Watch: A Video Essay on Ridley Scott’s Lyrical Vision of Modernity in BLADE RUNNER

Watch: A Video Essay on Ridley Scott’s Lyrical Vision of Modernity in BLADE RUNNER

Evan Puschak, or "The Nerdwriter" on YouTube, recently posted a probing and highly articulate video essay on Ridley Scott’s "Blade Runner." In it, he manages to address, quite fluidly, many of the most significant themes and accomplishments of a film that, for many people, is an aesthetic ground zero, a point of measurement for all other science fiction films to follow. I’m tremulous on science fiction films, and not entirely confident in Scott’s films (the greatness of Alien, Thelma and Louise, and Prometheus aside), but Blade Runner‘s many virtues aren’t lost on me, and it’s a thrill to watch them elucidated here: the stormy, overcast, dark-lit mood, which has practically been unequalled since the film’s release; Harrison Ford’s impressive performance, which Puschak highlights by focusing on a little-noticed exchange Deckard has with a liquor store clerk, and making us watch the pathos in his expression; and the intensity of the clash between old and new, as in one scene where a replicant leads Deckard down a dark alleyway, just missing a group of bicyclists. Bicyclists? Here? In 2019 Los Angeles? There are no shortage of homages to this well-covered film, but this piece is certainly one which brings home Scott’s skill at its best.

42: A Conversation Between Odie Henderson and Steven Boone

42: A Conversation Between Odie Henderson and Steven Boone


Odie Henderson: Well, Mr. Boone, once again, we’re engaging in a Black Man Talk. After American Gangstas, Tyler Perry, and Django Unchained,
we’re now setting our sights on the Jackie Robinson biopic, 42. This
time, however, the talk is being conducted live via Internet Chat. Let’s
get this party started.

Steven Boone:  Odie, among other great things, you invented the term “lookeehere
moment.” You never gave me a precise definition, just plenty of
illustrative anecdotes, but I’ll take a crack at it: The lookeehere moment is
that instance in which a stressed-out African-American male succumbs to
pressures of (usually coded, passive-aggressive) racism and… snaps. 42 felt
like a suspense thriller based around whether or when Jackie Robinson is going
to have a colossal lookeehere moment. “Now, lookeehere, umpire….!”
What do you think?

Odie: That’s a good definition of the lookeehere. If I were to venture a
definition, I’d say it’s the Black version of the moment where Popeye finally
decides to stop taking shit and eat that can of spinach. I wondered if 42 would
allow Robinson to have his lookeehere moment, or if it was going to treat his
abuse as some form of Noble Negritude.

Steven:  Exactly.


I should note that the real Robinson does NOT get a moment of genuine
anger in The Jackie Robinson Story, the 1950 version of the timeframe 42
covers. I’d like to think it was because Robinson was not a seasoned actor, but
it’s probably because that moment would have been too realistic for White
audiences to deal with back in the halcyon days of Father Knows Best.

Steven: Absolutely. They weren’t even quite ready for Sidney Poitier. (Btw, A Patch of Blue employs similar suspense around the prospect of miscegenation.
That movie’s kissing scene stopped my heart.)

Well, I think it’s safe to say we both dug this movie, but why? It is
so damn corny. It seems too cornball for even the likes of Ron Howard and Ed
“ante up and kick in” Zwick. Why does this film work so well?

Odie: Chris Rock once said that Black folks will know we’ve truly overcome
when we’re allowed to fuck up just like White folks do. That is, the individual
will get blamed rather than the entire race. Cinematically, I think we’ll know
when a Black character is given a corny-ass, pure Americana treatment in a

Watching 42, I felt that this was our very own cornpone treatment—and
dare I say those corny movies like Pride of the Yankees are damned
effective–and I loved it for that reason. We may not have overcome on the
screen, but for a brief moment, I saw the old movies I loved get colorized.
Finally, a bone of equality thrown our way. The love story is corny, the sports
movie is corny, the gruff mentor is a cliché, etc. This can describe the
majority of movies of this ilk.

And those exact reasons are why I love movies like this. We’re asked
to love and suffer with Jackie because he wants the American Dream, which is
here symbolized by Baseball. Not because pursuing the dream is a privilege, but because it’s a right.

Steven:  I know what you mean, re: the purposeful corniness. George Lucas
employed some of that rationale for his long-gestating film about the Tuskeegee
Airmen, Red Tails. He said it was the kind of film you’d see all the time
during Ho’wood’s Golden Era, just, as you put it, colorized.

Odie: It’s about damn time. Those movies endure.

Steven:  I think Tyler Perry, for better or worse, is doing some of that work,

Odie:  Perry’s problem, as we’ve discussed before, is that he’s stapled to
Jesus. If he had the chops of Cecil B. DeMille, he could corner the market on
Biblical epics.

Steven: I could see him doing St. Louis Blues. I’ll never forget that scene
where Nat King Cole as Handy regains his sight at the keyboard, thanks to his
faith in Jesus. (If I’m remembering it right.)

Odie: Perry wouldn’t be able to resist having Madea on top of Nat’s piano
singing “Makin’ Whoopee.”

Steven: Absolutely.

Odie: Were you surprised by the time devoted to the love story in this film?
Ruby Dee played Robinson’s wife, Rachel, in The Jackie Robinson Story, and
while she wasn’t completely ignored, I felt Brian Helgeland wanted to give
equal time to the struggle and the strength behind it. The two leads (Chadwick
Boseman and Nicole Beharie) have amazing chemistry. I loved the looks they gave
each other. This is the most credible Black romance I’ve seen in years.

Steven: Yes, it was like a tonic. Black love is so toxic in American mainstream movies.
The fact that I was so shocked to see a Black couple so effortlessly devoted to
each other onscreen is sad. I see it in real life. Why have I so rarely seen it
up there on the screen?

Odie: I think it still terrifies some viewers. We’re too conditioned to
onscreen broken families, trifling men and gold diggers. Regular Black love is
“unrealistic,” to use a word I’ve heard regarding the Robinsons’
relationship in this film.

Steven:  Well, you know me. I see a perfectly correlative relationship between
Ho’wood history and American street reality. We have been living out the images
of ourselves for a long time. Helgeland is doing a lot of triage on that there.

His script is quietly subversive in ways similar to Mann’s Ali.

Odie: The scene I can’t get out of my head is when Alan Tudyk’s Ben Chapman
(the coach of the Phillies) keeps taunting Robinson at the plate. Brian Helgeland
lets that play out for an eternity, with Tudyk saying “nigger” enough
times to earn him a lifetime contract at Death Row Records. Tudyk sings it,
plays on the word, does a stand-up routine with racist Black jokes,
practically. He got on my nerves so much I was ready for a lookeehere moment.
Helgeland plays on that tension, and then Rachel Robinson says, “Look at
me. Please look at me.” She is telepathically willing Jackie to turn to
his soulmate, to lean on her for strength.

Steven: It’s fucking beautiful.

I saw you rocking in your seat during Tudyk’s taunting.

Odie: Oh, had I been in less polite company, I would have yelled out
“KICK HIS ASS, JACKIE!” The Warner Bros. logo would have fallen off
the screening room door.

Steven: Hahaha. I do wish, as I shout-whispered to you in the screening room,
that Steven Spielberg had directed Helgeland’s crackerjack script. But it would
have been TOO overpowering. Or Sam Raimi (whose baseball scenes in For Love
of the Game
snap, crackle, and pop). But Helgeland does a decent Spielberg
imitation, that creeping camera, the shafts of light.

Odie:  The cinematography does an excellent job of setting mood with light
and shadow. Don Burgess’ lighting brings us closer to the internal acting being
done by Boseman—you can see him working out his game plan/side hustle at all
times. Unfortunately, that damn score by Mark Isham overshadows some finely
underplayed moments. In addition to Spielberg, Helgeland is also channeling
Barry Levinson, whose The Natural is clearly one of his influences. Baseball is
like church, and most baseball movies aim to give some form of religious
experience. Randy Newman’s score in that film is beautiful and just as
bombastic as Isham’s, but is applied with a smaller trowel.


Agreed. If the studio has any mercy, they should at least release a
cut of the film on Blu-ray minus the score. I guarantee you, this is far more
intense and poetic film without that absolutely unnecessary weep music.

Odie: I liked what you said about the score being “more oppressive than
Jim Crow.”

Steven: At least during Jim Crow there was some variety.

But, back to that almost-lookeehere moment on the field. Helgeland doesn’t
just stop there. He follows Jackie into the clubhouse hallway, where he has a
private breakdown. The residual sunlight coming down from the field is eerie,
heavenly, theatrical. It’s a beautiful theatrical moment, and then Harrison
Ford steps in, as Jackie’s mentor, and makes it iconic. This is like the Angels
in America
of racism, for that moment.

Odie: The claustrophobic staging is a wise choice. The narrow proximity of
the hallway walls juxtaposed against the sunlight, that literal light at the
end of the tunnel. Ford steps in, and rather than turn this into some kind of
“Great White Father” moment, Helgeland’s script lets Robinson have
the first and last words. “NO!” he immediately tells Rickey as he
tries to approach him. 42 lets him have this moment without immediate response
from his boss.

nullSpeaking of Indiana Jones, Mr. Ford turns in an excellent supporting
performance here. I bought his Branch Rickey, and even more so, how the film
uses him almost as a reverse Sidekick Negro. This is Branch Rickey’s story too,
but rather than depict him as some saint passing out crumbs of bread to the
cullud folks, it represents him as a man whose distaste for injustice ran
parallel to his business acumen. The Sidekick Negro teaches the White
characters Soul™ to help them loosen up. Branch Rickey does the opposite,
teaching Robinson to tighten up by harnessing the power of the lookeehere
moment into a vengeful vanquishing on the field of sports battle. As Black Bart
says in Blazing Saddles, “Once you establish yo’self, they got to accept

Steven:  Yes, Branch Rickey here is no Father, just a friend. He starts off
invoking the power of the green, like Oskar Schindler, but he doesn’t proceed
down the typical savior path. Helgeland is careful to make it clear that Rickey
is only doing what everybody should be doing, and which he failed to do out of
fear when he was younger: Play fair. The movie’s white male characters are fun
to watch. They’re all wrestling with their beliefs and trying to figure out
what a man is in this new context. They are starting to see that siding with
racists is basically toadying for bullies.

Odie:  Helgeland clearly has no time for the systemic idiocy of the Brooklyn
Dodgers teammates’ racism. The speech he gives to Christopher Meloni (one of my
favorite actors) is a wicked slap in the face. Meloni tells his players that
Jackie’s the first one–and not the last. They’re coming, they’re good, and
since they haven’t been lulled into a comfortable, assumed position of
privilege, they’re HUNGRY. They’re coming, and they’re better than you lazy
bums are, so I’d be worried about being good enough to win rather than your
teammate’s skin color.

That was an “Odie woulda shouted AMEN in the Ghetto Theater”

Steven:  A lot of this movie’s charm and power comes from small moments between Jackie
and his teammates. These aren’t extensively drawn characters, but they are so
well cast, seeming not at all like actors slipping on the shoes of historical
figures. My favorite is Lucas Black, the kid from Sling Blade, as Pee Wee
Reese. Black is one of the most likeable American screen actors we rarely see.
He’s perfect to play the one guy brave enough to embrace Jackie in front of a
hostile, racist crowd. That moment, and an earlier moment where another
teammate simply patted Jackie on the shoulder, sucker-punched me with emotion.

Odie:  The film treats these moments with a subtle beauty (at least until
Mark Isham shows up with that hyperactive orchestra). I agree the team is well
cast, with Hamish Linklater, the brother from The New Adventures of Old
, and Lucas Black as stand-outs. All the actors make credible
ballplayers, actually. Helgeland puts us right into the action, and his mythic
camera angles of Robinson stealing and sliding into bases are suitably

Lest we forget Andre Holland, who plays real-life Black sportswriter
Wendell Smith. Helgeland botches his early narration by having him use
“African-American” (Black folks in 1947 would have asked “What
the hell is that?”), but he makes a good sidekick for Robinson. Having
Robinson relate to both Black and White characters was so refreshing I wanted
to cry. Equal time is given to both worlds, something that should be normal in
movies but rarely is.

Steven: The exchanges between Holland and Robinson seemed so lifeless to me,
though. The tensions and sympathies were there in the script, I feel, but their
moments together were where I definitely felt the need for a post-1968
sensibility guiding the execution. And Rickey’s sidekick was such a stock
hyperventilating nerd that I imagine even Smithers from The Simpsons would be
like, “Goddamn. Man up!”

Odie: I’m with you on Rickey’s bespectacled worrywort of a sidekick. But I
disagree about Smith and Robinson simply because Smith gives 42 one of its
themes when he tells Robinson to be prepared, to see that slow pitch coming.
Granted, their dialogue would have benefitted from being punched up, but I
guess I accepted it for what it was.

Steven: As for Helgeland’s direction: He’s got some great instincts, but—and
I know I’m being a spoiled backseat driver here—a truly dynamic scene-maker
like Spielberg would have choreographed the shit out of the “nigger
nigger” scene and the fanboys-chase-the-train scene. Helgeland, like
Levinson, is more of a screenwriter, leaning on world-class cinematographers to
make scenes look good but not naturally fluent the way a Spielberg or a
Zemeckis would be. The tradeoff is that those cats probably would have softened
certain blows that Helgeland strikes without restraint. They would have cut out
a few of those “niggers.”

Odie:  That train scene, with the two children chasing after their hero’s
train as he departs, would have been a home run off Spielberg’s bat. Maybe I
impressed more of my own feelings here, but the look in that kid’s eyes after Robinson
hands him the ball choked me up. I knew what that felt like; it felt like
raindrops hitting the earth after a long drought. You could almost see that kid
thinking “I too can be a baseball player!” Or even better yet,
“I could be President of the United States.” Thank God the kid in
that scene eventually became a baseball player instead! Had he been dreaming of
the Presidency, that scene would have been followed by some White kids beating
him over the head with the fake Presidential seal he glued to his fake podium!

Steven: Oh hell yeah. This movie’s intent is clear in that scene: to show
black kids something different. It doesn’t have to be slick, clever,
eye-popping–just show black kids what it’s like to have a dream; to meet a
hero who embodies that dream; to pursue it without a self-defeating attitude
and to make it. We have been drowning in fatalism for 50 years.

This film is calculated to endure. Also, to get heavy rotation in the
schools. What you said about the fake podium is actually pretty sad. Because
it’s true. This country we live in is haunted by millions of broken dreams, so
many of them black.

Odie: I’m hoping to see more correctives like this, and from minority
artists telling stories of THEIR dreams.

To close out: As you know,  I’m
a huge fan of Jackie Robinson. He broke the minor league color barrier in my
hometown of Jersey City, on a field I got to play on decades later. As a little
hoodrat, I didn’t think anything of importance happened in my ‘hood, but within
walking distance, a hero who looked like me did something profound. You want to
talk about the notion of believing one could do anything? I got that notion
after I learned about Jackie Robinson’s Royals game against the Jersey City
Giants. I wasn’t around when they erected that statue of Robinson down at
Roosevelt Stadium, but I went to see the unveiling of the Pee Wee Reese and
Jackie Robinson down at Coney Island. Considering that the last time I was in
Coney Island, I got peed on AND my head busted open (both on rides, I should
add), revisiting the joint could only have happened for something as
emotionally big for me as Jackie Robinson.

Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger
Ebert’s Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for
Capital New York and blogs at Hentai Lab.

A globetrotting computer programmer by trade and movie lover by hobby, Odie Henderson has contributed to Slant Magazine’s The House Next Door since 2006. Additionally, his work has appeared at Movies Without Pity (2008) and numerous other sites. He currently runs the blog Tales of Odienary Madness.



[EDITOR'S NOTE: In a yearly feature titled "Oscars Revisited," Press Play takes a look back at the Academy Awards race from earlier eras. Our inaugural series focuses on the five Best Picture nominees from calendar year 1981: Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chariots of Fire.]

For years after the release of his box-office breakthrough Jaws, Steven Spielberg fantasized about directing a James Bond picture. He got his chance, sort of, with Raiders of the Lost Ark, his first team-up with his longtime friend and fellow "movie brat" George Lucas. The two were on vacation in Hawaii in 1977 after the release of Lucas' own career-redefining blockbuster Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope but before the release of Spielberg's next movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg told Lucas of his desire to make a Bond film; Lucas replied that he had a better idea, and Spielberg instantly seized on it as "James Bond without the gadgets." It was about Indiana Smith, an archaeologist who travelled the world unearthing buried treasure, fighting bad guys and witnessing supernatural events; Lucas envisioned it as an homage to the World War II-era cliffhanger serials that he, Spielberg and other '50s kids used to watch in reruns on local TV, only in color and CinemaScope and in Dolby stereo. Spielberg liked the concept but suggested changing the hero's last name from Smith to Jones.

nullFour years and a $18 million worth of Paramount's money later, Spielberg and Lucas released Raiders of the Lost Ark, featuring up-and-coming action hero Harrison Ford — Han Solo in Lucas' Star Wars franchise — as the whip-cracking archaeology professor trying to keep the Lost Ark of the Covenant out of Hitler's hands. As scripted by Lawrence Kasdan, who rewrote the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Indy was a rumpled, unshaven, refreshingly human hero, surly but decent, less like a Bond-style sexy sociopath than a Gary Cooper character in a bad mood. The combination of Ford's casual fearlessness, Lucas' gee-whiz sensibility, Spielberg's kinetic precision and costar Karen Allen's tomboy sass made the film into the year's biggest hit, a sleeper that rolled into multiplexes opposite Superman II and the latest James Bond entry For Your Eyes Only and stole their box office thunder. Raiders grossed $209 million in North America and took the "So popular that we can't ignore it" spot in the following year's Best Picture lineup. It also inspired knockoffs, including the network TV series Tales of the Gold Monkey and Bring 'Em Back Alive and the movies High Road to China, Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile

nullSpielberg didn't stint on the violent action; this was probably one the first PG movies in which a lone hero singlehandedly and bloodily eliminated scores of foes, and definitely the first in which the power of God made Nazis' heads melt, implode and detonate, spewing meat chunks into the camera. Three summers later, the even more extreme violence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins inspired the creation of a new MPAA rating, PG-13. But the film's real draw was its mastery of pacing and tone. For a large production shot in several countries, Raiders was light on its feet, zipping through scenes without a wasted frame. And it managed the same neat trick as Spielberg and Lucas' earlier films in managing to seem at once self-aware and innocent. The duo plundered recent and past film history like kleptomaniacs on a prowl through Macy's. The deranged finale evoked Brian De Palma's Carrie and The Fury; Indy's wild escape beneath the carriage of a hijacked truck echoed a similar stunt in John Ford's Stagecoach; the final shot in which the Ark of the Covenant, recently recovered from Hitler's minions, is wheeled into a gigantic warehouse was filched from Citizen Kane. The transitional sequences depicting the global progress of Jones and company via cross-dissolved travel footage and maps festooned with animated red lines was so brazenly old-fashioned that it made the circa-1981 audiences that I saw it with laugh and applaud. (As I recounted in a piece about Raiders for The House Next Door, this was the first film that made me realize that movies could be expressions of a singular sensibility — that they were directed.)

nullRaiders was a career-redefining entry on the resumes of its major players. Ford stepped into the lead after CBS refused to release the filmmakers' first choice, Magnum, P.I. star Tom Selleck, from his TV contract, and proved he could sell tickets without a laser pistol in his hand; the film's success marked the start of a 20-year run as one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors. Ford's regular employer Lucas showed the studios that he wasn't just the Star Wars guy. The movie also revived Spielberg's career momentum after the box-office flop of 1941 (1979), an epically overscaled bit of period slapstick that in retrospect feels like a dry run for Raiders, an immense physical comedy that owed as much to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton as it did to poverty row cliffhangers, with a stalwart hero taking on armies. The film and its sequels went on to comprise one of the most financially successful and stylistically influential series ever made. With their superficial awareness of the texture of certain periods and places, Jones' pre-World War II shenaningans felt like a precocious schoolboy's fantasy — flip books scrawled in the margins of a history text. Lucas, Spielberg, Ford and their collaborators pushed this sensibility further in the film's sequels, which saw Indy cheat death in pre-war Shanghai, British colonial India, Nazi-occupied Austria and Germany (where Indy ends up getting his father's Grail diary autographed by Hitler at a book burning!), and an atomic testing site in 1950s Roswell, New Mexico, (which gave prankish new meaning to the phrase "nuclear family"). Although mainstream critics and general audiences enjoyed the series (except for the long-delayed fourth film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which some fans viewed as a personal affront) Indy's adventures had their detractors. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael complained that Raiders lacked the human touch of Spielberg's earlier hits and was lukewarm on The Last Crusade — although with typically Kaelian perversity, she adored The Temple of Doom. Alternative press critics pointed out — correctly, but without much impact — that Indy's adventures had an ahistorical and oddly pre-sexual vibe, and that Lucas and Spielberg's depiction of "foreign" cultures was cluless at best, racist at worst; for a long time, Indy's second adventure Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom was banned in India. For a brief period in the late '80s and early '90s, Lucas brought Indy to TV. His youthful adventures were bracketed with segments narrated by a geriatric Indy, a craggy-faced, one-eyed icon whose appearance was inspired by documentary footage of the old John Ford.

The Indy films do have a personal sensibility, although it's admittedly obscured by gunshots, explosions and supernatural maimings. The films feel like daydreams, not product, and their fusion of spectacle, mayhem, slapstick, banter and miracles has no equivalent elsewhere in cinema. And the saga does have an implied narrative that's more knowing and gentle than Spielberg and Lucas' detractors care to admit. Over the course of four films, the arrested adolescent Indy grows up, taking responsibllity for a surrogate family in The Temple of Doom (a prequel that feels like a sequel), reconciling with his estranged dad in The Last Crusade, then coming to terms with mortality and reconnecting with Marion and the son he didn't know he had in Crystal Skull. There's something to be said for Indy's brand of resourcefulness; it's earthbound and useful, rooted in emotional reality and ultimately touching. He's a superheroic everyman, surly and self-effacing — James Bond as Yankee prole. "I'm going after that truck," Indy tells his buddy Sallah, before throwing himself into the movie's most raucous action setpiece. "How?" Sallah asks. "I don't know," Indy replies, pushing his hat down tight on his head. "I'm just making this up as I go."

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.