It seems fair to say that when I can recall the exact circumstances under which I initially saw a film it’s made a strong impression.
My sister sticking on a wonky VHS recording of Leon in our living room, a friend discovering I hadn’t seen Dark City and immediately retrieving the DVD without explanation or catching the last twenty minutes of Terminator 2 on TV in my teens; creatively speaking these were formative experiences which I treasure as dearly as the films themselves.
Amusingly, I ended up seeing Blade Runner off the back of Ghost in the Shell having brought it over to a classmate’s house, his immediate response following viewing being “Wow, that was pretty cool… Makes me want to watch Blade Runner again.” Taking this as my cue to inform him I’d never seen it, one thing naturally led to another and a video copy of the 1993 director’s cut dutifully found its way into the player.
I realise the influence of the film dominates SF and cyberpunk these days, with it being a well established favourite in the genre but I had seen virtually nothing of it up to that point. For a head-in-the-clouds teenager such as myself it was frankly mind blowing; the atmosphere, the subtle intelligence and depth of the story line, the immersive sense of reality present in its world. It was an overwhelming encounter which played a large role in defining my long-term sci-fi obsession.
In years since I’ve watched it so many times that there came a point where I had to back off out of fear of spoiling it through over familiarity. It’s been a respectfully dormant presence on my shelf for some time now until another good friend – thanks Xellun! – kindly leant me his copy of the so called ‘Final Cut’ from 2007. I’ve been cautious of this new edit after being burned by one George Lucas under similar circumstances– some obscure films about war in the stars – however I was pleasantly surprised by how little had been changed; the corrections are for what were genuine mistakes and are so carefully integrated with the old material I needed an online breakdown to spot them.
Getting to the point though, besides re-watching what may well be the most pristine edit of the film to date the accompanying documentary Dangerous Days absolutely fascinated me.
I knew that Blade Runner was a troubled production but the honest accounts within of simply how much went wrong between conception and release makes it all the more remarkable that the film turned out so well. Budgetary problems, nagging producers, mutiny amongst the crew, improvised rewrites and a deeply frustrated Harrison Ford would all seem to suggest a catastrophic train wreck at the end of the line and yet – for my money at least – everything in the movie resonates together almost perfectly. Which got me thinking; what if it was this very struggle which ultimately made it so brilliant?
I recall a review I encountered a while ago referring to the idea of ‘art through adversity’ both criteria Blade Runner meets in abundance, so what if one follows the other? What if Harrison Ford’s perpetual dissatisfaction fed into Deckard’s apparent cynicism and misery or Ridley Scott’s running battles with his crew and impatient financiers attributed to the dark, angsty mood which dominates the picture? I genuinely find myself believing that had the production gone smoothly on a comfortable budget we would have ended up with an inferior version of Blade Runner.
This is no isolated example either, returning to George Lucas; I heard someone pitching a theory that the reason the new Star Wars trilogy was such a disappointment is because Lucas went completely unchallenged on every aspect of the story and production. When the original Star Wars was being made he would have been faced with an uphill battle, convincing producers and money-men to let him make something no one had ever seen before on the strength of concept art, a script and his own enthusiasm. As George “Omigod!” Lucas, creator of possibly the most successful cinema franchise of all time there seems little doubt that any adversity which may have presented itself would be quickly shovelled under the rug by his lackeys.
To cite another somewhat more divisive favourite of mine; the anime series Evangelion has always struck me as a good illustration of a troubled production effectively contributing to the finished work. I know some folks hate if for the same reasons I love it – which is fine, I’ve been through this with Marmite too – but as an example of deconstruction at its purest I find it to be hypnotic.
Right from episode one there’s admittedly a bit of a dark side, however on the surface it appears to be just another wacky giant robot show from Japan; big colourful machines – naturally piloted by teens – fight aliens, encounter trouble, overcome it, end. A straight up cliché.
Then the money began to run out.
A now infamously noted habit of the director Hideaki Anno, Eva ran massively over budget thanks to its lavishly animated fight sequences and out of desperation they were forced to improvise. At first it’s an irritation as the pace slows and set pieces are replaced with moody introspection but I soon found myself absorbed by this in a way the earlier episodes never managed. The tone turns heavily psychological and increasingly abstract sequences become prominent as production falls apart.
Between dwindling finance and a TV station furious at the controversial nature of the material the series more or less collapses at the finale. Plot questions are left dangling and conventional animation all but disappears, it’s a mess in most regards and for many an infuriating copout but what resonated so strongly with me was the way the characters’ deconstruction and downfall mirrors and resonates with that of the production itself.
The literal aspects of plot ultimately didn’t matter to me because the series had managed to say something far more personal and sincere as it fell apart; a rising desperation on the part of its creators which is so palpable, affecting and undeniably human that it renders the train-wreck almost completely extraneous.
It’s all the more ironic then that in the wake of Evangelion’s unexpected success there have been a number of edits and film remakes attempting to correct the original’s failings and while they’re good to be sure I doubt they’ll ever spark the same empathy in me that the series provoked.
The bottom line and overarching point I wanted to make with these babblings is that hearing about these struggles can often be more inspiring to me than experiencing the thing itself. Every time I read about Alan Moore running afoul of constrictive publishers, hear that the studio stopped Guillermo del Toro from adapting At the Mountains of Madness, find out my favourite game developer is going under thanks to greedy publishers and dwindling sales or see fellow artists and writers struggling it sets a fire going inside me.
In any creative field we all struggle, we all suffer and not everyone makes it but most crucially we are not alone.
Interesting point you’re raising there. While not all struggling production manage to save their projects, when they do, it often ends up pretty strong, or at least there’s a feeling of accomplishment that’s greater. And I don’t feel a work can become very personal or deep or meaningful, if the artist(s) hasn’t either struggled or otherwise worked his ass off on it.
Very true; a far greater tragedy than a struggling production which finds success is the one which doesn’t. I often find myself feeling fairly forgiving of many bad b-movies simply because you can feel the passion they were made with.
What I find myself less forgiving of are things which clearly weren’t made with any inspiration or passion, coasting instead on technical mastery and large budgets. Seeing $100 million+ going into something utterly soulless will never stop astounding me.