Archive for Blade Runner

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.

The Look 3: McDowell Toasts

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2016 by dcairns

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Since Donald Benson helpfully mentioned the starchild/space baby’s look to camera in the final shot of 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, (comments section, here) I’m following on with the opening shot of Kubrick’s next film, CLOCKWORK ORANGE, which seems to answer that cool gaze.

I like it when films join up like that. Just think, if Kubrick had made NAPOLEON in 1970 as originally planned, this wouldn’t have happened, or not so neatly.

The film’s aren’t as directly successive, but it’s kind of neat the way Fred Gwynne finds some chewing gum stuck under his balcony railing in Bertolucci’s LA LUNA — Marlon Brando’s last act in  LAST TANGO IN PARIS was to stick his gum under Maria Schneider’s railing (and no, that’s not a euphemism for something beastly).

But back to this look. As Kubrick’s camera withdraws from closeup, via a zoom and a dolly back, Malcolm raises his glass to the audience. The next day, after seeing the rushes, Kubes rushed up to him and congratulated him on that detail. He hadn’t noticed. Despite the fact that he was operating the camera himself.

This isn’t as bizarre as it sounds. A camera operator, during a moving shot, tends to concentrate on the edges of the frame more than the subject, checking the composition is working and that no unwelcome boom mic or tracks or, god forbid, crewmembers, have come into shot. This is why Harrison Ford was displeased to find Ridley Scott handholding the camera in BLADE RUNNER — he knew the director wouldn’t be watching his performance. (But Richard Lester speaks of his great pleasure at precisely the act of watching a great performance being delivered into the lens, while operating — but Lester would tend to operate on the wide shot, which wouldn’t require him to adjust so much for movement, leaving most of his great brain free to watch and assess the acting.)

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In fairness, the “toast” is a little tiny micro-pause as the glass rises to the lips. Still, Kubrick’s failure to see what his leading man was doing in the centre of his opening shot could be seen as another welcome dent in the myth of Kubrickian perfection. I’m campaigning to have Kubrick’s reputation altered from obsessive perfectionist to amiable bumbler.

 

655321

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Painting, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 20, 2015 by dcairns

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Malcolm McDowall’s character in CLOCKWORK ORANGE is known during the film’s middle act as Prisoner 655321, but as he enters prison he gives his name as Alexander De Large, same as in Anthony Burgess’ novel. But when he’s released from the stripy hole, the papers give his name as Alex Burgess. I was just remarking on this evidence of Kubrick’s perfectionism having marked (and strange) limits, when the film cuts to his dad, played by Philip Stone, who suffered a similar gnomic nomenclature in THE SHINING (he’s either Charles or Delbert Grady, depending on who’s talking).

Such peculiar slips aside, this is probably the most seventies sci-fi film of them all, its look playing like a kind of caricature of the fabulous ugliness of British hair, fashion, architecture, interior design and speech in that dark decade. The BLADE RUNNER idea of “retro-fitting” had not been invented yet, so movie visions of the future tended to work on the assumption that our dystopias will consist of all-new clothes and architecture and furniture. Ridley Scott’s team visualised the truth: the future will have all of our crap, only older and more broken-down and badly repaired. (The big exception to old stuff not surviving into movie futures is the Statue of Liberty at the end of PLANET OF THE APES).

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Speaking of apes, Fiona pointed out how this image recalls the primordial tribes of 2001. And then the soundtrack album of 2001 turns up in the record store Alex attends to pick up Gillian Hills and friend for a threesome (having presumably seen Hills’ threesome in BLOW-UP.) “Kubrick didn’t go in for in-jokes, did he?” Oh, but he did! Fiona has never seen EYES WIDE SHUT…

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I first saw CLOCKWORK ORANGE during the period when Kubrick had withdrawn it in the UK, on a fourth generation VHS dupe, with attendant fuzziness and flaring colours that bled off their subjects in shimmering auras. Then, on a college trip to Paris, I saw it in the cinema that played it non-stop, and it looked a lot better, although a splice robbed it of its final line, which was a real pain. (Terry Southern’s idea, floated in his novel Blue Movie, of a site-specific movie, made by a Kubrick-like master filmmaker, which you would have to travel to see, making it a kind of tourist attraction, had come true, at least for me — my main motivation in visiting Paris was to see this film.)

The film did not inspire me to any acts of criminal behaviour, though I may have tried to talk like Patrick Magee afterwards (“Trrry the WIIIINE.”

Random thoughts —

The novel is short and seems to me FAST, though I guess that depends on your reading speed. Having to look up the nadsat dialect words, or else strain to remember the last time they were used, does slow you down, but I always felt the prose demanded a certain celerity. Kubrick’s pacing is… well, deliberate would be a polite word. It seems to loosen up in the final stretch, somehow — McDowell even seems to be improvising in the scene where he’s psychologically tested with a caption contest, which had Fiona in hysterics. She’d forgotten what a funny film it is, if you can take it.

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“Cabbages… knickers… it hasn’t got a… a beak!”

SHOULD you take it? There are multiple issues at stake. Firstly, the written word becomes something quite different when visualised. Even Ken Russell said that the word must be censored by the artist when he films it. Mad Ken was mooted to direct CLOCKWORK ORANGE with Terry Southern on script and the Rolling Stones as stars — if he had, it would probably still be banned. Everywhere.

It’s pretty clear from John Baxter’s flawed but informative Kubrick bio that the director was treating the movie as an opportunity to ogle naked girls. The sexual violence has a role in the story, but is obviously important to the filmmaker for other reasons. Adrienne Corri initially declined the role of Mrs. Alexander because Kubrick was getting applicants to de-bra in his office while he trained a video camera on them. She made it clear that wasn’t on. “But Adrienne, suppose we don’t like the tits?” “Tough.”

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(The two became quite friendly. She gave him red socks as a present, her costume when last seen in the film.)

Kubrick also got Cheryl Grunwald to mime being raped as her audition, a fairly pointless exercise that seems more like power-play than legitimate creative process (auditioning for DEATH WISH, Jeff Goldblum had to rape a chair. He got the part). Oh, and the scene Kubrick gave his rapees was very much like the encounter between the girl and the soldiers in FEAR AND DESIRE, suggesting that his violent fantasies were of a long-standing nature and informed earlier work.

If the director’s intentions aren’t pure, does it matter? Pauline Kael thought so. She pointed out that the relatively few alterations to the novel all had the effect of making Alex a more appealing character. She was right, but the matter bears further consideration. Kubrick could clearly have gone further — Alex is, by any reasonable estimation, a monster. But his crimes are photogenic — he beats up ugly people and rapes attractive, nubile women, not the other way around. Kubrick admitted that the character’s frankness with the reader/viewer made him appealing, in the same way that Richard III is appealing — a scheming dissimulator who flatters us by taking us into his confidence.

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Let’s look at the changes. Firstly, all the underage girls are now older — the “weepy young devotchka” in the casino is a spectacularly buxom adult, and the girls Alex picks up in the record store may not have been assigned a specific, clearly-identifiable age, but if Kubrick had wanted us to accept them as schoolies he needn’t have cast Gillian Hills, who we might remember from another threesome in BLOW UP, or even further back in BEAT GIRL. Kubrick was probably bit concerned about what he could legally show, a little concerned about getting typecast after LOLITA, keen to avoid making the viewer reflect on how old Malcolm McDowell is supposed to be, and he wanted to photograph spectacularly buxom adults.

I believe Kubrick when he says he cut the prison murder for reasons of length. I think the prison scenes drag a little — the story loses forward momentum until Alex can get into the Ludovico Institute, and the scenes are played very slow indeed — arguably to emphasize the stultifying environment and as a dramatic gear shift after the savage opening. I think Kael is wrong to suggest this omission softens Alex, who has already killed a woman in furtherance of theft on top of all his other crimes. As I recall from reading the book, the additional killing didn’t make me like Alex less — I already despised him on a moral level and enjoyed his voice on an aesthetic one.

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Kael gets into the fine detail of it when she points out that Kubes breaks his own rules, departing from the first-person narrative to show the casino devotchka getting stripped by the rival gang BEFORE Alex has arrived on the scene. Kubrick is filming something because he wants to film it, not because it’s a legitimate part of the story. But a defense is quite possible here (although yes, I think Kubrick is salacious). The scene is shot from the vantage point Alex will have when we see him. He introduces the action with voice-over setting the scene. And then he is revealed, stepping from the shadows, having apparently been watching for at least a few seconds.

(Kael doesn’t mention a scene Kubrick invented, showing the Cat Lady phoning the police, another moment not shared by Alex, who isn’t in the building and very importantly does not know the millicents are on their way. This seems to indicate that for all his obcomp meticulousness, Kubes wasn’t that bothered about the purity of the first-person or “closed” narrative.)

I always felt the opening of the casino scene was problematic, though. Or “evil,” might be a better word. The ensuing gang fight is incredibly dynamic in a western brawl way, snazzily cut to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, but the opening, a scene of sexual sadism, interacts with the music in a teasing, smirking way — it’s quite justifiable as a rendering of Alex’s view of this kind of cruelty, but I can’t bring myself to admire it. The music, the voyeurism, the sexually mature victim, can all be explained, but in combination they add up to something exploitative.

The highly fetishized assault on Adrienne Corri is another thing, simultaneously a stunning coup de cinema, an assault on the audience in fact, and a fairly indefensible piece of art-porn/rape-porn. Worth pointing out, though, that just as Burgess identifies himself with the male victim (both are authors of a book called A Clockwork Orange), Kubrick seems to put himself in the place of Alex’s prey. I’m sure Patrick Magee is typing on one of Kubrick’s favourite typewriters. And the cat lady, like Kubrick, lives in a big house full of pets with paintings by Christiane Kubrick on the walls, just like the great Stanley K. Whether the film encourages this kind of reflection isn’t certain: Kubrick deleted the novel’s explanation of the title, which means viewers must accept the phrase as an abstract concept, meaningful for whatever sensations it arouses rather than as a sensible bit of language, and in some ways we may be meant to do the same for the film itself. Kubrick seems divided as to whether the movie is a pure sensory onslaught or a film of ideas, and the tension shows. Which is not to say the tension is a bad thing.

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Burgess’s story seems to suggest that a criminal might be forcibly turned off violence by giving them drugs and showing them films (although it’s uncertain if he literally believed this or just used it as an allegorical device to explore free will). It seems to me the drug used is based on apomorphine, which William S. Burroughs took to help him kick his heroin habit, and which was also used in aversion therapy for homosexuals seeking (or being forced to seek) a “cure” for their orientation. Kubrick’s refusal to engage with the media left a disgruntled Burgess to appear on every TV discussion under the sun, arguing that audiences seeing films (and possibly taking drugs) could NOT be accidentally conditioned to become criminals.

(Burgess later admitted he disliked the film, and no wonder — he wrote the book after his wife was gang raped, and to see that turned into a pervy fantasy by the director must have been rather painful. I don’t know what catharsis he achieved by adopting an assailant’s viewpoint in his novel, but he made it enjoyable as a literary stunt, not as sado-smut.)

Kubrick’s suggestion to Michel Ciment that films MIGHT affect audiences, but only in the same way as a dream might, strikes me as sensible. A well-balanced person does not commit a violent act in response to a dream, though C.G Jung reportedly packed in sculpture as a profession and became an analyst after a dream about being in Liverpool. Whereas I have actually been in Liverpool, twice, and did NOT become an analyst — except of movies, I guess.