Monday, November 19, 2007

Blade Runner and the Question of Interpretation

Blade Runner is kind of an old movie. I was first released before I was... alive, I guess. Still, to my eyes, it seems like the best of (perhaps better than) contemporary cinema, and it was worth the exorbitant Manhattan prices to see Blade Runner: Final Cut a week or so ago. This is what science fiction should be. No glitzy showdowns or garish interstellar CGI plastic, but well-rendered drama, both emotionally and visually, that acknowledges that as the future arrives, emotions and human vulnerabilities aren't getting simpler... they're getting more complex, right along with the technology that protects us from them.

There are a lot of things I could talk about here. There's the differences between this and the previous Blade Runner releases, which are interesting trivia, but well-cataloged over at Wikipedia. There's also the whole bit about the 80's and cyberpunk, Sterling and Dick and Gibson's visions of the future that shuffle and grunt on the opposite end of the narrative spectrum from Star Trek's future utopia. I don't know if I want to tackle that monster, either, though. There's also a disturbing depiction of gender relations, a male-empowerment sex scene that resembles a rape scene remotely enough for casual viewers to pass over, but clearly enough to make me uncomfortable. It's something I've talked about before, though, so I'll hold off on that for now.

Instead, what I want to write about is the complexity of interpretation for a work this complex. I'm a new criticism type, through and through... I've read my share of Derrida, and I've perused Wimsatt and Beardsley... so I usually accept any work of entertainment or narrative media as something I should be picking through, interpreting for myself. I always want to personalize the story, and make it something uniquely my own by working out the connections for myself. I've done it on here a number of times, for James Bond and Unleashed, among many others.

I came to a similar cushy conclusion with regards to Blade Runner. There was something eerie and loaded about the final scene, just before the cut to the credits, and I immediately jumped to a conclusion that made perfect sense to me, even though it wasn't spelled out as such. The connection to an earlier scene, and to a few remarks by Deckard and Rachael, were the dots of meaning that I was able to connect in order to form a full picture.

Imagine my reaction when I discovered that I was "right" (in whatever way that holds). It turns out that Ridley Scott actually admitted, in an interview available on Google, that my conclusion was correct... or at least, it was his intention when he made this cut. This should have been a self-satisfied moment for me, right? I got it right, I caught the hints, I had connected the clues and the killer had just admitted that I was right about him. Neat and tidy, like Sherlock Holmes.

But I was, in fact, rather dismayed at Ridley's confirmation of my theory. Suddenly, there wasn't a real question about it... suddenly, everybody knows where to look, and the work is closed, right after I managed to open it up. Before that time, I was a fan of interpretive openness in my media, but I never thought very hard about it, except through the lens of amateur lit-crit. Suddenly, I had a new angle: an emotional reaction.

When Blade Runner was an open question, it seemed endlessly complex, like so many of the other work I'm such a fan of. This is why I liked Ada, or Ardor, and why I still remember Neon Genesis Evangelion so fondly. Their authors never bothered closing the interpretive code in these works, and openness lends a different scale to it, whether it's literature or art or entertainment. After Blade Runner, I was holding onto my insights like grains of sand I had gathered into my own personal hermeneutic sand castle. I was proud of it, and I was also jealous of it, in a way.

I should explain that last part... jealousy over a clever interpretation is a special vice that I tend to indulge whenever I can. I like having my own personal angle partly because I can explain it whenever my friends are talking about the movie. However, it also appeals because it's unverified, and I can use it to engage people in a conversation about the characters. A half-assed debate on an unconfirmed revelation can make for a lot of discussion and reinterpretation, and a small shadow can reveal serious new depths of a work of art.

There's a lesson for me as an artist, I think. On the simpler side, I'll never walk around explaining my art to people who are wondering about its "true meaning." If there's a true meaning, people can figure it out for themselves. On a deeper level, I'll avoid creating anything with a single, exclusive "meaning." If I can fold some uncertainty into the work when I create it, I won't feel like I'm closing it off too much when I finish it, and/or when people read it and/or ask about it (mental note: you have to have an audience first!)

But this also leaves open a question for the rest of the consumer universe out there (and make no mistake, I'm more of a consumer than a producer myself). Do you prefer your stories and pictures and music to be closed and explained, and to be the product of a clear, well-communicated idea? i.e. as with Ridley Scott, who communicated his idea after the fact? Or do you prefer them to be half-answered, leaving as many questions as "morals" or determinations? To put it another way: if you met the author of your favorite book, and they informed you that all your personal beliefs and reactions to it were "absolutely correct!", would you be happier for it?

I'm curious to know... if anyone, in the history of The InterNet, ever gets to the end of this blog post, please respond, cause I'd love to hear some thoughts.


MOG said...

Personally, I prefer my media open to interpretation. I think perhaps this is why I was drawn to sci-fi in the first place, and later into non-Western forms of media that often leave the reader/listener/viewer with no singular answer. The act of interpretation is just as much a part of the experience as the film or book itself. Otherwise it's simply being told what to think.

sooz said...

I actually like both - a) stories that communicate something so unmistakably clear and precise yet so deeply resonant that you just want to stand up and cheer "yeah! tell it like it is!" b) stories which act as rorshach inkblots, probing you to reveal your own nature with your interpretations. In this latter category, I include "Memento", "Little Children" & "Down in the Valley". With Memento, I learned after I saw the movie that the writer/director's interpretation was very different from my own. I might have been discouraged with this discovery if it weren't for the fact that the story was so ambivalent that I felt it invited - nay, demanded - audience interpretation; I couldn't help but believe what I wanted to about the story. On the other hand, knowing that another person shares your own unique interpretation (especially when so many possible interpretations have presented themselves), and especially when that other person happens to be the writer and/or director of the film, I imagine would certainly inspire the thrill of personal validation.


Garreth said...

Having reached the end of this interminably long post ;-) I have to say, that I've seen Blade Runner about 5 times, but considering the age of the movie, I can't recall the differences between the versions, except that I recognize a clear difference in the ending of the latest, "director's cut." But I don't really want to discuss the movie per se. Rather, I was thinking about your ideas as I struggled to fall asleep last night, and I came to an interesting observation. As a teacher of an arts and humanities class, I've often entreated my students that they are possessed of a God-like power, the power to create, to call the worlds of their imagination to existence through mastery of whatever artistic medium (read, "language") they choose. As God called the world into being in Genesis, so too does the artist call a world into being through his/her medium.

Ok, so the religious analogy may be imperfect, but hear me out. I wonder if you'd consider this: Hearing Ridley Scott voice his thoughts on the ending demystified the thing (process, product, the auteur himself)and in doing so, you've lost faith? Consider it. What happens to our existence when the mystery of life itself is revealed? Einstein offered that there are two ways to live your life, "one is as though nothing is a mystery, the other is as though everything is." I'd like to think Einstein would have believed the latter, regardless of his prodigious knowledge and theories about the universe. Couldn't the same be posited for art itself? That it's the mystery of the thing that holds us. I mean, stare at the Mona Lisa's smile for long enough, and the enigma envelopes you. If we were, somehow, to bring Leonardo back and get the answer to that smile, what happens? Collapse of world art markets and removal of La Gioconda from most conversations of "great art." What marks the wonder of our lives and our experience of art, at least from my perspective, is (and I'm quoting a wonderful young teacher I took a writing class with at Bard College some years ago)the ability "to linger at the point of wondering." We may have ideas, theories of our existence, of film maker's motives, but the beauty of those ideas and theories is that they lie just out of our reach, just enough out of sight to remain a mystery. Like a beautiful, writhing fish on the end of a line, the thoughts come wriggling to the surface only fleetingly, scintillating as they break the surface always more beautiful for their mystery. And with that poetic flourish, I'll leave you, though before I do, for some reason (probably the fish image) Yeats' "The Song of Wandering Angus" comes to mind...

Jesse M said...

Nice! I love the gradual build-up of comment length on this post. Mr. Height, I'm responding to yours primarily here, because it's prompted the first reflection on this topic since I posted this.

I can see where you're coming from... that aesthetic appreciation is a secular equivalent to "faith," something that you have to find by losing yourself in something and simply believing it and loving it because you have to. And the logic definitely follows: explaining "the point" to a film is kind of like writing a rational proof of God (re: Adams' Babel Fish)... ultimately, it robs the emotion of its autonomy, and therefore its power.

But I come from a different perspective, too. My conception of art is that it's not a one-way communication, not a soapbox, like you'd find in a political rally or a morality play. Rather, it's a conversation between an artist and a vast, undefined public, and because it happens in the space between these two (between creation and interpretation, if you will), it gives a great amount of power to both the artist and to the spectator.

I think this is where Ridley Scott lost me... not in unveiling some sort of inner machination that it turned out I didn't want to understand, but by dominating the conversation, like an annoying friend who won't listen before he talks. He didn't rob me of my faith so much as he robbed me of my power... the power he had generously given me when he created a fascinating, open-ended work of art.

Both models work for this situation, and these are only two of many alternatives, I think.

By the way, do you read the work of Cary Tennis, columnist for Your responses remind me of his responses to advice letters: he addresses deeply personal issues, and he shows how they are actually universal human issues, wrapped up in a whole theater of uncertainty and emotion, and somehow, this allows them more space to be processed and solved. If you haven't seen his work, you might want to check it out.

Garreth said...


I totally understand what you're saying. I mean, that is (if memory serves me) the modernist move in leave the ending open, the reader resolving/pondering it him/herself. And I didn't mean to imply that the "reader" was simply receiving the message the god(head) was encoding. I mean, even we, if you believe the Bible, (and I'm just playing around with the mythology, not proselytizing the divinity of the thing itself) are given the ability to pursue our own understanding of this world, to make of it what we will. That is, in essence, a conversation.

I absolutely agree with art being a conversation between artist and viewer/reader/what have you. In that way, the world "medium" performs a triple duty. First, as the stuff the artist uses to create; second as the bridge between abstract idea/concept and the reality of the creation; and third, as the conduit, the catylist, for the conversation between the artist, the concept, and the viewer/reader/etc. I agree, it's not a guessing game of figuring out intent. Artistic understanding is a negotiation that constantly evolves as we ourselves are never the same viewer twice (to paraphrase Heraclitus).

I understand the power grab you perceive in Scott's act. You're analogy to a blabbermouth is apt.

As always, I've learned quite a bit here at Benefit of the Doubt.

Thanks for the conversation.