Sunday, December 30, 2007

or, A Rick Deckard Christmas Special

I’m making my way through the Blade Runner briefcase set — a gift, literally and in every other way. As you may know, it has five discs which include every version we ever knew existed of the movie, and others most of us didn’t know existed. Plus a four-hour documentary, plus alternate and deleted scenes, plus extras, plus a plastic “Spinner” toy (that’s the exhaust-belching craft piloted by Gaff in the picture), plus a pretty little silver unicorn.

Blade Runner was always a great movie, even when it was non-definitive. But the newly-tweaked, finally-polished, now-and-forever, yes-I-really-mean-it-this-time definitive Ridley Scott cut is great without reservation or apology. Unless someone digs up archival footage of the soon-to-be-deceased Philip K. Dick performing a cameo as the God of Biomechanics, no one will assemble a better Blade Runner. Or, conceivably, a better science-fiction movie: it has the displacement, the sumptuous alienation of another world not so far removed from this, and also the open ends, the ambiguities, the unanswerable questions that move some of us to speechlessness and drive others to hair-pulling irritation, but in any case are bound to rise without contrivance from any great human story taken at its own organic pace, be that the Bible, or Hamlet, or Moby-Dick.

Last night I watched the 1982 U.S. theatrical cut (with Deckard’s painful faux-noir narration and appended happy ending) while wearing headphones. The use of phones to drink in a well-done movie mix remains an underutilized pastime, despite its readiness in the techno age. I was freshly amazed at the density of the film’s layers, the variety of tones, voices, and eerie chatter crowding its tracks. Noted these new wrinkles or previously undetected anomalies, listed in ascending order of interestingness (or descending, if you’re my opposite):

1) In the early scene of Deckard’s first meeting with Rachel, a wall-size visor lowers to filter out the glare of (artificial) sun, and — in a mere confluent uncanniness, not an articulated quotation — a swell of soundtrack music imitates the sighing synthe-vocal prelude to the Bee Gees’ “How Deep is Your Love.” The story is basically, boy loves replicant girl: how deep, indeed? (Thank you, Vangelis.)

2) The woman who delivers, at a few points, an a cappella rendering of extended musical moans in Asiatic tongue sounds quite like Björk.

3) Following his “retirement” of Zorah, Deckard, stunned and emptied by the act, escapes rain and pain at a wayside saloon, a dark hole in the sidewalk wall attended by a testy barmistress with an eyepatch. He drinks. From somewhere within the dark hole of drink originates the most incongruent, and what seems the loveliest imaginable sound — a crooner fronting a small group, singing love lyrics that in this rotten world of life-sucking neon sound as strange as a dead language of antiquity: For our love is such pain / And such pleasure / And I’ll treasure it till I die… Gaff appears, snapping his silver-handled cane, but the song continues to whisper from the hole in the wall, an epiphany deferred, a dream-voice lost: like tears in rain.

The song is “One More Kiss, Dear,” written by Vangelis and Don Percival, sung by Percival. Apparently it was created in imitation of the song that was used in earlier workprint versions of this scene — “If I Didn’t Care,” by the Ink Spots:

If this isn't love then why do I thrill?
And what makes my head go round and round
While my heart stands still?

If I didn't care, would it be the same?

4) Roy Batty crosses the room and the screen to join Pris and J.F. Sebastian, stretching his back as eggs boil and (artificial?) sunlight pours through the curtain. Sebastian is a genetic designer, a 25-year-old prematurely aged, who fills his loneliness by building friendly toys. So the apartment is full of dwarf-bots and cackling gadgets, life-machines great and small; sound of springs, cuckoos, ratchets and bells. And in the quiet morning hum of mechanical movement, there is — I could swear — the voice of a young woman, or a child, whispering a polyglot nonsense, a jumble of languages like Gaff’s Cityspeak, from which my ears could salvage only two hurried, frightened words of English: “Not yet — not yet.”

Did I hear it? It does, of course, speak to the theme of Blade Runner, or at least what is chief among its many themes: time. Time enough, are Batty’s first words; Time to die, his last. Human, and evidently replicant, consciousness opens and closes on those perceptions: as soon as we’re aware of time, we’re aware of time running out.

But still and yet — was there a voice, and did the voice say those words, or did I only fill them in? We are known, when looking at blurred or deformed images, to arrange shadows and light to make faces; do we also arrange sounds to shape words, words that will fit meaning? Of course we do, and I could put paid to the whole question by going back this second and checking. But what if I went back and didn’t hear the words — would that mean they weren’t there the first time? And if it turned out they weren’t there, would that mean they weren’t true? If I didn't care, would it be the same?

On these happy notes and gleeful conundra — Happy New Year. Resolve to listen harder for voices and songs. And join me in a special chorus of “Be My Baby” for Sandra, Ed, and their new crib-lurker, Duncan.


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