Sunday, October 8, 2017

Culture Diary - Day 9: Abhor the Moor

[SPOILERS for Blade Runner 2049 can be found in the body of this post. If you wish to avoid them, the moment you encounter to word "blade," become immediately alert]

10/6/17 – 10/8/17

Harold Bloom has argued (well, this being Harold Bloom we’re talking about, I’m sure he has insisted) that people in the 20th century, when thinking about the human mind, behavior, and psychology, is much more likely to use the works of Shakespeare as a reference point (whether they realize they’re doing this or not) than they are Freud or Jung, for whom this sort of thing was pretty much their whole deal. I don’t know about you, but this makes sense to me. A good example of the idea can be found in Othello, Shakespeare’s about a Moor general in Venice whose inherent but heretofore untapped streak of poisonous jealousy is raised to the surface by the sadistic manipulations of his ensign, Iago. All of which leads to the murder of more than one person, including Desdemona, Othello’s wife, by Othello, and Othello, by his own hand. “Self-murder” it used to sometimes be called, which is an interesting phrase.
If there is a work of art that precedes Othello which charts the deterioration not merely of the psychology, but of the morals, of a husband driven by baseless jealousy to murder his wife, and which, at least on this one level, seems today like it could have been written yesterday, I don’t know what it is. Shakespeare didn’t create this kind of man or this kind of crime, but unconsciously or not our understanding and interpretation flows from him.
Iago is another kind of creation, one who also seems modern in his motiveless, amoral scheming. Some motives are hinted at (and certainly, the possibility that ridding Venice of Othello will bring power to Iago is not something he minds, exactly), but they are multiple and not dwelled upon; Iago seems to say them so that Roderigo, the “gulled gentleman” who is Iago’s usual confidante, and eventual victim, will think that the man who is leading him around by the nose is doing it for some purpose other than madness. In the real world, especially the modern one, the men who kill their wives don’t have Iagos telling them lies because they want to see blood spill; these husbands don’t need them. But the impulse to commit murder is usually unfathomable to those who never feel it. We might as well call that impulse “Iago.”
Anyway, I read Othello this weekend. Finally. I was compelled into this break from my horror reading by the release on Tuesday of the Criterion edition of Orson Welles’s 1951 film version. Before today it was the last major Welles film I’d never seen (there are still two features I need to get to: Too Much Johnson, and I don’t know why that isn’t on home video somewhere yet, and Filming “Othello”, which as it happens is a special feature on this new Criterion disc (there may actually be three features I need to get to, if we can count The Other Side of the Wind, which some day maybe we’ll be able to)).  I’ve now been able to bring to an end the shame I feel over this.
Welles’s Othello is a hacked-to-the-bone version, stark and empty of unnecessary detail. By comparison, his similarly low-budget Shakespeare adaptations Macbeth and Chimes at Midnight are relatively opulent. But Othello was an infamously difficult production, taking three years to film, jumping continents so that one shot might be done in one country, and its reverse shot in another. I don’t know if Welles would have preferred it to be otherwise, but the result is that throughout the film, Othello (Welles), Iago (Michael MacLiammoir), Desdemona (Suzanne Cloutier), and the others are walking through and speaking to each other across empty castle hallways and courtyards that have been split into sun and shadow. Extras turn up only when there’s a party (figures) or a funeral.
This, in fact, is how Welles’s Othello begins, with the bodies that litter the end of the play – Desdemona, Othello himself – being marched along on pallets in a funeral procession, black against a white sky. Iago, a surprising survivor (though in the play it’s made clear that he has a period of intense torture to look forward to, at the end of which he will probably no longer be a survivor), dangling blank-faced in a nearby cage. It’s a terribly eerie way to begin, making Othello feel more ghostly than Hamlet and more macabre than Macbeth.
As I said before, this is a stripped down Othello, at least in terms of plot and character. Iago’s wife Emilia is seen here less than in the play, though when the character matters most, Fay Compton takes over. Desdemona, too, and Cassio (Michael Laurence), Othello’s lieutenant whom Iago strongly suggests is having an affair with Desdemona, are both reduced somewhat here, so that ultimately the fact that the play is about Othello, Othello’s brain, and Iago’s seat inside Othello’s brain, is highlighted. When Iago’s manipulations finally take hold of Othello, Welles plays the character as not merely furious, but terrified. He’s never had cause to feel jealousy of this intensity before, but maybe he always knew what might happen if he did. Now that it’s upon him, he’s afraid of what he will do.
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On Friday night, I rewatched Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. It’s still a great film, one of the depressingly few truly great science-fiction films. I chose to watch it because on Saturday I was going to see Blade Runner 2049, Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated sequel. This I have done.
And I don’t know, man. I didn’t like it, I know that much, but the thought of saying why in any kind of detail does sort of bore me. Which is fitting, because I’ll tell you, while watching Villeneuve’s 163-minute film (and I don’t like to make a big deal one way or another about how long a film is, but Blade Runner 2049 is without question 163 minutes long, Villeneuve will get no argument from me on that count), I found myself being thoroughly unabsorbed by what was going on in front of me. And here’s what was going on, including some of what the studio apparently insisted that critics not reveal in their reviews: Ryan Gosling plays K, a new-fangled replicant that, the opening text tells us, are programmed to obey their human masters, no matter what. And he’s a blade runner, which means he’s a cop who “retires” old replicants – any model prior to this current one. Well, during one of his jobs he finds a grave, in which is buried the remains of a female replicant who, subsequent scientific analysis reveals, also appears to have given birth. This should be impossible. Who is the mother? Who was the father? Where’s the kid at?
The answers to “Who was the mother?” and “Who is the father?” I’ll bet you can guess. Harrison Ford is in Blade Runner 2049 playing Rick Deckard, for instance. In fairness, Villeneuve and writers Hampton Fancher (who co-wrote the original film, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and Michael Green don’t act as though this information is any kind of big reveal. It’s the “they can have kids?” and “where’s this kid?” stuff that comprises the hook from which they hang their entire so-and-so. Which is my first big problem, because I simply did not buy that in this world as created in 1982 there existed replicants who could conceive and bear children. This whole idea seems to have grown, not naturally from the events of the earlier film, but from the desire to one-up Blade Runner. The problem is that, with Alien, Prometheus, and Alien: Covenant, Blade Runner is part of Ridley Scott’s great cycle of SF films about artificial intelligence, and part of what’s so brilliant about these films is that they bring the humanity of the various AIs right up to the cusp of the border between them and humanity. It’s the fact that they can’t cross that border (and, as hinted at in Alien: Covenant and Alex Garland’s similarly brilliant Ex Machina, may not actually want to) that makes the whole idea, and Roy Batty’s “tears in rain” speech, so haunting. Saying “We know replicants can’t be humans, but what if they can??” doesn’t up the stakes in the way that Villeneuve so clearly believes it does. It becomes a matter of turning “Is he killing people?” into “He’s killing people.”  And in addition to cutting the legs out from under the whole endeavor, it’s a stupid idea that they can do nothing with, other than to turn Blade Runner into a “find the child!” Chosen One story.
Visually, I suppose Blade Runner 2049 is “spectacular” although, again, when compared to the immediate, alive, barely functional mess of the original film’s urban rainforest, the Los Angeles of this new film, while it’s meant to be an expansion on Scott’s visual masterpiece, looks so delicately constructed that this tough, hardscrabble world looks like a light tap would shatter it. As far too many things are these days, Blade Runner 2049’s visuals have been polished to death. Blade Runner looks, and feels, like I could walk into it. Blade Runner 2049 looks like I would break my nose bumping into the glass dome encasing it. It feels like nothing.
Harrison Ford is good, though! I also liked Sylvia Hoeks as the evil replicant henchman to Jared Leto’s “Nazi doctor who is a member of the Hellfire Club”amped-up version of Joe Turkel’s Tyrrell from the Scott film. It seemed like they were going to try to do something interesting with Hoeks’s character (though naming her “Luv” should have perhaps been my first hint that they weren’t going to), but eventually she’s just a killer, with none of the pathos of Roy Batty. The thing with Batty is that pathos is where they ended. With Luv (God help me), they begin there. Or they begin with their thin-soup version of that. They end with her snarling.
There’s a dog in the movie who, when we leave him, has had a pretty bad day. When Blade Runner 2049 ended, that’s the only character I wanted to know more about.
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I also watched that Netflix show, Big Mouth. It was co-created by and stars the voice talents of Nick Kroll and John Mulaney (there are two other co-creators, whose names you’re free to look up if you’re curious), two comedians I am very fond of. It’s a very dirty animated show about young teenagers going through puberty. I mostly liked it, even though each episode had about eleven jizz gags too many. Hope you had a great weekend!


Abner N. said...

I agree with most of your thoughts on Blade Runner 2049, but your seemingly positive references to Alien: Covenant have me significantly disturbed...

bill r. said...

It's terrific!