Saturday, October 07, 2017

How Can It Not Know What It Is? On Blade Runner 2049

I think that I may have grown up watching Blade Runner. I do not mean that I watched the film several times growing up, although that is probably the case, but something happened when I first watched it that was integral to growing up. All of this is because I grew up, in the first sense, watching Harrison Ford play a hero; Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were a big part of my childhood imagination. I had the toys and I am sure I went as Indiana Jones one Halloween. So when I saw Blade Runner for the first time, I think on VHS, I expected the same comic book morality of good versus evil and the same wisecracking character (Let's just be honest and admit that Han Solo and Indiana Jones are basically the same character). The movie both thwarted and ultimately exceeded my expectations: in its failure to live up to my action packed expectations it redefined what made a good film. I do not think that I could watch films again in the same way; incidentally, I am fairly sure that it was my attempt to see the film on the big screen a few years later that drew me to my local art house theater, the Cleveland Cinematheque. It is not just that Blade Runner has a formal connection to film noir and larger film world, for me it had an anecdotal one as well. 

I am not going to rehash all of the ways in which Blade Runner subverts the standards of the science fiction action film. They have been pointed out elsewhere, but suffice to say, when Deckard, the hard-boiled anti-hero, is not getting his ass kicked, he is shooting unarmed (android) women in the back as they run away. I am not going to rehash those points in part because I want to make a different point, a point that seems worth making in a series of movies about the manufacture of memories, and that has to do with this overlap between memory and history, between experience and pop culture. Far from a crude division between things we directly experience (or the primary and secondary retentions that make up memory) and things that we consume through the countless mediations of words, images, sounds, and screens (or tertiary retentions) it is perhaps more accurate to say that experience is the intersection of the two. It  is not just childhood we experience or the Star Wars trilogy, but a childhood framed by Star Wars (the original trilogy or prequels). Generational differences that explain our attachment to particular cultural products. Or, to make a more Stieglerian point, generations are defined less by some passage through the years as parents beget children than their place with respect to the periodization of different cultural products. How else could someone like the Star Wars prequels, or the original for that matter. I remember hearing someone say once with respect to Walter Benjamin, nostalgia is just memory of a prior stage of commodification. Part of what we like about these films from our childhood is not just that they remind us of our naive past, but of a simpler time of cultural production. 

All of this might just be a preamble to say that any sequel would necessarily fail to meet my expectations: just as there is no Star Wars film that could possibly recreate seeing the first one at seven, there is no Blade Runner sequel that could recreate having my definitions of film challenged at thirteen. 

There is sometimes a crude dialectic to sequels when they do not try to repeat the original; if the first one travels back in time, the second will travel into the future and so on, creating difference in the crudest possible terms. There is a little of that in Blade Runner 2049. Where the first film gave us what might be a human hunting replicants the second gives us a replicant searching for what might be a human. (This change further underscores the fact that the blade runner as basically a slave hunter. As Chamayou demonstrates historically slave hunters were often drawn from the very population they were meant to patrol) At a deeper level the first film presented us with a replicant that believed she was real because of fake memories, while the second gives us a replicant who believes he is fake because of real memories. Or, rather, he is aware that memories are implanted and thus understands his own memory, his subjectivity to be made rather than formed. Sticking with these crude reversals, and holding off on the spoilers for a bit, the most interesting reversal has to do with the Voight-Kampff test.

In the first film this was the machine that separated human from replicant, marking humanity through emotional intelligence. No such test exists thirty years later, as replicants have become more sophisticated, living long enough to develop their own emotional intelligence. This does not mean that the test, or a variant of it has disappeared, however, the replicant cop, K (Ryan Gosling) must regularly report to a kind of device that measures his emotional baseline. Emotional intelligence functions less as a law, drawing a divide between human and nonhuman, but as a norm, as something that must be continually reinforced. Whereas the first film presented a sharp division between human and replicant, the sequel is more complex. There are different generations of replicants, with different abilities to obey or disobey, and replicants are not the only artificial life.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film concerns the relationship between K, the replicant, and JOI his artificial companion. JOI appears as a hologram, first limited to K's apartment and later, through a portable projector, able to travel with K. She is advertised as "Everything You Want to Hear/Everything You Want to See," and provides the complete "girlfriend experience" performing both emotional labor and sex work. The question with her, as with the replicants, is how much of her is program and how much is her own initiative. She seems willing to risk her own well being to assist K, but of course her constant devotion and care could be "everything you want to hear," exactly what she was designed to do, or it could be an autonomous action, a bond between AI and android.

This is a high tech version of the paradox of "emotional labor," the labor of bartenders, baristas, and exotic dancers: it is expected, demanded, and in some sense programmed, but must always appear as freely undertaken, as autonomous. We all know that the barista at our local coffee place must smile and laugh at everyone's dumb joke, but we delude ourselves into believing that he or she is laughing  at our jokes, that we are truly "liked" by the people we pay to act friendly towards us. "More human than human" is not just the Tyrell company motto, but  everyday life under the regime of affective and caring labor. We are constantly confronted with people who are friendlier to us than we deserve, greeting our gruff indifference with friendly smiles and courteous service, but these people are for  the most part barely seen as people to us. More human than human is never far from than less than human. Perhaps we need a Voight-Kampff test for day to day life, to navigate the confusing world of emotional labor, and remind us that there are people underneath those smiles. Perhaps someone can design an app.

The relationship between an android, or replicant, and AI is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film, suggesting a kind of solidarity amongst different exploited nonhumans, but unfortunately it is fairly marginal.  All of the allegories about labor and exploitation, of nonhuman subjectivity, is dropped in favor of a religious metaphor and the reproduction of family bonds--the thermidor of contemporary film. This is perhaps what the sequel shares with the original. The truly interesting stuff is at the margins.

To return to the themes of memories, both manufactured and lived, that I started with, the second film picks up where much of the speculation about the first film, at least the director's cut leaves off, with a question of a memory: is it fabricated or real? As I suggested at the outset, I found myself asking the same questions about my memories of the first film. The answer is both, that all our most treasured memories are both invented and real, but you really can't expect a film to breakdown that wall.

One last aside, and a spoilery one at that, the digital recreated Rachel that appears at the end, looking just like Sean Young in the original is not new, we have seen digital restored youth (and life) before, Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing in Rogue One, but this is the first time form matched content. 

1 comment:

seymourblogger said...

I will see it now for sure. Thank you.