Shooting Barry Lyndon

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40 still frames from Nicolas Roeg’s film Walkabout

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From Walkabout, 1971. Directed and shot by Nicolas Roeg. Via Screenmusings.

Donald Barthelme interviewed by George Plimpton

RIP Nicolas Roeg

Nicolas Roeg

RIP Nicolas Roeg, 1928–2018

I was saddened to hear of the death of filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90. The first film I saw by Roeg was his adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Witches (1990). I saw it in a theater with my mother when I was maybe eleven. I loved the book that it was based on and I loved the film just as much. Roeg captured the comic grotesquerie and sheer terror of the Dahl’s novel, as well as the abiding love that underpins the narrative. I’ve since seen the film many times, including earlier this year when I watched it with my own children, who also loved it.

Of course when I was eleven I had no notion that I was watching a “Nic Roeg film” — that is, a film by a director with a strange body of cult classics behind him. It wasn’t until I was in college and watched The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) that I began to seek other Roeg films. The Man Who Fell to Earth is Roeg’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1963 novel. It stars David Bowie, which was of course my initial attraction. The film became a college staple for myself and my friends, the kind of film that simply ran in the background while we hung out.

I had a little setup with two old VCRs, and I would dub tapes I’d check out from my university’s film library, and The Man Who Fell to Earth was one of the first films I copied. I also copied Performance (1970), another film featuring a rock star (Mick Jagger). I had actually already seen Performance in a film class, and somehow knowing that the guy who had made The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Witches had made this film made me like it even more.

My university’s film library did not have a copy of Walkabout (1971) though, and I didn’t see the film until 2002, when I rented it from the most amazing video cassette rental spot in my neighborhood in Tokyo, the kind of place that I still dream about. Walkabout is a perfect film—my favorite film of Roeg’s and one of my favorite films in general. It is the story of a teenage girl and her much younger brother who are stranded in the Australian outback after their father’s inexplicable suicide. They manage to survive with the help of an aboriginal teenage boy. This summary is no good though: The film is simply gorgeous, a kind of poem in light and sound. I watch it every few years. If you’ve never seen it, I hope that you will make time to watch it.

I’m thankful that I didn’t see Roeg’s follow up to Walkabout,  Don’t Look Now (1973) when I was younger. I think I wouldn’t have understood it as well, if at all, in all its Gothic evocations of grief. Don’t Look Now is an impressionistic psychological thriller (based on a short story by  Daphne du Maurier) about a husband and wife who travel to Venice after the recent death of their daughter. Like Walkabout, there’s an impressionistic, fluid quality to the film’s composition, and like WalkaboutDon’t Look Now is ultimately about the limits of communication. The pair are, in my estimation, the strongest of Roeg’s films.

Roeg’s films in the first half of the eighties are, if not quite as strong as his work in the seventies, still fascinating cult entries. Bad Timing (1980) is the best of the three I’m thinking of here. It’s both visually and thematically reminiscent of Don’t Look Now (and stars Art Garfunkel!). Bad Timing is not a film I ever want to rewatch, and I say that as a compliment. Eureka (1983), another thriller (starring Gene Hackman) is a bit harder to find—I didn’t track it down until the Golden Age of Torrents a few years ago. Insignificance (1985) is adapted from and feels like a play. It’s a take on the American mythos of the 1950s, putting Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and Joseph McCarthy together in an imagined scenario that anticipates the shift from Modernism to postmodernism. All three of these films held a special fascination for me because 1) they were extremely difficult to find for a long time and 2) one of my favorite musicians, Jim O’Rourke, named a loose trilogy of his albums after them.

Roeg directed two films in the late eighties that I haven’t seen (Castaway, 1986 and Track 29, 1988). His adaptation of The Witches (1990) was his last major feature film, although he made three films after: Cold Heaven (1991), Two Deaths (1995), and Puffball (2007). I’ll admit that I don’t recall Puffball’s release at all—but it does look interesting.

But I started with The Witches, so I’ll end with it: It’s a wonderful film, maybe not really the most Roegish of Roeg films, but a Roeg film nonetheless, a film made with a cinematographer’s eye with a touch of a documentarian’s objectivity and a large dose of artistic panache. I’m glad I got to see it on a big screen, and I hope that I’ll get to see Don’t Look Now and Walkabout on a big screen too one day.

 

 

Like the first 12 minutes of Nic Roeg’s film Walkabout

Watch the other minutes, too.

Barry Hannah reading “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail” on his porch swing

Barry Hannah reading “All the Old Harkening Faces at the Rail” (from Airships) and talking about memory and voice at his home in Oxford, Mississippi in February, 1986.

Seven still frames from Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive

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From Only Lovers Left Alive, 2013. Directed by Jim Jarmsuch with cinematography by Yorick Le Saux. Via Screenmusings.

Read the Biblioklept review of Only Lovers Left Alive.

Nineteen still frames from Tarkovsky’s Solaris

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From Solaris, 1972. Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky with cinematography by Vadim Yusov. Via Screenmusings.

Robby Müller on shooting Down By Law

A scene from Taxi Driver with commentary from Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader

Fantasy. You’re imagining things again.

Blog about a list of films included in Antoine Volodine’s short story “The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen”

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Antoine Volodine’s short story “The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” is collected in Writers, a book available in English translation by Katina Rogers from Dalkey Archive Press.

Writers is one of the best books I’ve read in the past few years: unsettling, bizarre, satirical, and savage, its stories focus on writers who are more than writers: they are would-be revolutionaries and assassins, revolting humans revolting against the forces of late capitalism.

Writers (which I wrote about here) functions a bit like a discontinuous novel that spins its own web of self-references to produce a small large gray electric universe—the Volodineverse, I guess—which we can also see in post-exotic “novels” like Minor Angels and Post-Exoticism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven. 

Volodine’s post-exotic project refers obliquely to the ways in which the late 20th century damns the emerging 21st century. And yet the trick of it all is that the stories and sketches and vignettes seem ultimately to refer only to themselves, or to each other—the world-building is from the interior. This native interiority is mirrored by the fact that many of his writer-heroes are prisoners communicating from their cells, often to interrogators, but just as often to an unresponsive void.

“The Theory of Image According to Maria Three-Thirteen” takes place in such a void, a kind of limbo into which the (anti-)hero Maria Three-Thirteen speaks herself into existence. It’s an utterly abject existence; Maria Three-Thirteen crouches naked like “a madwoman stopped before the unknown, before strangers and nothingness, and her mouth and her orifices unsealed after death…all that remains for her is to speak.” She speaks to a semi-human tribunal, a horrorshow, creatures “without self-knowledge.” After several paragraphs of floating abject abstraction, Maria eventually illustrates her thesis—an evocation of speech without language, speech in a deaf natural voice–to this audience.

Her illustration is a list of scenes from 20th-century films.

I found this moment of the story initially baffling—it seemed, upon first reading, an utter surrender to exterior referentiality on Volodine’s part, a move inconsistent with the general interiority of Writers. Even though the filmmakers alluded to made and make oblique, slow, often silent, often challenging (and always beautiful) films, films aesthetically similar to Volodine’s own project, I found Volodine’s gesture too on-the-nose: Of course he’s beholden to Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr!

Rereading the story, and rereading it in the context of having read more of Volodine’s work, I take this gesture as the author’s recognition of his aesthetic progenitors. Volodine here signals that the late 20th-century narrative that most informs his work is cinema—a very specific kind of cinema—and not per se literature.

This reading might be a misreading on my part though. Maybe Volodine simply might have wanted to make a list of some of his favorite scenes from some of his favorite films, and maybe Volodine might have wanted to insert that list into a story. And it’s a great list. I mean, I like the list. I like it enough to include it below. I have embedded the scenes alluded to where possible, and in a few places made what I take to be worthy substitutions.

Here is Volodine; here is Volodine’s Maria Three-Thirteen, speaking the loud deaf voice—

And now, she begins again, to illustrate, I will cite a few images without words or almost without words, several images that make their deaf voice heard. You know them, you have certainly attended cinema showings during which they’ve been projected before you. These are not immobile images, but they are fundamentally silent, and they make their deaf voice heard very strongly.

The chess match with death in The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, with, in the background, a procession of silhouettes that undertake the arduous a scent of a hill.

The man on all fours who barks in the mud facing a dog in Damnation by Bela Tarr.

The baby that cries in a sordid and windowless apartment in Eraserhead by David Lynch.

The bare facade of an abandoned apartment building, with Nosferatu’s head in a window, in Nosferatu by Friedrich Murnau.

The boat that moves away from across an empty sea, overflowing with cadavers, at the end of Shame by Ingmar Bergman.

The desert landscape, half hidden by a curtain that the wind lifts in Ashes of Time by Wong Kar Wai.

The early morning travel by handcar, with the regular sound of wheels, in Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky.

The old man with cancer who sings on a swing in Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa.

The blind dwarfs with their enormous motorcycle glasses who hit each other with canes in Even Dwarfs Started Small by Werner Herzog.

The train station where three bandits wait at the beginning of Once Upon a Time in the West by Sergio Leone.

The flares above the river in Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky.

The prairie traveled over by a gust of wind in The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky.

She is quiet for a moment.

There are many others she thinks. They all speak. They all speak without language, with a deaf voice, with a natural and deaf voice.

 

Joachim Trier on Nicolas Roeg’s film Don’t Look Now

Blog about not seeing Darren Aronofsky’s seventh film Mother! in the theater

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I did not see Darren Aronofsky’s seventh feature film Mother! in the theater.

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I saw director Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film Pi at the Reitz Union theater at the University of Florida in the fall semester of my sophomore year of college. In my four years attending the University of Florida, I always made a point to go watch the free films the Union’s theater screened. I saw The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas there. I saw Christopher Nolan’s film Memento there, and Harmony Korine’s follow-up to Gummo, the unfortunate Julien Donkey-Boy (Chloe Sevigny ice-skating to Oval’s skittering soundtrack left a permanent mark on my memory). I saw Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me there. I saw a hypnotist there, also. (It was all free, in the sense that no money was required). And, like I said, I saw director Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film Pi there.

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I saw Pi with my girlfriend and her roommate and her roommate’s boyfriend, who I was starting to be friends with. We—by which I mean my girlfriend and I—loved it; roommate and roommate’s boyfriend hated it. We found this out minutes after leaving the theater. I might have argued for it, using terms like claustrophobia and paranoia and German expressionism; I am the kind of asshole who might have brought up, like, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at this point of my life. The roommate’s boyfriend—who turned out to be and remains to this day one of the greatest friends I’ve ever made—pointed out that the film was silly–self-important, muddled, vague. He may or may not have used the word histrionic.

(He could be entirely right. I’ve never rewatched Pi).

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(I’ve never rewatched any film directed by Darren Aronofsky).

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The same roommate’s boyfriend, at this point broken up with the roommate (also no longer the roommate) would have been present at the small-screen screening of Requiem for a Dream held in The House Where We Always Drank Excessively some time in the fall of 2000. We–the ten or maybe twelve of us—did not Drink Excessively during the film, leaving bottles and bongs and etc. largely untouched after the first half hour, our horror slowly growing. This was No Fun. We didn’t talk after, slinking off in the humid Gainesville night. We tacitly agreed not to see each other for at least a week or two.

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Aronofsky’s film The Fountain arrived in the mail on DVD via the mail-DVD service Netflix some time at my house in 2007. The film had a certain mystique to it—it was a boondoggle, an interesting failure, a trial balloon that popped. I recall liking it quite a bit, as I told my wife after she woke up after having fallen asleep thirty minutes into the film.

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(I might have actually watched The Fountain a few times).

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My daughter was an infant when The Wrestler was in theaters. I watched it too via a mail-ordered DVD from Netflix, and thought it was Pretty Good, but no My Cousin Vinny or By the Time the Devil Knows You’re Dead. (Marisa Tomei Forever).

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My son was an infant when Black Swan was in theaters. So again: Netflix DVD, no big screen. My wife liked this one—we both laughed and laughed. At some point, maybe, one of us, getting up to pee or pour another glass of wine or check that a child was tidily asleep—well, I guess we took to it as a kind of histrionic comedy, a comedy-horror. This could be an entirely wrong take, but I don’t know. (I’ve never rewatched any film directed by Darren Aronofsky).

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By the time I watched Aronofsky’s sixth film Noah, I had essentially given up on him: I found his films a remarkable mix of camp, melodrama, and repulsion—hard to read, searingly original, visually compelling areas I couldn’t wait to leave. I reviewed Noah on this blog, writing,

Aronofksy is an auteur, and like most auteurs, I’m sure rewatching his films would enrich an understanding of the themes and problems he’s trying to address. However, I find his films repulsive, by which I mean the opposite of compelling. I have never wanted to exit a fictional world as much as I wanted to escape Requiem for a Dream. I found The Wrestler depressing and empty. I’m afraid if I watch Black Swan again it will turn out that Aronofsky was actually not attempting to make a comedy about psychosis, but was rather actually serious about his melodrama’s tragic scope.

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When Mother! (or mother!, as it is sometimes stylized) came out last year I was intrigued, first by the film’s marvelous posters (by James Jean), and then by the advance word on it. Mother! sounded Rosemary’s Baby, but also something like Salo or Irreversible or even Ichi the Killer—something scary and a bit psychotic and divisive and depraved. Something that some folks would certainly hate. But two kids and a job and etc. make a movie hard to grab on the go, and we wanted to see PT Anderson’s Phantom Thread, of course, which is what I think we ended up seeing instead of Mother! Maybe a week or two later at a party, a friend immediately asked me if I had seen Mother! yet. She wanted to talk about it very much. She told me to go see it.

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Mother!: I should have gone to the theater to see Mother!

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We watched Mother! via a streaming service in a very dark room on the largest TV we have ever owned, and I’m sure that this is not even close to what it was like to see the film in the theater. It was great. Great! I should have gone to see Mother! in the theater.

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This blog began with the bestest of best intentions. I was going to write a proper review of Mother!, or not a review so much as a riff, or not so much a riff, really, but rather an appreciation, a take on the feeling of watching Mother!—but when I started writing I realized that I had these other thousand words to write first. And now that I’ve written them, I hate to just delete them—and anyway, it’s only blog. But I mostly see that I’d like to  watch Mother! again before I write about it again.

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Reviews, riffs, anti-reviews, etc., June and July 2018 (and an unrelated griffin)

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Grifo de California, 2017 by Walton Ford (b. 1960)

Links to reviews, riffs, etc. I wrote in June and July of 2018–

I continued and then apparently abandoned the silly project of trying to write reviews on every film I watched or rewatched this summer:

I hated both Ant-Man and The Disaster Artist, which I made a bad double feature out of.

I loved Lady Bird though.

I took my son to see Pom Poko in the theater as part of the Studio Ghibli Fest 2018 program.

I finally watched David Cronenberg’s film Map to the Stars and was not especially impressed.

I watched Blade Runner 2049 a second time and annotated my original review.

And I watched David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man for the first time in ages and boy is it really really good.

Trying to write about every film I watched what was exhausting and I’m not really sure what I got out of it, if anything. Here are the other films that I remember watching and not writing about:

All eight of the Star Wars films, again, sort of, with my kids.

Samsara (dir. Ron Fricke, 2011)—bought a new TV for the first time in eleven years and used this film to test the screen. Ended up watching it twice.

Thor: Ragnarok (dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)—another one I watched with the kids, although I’m not sure it was for them. It wasn’t for me. A lot of wasted potential in this one.

The Company of Wolves (dir. Neil Jordan, 1984)—I think this one holds up well. I remember renting it for 99 cents from the Hollywood Video next to my apartment in Gainesville, FL in 1997 and thinking it was a work of genius.

Princess Mononoke (dir. Hayao Miyazkai, 1997)—in the theater for the first time, again as part of Ghibli Fest 2018. I wrote about the film here a few years ago.

Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2014). Watched it again last night on Netflix. I wrote about it here. I like a film that is basically a mood.

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I finally read George Eliot’s longass wonderfulass novel Middlemarch  this summer. I wrote about wanting to reread it from about halfway through 

I also wrote about finishing Middlemarch, but edited out a few paragraphs about how much the last paragraphs of Eliot’s novel reminded me of the last lines of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.

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In what is either strange felicity or my need to connect everything to Whitman, I did connect the end of Song to one of Denis Johnson’s posthumous stories, the title story in The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. 

Writing about “Largesse” was the first of an intended five part series on each of the stories in Johnson’s last book; I wrote about the second story, “The Starlight on Idaho” here and “Strangler Bob” here. (Links to the full texts of those stories are in each of those pieces, by the way).

I recycled a review of Roberto Bolaño’s novella By Night in Chile after I saw its new cover in a Charleston bookstore.

I also wrote about how weak and ineffectual I think George Saunders’ “satire” of Donald Trump, “Little St. Don” is. I see Saunders’ piece as part of an obsolete postmodernist mode that cannot viscerally engage the emerging zeitgeist. I wrote,

But postmodern perspectives have thoroughly soaked our culture (whether we recognize this our not), and good old-fashioned postmodernism-by-numbers isn’t going to work. “Little St. Don” reveals nothing new to its audience, it simply amplifies what they already know and believe, and does so in the very rhetoric that we need to overpower. Literary satire needs to do more than confirm our own morality while lambasting those who perpetrate evil—it needs to invent its own rhetoric, its own form, its own new language.

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The Elephant Man (Summer Film Log)

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I watched David Lynch’s film The Elephant Man (1980) last night for the first time in at least a decade (likely more than a decade). The Elephant Man is not my favorite Lynch film to rewatch, perhaps because it is his most realistic film despite its fantastic touches.

The Elephant Man is emotionally devastating, propelled by naturalistic performances unusual in Lynch’s oeuvre. Lynch teases the titular elephant man’s hideous countenance for the first fifteen or so minutes of the film, but when we finally see John Merrick (played by an unrecognizable John Hurt), we feel only pity for his circumstance and contempt for a world that can’t accept him.

Dr. Treves (Anthony Hopkins) shares that mix of pity and contempt. Treves is the surgeon who moves Merrick from his freakshow prison to a respectable London hospital, where the young man can finally find some measure of comfort in his own skin. Away from his former handler, the sadistic Mr. Bytes (Freddie Jones), young Merrick quickly becomes an aesthete, the toast of London society.

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Merrick’s hospital suite becomes an artiste’s garret, where he builds a model of a nearby cathedral and takes tea with a famous actress. However, a cruel night porter named Jim (Michael Elphick) intrudes into this peace, selling tipsy gawkers tickets to see the elephant man in his new minor paradise. While Jim’s invasions are horrifying, more subtly terrible is the notion that Dr. Treves himself is simply recapitulating the freakshow, only this time to a “higher society” — a sin that Ms. Mothershead, the ward’s head nurse, warns Treves against. She serves as the moral anchor of the film, proclaiming that care and attention—bathing, feeding, cleaning—are the truest forms of “love.”

Despite its subject matter, The Elephant Man is possibly Lynch’s most straightforward, even traditional film (this estimation includes The Straight Story (1999)). The plot is ultimately a character study of a lonely man who craves not wholesale acceptance or dramatic love but simple friendship. The emotional crux of The Elephant Man rests in Treves’ reticence to truly befriend his patient, a reticence Lynch refuses to resolve.

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We feel pity for Merrick, but as his social status swells into a surreal ironic infamy, we feel a second pity—the fame goes to his head. Hurt portrays these strange emotional swings through thick layers of makeup, aided by Lynch’s impeccable framing and Freddie Francis’ dreamy black and white cinematography. (Francis served as cinematographer on Lynch’s next film, 1984’s Dune, as well as the aforementioned The Straight Story). Lynch’s sound design is haunting, but not as proficient as later efforts—too reliant on flange and echo, the sound design often subtracts through addition.

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Visually, The Elephant Man plants seeds for any number of Lynchian set pieces to come. The nightworld Lynch creates for poor Merrick to endure repeats throughout his oeuvre, notably in Blue Velvet (1986), Lost Highway (1997) and Twin Peaks (1990-2017). Michael Elphick’s night porter Jim is particularly sinister, a proto-Frank Booth. Freddie Jones’ Mr. Bytes is a loathsome first copy of Baron Harkonnen from Dune. It’s all quite horrifying.

Lynch always tempers the dark with the light. The subtle supernatural touches in The Elephant Man—halos and orbs, night spectacles, bewitched paintings—are motifs that repeat throughout his work. So much of The Elephant Man’s DNA is in Twin Peaks, and perhaps my favorite thing about watching it—aside from the rich blacks and grays and lights—was how much it evoked for me Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return—the best thing I saw on a screen last year.

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Lynch finds light in life’s grotesque pageant, and this strange light is what colors The Elephant Man as such an intensely meaningful film. Merrick is more than a freak, but also more than a human—Lynch refuses to show his title character’s humanity as a series of banal platitudes. Such a representation would not be true to human nature. And in the end, The Elephant Man is about human nature, or, more importantly, one real fantastic unreal human.


How I watched it: On a big TV via a streaming service, very late at night. I am indebted to the archive Film Grab as the source of the images used in this post.

19 annotations on an old review of Blade Runner 2049 (Summer Film Log)

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I recently rewatched Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) on a large television screen via a streaming service, breaking the viewing of this nearly three-hour long film into two nights.

I wrote a lengthy review of Blade Runner 2049 when it came out last year. The review ran over 3,000 words. I won’t repost all of them here, but instead quote from the review and add a few notes on the experience of a second viewing. The bits from the original review are indented, like this—

Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2017) is also a film about not knowing. 1

1 A second viewing reconfirms this thesis for me. The film’s final moments are ambiguous for the audience—does K live or not? How does Ana Stelline receive Deckard? The film consoles the anxiety of this ambiguity by giving us an image of K in pain but also in peace. K is reconciled to not knowing.

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…K is a model Nexus-9, part of a new line of replicants created by Niander Wallace and his nefarious Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto, who chews up scenery with tacky aplomb).2

2 I get what Leto was doing more on a second viewing. His highly-artificial yet often over-dramatic style is in sharp contrast to the various replicants in the film—Ryan Gosling’s K is particularly naturalistic in comparison. Leto’s Wallace is “real,” but presents as artificial. The performance worked more for me on a second viewing.

Like its prequel, Blade Runner 2049 is detective noir, and also like the original, it often doesn’t bother to clearly spell out any plot connections between cause and effect. Hell, the film employs a symbol in the form of a (literal) shaggy dog. And while BR ’49 never feels shaggy, its expansiveness, its slowness, often drag us away from the urgency of its core plot. K’s quest moves via the film’s own aesthetic energy, and the film is at its best when it lets this aesthetic energy drive its logic.3

3 The film seemed much faster-paced on a second viewing, but that is because the first viewing taught me how to view it. The greatest reward for “knowing” the contours of the plot is that one can attend better to BR ’49’s wonderful aesthetic logic.

The first two hours of BR ’49’s nearly-three-hour run glide on the film’s own aesthetic logic, which wonderfully lays out a series of aesthetic paradoxes: Blade Runner 2049 is both vast but compressed, open but confined, bright white and neon but gray black and dull. It is bustling and cramped, brimming with a cacophony of babble and deafening noise but also simultaneously empty and isolated and mute. It is somehow both slow and fast, personal and impersonal, an art film stretched a bit awkwardly over the frame of a Hollywood blockbuster.4

4 I still agree with most of this, aside from the claim that only the first two hours “glide.” The end is much stronger than I initially gave it credit for. To wit—

The commercial blockbuster touches that BR ’49 winks at early in its plot creep up in its third act. Frankly, the film doesn’t stick its ending.5

5 I was wrong. BR ’49 totally sticks the ending.

The final hour seems driven by a logic external to the aesthetic energies that drive its first two hours—a logic that belongs to the Hollywood marketplace, a market that demands resolution, backstory—more sequels! The film’s initial expansiveness and pacing condenses, culminating in a claustrophobic climax that feels forced. A few late scenes even threaten to push the plot in an entirely different direction. For example, very late in the film we’re introduced to a revolutionary resistance movement that plans to overthrow the Fascist-Police-Corporate-Dystopian-Grubs-for-Food-Farmed-by-Slaves-and-Holy-Hell-It’s-Bad-Etc.-State. The burgeoning resistance scene feels shoehorned in by some film executive who thought The Matrix sequels were a good idea. Sure, the scene does convey a crucial piece of plot information, but reader, there are other ways to achieve such ends. 6

6 While I still feel that the resistance plot is not included as gracefully as it might be, the film is already pushing towards three hours. Furthermore, the film is not about resistance—it is about K and K’s not knowing. I also no longer believe that the “claustrophobic climax” — a truly horrifying fight that takes place under threat of drowning — is forced. (Should I also admit that I had finished my second tallboy and had a terrible need to piss, which made the water-fight all the more excruciating?)

The climactic fight simply wasn’t what I was expecting. A second viewing reveals that I totally missed BR ’49’s water motif, a kind of elemental doubling of the film’s other motif of abject tears.

One prominent clue is Vladmir Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire…One string of words that K must repeat as part of his baseline test is also key to Nabokov’s novel: “A tall white fountain.” In Pale Fire, these words are of critical importance. When the poet John Shade has a transcendent near-death experience, he sees “dreadfully distinct / Against the dark, a tall white fountain.” Later, via a newspaper story, he learns about a woman who not only has a similar near-death experience, but who also glimpses the afterlife in the same way, seeing too a “tall white fountain.” However, when Shade contacts the reporter who wrote the story, he learns that “fountain” is a misprint; the woman’s original word was mountain. The difference in a single sliding phoneme, to M, is of enormous importance to Shade. …Let’s just say that the phonemic slip from to M conveys not only a symbolic connotation, but also a key plot clue.7

7  I don’t know how prominent Pale Fire is in retrospect, but it is visible. I also have no idea if Villeneuve is intentionally playing the F-M shift in the novel against the revelation of two lost children–female and male–that becomes central to K’s understanding of (not understanding) himself.

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Beyond Pale Fire, there are other literary allusions in BR ’49 worth noting… 8

8 Milton, Blake, e.e. cummingsPinocchio, and Kafka. I didn’t really spot any more on a second viewing, but I also wasn’t especially looking for any. I’m sure there are more.

In addition to its literary allusions, Blade Runner 2049 also incorporates a great number of tropes from the sci-fi films that came before it. For all its visual originality, there is very little in the film that we haven’t seen in some earlier form in another film. [However] when BR ’49 replicates old tropes it breathes new life into them, making scenes we’ve seen before look and sound wholly original.9

9 This is pretty much true.

One of the more remarkable scenes in BR ’49 is a three-way sex scene between the A.I. program-hologram Joi, her boyfriend K, and the replicant prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis). Watching the scene, it hit me that Like, hey, this isn’t even the first “three-way sex scene with A.I.” that I’ve seen. Jonze’s Her [2014] offers a far more awkward version of this scene, and (I know, arguably), Ex Machina [dir. Alex Garland, 2015] is basically one long implicit three way between its three primary characters. We seem to have birthed a new sci-fi trope, folks.10

10 I’m still not sure how to process the three-way in BR ’49, which makes it one of the most interesting scenes in the film. In a way, it doesn’t haven’t to be there for the film’s plot to make sense. And yet it points towards the kind of miracle that the replicants in the film’s backstory promise.

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The inclusion of an inorganic and bodiless A.I. also points BR ’49 into new and different territory, into realms beyond its parent film’s imagination.11

11 Villeneuve makes a number of aesthetic breaks from Ridley Scott’s original Blade Runner (1982), but the A.I. is perhaps the biggest pushback against any anxiety of influence. It’s an ingenious inclusion.

Joi’s relationship with K is heartbreaking and tender. As the emotional core of this bleak film, the connection between Joi and K is devastating (not to mention devastated by the Kafkaesque powers haunting the story). A simulacrum of “real” emotion is thus the most authentic emotional synapse in Blade Runner 2049. An epiphanic scene of Joi crying in the rain fairly early in the film telegraphs Rutger Hauer’s unforgettable death monologue from the parent film in a way that is simultaneously ironic, earnest, painful, and profound. The transcendent moment freezes and then shatters with one of the darker punchlines I’ve seen in a film in years—a voicemail. Someone’s always calling us out from our reveries into the real world12

12 I don’t really have an annotation here. I just wanted to include an image of the scene in this riff:

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[Blade Runner 2049] caters to the male gaze in an ambiguous and unsettling way. Giant naked holograms waltz across the screen, purring solid sexuality, and if their neon forms distract our boy K from the grim grey disaster of apocalyptic LA, they are also likely to captivate certain audience members’ gazes as well.13

13 I read a bunch of takes that claim that the film is sexist and I don’t really see that, but perhaps one of the constituting conditions of sexism is an inability for a consciousness to perceive its own sexism. I don’t know though.

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These spectacular but hollow holograms divert attention away from a cruel dystopian reality; they lead the male gaze away from the real story. In another surreal sequence, Villeneuve fills the screen with enormous naked female statues—naked except for their high heels, which dwarf our boy K. In BR ’49, giant naked women loom over the central protagonist, a lonely, alienated male whose authentic emotional interactions are limited to his computer.14

14 I somehow missed these giant feet on first viewing:

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In time, our male protagonist finds out that he isn’t nearly as special as he hoped he might be. His attempts at an authentic life are repeatedly thwarted by the dystopian world he lives in. Hell, he can’t even get a father figure out of this whole deal. If BR ’49 critiques the male gaze, it also simultaneously engenders and perhaps ultimately privileges it in a queasy, uncanny way.15 

15 I stand by this.

I’ve failed to remark on the many wonderful set pieces in this film—an apiary in a wasteland,16

16  What an unbeelievable scene! (I’m here all night folks).

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…a bizarre fight in a casino soundtracked by 20th-century pop holograms. The film has a weird energy, narcotic but propulsive, gritty but also informed by sleek Pop Art touches.17

17 The whole Las Vegas section of BR ’49 is utterly fantastic, its aesthetic logic doubling the film’s themes of artificiality and reality.

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Blade Runner 2049, like its parent Blade Runner, is a film about not knowing. It proffers clues, scuttles them, and casts the very notion of knowing into doubt. It’s not just the problems of knowing reality from fiction that BR ’49 addresses. No, the film points out that to know requires a consciousness that can know, and that this consciousness is the illusion of a self-originating self-presence. Hence, to live authentically, as real boys and girls, also requires that we live under a kind of radical self-doubt. The whole point of a miracle is that it suspends radical doubt and eliminates the state of radical faith that anyone believing in (even the the belief of believing in) miracles would have to have to keep believing in (even the belief of believing in) miracles. In other words, Blade Runner 2049 is a program of radical doubt|faith, a narrative that repeatedly defers the miracle it promises. This deferral points to a future, but not an endpoint, not a direct salvation. Instead we are left with our real boy K—who, yes, am I spoiling? Damn it then I spoil!—our real boy K who becomes real the moment he reconciles himself to his own ambiguous nature: to a nature of not knowing.18

18 I think all of this holds up even more on a second viewing. One thing I noticed that I didn’t catch the first time is that Blade Runner has no opening credits or title sequence—it reserves them until after the final shot.

Do watch Blade Runner 2049 in a theater on a very big screen if you can.19

19 While I’m guessing that Blade Runner 2049’s theatrical run is done for awhile, it’s the kind of film that will likely get played on the big screen again in the future. Highly recommended.