Archive for the Science Category

Skin Jobs

Posted in FILM, literature, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 5, 2017 by dcairns

I turn fifty on the tenth of this month (accelerated decrepitude), which makes me the perfect age to have enjoyed BLADE RUNNER when it was brand new — it played at the Edinburgh Film Festival, which sounds like quite a coup now, but of course the movie went on to perform poorly on first release. It’s nice to hear the sequel is getting lots of favourable attention, and I think we shall go see it. So to limber up, we revisited the original — actually, the first time we’d watched Ridley Scott’s 2007 Final Cut.

“Ridley Scott’s BLADE RUNNER is a cracker,” said the first line of The Scotsman’s review, as I recall.

I also remember a schoolfriend continually saying he was excited to see that new film, “RUNNER-THE-BLADE.”

And I remember when ITV showed the film the first time there was a warning that it was hard to understand nd you had to pay attention. The newspaper listing siad you needed to watch it from the beginning. The next day I heard two fellow students discussing it (I was at college by then): “How was it?” “I missed the first half, I couldn’t really understand it.” And this was the version with the over-explanatory VO.

H.F. giving it plenty of ‘tude. Not my fave close-up of him. But hands up if you enjoyed his Paul Linde impression when he visits Joanna Cassidy’s dressing room. Do you like it better than his Scotsman in LAST CRUSADE?

Part of what’s good about BR, arguably, asides from the sheen, is the muddled storytelling, which feels very seventies. You could make the dialogue hard to hear, like in THE FRENCH CONNECTION or HEAVEN’S GATE, and/or you could bury the essential plot info and make crucial character points impossible to visualise. Like, the replicants aren’t robots, they’re biological, but nobody comes right out and says that. Science fiction fans understand from the talk about genetic engineering that this is what’s going on, but non-nerds may be puzzled that the androids bleed.

But I want to talk a little about other, less deliberate and less reasonable muddle in BLADE RUNNER’s exposition. If you don’t like the film you’ll agree these are problematic. If you do like the film, you’ll hopefully find it striking that a film can be compelling even with such nonsensical elements in its storytelling.

The pencil-point next to the eyeball is a smart way to make the audience feel obscurely uncomfortable.

In the opening scene, we see a blade runner administering the Voight-Kampff test to Leon, a fugitive replicant. Replicants are apparently so identical to humans, despite being super-powered and having a four year lifespan, that the only way to spot one is by testing their emotional responses. This is exactly like the fabled psychopath test, with aspects of the polygraph thrown in for colour. Original author Philip K. Dick’s idea is that androids would be like psychopaths, emotionally defective copies of human beings. In came out of his researches into the Nazis for The Man in the High Castle. He claimed to have read a letter from a concentration camp guard, complaining to his wife, “We are kept awake at night by the cries of starving children.” Dick said, “There is something wrong with the mind that wrote that sentence.” Dick was thrilled when he saw the film pre-release, particularly by Rutger Hauer as replicant leader Roy Batty (cool that they have human names). Hauer looked a lot like a Nazi superman.

But why is it necessary to give Leon the Jon Voight Test? Later, police chief M. Emmet Walsh shows Harrison Ford photos of the replicants. They know he’s a replicant! Instead of testing his pupillary dilation, shouldn’t they just show him his photo and say, “Isn’t this you?” Or else just shoot him. It’s weirdly bureaucratic — which brings us back to the Nazis again — the movie actually makes the state and humans more Nazi-like, and there were plans to show replicant corpse-mountains at one point…

Dodgy vertical hold on shot of Rutger spinning on a swivel chair.

When Walsh shows the slides (looks like they’re on a big TV screen, but there’s a projector beam), he also explains to Ford, his top former blade runner, exactly what a blade runner does and what replicants are, and how they don’t have emotions… but Ford will later be seen administering the Jon Voight Test to Sean Young (he proves she’s not Jon Voight) so he must already know this. Theory: in films where audiences struggle to follow the plot and comprehend the story world, sometimes the confusion is actually heightened by scenes where characters tell each other things they should already know. Or DO already know — the infamous and deadly “As you know…” formulation, which is still very common in British TV and Harvey Weinstein productions. “As you know, I’m your father…” Improbably exposition throws everyone off-balance.

A lot of the off-base exposition could have been slipped into BLADE RUNNER’s opening crawl, I think, though you again have to be careful when feeding an audience info they haven’t any reason to be curious for yet. And it really helps when you swiftly follow the text info with visuals illustrating the point. STAR WARS does this. BLADE RUNNER doesn’t mention emotional tests, and talks sympathetically about the killing/retirement of replicants, whereas in the next scene its a blade runner who gets shot. (Also, strangely, the crawl is written in the past tense, unlike STAR WARS. Maybe the crawl-writer is looking back from 2049?) But of course one of the intriguing things about that first scene with Leon is that we don’t really understand what this test is. It’s a great hook.

Non-sci-fi types (muggles, mundanes, the unnerded) often have trouble with science fiction because they overthink it. They hear the jargon and believe they’re supposed to understand what it means, which is rarely true or important. They should really just ask who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. In BLADE RUNNER, for the purposes of telling this story, we are to accept Ford as the hero, even though analysing the ramifications of the story world points towards a reading where Batty is a bit of a Spartacus figure and the blade runner is a sort of government hitman empowered to kill people for racial reasons. Sort of like a Florida policeman.


In the most recent editions of the film, the who-does-what-to-whom is very clear, but the first release version wasn’t even clear about how many replicants there were supposed to be on the loose. The excellent making-of book documents all this production muddle. You had two writers who didn’t meet until the premiere, where each thought the other was responsible for the awful VO. You had a director who hadn’t read the book: “I couldn’t finish it. It’s very densely written.” It’s 224 pages and was probably written in a week. One of the screenwriters didn’t get a chance to read it because he was bunged a copy of the script and ordered to start at once. He was probably correct to assume that any elements of the novel that hadn’t been included were left out because the producers didn’t want them.

Neither of the talented screenwriters felt he was terribly good at writing clues — a fairly important element in most detective stories. In the finished BLADE RUNNER, Ford’s stand-in finds a snake scale in Leon’s bathtub, in a scene shot back in the UK after the main shoot had finished. Then he does a scan of a photo found in the flat, eventually printing out a Polaroid (!) of Joanna Cassidy as Zora, another replicant. It isn’t clear in the super-grainy snap, but I think it’s her facial tattoo of a snake that causes him to realise that what he’s found is a snake scale. But then he goes to the market and asks if it’s a fish scale. So, if he doesn’t know what it is, what was the purpose the elaborate photo analysis? What information is gained?

Wait, i think I have it. I guess he finds Zora in the bath, thus associating her potentially with the scale, so the scale might lead to her. Whereas if the scale was Leon’s, it wouldn’t have been a useful clue.

But you see, that’s me putting this all together thirty-five years after seeing the movie. Though admittedly I haven’t spent all of the intervening time trying to figure this out.

Still, I’m pleased with my Eureka! moment in Leon’s bathtub.


Every Speliologist for Himself and God Against All

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting, Science with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2017 by dcairns

I tweeted that Werner Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS was maybe the best 3D movie ever, but maybe I should have said “best USE of 3D”?

I watched this movie with a colossal grin. Almost every shot did something delightful to my brain.

I’ve been waiting years to see it in 3D. Edinburgh Filmhouse took awhile to install a 3D system, and in the end went for a weird one where you need your glasses to be charged with electricity — I think this had something to do with them not wanting to install a 3D screen which would have compromised the picture quality of every flat film shown. And I think the Cameo installed such a screen.

Anyhow, when the Filmhouse installed 3D I was looking forward to finally being able to see Herzog’s film as it was meant to be seen. I’d avoided seeing it flat. But then Filmhouse decided “Our audience doesn’t like 3D” and never showed it. Anyhow, happy ending, they finally did, and got a pretty good-sized audience. Imagine if they’d shown it when the film was new.

But the Filmhouse system has drawbacks. You can’t be sure the glasses are working until the film starts. Fiona’s didn’t, and she had to run and change them. Mine conked out ten minutes before the end and I spent a chunk of the film’s climax running around the whole outside of the auditorium looking for a staff member to open the shutters and release a fresh pair… However, in spite of all that, this was still maybe my favourite 3D experience.

We weren’t totally uncritical of the movie. Fiona pointed out that Herzog kind of distorted what one of his interviewees was saying in order to justify his title. We don’t know that the Chauvet cave paintings have anything to do with dreams. Sure, the nameless cro-magnons who painted the paintings probably dreamed about ibex and horses, but probably the reason they painted them is that they SAW them regularly. Herzog also goes off on a mad spree to a nearby nuclear power station where the water from the coolers has produced a microclimate in which, we are told, albino crocodiles have arisen.

Herzog, of course, can’t help seeing this as some kind of allegory for something. But Herzogian allegories, like albino crocodiles, are strange, mutant beasts. Britta in the TV show Community helpfully defines an allegory as “a thought wearing another thought’s hat” (which is lovely because her definition is itself a kind of allegory) but Herzog’s thoughts always seem to mistake their wives for hats. Like the dwarfs who started small or the man who pulled a ship up a mountain, they never quite translate one thing into another without a lot of leftover bits sticking out. Still, I was grateful for the opportunity to see the pallid reptiles, and stereoscopically too.

Also: our friend Donald was particularly scornful of the way, when a scientist suggests simply listening to the sound of the cave, Herzog can’t resist almost immediately fading up a heartbeat and music. A relatively rare failure of the poetic imagination from the maker of KASPAR HAUSER.

The 3D is gorgeous. I even found it enhanced by the low-quality video from Herzog’s recce. As has often been remarked, the film focusses on flat line drawings, but drawn on the contours of curving walls, so a lot of the movie is looking at fairly subtle spacial gradations — a nice, tasteful use of the medium. But Herzog also had a guy demonstrating cro-magnon weaponry, who sticks a spear right in our faces. Subtlety is most effective when contrasted with its opposite. Ask Ken Russell.

And those cave walls are sometimes very curvy indeed. One daubing of a woman with possibly an animal head encircles a chubby stalactite so Herzog has to stick his camera on a pole to see around it — he’s not allowed off a walkway in the cave — like the time travelers in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. Leaving the path could disturb the past.

Herzog even has fun with the superimposed titles which identify his interviewees. I was amused by the floating subtitles in AVATAR (I guess the filmmaker has to choose a specific depth for them, they simple CAN’T be flat, but it was funny when, in an O.S. shot the foreground shoulder was closer than the subtitle. Don’t move left, Neytiri, we won’t be able to read what Eytukan is saying! When Herzog arrays two interviews at different distances, he does the same with their titles. he’s a puckish fellow, is Werner.

We also get drone shots of the surrounding countryside, but the handheld traversing of narrow paths is even better. Everything about the Cro-magnon lifestyle and environment, it seems, is perfectly suited to 3D, or else to Werner’s eye. I’ve noticed that filmmakers tend to get better at 3D on their second try — I hope we get another in-depth outing from Herzog.

Man in the Man in the Moon

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , on August 22, 2017 by dcairns

At The Chiseler, a short but timely disquisition on George Melies’ film L’ECLIPSE DU SOLEIL ET PLEINE LUNE, over at The Chiseler. Contains smut.