Students in my first year writing seminars are often surprised to discover that the supposed intention of the author is not the ultimate measure of literary criticism. The confusion is understandable for a readership with the luxury of being unconcerned with intentional fallacies and the death of the author. Because the writing seminars are about making the transition to college-level writing and argumentation, rather than casting discussions of authorial intent as a literary studies no-no, I bring in texts where “intent” is a serious critical problem that in turn helps the students practice looking at an object of study and asking first, “what kind of argument can I build with the materials at hand?” In the “Metropolis, Modernity, and Mass Culture” seminar I taught in the fall of 2011 and spring of 2012, I did this with Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner.
Blade Runner is part of a unit I have on Los Angeles, in which I pair the film against the first chapter of Mike Davis’ 1990 book City of Quartz. This chapter covers various “myths” of Los Angeles, and Davis reads this film and the noir genre in general as a “great anti-myth” (37) to Southern Calfiornia boosterism (Davis’ section on the German exiles is also a handy way for getting the Frankfurt School on the students’ radar when we don’t have room to read the culture industry essay). Where Los Angeles and Southern California in general is famous as a happy land of sunshine, it constantly rains in Blade Runner, and moreover a pall of sadness and decay hangs over the world of the film, one that for Los Angeles’ detractors has more truth to it than the booster image.
Seven different versions of Blade Runner appeared between 1982 and 2007. The 2007 remastered version was released also included some “tweaks and enhancements,” as Scott put it in his introduction to the 2007 version, and he has given this last version an official sanction. I show students the 1992 version, but in order to investigate the question of intentionality, I like to compare one still from the 1992 version and a still from the same scene in the 2007 version. This scene is from the movie’s climax, the replicant Roy gives a very moving speech about the marvelous things he has seen, then dies. He realizes that it is death the gives those experiences meaning, and then we see a dove he has been holding fly off, rather obvious symbolism for the soul’s departure. The camera places us, the viewer, within the world of the film, and we look up as the soul leaves (as opposed to the possibility, one used very commonly, where the camera retreats into the sky and we look down on the scene of death from the perspective of the soul). Here are the stills I show my students, both showing the dove’s flight. The first is from the 1992 version, the second from the 2007 version.
Clearly we have here one of Scott’s tweaks/enhancements. When I show these I ask the students to break into partners and do two things. 1.) Describe exactly what you see on both images, and how one differs from the other then 2.) what is the effect of each version of the shot for the scene and the film as a whole (now you can bring in a little interpretation)? The objective is to help the students practice thinking of the text on its own terms, as opposed to Ridley Scott’s terms, and to take seriously this scene as a moment that does its own work in constituting the meaning of the film as a whole. Change the scene, change the meaning.
How would I answer the question of the effect of the shot for the scene? First a bit of context: Roy dies in a rainy landscape bathed in the blinding light of advertisements (the “D” in the background is from a TDK product placement).
After he sinks into death, we cut away to the dove. But in the versions up until 2007, his soul flies off into a seemingly sunny sky. The 2007 version creates more consistency between shots, as the weather is the same and the architecture is more consistent.
Prior to 2007 the realism of the world breaks down at the moment of Roy’s death, and we see the soul retreat into a blue sky. But the smog and cold buildings remain in the shot; the world that we have seen throughout is not suddenly gone or forgotten. Were that world to be completely wiped away, we would have something more like the happy ending of 1982, where the city is gone completely and our main characters fade into a mountainous “natural” landscape.
I always read the scene of Roy’s death pre-2007 as an image of hope and even redemption that does not collapse into some kind of simplistic escape. But in the 2007 version, the dove’s flight is more uncertain. The course out of the sad, rainy, overbuilt LA of November 2019 is less direct, the clouds form a kind of iron grey ceiling. Maybe the cloudbreak that seems to be forming gives us back some hope, but that seems to invest a lot in that one small spot on the screen. In making the environment of the scene more consistent from shot to shot, the 2007 version also makes the world of this LA much more tightly sealed.
According to the commentary on the 2007 DVD, the sun was coming up as they were shooting the scene, and without 21st century digital technology it more or less had to look that way until it could be “corrected.” So in one sense the hope and redemption reading derives from an accident. But my aim in the class discussion is to guide the students to a point where they can view the pre-2007 version as a document that has its own legitimacy as a historical cultural artifact that is still out in the world. The fact that we living after 2007 have access to a more “realistic,” or more accurately a more consistent version does not invalidate readings of the prior version. It just makes the 2007 version different. Whether that difference amounts to more artistic merit is a matter that individual viewers can decide for themselves. The point is that a text will always be more than the vision of a single creator, and not just because of technical limitations, external pressures from editors, publishers, and audiences, or the creator’s own status as historically contingent subjects. Instead my objective is to bring the students to a place where they reflect on the text as a living thing out in the world, and in cases where we have multiple versions. Examples from literature include Goethe’s Werther, Shelley’s Frankenstein, most of Stifter’s stories, Raabe’s Ein Frühling, and Keller’s Der grüne Heinrich. In most of these instances preference for one version or another has shifted over the years for different reasons, even though we know there is one version the author endorsed over others. What texts with competing versions reveal is that even in instances where we can safely speak about the author’s intention, that does not mean that we the critics have to yoke ourselves to the figure of the author. This may be self-explanatory for people who already have degrees in literary studies, because it legitimates our own practice, but when we teach it is important to remember that for the students this is an unconventional way of thinking about an object of study.
For the record, my preference is for the 1992 version, and that is the version I show. It splits the difference between Scott’s vision and the technical contingencies that determined the making of the film in the early 1980s. I am not in principle opposed to “tweaks and enhancements,” even though these seem to me not substantively different from the practice of colorizing classic black and white films. But I do care about watching a film as a product of a particular historical moment, flaws and all.
Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Warner Brothers, 2007. DVD.
Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles. 2nd ed. London: Verso, 2006.