Essays: Future retrospection: Blade Runner's sets |
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Future retrospection: Blade Runner's sets

by Jonathan Meades

It is a truism that representations of the future (and, indeed, of the past) are more indicative of the era they are made than the era they are made about. Characteristically they lift a couple of aspects of the familiar (present) world and stretch or heighten them, or distil them into caricature. Ridley Scott insouciantly adheres to this procedure just as Verne, Wells (whom Oscar Wilde called 'a scientific Jules Verne') and Huxley did before him. His cinematic precursors obviously include Fritz Lang, whose Metropolis was all Sant 'Elia and New York and arch expressionism; William Cameron Menzies, whose Things to Come was Art Deco laid on with a trowel; and Charlie Chaplin, whose Modern Times was a technological cartoon.

Thus Scott's idea of Los Angeles 40 years hence in Blade Runner is a salad of past styles, by which I mean pre 1982 styles. This is cute, clever and predictable: his future, like every other ever posited, is the present only more so, a reflection in a distorting mirror, a reflection which, alas, is presented with such thorough humourlessness that you must assume that it is meant to be taken seriously. The quasi-cultural fragment of the early 1980s that Scott has chosen to exploit is the craze for exhuming the (fairly recent) past. He evidently reckons that in 2019 in LA this 'copyist' urge will be even stronger than it is today.

Scott, who (all too clearly) began his career as a designer for television, rummages with promiscuous (or 'post modern') abandon through the store of the world's architectural gestures. He does not oblige himself to achieve what have hitherto been the predominant characteristics of utopian and dystopian cities homogeneity and consistency. Of course a consistency is imposed on the film by the manner in which it is shot: the constant rain, the range of tiresomely ingenious devices that disorientate the spectator, the facetiously world-weary narration that the protagonist delivers and, most of all, another echo of 1940s private eye movies, the 'atmospheric' lighting. Light is always indirect beamed or diffused or reflected which makes it 'atmospheric'. So, on to the stylistic salad that is given this hefty dressing, as colourful and crude as something out of a Kraft bottle.

The first man to be hauled on for a thunderous round of applause is the late John Martin. Martin died 128 years ago last 17 February on the Isle of Man, having given a lifetime to devising exuberantly fantastical (and unrealized) architectural improvements, and to composing equally fantastical apocalyptic canvases that earned him a place in the British pantheon and the sobriquet 'Mad'. Scott is living testimony to the truth of T. S. Eliot's maxim that 'great poets don't borrow, they steal'. Scott, in the nicest possible way of course, exhibits the influence of Martin. He is not the first film maker to do so; D. W. Griffith and Coppola in Apocalypse Now trod before him, but they were mere pickpockets beside Scott's sledgehammer and stocking mask blagger. However, he is the first to capture photographically the grandiose blowsiness that Martin did so well in paint. This is no puny achievement: Martin's Michelin Man buildings, with their swollen columns and rustication like folds of fat, look splendidly tawdry in the film.

The next to collect laurels must be American 'Borax' designers, Bel Geddes, Loewy, people like that. Scott gives the OK to streamlining, and why not. There is a fair bit of unrestructured moderne to be glimpsed in the shadows. And what else? There is classicism of the Edwin Cooper sort; a soupçon of the Milan railway station manner; some purposeful chunks of Archigram stuff; and a wondrous interior peopled by brightly clothed tumbling dwarfs who look as though they are the pets of an ideal madman in Naples, 1800.

There is also a lot of Hong Kong (neon and noodles, not Norman Foster) since for some reason Los Angeles is full of Chinese: I suspect some point about inner cities was being made but the script is not wildly lucid. Finally, there is a very large building that recalls the insaner sort of public housing schemes in outer Paris. I note that Arthur Drexler described such a scheme as having the look of a 'twenties set for a German film'. And what happens in this extravagant illusion? Actors decorate it: the Word is not something in which Scott is much interested. The titular hero has to track down and kill robots that are supposedly indistinguishable from humans. The film is so bereft of emotional resonance, so wanting a moral dimension that the humans seem no less robotic than the real robots. Scott is the veteran (and victim) of 3000 advertising films. Here he has nothing to sell and all the time in the world to sell it. The art is in his props; it's all wrapping and no gift.

Since long before the advent of cinema there has been an exchange between architecture as building and architecture as imagined ideal. This exchange has not been entirely felicitous. Approximations to the paradisiac landscapes of the seventeenth century are one thing, doltish attempts (not peculiar to Paris) to emulate the nightmare city of Metropolis are quite another. When the exchange is in the opposite direction the imaginary drawing on and synthesizing strands of the real the results, even if they are disappointing, are unlikely to be harmful. Imagined architecture is like its twin in every aspect save two rather vital ones: it is not public art and it is not functional. Imagined architecture is never quite in earnest; it is chimeric, fun, sublime. Do not copy.