Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 (Watched It, Late October 2017)

Today is Tuesday, October 24th, 2017.

Warning: this review of Blade Runner 2049 contains spoilers.

Wet leaves are beginning to pile up, and after a brilliant fall day on Sunday, the week is shaping up to be wet, windy, and gray. I still haven’t entirely shaken this lingering sinus infection and cough, although it is almost gone.

Grace and I finally got a chance to go see the new Blade Runner movie, dubbed Blade Runner 2049. We had to sneak out to see a late show, starting at 11:20 p.m. After a half-hour of trailers, and the movie itself, which is 2 hours and 43 minutes long, we didn’t get back home until almost 3 a.m. (I’m old enough to remember when long films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is of similar length, had intermissions. Does anyone make long films with intermissions any more? Perhaps they should).

Even fortifying ourselves with hot tea, we found ourselves having a little difficulty staying focused through the last hour of the film, tending to drift into a trance-like state in which we knew that we weren’t following details as well as we could. But even in this state, we found some scenes genuinely disturbing, and had difficulty getting to sleep afterwards. So I don’t recommend that you see a late, late showing of the movie.

We first thought that our failure to remain focused was mostly the lateness of the hour, but I went to see another showing after work yesterday, while Grace and the kids were out of town; I was wide awake. And again, I felt myself zoning out a bit, and at the same points in the film. And again, I found a couple of the scenes genuinely disturbing, although I didn’t have to try to go to sleep immediately afterwards. Grace has vouchsafed to me that she continues to have difficulty sleeping since seeing the film. We both feel, to use the contemporary phrase without irony, a bit “triggered.”

The original Blade Runner is an iconic and hugely influential movie, a cult classic. Like a lot of cult classics, it is also a bit of a storytelling failure. The dystopian future it portrays, with logos of Pan Am and Atari and other dead corporations, is now in retrospect an alternate future. In this alternate future of the new film, we still have Pan Am and Atari logos, and even references to the former Soviet Union. (These are slotted in alongside obvious paid product placements for Johnnie Walker whisky in “futuristic” square bottles, and Sony electronic products that you can’t buy). The visual world-building achieved in Blade Runner is some of the best and most convincing ever achieved in science fiction cinema, if not the best, but the new film gives it a run for its money.

The noir elements in the original Blade Runner are gorgeous, especially in the cuts that eliminated the mawkish, irritating voiceover. How I despised that voice-over when I saw the film in the theater! In fact, it was Blade Runner that led me to track down and watch a number of old noir films. As in those noir films such as He Walked By Night, atmosphere and menace are everything. Character development and plot can, and often do, fall by the wayside a bit.

Blade Runner, while retaining a slow and atmosphereic mood throughout, actually devolves into a science fiction horror film reminiscent of some of the worst work of Roger Corman, in films such as Galaxy of Terror. The cameras linger on greasy, bloody, rain-drenched faces, eyeballs floating in tanks, skulls being crushed, eyeballs being gouged out, blood spraying, bones breaking, and nails stabbing through hands. The climax is a seemingly interminable cat-and-mouse chase scene with plenty of cheap jump scares. The romance, between Deckard and Rachael, is portrayed darkly, with little chemistry, and a scene that feels in 2017 like we are watching a date rape; it raises the question of whether a slave, fleeing her master and evading the police by sleeping with a cop, has the option not to consent to sex. In the Director’s Cut there is no happy, or even happier, ending; no one is really redeemed, except when their hands are washed clean by death.

And yet, the original is still a fascinating, messy film, bringing up more questions than it answers, and giving generations of film students a chance to bring their own critical perspectives to slice and dice it.

What’s New

Blade Runner 2049 is set in a world that is even more decrepit and damaged and locked-down. It takes many of the most iconic settings and visuals of the original and references them again, but nearly in isolation. The world of this film is paradoxically closer to the world described in Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, while the story is entirely extrapolated, not adapted from anything Dick wrote — at least, not in the novel.

While the world Blade Runner was cluttered and filthy, the relative simplicity and cleanliness of many of the scenes in this new sequel means that the symbolic meaning is often much more clearly present in the foreground, the characters on a clean canvas among the radioactive dust. The new film is even slower than the original, and even slower than director Denis Villeneuve’s majestic Arrival, a better film.

Villeneuve in this movie sets up a number of parallels and easter eggs and bread crumbs. To the extent that they work and the reader can follow them, the movie succeeds. To the extent that they don’t, and actions taken literally build up and become numbing, the movie fails. And so on the whole, the film is, like the original, a fascinating near-success, with elements of greatness.

The Performances

If there are any awards to hand out for this film, and I think there may be, they will be for the acting and the design aspects of the film, such as sets and costumes, not for the film as a whole. It will not win Best Picture.

Ryan Gosling is amazing in this film, and gives a very understated performance. His affect is so muted, most of the time, that when he betrays a feeling, through the smallest twitch of an eye or tilt of his head, we feel it. The three primary supporting actresses, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, and Robin Wright all turn in excellent performances as well. Hoeks as Luv is especially creepy and compelling.

I do feel the need to call out one performance that is memorable — but memorably bad. Jared Leto is certainly creepy as Wallace, with his cloudy eyes and strange line readings. He speaks slowly and emphatically like a preacher reading a bible lesson. I found it hard to convince myself, even temporarily, that he could be real, even in the movie’s world.

I’m not quite sure whether the actor or the director deserves more blame for his performance. In the original Blade Runner, Joe Turkel played Dr. Eldon Tyrell, who seemed very convincing as the affable but cold-blooded technocrat, living in his Egyptian pyramid, staying up late to manage his investments, blinking at the world through heavy trifocal glasses. It’s an odd affectation in a world where one of his suppliers grows eyes in tanks, perhaps indicating his moral blindness, and it is significant that Roy, who tells us “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe,” blinds Tyrell before killing him.

Blade Runner 2049 apparently runs with this theme, making Wallace completely blind, emphasizing the idea that he is the successor to the blinded Tyrell. Wallace can see the world only through technology. That’s also perhaps an interesting choice, but I dislike the way his visibly opaque eyes are made an object of horror. Blindness as object of horror, and blind person as psychopath, are products of lazy, low-effort screenwriting. Apparently with those contacts, the actor Leto really couldn’t see at all on the set. I guess that sounds impressive — what great lengths he went to for his art! But I can’t help but think of Alec Guiness playing the butler Bensonmum in Murder by Death. He didn’t need anything like that at all.

The Music

Before I dive into the story, I want to comment on the music, and its relationship to the music of the original. The original score, by Vangelis, remains one of my favorite examples of film music. It’s gorgeous, ethereal, and moving. It covers many moods and many styles, bringing in real instruments such as piano and saxophone, while returning to a series of motifs played on brassy synthesizers. I often listen to it on headphones just for the music, as I do with other great scores, such as Howard Shore’s extended scores for the Lord of the Rings films.

The new score gets the “brassy synthesizers” part right. It contains many little bits of sounds that are very reminiscent of the original film. But everything is amped up, and those synthesizer are now producing new sounds designed to shake your seats. There aren’t a lot of melodies, or even motifs; a lot of the new score consists of repetitive noodling, between the big “braaam” sounds that fill the theater when those incredible flying cars are landing. And honestly, with a full THX sound system running, those sounds get fatiguing.

What’s a “braaam” sound? See this article, subtitled “how a horn sound ate Hollywood.” Similar waveforms have been used recently in Transformers and District 9 and Inception and, and, and, and… and now Blade Runner 2049. This should tell you just about everything you need to know about how original and interesting the score seems in context, which is to say, “not very.” It works well as background sound, but I will not be purchasing the soundtrack album.

The Story

K, played by Ryan Gosling, doesn’t actually have a name but a serial number, KD6–3.7. He is Nexus–9 replicant, a product of the Wallace Corporation, a later version of the Nexus–6 replicants, made by the Tyrell Corporation, that Deckard struggles to kill in the original Blade Runner. The Nexus–6 replicants were an evolutionary improvement over previous models — like Steve Austin’s Six Million Dollar Man, better, faster, and stronger. But they threatened the status quo because they were capable of learning emotional responses, which could make them undetectable by the Voight-Kampff test. The Nexus–9 models have been created to be more obedient, but apparently they have their own problems — they are capable of developing disloyal feelings, and so must be rigorously and frequently tested, to verify that their emotional responses remain unchanged, “at baseline.”

As the story opens, K is dozing, his flying car on autopilot, traveling into the grim hinterlands, to investigate a lead about a missing Nexus–8, Sapper Morton. He finds an enormous, dour, grizzled man working to raise, in a plastic-tarped greenhouse, grubs that look like giant, bloated versions of the things you might find eating the roots of your lawn. A dead tree, anchored in place by cables, stands on the property. Morton is a former military medic, on earth illegally. In a brutal fight, K retires him, but not before Morton tells him that he is “happy scraping the shit, because you’ve never seen a miracle.”

Leaving the property, K notices a tiny flower left at the base of the tree. He investigates the property using his floating drone’s ground-penetrating radar. Buried beneath the dead tree is some kind of trunk. K reports in to his supervisor, Lieutenant Joshi, and heads back to police headquarters, to undergo his screening. Like the Voight-Kampff, it’s a test of reaction time and emotional response. But unlike the original test, K must repeat words spoken to him, rapid-fire. In this case, some of the words were taken from a verse in Nabokov’s novel Pale Fire:

And blood-black nothingness began to spin
A system of cells interlinked within
cells interlinked within cells interlinked
within one stem. And dreadfully distinct
Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

This is a beautiful, disturbing choice, and evocative of K’s artificial origin, as cells grown within the one “stem” of the Wallace corporation.

Howard Hawks defined a good movie as “three great scenes, no bad ones.” This early scene is one of a number of great scenes in Blade Runner 2049. K pases his test, and is granted his bonus for retiring a replicant.

In the Future, Even the Slaves Will Have Slaves

K is a slave, entirely beholden to Joshi; it is suggested in one scene that Joshi may have used him as her sexual plaything, and may wish to do so again. But intriguingly, K himself has a slave, of sorts, of his own: a holographic replica of a woman, Joi, another product of the Wallace corporation, designed to be his companion and to cater to his every emotional whim.

But Joi, though she seems sentient, is a computer program connected to a holographic projector, and can only exist inside K’s apartment, within range of the projector built into the ceiling. With his bonus, K buys her a gift: an “emanator,” a pocket-sized device, like a television remote control or cell phone. With the emanator, connected via antenna to the console in his apartment, K is able to carry Joi with him, and project her anywhere. She also apparently has some volition and control over her on/off switch, and is able to turn herself on and listen in on his conversations.

Meanwhile, the investigation continues. The buried trunk is dug up opened and inside is found a set of bones. The bones are those of a woman. Minutely examined, the bones give up their secrets — she died in childbirth, and tiny scrapes on her bones indicate that the child was rescued by Caesarean section. As the eye of the scanner zooms in, we find in her bones a tiny serial number. The woman was a replicant, and yet became pregnant. In the original novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Rachael mourned her sterility, and in this world, a fertile replicant is supposed to be entirely impossible.

K travels to the Wallace Corporation headquarters. The Wallace Corporateion retains the records of the Tyrell Corporation, although they are fragmentary, damaged thirty years earlier in an event called the “Blackout.” The Blackout, not explained in detail, destroyed almost all information stored “on drives,” and so was probably an electro-magnetic pulse caused by the detonation of a nuclear device that left Las Vegas a deserted ruin.

At Wallace headquarters, K meets Luv, Wallace’s female replica assistant, who takes an interest in him. We learn eventually that the replicant who became pregnant was Rachael, Deckard’s lover from the first movie, a replicant who didn’t know that she was a replicant, but who believed herself to be Tyrell’s niece.

A Pentacle of Jealousy and Violence

So, just to review, we now have Luv, Joi, and Joshi, all with an interest of some kind or another in K. We also meet sex worker Mariette, who looks a bit like Pris in the original movie, although she is ultimately revealed to be far kinder than Pris. Mariette is directed to investigate K by a shadowy female figure. And so K has to navigate a difficult path around four women of one sort or another, two apparently human, one clearly a replicant, and one something even more humble than a replicant.

K’s heart is clearly with the meekest and most giving of them all, Joi. Joi invites Mariette to collaborate with her on an evening of pleasure for K; as she has no body, she cannot touch him. But with Mariette “wearing” her projected image like a second skin, she can, in a way, make love to K. This is a spooky and beautiful scene, ground-breaking in its special effects, and ought to count as another of the film’s great scenes, although it will certainly provide plenty of fodder for debate in gender studies classes for generations to come.

For in its treatment of these female characters the film gets, frankly, quite dark and quite ugly. There’s a very disturbing scene, which feels gratuitous, misogynistic, and uninvited, even on a second viewing. Wallace, though blind, inspects a new model of replicant, while Luv looks on. The female replicant is unceremoniously dumped from a plastic bag, as Luv watches, shedding a tear as the newborn replicant, covered with some kind of protective orange pseudo-amniotic grease, gasps for her first breath in a quivering, terrorized heap.

Wallace talks about how, even brand-new, the “clay” — evoking Genesis — feels fear. Does Luv cry, I wonder, because she remembers that feeling of fear?

Wallace drones on about how he can’t create fertile replicants. And even as he refers to the new replicant as an “angel,” he kisses her on the mouth, and then with a scalpel viciously slices open her belly, opening her empty womb in symbolic imitation of Rachael’s Caesarean surgery, and leaving her to silently bleed to death, as Luv looks on impassively. Was this murder solely to terrorize her?

To Howard Hawks, a good director as “someone who doesn’t annoy you.” This scene is damned annoying. And although on my second viewing I was able to understand how the scene fits into the symbolic repetition of events, that doesn’t make it feel any more right.

In the original Blade Runner there is, to the best of my recollection, nary a blade to be found. But in the new one Villeneuve has taken the word “blade” literally and armed three characters with nasty little knives. Morton pulls a knife on K, but fails to do too much damage. Luv replicates Wallace’s attack on the unnamed female replicant twice, viciously slashing open Joshi’s belly, and she attempts the same move on K, kissing him and then slashing his belly, although she fails to kill K immediately. And the parallel nature of these scenes really don’t quite work without careful reflection; in the moment, the first still feels like something not just from a horror movie, but from a low-grade slasher film.

And days later, I still find myself wondering “why?” And if Wallace wanted to inspect the new product line, what was the result? Is Luv supposed to ship ’em, or pulp ’em?

Like the Corners of My Mind

As in Blade Runner, some of the key questions in the film turn on memories, and whether they are real, experienced naturally in real time, taken from someone else and implanted, or entirely synthesized and implanted. K is deceived, and this is one of the more brilliant, and complex, aspects of the screenplay. K retains a childhood memory — he owns a small wooden statue of a horse, inscribed on the base with a date.

K, knowing that he is a replicant who has spent his whole life in slavery, believes that this childhood memory is a fully synthetic implant. He relates it to Joshi, when she orders him to. But when K returns to Sapper Morton’s farm and he discovers the same date carved on the base of the dead tree, in memoriam to Rachael’s death day and the lost child’s birthday, he comes to suspect that the memory is real, and that it actually happened to him. Thus he believes then he must be the lost child, the “miracle.” Joi tells him that she knew he was special: “born, not made” (a reference to the Nicene Creed), and a “real boy” (a reference to Pinnochio). And when he discovers the horse statue exactly where he remembers putting it, many years earlier, he is both thrilled and terrified because it feels like confirmation of both his worst fear, and his most private hope.

But it isn’t to be. The viewer, before K, comes to understand that the implantation of the memory was part of a conspiracy, and that the sex worker Mariette knows of the memory. Is Mariette actually a replicant, working with the shadowy replicant uprising? Or a human collaborator? We don’t know for sure. And we don’t know for sure whether the memory was ever part of a real, lived human experience, or entirely manufactured. Later, K comes to understand that the memory is not his at all, and he has to give up the illusion that he was both terrified by, and longed to embrace.

Eventually, in the ruins of Las Vegas, we meet Deckard, the eponymous blade runner of the earlier film. Harrison Ford, with his star power, plays a relatively minor role in this film, and even when he speaks, he is extremely taciturn. He complements, but does not overshadow, Gosling’s role.

The Death of a Woman

There’s a lot going on in the film, and there are more great scenes. I’m not going to spool out the whole plot, but there are more disarming, unnerving, deeply Philip K. Dick-ian moments. K investigates the records of births from 30 years earlier, trying to find a clue as to the fate of Rachael’s child.

With electronic records destroyed in the Blackout, DNA records survive only on microfiche. K has to scan through the manually, relying on his superior replicant memory and pattern-matching to look for anomalies. This is actually ridiculous — a human genome contains approximately 3 billion base pairs. I did not count the letters on the microfiche pages, but let’s say that each can hold 100 lines by 100 columns, or about 10,000 characters, representing 5,000 base pairs. Six hundred thousand of these microfiche pages would be required to encode the full genome of a single person. But never mind — this implausible mixture of low tech and high tech is very, very Dickian.

Scanning the images rapidly, K discovers an anomaly — two records are duplicates, but one is for a boy, and one a girl. This is a medical impossibility, suggesting that a record of a deceased girl — she died of the fictional “Galatians syndrome” — was copied to create a record for a boy. K, with this information, comes to believe that he might be that boy, the replicant child — the “miracle” which could “break the world” and bring about, as Joshi warns him, a war, or a slaughter. But as with all clues in the film, we have to be wary of disinformation.

The reference to Galatians is a bread crumb. Galatians 1:6–9 reads (in the ESV text):

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.

This is a warning to K that he must beware of a false “angel” — and here it is significant that Wallace says to Luv “you really are the best angel,” and that in the climactic fight scene she tells K “I’m the best one!” But it’s also a warning about a “false gospel” — the implanted memory.

But there’s more in Galatians: it also tells us that two of the “fruits of the spirit” are — wait for it — joy, and love. But despite what Corinthians tells us, Luv is neither patient, nor kind, although Joi is. Here we have, in this world, a trick of perversity, in which a sex worker and a sex toy are more virtuous than love itself.

This is one of the best scenes in the film, but it gives you an even more special frisson if you know something of Philip K. Dick’s life story. Dick himself was a twin. He and his twin sister Jane were born six weeks early. Philip survived, and his twin sister died, only 41 days old. This experience profoundly influenced Philip. In his Exegesis, a sort of huge, free-form journal of philosophy and theology, Dick wrote:

The changing information which we experience as world is an unfolding narrative. It tells about the death of a woman. This woman, who died long ago, was one of the primordial twins. She was half of the divine syzygy. The purpose of the narrative is the recollection of her and of her death. The Mind does not wish to forget her. Thus the ratiocination of the Brain consists of a permanent record of her existence, and, if read, will be understood this way. All the information processed by the Brain — experienced by us as the arranging and rearranging of physical objects — is an attempt at this preservation of her; stones and rocks and sticks and amoebae are traces of her. The record of her existence and passing is ordered onto the meanest level of reality by the suffering Mind which is now alone.

This synecdoche — in which the events of Dick’s early life echo the unforlding theology and cosmology of his whole world — was everything to Dick, and influenced much of his writing.

This new story, also, is about the death of a woman — of the replicant Rachael, her bones organized neatly in the footlocker ossuary. The dim, noir-ish scenes shot inside the Wallace Corporation headquarters look as if they could have taken place in the massive funerary space of an Egyptian pyramid, or a Mayan ziggurat. But in Villeneuve’s disturbing portrayal, it’s not just about the memorialization of a woman, but about her near-complete erasure.

A Little Respect (Please)

In the film’s creepiest moment, another great scene, Deckard is tempted by Wallace with the restoration of his lover. It doesn’t quite make sense, given the loss of information from the Blackout, but Wallace has made a new Rachael. And suddenly she is there, walking out of the darkness, asking Harrison Ford “did you miss me?” and, miserably abasing herself before him, “don’t you love me?”

Ford is unnerved, as is the audience, because Sean Young did not appear as herself in the film. Her younger face was re-created, digitally, with stand-ins for her bodily movements and voice. Ford, the actor, and Deckard, character, possibly a replicant, has aged — but Rachael II has not, being a newly-made thing, forever Young. We don’t learn her age in the original movie, but in Dick’s book, Rachael is just 18. She is a carrot to motivate Deckard — tell us everything you know about the fate of the child, says Wallace, and we won’t take you off-world to torture you endlessly in some off-world Abu Ghraib, but instead, here! You can have your girlfriend back! But women aren’t allowed to grow old in Hollywood.

Deckard, wisely, is having none of it, and tells Wallace “her eyes were green.” This isn’t necessarily true — Sean Young had brown eyes in the original, while in an apparently continuity error, her eye on the Voigt-Kampff display apparatus appears green. (This world can’t even make the most basic facts easy). But Deckard knows that Rachael cannot come back and this new replicant can never be the Rachael he knew, and he also knows, or at least I hope he knows, that he is not his younger self, and so cannot have the same relationship with Rachael II.

Wallace knows this as well, because his Rachael II lacks the “miracle” of the original; she is sterile. Wallace knows he can’t create a fertile replicant, he believes, without studying the child. After Deckard rejects her, Luv, obeying the smallest nod from Wallace, immediately shoots Rachael II in the head.

This is another deeply disturbing move, the destruction of a commodity, not a person — echoing Wallace’s destruction of the unnamed female replicant, and echoed later by Luv’s casual, unnecessary destruction of the harmless Joi, just to torment K. To Wallace, one of his “angels” — an elevated being — is to him, despite his high-flown language, really no more of a person than one of his more debased, fully-electronic sex-toy creations.

Male Mothers

The film is also about the myth of male mothers, in which men wish to “steal valor” from mothers by claiming the ability to create life themselves. It’s an old, old trope. Athena sprang from the head of Zeus, after Zeus swallowed Metis and her unborn child. Metis was erased, as Rachael was erased, her child disappeared, but something more eventually came of them, imagined as a form of male motherhood.

Wallace didn’t erase Rachael the first time, as damaged records survive in the archives of the Tyrell Corporation, but he can do so now, and he wants her child, so that he can create new life from them, from his head — his relentless intelligence. Wallace wants to populate not just nine worlds with the Nexus–9, but to fill the space between the stars. He can’t do it by manufacturing replicants. They must be able to reproduce. This explains, perhaps, just a bit, his rage against the unnamed female replicant’s womb.

But K also imagines, led by his falsified memories, that he might be the miracle child, who holds the genetic key to replicant reproduction, and so in a sense the male matriarch of a future race of replicants. It’s not a comforting thought because he knows that if this is true, the authorities will want nothing more than to erase him utterly, leaving no trace of his existence, while Wallace will want nothing more than to dissect him. Either scenario is the end of K. But it would give his life meaning to have a mother, to be a “real boy,” to have a soul.

Instead, he is told by the resistance leader Freysa that he is not the miracle child. He is nearly undone by this loss. But he now knows that the child must be Ana, the woman who creates memories — and who gave him another bread crumb, when she told him that there was a little bit of herself in the memories that she creates. Ana, left in a literal bubble of sterility since childhood, is the miracle, who harbors the secret of replicant fertility. This leaves a lot of unanswered questions. Is she really immune-compromised, forced to live in “sterility?” Or was that also a protective lie? Was Ana really raised in the electronics reclamation facility with the other boys? Does she remember this? Or was that memory entirely falsified? And if it was, why were the records there destroyed, or was that a false bread crumb?

In a final act of disobedience — he has come a long way since his “baseline” — K delivers Deckard to Ana, and dies of Luv’s slash to his belly, the visceral repudiation of his hoped-for motherhood. Like all men, he must content himself as best he can, transcending his servile drone existence through the pursuit of love — Luv — whom he had to drown. With no Joi, and no love, K dies. But at least Deckard, date-rapist and absentee father, gets to meet his daughter. It’s not exactly a happy ending, but K does die free.

Other than That, How as the Play, Mrs. Lincoln?

This review on Vox makes an excellent point when it says “the film has big ideas, but not enough clarity around them.”

The themes in this film, unlike in Arrival, sag under the weight of the unrewarded slow movement, the preoccupation and even infatuation with the look of things (snow falling, holograms, the LA streets) that the original Blade Runner never indulged to such an obvious extent.

And in addition, Blade Runner 2049 fails the Howard Hawk test, because it does have bad scenes: bad, as in troubling, horrifying, and to me, not justifiable by their contribution to the larger story arc.

Wallace can’t manufacture replicants fast enough to keep up with demand, and yet he murders one with the sole aim, apparently, of setting up later scenes in the film. Rachael II apparently can’t be considered fit for any other purpose. It strains credibility, and reeks of the casual violence against women that make up slasher movies. Plenty of male replicants are killed, but they usually die quickly, double-tapped. I really didn’t need to see Luv drowned, in real-time, in a scene that seems to take forever. Not all the death scenes are horrible, or feel gratuitous — Joshi dies bravely. But too many of the deaths — and there are a lot of them — feel like torture.

Blade Runner 2049 does have at least three great scenes, and perhaps more, and its world is a beautiful and horrifying world. But it takes too long to tell its story.

Sean Young apparently participated in the making of the film, in a way. Her name is in the credits. But as I watch, I can’t help but wonder how the actress, who is now 57 years old (while Harrison Ford is 75), might feel upon watching the finished film. Is she troubled by the way her character’s story emerges, and how it is revealed that her character died and was nearly erased, deliberately, for the sake of her child?

Deckard can barely bring himself to speak Rachael’s name; he does not do so until very late in the film. Although it is touching, perhaps, to see that he has kept her picture.

How would Young feel, watching, as Rachael is made to reappear, reanimated, again as a slave, to plead for Deckard’s love, only to be shot in the head, killed instantly, execution-style, erased again, leaving only the faint hope that her name might be remembered again, by insurgent replicants and her “miracle” daughter, in a sequel?

Let’s remember that this is fiction, and the screenwriters and producers have had 35 years to come up with something better to do with Rachael, whose “love scenes” with Deckard in the original remain painfully uncomfortable to watch. Was this really the best they could do?

And I wonder, as we all get worked up about the Harvey Weinstein story and the women in our lives reporting “me too,” if those screenwriters and producers ever gave what they were doing a second thought. Did they have any empathy at all, for Rachael, and for Young?

Brilliant. Beautiful. Puzzling. Troubling.

It’s a stunning film, but usually when you say that about a movie, it’s not because you actually feel like you received a head injury while watching it. Unlike Arrival, Blade Runner 2049 left me injured, and numbed, as if one of the blades sliced into my guts as well. The puzzles are fascinating; I have been thinking about them for days. But if the moral weight of a film is put on the scale to determine, in part, its ultimate success or failure, this sequel’s brutality towards not just the characters but towards the audience itself has to count for something.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
October 24th, 2017

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Read It, October 2017

Today is Monday, October 9th, 2017.

The leaves are beginning to fall and the weather is really getting comfortable. In a few days Grace and I will celebrate our sixteenth wedding anniversary. This month three of our children have birthdays, two on the same day. I’ve had some kind of lingering cold or sinus infection that is leaving me tired and listless and slightly feverish. Usually when I finally give in and go to a doctor, the doctor examines me and says “well, it doesn’t look that serious; your lungs are clear. I’d say just get some extra rest and fluids and give it a few more days.” I don’t want to take rounds of antibiotics if my condition isn’t actually life-threatening, in part because oral antibiotics just often don’t really work that well for sinus infections.

I tried the “getting some extra rest” thing this weekend. Grace and the kids picked up a lot of the slack when I wasn’t cooking or doing dishes. That was nice. I did get a little more rest than usual. But I just find it really hard to nap with any noise happening at all. This means, basically, that I can rarely really get a nap, even if I desperately need one, when the kids are home. Nearly fasting, and drinking a lot of hibiscus tea with honey, helped. As did a little whiskey. A good peaty Islay scotch seems to be at least as effective for a sinus infection as an over-the-counter cold medicine, if not more.

Yesterday’s Pottscast turned out to be more work than we planned. Grace and I recorded a long chat — almost two hours. Because, apparently, I was not as alert as I usually am, I managed to merely imagine that I got Logic to start recording. Instead, it was playing. So Grace and I spoke while the computer looked like it was recording, and we listened to our monitor mix. The computer didn’t record anything at all.

Later in the evening we basically staged the whole conversation again upstairs, in our bedroom, using a portable recorder. I think we got just about everything out that we said originally, although I was noticeably tired and hoarse.

I still have something like six or seven blogs. Every once in a while, I consider deleting one or two of them completely. But then I get a comment on something I wrote years ago, and it’s a real comment, not spam. So I reconsider.

I’ve been chipping away at a number of different books, in my usual disorganized way. But first I want to mention that we watched Doctor Strange (the 2016 movie).

Doctor Strange

I was never a big comics fan, although I used to read my stepbrother’s leftover comics, back in the late 1970s to early 1980s. I vaguely remember Doctor Strange as, well, strange (go figure), in that he explicitly used magic and sorcery, instead of vague science-based powers and abilities.

The movie comes very close to being very good. At no point is it really a bad movie, and it scores a lot of points for outlandish visuals (although, it seems to me, sometimes quite derivative of the effects in Inception). It’s also quite funny in places. Strange is an arrogant young doctor, a neurosurgeon. After a terrible car accident, Strange has surgery that repairs most of the visible damage to his hands. But he has damage to the nerves that leaves them weak and trembling. Trying to save his career, he travels to Nepal, hoping to find a way to restore his hands. He’s following a lead — his physical therapist knew of a man with a severe spinal cord injury traveled to Nepal and found a way to restore his ability to walk, and even to play basketball.

Strange is a materialist and an atheist, but when he meets the “Ancient One” (Tilda Swinton), she punches him right in the chakras so hard that his astral body blasts out of his material body, and he finds himself staring down at himself in shock. Then she opens his third eye, and it’s an acid trip on the screen. Strange wants to blame it on the tea, or a drug, but he can’t; he’s just been shoved through a door into the undeniable knowledge that the universe is stranger than he could have imagined. And so he flips immediately from a materialist atheist to a mystic who wants to master it all, as quickly as possible.

Swinton is quite good (although an odd casting choice). I agree with the filmmakers who, in interviews, noted that since the original characters were often based on very negative Asian stereotypes (“Fu Manchu” and “Dragon Lady” tropes), they were afraid of being accused of racism for re-creating any of those characters. Instead, they chose whitewashing. I’m not sure this was the best way to navigate that particular minefield, but I am glad that the Asian characters are, at least for the most part, free of these stereotypes.

The weaknesses of this movie have little to do with the visuals and acting, and everything to do with the screenplay. The film feels a little long, but it feels long because by the halfway point, we’re able to guess how it all will end. The symbols are pretty heavy-handed. There’s a scene where Strange breaks into the library of forbidden sorcery books, and as he pulls down the forbidden book, he takes a bite of an apple and places it on a desk, center-screen. It doesn’t take an English degree to realize that he is eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, and what will happen next. I actually stopped the movie here and explained to my kids this symbol and its significance, and told them “by the way, here’s what’s going to happen next.” I explained, based on the setup so far, who would die, how the plot lines would play out, and where the various relationship issues would end up. I took no great joy in being right. If it had been a better movie, I would have been guessing right up to the end. That predictability, together with a number of characters one doesn’t really feel all that interested in, make the movie feel longer than it is.

Angelica Jade Bastien has a review here on rogerebert.com. She makes a number of good points in her review. She writes:

One of the most glaring sins of “Doctor Strange” is how quickly Strange masters magic. There isn’t much tension in his arc. While he struggles briefly at first to keep up with other students The Ancient One has taken under her care, he’s soon stealing sacred books out from under Wong (Benedict Wong), the sharp-eyed master who protects the texts at The Ancient One’s behest. Strange plays by his own rules, growing far beyond the skills of those around him. He even goes as far as bending time, secretly reading from forbidden texts and wielding the Eye of Agamotto. When Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) remarks that Strange seems destined for this, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. Of course he was.

Bastien also points out that Swinton’s character “seems to be from another film entirely — one that would truly embrace the weirdness of the premise beyond the trippy visual effects.” Yes — I’d like to see that movie.

There is the promise of at least one sequel. I enjoyed this one enough that I would probably go see that sequel on the big screen.

On a final technical note: I watched this movie on a Blu-ray disc, playing the audio through an old Onkyo receiver into a pair of bookshelf speakers. This was a mistake. The audio track contains a huge amount of low-frequency energy — when the sorcerors fire off magic spells, the audio is made to show off the gut-shaking capacity of a movie theater’s THX sound system. My poor speakers looked like they were going to fire their woofers across the room, and the thundering sub-bass frequencies came out sounding like a wet fart.

I’m not quite sure how to fix this — maybe I needed to set the Blu-ray player to play the stereo track instead of the 5.1 track? My Blu-ray player doesn’t seem to have an option to apply a high-pass filter to the audio output. Maybe I need to protect the speakers with a capacitor network that rolls off low frequencies.

In any case, be cautious if you are going to listen to this movie on ordinary stereo speakers. You might well blow them. Mine are still working, but one sounds a bit damaged, and may not be long for this world.

Alastair Reynolds

I picked up a copy of Alastair Reynolds’ story collection, Deep Navigation. This is a lesser-known story collection, available only in a NEFSA (New England Science Fiction Association) Press printing. I ordered a used copy from Alibris, and it arrived damaged, shipped only in a plastic bag. This always enrages me — the whole book was bent, as if someone placed it across a gap between two chairs, and stood on it. It is still readable, but why couldn’t the seller ship it with a little more protection? (Cost, of course).

But anyway, how is it?

So far it is confirming my initial guess — that this collection represents the bottom of the barrel of Reynolds’ output, and is for dedicated fans only.

The first story, “Nunivak Snowflakes,” involves a teenager with an artificial arm who can do healing magic, and receives strange messages on pieces of paper inside fish that fall from the sky. After a weird setup like this, and the introduction of several intriguing characters, I was ready for a surreal novella. But this is only a short story, and next to nothing happens before the story abruptly ends. This was his first published story and it shows — the setup is imaginative, but he didn’t really build it into anything.

The next one, “Monkey Suit,” fits more-or-less into the Revelation Space universe. It’s a decent enough story, a little creepy. It reminds me of the Doctor Who two-parter, “Silence in the Library” and “Forest of the Dead.” I can see why it was left of of other collections that contained Revelation Space stories, though — it’s just not quite strong enough, or dark enough, to fit in with the other RS material.

“The Fixation” again has a fascinating setup involving the restoration of the Antikythera mechanism, and some mumbling about quantum mechanics and the many-worlds hypothesis, but then, like “Nunivak Snowflakes” it ends, without ever really getting the story arc to, well, arc up off the ground. It’s another atmospheric disappointment. Honestly, it probably should have stayed on his hard drive until he found a way to flesh it out.

I’ll continue, but so far what I’ve read is largely discouraging, so I may not even keep this book in my permanent collection. And I’ll be hesitant in the future to buy any special limited editions released by NEFSA Press. Sometimes unpublished material really is unpublished for good reasons.

The Compleat Enchanter

This volume collects three novellas, collaborations between L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, with the first two stories dating back to 1940. Stylistically, they feel a bit dated at times — an unmistakeable ambient sexism flows through them. But they are also quite funny, and I can detect a very strong through-line between these stories and the writing of contemporary authors such as Jim Butcher. They are sort of a hybrid between low fantasy and high fantasy, and the bridge between the two levels, that keeps the conceit working, is their humor.

I think Heinlein may have had homage to de Camp and Pratt in mind when he created The Number of the Beast In that book (not Heinlein’s finest, but an interesting failure), there is a finite, but very large, number of universes, some of which closely match the worlds sketched in famous science fiction and fantasy stories — for example, Oz, Barsoom, and Pellucidar — and some don’t. In Heinlein’s story a technological device is used to travel between universes.

In de Camp and Pratt’s formulations, the original authors of myths and legends were so crazy that their brains ran on alternative logic, so their minds could “jump the tracks” to these next-door universes and experience these alternate realities. Harold Shea learns to travels to parallel universes via a “syllogismobile,” not really a vehicle, but a mathematical model of the rules of these alternate realities, which he simply studies. Each of the universes in question embodies a literary world.

In “The Roaring Trumpet,” Shea sets out to enter the world of Irish myth, but makes a mistake, and winds up in a world of Norse myth, while the gods get ready for Ragnarok. The gods are real, and very powerful, and very dangerous, and the humans live in uneasy alliance with them, trying to avoid getting trampled. It’s a greasy, cold place:

The meal consisted of various meats, with beside them a big slab of bread, looking as though it had been cut from a quilt. There was no sign of knife, fork, or any vegetable element. The meat he picked up rather gingerly was apparently a boiled pork chop, well-cooked and well-seasoned. But as he was taking the second bite, he noted that the shield girl, Aud, was was still standing beside him.

As he looked round Aud made a curtsey and said rapidly: “Lord, with this meal as with all things, your wishes are our law. Is there aught else that you desire?

Shea hesitated for a moment, realizing it was a formula required by politeness and that he should make some remark praising the food. But he had had a long drink of potent mead on an empty stomach. The normal food habits of an American urged him to action.

“Would it be too much to ask whether you have any vegetables?” he said.

For one brief second both the girl and Thjalfi stared fit him. Then both burst, into shrieks of laughter, Aud staggering back toward the wall, Thjalfi rolling his head forward on his arms. Shea sat staring, red with embarrassment, the half-eaten chop in his hand.

There are quite a few funny scenes, and the story moves along quickly. This is a world of magic. But while some fantasy authors lazily use magic as a generic plot device, capable of doing anything that is needed at any time, “playing tennis with the net down,” de Camp and Pratt set themselves the challenge of trying to come up with a magic that is not just a set of recipes and spells to learn, but which has rules, that the characters can learn and exploit to create the effects that they desire. For example:

“The law of similarity may be stated thus: Effects resemble causes. It’s not valid for us, but primitive peoples firmly believe it. For example, they think you can make it rain by pouring water on the ground with appropriate mumbo jumbo.”

The first novella moves along quite speedily, but the authors were writing a novella, and were not interested in the challenge of portraying Ragnarok to the bitter end. So, wisely, they end the story, and pull the fish-out-of-water Shea back to his own world before he gets himself killed.

In the next novella, “The Mathematics of Magic,” Shea travels with his colleague, Chalmers, to the world of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (an epic English poem from 1590 which, sadly, I have not read). Chalmers takes to magic like a fish to water, and actually likes life as a magician in the land of faerie more than life as an elderly psychologist in New England. And Chalmers is quite powerful, as a magician, although apparently one must learn how to carefully calibrate spells, or they can easily produce results that are multiple powers of ten bigger, or smaller, than expected. When Chalmers summons a dragon, he and Shea are delighted to find that the spell worked! But then:

A second draconian head was pushed through the smoke. This one was squirted out in a few seconds. It looked at the three men, then wandered over to a clump of bright-colored flowers, sniffed, and began to eat them. Now a third and a fourth head were already in sight. As fast as the dragons were extruded, more followed them. The field down to the very confines of the trees was crowded with them, new arrivals butting the others to make room or scratching their sides on trees. Shea was counting: “Thirty-three, thirty-four…”

I have not yet finished the third novella, “The Castle of Iron,” but I will be done with it soon, and I will decide whether I want to track down more of the novellas. de Camp and Pratt collaborated on “Wall of Serpents” and “The Green Magician.” But after the fifth one, I believe that Pratt unfortunately died. de Camp then continued working on several more stories in the series, collaborating with Christopher Stasheff and other authors. I have no idea if these later stories are as good as the original collaborations, but I suspect that they are not.

While I’ve characterized these stories as funny, I have to admit that funny is not always enough. Reading them in 2017, they seem to have a sort of “neither fish nor fowl” aspect. They aren’t serious or epic enough for me to really sink my teeth into, like E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. But they also aren’t quite silly and energetic enough to make good bedtime stories for the kids, and the aforementioned sexism and mild dirty jokes make them unsuitable for bedtime reading:

“Now, what I want to say is that this here is a very useful little collop of jewelry, both for the lady and her knight. It has a double enchantment on it. For the lady, it makes her ten times fairer the minute she puts it on, and it also, it won’t stay around the waist of any wench who’s not perfectly chaste and pure. That’s for the benefit of the knight. The minute this lady can’t keep her belt on he knows she’s been up to tricks.”

Although I definitely acknowledge that these are historically significant and can see their influence all over modern fantasy, I’m not sure they are really going to be among my favorites. Writers like Butcher that they influenced, directly or indirectly, to me seem like they have clearly outdistanced the original concept, keeping the humor while also creating compelling characters and plots.

And despite reading dozens of fantasy novels in my youth, in general I’m not really a big fan of most fantasy. It really takes the very exceptional stuff, the best of the best, to convince me. Generally, I’ll forgive science fiction that is written at a mediocre level, if it contains fascinating ideas, while in fantasy the ideas are rarely very original, and so the writing has to be compelling.

In the case of The Compleat Enchanter the ideas are refreshed, and I love the idea of trying to build a scaffolding of rules under traditional magic, a bit like what Whitehead and Russell attempted to do for mathematics with Principia Mathematica. But they just don’t seem meaty enough to re-read.

Maybe I’m just getting more jaded, as at 50, if you hand me a new (new, or new to me) work of science fiction or fantasy, the odds are that I’ve read something like it before, something that does what the new book does, but better, and maybe even does it backwards and in high heels. There’s a river of new work published every year, and ain’t nobody got time for all that.

I’ll finish these, and maybe I’ll continue. Maybe they’ll seem better to me then. Time will tell. Maybe they’ll become your favorites. Or maybe they already are?

Non-fiction and Fiction On Deck

I’ve got a lot of books in piles around my bed. There’s Unspeakable by Chris Hedges and David Talbot. Hedges is a very challenging thinker. This book is an extended interview with Hedges, carried out over several days. You can dip into it out of order, but if you read the sections in order, it forms a sort of autobiography of Hedges.

There are many more non-fiction books piled up, and I’m not going to list them all now; some of them will be mentioned in the podcast.

I’ve also dug out a book that was very significant to me in childhood — The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White. Speaking of “neither fish nor fowl” — it’s an Arthurian romance, a fantasy, set in medieval Europe, but also, dripping with anachronisms. It was reworked slightly and toned down to serve as the first part of The Once and Future King, a considerably darker story, which I also read as a child. I also read the separate, sad finale, The Book of Merlyn. I probably bought my paperback copy of The Once and Future King at a Waldenbooks in Erie, and bought a copy of The Book of Merlyn, I believe, via the Scholastic Book Club, probably in sixth grade.

The Sword in the Stone is very, very funny. I’m now reading chapters from this book to my children at bedtime. I’ve been running around the bedroom pretending to be King Pellinore in his massive suit of armor with padded helm:

“Traitor knight!” cried Sir Grummore.

“Yield, recreant, what?” cried King Pellinore.

They fewtered their spears again, and thundered into the charge.

“Oh,” said the Wart, “I hope they don’t hurt themselves.”

But the two mounts were patiently blundering together, and the two knights had simultaneously decided on the sweeping stroke. Each held his spear at right angles toward the left, and, before the Wart could say anything further, there was a terrific yet melodious thump. Clang! went the armour, like a motor omnibus in collision with a smithy, and the jousters were sitting side by side on the green sward, while their horses cantered off in opposite directions.

“A splendid fall,” said Merlyn.

The two horses pulled themselves up, their duty done, and began resignedly to eat the sward. King Pellinore and Sir Grummore sat looking straight before them, each with the other’s spear clasped hopefully under his arm.

“Well!” said the Wart. “What a bump! They both seem to be all right, so far.”

Sir Grummore and King Pellinore laboriously got up.

“Defend thee,” cried King Pellinore.

“God save thee,” cried Sir Grummore.

With this they drew their swords and rushed together with such ferocity that each, after dealing the other a dint on the helm, sat down suddenly backwards.

“Bah!” cried King Pellinore.

“Booh!” cried Sir Grummore, also sitting down.

“Mercy,” exclaimed the Wart. “What a combat!”

This is another book that has been hugely influential on modern fantasy. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s portrayal of Radagast in The Hobbit, you might have a shock of recognition when you read White’s description of Merlyn the magician:

Merlyn had a long white beard and long white moustaches which hung down on either side of it. Close inspecpection showed that he was far from clean. It was not that he had dirty fingernails, or anything like that, but some large bird seemed to have been nesting in his hair. The Wart was familiar with the nests of Spar-hark and Gos, the crazy conglomerations of sticks and oddments which had been taken over from squirrels or crows, and he knew how the twigs and the tree foot were splashed with white mutes, old bones, muddy feathers and castings. This was the impression which he got from Merlyn. The old man was streaked with droppings over his shoulders, among the stars and triangles of his gown, and a large spider was slowly lowering itself from the tip of his hat, as he gazed and slowly blinked at the little boy in front of him.

And if you’ve ever enjoyed Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with its singing teapots and candlesticks, you might raise an eyebrow as you read about Merlyn’s mustard-pot:

“Have some mustard,” said the magician, when they had got to the kidneys.

The mustard-pot got up and walked over to his plate on thin silver legs that waddled like the owl’s. Then it uncurled its handles and one handle lifted its lid with exaggerated courtesy while the other helped him to a generous spoonful.

“Oh, I love the mustard-pot!” cried the Wart. “Whereever did you get it?’ At this the pot beamed all over its face and began to strut a bit, but Merlyn rapped it on the head with a teaspoon, so that it sat down and shut up at once.

“It is not a bad pot,” he said grudgingly. “Only it is inclined to give itself airs.”

This Potts is also inclined to give himself airs as well, and could write about the books that wrote him all night. But it’s time to go have dinner with my family. Perhaps there will be mustard.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
October 9th and 19th, 2017