdest ever creations, and when you're talking about PKD that's really saying something. Mercerism isn't just a dramatic device, it's an entire, meticulously thought out theology. Participants (calling them "worshippers" doesn't seem right, somehow) undergo a common experience by gripping two handles on something called an "empathy box". We aren't told where these empathy boxes came from, or who makes them. We only find out that Deckard knows they "appeared on Earth" a few years before the action in the book takes place. When a human being grasps the handles of an empathy box, the real world fades away to be replaced with what we'd describe today as a virtual reality environment, one that conveys sight and sound and smell but also feelings and emotions. These feelings are principally those of Wilbur Mercer, but there is also leak-through from every other member of the "audience" participating at that moment. It's the sharing of emotions, Dick suggests, that makes using the box such a rewarding experience for humans. Androids, we learn, cannot undergo fusion with Mercer. They lack the empathy that humans - even genetically damaged ones like J. R. Isidore - feel as second nature. This is the biggest hole in Dick's narrative: if the androids are unable to share in the collective experience of the empathy box, then why on Earth does Deckard need a Voigt-Kampff machine to detect them?
What is the experience of using an empathy box like? As Dick describes it from J. R. Isidore's perspective:
John Isidore gradually experienced a waning of the living room in which he stood; the dilapidated furniture and walls ebbed out and he ceased to experience them at all. He found himself, instead, as always before, entering into the landscape of drab hill, drab sky.
In this landscape, Isidore at first sees and then becomes an old man trudging up the hillside. This man is Wilbur Mercer. Like Isidore, Mercer is a genetically damaged "special" who, we are told, was persecuted when he developed a talent for resurrecting the dead by reversing the flow of time.
Mercer's ascent of the hill is impeded by invisible lurking figures PKD calls The Killers. They are Mercer's persecutors, and by extension they represent the embodiment of evil in the world. A Mercerite senses evil in the world without understanding it, says Dick, and is free to locate its nebulous presence wherever he or she sees fit. The implications of this statement are never made explicit in the book, but if you start to think about them, they are terrifying. Evil is left as a vague concept and each Mercerite is free to project his or her own fears, misconceptions and prejudices on whatever target they wish to blame or persecute. It's easy to see the attraction of Mercerism for Deckard when we discover that its central tenet is
"You shall kill only the killers"
Deckard rationalises his job as android exterminator by equating the androids with Mercer's (and therefore humanity's) persecutors. While Dick's human characters revere Mercerism as profoundly moralistic, it's actually the polar opposite. It's an excuse; a pretext for hatred and bigotry, equating whatever you don't like with ultimate evil and providing an imagined justification for attacking it, destroying it; the resonance with the use of Aryan ideals during the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s should be painfully obvious but just to make sure, Dick explicitly mentions Hitler in the context of Mercerism being used as a tool for political manipulation (p. 158). Dick ratchets the cynicism up another notch when we learn through Isidore that American and Soviet police support Mercerism as a way of reducing crime (and, presumably, controlling many other things as well...) As he does in many novels, Dick shows religion here as being diametrically opposed to spirituality; Mercerism is capable of turning humanity into something monstrous but it seems that only the androids have recognised this.
PKD uses the empathy box as a way of emphasising the difference between humans and androids but as religious experiences go it's a perverted one. This perversion is expanded with the description of the shared experience itself: spiritual togetherness is achieved through physical pain followed by the participation in Mercer's death, his descent into the "tomb world" and his eventual rebirth back into the same cycle of suffering. The suffering is important: as a herd animal, says Dick, when one person suffers, the rest of humanity acquires "a higher survival factor" where a solitary predator such as an owl or cobra "would be destroyed". Mercerism is a religion based on pain and the fear of that pain. It also inspires a fear of death: the culmination of the empathy box experience with Mercer's death is, PKD tells us, sometimes fatal to those who share it.
One of the few things that Deckard seems to get right in the book is that he doesn't entirely trust Mercerism. Indeed, he eventually realises that empathic sharing is a double-edged sword:
They'll have our joy,” Rick said, “but we’ll lose. We’ll exchange what we feel for what they feel. Our joy will be lost.”
From this we can see that Deckard fails to "get" the deepest aspects of Mercerism not through any inherent spirituality or goodness. Quite the reverse: Deckard is too much of a materialist to be bothered with such things. Deckard is interested in possessions, in status, and the pursuit of the esteem by which he believes he should be regarded. Shortly after Deckard's insight above, Mercer tells Deckard explicitly: There is no salvation (p. 135).
For everyone, or just for Deckard?
Deckard's crisis of identity is more than just a reaction against organised religion, however. It's nothing less than the defeat of Creation; Deckard has come to realise his actions go against his true nature; he knows what he must do is wrong but he knows he will go ahead and do it anyway. He goes ahead, even though Isidore tells him that if he kills the androids, he will never be able to participate in Mercerism again (p. 165). Deckard knows that his actions will effectively damn him, but he is unable to step off the path that he has chosen. Dick then imposes another ironic twist: in rejecting Mercerism, not only does Deckard experience a religious vision of Mercer without the need for an empathy box, by the time he's killed the last android Deckard has metaphorically become Wilbur Mercer.
'You look,' Miss Marsten said, 'like Wilbur Mercer.'
'I am,' he said. 'I'm Wilbur Mercer; I've permanently fused with him. And I can't unfuse. I'm sitting here waiting to un-fuse. Somewhere near the Oregon border.'
However, the supreme irony of the novel is that it's only the androids who are capable of fully understanding the monstrous nature of Mercerism. Even though they lack the empathy required to participate, they have intuited the religion's implications and are trying to combat it, working to reveal its true nature. When Buster Friendly announces the true identity of Wilbur Mercer - that he is a dramatic construct, played by a bit-part actor called Al Jarry (p. 157, 162) on a sound stage in Hollywood as he is pelted with foam rocks - the androids expect the religion to collapse. But this is where Dick's cynicism comes to the fore once again: Mercer tells Isidore that the fact it's all fake won't make the slightest bit of difference. He turns out to be right, of course. Religion is about faith rather than the establishment of truth; the androids' failure to understand this leads almost immediately to their downfall.
Androids, Dick tells us, just can't handle cognitive dissonance.
Whenever people denigrate science fiction as a literary form, it's worth pointing them at Do Androids and asking them to think about the issues PKD raises that I've mentioned here. Mercerism on its own is enough to stop most people in their tracks; taken with the rest of PKD's output it's a clear indication of his status as one of the most significant writers of the 20th century.
I was delighted to hear on the news recently that the European Extremely Large Telescope has been given the go ahead. The E-ELT will have a mirror 39.3 metres across. That's nearly eight times the diameter of the 200 inch (5.1 metre) Hale Telescope at Mount Palomar, which was the biggest telescope in the world when I was a kid (and it only lost that status in 1993). The E-ELT will be based at Cerro Armazones, about 20 km up the road from the existing Very Large Telescope in Cerro Paranal, and will be operational by 2022, say the ESO. It's fantastic news, but it has left me wondering: what are they going to call the next telescope they build?
On today's Blade Runner blog we'll be listening to, rather than looking at the film. The film's score is, in my opinion, the best example of original music ever created for the cinema. The only film that comes close to blending visuals with composition in the way that Blade Runner does is Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
By 1981 Vangelis was at the height of his powers. He had built a strong reputation as a composer of film and television scores, having written music for Carl Sagan's wonderful series on science, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage and he was hotly tipped to receive an Oscar nomination for his work on Chariots of Fire (which he duly won, and also picked up the Los Angeles Film Critics' Association award for best music.) I had become a fan of Vangelis as a teenager thanks to a series of albums he recorded in the 1970s like Heaven and Hell, Albedo 0.39 and Spiral. Tracks from these LPs were played regularly on Alan Freeman and Nicky Horne's prog rock radio shows on BBC Radio 1 and Capital. I still have my vinyl copies of those albums and I still listen to them. While the LPs occasionally feature vocal performances by artists like Yes's Jon Anderson and the English Chamber Choir, the majority of Vangelis's music from this time is instrumental, and it is primarily played on synthesisers.
Vangelis was an enthusiastic user of the Yamaha CS-80, a behemoth of a machine that weighed over 200 lbs and could play eight notes at once (which was an incredibly advanced feature for the time) with two oscillators for each voice (producing the distinctive, fat sound used in the introduction of the film). Even in 2009, the CS-80 was ranked as being one of the top 10 greatest synths of all time. Vangelis was a huge fan of the machine, owning as many as 8 of them.
Vangelis also used an impressive array of other instruments, from the tinkly Fender Rhodes Stage 88 electric piano of the love theme to the Sequential Circuits Prophet 10 (which was another behemoth of a machine), Roland's first synthesiser the Jupiter 4, the Roland VP330 VocoderPlus, and the classic Moog MiniMoog. An artist using machines to create synthetic music for a film about synthetic humans? What could be more appropriate?
Talking to Starlog Magazine back in July 1982, Ridley explained his approach to scoring the film:
"Obviously one always goes through a process of discussion with a musician and one tries to communicate as much as one can, by playing other music. It drives them crazy, because Terry Rawlings, whom I've always worked with, edits the film and has a strong musical vent, therefore we always had a track for the film before the composer really comes near it. It helps because you see where you are headed and what it will be like with all the layers filled in and sometimes that is totally frustrating for the composer."
Ridley is talking here about temp tracks. The music for a film usually comes after the film has been shot (but not always - perhaps the most famous example where the music came first is probably the final scene of Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly which the director literally filmed while a record of Ennio Morricone's score played on set. Morricone had written and recorded the music weeks before). Putting a first draft of the film together with a temporary soundtrack is a common approach to help the director and editor establish pacing and atmosphere. Occasionally the director falls in love with the temporary solution and these temp tracks end up in the final cut; Rammstein ended up on the soundtrack to Lost Highway because David Lynch would play their music on set as he shot scenes to help convey the mood he wanted. The German band's brutal driving rhythms set the tone perfectly, their music made the film's final cut, and the rest is rock and roll history.
But in most cases, the final music for each scene doesn't exist at the point it is filmed. Instead, the director has to rely on an idea of what we should be hearing as a scene plays out to give us emotional cues: is the action romantic; is tension increasing or decreasing; has the scene been resolved? Again, as Ridley explained back in 1982,
"It's kind of abstract. It's also how much you demonstrate, how much clarification before you leave (the composer) with it. He is an artist in his own right, and you must leave him a lot, actually, in terms of what you feel, providing one has briefed him in a certain way, saying 'I want a romantic feeling here, a certain thrust there and not much here."
Ridley liked the way Vangelis would counterpoint what was happening on screen:
"He goes against the grain and gets an effect that way rather than going with the flow."
In December 1981, work got under way at Vangelis's Nemo Studios in London with the composer receiving VHS copies of scenes from Rawlings's editing room on a daily basis. Vangelis also called in a number of trusted session musicians during these sessions, including sax player Dick Morrissey and vocalists Peter Skellern, Mary Hopkin, Demis Roussos together with old favourites the English Chamber Choir. Vangelis finished work on the film in April 1982. Ridley was delighted with the results, telling Starlog,
"His music is absolutely perfect for the film. He is a legend himself at this moment."
Ridley wasn't exaggerating, either - the music is extraordinary. From the first sound of the immense, thundering drums in the opening titles you know you're in for something special. Vangelis's music spirals and soars in perfect complement to the visuals and it permeates the film, becomes an integral part of it, binds it together.
As a musician, I found the radical use of pitch bends that, rather than dropping a couple of semitones, drop an octave and keep on going, exciting - almost shocking. The music is bathed in a sea of reverberation that is physically impossible in its intensity; it could never be achieved in any building that exists in real life, with notes lingering on for what seems like minutes. Yes, even the soundstage used for the recording of the music is synthetic, artificial. The use of quirky sound effects and computer noises (particularly on tracks like Memories of Green) never distract from the score, they only add to it. Vangelis's expert ear for sound design creates a world that is superbly atmospheric, utterly distinctive, and in my view one of cinema's finest achievements.
Vangelis isn't the only artist whose music is featured in the film. Pompeii 79 AD from Gail Laughton's 1969 album Harps of the Ancient Temples is used in the sequence with the bicycles after Roy and Leon meet up. Laughton was a talented jazz harpist who had worked closely with Harpo Marx and it's his hands, not Cary Grant's, that are playing the harp in The Bishop's Wife. The piece effectively bookends the first act of the movie and the light tone of the recording lends the scene an almost mystical feel. It's an aural palate cleanser before the movie returns to darker territory and Vangelis's music becomes more ominous and foreboding.
When the film premiered, the end credits promised that the soundtrack album was "available on Polydor Records and Tapes", but fans soon found out that this wasn't the case. What had happened? Even thirty years later, the parties concerned aren't saying, although you'll find lots of rumours on fan sites across the web. In the sleeve notes for the 1994 CD (the first official release of the original recordings), Vangelis simply said that he had been "unable to release" the album at the time the film came out. Instead, in 1982 WEA released a CD of an orchestral version of the score recorded by the New American Orchestra, a 60-strong collection of session jazz and classical musicians under the direction of Jack Elliott. It was a brave attempt, but it was a pale imitation of Vangelis's original recordings with none of the electronic wizardry and the fans' verdicts were damning. The absence of a "proper" record of the soundtrack left a huge gap for years. Before the official release, large numbers of bootleg recordings found their way into the wider world. I've never been one for bootlegs, and I chose to wait, trusting that eventually Ridley and Vangelis would see me right.
Eventually, my faith was vindicated and in 2007 the score finally got the reverential treatment it deserved with a 25th anniversary 3-CD set of Vangelis's work hitting the shelves. It's glorious, containing almost all the main pieces of the score although sadly, rather than the thunderous drums from the opening credits, the beginning of the album segues into the main theme from Harrison Ford's dialogue from the Esper Sequence which takes place later in the film. Nevertheless, the set does the soundtrack justice, containing full versions of compositions which are only heard in snatches during the film, additional pieces that were cut from the finished movie, and a lot more besides. You can even hear a clip from a recent message left on Vangelis's answering machine from the film's director where he spoofs Sigourney Weaver's last words from another of his movies:
When Ridley Scott put together the team to make Blade Runner, his approach was very simple: he went to some of the very finest creative talents around. Today's Blade Runner blog features another of those extraordinary people, the designer Syd Mead.
When Ridley contacted him, Mr Mead wasn't known for his film work. In fact, the only film to which he'd contributed before Blade Runner was a little movie you may have heard of called Star Trek: The Motion Picture, for which he designed the V'Ger spacecraft. However, as an illustrator and concept designer he was well known for his work with large corporations such as the Ford Motor Corporation (where he worked in the Advanced Styling Center) and US Steel, for whom he'd produced a book of glorious paintings showing futuristic vehicles back in 1961. In 1979 Dragon's Dream published Sentinel, a book of Mead's paintings of futuristic concepts such as megastructures and more high-tech vehicles. The book brought his work to the attention of a wider audience and made him famous. Here was somebody who not only knew what the future looked like, he could show it to you in a blaze of gleaming chrome, smoked glass, and mood lighting. He instantly became a guru figure to thousands of science fiction fans and I was one of them. I still am.
When he was putting the Blade Runner production together, Scott visited Mead at his home. Arriving with the film's associate producer Ivor Powell, Ridley had three Dragon's Dream books with him. In an interview at the time of the film's release, Mead recalled that the books were Views, by Roger Dean, 21st Century Foss, by Chris Foss, and Sentinel. Believe me, if you're going to create a memorable science fiction movie, those are pretty heavyweight publications to use as source material. Mead had been recommended to Scott by John Dykstra, the special effects genius best known for his work on Star Wars who had worked with Mead on Star Trek: TMP. Ridley and Mead hit it off and Mead agreed to come on board.
Initially, Ridley wanted Mead to design the vehicles for the film, but as Mead said at the time,
"I never like to sketch a vehicle on a blank page. I'll toss in background settings."
Under guidance from the film's art director Laurence Paull, Mead developed a look "that fit the tone of the picture," as he put it. He's being incredibly modest; take a look at any of the design sketches he produced at that time and you'll see the world of Blade Runner right there on paper. Ridley liked the designs (who wouldn't?) and expanded Mead's remit until he was responsible for designing just about anything on set from apartment keys to parking meters (charging three dollars an hour, they were labelled with a warning that they would electrocute you if you tampered with them). Deckard's apartment key was more than a simple stick of metal: it had to be rolled down a sensor on the wall. As it moved, lights would flash on it and if the sensor detected the lights flashing in the right sequence, you got in. "It's waaay past what you'd actually need," said Mead, "but it's more visually intriguing for the purpose of plot."
Mead also designed the MacGuffin of the film, Deckard's Voight-Kampff machine (and notice that just as Roy Batty gained an extra "t" from book to film, so the empathy test machine gained an "h".) The moving bellows on the unit give it a threatening, organic feel, as if it's sitting there, breathing. External sets on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank were dressed according to Mead's sketches until the streets that had been filmed in Funny Girl or The Way We Were had been rendered unrecognisable. The SF author Norman Spinrad called the end result
"Detail piled upon detail piled upon detail - a true masterpiece of design which makes any previous attempt at anything like a future city scene simply look ludicrous by comparison."
The first (and for me the most memorable) design that Mead worked on for the film was Gaff's flying police car, the Spinner. As a kid growing up in the 1960s I used to believe I'd have my own flying car when I grew up, and lo and behold, Mead designed one that looked like it would actually work. Mead came at the design from solid engineering principles, too: to keep it in the air he visualised a set of downward pointing fan jets used in an "enclosed lift vehicle" that looked the same whether it was hurtling across the sky to the Tyrell Corporation or rolling down some grungy backstreet in "The City" (the location was originally an anonymous, nameless place - not necessarily the San Francisco of the novel and not Los Angeles, either). The Spinner ended up being the most expensive prop built for the film. It could drive along the street as well as being lifted into the air on wires. Thirty years on, with those wires removed digitally, the sequence where Gaff lifts off for police headquarters with Deckard as an unwilling passenger is more breathtaking than ever.
Deckard's own car was, Mead explained, a decommissioned police vehicle that could no longer fly. The vehicles of The City all had to negotiate a city where buildings towered up over 1000 feet:
"We figured that, as you went up higher, the street level as we know it today would become some sort of massive service alley sequestered beneath these enormous megastructures,"
Mead told Starlog Magazine in May 1982. "That would, in turn, give the streets a sort of subterranean, sewer look." Mead had spent some time contemplating the sociological aspects of life that would occur as a result:
"By inference, the crime and congestion present on this ground level would be an enormous problem, making it almost necessary for all decent citizens to avoid it, to not venture below the 40th level of the megastructures."
This is where the idea behind the gang of scavengers who rip off parts of Deckard's car came from:
"The streets would really be low, in every sense of the word."
Of course, Deckard's car is useful symbolically as well. The fact that when we first meet him, the former Blade Runner has lost his ability to fly is also a powerful metaphor. It's only when Gaff descends from the sky like a stroppy angel that Deckard's powers are restored and he regains the power of flight.
Mead is very clear about the technology in Blade Runner:
"Technology isn't a villain."
He was sympathetic to the replicants who, after all, were "actually people." In Mead's words, the vision of how things are in Blade Runner is "the last wave of technology-inspired paranoia" that blossomed as the flower generation began to discover politics.
"They're the last group of sad, disillusioned people who just can't figure out how to bridge the gap between a thoroughly technologically supported natural society and the old industrial revolution machinery."
For Mead, the effective use of technology is the way in which humanity's future will bring better lifestyles and more efficient use of resources. You've only got to look at his paintings to realise that Syd Mead is an optimist. In the Starlog interview he summed up his own attitude:
"This is someone else's story... Personally, I don't see the future going that way. I know we're going to have 3,000 foot buildings."
Thirty years on, we're nearly there.
For today's Blade Runner blog entry I'm writing about the film's director of photography, the late Jordan Cronenweth.
When I saw Blade Runner for the first time I already knew of Mr Cronenweth; his is not a name you forget in a hurry. He was the cinematographer on another of those weird, unforgettable films that cropped up at the turn of the 1980s, Ken Russell's movie of Paddy Chayefsky's novel about sensory deprivation experiments gone wrong, Altered States. The film is as visually striking as Blade Runner and there are several scenes which use similar approaches to those used by Ridley Scott: many of the sets are closed in, claustrophobic rooms and Cronenweth makes good use of smoke to give depth to relatively small spaces. The lighting in Altered States is incredible; light is elevated almost to the status of a character. The protean energy that William Hurt's character has unleashed is signified by flickering, actinic bursts of illumination and one scene manages to convey an event of huge, eerie otherworldliness simply by showing us light shining under the bottom of a door (accompanied, it must be said, by John Corigliano's spine-tingling score). Just as importantly, several sections of Russell's film take place in near darkness. Remember, Ridley had filmed parts of his first movie, The Duellists, using only candlelight - and the stygian depths of the spacecraft Nostromo in Alien were hardly flooded with light. Ridley wanted Blade Runner to be dark and gloomy, so Cronenweth was a perfect match.
When Ridley picked him for Blade Runner, Cronenweth was (in Ridley's words) "One of the most important cameramen in Hollywood," having learnt his stuff under DPs like Connie Hall (with whom he shot 10 films, including Cool Hand Luke, In Cold Blood, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). In the documentary about Cronenweth on the Blade Runner 5-DVD set, The Light That Burns, the crew describe the reductionist approach he took to lighting the Blade Runner sets. Just as much effort was put into blacking out light sources as went into adding lights to the set. His son Jeff Cronenweth remembers his favourite maxim being "It's not what you light, it's what you don't light," and that approach is particularly evident in the scenes filmed in Deckard's apartment. Lighting gaffer Dick Hart sums up Cronenweth's approach as "You don't have to have an excuse for a light coming from somewhere. It's - the light's there," and this is one reason for the film's striking and original look. Key grip Cary Griffith describes Ridley's reaction to seeing the film's trademark 1 kilowatt xenon searchlight being shone through Deckard's windows for the first time as just two words: "F*** me!" The film wouldn't be the same without them. The American Society of Cinematographers piece on shooting Blade Runner is a fascinating read, providing more detail on Cronenweth and Scott's approach to the look of the film and those ubiquitous xenon searchlights are mentioned again.
In the interview, Cronenweth also explains another of his trademark approaches: "I can never use enough backlighting." To give a sense of great visual depth to the picture he combined this approach with the use of smoke - in large quantities. Many photos from the shoot show the crew wearing facemasks, and not just when they were filming Douglas Trumbull's Tyrell Corporation ziggurat. According to Future Noir author Paul Sammon, normal film making chemical smog wasn't thick enough to register on the darker sets, so they resorted to burning truck tyres at the side of the set to get the right ambience. In Future Noir M Emmet Walsh describes shooting in "The Blue Room" - the office of his character, Captain Bryant. It's one of the most beautifully lit scenes in the entire movie, and the lighting levels are just about as low as you get anywhere in the film. To add to the chemical fog used to bring out the lighting, Ridley had Walsh smoke a cigar. Walsh doesn't smoke, and (as you'll read in Sammon's book) this resulted in a certain amount of friction on set.
But for me, the absolute crowning achievement of Cronenweth's work on Blade Runner is the signature "replicant glow" that the characters playing replicants sometimes exhibit in their eyes. It's a subtle, unsettling effect and it was achieved by shooting the scene through a half-silvered mirror set at 90 degrees to the camera. By shining a light source on to the side of the mirror away from the camera, light would be angled on to the actors in exactly the same plane as the camera and reflect back off the retinas at the back of their eyes (in exactly the same way as a cat's eyes glow in your car headlights). Crucially, you'll notice that Harrison's eyes definitely exhibit the same effect as Sean Young's when Rachael asks Deckard, "Would you come after me?":
Jordan Cronenweth won a BAFTA in 1983 for the cinematography on Blade Runner. Despite suffering from Parkinson's disease he went on to make several other memorable films and pop videos, but sadly he died in 1996.
Next time on the Blade Runner blog I'll be writing about someone else who had a profound influence on the look of the film. He's been a hero of mine since the 1970s. He's the visual futurist, Syd Mead. I hope you'll swing by again then.
This week's news of the death of Ray Bradbury has left me with a profound sense of loss.
There are writers, and there are great writers, but every now and again - if you're lucky - you find work that can transport you somewhere else, work that will stay with you for the rest of your life. You realise when you read work like this that it's possible to use words to create something truly magical. For me, the first and best example of this will always be Mr Bradbury.
Mr Bradbury was a magician; when you read one of his stories, time stops and the rest of the world goes away. Instead, you find yourself in a place where anything could happen. It might not always be pleasant - Bradbury had a strong sense of the macabre and would occasionally drop you into full-on grand guignol horror - but it would always be lyrical, poetic and utterly riveting stuff. At the centre of everything he wrote lay Bradbury's own optimism, his good-naturedness and his hopes for a better world. He wasn't a great fan of technology; he only consented to allow his work to be sold in eBook form a couple of years ago. He didn't like being described as a science fiction writer, explaining that the worlds he imagined could never happen and must therefore be classed as fantasy.
"I'm not a futurist. People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it."
I draw some comfort from the fact that the rest of the world has recognised how great his talent was. He's been praised by President Obama and Steven Spielberg. Brian Aldiss (the closest thing the UK has got to our own Bradbury) wrote Bradbury's obituary in the Telegraph where he remembers a meal they had together back in the 1960s:
"Waiters kept slipping him little shallow green drinks. We never got any, but the waiters loved Ray. In the States, even the waiters read SF."
Ray Bradbury will be best known for things like The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes and the like, but he also helped to shape some of science fiction's classic movies; The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was based on his short story "The Fog Horn" and he also wrote the original story for It Came From Outer Space. Hollywood also put him to use on mainstream literary adaptations, too - he worked on John Huston's film of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Thanks to the activities of creationists and the tea party, French director Francois Truffaut's film of Bradbury's book Fahrenheit 451 gets more and more prescient as time goes on, and not in a good way.
I doubt I'd even reached my teens when I read his work for the first time but oh boy, I knew it was something special. Bradbury's first major collection of stories was horror, and many of his later works continue to have a touch of the macabre about them. He was a master of the short story, a genius at balancing light and dark. My younger self had never really encountered writing like Mr Bradbury's before, so when I read tales like Fever Dream, in which a teenager realises he is being taken over by the microbes making him ill, or Mars is Heaven! in which-well, read it yourself and find out exactly why it gave me nightmares for months-they sunk in, and they went deep. Even when overt horror is absent, his work still has the capacity to unsettle. I think his short story "A Sound of Thunder" was the first time-travel story I ever read that introduced the idea of changing history, and it freaked me out for weeks.
The BBC Radiophonic workshop did an adaptation of There Will Come Soft Rains for Radio 4 back in the 1970s and I still have a recording of it on a cassette squirrelled away somewhere upstairs. Every summer when the date on which the story takes place rolls around (on August 4th) I think of Mr Bradbury. If I'm still around in 2026 I will still be doing so.
When I moved to London I headed straight for a shop called Dark They Were and Golden Eyed in Dean Street in Soho on the basis that if anyone was running a store named after a Ray Bradbury story, they were doing something worth paying attention to. The comics and books I bought there changed my life forever. As I got older, and re-read the stories I remembered from my childhood, I realised just how much of his work had escaped me. The poetry and lyricism of his work is outstanding and he had a truly original voice. He could map immense issues like the colonisation of alien worlds onto the small-town concerns of complex, genuine people and make the whole into a thing of stunning beauty. Bradbury's work has the capacity to soak into your soul and sustain it with ideas and imagery that return over and over again. So many times, over the years, I've wished I was the scientist at the end of Chrysalis, rising silently into the night sky to seek out adventures amongst the stars.
Thank you for all of that, Mr Bradbury. Thank you.
With its photograph of Venus taken last week, Japan's HINODE satellite wins at the internet.
Today's Blade Runner blog might have bitten off a little more than it can chew, as we're going to look at the nature of reality. Why? Because Dick was writing novels where reality turns out not to be what everyone thinks it is as early as 1962, and the theme came to dominate his later work. In the novel which inspired Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? there are several scenes where characters appear to experience a breakdown in reality. Rick Deckard suddenly finds himself at the mercy of an alternate police department that has never heard of him (p. 87); J. R. Isidore finds his whole existence crumbling into dust and decay (the ubiquitous "kipple" of entropy, the useless junk that is choking the planet) (p. 160) and Deckard defeats the androids in his final confrontation with them thanks to a "religious vision" of the prophet Wilbur Mercer, who warns him of an ambush (p. 166).
Those breakdowns in reality were something that PKD experienced himself. Most famously, Dick claimed that he had been struck by a beam of pink light which revealed to him that his son was suffering from an undiagnosed inguinal hernia. He believed that the light came from a satellite orbiting our planet, operated by an alien intelligence. In his Exegesis, Dick tries to integrate this with a bewildering variety of concepts and insights around the idea that the ancient Roman Empire never really fell, but remains the underlying reality behind humanity's consensual hallucination of the present. Modern life, says Dick, is acted out under the Black Iron Prison of religious dogma, social control and political tyranny - but it doesn't have to be that way. If you've read Dick's novel Ubik (1969) or seen The Matrix (and let's face it, the Wachowskis definitely owe PKD a beer or two for the film's plot) you'll understand just how dramatic the act of wheeling reality aside to reveal something else can be. The two books where he explores his experiences in more detail, Valis (1981) and The Divine Invasion (1981) are extraordinary pieces of work and my personal favourites of all Dick's novels. They were published around the time Blade Runner was in production and were to have been followed up by a third work, The Owl In Daylight, but sadly PKD died of a stroke before he could finish it.
So what has all this to do with the movie Blade Runner? Let's think in terms of manufactured reality; at the basic level, any film is an attempt by the director to create a specific experience - a sensorium, as it were - which we get to inhabit for a couple of hours. The director gets to play God and he or she wants us to come along for the ride. Taken literally, almost everything we watch on the movie screen has been constructed for our benefit: rooms, apartments, entire streets were built to support that vision of how things are. Very few things in Blade Runner are "real" (the Bradbury Building, the Ennis Brown House, Union Station and the 2nd Street Tunnel are about the only exceptions). The Tyrell Corporation's vast ziggurat was a little over four feet tall; Gaff's flying Spinner was a model or a fibreglass shell suspended on wires. At the end of the movie, the credits roll, the veil is drawn back over our eyes and we walk outside to return to what we think of as the real world. The film leaves us to contemplate the differences between that world and our own, for better or worse.
Reality is also being constructed within the world of the film. Of course, several of the film's principal characters are artificial - they were built, not born. But November 2019 is a time full of sights and wonders; mankind is reinventing itself, together with the worlds it inhabits. The off-world colonies offer "the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure." Nature has become unnecessary or has been superceded. Deckard's home town of Los Angeles is monolithic, brutal, unnatural. Flames erupt from the skyline as regularly as lightning stabs downwards. Humanity inhabits a world that has become elemental. Everywhere is water and fire, and the air itself has become a brooding presence as we fly over the landscape of hell (remember, Douglas Trumbull called the model set with the Tyrell Building Hades). This hell is mankind's doing, too - in the original novel, the devastation was caused by "World War Terminus" and Deckard must wear a lead codpiece to protect against radioactive fallout. Looking at the film from the present day, climate change looks just as good a candidate for the cause of the devastation.
Film invests the mundane with meaning; symbology becomes important and time becomes flexible, allowing for both foreshadowing (as a beautiful example of this, listen carefully to the dialogue that takes place when Deckard gives Rachael her Voight-Kampff test. As Rachael says "I wouldn't let him" you can hear Deckard in the background saying "Outside your window? Orange body, green legs?" from his next scene with her where he tells her about her childhood memory of the spider that lived outside her apartment) and confusion (when Deckard searches the androids' apartment, the newspaper lining the bottom of the drawer where Leon keeps his precious photographs bears the same headline as the paper Deckard was reading while he waited for sushi a few minutes earlier.) Nothing is happenstance; everything is significant; the assumption is that with sufficient knowledge we will become capable of understanding what that significance is.
This is what Dick is reaching towards with his exegesis - a breakdown in time, an investment of meaning in the commonplace and the everyday. Crucially, this is also what the audience wishes for the hero. When Deckard finds Gaff's origami unicorn on the floor, his character achieves the gnosis that Dick gained though his hallucinations and visions. Look at the expression on Harrison's face as he crumples the paper into a ball. Deckard gets it; he knows his own fundamental nature and the veil has been lifted for him. At that point, his story arc is complete and - in the Director's cut at least - the film can conclude satisfactorily. I can think of very few films that equal that ending.
For today's 30th anniversary examination of Blade Runner I'm going back to the source: Philip K Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which was first published in 1968.
The book will come as a bit of a surprise if you've only seen the movie, as there are several significant differences in plot. For a start, both Deckard and Roy Batty are married; Deckard's wife Iran is a typical Dick character - emotionally volatile, her purpose for most of the book is to unsettle the hero, to throw him off-centre. Like many of the supporting characters in Dick's novels she is full of existential angst and prone to depression. Deckard may be devoted to her, but her commitment to him is less certain. Batty's wife Irmgard is completely missing from the film - understandably so, perhaps. After all, if androids have an emotional life that is complex enough to encompass marriage, their otherness becomes a lot more subtle; perhaps there is no otherness at all.
Rather than Los Angeles in the early 21st century, the book is set in San Francisco on January 3rd, 1992 (in my 1977 Panther paperback edition of the book, the date's mentioned on page 8). Deckard must travel to Seattle meet his first Nexus-6 android, as this is where Eldon Rosen (his surname was changed to Tyrell in the movie) runs the company that makes them, the Rosen Association. As in the film, Deckard's first encounter with the company is via Rachael, the niece of the man who runs it. She then introduces Deckard to her uncle. The book continues with a mixture of elements that were dropped from the film (for instance we find out that the name of the owl in the replicant factory is "Scrappy") or changed significantly (the "off-world" colonies are primarily located on Mars; mankind's only interstellar expedition to Proxima Centauri was abandoned, though we are not told why), yet other aspects are strikingly familiar. The scene where Deckard administers a Voigt-Kampff test on Rachel has dialogue which you'll recognise instantly:
After making a jot of notation Rick continued, turning to the eighth question of the Voigt-Kampff profile scale. "You have a little boy and he shows you his butterfly collection, including his killing jar."
"I'd take him to the doctor." Rachael's voice was low but firm. Again the twin gauges registered, but this time not so far. He made a note of that, too.
"You're sitting watching TV," he continued, "and suddenly you discover a wasp crawling on your wrist."
Rachael said, "I'd kill it." The gauges, this time, registered almost nothing: only a feeble and momentary tremor. He noted that and hunted cautiously for the next question.
"In a magazine you come across a full-page color picture of a nude girl." He paused.
"Is this testing whether I'm an android," Rachael asked tartly, "or whether I'm homosexual?" The gauges did not register.
The Tyrells / Rosens are not the only characters to have their names changed. Some characters in the book are recognisable from the film primarily from the context in which they are introduced. Leon Kowalski was originally Max Polokov, but he's still responsible for taking Deckard's predecessor Holden out of the game and he's still the first android to attack Deckard. Roy Batty has gained a "t" from page to screen as he was originally called Roy Baty; the genius recluse J. F. Sebastian appears as J. R. Isidore, and the disorder that keeps him on Earth is mental, as well as genetic - as a lowly brain-damaged "chickenhead" he's no intellectual. Rather, he's employed as a truck driver for a veterinarian. He has no connection to the Rosens whatsoever and is unlikely to possess the capability to play chess with Rosen / Tyrell as he does in the film, although his inner dialogue in the book gives little hint of mental incompetence.
In the book, Deckard has an electric sheep - that the novel's title refers to - which he tends in a pen on the roof of his apartment building. Deckard and his neighbours go through elaborate pretences of tending for living creatures and he worries about losing face should his guilty secret be found out. The reverence with which humans tend their synthetic livestock contrasts starkly with their lethal attitude towards the androids - "andys"- which must be hunted down and executed on sight. For Deckard the bounty hunter, artificial humans are just a source of income.
The idea of keeping artificial livestock and the "who's a replicant, who isn't" approach in the film are different aspects of the book's central theme of authenticity. What lies behind the main characters' actions? What aspects of their lives are governed by real people, real feelings, real events? At one point Isidore is told that famous media celebrity Buster Friendly performs, impossibly, for forty-six hours every day (p. 61). Reality has been left behind; there just isn't enough of it to sate the demand for entertainment. And it's not just the programmes that characters such as Isidore watch which are synthesised; so we don't miss the point that it's not just the programmes that are synthesised but also the presenters, Dick has the androids claim Friendly as being "one of us" (p. 159).
Authenticity as a philosophical concept is foregrounded, too. Deckard doesn't read Sartre, although Dick obviously did; throughout the novel he fails to be true to himself. In several cases he considers what would be the right thing to do, and then doesn't do it because there's an easier way out. This is most noticeable in his dealings with Phil Resch but it also happens when he sets out to meet the opera singer Luba Luft and decides to pose as an opera fan (p. 70). This is the origin of the sequence in the film where Harrison Ford initially meets Joanna Cassidy - it's a bizarre performance by Ford but he's got to the heart of his character. He's ingratiating, deceitful and just downright creepy, and that's the "real" Rick Deckard.
Deckard wants to be seen as the good guy, but he gets it wrong, time and again. He does what he believes will generate the most favourable reaction in other people but as we see when he talks to Barbour, his neighbour, the only reaction he gets is pity. Deckard is a failure: he claims credit for other people's work. He cheats on his wife by sleeping with Rachael. He makes impulsive decisions that end disastrously (he ends up burning the Munch book to ashes; when he finally acquires a live animal, it's destroyed). On a professional level even his secretary, Ann Marsten, seems to be far more on the ball than he is.
In one sequence totally missing from the film, Dick pulls his trademark mind-bending switch on the audience and Deckard suddenly finds himself questioning his own authenticity: is he really a bounty hunter? Does he really work for the San Francisco Police Department? Why hasn't anyone else heard about him or his boss, Bryant? At this point, Dick starts to use mechanical phrases to describe what Deckard is thinking...
"That he — it — was an android. And you — " Rick broke off, the conduits of his brain humming, calculating, and selecting; he altered what he had started to say. " — would detect it," he finished. "In a few more minutes."
From this, it's clear that Ridley Scott wasn't the first person to suggest that Deckard himself might be a replicant: it's right there in the source text. Deckard's life lacks authenticity in many other ways: he and Iran rely on their "mood organ" to program their emotional states. He's not "human" enough to have earned a place on one of the off-planet colonies and is stuck in his second-rate existence back on Earth. The principal emotional response he demonstrates throughout the book is confusion, and it's no great leap to assume that he suffers from the same flattening of affect that Dick has characters mention several times, a psychological term which, Dick explains, results from schizophrenia or brain damage or, so it seems, from being an android. The androids have far more understandable interests and enthusiasms than Deckard does - and not just in terms of survival. For example, Pris reads science fiction novels and explains their attraction to Isidore:
"Nothing is as exciting. To read about cities and huge industrial enterprises, and really successful colonization. You can imagine what it might have been like. What Mars ought to be like. Canals."
Deckard lacks Pris's enthusiasms. Indeed, the central point that Dick makes in the book is that there is nothing in Deckard's life that is authentic enough to distinguish him from the artificial humans he must hunt down and kill. There is no difference between his quality of life and that of the androids beyond simple mechanics: they wear out after four years.
At the end of the book, Deckard finally recognises that he has just been carried along for the ride:
"Once I began on it there wasn't any way for me to stop; it kept carrying me along, until finally I got to the Batys, and then suddenly I didn't have anything to do. And that — " He hesitated, evidently amazed at what he had begun to say. "That part was worse," he said. "After I finished. I couldn't stop because there would be nothing left after I stopped."
As the novel concludes Deckard has come to the realisation that he has no authenticity, yet this doesn't worry him unduly. Rather, he retires to bed with a feeling of "long deserved peace" which he achieves without the help of his mood organ (p. 182). The issue for me isn't whether or not Deckard is a replicant. The fact that this is not explicitly addressed in the book is very significant, because the issue is really whether Deckard is an authentic human being or not - and Dick seems fairly clear on the answer: he isn't. The androids are more authentic people than he is.
Dick's later works revolve around his own experiences which led him to believe that the world he was living in suffered from a similar lack of authenticity; he wasn't able to assimilate this knowledge as easily as Deckard. We'll cover those experiences in the next blog entry.
There's one other aspect of the authenticity theme that the film dispenses with altogether: the religion of Mercerism and the technology of the empathy box. Mercerism is such a mind-boggling creation that it's worth a blog entry all on its own, so once again we'll save that discussion for another day.
Back in 1982 I saw a film that made a distinct impression on me - Blade Runner. I've already written about the film's history and its many releases on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray but this month, as the banner above suggests, I'll be blogging about the wider aspects of the film and the people who helped make it a classic of science fiction cinema.
And there's no better place to start than with its director, Sir Ridley Scott. He's out and about at the moment promoting his return to the science fiction genre, Prometheus (and at the time of writing this, you can listen to what happened when he dropped in to chat to Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo on Radio 5). I will be blogging about that film just as soon as I get to see it.
One look at Sir Ridley's CV will tell you that he's a man with an eclectic vision; although he's best known in science fiction circles for Blade Runner and Alien (and the epic fantasy of Tom Cruise versus evil, Legend) his films have covered an extraordinary range of subject matter from Roman generals to Japanese gangsters and from American military interventions gone wrong to feminist road movies. Each film has a gripping story at its heart, and very few directors spin a yarn as well as Ridley does. He's an expert in stripping things down to the essentials - not surprising when you find out on the commentary he recorded for The Final Cut release of Blade Runner that by the time he made Blade Runner he'd directed some two and a half thousand television adverts. The TV ad is storytelling in microcosm: you have to tell a story and convey a coherent message in 30 or 45 seconds. If you're doing this on a regular basis, you're going to be good at spinning yarns.
For me, the secret of Sir Ridley's success lies in the way he makes you believe that what you're watching is thoroughly grounded in the world in which the action takes place. Everything makes sense and hangs together as a whole. The most famous example of this is the question he kept asking the crew during the production of Blade Runner: "what's outside the window?" Coming up with a response to this means you need answers to many other questions: why is the world like it is? How do things work to keep it that way? What infrastructure would you need? Who would make it happen? How would people feel about living in such a place? How would they show it? You can't make a coherent work of "hard" science fiction without thinking about these issues although, of course, people still try. The fact that on Ridley Scott's film the cast and crew comprehensively answered the question "what's outside the window" also means that it bears up to minute examination by anyone capable of using a pause button; I suspect that this is a clue to its longevity and its huge popularity with home cinema buffs. Visually, the movie is a delight. I love the mindbending wealth of detail that it contains and the extraordinary tricks with lighting: the buzzing neon of the White Dragon sign, the umbrellas with fluorescent light tubes, the blinds in Tyrell's office and the gloom of Deckard's apartment. Ridley has a heavyweight background in art and design with a degree from the Royal College of Art; not only can he visualise what he wants each frame of the film to contain (and he produces gorgeous sketches that have become known as Ridleygrams to convey this) but he also understands the importance of lighting, of aesthetics, of making things appear to have been designed for a purpose. In making Blade Runner he went to some of the best names in the design field for input - from Moebius (who turned down Ridley's invitation) to Syd Mead and Lawrence G Paull and the end result is a world that you take one look at and think, "yes, it would be like that." You can bet that as the month continues I'll be discussing the design of Blade Runner in much more detail.
Ridley's not afraid to borrow from established cinematic tropes to make a point, either - just watch a couple of Leni Riefenstahl films before you next see Gladiator and you'll understand what I mean by this. The superb cinematography of Jordan Cronenweth had a lot to do with the visual aesthetic of the film and I'll be blogging about him, too.
Ridley's just as good with sound as he is with visuals, of course. This month I'll also be blogging about the sound on Blade Runner and the film's wonderful score featuring the work of Vangelis and Gail Laughton. I'll also cover the saga of the film's soundtrack album, in itself an odyssey that took 25 years to come to a satisfactory conclusion. There will also be examinations of Ridley's influence on the worlds of advertising and literature. It's going to be an interesting month, believe me.
It's was nine years ago this month that I started writing the blog. I'm not sure that I expected to be still doing this when I used notepad to type in that first entry, but here we are. Back then I was writing about music, films, and hayfever. Some things never change.