don’t remember when I first saw Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography, a great documentary that looks in depth at the power of the art that draws so many of us to the movies, but I do know that it was a year when 2019 seemed far away; a moment when I could say I can’t imagine what that year would look like. The film’s brief fragments of Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) showed me: perpetual darkness, plumes of industrial flames; endless (probably acid) rain, all taken in by single eye at the beginning of the movie, a Los Angeles stripped down to its bones. My description of these opening moments doesn’t sound promising, but Jordan Cronenwith, made this landscape into its own beauty, and now, in November 2019, it is almost romanticized, the ultimate noir city.
These glimpses were enough to move me to a place of I want to see that. Or maybe it was I need. I was nowhere near the obsession with it that I carry now, a place and feeling where Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo once ruled. There’s overlap, though: a desire to know about how the film was made, reading the source material (in Blade Runner’s case, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep ?), and collecting objects relating to the films. I have books about California’s missions, thirty-five books about Hitchcock, and Vertigo promotion stills. As my Blade Runner fascination has deepened, so my collection of artifacts has grown: an origami unicorn necklace, a shirt with the same on it, books and scholarly articles about the film, a dress, and a tattoo of Rachael, the replicant that Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard falls in love with, and the character who means the most to me.
I’m drawn to it again and again because it is a profoundly existential text: how do we live in a world that is dying ? Is being fully “human” a demand that someone, or something else, must die ? Who controls our past, our memories ? Are the memories even ours ? The dystopian Los Angeles seen in the movie demands that we ask these questions to take this movie beyond questions of style over substance. Pauline Kael, one of the most influential film critics of the twentieth century, knew where she stood in her review for the New Yorker, titling her piece “Baby, the Rain Must Fall.” She saw it as all slick surface, but one, she conceded, that was visionary ( For Keeps, 945), but expresses disappointment that there is no explanation of how Los Angeles had devolved into what we see in the movie, but comments that “this is the future as a black market…but what we see doesn’t mean anything to us” (945). Thirty-seven years after the release of the film, I can only argue that Kael is wrong: we are living in late stage capitalism, where everyone, and everything is for sale; a world where the demarcation of who has, and who doesn’t, become ever more undeniable, and an endless paranoid hum infuses everything. Escape seems almost like a dream or an impossibility. The Los Angeles of Blade Runner is a state of mind, or, to quote another movie, Jane Campion’s The Piano, it’s a “mood that passes through you.”
But why would I want to return to such a world, knowing that we live in it now, perhaps not as it’s seen in Los Angeles, but certainly there, along the edges, so insidious that we can’t see it until it’s already upon us, and we must re-adjust to a new reality. I return because of its profound loneliness, and its desperate hunt by its characters for connection in a world that has abandoned and outlawed them (“I want more life, Father,” says Roy Batty to Tyrell, just before killing him.) As someone who has always carried alienation and longing with me, I find a peculiar comfort in its silence; its exhaustion, a place where detritus is incorporated into the landscape, and fear is its electrical source. This place is at once mine, and not mine. The Los Angeles of 2019 as it was portrayed in 1982 lives in me, or rather, it haunts me. Each viewing has me looking for the ghosts of the future as the past imagined it.
Note: the Pauline Kael quotes are from her review of Blade Runner, “Baby, The Rain Must Fall,” first published in the New Yorker, July 12, 1982, and reprinted in her book For Keeps. New York, Plume, 1994, 944-49.
Sarah Nichols lives and writes in Connecticut, and is the author of eight chapbooks, including She May Be a Saint (Porkbelly Press, 2019) and This is Not a Redemption Story (Dancing Girl Press, 2018.) Her work is forthcoming in the Twin Peaks poetry anthology, These Poems are Not What They Seem (Apep Publications, 2020) and her poems and essays have also appeared in Drunk Monkeys and Five:2:One Magazine.
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