Monday, October 30, 2017

FUTURE NOIR: The Making of: BLADE RUNNER Reveals Dystopian Visions, Inspired Personalities, Heroic Battles (Art vs. Commerce) behind the Influential Science Fiction Classic

FUTURE NOIR: The Making of Blade Runner (Dey Street Books, HarperCollins) by Paul M. Sammon has a headline that's not  hyperbole--The Fascinating Story Behind the Darkest, Most Influential Sci-fi Film Evermade. 

Though 594 pages, I found this book obsessively interesting, though I'm not a Blade Runner fanAn art history and fan book, this revised and updated version of FUTURE NOIR delivers new interviews of  Sean Young and Rutger Hauer, and the longest interview Harrison Ford ever did on Blade Runner. The original interview with Ridley Scott is pretty good. The book also delivers talk about Ford's inexplicable antipathy for Young, Daryl Hannah's uncanny insight into being a replicant, the backgrounds of every actor, as well as the contributions of set, prop, costume designers and mechanics. It also gives a intriguing peek into Blade Runner 2049.

The author, Paul Sammon, investigates the genesis of the film from Phil Dick's book and early scripts with tidbits of synchronicity, like securing the title Blade Runner from William Burroughs. It is a lot of fun to be on  Sammon's Blade Runner set, where visionary designers and builders, inspired by Ridley Scott's visions, make leaps of creative thought. Some crash and burn, others bring another twist to their futureworld of 2019.

Sammon  provides useful hindsight about Blade Runner's impact on moviemaking and  popular culture over the past twenty years.Writer, filmaker and Hollywood insider, Sammon has credits on iconic art film Blue Velvet and pop confection Conan the Barbarian. He's no stranger to the necessities of both art and commerce. With wry humor, he relates Ridley's excesses, sublime and absurd, and the vetoes of exiting producers. He narrates the seessaw of art vs. commerce with a knowing irony.

For me, the most interesting revelations were the actual drawings by Ridley Scott, which became the visually dense, detailled world of Blade Runner. Scott's approach, well illustrated in this book, answered my questions about both the wildly unfaithful translation of  Dick's novel, Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep and why he came to welcome it.

From the dedication of FUTURE NOIR:

"When it comes to Hollywood I had an automatic flinch reaction."
--Philip K. Dick

"Sometimes the design is the statement."
--Ridley Scott

It was a surprise to me that Dick's worst nightmare was fulfilled (though I am unsure if he knew it).  A  major film of his book was being made by a director who never read it. Yet Sammon fairly relates the perspectives of both men. As an art school grad, who's worked as an illustrator, I understand Scott's training to think in images. But around 1981, the same year Scott began to shoot Blade Runner, I began work as a publicist for a science fiction press. A couple years before, I had begun my own dystopian novel,, Paradise Gardens.

The appearance of the world of my book is not far off from Scott's. In that politically conservative era, psychiatric hospitals were closed, tossing mentally ill people into the streets. New Wave bands, late 70s early 80s, investigated the forms and textures of sound, language, style. Post punk fashion, art and music, were about layering. Textures, colors, shapes, eras,were repurposed for ambiguous often apocalyptic content. Some of Bladerunner's look seemed derived to me from art culture, bands like Devo, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Basquiat paintings, Madonna/Lauper's looks.

Scott was brilliantly improvising from his era to a futureworld, where dystopian cities were ultra cosmopolitan, densely packed with diverse peoples and artifacts. Extrapolating from what was actually happening culturally, he made his visionary futureworld as consistent and detailed as the real world.  Blade Runner seemed a layered psychic experiment, projecting Scott's art cultural present forward in time and place.

I read Phil Dick's "paranoid fiction" and believe Do Androids Dream of Electronic Sheep reflects the 60's, when humanism seemed under attack by corporations; the military industrial complex of the Vietnam War, the assassinations of King, Kennedys, the Nixon sell-outs (In 1961 his cronies in life  insurance were given management of our health care). In Dick's fiction, the "little guy" was trying to preserve his humanity. In Androids having a real animal, a sheep, was a status symbol, because with animals we human beings are part of a natural order. Androids Replicants) were cold souless corporate products,which can replace people and serve those in power.

In Ridley's late 70s early 80's aesthetics, the loss of human values in Blade Runner era was a foregone condition. He takes the mix-up of people and replicants, machines that are becoming more human than many people. They are a kind of receptacle for "humane awareness," and in his story this may be due to their ahort lives and hyper awareness of death. (Man is supposedly the only animal with awareness of his own death, considered a defining characteristic of the human condition). This idea in regard to the replicants is emotionally consistent with Ridley's world, but could be confusing for literal audiences.

When I saw this film, I was overwhelmed by the dark emotional affect, sadness, nostalgia for what mankind had lost. There was also fear it was inevitable that humans would not survive, except those with money to flee to other planets. 2017 doesn't yet resemble Scott's future world but we face very real existential challenges. Our environment is almost beyond recall. I am very curious how Blade Runner 2049 will deal with that or not.

In 2017, my novel Paradise Gardens, was published in an updated and illustrated new edition. While I am glad some people are reading it, I think Phil Dick's Time Out of Joint, may best fit our present. In this book, a man in two different eras, must discover where he actually exists. Another prescient book about identity on the internet is Vernor Vinge's True Names. Both were, I believe, late 50s early 60's novels with clarity that bears rereading.

Sammon's FUTURE NOIR reveals that when Phil Dick and Scott finally met, they liked each other. Scott even decided to show him the film and Dick became completely supportive, He said that Scott had somehow absorbed what he had been feeling and thinking in his futureworld. Of course both of them were probably preoccupied by the same dystopia. There had to have been a synchronicity (emotionlly and mentally). Meaning became Scott's vision of Dick's future world.

In the making of the film, everything took much longer than anyone expected. Accidents were constant, some happy, others disastrous. The reception of the film was initially negative, in inverse proportion to the cultural impact of the movie. Phil Dick, finally excited about the release of the movie, died just before the release. The experience of FUTURE NOIR captures the particular trajectory of Blade Runner, as a work of art.

I liked how this book shows how a commercial film can act as a collective crucible for creative thought. It also shows what happens when it runs amuck--at odds with the realities of time, budget, personalties and expectations.


P.S. Saw the sequel 2049 this weekend. And it seems settling the "look" as a far more physically degraded futureworld (instead of a dystopian cultural wonderland) has freed the focus of the film.
Now it's all about the drama of the 2 Blade Runners. I liked that Harrison Ford's character is played as human, though it's still ambiguous. Ryan Gosling and Ford make this into a most satisfying buddy film. The two are terrific and the contrast of Replicant and human, clear in the beginning, almost reverses. The poignancy of Pygmalion becoming the creator is a familiar theme. I found it perversely  comforting in this dystopian setting. I could see another follow-up, a utopian tale of Replicant society, with idealized human values on an alternative earth.