Questions of humanity and authenticity have always been at the heart of the Blade Runner universe. In Ridley Scott’s original film, Rick Deckard a “blade runner,” administers an “empathy test” meant to distinguish humans from realistic androids known as replicants, and fans have spent well over three decades debating whether Deckard himself is a replicant. Denis Villeneuve’s sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017), deftly maintains a sense of ambiguity regarding Deckard’s origins, and also finds new ways to wrestle with the question of what it means to be “real.”
Author: Victoria Large
Blue Velvet (1986) is in some ways one of David Lynch’s most accessible works: it has a more conventional, linear narrative than many of his other projects, it can be understood as a thriller, and it fits into the film noir tradition. Audiences have a framework for processing the film’s scenes of brutality and perversity. For instance, upon its initial release, Gene Siskel compared it to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
The 1943 Fox musical Stormy Weather is worth seeing not because of its conventional and wafer-thin backstage storyline, but because it offers the opportunity to see great musical numbers with the film’s two leads, Lena Horne and Bill Robinson, as well as other legendary African American artists like Cab Calloway, Katherine Dunham, and Fats Waller. Gifted African American performers were under-utilized and generally poorly served in Hollywood during the studio era, frequently relegated to stereotyped supporting roles or “specialty” numbers that could be excised from prints shipped to racially segregated areas of the United States. And while Stormy Weather is a product of its times and not without its fraught details – including a performance by a pair of comedians in minstrel-style blackface makeup – it also offers an indispensable peek at some extraordinary talents.
Director James Mangold’s Logan is rightly celebrated for bringing the superhero genre down to earth in the best possible way; the film is grounded in situations and characters – and, yes, acts of violence – that feel achingly real. Throughout, Mangold makes space for intimate moments that resonate, such as when Logan swigs alcohol alone while bandaging a hand that should have already healed, or an aged Charles Xavier tends a makeshift garden, or Logan’s daughter Laura stares wide-eyed out of a car window at a glittering city, the likes of which she’s never seen before. Indeed, one of the film’s most poignant scenes is both intimate and relatively quiet, though it begins with Logan snarling and growling himself awake from a nightmare.
There’s this little moment in Stand By Me that doesn’t need to be there, at least not to move the plot forward. In a film defined largely by the rowdy banter and camaraderie of a group of twelve-year-old boys, we find Gordie Lachance, our narrator and protagonist, sitting alone while the other guys sleep, reading a comic as the sun creeps over the horizon. Suddenly, a deer enters the frame and pauses a few feet from Gordie. The two briefly stare at one another before the deer moves on. There’s no music on the soundtrack, just the diegetic sounds of birds and the quiet noises that signal the deer’s movements. The whole encounter takes only a few seconds, but it remains one of my favorite scenes in the film.
Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 revisionist western Dead Man appropriately begins with a journey west. A fainthearted accountant from Ohio named William Blake travels by train to the distant town of Machine, where he’s been promised a job. En route, he looks bored and mostly avoids interacting with his fellow passengers, instead killing time by reading something called Bee Journal, playing solitaire, and drifting off to sleep. He appears visibly uncomfortable when he spies evidence of the violence of the Old West – destroyed covered wagons and teepees that look like skeletal remains – out his window. When the train’s soot-covered fireman visits Blake at his seat and delivers cryptic warnings about Machine, the accountant clutches his briefcase like a shield. Over the course of their conversation we learn that Blake’s parents have died and his fiancée has left him. He strikes us as a man with few remaining human connections and some hesitance to make new ones, at least with the rough-and-tumble men who fill the train when he gets close to his stop. Comparing him to the rugged characters that surround him, we can’t help but be aware of his vulnerability and seeming innocence.
It’s worth noting that David Lynch’s 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me–a prequel to the legendary TV series that Lynch co-created with Mark Frost–was booed at Cannes. Writing about the film in the New York Times at the time of its release, Vincent Canby opined, “Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree.” The film was widely viewed as an incoherent disaster (to Canby, “an undifferentiated mess of story lines and hallucinations”), and it fed into a backlash against Lynch that began with the swift decline of Twin Peaks’ television popularity and continued for much of the ‘90s.
Although actor, writer, and comedian Simon Pegg titled his memoir Nerd Do Well, he has frequently voiced a preference for “geek” over “nerd.” In 2007, he defined the difference for talk show host Jonathan Ross, arguing that “geek” implies “an enthusiast” rather than “the specky idiot” implied by the word “nerd.” And indeed, the unbridled enthusiasm for pop culture that defines modern geekdom runs through much of Pegg’s most notable work. The turn-of-the-millennium British sitcom Spaced, which marked Pegg’s first major onscreen collaboration with his real-life best friend Nick Frost, is rife with references to the geek touchstones of the latter decades of the twentieth century: Star Wars, The Matrix, Evil Dead II, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to name just a few. Pegg and Frost’s big screen collaborations have followed suit: Shaun of the Dead pays tribute to George Romero’s zombie splatter fests, Hot Fuzz affectionately tweaks the buddy-action nonsense of cult films like Point Break, and The World’s End is a comic twist on Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style alien takeover movies. But the 2011 road movie Paul – which marked Frost’s debut as Pegg’s co-writer as well as co-star – is perhaps the comic duo’s most affectionate take on geekdom.
When the twentieth anniversary of director Baz Luhrmann’s audacious Shakespeare adaptation Romeo + Juliet recently arrived, people took notice. Articles popped up in publications large and small, and fans reminisced and celebrated on social media. Like Scream and Trainspotting – two other youth-oriented films from 1996 – Romeo + Juliet, which relocates the classic play’s action to a surreal, contemporary urban landscape while retaining an abridged version of the Bard’s original text, is iconic and epochal. There are images from it that are not only instantly recognizable for swaths of filmgoers, but also powerfully evocative of an era. So why, on this auspicious anniversary, am I feeling a bit defensive regarding the film?
In the 1998 film SMOKE SIGNALS, people are constantly telling stories. The film’s protagonists, Victor and Thomas, both young Native American men from the Coeur D’Alene Reservation in Idaho, tell each other stories while attempting to make sense of their families and their identities. Thomas is the more explicit storyteller: he’s known all over the reservation for his tales, which, much to Victor’s chagrin, often involve Victor’s estranged father Arnold, who left the reservation when Victor was twelve. Victor has his own stories about his dad. Sadder than Thomas’s, they mostly arrive in the film in the form of memories: they are the stories Victor silently tells himself. When Victor and Thomas take a road trip to collect Arnold’s ashes, the pair uses storytelling as a currency and defense mechanism, as well as a method of bonding with the people they meet along the way. They control and interrogate narratives throughout the film, an element that is fascinating in itself, but takes on greater significance given how frequently Native American people have been stereotyped and silenced on film.