vishal bhardwaj, postmodernism & kaminey

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Here is a question that seems to provoke a lot of debate even today; is it easier to dismantle and dismiss mainstream cinema whilst feverishly propagating the cause of art and world cinema? Such a situation tends to generate a cannablised cannon of films that subjectively interpret the longings of auteurs through personal, cinephile concerns. It’s relatively painless to push aside the contributions of mainstream cinema as an extension of hegemonic control; apolitical, one dimensional – simplifying reality so that a consensual and despairing adoption of commerce as the only goal remains vehemently naturalised in the cinematic processes. Cinephilia continues to mutate at an expediential rate, devouring old journalism and breeding a new space for a continuous conversational exchange and open dialogue on the nuances of a certain film, director or indigenous cinema. The pleasure of unguarded opinion and endless debate reigns infinitely supreme in the landscapes of the blogosphere.

The celebration of mediocrity as something sacred means that one of the assumptions borne by mainstream cinema (many academics prefer the term popular cinema yet a film can only be deemed popular once it has successfully found an audience or achieved some sort of recognition with film critics, thus it seems inappropriate and misleading to use such a term of reference when discussing mainstream cinema) is an idea I would label as deadening superficiality; the severe constraints and limitations of working in the mainstream demands a unbridled subservience to genre conventions, false pleasures and a commercial cynicism that is indoctrinated over time. More relative is the fatalistic assumption that mainstream cinema is incapable of generating originality – such is the hostility of the criteria upon which judgment is passed that the results of a casual dismissal of all mainstream films is not subjective but collectively rampant and instantaneously final.

Sometimes, one can debate long and hard about having to pay to watch a mainstream film these days. Such was the crisis of conflict I recently faced when confronted with Tony Scott and Denzel Washington’s latest collaboration, ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’. Not only did I know that this was a remake of a 70s heist film, but the bombastic, hyper kinetic visual flair that characterises a Tony Scott film tends to be associated with some of the worst attributes of mainstream Hollywood cinema – predictable, conventional, formulaic, repetitive, unoriginal are just some of the more familiar terms of reference critics like to cite when trying to dissect his work. Yet for all the hype and mediocrity that the film seemed to offer, part of me was compelled by a longing to trash the exploitative nature of mainstream cinema. However, another more emotional part of me was resigned to the escapist pleasures mainstream cinema can offer those who prefer to advocate the necessity of popular culture as a way of revealing the state of society.

Even though much of society depends on the unconscious acquiescence of political ideology, cinema is both a dual harbinger of empowerment and distraction. That mainstream cinema in its offering of entertainment as a core pleasure acts as a conservative mechanism for social control and a casual diversion from reality is a popular argument that continues to hold considerable favour with Marxist ideologues. As it turns out, ‘Pelham 123’ wasn’t too concerned when it came to transcending the limitations of the heist genre; instead it seemed readily preoccupied with reinforcing a familiar vein of conservatism in which the working class male is reminded of the impossibility to transcend the sharp social divisions of a city like New York. However, had the flawed working class male been elevated and granted an exalted position at the end then one would have equally criticised such a transformation as yet more wish fulfillment. ‘Pelham 123’ ends with the working class male returning home to his wife and children, a triumphant smile appears on the face of Denzel Washington. As he opens the gate, the freeze frame is used subversively to acknowledge and underline the way in which class struggle is a continuous one. An overarching liberal sentiment this maybe but it points to the regularity of narrative cinema – the resounding sense of closure is tinged by a vein of ideological ambiguity, unexpectedly reminding us of the inherent contradictions and creative tensions which characterise mainstream cinema today.

The vitriolic condemnation or perhaps criticism that has entombed Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest offering, ‘Kaminey’, continues in earnest to gather an apocalyptic like momentum, disguising the subversive interruptions that are visible in the shiny wrapping deemed mainstream Indian cinema. Bhardwaj is far from an iconoclast unlike his contemporaries (Kashyap) – he would casually fall under the precipice of what Andrew Sarris termed the director as smuggler. The suggestion that some films are likely to be embraced by the mainstream critics regardless of their cultural worth and cinematic quality seems like an observation we tend to reserve for a post modern auteur like Tarantino. Yet it is also one that afflicts the status of Bhardwaj as an auteur and with Kaminey he has ventured into a territory that is often associated with Hollywood cinema – the post modern crime caper. It is those directors who are able to offer audiences new ways of looking at old genres that seems to characterise the most successful reworking of the masala film. (The super genre film is what Lalitha Gopalan likes to say – a term that seems to make better sense when discussing post modern cinema)

Of course, it is film makers like Vishal Bhardwaj who lend mainstream cinema an air of vibrancy and distinctiveness that is so often lacking from the end product. The consistent quality of his films leads many to make a connection with Indian art cinema but a closer look at the content of his films points to a director working in the commercial constraints of popular Indian cinema, also referred to as Bollywood – a term that seems to provoke outrage in the field of Indian art cinema as it connotes a derogatory meaning. Nevertheless, Bollywood is a form of expression that has been assimilated into the language of mainstream cinema as it is often used now as a marketing term. Like Indie, no one quite knows what the term means today other than acting as a marker of populist Indian cinema. It would be wrong to try and judge the merits and flaws of a film like ‘Kaminey’ if one was to embrace the idea that Vishal Bhardwaj is an auteur with inherent arthouse sensibilities and that his films attempt to articulate personal concerns. Vishal Bhardwaj is categorically a mainstream film maker, utilising major Bollywood film stars, exploiting the latest technology in terms of cinematography and editing, mixing genres, and expressing a fondness for music that has its origins in the traditions of Indian cinema as an institution. Films like ‘Maqbool’ and ‘Omkara’ (both are adaptations of famous plays by Shakespeare) certainly seem to depend on a shared cultural capital when it comes to the language and history of Indian cinema.

Arguably, the use of intertexuality as a cinematic mode of address is not only elitist in its esoteric referencing style but also discriminatory as the director works on the assumption that the audience has the so called cultural capital with which to engage in a post modern exchange of cinephilia appreciation. Perhaps it would be more suitable and appropriate to place Vishal Bhardwaj alongside contemporary mainstream Indian film makers like Ashutosh Ghowariker, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Omprakash Mehra. These are directors whose status as auteurs is constantly in doubt and fluctuates between the films they make, preciously straddling that middle ground between art cinema and the populist Bollywood blockbuster.

When Danny Boyle achieved international acclaim for directing ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, much was made of the debt that the film owed to a matrix of films from Indian cinema. Boyle borrowed from the high and low of Indian cinema, referencing Mani Ratnam with ‘Bombay’, Kashyap with ‘Black Friday’, Amitabh Bachchan as the ultimate cinematic icon and even acknowledging the influence of that most tired of all narrative plot lines – the lost and found story which shaped the epic narratives of the 60s and 70s mainstream Indian cinema. Yet watching the opening sequence to ‘Kaminey’, I was instantly reminded of the way in which cinema is interconnected on a global scale and how an Indian film maker like Vishal Bhardwaj references none other than Danny Boyle. The immediate charge would be a seeming lack of originality yet I feel this is exactly the context in which Vishal Bhardwaj’s latest film should be viewed and appreciated, as an extended and playful homage to the beguiling nature of masala cinema. Trainspotting is the film that Vishal Bhardwaj makes reference to in the opening sequence of ‘Kaminey’. I’m not really a fan of Trainspotting but it is still one of the few British films that tried to suggest social realism may be a tradition but it does not have to be the only way in which to communicate with the spectator. Visceral cinema is not typically what comes to mind when thinking of British films yet self reflexive devices like the voice over, freeze frame, montage, hyper kinetic editing and neurotic camerawork that characterised ‘Trainspotting’ are all incorporated into the breathless style of ‘Kaminey’ and no better is that illustrated than in the fragmented opening sequence which boldly instructs the audience to abandon the reliance on narrative linearity.

‘Kaminey’ is equally a film about the city of Mumbai and the use of locations are in a way familiar from the cinema of Ram Gopal Varma yet the technically accomplished cinematography and choice of discontinuous camera shots gives the narrative an inspired potency. Unlike the past, today when a mainstream Indian film tries to imitate the visual look of a Hollywood biggie, it is able to compete on a comparatively assured level of technical excellence.

‘According to Manmohan Shetty, who runs a film processing business, AdLabs, a sea change occured in 1978 when Kodak introduced a negative film that could be processed at high ambient temperatures improving colour resolution. At about the same time, professionally trained technicians in editing, cinematography and lighting began entering the commercial industry from film institutes in Pune and Chennai, vastly improving the quality of film production’

Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres In Contemporary Indian Cinema. Lalitha Gopalan, 2002, BFI.

This cross fertilisation between British and Indian sensibilities reveals the globalised nature of film making today and at least in terms of style I would argue that Danny Boyle’s ‘Trainspotting’ seems to act as the clearest and most explicit point of intertextual reference for Kaminey, even though in terms of its genre and narrative the film harks back to the spirit of the super-genre masala film. It is the playfulness which makes ‘Kaminey’ such an exhilarating cinematic experience yet it would equally valid to put forward a counter argument that criticizes postmodern cinema as meaninglessly vacant.

Though this may be true of some Hollywood high concept vehicles, the lack of an explicit ideological perspective seems to be best symbolised by a failure like Michael Bay’s ‘The Island’ which wrongly interprets Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism (product placement dominates) into cinematic terms and all even without a hint of irony or intellectual point of reference. The much brutalized and discussed notions of style over substance and dumbing down have become synonymous with postmodern cinema but these negative features can be restrictive when appraising the work of contemporary film makers and their relationship to post modern values. Post modernism is a relatively new phenomenon to Indian film makers and though a new generation of middle class, cine literate directors like Rohan Sippy, Farhan Akhtar and Omprakash Mehra represent a continuation of the mainstream masala film, today’s youth oriented cinema like that of Tarantino openly plagiarizes, re-appropriates and quotes liberally from what is a back catalogue of populist cinema. This also partially explains the recent trend in remakes that have plagued the Indian mainstream including much derided reworkings of Amitabh classics like ‘Sholay’ and ‘Don’.

Simultaneously, the last few years have seen a steady array of high profile, well financed and commercially successful post modern masala films that function primarily through this idea of a shared cultural cinematic capital. Perhaps the most popular and superficially engaging of these films has been Farah Khan’s ‘Om Shanti Om’. A virtual tribute to the masala film of the 1970s, ‘Om Shanti Om’ features a song in which Shah Rukh Khan and his heroine celebratory dance their way through a time warp of classic songs. With the aid of digital technology, Farah Khan juxtaposes the contemporary figure of Shah Rukh Khan alongside iconic stars like Rajesh Khanna and Shashi Kapoor – this obsessive and cinephile referencing goes to prove how a film like ‘Om Shanti Om’ epitomises the post modern style. Frederic Jameson defined pastiche as a stylistic mask with little or no depth, imitating the past without any kind of serious intention or underlying meaning. Such an empty definition of post modern pastiche seems appropriate in the case of ‘Om Shanti Om’ as it offers the full masala package but fails in really suggesting anything of ideological significance. Perhaps it is easy to simplify films like ‘Om Shanti Om’, reducing them to an eclectic pastiche of cinematic ideas and intertextual references.

‘Kaminey’ also falls into this blank label of pastiche but what differentiates it from other similarly inspired masala crime films is a technical finesse and pulsating energy – this doesn’t so much allow it to transcend the limitations of genre, it rather evolves into a nostalgic homage of Vishal Bhardwaj’s cinephile concerns. In ‘Kaminey’, Shahid Kapur plays a double role as twin brothers – one has a lisp, the other a stutter and though they were not separated at birth, the reasons for their estrangement from one another is only revealed at the end in a typically 70s style including a clawing sentimentality and monochrome cinematography. Such are the wider mythological and religious dimensions attached to the double role motif, its inclusion in the film provides one of the film’s strongest post modern signatures. The narrative arc of the downtrodden struggling to rise out of poverty is another convention of the masala film – Amitabh’s on screen persona of Vijay finds itself resurfacing to haunt the specter of Charlie who also believes that taking the ‘shortcut’ in life will bring empowerment yet his entanglement with the underworld of politicians and gangsters unveils the traditional idea of moral redemption.

A cult film like Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’ continues to be held in high regard for its intelligent capacity to embody many of the traits of today’s postmodern society. This is why:

A glum silence falls. Guys look at each other.

TYLER
I see in fight club the strongest and
smartest men who have ever lived —
an entire generation pumping gas and
waiting tables; or they’re slaves
with white collars.
(more)

TYLER (cont)
Advertisements have them chasing cars
and clothes, working jobs they hate
so they can buy shit they don’t need.
We are the middle children of
history, with no purpose or place.
We have no great war, or great
depression. The great war is a
spiritual war. The great depression
is our lives. We were raised by
television to believe that we’d be
millionaires and movie gods and rock
stars — but we won’t. And we’re
learning that fact. And we’re very,
very pissed-off.

The crowd erupts into a DEAFENING CHORUS of agreement. Jack looks at the blazing excitement in the eyes of the crowd.

‘Fight Club’, (Dir. David Fincher, 1999, US)
Screenplay by Jim Uhls

What the demagoguery of Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) underlines is the universal failure of ideology, what many postmodern writers refer to as the rejection of ‘metanarrative’ – large scale theories and ideologies like communism, capitalism, science, religion which have seemingly failed to eradicate poverty, abolish the vast economic and class divisions and give a sense of purpose to the lives of most people. In today’s postmodern world, no absolute truths exist anymore and Durden’s criticism of the false needs engineered by capitalist consumer culture represents one of the most radical political critiques that have emerged from the realms of mainstream American cinema. Postmodern cinema in which we typically encounter a nightmarish dystopia may seem like the future but is in fact the present as this idea of living in age of uncertainty is most truthful when considering how suspiciously we view authority and mistrust institutions.

Though we don’t encounter someone as politically radical as Durden in ‘Kaminey’, it is a film that lives and breathes in the uncertainty and anxiety of a contemporary urban Mumbai society. Unlike Durden, Charlie is the apolitical capitalist and though he achieves his ultimate goal, his fondness for the shortcut comes out of India’s rapid economic progress. Not only is the police corrupt and the politicians are gangsters in disguise, this concept of uncertainty that characterises postmodernism finds expression in the widespread and systematic failure of major institutions like the police, education, governmental politics and the media. Ironically enough and quite typical of the masala film, it is the forces of tradition including family which seem to act as the clearest ideological route and resolution for characters like Charlie and Guddu.

The final moments and the need for explicit closure is where ‘Kaminey’ finally shows a lack of inspiration. Yet once again, Vishal Bhardwaj lifts the final crazed shoot out and massacre straight from the ending to the Tarantino scripted ‘True Romance’. However, this is where it gets a little complicated when discussing intertextual references in today’s cinema as we all know that Tarantino borrowed heavily from the final shoot out in Peckinpah’s ‘Wild Bunch’ and also ‘Badlands’ for the central idea of the two lovers on the run. However, unlike Malick’s ‘Badlands’ that is marked by a subdued and open ending, the cynically constructed ending to ‘Kaminey’ is much closer in tone to Tony Scott’s ‘True Romance’ in which we are relieved to find our anti heroes alive and well in the milieu of an exotic beach with the mocking image of a sunset hovering in the background. In the end, ‘Kaminey’ has to embrace closure and give us the happy ending or else this wouldn’t be Vishal Bhardwaj‘s unashamed tribute to the legacy of the masala film.

The film has been heavily promoted with the standard set of trailers and collective fanfare that tends to envelop such high profile media savvy projects. This is another UTV production and it might be useful to begin considering the tensions between authorial preoccupations and the institutional stamp a studio like UTV brings to the films they finance and market. Featuring a noteworthy performance from Shahid Kapur and his best performance to date, Vishal Bhardwaj’s use of Amol Gupte (the writer behind ‘Taare Zameen Paare’) as the twisted Mumbai slum patriarch turned politician Bhope Bhau is inspired casting. I wasn’t too sure about Priyanka Chopra as I always get the impression that she tries too hard but one of the creative tensions of working in the parameters of a mainstream film like ‘Kaminey’ demands compromises in all departments especially casting.

Writer Lalitha Gopalan says that Indian cinema and Bollywood in particular is a cinema of interruptions. Unlike the linearity of Hollywood narrative, mainstream Indian films are regularly interrupted by a series of musical numbers and additionally the half time intermission means that most films actually have two openings and two endings, which of course is quite true and points to the discontinuous nature of Bollywood narrative. Only a handful of directors including Bhardwaj are adept enough to integrate the songs into the narrative so that this idea of interruption is far less noticeable to audiences unfamiliar with Bollywood cinema. The quality of the soundtrack is on par with the level of subversive energy that characterises many of Bhardwaj’s musical compositions – especially infectious is the ‘Dhan Te Nan’ track which ironically savages and remixes the highly iconic 70s masala soundtracks.

‘There is no doubt we learn a great deal from vigilant readings of cinema’s hegemonic influence that reveal its power to affirm ethnic stereotyping, sexism and jingoism, and caution is against being taken in by its dazzling surface. But all too often we tend to play little attention to questions of pleasure’

Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres In Contemporary Indian Cinema. Lalitha Gopalan, 2002, BFI.

Kaminey is superior entertainment, reflecting the collective concerns and preoccupations of a progressive, liberal and westernized group of young Bollywood film makers who are rejoicing in the art of exploring guilty cinematic pleasures. I shouldn’t but I am going to end this analysis with a contradictory statement; ‘Kaminey’ maybe a postmodern film but it is a pleasurable one at that.

References.

Cinema of Interruptions: Action Genres In Contemporary Indian Cinema. Lalitha Gopalan, 2002, BFI.

Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures: A Ziauddin Sardar Reader. Edited by Sohail Inayatullah and Gail Boxwell, Pluto Press, 2003.

Bollywood Cinema: Temple of Desires. Vijay Mishra, Routledge, 2001.

video essays

This page will be updated with video essays. I also have a presence on Vimeo.

Lal Salaam! – Naxalite Cinema from Omar Ahmed on Vimeo.

A Video Essay on the representation of Naxalism in Indian Cinema from the Past and Present.

The Wandering Soul – A Video Essay on Apur Sansar (1959) from Omar Ahmed on Vimeo.

A video essay on Apur Sansar – the final part of Bengali film maker Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy.

Iconography in Indian Cinema: Trains – Part 1 of 3 from Omar Ahmed on Vimeo.

Trains is the first in a series of video essays examining the significance of iconography in Indian cinema. The first episode looks at the centrality of trains as a metaphor for life, death, partition and love.

Iconography in Indian Cinema: Trains – Part 2 of 3 from Omar Ahmed on Vimeo.

This is the second part of the video essay on trains in Indian cinema.

Iconography in Indian Cinema: Trains – Part 3 of 3 from Omar Ahmed on Vimeo.

This is the third and final part of the video essay on trains in Indian cinema.

the story of ‘Hindie’ cinema: an introduction

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This piece was written for The Daily Pioneer in India, titled ‘The Hindie Cinema’ in 2014. 

The history of independent cinema in India has in the past been an intermittent one, beset by a dearth of funding, insufficient distribution and disinclination by critics to take directors seriously. The most sustained and creative period arose with the parallel cinema movement or New Indian Cinema in the late 1960s involving state funding from the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). Directors included Mrinal Sen (Bhuvan Shome, 1969) and Mani Kaul (Uski Roti, 1969). It is not unforeseen the current new wave of independent directors take inspiration from the accomplishments of parallel cinema. One such director is Anurag Kashyap. In the space of ten years, starting with his debut Paanch in 2003, Kashyap has become the face of contemporary Indian ‘indie’ cinema. However, it is presumptuous to contend Kashyap has been the sole talisman in the emergence of a new wave that includes Dibakar Banerjee, Anand Gandhi, Kiran Rao, Anusha Rizvi, Abhishek Chaubey, Q and Vikramaditya Motwane.

One has to re-narrate the current story being written about ‘Hindie’ cinema, beginning in 1994 with the film English, August and director Dev Benegal. In fact, it is a journey that has taken twenty years. Dev Benegal, nephew of acclaimed director Shyam Benegal, made two key films in the 1990s that were distinctively indie in terms of both form and content. Whereas English, August (1994) and Split Wide Open (1999) were financed outside of India, most of the independent films financed today are supported by studios and production companies with an extensive production slate. Though Benegal could be labelled a transnational filmmaker akin to Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, his contribution should not be overlooked in the evolution of indie cinema. Both English, August and Split Wide Open were part of a loose body of films, arguably deemed a ‘first phase’ in contemporary indie cinema, characterised by youth oriented narratives and controversial subject matter. A common link amongst the films including Kaizad Gustad’s low budget Bombay Boys (1998) was the presence of Rahul Bose, a talented actor with an international profile who has remained close to the indie scene. This first phase of a new wave of Hindi cinema also underlined the potential of the comedy genre and particularly satire as a vehicle for extrapolating the generational anxieties of a disillusioned middle class youth in an increasingly globalised India. The origins of the indie comedy tradition can arguably be traced to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), a cult film and key work of parallel cinema.

The late 1990s saw two important developments that paved the way for a potentially vibrant and creative indie cinema. The first, an institutional one, was the opening of India’s first Multiplex in New Delhi by PVR with 4 screens. Not only did this expand prospects for indie films to get distributed more widely but it created a new audience: the Multiplex crowd (predominantly middle class) with tastes different to the mainstream. The second was the release of a realist gangster-crime film, Satya (1998). While Satya spawned a cycle of ‘Mumbai noir’ films, it more crucially established the talents of director Ram Gopal Varma, writer Anurag Kashyap and composer Vishal Bhardwaj. Satya arrived just as Multiplex culture was taking shape and readily appealed to audiences looking for seemingly familiar content re-presented in new modes of cinematic address. The noughties were a transitional period for the Hindi film industry. Industry status certainly re-configured what had become a narrow and dubious hegemonic funding structure controlled by a handful of powerful producers and studios. An influx of new production banners like UTV Motion Pictures and Pritish Nandy Communications were willing to take a risk on new filmmakers, genres and alternate content. It is no coincidence the story of independent cinema accelerated in this period, leading to the rise of iconoclastic directors like Kashyap. At the same time, state funding was still backing projects such as actor turned director Rajat Kapoor’s 2003 film Raghu Romeo, an underrated black comedy with a notable performance by Vijay Raaz. Rajat Kapoor continues to work steadily in the indie comedy genre, producing work that has often been overlooked.

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Financial support for the independent sector has not been exclusively studio led. Hindi film stars such as Aamir Khan have also moved into film production. Recent successes include Dhobi Ghat (2011) and Peepli Live (2010), both debut films directed by women, deal with prescient social issues involving class, poverty and exclusion in a neoliberal contemporary India. Ekta Kapoor, a television producer, also foresaw the commercial potential of indie cinema, distributing films like Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (2010). In response to the growth of the independent film sector, in 2008 UTV Motion Pictures set up their own indie production arm titled UTV Spotboy, backing audacious films such as Aamir (2008), Dev D (2009) and Udaan (2010). Most recently, UTV acted as distributor for director Anand Gandhi’s critically acclaimed debut feature Ship of Thesus (2012).

If Rahul Bose was a key collaborative element in the first phase of the new wave of indie cinema then Abhay Deol rapidly came to occupy a similar position in the second phase. Between 2007 and 2010, Deol appeared in over a dozen independent films, working with directors such as Dibakar Banerjee (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!), Anurag Kashyap (Dev D) and Dev Benegal (Road, Movie). Deol who is part of a Bollywood film dynasty lacked the typical star baggage and had an understated quality as an actor that was readily exploited by directors. Remarkably, Deol has been surpassed by the impressive rise to fame of Nawazuddin Siddiqui who is currently one of the busiest actors working in the independent sector. If Indian indie cinema had yet to go global then the creation of the London Indian Film Festival in 2010 (committed to showcasing indie films) reiterated the significance of a new wave that had a reach beyond merely domestic borders.

A survey of Indian cinema in 2013 confirms the ascendancy of indie cinema but also the way new directors continue to emerge. Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), Ajay Bahl (B.A. Pass), Ashim Ahluwalia (Miss Lovely), Gyan Correa (The Good Road), Anand Gandhi (Ship of Thesus) and Amit Kumar (Monsoon Shootout) all debuted to critical acclaim in 2013. In this context theorising a new wave becomes virtually redundant since each year sees the debut of many new filmmakers. Perhaps the new wave to have had the most lasting impression is parallel cinema. Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Mrinal Sen paved the way but did so in an engaged aesthetic and ideological spirit, questioning the norms of the Hindi film industry. 2013 could easily be declared as the year of Anurag Kashyap, a figure who is conceivably the most important working in the Hindi film industry today. Kashyap not only produced Lootera (2013) but also persuaded director Tigmanshu Dulia out of the director’s chair to act in his gangster opus The Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Kashyap had a hand in the three Indian films that were selected: Monsoon Shootout (producer), Bombay Talkies (one of the directors) and Ugly (director). He also produced a compilation film in 2013 titled Shorts, which got a limited release. Lastly, you can also add The Lunchbox, a much-admired romantic comedy, to his achievements for 2013, which he helped to produce alongside Karan Johar.

It may seem impossible to find a consistent thread that connects the new waves and independent cinema of the past and present but there is one overarching connection. This is actor Naseeruddin Shah; the most accomplished actor of his generation. Part of me is always relieved to see Shah’s name in the cast list of the latest indie feature as it usually means the film is going to be good. Not only has Shah starred in countless independent films but he has also worked with many of the major indie/art cinema directors of the last fifty years; Goutam Ghose, Mrinal Sen, Anurag Kashyap, Shyam Benegal, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Govind Nihalani, Abhishek Chaubey to name a few. Shah has become iconographic to the way we recognise indie cinema and a much sought after actor given his astonishing range. In many ways, the story of Naseeruddin Shah is also the story of independent cinema and that is a story worth telling again and again.

reclaiming blade runner from the past

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Introduction: Interrogating the Past

If Blade Runner (1982/1992/2007) is a film that has been reclaimed from the past then such a modified position does in fact also leave the filmic past behind, reconstructing the film’s new identity as both a cult film and science fiction landmark within a contemporary context. The critical discourse on Blade Runner may have extinguished the painful memories of the films past history but by doing so the film has been removed from its original contextual determinants. Re-imagining a film in the present can be problematic especially for a film like Blade Runner, which is an open text, continually being reassembled by its director Ridley Scott[1]. The difficulty with re-assembling a film in the present means you are also re-writing the narrative of film history and inadvertently obscuring the origins of a text. The academic discourse that has been generated by Blade Runner is both esoteric and comprehensive yet it is not complete. Barbara Klinger[2] may be right in saying, ‘exhaustiveness, while impossible to achieve, is necessary as an ideal goal for historical research’ (Klinger, 1997: 108). Although writers like Paul M Sammon[3] in his book on Blade Runner demonstrates a totality in terms of narrating the film’s complicated history, this is just one of many ‘extrafilmic fields’ used ‘to interrogate cinema’s relation to its historical context’ (Klinger, 1997: 109). Much has been written of the film’s status as a genre film and this has been complemented by numerous ideological interpretations by writers such as Robin Wood, Philip Strick and Scott Bukatman. Although Klinger (1997: 109) argues that ‘studying a film’s connection to a single external field is obviously not enough to portray exhaustively the elements involved in a film’s social circulation’, my singular study of the ‘extrafilmic field’ of reviews will expectantly contribute to the idealistically unattainable goal of constructing an all-inclusive understanding of the film’s past.

Blade Runner’s failure at the box office[4] is evident in much of the literature that surrounds the film today. The same cannot be said for the lack of critical discourse on the way the film was reviewed by critics in 1982. This is a relatively unexplored area and I want to pursue Klinger’s (1997: 118) argument that ‘the study of review journalism reveals a great deal about the terms governing a film’s cultural circulation.’ I am not claiming that no consideration has been given to film reviews but what seems to be absent from the discourse on Blade Runner is a cross-cultural comparison which could prove to be vital in challenging the way the film has been characterised in mainstream discourse. In this case, the cult following of Blade Runner has accelerated the obfuscating of the past since its contemporary status as a science fiction masterpiece[5] articulates a filmic closure that should never be conferred to any film.

Though my focus will be on interrogating specific film reviews from 1982, it is impossible to address reviews exclusively in isolation since they exist and function in relation to wider contextual elements that are subsequently bound by dominant ideologies of the time. The work of writers Robin Wood, Michael Ryan and Douglas Kellner are chiefly pertinent here in situating the negative critical reaction to the film within wider triumphalist Reaganite sentiments of America’s resurgence in the 1980s. I have also studied film reviews of Blade Runner in relation to other science fiction films released around the same time. Such a comparative approach in terms of genre not only validates a familiar antipathy to science fiction as a film genre but also isolates innate ideological and authorial biases.

I am weary of using the categories of negative, mixed and positive since they bring with them a simplistic and perhaps reductive way of classifying film reviews. The purpose of this study is to negate such awkward processes of categorisation and reveal the way such processes structure populist opinion. In the context of film review journalism, the three broad categories of negative, mixed and positive can be defined as follows. Negative typically means a film with few, if any, redeeming facets. A mixed review usually means three stars on a five star rating system and suggests that the film has some notable qualities. Finally, a positive review is one that seems to fully embrace a film and endorse its finer qualities. Since reviews tend to reflect the filmic, political and moral preferences of a given writer, the simplified way that reviews are collated and talked about disguises such prejudices. Unveiling such prejudices or biases can only be accomplished in relation to the wider context.

Of the sixteen reviews included in the entry for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, eight were negative, five were mixed and only three were positive in their critical analysis of the film. Yet it is important to emphasise that the three positive reviews expressed certain reservations. Based on the sixteen reviews alone, the critical response in the US was overwhelmingly negative and in some cases openly hostile. First I want to investigate the three levels of critical opinion inferred from the sixteen reviews then discuss the relationship between the film’s deeper political subtext and the biases expressed in the reviews.

Negative Responses: Vitriolic Sentiments

Many of the negative reviews were incriminatory of the film’s failure to anchor the impressive visual design against a comprehensible narrative. Tom Milne’s review from Monthly Film Bulletin stated: ‘The sets are indeed impressive, but they are no compensation for a narrative so lame that it seems in need of a wheelchair.’ Such vitriolic sentiments were shared by Archer Winsten writing for The New York Post, ‘The picture is really nothing more than that basic battle between Good and Evil…the kids may be able to swallow this stuff without gagging.’ Even David Denby, a credible voice of film criticism, articulated a hostility usually reserved for contemporary high concept blockbusters, calling Blade Runner ‘a terribly dull movie.’ The hostility did not stop there, with Gary Crowdus criticising the film for its apparent lack of genre innovation, ‘Blade Runner is little more than a tired genre item dressed up in a futuristic setting.’ Such negative criticism concerning the film’s use of genre conventions seems surprising today as it was Blade Runner that initiated the emergence of future noir[6], a sub genre of science fiction cinema. Since Blade Runner’s first release, the academic discourse on science fiction cinema has broadened considerably and so have the sub genres. One principal dynamic, which helped shift critical opinion on the film, is the rise of cyberpunk as a sub culture in 1983. Released in 1982, and predating populist cyberpunk literature (William Gibson’s Neuromancer was published in 1984), Blade Runner is generally regarded as the origins not only of cyberpunk cinema but postmodern science fiction cinema[7].

Some of the negative reviews seemed much more determined to amplify the film’s apparently sensationalist representation of violence. Charlene Krista, writing for Films in Review, offered a reactionary voice, ‘Scott utilizes the no holds-barred “blood and guts” technique.’ Krista’s criticism exaggerates the level of violent content in the film and makes it appear as though it was gratuitous. Krista goes on further to say, ‘Although Deckard’s extermination of the first three replicants is gruesome by any standard, Scott elevates these grotesque blood baths to a level of macabre art.’ Krista’s review is deeply flawed since the language in which she writes about Blade Runner is better suited to describing a gory horror film. Krista was not alone in her disapproval of the violence yet her misinterpretation of Blade Runner unconsciously points to an innate misunderstanding of how to adequately read a science fiction film within its appropriate genre framework. While academic discourse on science fiction cinema has increased over the years, it is still being decoded as a genre.

Re-reading Science Fiction Cinema

Annette Kuhn’s formative work is of some relevance here since she posits reading the science fiction genre demands a far greater emphasis on iconographic interpretation: ‘Science fiction is usefully looked at in terms not merely of narrative themes and viewpoints, but also – and perhaps more significantly – of the cinematic image; at the levels of iconography and mise-en-scene’ (Kuhn, 1990: 6). Based on Kuhn’s criteria, Blade Runner’s central mode of address is largely iconographic yet the very achievement of the film, the visuals, isolated by many of the reviews is simply insubstantial since we have the consensual declaration that any film relying to heavily on visual effects will be met with unenthusiastic criticism. Incongruously the technophobia[8] evident in many of the best dystopia science fiction films of this era including Blade Runner also find a tangible resonance in the unhelpful criticisms concerning the role of visual effects in such films. The Thing and Tron, two other science fiction films released in the summer of 1982, were criticized for focusing too much on technical wizardry and not enough on story. Interestingly, both films have also been reclaimed from the past and resituated within the lexicon of influential science fiction cinema.

The perception that mise-en-scene and iconography should be in equal synthesis with a rational, engaging narrative is a hegemonic interpretation of the functions and pleasures of mainstream cinema. Such hegemonic attitudes concerning the ideological and aesthetic content of mainstream Hollywood films are detectable in many of the negative reviews, echoing my earlier claim that science fiction needs to be interpreted in a way markedly different to other film genres. Richard Corliss opens his review by posing the following questions: ‘Is atmosphere smothering the storylines of smart new science-fantasy movies? Is texture overwhelming the text?.’ This line of questioning regarding science fiction cinema’s over reliance on mise-en-scene and iconography (in this case texture) to construct an imaginary future is flawed since it fails to comprehend that ‘texture’ is essential to the very fabric of the genre. Since many science fiction films tend to foreground and fetishize aesthetics this would in some respects challenge the practice of a holistic approach to film form that characterizes Hollywood cinema. Remarkably, some regard Blade Runner as the first and maybe only Hollywood mainstream science fiction art film[9]. So in reality were critics not simply dismissing Blade Runner because it was an uneven science fiction film or because it was science fiction with art film preoccupations? Which ever way you look at it, the negative critical response to Blade Runner propagates a cultural elitism ‘which regards popular media and genres as beneath serious critical attention’ (Kuhn, 1990: 1). Unfortunately even today science fiction cinema faces such cultural obstacles.

Mixed Responses: Reservations

The initial reservations outlined by the mixed responses to the film inadvertently point to some of the changes that would eventually be made to Blade Runner in its director’s cut release in 1992. Paul Elitzik, writing for Cineaste, expresses misgivings concerning the ending to the film, ‘Whether or not this future world has a place for happy endings, the “north” is too suddenly invented and the intrusion of wishful fantasy is jarring in its sentimentality.’ Such an observation raises a key debate concerning the film’s happy ending and the concept of narrative closure. Elitzik wasn’t alone in expressing his doubts about an ending bolted on by a major studio nervously marketing a big budget science fiction film. In his Film Quarterly review, Michael Dempsey was also critical of the way the ending seemed to undermine the character of Rachael, ‘when his narration suddenly reveals that she is not programmed to die in four years like the other replicants, finishes off whatever poignancy still remains in her situation.’ In light of the new improved ending that appeared in the film in 1992 as part of the director’s cut, Elitzik and Dempsey’s comments seem somewhat crucial in generating an early discourse about one of the major flaws with the 1982 theatrical release. Richard Corliss was another critic who gave Blade Runner a mixed response, disapproving of Harrison Ford as Deckard, ‘Ford, the cockily engaging Star Warrior of Raiders of the Lost Ark, allows his heroic stature to shrivel inside it.’ Harrison Ford’s role prior to Blade Runner had been as the phenomenally successful Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Ford cultivated a star image typified by a clean-cut heroism and with Reagan in the Whitehouse; a return to heroism was in the ascendancy. Corliss was not alone in his refusal to accept Harrison Ford as a violent, unsympathetic anti-hero since audiences did not want one of their heroes deconstructed on such cynical terms[10]. The role of stardom in the critical reception of Blade Runner implies the prejudices of critics were predicated along wider public sentiments and personal readings of Harrison Ford as a star.

Positive Responses: Voices in the Crowd

Although negative and mixed reviews dominated, the three positive reviews make for fascinating treatise. Whereas Michael Dempsey’s extended critique appeared in the winter of 1982 and Kellner, Leibowitz and Ryan’s piece was published in 1984 as one of the first attempts to restore the film’s reputation, the only film review at the time (according to the Film Review Annual) that fully embraced the film in the US, without any notable reservations, was by Joseph Gelmis writing for Newsday. Gelmis clearly understood science fiction cinema more than his contemporaries and probably knew how to read and contextualise Blade Runner within the genre. Gelmis had famously trashed 2001: A Space Odyssey when it first opened in 1968 but gradually in two further critiques changed his position, finally becoming a fervent supporter of the film in 1969. In his assessment of Blade Runner, Gelmis said the film ‘is a vividly disquieting nightmare vision, a somber cautionary tale like ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ Comparing Scott’s film to Kubrick’s controversial dystopian masterwork was high praise indeed. The congratulatory tone struck by Gelmis was a lonely one in the mainstream but it was significant in stating that Blade Runner needed to be taken seriously.

Perhaps the review that presented the fullest ideological appreciation was by the journal Jump Cut. Writers Douglas Kellner, Flo Leibowitz & Michael Ryan consider the film as an ideological text and position the differing social and political aspects within a wider cultural studies framework. By maintaining an ideological critique of Blade Runner within a wider context makes their work stand out as somewhat pioneering in the field of studies that now surrounds such an influential film text. In ‘Camera Politica’, Michael Ryan & Douglas Kellner expanded upon their original 1984 analysis of Blade Runner, referring to the fantasy genre during the early 1980s as offering ‘some of the most radical critiques of American society’ (Ryan & Kellner, 1990: 244). Politically, it is not surprising why so many critics simply reacted against the film’s radicalism. The replicants as slaves of the capitalist system are the marginalised, invisible underclass in Reagan’s new America and their centrality to the narrative means that the film ‘calls attention to the oppressive core of capitalism and advocates revolt against exploitation’ (Ryan & Kellner, 1990: 252). Criticisms of corporate capitalist power and its exploitation of the proletariat had been a key ideological component of Scott’s first science fiction film Alien (1979). While many reviewers failed to make a thematic connection between the two films in 1982, capitalist exploitation has resurfaced yet again in Ridley Scott’s latest science fiction film Prometheus[11] (2012).

Changing Genre Attitudes

Most news publications adopt an editorial agenda, which was evident in the biases at work in the reviews to Blade Runner. Before I have a closer look at some of the differing biases, it is important to underline science fiction had been transformed by the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster in the late 1970s. Robin Wood argues that the impact of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in the late 1970s imposed new expectations about the science fiction genre. The success of films such as Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind[12] (1977) reconfigured the genre so escapist audience pleasures became dominant whereas radical modes of address or counter hegemonic representations were suppressed. Such genre bias within audiences led to the failure of certain films as Wood outlines: ‘Today it is becoming difficult for films that are not like Star Wars to get made, and when they do get made, the public and often the critics reject them: witness the box office failure of Heaven’s Gate, Blade Runner and King of Comedy’ (Wood, 2003: 147). It is hard to dismiss the cultural impact of Star Wars since it was a science fiction film that reshaped the expectations of film audiences and critics alike. Although the politics of Star Wars were not as transparent since they were disguised by the surface aesthetics of old Hollywood and cultural mythology, Blade Runner took an oppositional approach to the genre, ‘making it one of the most politically engaged of all SF films, a genre typically noted for its lack of political content’ (Booker, 2006: 178). Maybe Blade Runner was a film that could never have succeeded in Reagan’s new America of greed, exploitation and individualism.

Biases: Ideological, Institutional, Authorial, Cultural

A key bias when it comes to discussing popular genres such as horror and especially science fiction films is cultural snobbery. Although science fiction films are still equated with low culture, academic discourse has fought hard over the years to impose a serious ideological approach. The review from New Leader by Robert Asahina is explicit from the outset about his derision for science fiction literature, ‘Let’s face it: as a (sub-) literary genre science fiction is trash. Enjoyable sometimes, but junk nonetheless.’ Asahina goes further still equating Blade Runner and other science fiction films released in the same year with fast food, thus representing the genre as disposable, fun and ultimately meaningless: ‘Perhaps the least appetizing of the bunch is Blade Runner.’ Had the film not attracted a cult following or a director’s cut emerged then it is probable that Blade Runner would never have been taken seriously. The film’s categorisation as science fiction would have been enough to dismiss its relative worth as nothing more than low cultural trash.

If the low culture argument holds weight then how do we account for the favourable critical reception of E.T.?, a science fiction film released before Blade Runner. A potential ideological bias may be at work. In terms of ideology, Blade Runner offers what is a critique of capitalist culture whereas E.T. repeats familiar Spielbergian authorial traits concerning suburbia, family and crucially, the validation of the American dream. In his enthusiastic review of E.T., writer Denby excludes discussions regarding the film’s sentimentality and sexism, ‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is one of the most beautiful fantasy-adventure movies ever made.’ So why does Denby condemn Blade Runner yet embrace E.T. when in truth both have their flaws? An authorial bias could also be part of the reason why Denby favours E.T. over Blade Runner since Spielberg’s career up to that point had marked him out as a credible film auteur with a reasonable body of work. This was not the case for Ridley Scott who had only made two films before the release of Blade Runner: The Duellists (1977) and Alien. It may be fair to say that Ridley Scott lacked the authorial credibility of a filmmaker like Spielberg and so a film like Blade Runner was more prone to attacks in its 1982 critical reception. Not only did the negative critical response make it much more difficult for Blade Runner to find an audience but it also suggested to audiences that within the category of mainstream science fiction cinema, E.T. was a much better film. Interestingly, Phyllis Deutsch writing for Jump Cut in 1983 openly challenged the positive mainstream critical consensus of E.T. by arguing ‘the film’s sexism is explicit in the sexual stereotyping of its characters.’ Unfortunately such ideological analysis was unnoticeable in the glowing critical response to E.T.[13]

The review by Christian Science Monitor emphasises the inherent problems posed by publications, which have an overtly ideological agenda. Christian Science Monitor is a religiously inclined publication, consistently exhibiting a puritanical attitude to the depiction of violence in Hollywood films. David Sterritt’s review opens with the following, ‘Blade Runner was directed by Ridley Scott, who seems determined to outdo the violence of his hit Alien.’ Later he says, ‘only a few scenes are marred by sadistic outbursts‘ and concludes with ‘it doesn’t add up to much excuse for the vicious violence.’ Sterritt’s opinion of the film is shaped by a conservative reaction to representations of violence in the film. In this wider editorial and institutional context, the negative response does not seem wholly unexpected. For further proof of the way Christian Science Monitor reviewed Blade Runner, Sterrit’s review of E.T. makes for an instructive comparison: ‘Add to this the movie’s lack of violence and witty visual puns, and you have a summer entertainment that should please nearly everyone.’ Yet again, the issue of violence seems to be a key determinant in Sterritt’s overall judgement of a film especially science fiction. Although I have picked out Christian Science Monitor as an example, a closer analysis of the other publications would probably reveal similar editorial biases.

Complicating the Past

I want to thank Roy Stafford for bringing my attention to the work of Philip Strick especially his writings on science fiction cinema.

It has been well documented that the critical responses to Blade Runner in 1982 veered between mixed and negative but what is unclear is how the film was received in other parts of the world especially Europe. A wider study of the international critical response to the film in 1982 would permit a cross-cultural comparative approach that might be useful in fully explaining the differences in which the US and Europe regard science fiction as a film genre. Additionally, such a comparison might also re-address the consensus regarding the film’s negative critical response especially in the US since reviews Europe in particular might reveal an appreciation of the film’s finer points that would be at odds with the films mainstream discourse. One notable point of critical comparison exists in the writings of Philip Strick.

In the summer of 1982, The Monthly Film Bulletin, a British film periodical, published a five page article by noted film writer Philip Strick titled ‘The Age of the Replicant.’ What separates this article from the US critical response is that Strick goes to great lengths to contextualise Blade Runner by exploring the replicants within what he argues was ‘the steady growth of a robot oriented culture’ (Strick, 1982: 168). Strick goes on further to outline the work of Philip K Dick as an important science fiction writer, whose reputation was much more revered in Europe than in the US at the time. Such a claim is echoed by writer Philip K Dick in an interview used in the opening to the documentary On the edge of Blade Runner (2000, C4), ‘The American people are basically anti-intellectual. They’re not interested in novels of ideas and science fiction is essentially a field of ideas.’ In his article Strick does not seem particularly interested in placing a value judgement on the film, which sets him apart from much of the polarised critical responses of the time, and he may have been alone in 1982 in situating the film within the sphere of academic science fiction discourse.

Strick’s scholarly approach to the film and the science fiction genre in 1982 confirms that the work of Philip K Dick in Europe was viewed intellectually. If Strick’s article values science fiction cinema as ideologically important then it also elucidates the prejudices of critical snobbery that existed (and continue to exist) especially in the US mainstream media towards many science fiction films. Perhaps then it is not surprising that in 1982 Blade Runner was not an exception when it came to the mainstream critical response to science fiction films in general. The Thing, another science fiction film backed by a major studio and released in the same week as Blade Runner, also met with a hostile critical reaction for its gory violence, indifferent characters and pessimistic tone. Remarkably, The Thing is another science fiction film that has been reclaimed from the past[14]. In many ways, the article by Strick has been overlooked in the context of the critical reception of Blade Runner in 1982 but its repositioning in the discourse of the film certainly complicates our understanding of the film’s past.

Conclusion: An Impossible Enterprise

It was the intervention of film preservationist Michael Arick who discovered a 70mm print of Blade Runner (a work print version of the film originally screened in Denver in 1982) that eventually led to the release of a director’s cut in 1992. This new and improved version of the film was met with favourable response, validating the enthusiastic fan discourse. In 2007 Ridley Scott made yet more aesthetic changes to a version titled The Final Cut. The protracted history of the film and the dismissal of the theatrical version have meant Blade Runner is continually in flux, responding to changes in terms of ideological frameworks such as the emergence of postmodernity. In the words of J Hoberman, ‘Like Orson Welles Touch of Evil, Blade Runner is even a film without a fixed version.‘ This makes the film a very complicated text to study for film scholars and even more problematic for the field of reception studies.

The critical reception greeted by the film in 1982 was largely hostile but the mixed responses in particular accentuated three consensual misgivings about the film, which would later be altered for the 1992 director’s cut. The first aspect concerned the voice over narration[15], which was criticized by Michael Dempsey as ‘often grotesquely awful in its strainings after Chandler-like rough diamonds of knight-in-the-sewer wisdom.’ The work print version screened before a preview audience did not feature a voice over narration. The second aspect concerning Deckard’s memories and his status as a replicant, which would eventually in 1992 see the inclusion of a crucial unicorn dream sequence, was in fact highlighted when Dempsey discusses the false memories implanted in Rachael, ‘For his own apartment is full of photographs that are “false memories”…Scott does not really develop this memory/photograph theme to its fullest.’ The 1992 inclusion of the unicorn dream does indeed develop this theme of memories and brings in to doubt the human identity of Deckard. Lastly, and perhaps most rightly concerned the ending. The happy ending, another change imposed by the studio, was yet again criticised by reviewers in 1982, as it did not fit in with film’s overall bleakness. The 1992 director’s cut rectified this imposition, ending indefinitely with the elevator doors closing on Deckard and Rachael.

Given the way the film continues to change every so often, as evidenced by the 2007 Final Cut that saw more amendments, a ‘total history’ of Blade Runnermay well be an impossible enterprise’ (Klinger, 1997: 127). Nonetheless, the reason Blade Runner is an interminable text in the field of reception studies is due in large part to a past that has been complicated and challenged by the present. The film review journalism from 1982 and beyond tells us that ‘not having a voice in interpreting history can mean the silencing of contestation’ (Klinger, 1997: 128). To do so would mean acquiescence to the status quo so it is important that the ‘cultural circulation’ of Blade Runner continues to be contested since new ways of interpreting the past can uncover new truths.

Bibliography

Booker, M. Keith (2006), Alternate Americas: Science Fiction Film and American Culture, Praeger Publishers

Bukatman, Scott (1997) Blade Runner, BFI

Klinger, Barbara (1997) ‘Film History terminable and interminable: recovering the past in reception studies’, Screen 38: 2

Kuhn, Annette (ed.) (1990), Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema, Verso

Sammon, Paul (1996), Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner, Orion Media

Redmond, Sean (ed.) (2004), Liquid Metal: The Science Fiction Film Reader, Wallflower Press

Ryan, Michael & Kellner, Douglas (1988), Camera Politica: The Politics and Ideology of Contemporary Hollywood Film, Indiana University Press

Ozer, Jerome (ed.) (1983) Film Review Annual – 1982, Englewood

Ozer, Jerome (ed.) (1993) Film Review Annual – 1992, Englewood

Strick, Philip (1982) ‘The Age of the Replicant’, Monthly Film Bulletin, Vol. 51, No. 3

Strick, Philip (1992) ‘Blade Runner Telling the Difference: Does the director’s cut show that Deckard is a replicant?’ Sight and Sound, Vol. 2, Issue 8

Telotte, J. P. (2001), Science Fiction Film, Cambridge University Press

Wood, Robin (2003, revised), Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan…And Beyond, Columbia University Press

List of reviews accessed

All reviews are for Blade Runner unless stated otherwise.

Chicago Sun-Times, 2/6/82, Roger Ebert

Christian Science Monitor, 7/15/82, p. 18, David Sterritt

Christian Science Monitor, 6/17/82, p. 18, David Sterritt (E.T.)

Cineaste, Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1982, p. 60, Gary Crowdus

Cineaste, Vol. XIII, No. 3, 1983, p. 46, Paul Elitzik

Film Quarterly, Winter 1982-83, p. 33, Michael Dempsey

Films In Review, 8-9/82, p. 429, Charlene Krista

Jump Cut, No. 29, 2/84, p. 6, Douglas Kellner, Flo Leibowitz & Michael Ryan

Jump Cut, No. 28, 4/83, p. 12, Phyllis Deutsch (E.T.)

Los Angeles Times, 6/25/82, Calendar/p. 1, Sheila Benson

Monthly Film Bulletin, 9/82, p. 194, Tom Milne

New Leader, 7/12-26/82, p. 19, Robert Asahina

New Republic, 7/19 & 26/82, p. 30, Stanley Kauffmann

New Statesman, 9/10/82, p. 27, John Coleman

New Statesman & Society, 11/27/92, p. 33, Jonathan Romney (Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut)

New York, 6/28/82, p. 54, David Denby

New York, 6/14/82, p. 73, David Denby (E.T.)

New Yorker, 7/12/82, p. 82, Pauline Kael

New York Post, 6/25/82, p. 45, Archer Winsten

New York Times, 6/25/82, p. C10, Janet Maslin

Newsday, 6/25/82, Part II/p. 4, Joseph Gelmis

Newsweek, 6/28/82, p. 72, Jack Kroll

Time, 7/12/82, p. 68, Richard Corliss

Village Voice, 7/6/82, p. 147, Andrew Sarris

Village Voice, 9/15/92, p. 61, J. Hoberman (Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut)

Filmography

Forbidden Planet, 1956, Fred M. Wilcox

Touch of Evil, 1958, Orson Welles

Alphaville, 1965, Jean-Luc Godard

A Clockwork Orange, 1971, Stanley Kubrick

THX-1138, 1971, George Lucas

Solyaris (Solaris), 1972, Andrei Tarkovsky

The Duellists, 1977, Ridley Scott

Star Wars, 1977, George Lucas

Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977, Steven Spielberg

Alien, 1979, Ridley Scott

Heaven’s Gate, 1980, Michael Cimino

Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981, Steven Spielberg

Blade Runner, 1982, Ridley Scott

The Thing, 1982, John Carpenter

Tron, 1982, Steven Lisberger

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, 1982, Steven Spielberg

The King of Comedy, 1983, Martin Scorsese

Starman, 1984, John Carpenter

The Terminator, 1984, James Cameron

Mosquito Coast, 1986, Peter Weir

Frantic, 1988, Roman Polanski

Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, 1992, Ridley Scott

Ghost in the Shell, 1995, Mamoru Oshii

Dark City, 1998, Alex Proyas

On the Edge of Blade Runner, 2002, Mark Kermode

Minority Report, 2002, Steven Spielberg

Kingdom of Heaven, 2005, Ridley Scott

Blade Runner: The Final Cut, 2007, Ridley Scott

American Gangster, 2007, Ridley Scott

Robin Hood, 2010, Ridley Scott

Prometheus, 2012, Ridley Scott

Looper, 2012, Rian Johnson

NOTES

[1] Since Blade Runner Ridley Scott has struggled to release many of his later films in a final version. If the director’s cut of Blade Runner improved upon the original studio version then surely this must be the same for Scott’s other films released in a new version? Although Kingdom of Heaven certainly proves this argument, the same cannot be said for American Gangster or Robin Hood.

[2] Barbara Klinger (1997) suggests two ways of approaching reception studies: synchronic and diachronic. A synchronic approach is concerned with ‘practices associated with film production, distribution and exhibition that shape the film the audience finally sees’ whereas diachronic looks at the ways in which a film has changed over time with a focus on academic discourse, reviews, fandom and a film’s appearance on other platforms such as television and home video. However, Klinger argues whereas a synchronic approach is more clearly defined, diachronic needs developing.

[3] Paul M Sammon’s book ‘Future Noir: The Making of Blade Runner’ (1996) offers the most comprehensive account of the film’s origins, production, evolution and cult status.

[4] On its initial 1982 release, Blade Runner grossed a total of $27,018,472. The film’s budget was $28 million. However, over the years it has been released theatrically a number of times including the director’s cut in 1992 and the final cut in 2007. No figure exists of Blade Runner’s overall gross on the home video platform. This is likely to be significant since it has been popular on VHS, DVD and now Blu-ray.

[5] In Sight and Sound’s 2012 greatest films of all time poll Blade Runner appears at number 69.

[6] Future noir (also known as science fiction noir and tech noir) is a sub-genre, combining film noir with science fiction. Notable examples include Alphaville (1965), The Terminator (1984), Ghost in the Shell (1995), Dark City (1998), Minority Report (2002) and most recently Looper (2012).

[7] For one of the best readings on Blade Runner as postmodern science fiction, see Giuliana Bruno’s ‘Ramble City: Postmodernism and Blade Runner’ (pg. 183 – 194) in Annette Kuhn’s ‘Alien Zone: Cultural Theory and Contemporary Science Fiction Cinema’.

[8] Kellner and Ryan describe technophobia films as ‘fantasy films concerning fears of machines or technology’ and in the case of science fiction films in the 1970s and 1980s, they ‘negatively affirm such social values as freedom, individualism, and the family’ (1988: 245).

[9] Blade Runner’s status as a science fiction art film is relatively under discussed. It’s slow pace, reliance on atmosphere, and cerebral nature makes it more akin to science fiction films like Solaris (1972), THX-1138 (1971) and Forbidden Planet (1956).

[10] Blade Runner was one of many films Ford would star in the 1980s which saw him trying to break free from his star image of the heroic leading man. Both Mosquito Coast (1986) and Frantic (1988) saw him cast against type. Although both films were well received, they failed at the box office.

[11] In Prometheus, Scott maintains the threat posed by corporations to humans especially the workers. In Alien, the mining corporation Weyland uses an android to protect the Alien creature at the expense of the crew on the cargo vessel.

[12] Close Encounters of the Third Kind was influential in initiating a cycle of science fiction films that represented extra-terrestrials as unthreatening and peaceful. Other films include E.T. and Starman (1984).

[13] Ryan and Kellner offer a reading of E.T. (pg. 261 – 265) as an ideological text in ‘Camera Politica’, discussing the film’s ‘fantasy of regression’ (Kellner & Ryan, 1988: 262).

[14] To illustrate the hostile critical response to The Thing, here is an extract from a review by Vincent Canby: ‘Sometimes it looks as if it aspired to be the quintessential moron movie of the 80’s – a virtually storyless feature composed of lots of laboratory concocted special effects, with the actors used merely as props to be hacked, slashed, disemboweled and decapitated, finally to be eaten and then regurgitated as – guess what? – more laboratory-concocted special effects’ (25/6/82, The New York Times).

[15] Harrison Ford was opposed to the idea of a voice over for the film. However, his underwhelming narration was still used by Warner Bros. for the 1982 release.