I recently found myself chatting to PD Smith about Ridley Scott’s 1982 film, Blade Runner. Smith, who is writing a book about cities, had presumably been looking at it in research for his project. It would make sense, of course, because Blade Runner, of all the cinematic visions of the city, is one of the most powerful and compelling. It’s a fantastically complete vision of future Los Angeles. Consequently it’s so influential that I once read about an article about North American city planners in which a majority of planners admitted they took inspiration from the film – also admitting that they ultimately wanted Los Angeles to look like the vision presented by Scott’s designers and cinematographers.
I recall the film having quite a similar influence on me. Blade Runner was profoundly formative for me as a child/adolescent, partly because of the theme of mortality being so starkly laid out for an immature mind, but also because of the weird beauty in the city design. I can actually pinpoint the moment in which I fell in love with the idea of imaginary cities: where you see a canyon vista of the city from Deckard’s apartment, a green-tinted slice of the metropolis beyond. I desperately wanted to explore that. I wanted the videogames I played to actualise it, and set me free down there. They’re still working on that, I guess.
But there was something else going on in my response to that film. For a piece about the finitude of life it had an odd effect on my way of thinking. Repeated viewing made me realise that I – somehow – wanted to live lots of different lives, rather than one long life. “The light that burns twice as bright burns for half as long,” indeed, but if I have to be a light, then think I want to be one of those fibre-optic plants, where the one light is channelled down a thousand different, parallel routes. Blade Runner didn’t make me want immortality, it made me want multiplicity. For me the story didn’t so much emphasize the brief intensity of the Replicant lives, as emphasize how they had lived other exciting events, off-screen, out there in the wider universe. It made clear how all the Replicants had experiences that would be inaccessible to all the others, because they’d never have time to sit down and write their memoirs.
This “what the fuck is going on off-screen” effect seems to occur a great number of films. Take Gangs Of New York, for example. The fight at the start of that film seems like the culmination of a story far more interesting than the one that the movie actually follows. I want to be able to hit a red button and get the story of the gang war between the preacher and Butcher Bill. The film that never was. (That’s one of the most appealing things about reading about history via Wikipedia. Whatever event or battle you end up reading about, you can explore back – and forward – through the related network of links.)
I also wonder if this desire for multiplicity – as deemed more attainable than immortality by my tiny brain – is one of the reasons I am so comfortable in my escapism today. I don’t think twice about sinking half my life into in the heaps of books I plough through, and in the TV, games and film that I devour. What other placebos for immortality are there? And how else am I going to get a glimpse of all those different lives I want to be living? Not by idling in Second Life, that’s for sure.