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Blade Runner’s Many Lives

Recent news that Ridley Scott has signed on to do a sequel to his 1982 film Blade Runner fills that movie’s devotees with a mixture of dread and anticipation.  The overwhelming likelihood is that any effort to capture the old magic will be a colossal failure, but one still holds out hope for unlikely victory over the long odds of a sequel’s success.

Blade Runner was an event on its release, though according to many it was mangled by its producers, intent on making the story easier to follow and doing violence to the film’s essence in the process.  The director’s cut of 1992, which silenced Harrison Ford’s voice-over and left the ending much more ambiguous, was eagerly anticipated. Blade Runner was one of the first movies to use this clever marketing ploy to herd both cult followers and first-time viewers towards the box office. In 1997, the 25th anniversary year of the initial release, came the Final Cut, yet another trick of repackaging aimed at squeezing still more money out of the franchise. More than a decade later will come the big-screen sequel.

Whether the Blade Runner soundtrack’s composer Vangelis will be persuaded to add his crucial other-worldly sonic imprimatur to this latest endeavor is not yet clear. Perhaps the new producers will have to make do with one of the many androids of electronic soundscaping and video game musical prodigies his style begat. In spite of the existence of generations of abundant talent capable of replicating what Vangelis did, I say that it is still worth paying for the Greek’s atmospheric musical talents, his knack for melding synthesized dread and yearning with the romantic nostalgia of those eerie saxophone lines—a brilliant recasting of the sound of classic film noir for the not-so-distant future.

Whether Scott’s attempt, accompanied by Vangelis or not, will prove to be an anti-climatic coda or an unexpected masterpiece worthy of its ancestor of three decades ago, the announcement of the sequel makes me think back to an Upstate New York winter night some fifteen years ago and the most memorable evening I’ve  spent in the cinema.

February 4, 1996 

A skin-cracking cold is blowing down State Street, stirring up eddies of new snow then scattering flurries against the building fronts. The left side of the street is dark, the burnt out shell of the Ithaca Smoke Shop glowering behind the Fire Department barricades.  The Ithaca Diner next door has already been closed for  several hours.  Across the empty street the bare light bulbs that project down from the edge of the State Theatre marquee, blink drowsily.  The State was built in 1928 and has seen better days inside and out. Every fourth or fifth bulb is dead, giving the row of lights the appearance of an old man without his dentures.

The reader board of the marquee is not illuminated, but the dark letters “Blade Runner” can just about be made out in the dim, grey-blue light.  Above the marquee a sign with the letters “STATE” follows the facade of the four-storey brick building past the street lights into the darkness.  Just beyond the theatre the yellow glass front of Adult Toyland gives off a pleasantly obscene glow.  And jutting out at a forty-five degree angle from the corner of the block, over the entrance to the Chanticleer tavern —where I watched the verdict of the O. J. Simpson trial with a group of old Buffalo Bills fans a few months back—is a bright neon rooster:  orange body, red comb, and hand-painted banshee feathers.  The bird throws its head back as it crows, proud to be the finest piece of civic art in Ithaca crowing above the city’s best and sleaziest block.

I make my way beneath the blinking lights of the marquee and into the darkened cave behind the vacant ticket booth, then pull back the heavy brass and glass door and enter the State.  A large woman about seventy years old sits behind the ticket counter, her back turned to the glass.  An upside-down “Closed” sign covers the small semicircular opening cut out of the bottom of the glass.  As she turns toward the window I ask her if the theatre is open.  She looks down at the sign as she removes it from the opening.  “Just trying to keep some of the cold out,” she says.  “Didn’t realize that side was facing out.”

I take off my gloves to fish out a ten dollar bill from my wallet and push it through the hole in the glass.  The bill flaps in her shaking hand as she turns to the till, and fumbles with a stack of cash until she is finally able to pull out seven dollars.  As she gives me my change she glances at me, but doesn’t let on that she might recognize me even though this is my fourth time to see the movie in the last four weeks.  For a few months ago the State has been showing only one film—the director’s cut of Blade Runner.  Like last time, when I saw the film with a half dozen other audience members, I tell her that I’m in full support of her approach to programming and that she can count on me as a patron.  She nods, though it’s impossible to say what she means by the gesture: “thanks” or “leave me alone.”

I climb the red-carpeted stairs and when I get to the balcony I stop to take in the view:  the vaulted ceiling of fake stone; the outline of a menacing portcullis; the gothic chandelier; the medieval torches; the coats of arms; the tarnished knight’s helmet; the thick velvet curtains pulled back at the portal; the stuffed moose head peering out from the far end of the foyer; and some thirty feet below the old woman warming herself at the popcorn maker.

I duck through the lancet archway and walk up the center aisle past the steeply raked rows and take a seat in the middle of the empty theatre.  It’s warmer inside than out, but barely. I’m still wearing my thick down jacket and put my gloves back on.  I peer up at the lighted alcoves that ring the top of the walls and provide the only light for the theatre.  Only a few of the bays are be populated by small statues, and these seem to be religious—perhaps saints or 1920s film stars or both at once. I’m alone in the semi-dark.

After a few minutes, the woman pokes her head through the curtained archway and tells me to come on back to the counter.  When I get down to the lobby she informs  me that she’s been trying to call the projectionist, who lives across the street, but that he’s not home so they won’t be screening the movie after all.  But as she does battle again with the till to give my money back, the projectionist comes through the doors, his face red from the wind. “Where the hell were you?” the woman cries. “I’ve been trying to call you for the last half-an hour.”  The projectionist removes his wool hat to reveal a mass of static-crazy hair.  “Yeah, I got your message,” he responds without a hint of contrition. “How many people are here to see the movie?” he asks.  She points at me, “Him.” “Well then, I assume we’re not showing it,” he says.  “We’re showing the goddam movie!” comes the reply.  I chip in that it isn’t necessary to screen it just for me.  The woman turns to me, sternly:  “We’re showing the movie.”  Her quivering finger directs me back up stairs.  As I walk back up the stairs with the projectionist I tell him again that there’s no need to go to the trouble.  “She’s mad at me and the simplest way to make her un-mad is to show the movie,” he says.  So I return to my seat and wait as he threads the projector.  The speakers screech into life as the Ladd Company logo appears, and then the industrial darkness of Los Angeles 2019.

I’m not one of those Blade Runner geeks, but the movie fascinates me, especially now in this darker version without Harrison Ford’s voice-over.  Despite Ridley Scott’s claim that the film was merely an entertainment—before becoming a feature director he had made some 3,000 television commercials—there is plenty to enthrall in the script and the filmmakers’ realization of it.

The movie depicts men—and the creators of life are all males in this film—so enthralled by technology that they seem not to have noticed, or just don’t care, that the world they have made in the name of progress is an unplugged version of Las Vegas in the rain, in other words, a version of hell.  Even the promised land of the Off-World Colonies, visions of which drift above L.A. on floating advertisements, is an endless suburban matrix resembling a devastated San Fernando Valley in a perpetual twilight of smog and drizzle.

From an off-world industrial zone come four rebellious Replicants, fabricated humans, in search of an extension to their lives, a reprieve from their literal deadline. They believe that they  can be re-programmed for longevity by their maker, the God of Bio-Mechanics, Dr. Tyrell who fabricated his android children to be “more human than human.” But along with life he has given them an unalterable biological termination date.  The leader of the gang is Roy Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, whose first words in the film are an inversion of the celebratory lines from William Blake’s America: a Prophecy:  “Fiery the angels rose …”  Batty’s own angels are falling:  the American dream has turned nightmare.

After changing each reel the projectionist tromps down the side aisle, stopping to watch a scene or two before going in search of warmth.

When I’m in a crowded movie theatre I will occasionally look away from the screen at the up-turned faces of the audience and watch the reflected light flicker off their gaze.  In this empty theatre there is no one to look at but myself. I imagine myself as a sort of William Randolph Hearst figure in his private pleasure palace.  The whole scenario somehow reminds me of the Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Ring of a few years back in which the Gods sip cocktails in their bomb shelter and watch their video-monitor as fire engulfs the world outside.

It occurs to me that the cityscape on the Blade Runner screen is not so different from that outside the State, who’s own early 20th-century design, however dilapidated, also reflects the many of the interiors in the film. At the time the State was built, downtown Ithaca would have been thronged with theatre goers on an evening like this, in spite of the bitter cold. Now it is a ghost town after dark, its decline anticipating the decay of 2019 Los Angeles by at least a quarter century. The medieval knights to whom the State’s architecture fancifully pays homage believed that the end of the world was near at hand. Watching this movie alone in this vast, frigid, once-opulent theatre, it’s hard not to feel the same way. It’s a feeling, mixed with the pleasure of being alone in the big dark, that grows over the film’s two hours.

With Vangelis’ music still accompanying the credit sequence, I get up wave thanks back to the projectionist.  As I pass by the old woman in the lobby she’s doesn’t look up from her fat paperback.

David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. David Yearsley’s latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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