Berlin Diary 2: Revel in Your Time
While in Berlin I make the decision to stay on my depression and anxiety medications and stay stable instead of working on any writing. Which is why I’m writing about this four months later, by the way. I brought with me a new notebook and twenty-five pages of a horror screenplay I had started writing in 2016. I had thought of Berlin as a safer mental/physical space to hole up. Maybe pound out a draft of something. I also had planned to be trashed the whole time. Neither happened. I had a broken foot and a rental car, I went to museums and zoos. I went to the movies a lot.
While waiting in the Newark Airport I purchase the book Future Noir: the Making of Blade Runner on impulse, as I did not think to bring any other books. Future Noir has recently been reprinted in an expanded edition that features stuff about the terrible sequel and new interviews, blah blah. I had it and the new 2001 making-of book in my hand and decided on Blade Runner because it felt more Berlin-specific (the Von Braun connection must have escaped me). I think this was the correct choice aesthetically, but it definitely was not the best choice of books. The book is awful. Paul M. Sammon, the author, is a former publicist who was on the set for Starlog magazine. He’s been obsessed with it, which is a great chance for writing an insider take on something (The Devil’s Candy, for example, is a savage takedown of the entire production). Sammon is a publicist at heart and shares no insight to the material. He isn’t really providing anything juicy, either, especially since the original version of the book was cannibalized for the hours and hours of bonus material on the dvd box set released a few years back. Those documentaries are visually interesting and get into how insane and nasty the set of Blade Runner was, how difficult it was for everyone involved, and the gargantuan effort to finish the most aesthetically unified movie ever made. Everyone in the process talks some level of shit — Hampton Fancher got fired by reading his replacement’s new scenes. Syd Mead was charging his day rate and nearly bankrupted the company. Harrison Ford openly hated Sean Young.
The thing reads like a brochure.
Blade Runner has problems like any great movie (perfect movies are different) but it takes four or five genuises to make a world so complete. Production designer Mead (and Moebius, who turned down the initial offer to do Mead’s job to work on a cartoon, and Enki Bilal who they just stole from — Michael Mann once told Bilal that every production designer in the world had read his comics), cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth, special effects artist Douglas Trumbull, screenwriters Fancher and David Peoples. All of which is to say: auteurism is bullshit, but Blade Runner is maybe Ridley Scott’s only “personal” movie. His later (meaning “after the first 4”) films are very humane despite being unweildly in scope, and he is frequently returning to the idea of faith as he ages… but Blade Runner is about his brother dying young.
Ridley, a workaholic who couldn’t stand to sit idle, was waiting in pre-production on Dune. The second version, the one no one talks about. After Dino De Laurentis fired Alejandro Jodorowsky from his famous disaster production (see: the documentary your nerd brother-in-law won’t shut the fuck up about), Dan O’Bannon took the creative team to Ridley to produce Alien. De Laurentis came knocking and said “it’s time for you to have your own Star Wars”. Ridley had to wait a year, though, and couldn’t bear to after his brother Frank had passed. His take was essentially about a terrorist cell in the vein of Battle of Algiers with very little of the mysticism both Jodorowsky and later David Lynchwould bring to their adaptations. So Ridley walked away from Dune and tried to make a smaller film on quick turnaround. The original script for Blade Runner was fully set in interiors, and was a morality play. Scott, a devotee of Heavy Metal and french comics since working with nearly its entire staff on Alien, wanted to show the world outside. Moebius’s short story with screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, The Long Tomorrow, was a heavy influence on Ridley’s take on a noir set in the future (James Cameron would later use big chunks of the short story’s dialog in Aliens). The look of the streets is Moebius’ invention. He owns the film without any participation. The same with Bilal’s pale, thick-lipped figures. Rutger Hauer claims he took the job because Ridley mentioned Bilal in his first meeting with him.
So Ridley was working out his relationship to death, in a movie that appears to be all surface, has been accused of being so since it opened in 1982 (same day as The Thing). There’s a real anxiety in Scott’s film about what it means to be alive and what it means to live for yourself. What it means to fall in love, even force yourself to fall in love because it means you’re alive for those few seconds. Blade Runner’s dichotomy is that the humans are the REAL robots which coming from a post-Blade Runner world that sentiment feels so empty and false.
It’s about all the little moments, it doesn’t matter what cut of the film you’re watching — Roy Batty lying that he wants to save his friends, Deckard saying “do you love me” as he absentmindedly touches his gun to Rachel’s face, Rachel looking into the camera as she’s crying ensuring we know she’s a robot. It’s a world, and in fact it is our real world, fully realized.
The reason it’s not like other movies that bring genius production design to the fore is that I feel these moments. Hauer asked Ridley Scott if he could “add all the elements that weren’t supposed to be there” before he took the job. That’s a perfect way to think about writing something as aesthetically solid as “a robot”. Put in all the things he’s not supposed to. Deckard being a replicant — he is, btw, fuck the sequel — doesn’t matter. Like the man says in Total Recall, the other good Philip K Dick movie with a labyrinthine production history, “You are what you do”.
The women in Blade Runner are all replicants, which is certainly not subtle. The idea of women as objects as explicit text in sf is nothing new (the prostitutes in Soylent Green are called “furniture”). In this world, the solve to shooting a woman in the back is a badge waved at street cops. A woman shooting a man(robot?) means she’s going to be on the run for the rest of her short life. Even Roy Batty treats his fellow women replicants as sentimentalized dolls. The idea of a slave caste being manmade is the same as any other dehumanizing factor: like any other inequality, the replicants are sex workers, even the “combat unit” played by Joanna Cassidy.
The music video director Chris Cunningham once said that it doesn’t matter if he watches the director’s cut of Blade Runner or not, because he watched it so many times as a kid he still hears the voiceover. I still hear it, as bad as it is. Cunningham was a model maker on the staff of Alien 3, where David Fincher and (Blade Runner cinematographer) Jordan Cronenweth once took a day off of pre-production to go see a revival of Blade Runner playing down the street, and the print that was sent to the theater was accidentally the assembly cut — without the credits or voiceover. So everyone who loves Blade Runner now should remember the only reason we have it is because of David Fincher made a phone call to try to get it released. None of this is mentioned in the book, by the way, which I recommend you never read. Cronenweth died a couple weeks into production on Alien 3, his son now shoot’s Fincher’s best stuff.
Sammon’s book was hitting me at a time of a lot of self doubt, and it was so hard to read — not difficult, but like, a pain in the ass — that I thought I had fried my brain and the problem was me. I don’t enjoy being on antidepressants and have had to change the ones I’m on several times trying to get the right one. Lexapro made me gain a huge amount of weight, several others gave me nightmares, another just didn’t work, it sucks. At this moment in the narrative I’m thinking I’ve done the thing everyone worries about. That I’ve erased my personality and mental capacity with low dose SSRIs. I stopped writing for over six months. I couldn’t write in the new situation. I was just exhausted. It took me two weeks to read the stupid book, including an 8 hour plane ride. It made finally watching the movie more enjoyable, because this little thing that made me miserable suddenly didn’t count. The movie was still beautiful and brilliant. It still felt like the world I wanted to keep going back to.
I watched Blade Runner very early — my uncle showed it to me before he transformed from a sculptor into a heroin addict and neo-nazi (we don’t need to use prefix anymore, I guess). It was one of the very few movies he owned on VHS and I watched them every time I went to his house. Along with Akira, Brazil and Highlander; which I cycled through over and over. All of them except Brazil have the 80s science fiction movie crawl, and all of them start with a deep percussion noise. The reason I think i ever read science fiction, watched anime, got into non-superhero comics, etc. is because I have a strong emotional relationship with sitting unobserved in front of a television and hearing that noise. All 4 are urban hellscapes, feature a lot of wide angle lenses, you know the deal. He also gave me Frank Miller’s Ronin and Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg which are of an aesthetic proto-cyberpunk piece. I wanted to be in that world, having never seen a city outside of a movie until I was 6 or so. I lived in the woods, in my grandparent’s basement. There was nothing more attractive than a collapsing megalopolis full of neon and danger and cacophonies of language.
Blade Runner, of course, is heavily indebted to both german expressionism (expressionist film, I should have pointed out in the previous entry, as Hitler despised expressionist painting). There are many shots in the miniature sequences that are shot for shot from Lang’s Metropolis, especially in the first 10 minutes of the film. Stanley Kubrick took a special interest in the Scott Brothers when they were up and coming commercial directors. He went as far as allowing Tony Scott to direct a single shot in Barry Lyndon before either brother had made a feature. Kubrick had cast Joe Turkel in The Shining specifically for his facial similarity to Goebbels and suggested him to Ridley for the same reason. Turkel is one of the rare actors who appears in more than one Kubrick film; he looks startlingly like a young Lou Reed in Paths of Glory. Turkel’s facial closeness to Goebbels works much more thematically in Blade Runner than the “blood drenched history of America” subtext of The Shining. Eldon Tyrell is a eugenicist, who makes a slave race of genetically perfect superhuman white people, who lives in a mausoleum inside a cavernous Deco-Bilal pyramid.
The thing about Blade Runner and Berlin is I often felt like I was in the movie. In a way I hadn’t experienced. Obviously it was on my mind, but frequently I found myself in my ugly rental smartcar listening to my gps interrupt the bootleg Vangelis score. The one I keep on my phone like it was the constitution and I was an infowars creep. Vangelis has made it difficult to legally obtain his full score, as Jerry Goldsmith made it difficult to get his scores for Ridley’s Alien and Legend — Scott had a pattern of forcing a lot of production out of people who don’t like to be pushed, and so we have to track down weird torrents of fan-assembled edits that still aren’t whole.
Ridley also liked casting inexperienced young brunette women in his early films because he liked to push them around. Sean Young could barely act and he treated her like a prop, and arguably damaged her confidence when she’s probably giving the best performance in the movie. She’s perfectly cast, and has never been since.
Ever since Berlin, particularly since I first drove at night in the city, I have had moments where you feel how close our world is to Blade Runner. In New York, it’s stuff like video walls playing in the rain, new construction buried in weather patterns that are the obvious side effects of climate change. The world trade center is lit up with a cascading animation of a melting rainbow for pride month. This just makes me feel like totalitarianism and commercialism have won, they’ve taken a real thing that really meant something and turned it into another fucking valentine’s day. It feels worse than cop cars looking more and more like Blade Runner’s spinners, and cops are in military gear just like the film. Like Robocop, this stopped being commentary and started being prophecy in a way that is more uncomfortable than we acknowledge.
Neuromancer novelist William Gibson always notes he and his Mirrorshades cohort failed to predict smartphones but the ravenous nature of capitalism was always at the heart of cyberpunk. The brands always win, the orientalism and rayguns and metaphorical computer spaces couldn’t outshine that fact. Now when people watch 80s movies they joke about “evil corporations” because it is assumed that corporations are ubiquitous and undefeatable. Did Raytheon change its logo for pride this year? Next year maybe?
Philip K Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was obsessed with a looming climate apocalypse, the movie only illustrates it. Off-world colonization requires a slave class of genetically developed robots. The world is ravaged by pollution and overpopulation and becoming polyglot due to globalization. Despite this, all the characters with jobs have gargantuan apartments. The implication of refugees and a non-english speaking underclass, always on screen but uncommented on. Blending the aesthetics of the european stacked future cityscapes Moebius and Bilal and the realistic slow motion apocalypse Syd Mead designed happened. Everything looks like a smartcar bathed in shit and parking meters could behead you if you kicked them. The trash trucks, the talking signs, the battery charging stations, the umbrellas, the haircuts — they just look normal now.
This year it rains in LA pretty constantly and they have an escalating homelessness problem that is colliding with a city focused on planning for a coming olympic games, mirroring the plot of the other definitive cyberpunk movie, Akira. Both films were set in 2019.
Berlin made me feel like I was in Blade Runner in good ways — the spiderweb layout of the city and it’s specific lighting patterns felt very Los Angeles, November 2019, but so did the little details. The way neighborhoods that would morph between completely empty to claustrophobically congested in the space of a few blocks. Driving past a Kentucky Fried Chicken the dimension and size of a Circuit City. Enormous Bauhaus buildings by the gnarled Tegel airport, abandoned or dilapidated cold war structures, towering corporate headquarters jammed right up against the highway. A three story McDonalds nestled in the middle of a BMW dealership parking lot, next to a museum, next to a river.
I would drive around listening to Vangelis, orange block fluorescents in the tunnel syncing to the synthesizer washes. I loved getting lost in the middle of the night in Berlin seeing tree-lined back alleys, turning suddenly onto the overwhelming sprawl. The neverending highways that feel like Kraftwerk made them instead of the nazis. it just felt genuinely like a cyberpunk city. The way it must feel in modern Shanghai and Tokyo. Tokyo has since become described as a more psychedelic than crushing. It doesn’t feel like Akira. I know people say Chinatown in New York looks cyberpunk but to me it looks like 48 Hrs. They just say that because of all the neon and inbred casual racism for asian/english polyglot signage.
Until this year I never felt like I was living this movie in the way that I feel I am now… it’s a very strange experience, because I think New York doesn’t really look like the megalopolis. Especially not where I live in Brooklyn everything is tiny. When I see large glass buildings I feel Adam Curtis narrating, not synth washes or taiko drums. Blade Runnerhas bifurcated as a world in my head now, which is sad because in Berlin it felt at times the most exhilarating thing I could possibly do was be in Blade Runner for the moment.
Two days after moving to NYC I walk a ridiculous distance in the rain to a movie theater on the third floor of a building and I stood watching a looping video of Kylie Jenner dancing against block colors as my cvs umbrella snapped in the wind. It was the scary Blade Runner that I never romanticized, the one they wanted to warn us about. Every object sells us another object and we destroy our world and pretend to have jobs and behave against our own best interests and ignore inequality and apocalyptic weather. Just keep your head down in crowds and don’t let anyone fuck with you. Decades of trash culture have all been warning me and I got it, I got the predictions and the fear. At the same time this was always cool — we should say that the cyberpunk city is a byproduct of the 1970s urban decay and 80s social program decimations and the rise of Asian finance and western fetishism of it. Also shit just looks cool, looks correct. If you see an 80s throwback punk with a clear umbrella, that’s not a shock. You probably saw one this week.
The layered, weird fashion and art deco apartments and Moebius canyon-sized backlot streets covered in Coppola’s abandoned neon from One From the Heart. That’s just what these places are, but I never judged it as a connection to climate collapse. These people behave the way they do — like people who talk about toxoplasmosis making humans act against their own instincts, they’re right. It’s not cat shit forcing you to cross the street without looking though, it’s climate change and late stage capitalism. Panic disorders you get so sick of writing about. “That’s what it is to live in fear, isn’t it?” We stumbled into the horrible world. The one that made the fictional world so appealing. We stumbled into the signs that scream at you when to cross and the refugee crisis and cops that look like Judge Dredd villains. We know there’s something wrong. Sometimes we can find the moments where the day to day feels relevant. Hopefully it’s a good feeling rather than dread. We’re never going to get fully urban-decayed, biker hell, robot police force cyberpunk future. I don’t think we’re going to live long enough to see it. We’re as close as we’re going to get. The Mad Max/Dawn of the Dead world was never sexy or appealing, it just felt inevitable. Probably because it is.
So we live here, we’re told to make the best of it. To “take care of ourselves” and the people we love. Even as the world forces us to deal with both ourselves and the people we love drastically differently. It presses us into the cognitive dissonance of cruelty. Corporate omnipresence eats all meaning. Stuck on an overheating planet with the knowledge that we only have the luxuries we cling to because someone somewhere else is living through what amounts to slavery.
Blade Runner is a beautiful film that rose out of creativity and craftsmanship and grief. It’s not a roadmap. It is a product that defined decades of our culture and now defines our day to day lives. By accident. It concretized a real world space the way that Roadside Picnic and Stalker eventually created a way for us to understand Chernobyl and Fukushima.
What we saw as an object has become a mirror. The real one doesn’t have the romance of a story of what it means to be human. Of what it means to live your life as minutes click away, bleeding. Trying to get someone to understand why you live every second with joy and rage because you have no other recourse. We know how hard it is for someone who’s adapted to inhabit this world. It is a story of people who make dolls, who kill people, who live on the run, who discover they can’t trust their dearest, who get in an elevator and run and run and run until they will be killed because of who they are and no other reason.
It is not our story. It is our world. We’re not in the business, we are the business.
- Sean Witzke July 2019
Very special thanks to Alex Pappademas for editing help. Next up in pt. 3: