Sunday, October 16, 2011

Blade Runner as a postmodernist film

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Blade Runner as a Postmodernist Film

Postmodernism is a term that is difficult to pin down but it used more and more widely to describe aspects of the culture of the last three decades. One of the main features is its eclecticism � the mixing and matching of different stylistic elements. Some who use the term welcome it as liberation from the ideas of and reverence for “high culture” (for example, opera, ballet, painting, classic literature, etc) and the disparaging of “low culture” (television, popular cinema, comics, etc). Others see postmodernism as a trivialisation of culture by irresponsible academics caught up in admiration for the glitter of consumer capitalism and its moral emptiness.

Postmodernism describes conditions prevailing in the last three decades of the twentieth century, especially in the production of media artefacts, where there is a superabundance of images and styles � in television, pop videos, film, advertising, etc - which are readily available for recycling. The traditionally valued qualities of coherence, meaning, originality and authenticity are replaced by a random swirl of empty signs to produce a culture of disposable imitations, superficiality, “simulacra” (copies without originals), style valued over substance, surface appearance over depth, a mixing and matching of diverse styles.

Another aspect of postmodernism arises from the view that it is no longer possible to have general theories of how humanity and society function, called “grand narratives” or “metanarratives” - theories which attempt to explain how history and society functions (such as Marxism which explains historical development in terms of the class struggle).

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One way of approaching postmodernism is to see it as an attempt to deal with the breakdown in the way we look at things which have come about in recent years with the advances in information and communications technology. In previous eras it would take a considerable time for ideas to circulate. With email it is possible to send messages to anywhere in the globe in seconds; you can read a web version of a newspaper from anywhere in the world on the internet on the day of publication. There is therefore an overwhelming amount of information available to us. This, according to some, must have a profound effect on the very way we think.

The main stylistic features of postmodernism might be summed up as follows

· Depthlessness � a concern for surface appearance, style over substance. This involves a playful attitude towards cultural artefacts

· Hybridity - an eclectic mixing of styles from different times and places, recycling of images, mixing and matching, intertextual references, the transformation of found materials into a new text (called “bricolage”)

· Intertextuality, referencing not just different genres but the way in which specific texts are “quoted” in other texts. (Think of the way that television advertisements � where incidentally Blade Runner director Ridley Scott learned his trade � often refer to films, television shows and even other adverts.

· Intertextuality often involves another feature of postmodern texts � how the same text can be appreciated in different ways by different audiences the mainstream audience which reads the film in a straightforward way and the “cineliterate” (or “smart” or film buff ) audience which recognises the intertextual references.

Despite its underlying seriousness of tone, Blade Runner has several features which would allow us to consider it a postmodern text.

· The replicants are “copies without originals” (“simulacra”)

· There is an eclectic mixture of styles in the set design, props, clothing etc. 140s film noir styles (both Rachel and Deckard) coexist with punk (Pris), sixties fashion (Zhora) and Hari Krishna. Bryant is the embodiment of the corrupt policemen in film noir and crime film for the last five decades. The language of the street, “cityspeak”, is an amalgam of Japanese, Chinese, Spanish and German. There are diverse architectural styles � giant futuristic buildings resembling Mayan pyramids with microchip exteriors, modern-day downtown LA with New York.

A good example of postmodernist style in Blade Runner is the scene where Deckard runs after Zhora through the city streets at night. She is wearing fashion from “swinging sixties” London�a see-through raincoat he wears a 140s trenchcoat. The streets are teeming with a diverse population of punk rockers, chanting hari krishna followers, people in 10s military uniforms, and in oriental headgear; there are Catholic nuns in extravagant headwear that was no longer worn by the 160s. Passers-by are carrying familiar-looking umbrellas but with neon handles. In the background are neon advertising blimps for familiar brand-names such as Atari and Budweisser. On the streets there are cars and buses. This cornucopia of diverse and eclectic images is shown against an equally eclectic soundtrack. These combined images and sounds express the chaos of modern urban living as much as anticipating what life in the future will be like.

The film’s intertextual reference is not limited to its generic hybridity. It “quotes” other texts. As Rick Instrell puts it

Post-modernism has a self-conscious fascination with style, with mixing different genres; it frequently uses parody and pastiche … But whereas parody tends to poke fun at the style it is imitating, often in order to satirise it, pastiche tends to imitate in order to flatter the style it is imitating. Pastiche, in particular, is a central feature in the surface or depthless nature of post-modern texts. Images refer only to themselves or other pre-existent images rather than any realities in the world outside. In Blade Runner, examples of this abound. Deckard traces Zhora the replicant snake charmer to a nightclub, affecting a slightly effeminate voice to disguise his real intent. This is surely a direct reference to the scene where private eye Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) visits the Geiger bookstore in the 146 classic The Big Sleep. There is no sense of parody in the playing of the scene, however. The reference is merely available to you provided you are familiar with The Big Sleep.

This tendency to “quote” from other texts is typical of the modern advertising industry where Ridley Scott developed his skills.

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