Tag Archives: The Big Lebowski

Deckard’s Not a Replicant: Blade Runner revisited

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I haven’t watched or even thought about Blade Runner in a good while.  The other day on the tweet-o-machine, my old friend Tadd reminded me of it by pointing me in the direction of an essay on the timeless, Ridley Scott-directed 1982 sci-fi classic, which dared to tackle the question of whether or not its lead character, grizzled replicant-hunter Deckard (Harrison Ford) was in fact one of the very same androids dreaming of electric unicorns it was his duty to gun down on sight – a debate that has raged among fandom for thirty-two years, with contradictions as to the answer offered depending on which of the movie’s creative partners you ask.  (The director says yes, absolutely, that was always the intention; the star says no, that’s not what I agreed to.)  Anyway, if you haven’t the time to peruse the linked entry, the thesis presented therein is that not only is Deckard a replicant, but he carries the memories of the enigmatic Gaff (Edward James Olmos), his flashily-dressed, patois-riffing colleague who has a penchant for creating origami out of random bits of trash that display a preternatural insight into the mindset of our hero.  Brian, another good pal from the old hood, ruminated over this for a few days and offered his own persuasive rebuttal, arguing that Deckard might indeed be a replicant but that he’s merely an artificial reincarnation of the original human Deckard, Gaff’s dead partner.  Admittedly, I’ve always leaned toward the notion that Deckard is as constructed as the beings he’s chasing, but in the course of a single series of tweets, I’ve had something of a revelation on the subject.  And it’s not just born of my fascination with contradictions, or a hipster-esque need to go against the grain.  But I’m satisfied now that Deckard is as human as Gaff, Bryant, Holden, Tyrell, J.F. Sebastian and the old sushi master from the beginning of the movie – and that to insist otherwise is to rob Blade Runner of much of what it is trying to say about humanity, and about the nature of the soul.

A lot of the evidence for the Deckard-as-replicant theory is drawn from the Paul is Dead school, where coincidence and editing errors on the part of the filmmakers are selectively interpreted by the audience towards a predetermined conclusion – notes such as the number of replicants mentioned by Captain Bryant not adding up, the peculiar glow in Harrison Ford’s eyes in one shot matching that of the replicants and so forth.  The idea that Gaff’s memories are informing Deckard’s actions fits very neatly into this conceit.  However, Gaff is not the first character to exist within the world of a narrative and possess an omniscient awareness of what is going on within the mind of the protagonist.  For a more recent example, look at Sam Elliott’s Stranger in The Big Lebowski:  a character within the film who is impossibly aware of events in which he does not take part.  Gaff, it can be argued, fills the Stranger’s role in Blade Runner.  (The owner of the all-seeing eye glimpsed in the opening sequence is never revealed, but interestingly, it is the same ice blue as Gaff’s – ponder that for a moment.)  Granted, his “insights,” at least at first, are not terribly revealing – the chicken origami reflecting Deckard’s reluctance to take on the job, the erect matchstick man keying in on Deckard’s growing feelings for Rachael.  But then, Deckard is not exactly living a life that is immune to prediction and analysis, either.

In examining the nature of the soul, Blade Runner questions whether the humans, who are born with souls, are truly deserving of them, while presenting us with artificial beings who want nothing more than to possess this most uniquely human trait.  The humans of Los Angeles, November 2019, are living essentially soulless lives, having carpeted their planet in concrete and steel and even driven the sun from the sky, shuffling about as both rain and advertising pelt down on them in a constant, depressing drizzle.  Compassion and empathy are as extinct as animals here (otherwise the penalty for finding a replicant on earth wouldn’t be death without due process).  Until summoned by Gaff, Deckard meanders through the world, eating in public yet shunning company, getting drunk alone each night in an apartment full of relics of a past, more fulfilling life.  His actions, then, those supposedly illuminated by Gaff’s origami, aren’t programmed memories – they’re merely predictable responses from a man irrevocably plugged into the system, a system that Gaff, like any good omniscient narrator, can recognize even if the rest of the characters in the movie can’t.  Although, Captain Bryant seems to at least understand his role as well, with his line about Deckard’s option to go back to work for that same system or be crushed under it (“if you’re not cop, you’re little people.”)  In this context, Deckard is indeed subject to a kind of programming, yet the ASCII of his soul is written in the slouching language of age, circumstance and apathy, instead of ones and zeroes (or the GCAT of genetic design, as befits the Nexus 6).  Ironic that the test the humans have devised to detect replicants, the infamous Voight-Kampff, works by stimulating emotions, when those administering it seem to have none themselves.

Though lost in the decayed urban hellscape, Deckard still finds idle moments to dream of something better, something elusive, something magical to break him from the drudgery.  His unicorn, literally.  In Blade Runner‘s Los Angeles, that something seems utterly unobtainable, hence the use of a unicorn to symbolize what Deckard craves is apt.  We are led to understand then that Deckard’s unicorn manifests itself in the shape of Rachael.  She is introduced in film noir tones, in the shape of a femme fatale:  dark hair, long red nails, wreathed in cigarette smoke; enticing, untouchable.  Her manner, however, is as far from Double Indemnity Barbara Stanwyck as Rick Deckard is from Han Solo.  Rachael is innocent, scared, trying to cope with the revelation that everything she thought about herself was a lie, that the soul she thought she possessed was the invention of her boss, her memories those of his niece, implanted to provide a cushion for her emotions.  Yet she does feel, moreso than any other character in the movie.  Her challenge to Deckard, when she asks him if he’s ever taken the Voight-Kampff test himself, is less an insinuation that he’s a replicant than it is a plain statement that for someone lucky enough to be born human, he certainly doesn’t choose to act like one.  Contrasted with Deckard, Rachael is, indeed, as per the Tyrell Corporation’s motto, “more human than human.”  The uncomfortable scene where she and Deckard kiss for the first time is less Deckard trying to evoke emotions in an artificial being than it is him trying to stimulate the dormant soul within himself – making himself feel something, the way he’s supposed to, latching on to the tiny flame she’s managed to stir inside him and blow gas on it.  The evolution of the relationship between Deckard and Rachael, his learning to develop compassion for someone considered “lesser” by the system that controls his life, is meaningless if he is also a replicant, if fundamentally it’s just two robots trying to figure out how to mash circuits together.

Of course, theirs is not the only human/replicant relationship in the movie:  Blade Runner‘s ultimate expression of the emotional capacity of the creator versus the created comes in the often less than subtle Christ allegory present in the character of replicant leader Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), the ostensible villain of the piece.  With his time about to expire, Batty risks the return to earth to find his designer/deity, Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel, poised at the top of the world’s tallest building and dressed all in flowing white robes, naturally) and ask for an extension to his four-year lifespan.  There’s a line spoken by Spock in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (released three years earlier) that well encapsulates the Batty-Tyrell dynamic:  “Each of us, at some point in his life, turns to someone – a father, a brother, a god, and asks, ‘is this all that I am, is there nothing more?'”  Batty isn’t really looking for more time in terms of minutes and hours, he’s searching for a vindication of his existence.  In the words that ultimately doom the “god of cybernetics,” all Tyrell can offer his prodigal son is the bromide that the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, “and you have burned so very brightly, Roy.”  Roy then betrays himself with a kiss and crushes his father’s head in his hands.  As he descends from the top floor of the Tyrell Corporation, back to the decayed cityscape (a literal descent into Hell, one might say), the psychotic look on Batty’s face suggests that without the resolution he wanted, he has accepted the system’s role for him as the villain.  You made me to be a soulless monster, I will now become that nightmare.  I will show you all.

Which leads to his first and final encounter with Deckard – if one will permit drawing from Apocalypse Now, yet another film released three years prior (and one featuring Harrison Ford, no less) – an errand boy, sent by grocery clerks, to collect a bill.  To Batty, Deckard is dirt beneath his shoe, a nuisance to be disposed of, not to mention the man responsible for the death of two of his replicant friends.  Batty owes him nothing but an unpleasant death.  But on that rainy rooftop, as his life-clock dwindles to its final ticks, Batty makes a choice to become more than the limits of his design, of his programming.  He sees, ultimately, in Deckard, something to which he can relate – the feeling of being trapped, being a slave to a system he had no hand in creating.  From that seed springs compassion, and, with nail through palm, Batty saves Deckard’s life, finally achieving what he most desired – a soul – by creating it himself.  Becoming more than the sum of his programming, exceeding the flaws of the designers who assembled him in a lab, demonstrating to the man in front of him that he is, finally, more human than human.  And then, in one of the most beautiful, heart-rending scenes in all of cinema, delivering his own eulogy.  Speaking about the incredible things he has seen, showing Deckard what is possible given the wondrous gift of life, and giving Deckard a chance to make the most of his own, with the life Batty has returned to him by pulling him off that ledge.  “Time to die” – for the sins of humanity.  And as the dove in his palm flies free, so does Roy Batty’s new soul, at peace now.  Deckard, the Roman centurion, can merely marvel at what is transpiring before him.  If he’s just another replicant, as so many want to believe, then the impact of Batty’s sacrifice is blunted.  It becomes in effect merely a rah-rah moment for robots, rather than the transcendent, evolutionary note it needs to be.

Gaff’s return and the film’s final five minutes are where one has to make the decision on whether to accept the idea of Deckard as replicant.  Gaff says “You’ve done a man’s job, sir.  I guess you’re through, huh?”  He answers Deckard’s response with his lingering parting thought, echoed just before the credits roll, as Deckard contemplates the tinfoil origami unicorn:  “It’s too bad she won’t live; then again who does?”  At this point, Deckard’s sins have been cleansed, and he has been given the opportunity to break free of the system and begin a new life with Rachael, one that will be rich and fulfilling, and in the film’s most potent irony, it is the artificial beings that have shown the human being how.  When the preternaturally aware Gaff says “I guess you’re through,” what he means is, I know I’m stuck here, and I’m okay with that, but you’ve found your way out – good on you, pal.  The origami unicorn is the reminder – you’ve found something rare and precious, now don’t cock it up.  Don’t waste your second chance.  Burn brightly.  Live.  Follow Batty’s example and create your own soul, grow beyond the limits of who you think you are and what you think it is your fate to be.  That’s much more powerful and impactful a message than a literal indication that we know what you’re dreaming about because you were assembled in a lab and you have someone else’s memories.  Deckard in this moment is Everyman – us – and we need a human being with which to identify, so we too may take up that torch.

I hardly expect, in meandering about here today, that this will be the final word on the Deckard-as-replicant debate.  In struggling to bring this piece to a conclusion I realize I could probably go on until the word count stretched into the 100K range, so deep are Blade Runner‘s facets, how it too overcame its genesis as a sci-fi action movie about Harrison Ford hunting robots to become an endlessly rich, meditative statement on the nature of what it means to be human.  And in order for that to work as intended, Deckard has to have been human all along, merely enslaved by a different form of self-imposed programming.  That contrast, human versus artificial programming, and the capacity to grow beyond it, is the heart of Blade Runner‘s moral debate.  A debate needs both sides.  Make Deckard a replicant and you’ve lost the distinction, you’ve diminished the meaning, you’ve made the extraordinary a bit more ordinary for the sake of feeling clever for having discovered something that wasn’t necessarily there to begin with.

So, in summation:  Deckard’s human, Batty is Christ, Tyrell is God, Rachael is more Disney’s Ariel than Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, Gaff is the Stranger from Lebowski with a different hat, the unicorn dream is a longing for magic in a world cleansed of any semblance of it, and the comments are open as always awaiting your polite dissent.  I’ll be over here in my spinner, ruminating on what to do with my next four years.

With a Song in My Heart: H is for…

“Hotel California” – Eagles, 1977.

“Hotel California” is not a song I like very much.  That’s something of an understatement, really.  I detest it.  The hatred began as a seed of indifference, nourished by decades of hearing it overplayed on the radio, oversung off-key at karaoke bars, over-requested at weddings and over-selected on pool hall jukeboxes, blossoming finally into a putridly fragrant flower of pure, embittered, soul-deep loathing.  Even hints of the first tinny, ear-scraping chords are enough to send me into paroxysms of bile-spitting fury, questioning how anyone could possibly endure this egregious example of rock & roll wallowing in its own crapulence yet again.  And I know I’m in the minority opinion, as there are millions who consider it one of the finest rock songs ever written.  Rolling Stone magazine ranks it 49th on their list of the 500 Greatest Rock & Roll Songs of All Time.  Myself, if I have to hear the insipid banality of the warm smell of colitas or sweet summer sweat or prisoners of our own device one more time, I may punch something.  You know when I laugh the loudest at The Big Lebowski?

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Yep, right there.  As an aside, there’s a story to this:  The infamous Allen Klein was planning on charging the Coen Brothers $150,000 to use Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers” over the closing credits, which would have broken the movie’s music budget.  When Klein saw this scene, he erupted in a fit of gut-busting laughter and told the Coens they could have “Dead Flowers” for free.  So even though I rue realizing I have anything in common with Allen Klein, on this point he and I are in complete agreement.  And before you ask, yes, Dad had a worn copy of Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 and Mom loved Glenn Frey, so clearly that was one trait that skipped a generation.  (My son does not know who the Eagles are so perhaps we’ve broken the cycle – now I need to cure him of his fixation with Nickelback.)

At this point you are wondering, why on earth is this song on the list?

In July 2008, just after a certain junior Senator from Illinois secured the Democratic Presidential nomination, my wife announced that she’d purchased tickets to the upcoming Eagles show in Toronto, part of their Long Road Out of Eden Tour.  It is a common occurrence in marriage, I suspect, that from time to time one partner must work on feigning excitement in something that the other is bubbling with enthusiasm over.  “We’re going to see the Eagles” was about as scintillating to me as suggesting that we attend a three-hour dramatic reading of Canada’s federal tax code.  I chewed through my tongue to prevent quoting the above-noted Lebowski moment and said “great!” while simultaneously invoking my inner weasel to think of legitimate reasons to not attend.  Still, I knew it was important to her, and I reconciled with the idea by reasoning that the Eagles were considered in some circles to be legends, and that seeing them live would be something to tick off the proverbial liste de seau.  I’d just have to endure the visions of a bunch of aging 70’s rock fans swaying on replaced hips to that damnable song for 7 interminable minutes.

The date arrives, we find our way to the venue and take our seats.  It’s the first time I can recall that I’ve never felt the slightest twinge of anticipation about a concert.  This should be a big deal, and it isn’t.  I’m wasting a seat someone else who will enjoy these guys even a modicum more could be otherwise making better use of.  No matter though, I’m here and I’ve gotta get through this.  I’ve gotta choke this down like that childhood plate of brussel sprouts.  The lights go down, the crowd roars, and the Eagles take the stage.  Don Henley, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit walk out attired in matching dark suits, pick up their instruments, check their amps and start to play.

And they rock.

By the second song I’m sold.  They’re incredible.  They play with the studied, impeccable craftsmanship acquired only by those who’ve been at it for forty years.  They banter together and with the audience with the healthy self-deprecation that is earned only by a life hard-lived and knocks well-taken.  (Glenn Frey, introducing “Take it to the Limit,” or as he calls it, the ‘credit card song:’  “I’d like to dedicate this to my first wife, or as I call her, Plaintiff.”)  They blow the typically reserved Canadian audience back against the wall with nothing but tunes and talent.  Joe Walsh even earns some hometown cred (or cheap applause, if you will) by donning a Maple Leafs cap for a couple of numbers.  Running through a healthy combination of Eagles classics, covers, selections from their respective solo careers and material from the new album, the Eagles, for lack of a better word, fly.  It’s one of the tightest, most accomplished, most exciting shows I’ve ever seen.  No messing about with pyrotechnics or stage diving or bollocks political posturing.  Just four gifted guys bringing their best, seasoned game.  This is a shimmering blade of rock and roll forged with an expert hammer and polished to a perfect shine.

Naturally, there comes an inevitable point midway through the song list.  Those all-too-recognizable tinny chords start twanging.  The crowd loses it.  As Don Henley invokes the dark desert highway, my wife gives me a knowing look, and I smile.  Yeah, okay.  This isn’t so bad.

Since that night, “Hotel California” has been a lesson in humility for me.  A reminder to temper my opinions, to crawl back from the edges of extremism and recognize that the truth lies somewhere in the mushy middle.  It’s one thing to hate a particular song, or movie, or any work of art, really, but there are precious few instances where that can lead legitimately to a complete dismissal of the artist as a worthwhile creative force.  There is usually some value to be found in everything, and in the cases where there isn’t, it’s not worth giving those sorts more than a microsecond of our precious consideration.  Music preference, and by extension the professional criticism of same, has always been about strong opinions, but the danger is in letting ourselves get caught up in how much this band is infallible while this other one sucks beyond redemption.  It’s hardly worth the rise in blood pressure, especially when – as the Eagles proved for me – you can still occasionally find yourself pleasantly surprised, and well and truly rocked.

Monday morning madness

One ring to marry them all.

A dear writer friend who passed away a few years ago used to send out regular emails every Monday morning with this title.  They’d consist of a few witty observations on life, stuff that happened on the weekend, what her cats were up to and would often close with a cheesy joke.  Her initials were M.E.S. so she’d sign off with “Jst a Mes.”  In my first writing critique group, she was the first of us to be published – sadly, only posthumously, but she remains an inspiration.  She was one of the guests at my wedding almost five years ago, and it occurred to me that since that day, three of the 64 guests in attendance at our celebration have since departed our company, my dear grandfather among them.  Although, there have been at least three, if not more, babies born to that same group of people as well since that day, so, as the Stranger opines at the end of The Big Lebowski, “I guess that’s how the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuating itself.”

Speaking of my wedding, my better half noticed online the other day that the first house we lived in together was up for sale, and had an open viewing this past weekend.  We had only lived there for one year – we were renting, and while we weren’t asked to go we did get the sense that our landlady was keen to sell, and we were fine to find something a little more affordable.  And, although relatively unspoken at the time, there were some troubled memories associated with the house that we were anxious to leave behind.  We had moved in as boyfriend and girlfriend, run the proverbial emotional gauntlet but emerged triumphant as husband and wife.  Anyway, we had to drop by and see how the old gal was getting on.  What struck us most was how small it felt – not that where we live now is a McMansion, but we were boxed in by a peculiar sense of confinement and constriction as we wandered through the rooms.  Perhaps it was an appropriate metaphor for what we were going through at the time, a concentration of emotion and event into limited space from which a stronger bond is eventually forged.  It had been renovated substantially since we lived there, the ubiquitous pink carpet that neither of us cared for replaced with hardwood.  But I still felt a bit of a chill as I stood in the exact spot that five years ago Valentine’s Day, I knelt, opened my hand to reveal a cheap Lord of the Rings replica One Ring – all I could afford at the time – and asked her to marry me.  She has a much nicer one now, and we have a home that feels very open and free, where we can relax and just be – or at the least, plenty of rooms to run and hide in when we (i.e. me) forget to take the chicken out to defrost for dinner.

I’ve talked about this before, in the context of Twitter, but one of the wonderful things about modern communication is the reduction in distance and increase in intimacy between the artist and the audience, and not, at least when it is used responsibly, in a scary stalker kind of way.  Emilie-Claire Barlow was kind enough to retweet my review of her show to her followers.  Very cool – and just reinforces my point about how awesome she is.  Thanks, Ms. Barlow!  Hmm… Emilie-Claire Barlow, Rob Lowe I’m sensing a rhyming pattern here.  I should write something about Gwyneth Paltrow and see what happens.

On a completely different note, I think it’s time to do away with Daylight Savings Time.  A few years ago, it was decided to advance it a month in the calendar, the end result being that as soon as you feel like you’re turning the corner of having to wake up and go to work in the darkness every morning, you get slapped back into it for another month and a half of exhaustion and caffeine injections.  As I understand it, DST was invented to assist farmers in making the most of their daylight hours – given that we are no longer as agrarian a society, perhaps this tradition too can go the way of the telegraph and the wax cylinder recording.  I always feel more tired during the eight-odd months of DST hours than I do on Standard Time – my body really misses that extra hour and never quite adjusts to it.  I guess I probably wouldn’t do very well living in Maine or New Brunswick.

On a final, hopefully amusing note before we embark on this week’s adventures, a few more of the wacky search engine terms people are finding me with.  Again, not that I mind the site traffic – far from it.  The more the merrier; I just imagine, as U2 would put it, that you still haven’t found what you’re looking for.

  • apollo crackers – Not quite sure what these are, perhaps crunchy space food eaten by Armstrong and Aldrin, or a very ironic euphemism for white people who enjoy Harlem jazz.
  • long psychedelic jams – Groovy, baby!  “They call ’em fingers, but I’ve never seen ’em fing… oh, there they go.”
  • render anime boy – I don’t even know what to say about this one.  It strikes me as vaguely creepy.

Have a great day, fellow crusaders.

Two more reasons why MLP:FIM is awesome

Presented for your enjoyment.  All content of course the property of The Hub and the creators of the show.  In my previous post on My Little Pony:  Friendship is Magic (and don’t worry, this blog is not going to degenerate into a weekly update on all things pony) I pointed out the show’s embrace of remix culture and its extended “brony” fanbase.  Below are a couple of screengrabs from the most recent episode, taking place in a bowling alley.  Ask yourself how many tween girls would notice this – and understand the reference:
It's "The Jesus" himself! With a hairnet covering his mane and tail. But who else is lurking in the background off to the right... look a little closer now...
 
It is! The Dude, Donny and Walter! Man, that really ties the episode together!

Yes indeed – The Big Lebowski has invaded My Little Pony.  A cult movie that sits in the top ten list of the most uses of the F-word has snuck into a kid’s cartoon.  Young girls won’t get it.  Bronies will love it.  And much rejoicing and many celebratory White Russians will ensue.

It’s just like, my opinion, man, but I really dig this show.