Blade Runner

Blade-Runner

Disclaimer: I assume herein that Deckard is a human being, not a replicant. Ridley Scott’s attempt to retcon this film is too stupid for further discussion. The original intention that Deckard is human is evidenced most notably by the repeated avowals of the screenwriters.

“Blade Runner” (1982) is all about the visuals. Here is a proper sci-fi movie with a complete, fully realized, lived-in world. Los Angeles 2019 is utterly convincing. It’s a masterpiece of special effects. This, above all, is why “Blade Runner” deserves to be seen and appreciated.

I think some might be tempted to construe it in loftier terms than it deserves because of its obvious religious and existential themes, and its eyeball motif seems designed to inspire film student thesis papers. But themes and motifs should only underscore a good story and good characters, and therein lies the problem with “Blade Runner.”

Deckard, the main character, is a cop who’s been assigned to track down and kill a group of synthetic humans called replicants. His main character trait is his lack of empathy. The replicants he’s chasing were used as slave labor on an off-world colony but they killed their masters and escaped to Los Angeles. Deckard doesn’t care about any of this. He doesn’t want to take the case but his boss makes some vague threat and forces it on him.

Deckard doesn’t have any grudge against replicants motivating him to track down these fugitives. He doesn’t sympathize with their plight as slaves. Instead, we have a main character who doesn’t care about what’s happening in the story and is only going through the motions because he “doesn’t have a choice.”

Hm, okay. Maybe this will pay off, we think.

Later he meets a pretty replicant named Rachael. She’s been given false memories to help her cope with her burgeoning emotions. This has had the side effect of instilling in her a belief that she is human. True to his character, Deckard doesn’t care about her feelings. He calls her “it” and casually reveals to her the horrible truth that she is a bioengineered product, not a person. His only apparent motivation for this is boredom or cruelty.

But Rachael forgives him. She even saves his life later. She brings him back to his apartment and he awakes to the sound of her playing piano. She says she remembers lessons but acknowledges that these must be false memories. Deckard says, “You play beautifully,” meaning, it doesn’t matter whether the memories are real or implanted; you are you now.

He’s beginning to see her humanity.

Or at least, he’s seeing her as human enough to think of her sexually. By that I mean he attacks her and forces her to say she wants him. He gives her this order as if she’s bound to obey him as a superior being, like the way Asimovian robots relate to humans. She complies, but she does not convey sincerity like a proper robot would. Her resistance is the strongest indicator of her humanity.

 

blade-runner-rachael
Sean Young as Rachael the Replicant, “Blade Runner” (1982)

 

Deckard still sees her as inferior at this point but what is unclear is whether this is because she’s a replicant or a woman. Seriously, it is conceivable that the assault scene was meant to be sexy in 1982, meant to convey not his complete disregard for her as a person but the opposite, that he was falling in love with her.

Later Deckard faces Roy, the leader of the fugitive replicants. It becomes clear that Deckard is no match for the physically superior replicant. Roy could easily kill Deckard, but he doesn’t. He injures him and terrorizes him.

Deckard desperately jumps out of a window and tries to climb to the roof. Roy looms over him and says, “Now you know what it’s like to live in fear. That’s what it is to be a slave.” And there it is, finally, Deckard’s chance for empathy.

We’d like to assume that this experience changed him. What evidence do we have of this? He goes back to his apartment, finds Rachael there, and tells her he loves her. They escape together.

Okay… What?

That’s a nice, quick resolution to the story but it feels wrong. The movie wants us to feel happy that Deckard and Rachael both survived and they’re together. This gives the impression that they were not fully aware they were telling a story about a despicable character. And that is the problem with the story.

Deckard, now enlightened with empathy, should have realized how horribly he’d treated Rachael and arranged a passage for her to someplace she’d be safe without further burdening her with his miserable presence. Being woke doesn’t erase all the harm he caused.

The happiest ending this film deserved was one where Rachael was safe and Deckard was alone and repentant. And, of course, the last shot should have been an eyeball, its iris contracting in a bright light, to satisfy all those film student papers.

Advertisements

Cruising

cruising
The first time I heard of William Friedkin’s “Cruising” (1980) was fifteen years after its release, in “The Celluloid Closet,” an indispensable documentary about the portrayal of gays and lesbians throughout the history of films. In it, “Cruising” is indicted as a film that encouraged hate crimes and exploited homophobia. It depicts protesters demanding that the filmmakers halt production altogether. Watching this, one feels that it was a seminal moment, when gays and lesbians spoke up and tried to take control of their own image in the media.

Certainly there’s merit to that. However, after finally watching the film, now thirty-five years after its release, I struggled to identify the reason for all the fuss.

“Cruising” tells the story of a cop (Al Pacino) who goes undercover to find a serial killer who’s been targeting gay men in the underground leather scene of New York City. The nature of his mission requires a certain open-mindedness, but the job also provides a cover that allows him to indulge his curiosities and explore facets of his sexuality that he might have otherwise ignored. This is a fascinating setup, and the complexity of Pacino’s character is remarkable considering that he evolves without the benefit of expository dialogue. His motivations are known only to himself. He has no confidant, so there is never a scene in which he shares his feelings aloud. Nor is there a voiceover to let us know what he’s thinking. Some have complained that this makes his character frustrating and unnecessarily obscure. I disagree. Pacino’s performance communicates everything we need to know about his secret attraction to the leather scene, and his isolation from the audience makes thematic sense. (This works only up to a point. More on that later.)

Watching the film, I noticed a curious amount of ADR and later learned that protesters followed the production and deliberately ruined the audio recordings by making noise on set. But why? What made this film so controversial that activists actually wanted to shut down production? The film is strikingly sympathetic to the gay community. The first scene involves a pair of homophobic cops, but its purpose is not to make us laugh at or be grossed out by gay people, but to feel sympathy for these characters who face constant harassment. (The scene also introduces the theme of repressed sexuality by showing a cop who antagonizes a drag queen but ultimately forces her to go down on him.)

In a way, the real villains in the story are the intolerance toward gay people and the shame that’s imposed on them. That’s what motivates the murders. I suppose that idea is problematic in itself, that an intolerant society can twist gay people into crazed killers, but the film isn’t that simplistic. Yes, the scene that attempts to humanize the killer and assign his motivation feels clunky, but it’s no reason to protest.

cruising 3I think the real objection was that the film shined a light on the dark corners of the community. The Gay Liberation Movement, as it was called at the time, was grasping for mainstream acceptance, and here was a mainstream film that depicted a subset of the community, one that is particularly sexual, fueled with drugs and violence, and altogether unpalatable to grandmothers the world over. But the film goes out of its way to distinguish the leather subculture from the gay community at large, both by having a character say that outright and by introducing a gay character who is not at all involved in the S&M culture.

One can understand why the Gay Liberation Movement of 1980 would have been apprehensive about a film that invited the whole world into the leather bars of the Meatpacking District, but to go so far as to disrupt the production seems to betray an intolerance toward members of their own community. Perhaps these protesters were themselves a fringe group; conservative and hungry for acceptance, terrified of being viewed as perverted sex freaks and willing to go to any lengths to prove how “normal” they were. Of course I’m extrapolating now, but the struggle between the freaks and the assimilationists was real in the early post-Stonewall era.

cruising 2Regardless of the reason, this film was under tremendous scrutiny before it had even been made, and all the controversy succeeded in diluting the story. The scenes between Pacino and his wife could have provided more insight into his character while maintaining his strict secrecy, as in “Brokeback Mountain” when Heath Ledger insists on certain sex positions with his wife and we understand the meaning. Here, we do see that Pacino can’t get it up for his wife, but that fact alone doesn’t have as strong an impact without accompanying scenes showing him fully capable of performing with men. Also, the relationship between the Pacino character and his neighbor is vital to the film’s conclusion, yet senselessly underdeveloped. As a result, the ending falls flat for lack of a convincing setup. By the time it’s over, one gets the feeling that Friedkin was forced to cut several key scenes and then tried to pass off the resulting obscurity as artistic.

“Cruising” was far ahead of its time and suffered, technically and dramatically, as a result. Here is a film that begs for a remake. Surely now, when the media represents the wide spectrum of the gay community, no one would protest a murder mystery set in the milieu of the leather bars.

And yet, this film, despite its flaws, deserves recognition at least for Pacino’s performance as the conflicted undercover cop, for creating sympathetic gay characters long before that was common, and for going where no mainstream film had gone before. Maybe not boldly, but it did go there.