the unicorn and the dove: another look at blade runner’s sublime dystopia

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.

When Blade Runner played the Castro Theatre in San Francisco recently, I went to see it on their old-school big screen, where it belongs. This was the Final Cut, one of multiple versions (not all of which have been released theatrically) made since the film’s first release in 1982. For some reason the Final Cut has been unavailable to theaters since it debuted seven years ago. Blade Runner’s production and re-production history is a saga in itself, as a little web research will show you. It’s clearly always been an object of obsession for its director, Ridley Scott. And has since become one for legions of fans, including me.

It was (appropriately) a night of rain, although a needed, drought-breaking rain, not the toxic acid rain that unendingly fills the skies of “Los Angeles 2019” in the film. It was a weeknight, and a busy time of year. Much of the audience didn’t look old enough to have seen the film when it first came out. But the ticket line for this 1400-seat theater stretched around the block, for both shows. Why? “People love some Blade Runner,” said a guy in line.

And why is that? Blade Runner was not a hit back in 1982. The love has taken time to manifest. In hindsight, though, it’s clear that a good deal of its power to attract comes from the extraordinary level of craft applied to both of the elements that determine reception in any film: visual and narrative.

For decades in Hollywood, pulp genre films were associated with low budgets and correspondingly simple design. That’s why earlier sci-fi movies mostly look cheap and silly. Stanley Kubrick blasted the hinges off the genre’s door back in 1968 with 2001: A Space Odyssey, but his approach didn’t inspire a herd of followers. Spielberg and Lucas were visual standouts in the 1970s, but their narrative model was for kids – it was the Boys’ Own Story. What Scott did with Blade Runner that was unique, at least until Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, was to tell a grown-up future story in which the design was superbly visionary and still created a putative environment on this planet, not out in space somewhere. Blade Runner’s visual aesthetic is both familiar and exotic, and, for a genre film, almost lovingly detailed.

(We’re talking about Hollywood here; Europe’s sci-fi masterpieces like Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Godard’s Alphaville, or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris had already shown what could be done even without the kind of capital demanded for “big” studio pictures.)

But of course there is another criterion for enduring success that applies uniquely to stories of the future: can it prophesy?

Blade Runner’s rise really began in the ‘90s, when the rapturous wedding of capital and new technology, the ascending power of the Asian Tiger economies and transnational corporations, and advances in genetic engineering and AI (in 1997 a computer first beats a chess World Champion), indicated that much of the film’s future scenario was now clearly nascent.

This is key, because the best sci-fi is not predictive but prophetic. It doesn’t show us what we’re going to be wearing or driving in fifty years, but how living in the world could feel. And not just in the future, of course, but how it can feel right now. That’s because prophecy, unlike prediction, has a timeless quality. Its reality is always imminent. It’s always a reflection of inner understandings more than specific external characteristics.

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the meaning of vertigo in the utopian city of collapsed time

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine. A version of it also appears in Left Curve Magazine #38. An abriged version was posted on the Counterpunch webzine.

[W]ith the weight of Magna Carta, the [British Film Institute] proclaimed Hitchcock’s 46th feature the greatest film ever made, displacing Citizen Kane’s 50-year reign at the top. – The Guardian, August 2012

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 critical and commercial flop, Vertigo, is a film about obsession that is itself an object of obsession. Those whom it does not leave indifferent it tends to haunt, and as its subject is also a haunting (or several, at different levels of narrative reality), there’s an appropriately vertiginous dynamic between the film’s story and its reception. The story is an adaptation of a French crime novel about a detective who falls in love with the married woman he has been asked to follow by her husband, an old friend. The husband says he’s afraid his wife’s been possessed by the ghost of a suicidal ancestor. The detective gets hooked on the haunted dame and wants to run off with her. However, his chronic fear of heights (which had forced him to retire from the force when it caused the death of a fellow cop) stops him from saving her when she – apparently – leaps to her death from a tower. He’s devastated; he breaks down. Later, still mentally fragile, he finds another woman who hauntingly reminds him of the first. He sets out to remake her in the image of his dead love, with disastrous consequences.

While the plot points are mostly the same, the film has access to a mythic visual iconography the novel does not. The femme fatale, Madeleine, is played by ice-blonde sex goddess Kim Novak; the detective “Scottie” by (the much older, but that’s Hollywood) Everyman hero Jimmy Stewart. Vertigo cooks up a new character, career girl Midge, to be the luckless third wheel in a love triangle with Scottie. And the setting is transposed from grim, dark, wartime and postwar France to an idyllic, exquisitely beautiful and prosperous mid-century San Francisco and its wild, lush environs. I’ll come back to this.

But like its source (titled D’entre les morts, or Back from the Dead), Vertigo ends in death and failure – never auspicious for good box office in the US. Hitchcock described the film with typical ironic deprecation as “boy meets girl, boy loses girl – boy meets girl again, boy loses girl again.” He was publicly dismissive of his product in retrospect because it was a commercial failure, although it remained his personal favorite. He didn’t live to see Vertigo even make the BFI list, much less climb to the top of it. So, with the triumphant irony that characterizes our age of cultural production, his film has acquired a life entirely independent of his intentions for it. It is viewed as Hitchcock’s masterpiece at least in part because it is said to be the most deeply revealing of his own obsessions, a kind of reading he would likely have feared and despised.

In fact, the bizarre transformation of Jimmy Stewart, the ultimate guy-next-door, into the creepy alter ego of the obese, manipulative, blonde-obsessed Hitchcock is only one of the movie’s embedded mirrors (although it is also a lens through which many fans view the film, since Hitchcock, the ultimate obsessive-cumauteur, has been an industrial-scale generator of character studies).

What is it about Vertigo that gives it such caché? I will give a personal reading, but for all those who share the obsession, there is a common thread: not theme, setting, imagery, story or characters in themselves, but the sheer beauty and elusiveness of the thing created of all these elements. Obsession through the ages has a common trait: its object appears beautiful to the obsessed, and also in some fundamental way, inaccessible. Beauty can exist without this quality of elusiveness – the Chrysler building is beautiful. Elusiveness can exist without being beautiful –the sources of human cruelty are elusive. But wherever the two conjoin with enough force, in someone’s eyes, obsession is born. Continue reading


A documentary film follows five film addicts. They go to three to five shows a day, and have done so for decades. Three of them live on disability, in tiny, grubby apartments crammed with the detritus of their mania. One has an inheritance. Only one has a job, which he hates but puts up with so that he can go to the movies. These are not colorful, wildly imaginative eccentrics. They are rather sad, colorless, dumpy and disheveled, mostly inarticulate and withdrawn almost to the point of autism. One collects soundtrack LPs, but doesn’t have a record player to listen to them. He is obsessed with calculating film running-times. He can watch anything, but then has nothing to say about it afterwards. Another collects glossy programs and product tie-ins, and holds every ticket stub from every film she has ever seen. A third, unattached and shy, dreams of Paris; movies were really only a portal to his fantasy of romance and a city. In each case, the films themselves seemed almost secondary to the cinephiliacs’ very particular obsessions.

The whole setting was key too: they all needed to be in a cinema most of their waking lives, video tapes and DVDs didn’t count; one of them didn’t even own a television and refused to watch movies that way.

The most articulate of the five explained precisely why he stayed at the movies, and I could understand: “Who would want to live in this reality?” “When you put a frame around an experience, it intensifies it. There’s no frame around our lives.” He was the one who dreamed of the Paris cafés he had seen in all those French New Wave films, but when he actually went to Paris, it wasn’t like the movies, “I was just sitting in a café; it was banal.” He realized, he said, that he wouldn’t see the Milky Way forming in the froth in his coffee cup, as Jean-Luc Godard had shown in Two or Three Things I Know about Her. And I had to laugh, because that’s one of those quintessential movie moments for me too, and how many people around him in his life would know the stubbornly hermetic film he was referring to, or had even heard of the great director? When he said it wouldn’t be enough to make love to Rita Hayworth, or even to her character in Lady From Shanghai, you’d have to make love to her in black and white because that’s what she is – again, I got it.

The cinema’s the temple; the movie’s the ritual. You are only fully alive when you are participating in the transcendent. The world outside the cinema, it’s nothing but props and backdrop. Like an empty studio set, it’s just a husk, a cast-off shell. It has no affect, no resonance, no soul. It’s just matter, moving pointlessly through time. In the dark, with the light of our self-made myths illuminating our faces, we find again the old mysteries that had once made the world a place where we could be something great, if only for as long as the darkness lasted.

melancholia approaches

Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse

This essay first appeared on the Dissident Voice webzine.

Why do disaster movies always show the culminating disastrous event happening in slow motion? Two reasons, I would say: first because otherwise the fictional cataclysm happens too quickly for cognitive processing, so there’s no real impact on the audience’s psyche. If a conventional disaster movie fails to generate rank emotion, then it has failed in its narrative function. (And that’s important chiefly because it makes its most essential function – making a buck – a lot more difficult to accomplish.)

But there’s also a less opportunistic process at work: This is how life-threatening disasters can actually feel to those who experience them: an unfolding of horror and disbelief during which time seems to yawn infinitely as the event (no matter how brief its measurable duration) goes on and on—and not just the event itself, if you survive it, but the dawning realization of all its causes and consequences, rolling out like shock waves, flooding and swamping your tiny individual life all the way to its inevitable, imagined end.

And even on beyond that, somewhere in our collective consciousness, forever, until those repercussions flow into the void of some projected final, universal human failure. Visualize extinction. “This is the way the world ends,” the poet hisses in our ears – bang, whimper, or both. And a true disaster is always the end of the world, in a relative way. For a group of people, an enduring place or species, a unique culture or ecosystem.

Lars Von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia was one of the neatest exercises in genre re-purposing I’ve seen, taking what would seem to be this least re-purposable genre, the disaster movie, and elevating it to an existential inquiry about what happens when personal depression, social dysfunction, and terminal crisis intersect. Its isolated fairy tale setting and gorgeously supernatural cinematography were clues that the attempt was to go beyond a limited notion of allegory (which was as far as most of the American critics got; i.e., deep depression feels like the end of the world) to the creation of a modern myth.

It was also a convention-wrecker in its ruthlessness – this is not a movie where personal heroism is of any avail in mitigating the crisis or saving a social remnant; the earth is destroyed at the end, in seconds (no slo-mo either), and that’s that. The story being told is not about how to survive but how to die; it is a canny memento mori for a culture obsessed with the idea of self-perpetuation at all costs, one that blathers inanely about progress even as it rips out the planks from its three million-year old lifeboat. There’s no uplifting moral about human behavior to be found, only the utter indifference of the universe and its mysterious workings to all the drama going on on earth.

That said, the actual effect of Melancholia is not nihilistic and the experience is not depressing. The film contains beauty, satire and biting social critique (also missed, unsurprisingly, by most American reviewers), humor, pathos, and surprise. It’s meant to be a cosmic analogy for profound aspects of human experience, not a freak-out over a hypothetical ecological or cosmological disaster like a global tsunami or an asteroid hit.

There is almost certainly no evil twin planet hiding behind the sun, but that doesn’t mean all life on earth won’t be extinguished some day (the latest calculations say in about 1.75 billion years). There is still the enormous question of what to do in the meantime, other than looking for escape routes, technological or psychological. Most of our current behaviors, Melancholia deftly suggests, are not really helpful. But ironically, depression is not the most counterproductive, and can actually morph into something almost transcendent in a real crisis. The melancholic state of mind was identified in earlier days from the Renaissance to the Romantics as an integral one, pregnant of deep inspiration or acts of creativity. This might be something to think about before deciding to let Big Pharma hook you on another suite of chemicals. Continue reading

night and the city now: ciudad juarez and the limits of noir

The city, like all cities, was endless. –Roberto Bolaño

Birth of the Noir
The creation of the modern noir aesthetic is the compelling and enduring contribution to global culture of a deep, underlying current of U.S. pessimism that some have traced back to a pervasive Calvinism at the roots of the nation’s history. It’s by now widely known that noir, which arose out of crime-obsessed pulp fiction in the Depression era, became a film style that may have achieved its maximum expression in post-World War II America, but has influenced both film and literary representations worldwide ever since. French cineastes gave the style its color-coded name, and while the boundaries are endlessly debated, key elements of the noir mode are now universally recognizable.

More than the U.S’s legendary (and increasingly weirdly free-floating) optimism—or our goggle-eyed religious fundamentalism, for that matter—the noir mode has translated well in the globalized, ür-capitalist culture of the late 20th and early 21st century. In this more urban-than-ever-before world, the largely urban milieu of noir, with its mythically resonant hierarchies of extreme wealth and poverty, of greed and desire utterly unfettered by nature or the social contract that binds smaller communities, is easy to replicate. And this is true whether the metropolis in question is Bangkok, Mexico City, Stockholm or Liverpool—all of these have produced a popular contemporary author or auteur who works in the crime genre and the noir style.

Enter Roberto Bolaño
Noir has also climbed out of the ghetto of genre works to claim a powerful foothold in literature with a more ambitious intellectual agenda than the bestseller list. The late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño’s posthumously published magnum opus 2666 is a remarkable example. And one reason it is particularly significant, beyond its “instant classic” status in literary circles (which Bolaño, had he lived to see it, would have derided) is the place the author chose as this vast novel’s existential heart of noir-ness. “Santa Teresa” is his fictionalized rendering of the border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico—as of now, after the curtain has closed on the 21st century’s blood-soaked first decade, probably the deadliest city in the world.
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