Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Joel E. Siegel's 1982 Blade Runner review

Bill Blackwell's my new hero. He dug up the legendary 1982 Blade Runner review by Joel E. Siegel of Washington's City Paper.

Well, legendary in my own mind, at least. Joel E. Siegel, a jazz critic and teacher at Georgetown, was also the amazing film critic for the Washington City Paper. He was perhaps the first critic I ever really trusted; so often he pointed me to films that were great, or steered me clear of the phony and dishonest. Most importantly, he was the critic who "got" Blade Runner even as so many other critics I read didn't.

If I remember correctly, the general impression of Blade Runner among the mainstream critics was that it was a basically unsuccessful attempt to meld science fiction with the hard-boiled detective genre. Siegel, on the other hand, knew it was something special. He didn't know what, exactly. But he knew underneath the occasionally-ridiculous surface was something entirely new, something rare and shudderingly beautiful.

I read that review as a high school senior and I knew at once I had to see the film. So I watched Blade Runner. What Siegel saw was obvious to me, too.

I actually spoke to Siegel many years later, after Blade Runner had become an acknowledged classic with its influence seen everywhere. We first commiserated about the fact that he shared his name with the mustachioed douchebag film critic from Good Morning America, and he told me stories about his former colleague John Powers (another hero critic of mine, who I had read back when he wrote for the LA Weekly). Then we spoke about his Blade Runner review. Siegel said he had recently reread the review and he remembered the trouble he felt putting his feelings into words. He and I both agreed it remained perhaps the best cyberpunk film ever made.

Flash forward to 2007 and my post on Hidden Gems, in which I mentioned the Siegel review. In an aside, I lamented that the review wasn't available online. I must have communicated in that aside that I would really love to read the review again.

And there, for three years, the story rests...until today, when one Bill Blackwell sends me the following email totally out of the blue, no introduction, just this, along with -- MIRACLES! -- the original Joel E. Siegel review:

Like you back in 2007, I went in search of Joel E. Siegel's City Paper review of Blade Runner on the Net. Everything may be here somewhere, but not Joel's review. The City Paper's search system was no no help. I called the paper. I had to explain to two people there that they once had writing for them THE film critic of DC. No luck. The last option was to descend into my basement and look through my files. The review was there, but it was missing the date of publication, though it has to be from a July, 1982 issue. I hope you still have an interest.

(Oh I do, I do! Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mr. Blackwell!)

Sharp Blade: Ridley Scott’s Visual Banquet

By Joel E. Siegel
Washington City Paper

In 16 years of movie reviewing, I've never had as much trouble writing a column as this one. I've seen Blade Runner twice and have tried for three weeks to come to terms with it, but I still feel tongue-tied trying to deal with the critical problems it poses. It's easy enough to pinpoint the film's flaws, particularly its poorly written and developed screenplay and Harrison Ford's unambitious, crushingly dull performance. Yet I don't think I've ever been as spellbound at the movies as I was during both viewings of Blade Runner. In terms of design, special effects, and cinematography, it surpasses anything the screen has shown us so far. Each sequence, each shot, is brilliantly alive to the possibilities of what film can do.

Blade Runner deserves special membership in that fraternity of crazy, doomed films whose visionary achievements redeem cheesy ideas and slapdash narratives (D. W. Griffith’s Intolerance is probably the godfather of this group, which also includes Michael Powell's Stairway To Heaven, John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd, John Boorman's feverish duo Zardozand Exorcist 2 and, recently, Michael Wadleigh's Wolfen. It is perhaps no coincidence that most of the abovementioned filmmakers, like Blade Runner's Ridley Scott, are Englishmen, products of the culture that gave us visionaries like Milton and Blake.) What these films have in common, apart from critical and box-office failure, is the creation of worlds so obsessive, so vividly imagined and compulsively detailed that open-eyed viewers can't possibly dismiss them, no matter how strongly good sense says we should.

Blade Runner, set in Los Angeles in 2019, is a knockout from its very first shot—a long-held cityscape dominated by vast pyramidal structures and punctuated by buzzing aircraft and smokestacks belching flame. Early on, we learn that the city, like the film itself, is built on oppositions. Mammoth glass and steel highrises dominate the skyline; beneath them, in a gaseous half-light, sprawls a neon underworld, a mixture of Times Square and Hong Kong, where the darker and, the film suggests, least quenchable aspects of human nature hover in the shadowy, rain-swept streets.

This underworld is familiar to us. It's the tenderloin of a dozen world capitals, only dingier, more decadent, rotting in the future's noxious atmosphere. But the upper world, with its inlaid, highly textured, rectilinear motifs decorating both internal and external walls, is new to the eye. It looks like a universe designed by Louise Nevelson—elegant, tactile, chilly.

Scott and his talented crew of technicians have populated their world with wonders. Huge floating video cubes drift through the streets hawking candies and soft drinks. There's a cold storage Eye World where men in heated suits fabricate eyeballs for advanced robots. There's a television set capable of scanning, enlarging, and reproducing the most minute photographic details. (A complex photo-scanning sequence extends the visual and aural explorations of Blow Up and Blow Out. There's a lavish mansion in the sky filled with echoes of Citizen Kane's Xanadu, including a perched mechanical bird and an expansive, columned study. Scott mixes future with present, fantasy with reality. Long sequences in the film are set in the Bradbury Building, downtown L.A.'s most notable architectural landmark. But we see the Bradbury not in its restored spendor but in a state of ruin, with rain and debris staining its grilled walkways. The terrible and wonderful things about Blade Runner's view of the city of the future is how logically it extends trends evident in our present urban centers. The Oliver T. Carr malls and condos that nestle alongside slum apartment houses and strip joints are the roots of Scott's bi-level metropolis.

The narrative and dramatic elements of Blade Runner are not worthy of the film's visionary style. The Hampton Francher-Davis Peoples screenplay, adapted from Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? attempts to transport a Raymond Chandler-like protagonist into the world of the future. In theory, the mixture of genres could work. After all, hardboiled detective fiction and sci-fi usually deal with the same question: how can one retain human values in an increasingly indifferent, mechanistic universe? But, as attempted in Blade Runner, the marriage of genres barely extends beyond self-congratulation over the originality of the conceit. The writers seem to feel that the very idea of placing a tough-guy hero in the midst of a futuristic city is so clever that no further development is required. As a result, the script is often foolishly coy; our intelligence is insulted while our eyes are being dazzled. Francher and Peoples aren't much better at exposition. Chunks of >action and motivation are missing, signs perhaps that the film was extensively cut before release.

It's more than a bit sentimental to believe that a Chandleresque character could survive the social and moral mutations that precede Blade Runner's society. (Even today, 37 years before the film takes place, one would have better luck enlisting the services of a private eye in the architectural anomie of Rosslyn or Crystal City than in the sleaziness of 14th Street. Today's tough guys have lost their affinity for the gutter.) According to rumors, the film's producers lost faith in the script's mating of tough guy and sci-fi during the final editing stages. Director Scott was reportedly taken off the picture, a voice-over narration was added to clarify the action, and a cop-out happy ending was patched on to lighten the film's deeply pessimistic view of the future.

The plot is a reworking of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville. (Both films are set in futures where people live in servile, robotlike existences, and Godard's picture even has a private eye protagonist.) Replicants, sophisticated robots designed for slave labor, have been created for use in colonizing remote "Off World" settlements. These replicants look exactly like human beings, and are as smart and far stronger than the people who created them. Six replicants, aware that their four-year termination dates are up, illegally return to earth and infiltrate Los Angeles. Former enforcer Deckard (Harrison Ford) is brought out of retirement to "retire" them. As in both versions of the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers,  the only thing that separates replicants from humans is emotion; they have no real feelings or memories.

Deckard, a withdrawn man, is virtually a replicant himself, such a cold fish that he's known to his ex-wife as "sushi." Disciplined and repressed into mechanical numbness, he is awakened to feeling when he meets Rachel, an advanced experimental replicant who has been implanted with feelings and memories. The cool killer is surprised by a longing for tenderness and decency. The dialogue and screenplay indicate that Deckard is a man quietly at war with his vestigial conscience, a zombie with an appendix soul. Unfortunately, Harrison Ford's performance as Deckard is the ultimate expression of Hollywood he-man emptiness. In the great tradition of macho stiffs like Gregory Peck, Glenn Ford, and Dana Andrews, Ford numbly flexes his way through the film, never once suggesting any kind of internal conflict. It's a replicant performance, without a flicker of feeling or individuality illuminating the solemn male impersonation.

Deckard's climactic decision to run away with Rachel should yield a harrowing irony—the repudiation of a world of human beings grown so soulless that happiness and tenderness are only possible with a robot. But Ford plays his scenes so mechanically that these ironies are never awakened. When one recalls how much complexity and wit Humphrey Bogart and even Dick Powell brought to their interpretations of Philip Marlowe, it's evident how great a liability Ford's bloodless performance really is.

Too bad, because the rest of the cast is marvelous. Blond, muscular Rutger Hauer is visually and dramatically perfect as Roy Batty, the brightest and strongest of the rebel replicants. Hauer, who has the kind of looks and physique that Hitler must have dreamed about, offers a Miltonic version of the replicant-slave—the unjustly cast-out angel who hungers for revenge. Batty's Satanic, larger-than-life emotions contrast sharply with the fumblings of the burnt-out Deckard; his death scene in the rain, complete with released white dove, is tinged with a dizzily poetic comic book grandeur.

Darryl Hannah is affecting as Batty's cohort Pris, a Blondie punk clone with dark spray-painted eyes and greenish makeup who dies a spectacular twitching death. Joanna Cassidy is beautiful and arresting in her brief turn as Zhora, a replicant tart whose expiration through walls of neon-tinted glass quotes from the shoot-out finale of The Lady From Shanghai. William Sanderson is touching and funny as Sebastian, the genetic designer-misfit who lives in a decaying toy-filled apartment in the Bradbury Building. His performance is a witty evocation of all those doomed little fall guys played in 40s films noir by Elisha Cook Jr. Sean Young is a very beautiful Rachel and fully deserves her long, adoring close-ups. But her elaborate 40s hair-do, scarlet lips, padded shoulders, and painted nails are handicaps, old movie allusions that imprison her until she, literally, is allowed to let down her hair.

Blade Runner's strengths and weaknesses are, I think, direct expressions of its director's gifts and liabilities. Ridley Scott was a painter and worked as a set designer and TV commercial director before coming to feature films. His pictures to date, The Duellists and Alien, have been strong on design and visual texture, weak on narrative continuity and characterization. This time out, Scott's preoccupation with visual imagery dominates every other element of the film. Each shot is so finely detailed that a dozen viewings would be necessary for the eye to take in the film's full visual richness.

Even while my mind was rejecting Blade Runner, my eyes were popping at the film's splendors, and so I want to recommend it, very strongly. And not as dumb fun, either, the sort of pinhead claims Pauline Kael makes when she's shilling for junk like Flash Gordon or Star Trek. The eye has its own intelligence; we don't leave our minds at home when we visit a museum or art gallery. I've never seen an exhibition of paintings as exciting or original as the images contained in Blade Runner and so I'm recommending it for intelligent people to see and enjoy. One wishes the rest of the film lived up to the grandeur of its surface, but Scott and his crew have given us a visual banquet, something to be grateful for. •


I think later versions of Blade Runner showed that the film's narrative was deeper than Siegel gives it credit for. But he essentially nailed how profoundly the visual design of the film created a wholly new cinematic experience. Sadly, Joel E. Siegel died in 2004 at the relatively young age of 63. Happily, his visionary take on Blade Runner is finally available online. 

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