Blade Runner: The Enemy Within

By Stephen Mayne

That Blade Runner has appeared in multiple forms since its release in 1982 is no secret. In fact, it’s become part of the legend. Picking apart the differences and discerning new meanings has kept people occupied for years and spawned a misleading debate that obsesses over the wrong things.

In particular, the perennial Rick Deckard question tends to dominate. Is Harrison Ford’s replicant-hunting police officer – a Blade Runner as they are more commonly known – one of the very creations he dedicates his life to destroying? It’s certainly an intriguing idea and, thanks to the ambiguity clouding so much of Blade Runner, one that has sparked furious argument for decades. It’s also a little beside the point.

The Final Cut, first released in 2007 to mark the film’s 25th anniversary, further answers the question, building on the director’s cut from 1992. It all comes down to unicorns, adding in the full-length dream for the first time, which was though it is included to a lesser degree in the 1992 version. That alone removes much of the murkiness and restores focus to the bigger issue. Fun as it is, whether Deckard himself is a replicant matters little in isolation. It tends to distract from a broader examination of what it really means to be human.

It’s this theme that runs through every sinew of Ridley Scott’s 1982 masterpiece. In theory, flesh and blood humans hunt down dangerous artificial creations gone rogue. In practice, the creatures exhibiting the greater humanity tend to be those built in a lab with extremely limited lifespans haunting them. The humans are capable of acts of great cruelty, coolly dispatching replicants after hunting them down with ruthless efficiency. The moment of peak emotion in the film comes via Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty. Leader of a the group of escaped replicants, Deckard is dispatched to track across futuristic Los Angeles, he uses his dying seconds to deliver the devastating “tears in rain” speech. It’s more human than anything else in the film, and leaves a battered and bruised Deckard perplexed. It couldn’t have come from any of the humans.

So now we have the final cut that has further cleared up the Deckard mystery. Whether this is the last version of Blade Runner is another question, but with a sequel finally emerging later in the year, it’s an apt time to return to the most complete version yet released, shorn of the dreadful voiceover imposed by the studio for the theatrical release, and with the seemingly happy ending cast under new and ominous shadows. It will be interesting to note what director Denis Villeneuve and lead actor Ryan Gosling can conjure up for Blade Runner 2049.

That’s not only because Blade Runner comes with such an intriguing narrative: it’s the most realized film from one of contemporary cinema’s great stylists. Ridley Scott is a hit-and-miss director, capable of moments of wonder and plenty of damp squibs. His hits column contains enough undeniable classics to allow him to ride over the flops, and while he’s produced monumental films – none more so than Alien – nothing else he’s done merges his cold and clinical visuals so deeply into the story.

Alien shot in a different way would be a lesser film held together by its narrative. Blade Runner simply wouldn’t. It’s a willfully uncommercial enterprise, happy to drift into rain-sodden neon visuals and that creeping Vangelis score that seems to start a mile away before suddenly hitting you. Police vehicles swoop up to giant corporate offices and chases take place in anonymous streets. The final showdown destroys an antique hotel, a reminder of a world that no longer exists. Each shot is as interested in soaking up this stark future as it is in advancing plot. There is no way to separate the two.

Which of course leaves Villeneuve at something of an impasse because that’s exactly what he has to do if he’s to put his own spin on it. Not that Scott got it easy, given it’s taken the better part of three decades to finally get out a print he’s happy with. The confusion his initial cut must have provoked amongst risk-immune producers would have been something to witness. Even today it’s not necessarily a film to approach cold, rooted as much in a vision as it is in any desire to tell a story. In that way it’s about as close to the perfect Philip K. Dick adaptation as possible. While he wrote thrillingly imaginative science fiction, there was always something more to his best novels – a feeling that following the plot alone didn’t reveal all the information hidden in the pages. Ideas were Dick’s game, his desire to provoke an eerie sense of future worlds underscoring much of his work.

That’s where Blade Runner succeeds so brilliantly, because it’s exactly what it does. There’s no tight narrative leading viewers through a series of sculpted twists and turns. It dumps us into sensory overload, soaking viewers in a disconcertingly chilly world at once distant and familiar. By adding back in additional footage, and offering more on the question that came to hang over the film, the Final Cut is the most complete version of one of the most complete cinematic experiences available.

 

 

 

Stephen Mayne recently moved to Cambridge from the UK. He writes on film for a number of publications including popmatters.com and undertheradarmag.com

Sight, Sound & Meaning: A Glimpse into the History of Music Films

By Juan Ramirez

More often than not, image and music exist on separate planes in cinema. Though movies have soundtracks and music videos give visual expression to what is otherwise left for the ear, there are only rare instances – without mentioning musicals, which are more of an adaptation of theatrical sentiment than an indigenously cinematic form – where the audio and the video are so inherently linked that they demand to be considered a whole. These cross-disciplinary experiments are marked by the palpable vitality that can come only from artists in full control of their vision.

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XX: St. Vincent and The Birthday Party

By Chelsea Spear

When Magnet Releasing announced the above-the-line talent for their horror anthology XX, one name stood out among the five directors: Annie Clark. Better known as St. Vincent, the artsy songwriter and guitarist makes her directorial debut with “The Birthday Party,” one of the short films in this compilation.

For her fans, Clark’s cinematic avocation comes as little surprise. Her ambitious and engaging music videos, in which she appears as an audience surrogate in off-kilter narratives. In the striking “Actor Out of Work” (2009), for example, Clark reacts placidly to a series of actors auditioning their hearts out for an unknown project; her steely gaze matches the intensity of her music while her rigid posture and minimal movements suggest the control she has over her creative work. More formally narrative videos draw on the Wes Anderson school of filmmaking to subvert viewers’ expectations. Shot in saturated earth tones with richly detailed tableau staging, these clips take the audience on surprisingly eerie journeys, such as the kidnapping and domestic play-acting of the “Cruel” video. Even the more whimsical clip for St. Vincent’s first single “Jesus Saves, I Spend” has its disturbing moments, as when a kid tied up in a sleeping bag gets dropped on a conveyor belt amidst bucolic, proto-Moonrise Kingdom scouting imagery.

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Tillie Get Your Gun

By Christian Gay

Viewed by today’s audiences, Mack Sennett’s 1914 film Tillie’s Punctured Romance might appear to be a broad slapstick comedy that relies on fat jokes, drunken caricatures and butt-kicking for laughs –unremarkable, save for the fact that it was the first feature-length film comedy ever released. Contemporary viewers might also recognize silent film megastar Charlie Chaplin (here billed as “Charles”) and Sennett’s silent comedy mainstays, “the Keystone Kops.” But why revive and screen the film, especially as part of a series entitled “The Women Who Built Hollywood?”

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The Authenticity of a Bombshell

By Tara Zdancewicz

“I’m just my natural, simple self.” – Lola Burns

Move over Beyonce and Sasha Fierce! Victor Fleming’s 1933 Bombshell showcases the original star/alter ego combo: Jean Harlow and Lola Burns. This pre-code film is a search for an authentic self, both for the main character, Lola, and for the actress playing her. Viewers follow Lola, the current “it” girl of the Hollywood scene as she tries to navigate a hunt for her identity. Every man wants her and every woman wants to be her, but the starlet doesn’t even know who Lola Burns is. Amongst an ensemble of family members and industry workers that are all trying to gain from her, Lola starts to question if a life in show business is truly the route for her and debates finding her calling in motherhood or fulfilling her destiny as a wife. However, her publicist, Space (played by Lee Tracy), would go to outer space in order to keep Lola at arms’ length for both personal and business reasons. Lola’s authenticity becomes further complicated when the man who controls how the public views her is also in love with her.

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Red-Headed Woman

By Natalie Jones

Femmes fatales are often revered by women, feared by men and adored by the camera. Within the first few minutes of Red-Headed Woman, we are charmed and seduced by Lil “Red” Andrews (Jean Harlow), despite her deceitful intentions and our moral sensibilities. She is an enigmatic figure who seems to be constantly playing roles, adopting different voices, performing for audiences.

In the opening scene, Lil excitedly reveals to her friend, Sally (Una Merkel), that she is going to surprise her married boss, Bill (Chester Morris), at his house that night to help him write some “important letters.” Sally claims that Bill is madly in love with his wife, but Lil persists. As soon as Lil’s husband walks into the bar and sees her gossiping, she puts down her bottle of breath-freshening spray and rushes over to him with an unthreatening smile now plastered on her face. She gushes, “Hello, hon!” It’s not long before he’s wiping her lipstick from his face with a handkerchief, while she’s fixing herself with a victorious smirk.

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Establishing a Precedent: The Oscars in the ‘80s

By Juan Ramirez

A careful look at the Best Picture winners from the 1980s reveals that this was the decade that established what we now think of as Oscar movies: middle of the road, sentimental traps that carry their importance proudly above their heads. A sharp detour from the frenetic, vital works of the ‘70s American New Wave, these films seem to exist simply for their entertainment value, a vacuous virtue shared by many of the releases from the Reagan era.

The excesses of the more-is-more and neon-is-more era can be felt in the large production values of its films. Apart from the usual Oscar bait, the ‘80s saw the mega popular Star Wars, Star Trek and Indiana Jones series take off with astronomical budgets, appealing to the masses’ desire for spectacle. American audiences wanted more: more violence, laughs, explosions, tears, fears and motion – and nothing to do with subtlety or smallness.

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Auteur Cinema and Male Bravado: The Oscars in the ‘70s

By Juan Ramirez

The question of where the momentous artistic energy generated by the late 1960s would lead must’ve loomed large in the minds of Hollywood executives as they witnessed the dismantling of the studio system and rise of the American auteur. What kind of institution would the Academy become after awarding the X-rated Midnight Cowboy Best Picture? Would grafting the European director/creator model across the pond be successful? Coppola, Friedkin and Stallone, among others, responded with a resounding affirmation, driving the Hollywood into the American New Wave, where freedom reigned and masculinity was on hyperdrive.

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Is “The Philadelphia Story” Feminist?

By Christian Gay

George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story is a fascinating film, rewarding the viewer with each repeat viewing. The film is perhaps the quintessential remarriage comedy, the finest of a popular cycle of films produced in Hollywood during the 1930s and ‘40s that share certain formulaic narrative similarities. The Philadelphia Story contains some of the best acting performed by screen legends Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart (who won an Oscar for his performance). It reinvigorated Hepburn’s stalling career by turning a healthy profit and earning an Oscar nomination for the actress who had been recently labeled “box office poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners of America.

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Nostalgic Detachment and Urgent Renewal: The Oscars in the ‘60s

By Juan Ramirez

Since the 1960s are ostensibly remembered as a nonstop parade of drug-fueled, artistic counterculture, it is easy to forget the mainstream world it set out to counter. As Hollywood and the American film industry retreated into a nostalgic coma devoid of social introspection or cultural nuance, the Academy settled into a facile routine of rewarding obvious entertainments. Massive roadshow releases emerged as easy favorites, with four mega-musicals (the most in one decade) taking home the grand prize. This move towards detached fantasy would ultimately mark the ‘60s as one of the most backwards-looking decade in Oscar history, giving seven top prizes to movies that dwell on times gone by despite that the social landscape was becoming an increasingly significant player in daily life with its visible strides towards equality. 

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