Saturday, June 27, 2009


It took two nights to get through two versions of “Bladerunner” but there are still two more versions to see. Then there’s the problem of what to call it. Film noir, film gris, neo noir, neon noir, red noir, Western noir, but all the time in the background it was the term cyberpunk that might have been most useful. Then there’s steampunk, which has all the characteristics except that the technology is Victorian, that railroad engine/ocean liner trope. What’s the diff between “punk” and “noir?” What would be the signs of cyber noir? These are serious questions when studying literary culture, even though they’re mostly pot-lifters for a shifting assemblage of pots.

According to Lawrence Person, “Classic cyberpunk characters were marginalized, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body.” Ain’t this all of us? Ain’t this the secret to the popularity of the genre: recognition? But, really, cyberpunk is modernized noir of the sort gently ribbed by Garrison Keillor’s Guy Noir, private detective. Serious noir requires someone like Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, a despairing tough existentialist facing death with boredom. The plot, then, becomes a challenge to make him feel again. And the context is generally the underculture that supports crime.

Film noir is well-known. I proposed “film gris” as characteristic of noir in the rain, like the series filmed in Portland, but Blade Runner, though monsoon rainy, is darker than black. A fetid hole writhing and blinking with artificial light. Neon noir. If the sun comes up, it is veiled in smog. (All that steam and smoke is a little Turner landscapish.) The inspiration is supposed to be both LA and Chicago, with maybe a bit of English industrial landscape thrown in. It seems to be a given that noir must be urban, though if you get far enough into sci-fi (cyberpunk/neo noir) the urb will be mostly destroyed or extra-planetary. It is usually necessarily a human-constructed environment, like the inside of a spaceship.

Bernard Schopen
wrote some pretty darn good rural noir, but the plot kept sneaking back to LA. Right now I can’t think of anything specifically “red noir,” which is to say, about Native Americans. Maybe Adrian Louis comes close with "Skins". Blacks are already there, of course, and a big part of punk is the blue music pushed through synthesizers. Color lit crit -- I love it. More fun than Derrida.

As I say, “Blade Runner,” which was considered so far out that it required a narrator when first released, is now familiar. You’d barely have to push the envelope to see existing Pacific cities. (Maybe this is “ring of fire noir.”) Aren’t we all eating Asian noodles? The architecture makes me think of the Sturdy-Stone building in Saskatoon, brutalist Soviet slabs as interpreted by Louise Nevelson. Battery operated pets are always turning up. The newer version of the same theme (the line between human and animal, human and machine), “AI,” is almost more horrible for being sentimental, prosperous and bright. Corporation noir. (“Pacific” -- there’s an irony.) The BBC, of course, which leans heavily on noir and punk for its mystery series, is Atlantic.

I watch these movies and then do a bit of research that is often surprising. The first surprise was looking at a photo of Ridley Scott: looks enough like me (when I had red hair) to be my cousin. I really feel an affinity for him. The second surprise was finding out that Philip K. Dick, the author of the original story, began to have visions and voices in his later life, and died of a series of strokes and heart attacks. These were reassuring visitations -- “everything will be all right” -- and he was maturely skeptical about them, seeing them as possible messages from a higher power but maybe not. He didn’t have a happy or secure life, but he faced it squarely and found compensations later. As far as achievement goes, he won. If you accept publishing as an achievement.

The Heart Butte kids will laugh if they read this: Bladerunner is full of big industrial fans, turning slowly. I was always reminding them to look for those fans in a Ridley Scott sci-fi movie. It's as though the air of the future was so fetid that it had to be kept moving or you couldn’t breathe it. Maybe, considering global warming and environmental pollution, that’s the truest prediction of the future in the movie. Or maybe it’s the immigrants: not quite androids, but in the minds of many people these days, not quite human either.

That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Xenophobia, terror that one’s life and loved ones will be displaced or even destroyed by the “other” no matter what that is -- and sometimes it’s one own punk kids. This is what happens when you run out of frontier. We are very much alert to the extinguishment of former civilizations: cliff dwellers, Mayans, pyramid builders.

More than that, and perhaps this is why the genre is so connected to movies, we see people born, grow up, age and die before our eyes on television and in movies. Michael Jackson, Farah Fawcett -- as James Olney famously says (when he speaks English instead of his own “Vulcan-style” created language): “They don’t live -- but then, who does?” Olney is the clearest survivor, though he limps. He watches. He comprehends. We’re all just origami, small and frail. But did you notice the erection on that little paper man? Which is analogous to the horn on the unicorn. The question is, “does life turn you on? Do you see, even with cyber eyes? Do you love without demanding someone just like yourself?"

In the end of the first version, due to studio demand (those middle men are always messing up stuff) a happy ending was tacked on, an escape to a whole new “world” where everything was idyllic. You know where it was? Glacier Park. Old leftover footage from filming “The Shining.” Sure, it’s nice in the summer if no grizz bears find you. (Good berry year this time -- they’ll be smiling with purple snouts.)

But don’t move here. Today is Valier’s Centennial so the Great Falls Tribune ran a little story and included a front page photo on the cover. It was one of Robin Lozniak’s beautiful pictures. He used a telephoto lens that made us look as though we were right in the foothills, though we’re thirty miles away, which is why the highway stays open more in winter and you can raise a garden. Lotta existential despair in this little village -- though it’s improving with the drought receding. Cyberpunk noir will have to be about kids, since they’re really the only ones caught up in computers or welcoming the future. We haven’t reached post noir yet.


Whisky Prajer said...

William Gibson has sometimes claimed he fled the theatre after the first 10 minutes of Blade Runner when he first saw it because it was too much like what he was trying to get down on paper. His Neuromancer pretty much singlehandedly got the whole cyberpunk thing going.

prairie mary said...

The confirmation below is thanks to Dave Lull, who comes through so faithfully.


BLADERUNNER came out while I was still writing Neuromancer. I was about a third of the way into the manuscript. When I saw (the first twenty minutes of) BLADERUNNER, I figured my unfinished first novel was sunk, done for. Everyone would assume I’d copped my visual texture from this astonishingly fine-looking film. But that didn’t happen. Mainly I think because BLADERUNNER seriously bombed in theatrical release, and films didn’t pop right back out on DVD in those days. The general audience didn’t seem to get it, relatively few people saw it, and it simply vanished, leaving nary a ripple. Where it went, though, was straight through the collective membrane to Memetown, where it silently went nova, irradiating everything from clothing-design to serious architecture. What other movie has left actual office-buildings in its stylistic wake? Some of this was alrteady starting to happen in the gap between my submission of the manuscript and the novel’s eventual publication; I noted with interest, for instance, the fact of a London club called Replicants.

Years later I had lunch with Ridley Scott at The Ivy and we discussed mutual influences. French comics, bigtime! METAL HURLANT.