“Fiery the Angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll’d
Around their shores”
–William Blake, “America: A Prophecy”
I spent the summer of 1982, the entire summer, stuck in a small town in central Texas, forced there by my betters. I was meant to discover, as my predecessors had, that “I didn’t want to work for a living” and instead rise to the challenge of finding direction in life. Perhaps I should have paid closer attention, perhaps not, but I will say this: Texas at the time, and that part of Texas in particular, was traumatizing, something straight out of No Country for Old Men. People wandering around in white tube socks and flared polyester, muttering such terms as “wallop” and “fella.” My teenage brain was confused as a trapped rat. I wandered into a movie theatre then, less from the heat and more for a break from the cultural climate. There was Blade Runner. I left not knowing quite what I’d just seen and somehow sensing the world was far different than what I thought I knew or saw around me. I was stunned, perturbed, and filled with an unsettled wonder.
But what makes the movie itself so great?
Its feel, its aesthetic, from the first quiet frame to the last, is magnificent. Someone as prickly as Pauline Kael, in her now famous New Yorker dismissal, may say that Ridley Scott had a poor concept of mise en scène and that his ”sets are just sets.” This type of barbed opinion comes from someone whose sense of imagination resides more in the tip of her pen than in a better understanding of atmosphere and visual radiance. What we see instead, if we look, is an incredible attention paid to foreground detail –to all detail– and a depth of field filled edge to edge with visual information. The high-honed and sculptural use of lighting and set design, which immerse the whole in steam, smoke, and haze, make for an experience that is submersive and ringing with visual intensity.
“6, 7, go to hell, go to heaven.” Ford on the set.
Scott presents us with a view of dystopia but it is a dystopia as aesthetically radiant as it is dark and foreboding. Radiant enough to be seductive and alluring, it is also dark enough to be a murky, smoke-hued paean to moodiness: I wanted to live in Deckard’s apartment at the time—sometimes I still do—and as much for his loneliness as for the isolation of atmosphere and aesthetic envelopment. The fire bells outside, the sonority of a canting city-speak geisha, airborne traffic passing in the night, and the endless trickling elements of ambient sound. All of these things become haunting, beautiful even, because of our seclusion within the atmosphere. The sound design triumphs, moving and winding through every sequence, with a musical score as poignant as anything else in the production. The design is the artwork, and artform supercedes craft.
At the core is the script, and like the best of dramas, it is a story within a story. The reluctant antihero at the center, Deckard, who is indeed wonderfully fleshed out and slightly enigmatic, merely paves the way for a secondary character who shines a light on higher, more worldly dilemmas. That character, Roy, is one of Dionysian proportions. He faces love and despair, desperation and longing, physical triumph and mortal reprieve. In embracing death and compassion, he grasps at, and achieves, redemption. An otherworldly redemption that seems somehow out of reach to mere, less mortal, humans.
In this the film triumphs over the complex aesthetics of its design, enshrining itself as a moral treatise and spiritual endeavor. It brings to bear its significance as an intellectual and emotional undertaking worthy of the settings within which it takes place.
I’m not saying I could ever be an authority on black-and-white ’60s Swedish cinema, nor would I care to be. And I may have strong prejudices about films like The Tin Drum and Breathless, which leave me longing more for a nap than for the backstreets of West Germany or Paris. The Seventh Seal and Fellini Satyricon are, certainly, triumphs of visual style and idea, but where one is cold and forbidding, the other is imposing and grotesque. In the interim there is Blade Runner, which has two things filmgoers, being honest with themselves, crave most in movie-making: a total immersion in atmosphere and the seeming likelihood that you may just have experienced an apotheosis of meaning.
I allow myself one viewing of this movie per year and it never changes or disappoints. Set this month in a Los Angeles of the future, there is nothing dated about Blade Runner, regardless of the fact that they have flying cars and we, thankfully, do not. In fact I would argue that, being handmade as it is, and unburdened by wretched CGI, it looks better than ever; It somehow manages to still look and feel as though it is the future, that it is some place else.
How else to explain the weird miracle that is Blade Runner, and the insane hold that it’s had on a very select few of us? Hell, it’s a film.
“Fiery the angels fell..” There was no IMDb then. Shot in the theatre on a Minolta xg-1 and Kodak color film. There was no other way to look at or carry around a personal part of the film.
For my sister Becky. And, although he has lately been seduced by the dark side of American politics, this entry is dedicated to my friend Brandon Boyle.