Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Same but Different: Vision and Revision in Blade Runner 2049

It was director Denis Villeneuve’s intent to create something fresh with the highly anticipated sequel to the 1982 film Blade Runner, and it’s fair to say he accomplished that goal. 

Also true, however, is the assertion that Blade Runner 2049 is not as much a departure from the original picture as some claim. There are many tonal and thematic similarities between the films.

Viewers knew to expect something of the original aesthetic. The score – augmented considerably by 21st century sound design – is homage to the music Vangelis composed for the first film, yet has its own unique aural character. 

The milieu – grey, irradiated, punctuated with neon incandescence, and buried beneath depressed haze – is also familiar. These nods to the original movie maintain the fantasy that both films take place in the same imagined world.  

But the acid-rain vision of post-modern urban blight conceived for the first Blade Runner is noticeably transformed in the sequel. Changes in climate have left Los Angeles under constant siege by winter storms and the advancing Pacific, which is held at bay by massive coastal levees.       

Villeneuve also borrowed many implicit themes from the first movie, making them more explicit for 21st century viewers whose lives are regularly impacted by pervasive use of technology.

When the original movie was released, artificial intelligence and gene-splicing were not topics of common parlance, but in 2017, it’s a different story. Villeneuve takes full advantage of the paradigm-shift in public consciousness to explore the meaning of memory, of sentience, and the consequences of enslaving technology to corporate-capitalist ends. 

Spoiler alert – many humans end-up as slaves, too, doomed to scratch out a miserable existence in a dilapidated industrial landscape, or among huddled urban masses. Elite sapiens – known as ‘off-worlders’ – live on other planets, in settlements built by replicants, while humans left on Earth are either very wealthy or very unlucky.

The experience of memory – the act of remembering and the memories themselves – are essential aspects of both films.

In the original, memories are given to replicants in order to ensure behavioral compliance and to allow for safe integration of their mimicked sentience; a ‘cushion’ is the term used in the movie.

But it's the lived experience of renegade ‘skin job’ Roy Batty that demonstrates the human-like behavior of replicants, as Batty dies and his remembrances are “lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Memory, and its role in identity, is an important component of the sequel as well. 

Agent K, the film’s blade runner protagonist, finds he is connected by childhood memory to the only known instance of replicant pregnancy, and comes to believe he is the sole offspring of homo sapien and homo androīdē (my term).

But it’s not to be. The child of man and machine is, in fact, a melancholy ‘bubble girl’, who lives in a hermetically-sealed capsule due to auto-immune deficiencies. She designs memories for replicants – including Agent K.

The Tyrell Corporation in the original film is updated as the Wallace Corporation in the latest picture. Both businesses profit from replicants and their exploitation; however, it is the recent incarnation that most represents one logical extreme of techno-capitalist enterprises.

Where Dr. Tyrell shows paternal admiration for Roy Batty in the original film, the Machiavellian Wallace sees replicants as a slave class, essential for humanity’s colonization of the solar system. 

In this future, it isn’t enough that Wallace has tamed extraterrestrial environments; his corporation is creating a new consciousness as well. Agent K is enamored with a holographic artificial intelligence, Joi – created by Wallace Corp. - with whom he comes to share a close bond. 

Joi, however, is commodity – all algorithms and tricks of light – and while ‘she’ feeds Agent K’s growing sense of purpose by affirming his belief that he is the child of human and replicant, a later scene suggests the tendency to encouragement is a quality shared by all ‘Jois’. 

‘She’ is, in the end, a product manufactured for mass consumption, and not just for one individual.

The relationship between father and child is another shared aspect of the two films, providing the essential impetus that advances both plots. 

Roy Batty’s quest to extend his life in the original film leads him to Dr. Tyrell - the man who created the replicant’s brain. Like a post-modern Frankenstein’s Monster, Batty kills Tyrell, gruesomely murdering both ‘father’ and ‘god’ in the same terrible act. “It’s not an easy thing to meet your maker,” Batty says just before the bloody display.

The latest film puts the parent-child drama front and center, re-introducing Rachael and Rick Deckard from the first movie. 

When the pair is revealed as parents of the new progeny, Agent K finds himself in a race of time to discover Deckard’s location and the secrets of his own identity, before he and the retired blade runner are killed or captured.

One interpretation of the original film posits Deckard himself as a replicant, which is not confirmed or denied in the sequel; that said, since Agent K is a replicant, it could be considered a directorial conceit to that perspective (although K knows he’s not human). 

If Deckard is a replicant, the interpretation doesn’t negate the importance of his offspring. 

Wallace is obsessed with finding the means by which replicants might reproduce. If the machines can ‘make themselves’ instead of having to be made, he reasons that he will have a ready and available source of slaves to realize his colonialist ambitions. 

The best to be expected from any movie sequel is that it has qualities that recall novel aspects of the original film, while transfiguring what was previously made. 

Villeneuve’s cinematic vision (or revision), brilliantly realized in Blade Runner 2049, admirably satisfies that criteria.


Thursday, October 19, 2017

Eulogy for Gord Downie

It’s not often that a person changes another person’s mind, and it’s even rarer when the two people don’t actually know one another. But that’s what Gord Downie did – he changed my mind.

If you’re in a bar band in certain parts of Ontario, Canada, you play the Hip. It’s a requirement, no two ways about it, and if you refuse, you’ll be hassled by surly patrons until you do.

That’s the situation that led me to the music of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip in the mid-1990s. I started singing in a cover band in London, Ontario, and a big chunk of that band’s repertoire was made up of Hip songs.

Of course, I had heard snippets of their music before that time - years before, in fact - and even though I found their songs intriguing (‘Little Bones’ in particular) I didn’t take them very seriously. In fact, I was dismissive of the Hip until I had to sing their tunes in concert.

And that’s when Gord's magic started to work on me.

Maybe it was the final verse of ‘Scared’, with its paradoxical tone of resignation and affirmation, sung in that characteristically untethered melody that was Gord’s signature. Or perhaps it was the exuberant ‘whooping’ and his call to “bring on a brand new renaissance” in ‘Three Pistols’. I can never be sure.

What I know is, I spent years performing in bars and clubs, and never tired of playing the Hip’s music, or letting Gord put words in my mouth. I was content to be his instrument. Fellow musicians even took to calling me ‘Lil Gordy’ for a time, because of how I committed to the band’s songs on stage.

But when I thought back to how I had dismissed their early work, I felt the pangs of someone who has misjudged a friend. That’s how Gord changed my mind. His musical presence in my life had palpability; even though I didn’t know him, it felt like I did, and I wanted to get right with him.

(How many night shifts did I labor with the words of ‘Music at Work’ echoing in my mind? And I couldn’t even count the times I’d “looked up to the Lord above / and said ‘hey man – thanks!”) 

The eloquence and eccentricity of Gord’s voice widened my perspective, made me think about relationships and the world differently. Like the acolyte of a holy man, I became a kinder, better person for having experienced his works.

The Hip music of the ‘90s spoke clearest to me, but I’ve enjoyed hearing fresh songs from the band over the years, as well as the most recent examples of Gord’s lyrical acumen. To me, his voice will always sound timeless.

“You are ahead by a century”, he sang, but I think we know now that he was the one who was ahead all along. Godspeed to you, Gord. “And grace, too.”

Friday, April 7, 2017

Goodman's Dilemma

Hi! I’m Guy Goodman! Don’t you recognize me? Okay, well…I’m sure you’ve seen my partner before. There’s a popular television program named after him. 

Truck? From the show, Truck, P.I.?

Yeah, I thought that might ring a bell. There you go. Nobody’s heard of Guy Goodman, but mention Truck’s name and people light up. It’s discouraging. Truck is an idiot.

He sounds as good as he does because of the dialogue the writers give him. Take that away, and what's left? He can hardly string together a coherent statement, let alone discuss anything except sex, working out, and tattoos. 

Even then, his comments are monosyllabic, barely audible, and he just ends up agreeing with the most opinionated person in the room. 

Now you’re wondering, if you think so much of this guy, why are you his partner? Why don’t you just get another gig?

Well, it’s like this: the show is called Truck, P.I., and even with everything I said, about how Truck’s an idiot, being his partner is still the best job I ever had.

Well, except when people try to kill him. That’s definitely not the best.

You see, if Truck dies, the series gets cancelled. I mean, they can’t very well carry on with ‘Guy Goodman, P.I.’, can they? The audience likes me, sure, but I’ve got no charisma onscreen. 

Without Truck around to flex, fall in love, and catch the bad guy, there’s just no show. 

I mean, look at me, look at my skin, for Christ’s sake! I don’t shine. Not like Truck does, anyways. And if he dies, it’s goodnight Goodman. You feel me? 

It doesn’t even matter if the actor playing Truck dies, as long as the character – the name – of Truck lives on, with new scripts written by the next generation of pen monkeys. 

Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to have my own series. That’s the dream, right? But I’d have to be a lot more appealing to the audience, a lot more real to them if I was ever to step out on my own. 

I just don’t see that happening. 

I’m a sideman, and my existence depends on preserving the life of the person – the franchise – that's my bread-and-butter. The suits have tested it, and audiences like me with Truck. Without him, it’s back to oblivion, with all the other forgotten names. 

Up ‘til now, I think there have been over a dozen actors play Truck, but nobody remembers the third, fourth, or seventh guy to play him, because – in the end – the only name they’re supposed to remember is Truck’s. And, hopefully, my name, too… 

I was thinking about one of the actors who played Truck. This guy was a total loser. Started proceedings to have his name legally changed to ‘Truck’, leaked spoilers to the press, showed up loaded to publicity events, the whole enchilada. 

Guy got greased for screwing the showrunner’s wife, and you know what the studio did? 

First of all, they covered up the murder. Then they dropped a body-double in for the remainder of the shoots, and used CGI to make the double look like the dead actor, so they could complete the season’s arc. Messed-up, right? 

Not as messed-up as when the studio presented the actor’s family with the preserved corpse of their dearly departed along with a few million in hush money. But, hey, that’s the biz! 

A few weeks later, the studio announced a new actor would be portraying Truck for the upcoming season.

I mean, if you think the suits were just going to let that dick ruin what they have going on with Truck, guess again. Those guys have made billions – billions – off Truck, and they aren’t going to let any actor, showrunner, or director blow the deal. 

The actor playing Truck can be famous, or not, white, black, Asian; those things don’t matter. Only thing that matters is that the script is followed. The words make Truck who he is, his name makes him who he is, not the color of his skin, his nationality or culture.  

Hell, there’s even talk of replacing the human actor playing Truck with a hologram. But that’s so far out I’m not worried about it. If they replace actor Truck with a hologram Truck, then they’ll probably replace me, too… 

That’d be great in one way, because I wouldn’t have a weird identity crisis every few years when casting brings in a new actor to play Guy Goodman. But my name, associated with a light dummy, instead of a flesh-and-blood actor? I don’t know.

I want to exist (which is better than not existing), and I guess if that means being rendered as a hologram, I’ll deal with the consequences. After all, I’ve found a way to endure Truck’s imbecility, haven’t I? Once I thought that would be insurmountable.

I remember meeting Truck for the first time. He said, “Hey! I’m Truck, P.I.! Good ta meet’cha, brah!”

“What the fuck?” I replied. “Were your parents retarded?” 

If you haven’t seen that bit, you really should. When that episode got broadcast, the scene went viral on social media because, supposedly, what I said was “insensitive” and “politically incorrect”. Show apologists countered it was comedy, that I was only a fictional character (which I found offensive) and that I had only meant the term informally, and not as slur.    

But I admit it: I haven’t really gotten past my first impression of Truck. And he hasn’t done anything to suggest he has an IQ in the double digits. So here we are.

We’re stuck together. Well, more than stuck together. I’ve saved Truck’s life more times than I can count. All the normal stuff, of course – pulling his unconscious body from car wreaks, knocking drinks and food laced with poison out of his hands before he can consume them, fishing him out of various bodies of water, intercepting and distracting femme fatales, outwitting tactically superior belligerents. 

Truck would be dead a thousand times over, if it wasn’t for me. He says I put the ‘good man’ in Goodman. He’s such a cock.  

The real threat to Truck is the writers; the creatives. They’ve been going back to the well for years, that ‘Hero’s Journey’ thing. But if any one of them decided – I mean, really decided - to make something new, and shelve Truck? 

I don’t even like to think about it. They could kill all of us with a few taps of a keyboard or the stroke of the pen.       

Well, ‘kill’ might be a little strong. Once the idea of Truck got loose in the world, the writers lost control of him. Sure, they still control the official scripts, but now we have fans who invent their own adventures about us. 

And just for the record, I don’t like how my character gets the shaft – and I mean that literally - in the homo-erotic fan fiction that’s cropped up in recent years.
Still, getting killed on the show – officially - before Truck’s fan community really has time to grow beyond the confines of its own time and space? That’s what I’m trying to avoid; at least, until Truck is alive for a few more generations. Once that happens? The writers can kill Truck as many times as they want, but he won’t die. And neither will I. 

There’ll be wikis, and fan pages, cons and cosplay, issuances of the program for streaming and on disc, and then reissuances, and then remastered reissuances, and then re-released remastered reissuances, and so on. 

In short, people will believe in Truck – enough to give him existence outside of the show. He’ll have a place in their lives. 

And whatever happens to Truck is sure to happen to yours truly.  

You see, what nobody watching the show really understands is that, given enough time, energy and luck, Truck will become more real, more alive, than any of them could ever hope to be. Most people live and die. They’re missed by family and friends for, maybe, a few decades. Then they're forgotten. 

But not Truck. If I can keep him alive for a couple more generations, he’s virtually assured the kind of immortality reserved for the most exclusive cultural heroes. I won’t even tell you who these folks are, but I will say that – like Truck – most people in the world only know them by one name.  

So, in summary, to keep the very idea of Goodman alive, I have to keep Truck alive. That’s the dilemma. And the only question I have left is the same question I’ve been asking myself all along.

How am I going to keep from killing Truck myself?