Jayme Guokas - May 11, 1996

Blade Runner: Tee-Vee or Not Tee-Vee

Ridley Scott's 1982 film Blade Runner depicts a world in which television is not only a popular media but an omnipresent and hegemonic part of life. Televisions frame the protagonist, Deckard, when we first see him, and they line the streets like lamps. Their glowing screens illuminate every interior of the movie. They guide futuristic vehicles called spinners. Giant commercials are broadcast from the sky, and a staggering birds-eye-view of the city reveals that huge televisions punctuate the landscape. We are astounded by this future, yet also realize that a screen is exactly what we are watching.

Hal Foster defines the word visuality: "sight as a social fact (rather than) a physical operation (ix)." Blade Runner's semiotic maze is deeply critical of contemporary modes of visuality, which can be traced back to the invention of the photograph and even to the 'discovery' of perspective. The camera has come to affect "the simultaneous affirmation and negation of the representational apparatus (Owens 103)." In the words of Thomas Lawson, "even as photography holds reality distant from us, it also makes it seem more immediate... Right now a truly conscious practice is one concerned above all with the implications of that paradox. Such a practice might be called 'postmodern' (162)." Blade Runner engages in this project through its complex imagery of eyes and screens. These images might be called postmodern because they both characterize and problematize contemporary Western visuality.

Not only that, but the movie goes even further by extending our current state into the future and envisioning its consequences. Temporality becomes fractured by the setting of the science fiction film in the future. Annete Kuhn writes that such pessimistic visions of the future, "the dystopias of contemporary science fiction, mirror the profound social decay we are experiencing (16)." For Ridley Scott the locus of this decay is the centrality of the television in American life. The Nielson Ratings, though, are only the concrete manifestation of what might be called the degradation, or depreciation of vision itself. Walter Benjamin prefigured this concern with the claim, "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art (221)." Ridley Scott carries this mistrust of photography into the postmodern age of three-television households, video games, and virtual reality.

Blade Runner "poses Los Angeles as the quintessential postmodern city," and presents a "pastiche of temporality in its architectural elements (151)." Moreover it was made in Los Angeles in 1982, it is set in Los Angeles 2019, and we watch it in 1996. Anne Friedberg claims that this "subjective timelessness... is a condition of the mobilized virtual gaze of spectatorship itself (177)." Vision has been made mobile in the last century, extended through space and time, with the proliferation of cinema and television. Visuality has been silently transformed by the loss of identity which is inherent in the watching of movies: "Immobile, surrounded by darkness, the spectator becomes the passive receiving object who is also subject (Studlar 612)." Benjamin also understood this shift: "The audience's identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera. Consequently the audience takes the position of the camera (228)." The suspension of disbelief is relegated to the back of the moviegoer's mind, yet Blade Runner attempts to bring it to the surface; attempts to demystify the experience of watching a movie or television.

The opening shot of the film is a panorama of a dark city. The title, "Los Angeles November, 2019," appears, telling us not only where the movie is taking place but where we are, when and where to shift our subjectivity. The city is a silhouette of skyscrapers and points of light against gray clouds. Smokestacks shoot forth flame, and lightning and explosions and spinners shatter the horizon. What appears next is an eye, filling the entire screen, and reflecting the infernal cityscape. Another shot of the city depicts a pyramid at the base of a column of light, and then the same nameless eye. The eye is returning our gaze, and also mirroring our gaze. It shows us the reflections of the city which were, a moment ago, reflections of the movie screen in our own eyes. It problematizes the viewer's relationship to the movie screen and throws subjectivity into question.

In his agenda for the postmodern age, Michel Foucault claims, "the subject should not be entirely abandoned. It should be reconsidered, not to restore the theme of an originating subject, but to seize its functions, its intervention in discourse, and its system of dependencies (137)." The movie theater, and by extension contemporary visual culture, is highly conventionalized, and deeply embedded in ideologies. A person at the movies, or in front of a television, or playing a videogame, or even writing a paper on a Macintosh, loses his sense of self. The eye in this shot invites us to watch the movie with a fresh vision, or at least to be momentarily aware of where we are: in a dark room before a screen. This awareness is carried throughout the movie with its omnipresent screens and eyes.

The opening scene, Leon's interrogation, is replayed for us three times as Deckard uses it in his investigation. Screens are within the larger screen, the film itself, and Deckard watches with us what we have already seen. The presence of a camera during the opening scene is accounted for: it was a part of the narrative. This movie-within-a-movie theme lends the film a self-conscious quality, an awareness of its own movie-ness. The theme is carried out, less explicitly, through the world full of televisions which is Scott's vision of the future.

Another thing which contributes to this self-consciousness is its appeal to the conventions of film noir. Annette Kuhn calls this "meta-enunciation," meaning that the viewer is expected to be aware of film history and the different genres of movies (146). The movie-within-a-movie theme is played out in the set of Tyrell's sparse office. A giant window on the back wall resembles a movie screen because of both its size and the darkness of the room. The theater is mirrored within the theater, and Tyrell even darkens the room by a futuristic technology in which a tint descends the height of the window.

The viewer's place in relation to the movie, which Blade Runner itself clarifies, has been the topic of feminist film criticism since the seventies. Laura Mulvey discussed at length how "the extreme contrast between the darkness in the auditorium (which also isolates the spectators from one another) and the brilliance of the shifting patterns of light and shade on the screen helps to promote the illusion of voyeuristic separation (307)." Indeed, voyeurism comes up later when Deckard searches a dressing room for "little dirty holes they drill in the walls so they can watch a lady undress." Gaylyn Studlar argued that, rather than fulfilling such male sadistic fantasies, the movie screen recalls the pre-oedipal moment which Freud called the dream screen. This dream screen "affords spectatorial pleasure in recreating the first fetish- the mother as nurturing environment." Addressing its transformation of subjectivity, or what one might call 'being absorbed in a movie', she claimed that "In restoring the first sleep environment of the dream screen, the cinematic apparatus re-establishes the fluid boundaries to self (614)." The distance between the viewer and the screen is forgotten, and is left largely unaccounted for in filmic discourse. Another view is that "the analogical quality of the film image, its capacity to reproduce the appearance of the 'real world' is seen as evoking narcissistic fantasies." Kuhn mentions that the darkened auditorium enables the pleasure of "lawless seeing (147)." The cinematic apparatus is thus a mode of visuality which works in complex ways. Its complexity is hidden from us, though, by its seeming transparency. An interrogation of its premises is in order, a process which has just recently begun, after decades of unwavering allegiance to the Hollywood cinema.

Blade Runner features such an interrogation. The Voight-Kampff machine appears in the opening scene with Leon and Holden, and later is used to discover that Rachel is a replicant. It is a "very advanced form of lie detector that measures contractions of the iris muscle... used primarily by Blade Runners to determine if a suspect is truly human by measuring the degree of his empathetic response through carefully worded questions and statements (from the movie's press release)." A mechanical arm extends from the table and frames the suspect's eye with a red light, and a bellows rises and falls. The investigator poses situations about animals (Deckard: "You've got a little boy. He shows you his butterfly collection plus the killing jar"), and the subject responds appropriately (Rachel: "I take him to the doctor"). At the same time, the questioner watches a screen which shows the subject's eye, as well as two smaller screens and numerous readouts. We are reminded of the opening scene, for the eye now appears on one of the myriad screens within the movie itself. The Voight-Kampff machine is a menacing allegory of the way we see.

It has reduced the eye to a purely physical object, to be understood completely by science and examined for what it can reveal about one's thoughts. Later, the film takes us to Chew's Eye Works, where eyeballs are manufactured for replicants in vials of liquid nitrogen. Not only does the future world of Blade Runner fully understand optics, but sight itself can be reproduced. Tyrell responds to the Voight-Kampff machine, "Is this to be an empathy test? Capillary dilation, or the so-called 'blush response'? fluctuation of the pupil? involuntary dilation of the iris?" Emotion has no place, even in Tyrell's vocabulary. He himself has giant myopic glasses, indicating why a more perfect eye might have been invented. One of the powerful moments of the movie is Roy's death. He describes the myriad wonders he has seen, then says, "All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain." We are left to wonder if replicants can cry. They are built without emotions, yet their eyes are just like human eyes. The issues which Baudrillard discusses in The Precession of Simulacra are relevant. He characterizes a similar dystopia in which re-production and re-presentation blur the boundaries of 'the real' and make the concept of authenticity obsolete. Vision in the future of 2019 is a part of the corporate structure, and contains no mysteries. It is as emotionless as the name Deckard's ex-wife called him, 'Sushi' or 'Cold Fish'.

Martin Jay describes the foundations of Western visual reality in the quattrocento, what he calls "Cartesian Perspectivalism", in similar terms. It signified a:

de-eroticizing of the visual order... [and] was thus in league with a scientific world view that no longer hermeneutically read the world as divine text, but rather saw it situated in a mathematically regulated spacio-temporal order filled with natural objects that could only be observed from without by the dispassionate eye of the neutral researcher (Foster 9).

This is to say, the invention of perspective, and its coincidence with the science of optics, led to an understanding of what we see as an objective truth which could be rendered in a drawing more or less perfectly. This understanding developed into ideology, and the invention of the camera secured its victory. John Tagg elucidates the "regime of truth" inaugurated by the consolidation of capitalist states "in which photographs functioned as a means of record and a source of evidence (60)." 'Regime of truth' is a term he borrows from Foucault to describe the power structure which puts a premium on objective knowledge, here in the realm of the visual. Anne Friedberg further discusses how the cinema and its precursors "extended the 'field of the visible' and turned visualized experience into commodity forms (15)." It seems that sight is more at the mercy of economics and politics than our representations would have us believe. Ideology conceals its own workings. Postmodernism, though, to quote Fredric Jameson, is characterized by its "resolution to use representation against itself to destroy the binding or absolute status of any representation (Owens 110)," and attack such ideology. It attempts to undermine the "perspective construction of space- that is clearly occupied by the person for whom the scene exists, who may claim this representation as his (106)." The capitalist construction of visuality is a specific concern of Blade Runner, which, according to Thomas Byers, is critical of "the dehumanization necessary for survival in a world dominated by mega-corporations (Kuhn 45)."

The Voight-Kampff machine embodies this visual dehumanization. Not only is the Los Angeles of 2019 dominated by neon lights and commercials, but such corporate control extends into the realms of science and technology. Corporations have figured out how eyes work, and mass-produce them. Chew wears a crazy goggle contraption to do his work. People on the streets wear glasses with flashing lights and Roy teases J.F. Sebastian with a pair of glass eyes. The replicants seem to hold vision sacred, and have a unique physicality which they feel is their virtue. In a grisly act of revenge, Roy searches out the perpetrator of this corporate dehumanization and bursts his eyeballs with his thumbs.

The machine, as well as characterizing Tyrell's 'regime of truth', also serves as an allegory for picture-taking, for representation. Sontag brings to our attention that "a camera is sold as a predatory weapon," and the language about it includes such words as 'aim', 'focus', and 'shoot' (14). Quoting Diane Arbus, she claims, "To photograph people... is necessarily 'cruel', 'mean' (41)." Jonathan Crary's book about photography within the nineteenth century "society of the spectacle" features a cover illustration of an eye operation, reminiscent of a chilling scene from A Clockwork Orange.

Blade Runner's interrogation scenes are semiotically complex. The spider-like machine presents the eye to us, as well as Deckard, suggesting an investigation of our own. Within the narrative, it functions as a voyeuristic device with which the questioner can read the thoughts of subjects through their eyes. Its screens face the questioner and the subject is framed and scrutinized by the red light. The power structure of the interrogation is explicit: "the body made object; divided and studied; enclosed in a cellular structure of space whose architecture is the file-index (Tagg 76)."

While the police chief Bryant tells Deckard about the replicants, their heads rotate on a screen and their statistics are displayed. This scene embodies the participation of representation in the "engine of oppression", which Tagg describes: "the body isolated; the narrow space; the subjection to an unreturnable gaze; the scrutiny of gestures, faces and features; the names and the number boards (85)." Mike Davis' book City of Quartz regards a visuality of surveillance and paints Los Angeles in a similar light. Watching the Voight-Kampff machine, we recall the opening scene, the anonymous eye, and our own gaze is apparent. We are made to wonder whether we are participants in a similar operation.

Another of the movie's machines, called the Esper, dissects a photograph for Deckard's investigation. He inserts it into a slot, and it appears on a screen within a grid. With voice commands, he proceeds to dissect it, zooming in on one section, moving over, revealing details ever more minute. A quote from ValÈry is appropriate: "...so shall we be supplied with visual or auditory images which will appear and disappear at a simple movement of the hand (Benjamin 219)." This ease, which presaged the television, is brought to its logical conclusion in the Esper machine. Images, in 2019, are perfect replicas of reality; "the photograph is a direct transcription of the real (Tagg 98)." Yve-Alain Bois describes how, with the invention of photography and mass media, art "had to be distinguished from the immediate transitivity of information which amounted to a general leveling of every fact of life (36)." In Blade Runner this leveling is complete. Images are so plentiful that they are meaningless. They are so perfectly rendered that Deckard can peer into their smallest detail and even find new things within. This perfection, incidentally, is prefigured in the well-known painting by Van Eyke, The Wedding of the Arnolfini. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the same fish eye mirror is central to both this painting and Leon's photograph.

Photographs are a theme in Blade Runner as much as televisions. They are what convince the replicants that their fabricated pasts are true. In Giuliana Bruno's discussion of the film, "There is a superimposition here of reality and of the past. Photography is seen as the medium in which the signifier and the referent are collapsed onto each other (72)." Deckard says "I don't know why a replicant would collect photos," and this collapse is exactly the answer. They are proof of a past, a history: Rachel hands over the photograph saying, "Look -- its me with my mother!" In Sontag's words, "Photographs furnish evidence (5)." Our trust in the photograph is its greatest weapon, one which Tyrell uses to better control his replicants. It is a trust which Baudelaire questioned, and a trust which he felt participates in the denigration of vision, with his claim that photography is "a cheap method of disseminating a loathing for history (Friedberg 1)." It is a trust which director Ridley Scott accentuates in subtle ways: Rachel's photograph actually becomes a live-action shot for a moment and shadows shift across the little girl's face; the Esper machine not only zooms in on Leon's photograph but actually navigates a corner, as if we were actually in the room. These exaggerations of the photographs' veracity make us blink: How does the photograph so closely transcribe reality? What does this visual reality mean? How are we to distinguish the simulacrum?

Deckard's narration, "I don't know why a replicant would collect photos...," collapses the movie's parallel simulacra. The text deals with the discovery of replicants, and the sub-text deals with the construction of representation, visuality, and verisimilitude. The line becomes a hint that Deckard himself is a replicant, the strongest blow to the viewer's sense of reality, when we see his own piano covered in black and white family photographs. 'Why is such a premium placed on the family photograph?', the movie asks us. It is a locus of sentiment, history, and memory. Heidegger answers this question in his essay The Age of the World Picture. Modern knowledge is described by the word "representation", as Western notions of objectivity converge within the realm of the visual. Heidegger shows that modernity can be discussed in terms of a picture, as in the phrase 'we get the picture'. "Hence world picture," he claims, "when understood essentially, does not mean a picture of the world but the world conceived and grasped as a picture (129)."

This world picture has a long history. Martin Jay finds its origins in what he calls Cartesian Perspectivalism. This refers to the Renaissance artistic convention of lines receding towards a vanishing point which constitutes perspective, as well as the ways in which this came to work more in the realm of ideology than convention. "Linear perspective," he claims, "came to symbolize a harmony between the mathematical regularities in optics and God's will (Foster 6)." Lyotard describes how photography emerged from and validated this perspectivalist regime, with the claim that the camera "was only putting the finishing touch to the program of ordering the visible elaborated by the quattrocento (74)." It was a device which recorded light in a way that corresponded to optics and perspective, and whose premises were thus taken for granted. The 'eye' of the camera was known as a neutral representational device until very recently, and its history is undergoing a thorough reevaluation. The photograph, though, was not the finishing touch as Lyotard claimed. A new kind of representation was to emerge which would pave the way for the television, the GameBoy, the videophone, and the laptop computer. This invention is the cinema and its invisible workings and pervading presence are the concerns of Blade Runner.

This interest in representations, shadows, doubles of nature, is a theme in Blade Runner, writes J.P. Telotte, which

recalls our abiding fascination with film itself, and especially with our constant but unspoken hope that in the medium's fleeting images we might momentarily glimpse something previously unseen, something perhaps of the self, something vital (Kuhn 158).

Representation becomes an instrument of introspection, and the movie's narrative problematizes the subjectivity of the viewer. The question about the replicants and their emotions poses a problem which can only be solved by returning to the self who sits in the movie theater, the subject who is without the thrall of the cinematic apparatus.

The number of grids which appear in the film contributes to this "hostility to narrative" (Krauss 158). The navigational screen in the spinner, which resembles a video game come to life, consists of a diagram of the landscape with a superimposed grid. Grids are likewise superimposed upon the images of the Esper machine and the snake scale magnifying device. Rosalind Krauss, in her essay entitled Grids, writes, "The grid is an introjection of the boundaries of the world into the interior of the work; it is a mapping of the space inside the frame onto itself (19)." In this way they facilitate the subjective introspection which the movie encourages, a heightened awareness of the borders of the movie screen and what these borders mean.

Grids are reminiscent of the Renaissance technique of perfecting perspective, in which the artist looked through a grid of threads and transposed his vision onto a similarly ordered piece of paper. Krauss mentions their history in the diagrams of physiological optics. Their prevalence in Blade Runner makes clear that the visuality of 2019 is harshly ordered and founded on surveillance technology. Reality is compartmentalized and looked at through a screen of horizontal and vertical lines (which are likewise implied by the borders of the television screen). The grid is the literalization of the 'regime of truth' which is what one might call the capitalist aesthetic.

Ridley Scott created a particularly memorable image in the blimp television which hovers over Los Angeles. At one point the blimp is seen through the grid which is the lattice of the full-width skylight of J.F. Sebastian's gloomy house. Spooky Asian music, the rotting interior, and the perverse version of THE MARVELOUS FLYING MACHINE (a sci-fi token), makes for a truly menacing scene. Interestingly the location is the Bradbury Building, built in Los Angeles in 1893, which prefigured the modern mall and was inspired by a time-travel novel (Friedberg 151). The blimp itself is huge and covered with arrays of flashing lights. At least two television screens broadcast advertisements for "Off-World" colonies, the Coca-Cola logo, and a geisha girl who smiles, or eats a cherry, or smokes a cigarette.

Here we return to the theme of the television screen. The geisha girl is a parody of the TV commercial, a face which says absolutely nothing in its stiff posture, and does only the most mundane of things. We are reminded of the world of the commercial, in which a picture-perfect model puts a stick of gum in her mouth, or people are 'having fun' with the logo for Kool cigarettes emblazoned behind them. How much does this world correspond to reality? It is a simulacrum, by virtue of the unwavering gaze of attention which the television elicits. It is a simulacrum, though a perverse one, by virtue of the faith of Americans in their TV sets.

Baudrillard is critical of contemporary mass media and is concerned by "the dissolution of TV into life, the dissolution of life into TV;" by how "TV watches us, TV alienates us TV manipulates us, TV informs us (274)." Visuality today has been dubbed blip culture, describing the remarkably short attention span which the television trains us to have. "Society," writes Scott Bukatman, "the arena of supposed 'real' existence, increasingly becomes 'the mirror of television' (Kuhn 197)." Blade Runner's future of commercials and static and neon lights extrapolates on our dependency on televisions.

The end result is an antithesis of THE WONDER CITY OF THE FUTURE, which was common in early science fiction (Kuhn 20).

The film enacts a paradox of subjectivity, from the opening eye to the monstrous blimp to the television in Deckard's bathroom. The screens watch us back, return our gaze, as much as the eye does. They undermine the devices of the cinema and the ideologies which induce us to ignore their workings (not unlike the discovery of the wizard in The Wizard of Oz). They are critical of the corporate control of what we see on billboards and in print.

The postmodern project of Blade Runner is a reevaluation of visual pleasure and representation, which comes closest to the surface of the text in the photographs which replicants collect. These photographs are maps of a true screen, replicas of a reality which once presented itself to someone's eyes. The televisions invite the same kind of vertigo, affording "a kind of thrill of the real, or an aesthetics of the hyperreal, a thrill of vertiginous and phony exactitude (Baudrillard 271).' The replicants are such simulacra, "more human than human...," and the viewer might entertain the fantasy that she herself is a replicant. The real-life replicants, though, the means by which visual control is extended to our daily lives, are our television screens.