(Brief) Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 is as thought-provoking as the original and has already sent me to the Internet to test a few theories.

I think Philip K. Dick would have loved 2049, because it explores one of his signature concepts: the fake fake.

Of course, as good as 2049 is, it can’t, ah, replicate the feeling of being back in 1982, getting dazzled and mindfucked as only a sixteen year old can. I wonder what younger folks will make of it, whether it will become the film of their generation, as the original was to mine. I doubt that it will. The whole concept of a sequel is fake, and although 2049 is trying to be a fake fake, I suspect it will only succeed by a half, both for the Nexus 80s like me and for the Nexus Millennials.

“Memories. You’re talking about memories.”

I’m looking forward to seeing Blade Runner 2049 this weekend, but I’m also more haunted than ever by longing for the gone world of 1982 in which I saw the original. It’s not that the film blew my mind, exactly, but simply that it entered my mind, my life, and stayed there. It was an ever-present part of my youth.

I remember being intrigued by the trailers, but I think it was my dad who rounded us up to see the film, shortly after it came out. His New Yorker friends were in town, and I suppose he was under some pressure to show that we too had good movies despite living in provincial Baltimore. I had just gotten my learner’s permit, and so I drove everyone, in my mom’s Buick Century station wagon, to Timonium (now there’s a name with a lot of associations), where I had a little trouble parking, despite the four adults’ helpful assistance, rendered all at once. I actually don’t remember the impression the film made on me, but I was conscious that it gave the grownups something to talk about, in the Chinese restaurant to which we repaired after the film. The New Yorkers could tell right away that the voice-over didn’t really belong and must have been added in some kind of acrimonious editorial and marketing dispute.

I saw the film at least twice more during its first run, and its style, if not its substance, began to grow on me. Soon, I had selected a favorite line, the ridiculous “It’s too bright in here.” My friend George’s favorite line was “I don’t know much about bio-mechanics, Roy; I wish I did,” and actually it was George who began taking Blade Runner rather seriously. He started coming to school dressed as Deckard, with mismatching plaid shirts and ties, under a grey raincoat. When I asked him why he chose such a wardrobe, he said, “Because the word is as dark and messed up as it is in the film.” I wasn’t sure I agreed, but I had to have an opinion. Blade Runner had become such an important part of our adolescent culture that our reactions to it said a lot about our crystalizing personalities. Largely on the strength of his remark, I decided that I could not match George for pessimism, and we began drifting apart.

My relationship with Blade Runner was more intellectual than psychological. Through the Eighties, it was often shown at the Charles, invariably in a double feature with Road Warrior, and I enjoyed wondering why. Perhaps both films premised the same present from which could spring two alternate futures: one in which today’s world hardens into a dystopia (Blade Runner) or one in which it collapses into anarchy (Road Warrior). The Eighties was also the age of the VCR, and I watched Blade Runner on the little screen countless times, enough to spot details like Pris’s incept date, which was a pastime.

Then I went to Taiwan for four years, and Blade Runner stayed mostly in my mind, but it was also a point of reference for what I saw every day with my own eyes on the streets of Taipei: rainy, neon, teeming, urban labyrinths. I speculated with another American, also named George, as to how Taiwanese people would view Blade Runner. Would it look only like a day in the life of Taipei? “They can’t appreciate that the film is supposed to be a nightmare,” George said.

Back in the States, with youthful enthusiasm displaced, with a belated vengeance, by a crate-load of adult cares, I saw the 1992 director’s cut at the Uptown in DC, with friends who were four years ahead of me in their careers. I realized for the first time how beautiful the film was. The Coke commercial on the skyscraper made me cry, as did the shot of three police spinners flying abreast. Was I crying for the images or for my lost youth?

Of course by now, poised to take in the sequel, which may or may not appeal to millennials in their culture, the question is closed. I am a jowly gray-haired man.

Or maybe I just think I’m a jowly gray-haired man. What if, instead of waking up this morning, I was booted up, and all my memories of the Timonium, the New Yorkers, George, the Charles, the VCR, the Eighties, Taiwan, George, the Uptown, and my wife, children, and career are just implants, not my memories, somebody else’s?

It doesn’t matter. Either way, Blade Runner is the movie of my life. When I get to the ticket counter for the sequel, I know just what I’ll say to the poor millennial working there: “I. Want. More. Life.… Fucker.”

I’m the Anti Target Market

In general, I hold no loyalty toward any particular brand of consumer product. Anything in the store that answers my need will do.

Exceptions to this rule have proven to be unhappy ones, for whenever I discover that I am partial to a specific product, it is immediately discontinued. Some years ago, I realized I could not do without Suave dandruff control shampoo, for its low price and effectiveness in stemming not only dandruff but hair loss. I would accept no substitute; until, that is, it abruptly vanished from the supermarket shelves and never reappeared (though later there was an improved version that wasn’t as good). Saddened, I sought refuge with Suave humectant, but that’s gone now, as well.

As a sufferer of chronic allergies, I would be awakened almost nightly by an itchy nose. I tried various cold and allergy medicines, to no avail, but soon found that Contac 12-hour cold medicine did the trick. In fact, it radically improved the quality of my life, granting me a full night’s sleep and leaving me feeling magically refreshed in the morning. However, as soon as I became aware of its miraculous effect, Contact 12-hour cold medicine became extinct. I looked everywhere for it and even investigated online to learn what had happened. Apparently it was banned by the FDA for one of its ingredients.

My breakfast toast was a subject of indifference to me, although for fun I would buy whichever artisanal bread had the most artisanal-sounding name. At one point, though, the loaf of the week chanced to be Ezekiel bread, and I’d never tasted anything better. With a little butter, it was like the manna served to weary travelers in some elven sanctuary in The Lord of the Rings. I savored every slice of that loaf and enjoyed another one the following week, but on the third week, it was absent from the bread table at the _______ Market. I assumed it was sold out and went back a few days later, but again, no dice. Was Ezekiel bread a seasonal thing? I asked the staff.

“Excuse, me. You used to carry a craft bread called Ezekiel. What happened to it?”

“We still carry it. It’s in the freezer section.”

“No, I’ve seen that. That’s a national brand. It’s not the same thing, and it’s frozen. You used to bake it right here in the store. It was my favorite, and…”

“Right this way to the freezer section, sir. I’ll show you.”

“But what happened to the kind you used to bake here in the store? It was right on this table.”

“Freezer section.”

I asked the bakery manager. “Didn’t you used to carry homemade Ezekiel –”

“Freezer section.”

They deny all knowledge of Ezekiel bread, as does the staff of every other grocery store in town.

Now, the Sensor 2 razor I’ve been using for twenty years is broken, and I can’t find a suitable replacement. I’ve bought five razors in as many weeks, and their cartridges are all too broad to shave my upper lip.

Sometimes I feel that I’m the Anti Target Market. There’s a marketing manager following me around, and whenever I buy something, he determines that there can’t be much of a market for it and recommends that it be withdrawn.

It is not only in the field of consumer goods that my kiss means death. Since childhood, I have loved a certain kind of common tree that bursts forth in white blossoms in the early spring. After the invention of the internet, I thought enough about what was, I decided, my favorite tree to conduct a little research; and accordingly, I finally learned its name: the Bradford Pear. I was so pleased to know the name of something I loved that I told my friend Mark about it, as we were driving around downtown Baltimore in early spring, Bradfords blooming on either side. “You see this tree blooming all over the place, the kind I keep talking about? I finally found out what it’s called: the Bradford Pear.”

My friend Mark, to whom I’d confided my paranoid fantasy about being the Anti Target Market, turned to me with an ironic smile. “Yes,” he said. “I just read something about the Bradford Pear; and I hate to tell you this, buddy: They’re not making them anymore.”

“What! They discontinued my favorite tree?”

“I’m afraid so. The Bradford Pear is an artificial hybrid, introduced in the sixties as an urban shade tree. The problem is, it’s top-heavy. It collapses under its own weight in twenty years. So no one’s planting them anymore.”

What’s next? Calico cats?

What a lonely feeling.

 

My Views on Education

The value or benefit of an education depends upon its content. If, for example, a certain kind of education conditioned its subjects to servitude, then I would call the uneducated better off than the educated. In general, I would never deem educated people to be necessarily smarter or better than uneducated ones.

At American liberal arts colleges, students are trained in abstract or associative reasoning. Therefore, graduates of American liberal arts colleges are capable of abstract thought, and non-graduates are not. The reality was made clear to me on the day that I, a liberally-educated history professor, began lecturing my class of first-generation college students about Genghis Khan. As I explained how Genghis broke up Mongol tribes and redistributed its members among military units called hundreds, I associated his policy with that of Cleisthenes, the Athenian reformer who broke up Athenian tribes and redistributed its members among political units called demes. I was pleased with myself for having established the linkage, yet when I turned to face my class, I saw only puzzlement. They could not fathom why my lecture on the Mongols had suddenly detoured to ancient Athens. It occurred to me that they could not follow the abstraction, that to them, x would always equal x and could never equal y.  Their approach to history is “Genghis Khan was born in 1162 and died in 1227 and was a Mongolian conqueror; Cleisthenes lived from 565 to 492 BC and was an Athenian statesman” and never the twain shall meet. I tried to sever Genghis and Cleisthenes from their particular contexts and to locate their policies on higher planes of abstraction, to persuade my students that although Genghis reorganized Mongol tribes into hundreds and Cleisthenes reorganized Athenian tribes into demes, both reoriented loyalty to higher social units, both sought to replace tribal association with political. My students were polite, but it was as though the football game they were watching had been interrupted by a commercial for a product they didn’t want.

Indeed, they don’t want it. No matter how many times I’ve returned to Genghis and Cleisthenes over the years (I never give up), my attempts to place them in the same abstract category always fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, I have never been able to explain to my students the superiority or even the advantage of my abstract way of looking at history. It is not in me, however, to bewail my inability to enlighten the benighted history students of Mobile, Alabama. On the contrary, the more I’ve thought about my failure, the more I’ve come to accept the possibility that my abstract way of looking at history really isn’t superior to my students’ way and really doesn’t confer on them any advantage.

Is the abstract view necessarily the correct view? Is it possible that someone might become over-educated, so thoroughly skilled in making associations that he loses his ability to draw distinctions? Sometimes x is only equal to x. Sometimes concrete thinking is better than abstract.

Consider the intellectual Susan Sontag and her disapproval of the display of the American flag after 9/11. It seemed to me at the time that she was incapable of seeing the flag-flying as an expression of solidarity at a moment of national hurt and that she could only view it as symptomatic of a dangerous ultra-nationalism. Her perception, in other words, was determined, perhaps even limited, by her education, her ability to associate one reality with another and, perhaps, her inability to perceive the reality at hand more concretely. Many of the categorizations encouraged at our finer schools are somewhat predictable, as almost everything is associated with Nazism, sooner rather than later. If you were to show someone like Susan Sontag a Boy Scout picnic, she’d probably think she was looking at the Nuremberg rally.

My students, however, would know that it was a Boy Scout picnic, and they would be right, or at least more right than Susan Sontag. I find myself in a strange position, having more in common culturally with the Susan Sontags of the world but feeling far more trusting of my students’ common sense.

And so, for choosing a movie, a restaurant, or an Aram Khachaturian CD, I will consult someone like Susan Sontag. But for understanding what’s what, I’m going to ask my students. The intellectual doesn’t understand what’s what: He understands what something is like, because that is what he’s been trained to do. The liberally educated serve the function of alerting their fellow citizens to the unseen, but sometimes they distract their fellow citizens with visions of the unreal. There is no good reason to desire that more of our population become educated along these lines.

 

Reflections on Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove (2009)

A recent ‘History versus Hollywood’ event was a double feature of Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. I had decided on this pairing, believing that the similarity of subject matter – accidental nuclear war – would accentuate the differences in how the subject was treated. I had grown up on Strangelove and was looking forward, with much presumption, to ‘turning on a new generation.’ Fail-Safe I had never seen before and assumed to be inferior in fame and in quality to Kubrick’s masterpiece. I actually showed Fail-Safe first, intending it as a sort of warm-up act.

Fail-Safe, of course, turned out to be extremely intense and disturbing. The horrifying ending left the audience aghast and silent. The last thing I wanted to hear in the heavy aftermath was the sound of my own voice saying something like, ‘And now for something completely different,’ as I introduced Strangelove – the funny film about nuclear war – but of course I had no choice; and naturally, Strangelove’s humor fell flat. (I could almost hear Lenny Bruce saying, ‘Go ahead, follow that on,’ in his skit about a comedian whose routine is sabotaged by the previous performer’s impromptu tribute to ‘the loved ones we lost in the war.’) After Fail-Safe, Strangelove just bombed. Since ninth grade, I’d regarded it as the best and the funniest film ever made, but now, I just didn’t like it any more.

During my mental post mortem on the evening, I realized that there was more to Strangelove’s bombing than my poor decision to show it after Fail-Safe. In fact, the films represent two conflicting cultures, separated by a great geographical (and perhaps a generational) rift. The most important difference between them, in my view, is one of characterization. In Fail-Safe, the characters, both political and military, are basically honorable people, and even the callous Walter Matthau role is rational and well-meaning in his own way. In Strangelove, everyone in the film is sexually perverted and bat-shit crazy, with the implication that the political and military professions are uniquely well-suited for such people. While Stanley Kubrick and scriptwriter Terry Southern were no doubt inventing grotesques to make their satire effective, the Northern sophisticate, who relies on art to help him appreciate reality, sometimes conflates the two; and up North, in the 1980s, we took it as a given that our leaders were sickos straight from the Strangelove set. In that milieu, then, Strangelove essentially preaches to the choir. The Southerner, of course, forms very strong opinions about politicians and military people, but he is not simply amused by them, as the over-educated Northerner is. The blasé detachment afforded by Yankee schooling is the chief prerequisite for enjoying a film like Strangelove. Without it, both because Fail-Safe stripped it away and because of the Mobile, Alabama venue, our Friday double feature didn’t work.