Mind Blowing Movies: Blade Runner (1982), by Gareth Branwyn

Mm200This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. — Mark

Like Tears in the Rain, by Gareth Branwyn

[Video Link] In 1982, my wife and I had just moved from a rural commune in Virginia to Washington, DC. We moved to the city so that she could pursue her music career (among other reasons). We were still country mice, easily awoken in the morning by street traffic, bothered by the air quality, and longing for the open skies of the country — where, at night, you could see the stardust of the Milky Way clear as day.

Every year my wife would go to Nantucket to perform at a restaurant called The Brotherhood of Thieves — a place that wouldn't look at all out of place in Treasure Island. It was dark, brick-walled, candle and lantern-lit, with big oak-slab tables and wooden ass-numbing chairs. In 1982, she was performing a duo act with well-known New England folkie Linda Worster, with whom she frequently played on the island.

Seeing them perform every night was a joy, but some nights I'd want to drift onto the streets of Nantucket, get swept up into the tide of pink and Nantucket-red golf clothes and flouncy summer dresses, and see where the night might wash me up.

On this night, a somewhat cold and cloudy one, I ended up under the marquee of Nantucket's Dreamland Theater, a giant, creaking, wooden ship of a building that smelled of mold, popcorn grease, and sunscreen.

Blade Runner, it read. I knew nothing about the film, but it was sci-fi and had Harrison Ford in it, so I figured it'd at least be the perfect way to kill a couple of hours before the ladies' last set. Little did I know that I was stepping into a portal and would emerge a different person, on a different life trajectory than the person who was stumbling down the shabby carpet in the dark, looking for a seat.

I can't really say what made such a fundamental impact on me. The dark noir mood of the film, certainly, and the questions it raises about the nature of life, memory, what constitutes humanity, and whether "androids dream of electric sheep…" What I didn't know I was looking at was a cyberpunk aesthetic that I would soon become completely immersed in, through the work of William Gibson, John Shirley, and others — dystopian worlds, fifteen minutes into the future, where mega-corporations run the show, where personal and planetary technologies permeate society, and where the street finds its own uses for things.

I found the brutality of the film, the violence of the film's rogue replicants towards humans, and their "retirement" at the hands of police special agent Rick Deckard (Ford) shocking to my country hippie sensibilities. But all of those shocks only made the final scene of replicant Roy Batty's (perfectly cast in Rutger Hauer) "natural" death all the more effective and moving. At the time, I thought it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and ate up Hauer's (allegedly ad libbed) Tannhaeuser Gate/tears in the rain soliloquy.

It was in that moment that the mood of the film throughly soaked into me. I felt as though I were in it. It ended and I unceremoniously swam back out into the boisterous, drunken nightlife of downtown Nantucket, which didn't feel at all like Nantucket anymore. Fittingly, it had started to drizzle and a fog had crept up Broad Street from Straight Wharf — Blade Runner's perpetual rain had descended upon Nantucket.

I made my way back to The Brotherhood. I stood outside the window right next to where Pammy and Linda performed and peered in. I don't know what song it was, but they were in the middle of some energetic, smilie-faced, folk number. As I stood in the chilly rain, now getting seriously wet, Pam sensed I was there and turned to me as she sang. Her face dropped as she saw the faraway look on mine. I faked a smile back. She smiled, satisfied, and turned back into the music. I was a universe away. I was peering into that antique-glass window from the future.

I didn't go into the restaurant that night, one of the rare occasions I didn't at least catch one set. I went upstairs to the "Ent Room" (Entertainer's Room) where we stayed and I cried. I cried a lot. Again, I'm not really sure why. It is one of my few "molting moments" (as Cocteau called them) where I can't tell you what gears got turned, what wires in my nervous system got spliced. But I had changed, and I cried for the loss of something. Humanity, perhaps. I knew, without knowing it, that post-humanity had just dawned on me. Long live the new flesh. I would quickly travel from this moment into cyberpunk sci-fi, industrial/electronic music, bOING bOING, Mondo 2000, Beyond Cyberpunk!, and Wired. I cried for the death of the country hippie. And like Batty, in that moment, I could feel the full weight of my life, the amazing adventures I'd already been on, full of "things you people wouldn't believe," and somehow, sense wondrous adventures to come, And like Batty, I was sad to think that all of this, all of this accumulation of experience and knowledge, all of my memories, would vanish when I died.

Pammy is gone, eight years now, by her own hand, and I think of that "scene" from our life together frequently, that frozen moment at the window. It has become a scene in Blade Runner itself. I can't think of one without the other. I hold these and other memories in a precious kind of stasis 'cause I know that "all those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."