Friday, May 23, 2008

Yes. Questions.


"I saw a segment of Douglas Trumbull's special effects for Blade Runner on the KNBC-TV news. I recognized it immediately. It was my own interior world. They caught it perfectly." - Philip K. Dick

The thing that struck me most deeply about Blade Runner upon seeing it for the first time on the big screen is its profound sense of loneliness. The theatrical experience, part of the Berkshire International Film Festival, made it clearer than ever why Ridley Scott's masterpiece couldn't hack it as a summer blockbuster; its a film that requires its audience to stay tuned in to its muted, melancholy emotional frequency, its astounding visual effects meant to provoke introspection rather than thrills. Its silences, shadows and ambiguities are as challenging as they've ever been - even with its monumental reputation, I could hear much of the audence shifting impatiently in their seats - and yet it's the film's uncompromising fidelity to its bleak, enigmatic core that explains its enduring relevance. When I say that Blade Runner on the big screen is an isolating experience, I mean it in the best way.

Much of Blade Runner's success can be attributed to Douglas Trumbull, whose job it was to transform artist Syd Mead's mind-blowing visions of Los Angeles circa 2019 into a believable, lived-in reality. Trumbull's effects are the most lyrical of his contemporaries' work - he's responsible for the balletic scenes of space travel in 2001 and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (his effects are easily the best part of the latter film), the mindbending finale of Kubrick's film (the slipstream idea being Trumbull's, and one that Kubrick originally scoffed at) and the religious experience that is the finale of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. While those films had a sleek, elegant futuristic design, Blade Runner required Trumbull to realize Mead's and writer Philip K. Dick's concept of a future defined by collision, decay and entropy. There was also the challenge of breaking new ground in visual effects; as Trumbull put it, "If a filmmaker wants something that's never been done before, it's my job to figure out how to do it."

Though Trumbull's presentation before the screening would be mostly familiar for anyone who's read Future Noir or seen Dangerous Days or any of the multiple making-ofs and retrospectives devoted to the film, it was a thrill to hear him talk about the painstaking process of combining intricately detailed models, paintings, and front-projected images to create a possible future. New to me was the fact that Blade Runner benefited heavily from advances in effects photography and lighting models from Close Encounters, and the bursts of flame that open the film were leftover from a planned apocalyptic ending of Zabriskie Point, which Trmbull was fired from when Antonioni became frustrated with the process and decided to blow up a house instead. Trumbull also praised Ridley Scott for having the strongest understanding of visual effects of any director he'd worked with, which coming from a guy who's worked with Kubrick and Spielberg is no small compliment. Blade Runner is one of the best examples of film as a collaborative art - as Trumbull talked over stills of the modelmaking and photography process, it was clear what a staggering accomplishment it is to keep a team of craftsmen and technicians focused on an extremely specific concept, and how the work of every person responsible for brass etchings or painting tiny cityscape panels is comptely astonishing.

The film was projected digitally, and while it took a while for the purist in me to adjust to its uncanny lack of imperfections ("More human than human," indeed), it was a thrill to see the film in such a pristine condition. While I'm reluctant to attempt a full-blown review so soon after Walter Chaw's comprehensive article (excellent except for the tedious stab at Spielberg), I will say that Blade Runner is a movie that absolutely has to be seen on the big screen to be appreciated. I'd always loved the film, but on video and DVD it's a somewhat remote experience, one that is intellectually and aesthetically edifying yet always seemed emotionally detached. What a surprise to find that this couldn't be further from the truth - seen on the proper scale, Blade Runner reveals itself to be an emotionally devastating experience. With the massive industrial decay of L.A. 2019 towering over me, I began to really feel the despair that the film's humans and replicants feel - the movie only seems detached because the characters are so totally cut off from feeling. Pithy to say that we're all replicants, yet in Blade Runner, this does feel like something of a revalation. Fascinating to realize how often Scott eschews narrative logic for a different kind of visual understanding - it makes no sense, for example, for Pris to step away from Deckard for a gymnastics routine, allowing herself to get shot, yet somehow the moment feels right. It's also astonishing in the way it upturns our expectations, with a villain who earns our sympathies over the ineffectual hero (Rutger Hauer's performance is really one for the ages) and a love scene that, even as Vangelis' score implies sensuality, actually carries far kinker implications. Blade Runner is, above all else, about death - our denial of it and, finally, the beauty of accepting one's mortality - so, yeah, it never stood a chance against a Spielberg movie that gives us the resurrection Scott denies us (though E.T. is a masterpiece in its own way - it's the Tao and all that). Honestly, though, if I were given a choice between a hit and a movie people are still talking about and arguing over 25 years later, it'd be no choice at all.

The Q&A after the movie was disappointingly predictable, the audience sprinkled with the sort of pseudo-cinephiles whose questions reek of smug entitlement. One person asked bluntly what Trumbull's been doing for the past 25 years with no apparent knowledge of his decades-long work on interactive multimedia experiences or virtual sets (I was relieved when he clarified that his concept is more Sin City than Beowulf). Another waved her hand and called Trumbull's name urgently, only to ask, with a superior grin, why, at one point, a rooftop is dry when it had been raining. Trumbull's reply was simply, "I don't know. It's a movie. Next question." It was a shame to have a living legend in the room and not even begin to touch on his various other achievements, including the two features he directed, Silent Running and Brainstorm, both examples of sci-fi driven by ideas rather than bells and whistles. Still, it was an honor to hear Trumbull talk about his work, and a welcome reminder (as is Blade Runner) of cinema's myriad possibilities.