Dare to dream of electric sheep

 

© Warner Bros / Sony Entertainment / Scott Free Productions

 

I’m afraid that over the years I’ve learned to distrust optimism and embrace pessimism.  I’ve gradually reached the conclusion that it’s better to fear the worst at all times and experience the occasional pleasant surprise when things don’t turn out as badly as expected; rather than to assume the best will happen and then be crushingly disappointed when it doesn’t.  (This may be the result of spending decades following the national Scottish football team, a masochistic pursuit that rarely, if ever, rewards hopefulness and optimism.  As was evidenced the other evening…)

 

Thus, when it was announced that, after 35 years, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s mighty 1982 science-fiction epic Blade Runner was in the works, I didn’t bother at all to exercise the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism.  No, I just assumed the sequel was going to be crass, brainless, 21st-century-Hollywood-style bollocks and I resolved to ignore its existence.

 

Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, means a lot to me.  I rate it alongside Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as joint-best science-fiction movie ever made.  It’s also one of my favourite films of all time.  I remember when I first saw it at the age of 17.  Late in the summer of the film’s release, I travelled to Glasgow for a job interview.  I had a few hours to kill after the interview and I happened to wander past a Glaswegian cinema where Blade Runner was still playing.  On the spur of the moment, I decided to go in and watch it.  I had the auditorium almost to myself – the only other people there were two middle-aged Glaswegian ‘wifies’ who, half-an-hour into the film, with much head-shaking and muttering of incomprehension, left their seats and never came back.  I’m surprised I recall those two women leaving because by that point I was absolutely mesmerised by what I was seeing on the screen above me.  Bombarded by spectacle, special effects and emotional and  intellectual intensity, I found the Blade Runner experience awesome.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Blade Runner is a movie that’s difficult to talk about objectively these days.  When it first appeared, many critics disliked it – in Britain, the only newspaper critic I remember taking it seriously was the Observer’s Philip French.  It didn’t do much at the box office either, probably because 1982 cinema audiences, like those two ladies in Glasgow, wanted comfortable, feel-good science-fiction movies such as the same year’s ET and the second Star Trek movie.  Yet it’s proved massively influential.  Its depiction of a future Los Angeles as a dystopian, rain-drenched monster-metropolis, flavoured with the aesthetics of 1940s film-noir and of modern Tokyo, seems to have turned up again and again in a thousand science-fiction movies and rock videos made in the years since.

 

However, for all the impact of Blade Runner’s set design and visuals, its excellent cast ensures that the human (and artificial human) characters remain in the mind too.  This includes Harrison Ford as Deckard, the weary bounty hunter and titular ‘blade runner’ tasked with tracking down and executing runaway replicants, who are the artificially-created, super-strong humanoid slave labourers of the future.  Despite Ford’s presence, though, it’s really the Dutch actor Rutger Hauer as Roy Batty, leader of a gang of on-the-run replicants, who in modern parlance ‘totally owns’ the film.

 

Played by Hauer, Roy Batty is fascinatingly multi-faceted.  By turns he’s brutal, ruthless, terrifyingly physical, animalistic, child-like, icily intellectual, tender, melancholic and – when he finally shows mercy to Deckard and saves him from falling off the top of a vertiginous skyscraper – noble.  Indeed, he becomes more sympathetic than Deckard, whom we’ve seen in the course of his work blasting down two female replicants, played by Darryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy.  (The role of Deckard has never sat comfortably beside the other, straightforward-heroic roles Ford has played, like those of Han Solo and Indiana Jones.)

 

In Philip K. Dick’s original novel, the replicants have no capacity for human emotions and are presented purely as a threat.  In Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ script for Blade Runner, however, they’re given a pre-programmed four-year lifespan that means their situation has a tragic, almost Milton-esque aspect.  They’re not simply running amok, but are searching for the corporation head who created them in the hope that he can extend their lifespans beyond four years.  And near the film’s end, we get one of cinema’s great lump-in-throat moments when Batty, after he’s rescued Deckard and before he dies, gives his famous tears-in-rain speech:  “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.”

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Everyone associated with Blade Runner – Ridley Scott, Hauer, Ford, Hannah, Cassidy and even Sean Young, who played the movie’s heroine Rachael but never fulfilled her potential in an erratic career afterwards – seems in my mind to possess an immense, if elegiac and dystopian, coolness.  This coolness extends to Greek prog-rock / ambient composer and musician Vangelis, whose haunting soundtrack for the movie is a career best.  It’s certainly miles better than the pompous theme he supplied for pompous British film Chariots of Fire the previous year.  For one Blade Runner track, Tales of the Future, Vangelis recruits the portly, kaftan-clad Greek warbler Demis Roussos, who’d always been a bit of a joke in Britain thanks to his being referenced in Mike Leigh’s stage and TV play Abigail’s Party (1977).  But hey, even Demis Roussos sounds spooky and unsettling and, yes, cool here.  That’s the transformative magic of Blade Runner for you.

 

So I was blown away by Blade Runner in 1982, even though the version of it I saw was the weakest one that’s been released.  This was the studio cut, where the film was tampered with at the last minute by frightened executives after they realised Ridley Scott hadn’t delivered the easy-on-the-brain Hollywood blockbuster they’d expected.  Their tampering included adding a redundant voiceover that explains what’s happening in the film for any morons who might be present in the audience; and the least-convincing happy ending in the history of the cinema.  Ten years later, Ridley Scott was allowed to release the version of the film that he’d wanted to put out originally, Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut.  In it, both the voiceover and the happy ending are gone, thankfully, and a new dream sequence suggests that Deckard isn’t the simple cut-and-dried character he was in the original version.  Guess what he might really be?

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

As Blade Runner is set in 2019, which we’re only two years short of now, it’s fun to see how wide of the mark some of the film’s predictions have been.  We haven’t had replicants in the real world nor, alas, have we had flying cars.  And Western cities haven’t become heavily ‘East-Asian-fied’ in the manner of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, aside from acquiring a few hipster ramen and sushi joints.  Maybe this is because Japan’s bubble economy burst dramatically in the early 1990s and the country never quite became the world power that many in the 1980s had expected.  (William Gibson’s celebrated ‘cyberpunk’ trilogy of science-fiction novels, 1984’s Neuromancer, 1986’s Count Zero and 1988’s Mona Lisa Overdrive, rather overplay the Japanese influence in their future scenarios too.  Incidentally, Gibson is said to have walked out of Blade Runner after 15 minutes, because many of the ideas he’d been toying with for his then-nascent novels were already on the screen.  He didn’t want to get any more depressed.)

 

In addition, certain companies whose logos appear in the famous dazzling advertising displays of Blade Runner’s cityscape no longer exist, like Pan Am and Atari.  Well, Atari still does, barely, but not in the world-bestriding way that the filmmakers assumed it would.

 

The sequel, Blade Runner 2049, was released in the UK four days ago.  Taking place 30 years on from the events of Blade Runner and starring Ryan Gosling as a new ‘runner’ called ‘K’, it brings back the now-craggy but still-personable Harrison Ford as Deckard.  To my utter surprise, the reviews have been excellent, with both critics I like (the BBC’s Mark Kermode) and ones I don’t like (the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw) calling it a five-star masterpiece.  Compare that with the original film, which had to wait years before the critics reappraised it and declared it a classic.  2049 has flopped at the US box office, admittedly, but then so did its predecessor; and the fact that Donald Trump-land doesn’t seem to like it might be a further indication of its quality.  It’s surely a good omen too that it’s directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who last year gave us the moving and thought-provoking science-fiction picture Arrival.

 

In fact, the part of my brain that deals in hope and optimism is beginning to stir.  Rather than ignoring the existence of this sequel, I now find myself tempted to go and see it.  Yes, I’m daring to dream that Blade Runner 2049 might actually be good.  Let’s hope I’m not disappointed.

 

But at least it can’t be any worse than that bloody football match the other night.  Come on, world.  Hurry up and invent some real replicants – and then get eleven of them playing football for Scotland.

 

© Warner Bros / The Ladd Company / Shaw Brothers

 

Death log 2015

 

From practicingnormal.com

 

The Troggs may have sung that “Love is all around”, but in 2015 I got the impression that another major component of human existence (or non-existence) was all around.  Death, not love, seemed to be ubiquitous.

 

During the year, so many people I admired were kicking the bucket that this blog was in danger of turning into a full-time obituary column.  While I wrote about a few people whom I was sad to see go – B.B. King, Christopher Lee, Patrick Macnee and William McIlvanney, for example – I had to exercise real willpower to ignore some of the other deaths of 2015 so that I wouldn’t spend all my time penning tributes to the departed.

 

So here, just before the year’s end, is a quick mention of some other people who went to meet their maker in 2015 and who’ll be missed by Blood and Porridge.

 

Hefty kaftan-wearing Greek crooner Demis Roussos died in January.  Now I certainly wasn’t a fan of Demis’s output (most famously, Forever and Ever in 1973) but I liked how he was the favourite singer of Beverly, the suburban housewife / heroine / monster in Mike Leigh’s masterful satirical play of 1977, Abigail’s Party.  There were many naff musical acts around in the 1970s, but somehow Abigail’s Party wouldn’t have been the same if a singer other than Demis had been warbling in the background at Beverly’s ghastly, chintzy London flat.

 

And actually, there is a Demis Roussos song in my record collection.  He appears on Tales of the Future, the ninth track on the Blade Runner soundtrack album composed by his fellow Greek, Vangelis.  Weird, unsettling and occasionally spine-chilling, Tales of the Future is a million miles removed from Forever and Ever.  It’s surely Demis’s finest hour.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dwbr9EL0UJM

 

February saw the death of Leonard Nimoy, who of course played Mr Spock on Star Trek.  I wasn’t a Star Trek fan either, but I always liked Nimoy.  He was willing to make fun of himself by, for instance, guest-appearing in one of the best episodes of The Simpsons, 1993’s Marge vs. the Monorail.  Also, he managed to spend half-a-century hanging out with the dreadful William Shatner without surrendering to the urge to give him the Vulcan Death Grip, which suggests he was a man of saintly patience.

 

(c) 20th Century Fox

 

Terry Pratchett, author of the Discworld novels, died in March at the age of 66.  I’ve never read any of Pratchett’s fiction, which must make me a rarity.  But he always seemed a decent bloke who faced up to the disease that finally killed him, early-onset Alzheimer’s, with admirable courage and good humour.  (He contemptuously referred to his Alzheimer’s as the ‘the embuggerance’.)

 

Another fantasy writer, Tanith Lee, died in May.  I enjoyed her macabre fiction when I was a teenager – I came across short stories of hers like Eustace (in 1968’s Ninth Pan Book of Horror Stories) and A Room with a Vie (in 1980’s New Terrors 1).  In later years, I heard that she had difficulty getting her books into print – though when I looked at her Wikipedia entry after her death, I was surprised at how extensive her published work was.  Presumably, though, the bulk of the titles were put out by small publishers and so had passed below my radar.

 

From lightspeedmagazine.com

 

Charles Kennedy, former MP and the Liberal Democrat Party leader for seven years until 2006, died in June.  In 2003, he was the only major political leader with the gumption to oppose British participation in the disastrous invasion of Iraq.  And in the 2005 general election, his party won 62 seats, its highest total since 1923.  However, the Liberal Democrats dumped him as leader when rumours surfaced about him being overly fond of a drink and he was replaced by Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell.  Ming was himself dumped a year later because his party feared he was too old to appeal to the voters.

 

The Liberal Democrats finally chose to be led by the young, sober and uncomfortably Blair-esque Nick Clegg.  He formed a coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010, ensuring that David Cameron became Prime Minister – and alienating so many of the Liberal Democrats’ previous supporters that they were slaughtered in the 2015 general election and ended up with just eight MPs.  A clear illustration of the old adage about being careful about what you wish for.

 

Charlie Kennedy was affable, amusing and generally in possession of something that most politicians lack, a personality.  I just wish he’d reacted to the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (which he wasn’t happy about) by quitting the party and becoming an independent.  If he’d done that, I suspect he’d have had a better chance of hanging onto his constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, which he lost to the SNP in the 2015 election.

 

From ibtimes.co.uk

 

Venerable British character actor Ron Moody died in June at the age of 91.  Moody is best-known for playing Fagin in Oliver! (1968), Sir Carol Reed’s film adaptation of the Lionel Bart musical that itself was an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.  I have to say, though, that I find the glorified Cockney singalong that is Oliver! annoying.  Instead, I prefer Moody’s appearances in various low-budget British comedy, crime, horror and children’s films, for example, The Mouse on the Moon (1963), Murder Most Foul (1964), Legend of the Werewolf (1975) and the UK Disney movie The Spaceman and King Arthur (1979), in which he played Merlin to Kenneth More’s King Arthur, John Le Mesurier’s Sir Gawain and Jim Dale’s Sir Mordred.

 

Cecil the Lion was slain just outside Hwange National Park in Matabeleland in Zimbabwe at the start of July.  His killer was American dentist and would-be big-game hunter Walter Palmer.  I can only surmise that Palmer carried out this pointlessly cruel deed in the belief that it would increase his penis size.  And maybe it’s worked.  Maybe now Palmer’s penis is no longer two millimetres long.  Maybe now it’s three millimetres long.

 

(c) The Daily Telegraph

 

American wrestler and actor Roddy Piper died in July.  I’ll cherish Piper for his performance in the 1988 science-fiction movie They Live, directed by John Carpenter.  Piper plays a down-at-heels labourer who finds a mysterious pair of glasses that show the world as it really is – run by skull-faced capitalist aliens who, in league with earth’s yuppie classes, are stripping the planet of its resources whilst keeping the general population docile by bombarding them with subliminal messages telling them to consume, watch TV and not ask questions.  Carpenter meant They Live as a satire of Ronald Reagan-era America; but nowadays, in this era of multinationals, oligarchs and law-onto-themselves banks, the film seems ten times more relevant than it was then.

 

July also saw the passing of another British character actor, Aubrey Morris.  Morris popped up in various British horror movies that made an impression on my teenaged self: 1971’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (in which he perishes in a blast of malevolent, ancient-Egyptian psychic energy directed at him by Valerie Leon), 1973’s The Wicker Man (in which he plays an eccentric gravedigger who winds up Edward Woodward) and 1985’s bonkers Lifeforce (in which he, Peter Firth and Frank Finlay try to deal with a brazenly naked space-vampire lady played by Mathilda May).  Morris had a wonderful screen persona – he resembled an even twitchier and more sinister version of Freddie Jones.

 

(c) British Lion Films

 

In August actor George Cole died.  Book-ending Cole’s career were two famous performances as Cockney wheeler-dealers.  In the St Trinian’s film comedies from 1954 to 1966, he played the pencil-moustached spiv Flash Harry who skulks about St Trinian’s School and schemes with its unruly female pupils – bottling the gin they’ve cooked up in the chemistry lab and placing their bets on the horse-races.  Rationing ended in Britain the same year as the first St Trinian’s film; so the spiv, with his black-market connections, was a familiar figure to British cinema audiences at the time.

 

Three decades later Cole played Arthur Daley, used-car salesman, would-be importer / exporter and general dealer in dodgy goods, in the 1980s TV comedy-drama Minder.  This chimed with the times as well – the 1980s being the era that Margaret Thatcher supposedly gave free rein to Britain’s entrepreneurial instincts.  (One Minder episode sees Arthur’s long-suffering sidekick Terry, played by Dennis Waterman, accusing Arthur of fancying Mrs T – his boss has her portrait hanging on his office wall.  Arthur retorts that he admires certain of her ‘womanly attributes’.  Yuck.)

 

August was also the month that American horror-film director Wes Craven died.  I have mixed feelings about Craven’s films and I consider The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and even A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) overrated.  But I loved his Scream movies – the first two of them (1996 and 1997) anyway – and I’m fond of his neglected 1991 film The People under the Stairs which, like They Live, has a few things to say about Ronald Reagan-era America.

 

From bowwowtimes.com

 

And alas, 2015 was when we said goodbye to Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier who stole the show from his human co-stars Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo and John Goodman in the Oscar-winning 2011 movie The Artist.  Uggie shuffled, or snuffled, off this mortal coil on August 7th.

 

More deaths to follow…