Friday, August 6, 2010

'Blade Runner' by Ridley Scott, and The Cinema of Robert Bresson

My novel, Five Wounds, has two alternative, and mutually-exclusive, conclusions. One is a ‘happy’ ending, and the other is a ‘not-so-happy’ ending, although (without giving anything away) it is not as obvious as it might first seem which ending is which. In the next two posts, I’m going to discuss some of the implications of using multiple endings, and of imposing a happy ending on a story that does not seem to support such an interpretation.

There are several precedents for alternative endings in literature, most notably perhaps The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles, but the most obvious example from my own personal artistic canon is actually a film: Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. In this case, the two alternative endings are never present together in any single iteration of the film, but rather belong to two different ‘cuts’: the initial commercial release, which imposed an explanatory voiceover throughout, and a happy ending, and the subsequent ‘Director’s Cut’, which removed both. The latter did not, in fact, ‘change’ the ending as such: it just removed from the first version the final couple of minutes; but, in doing so, it radically altered the tone of the film.


Above is the ending of the initial release. The Director's Cut simply stops instead at about 0:24, and removes everything that follows.

Having seen the initial version of Blade Runner in the 80s, and then the Director’s Cut on its release in the early 90s, there was some debate amongst my friends as to whether the revision actually constituted an improvement. We were all familiar with the story, but would first-time viewers have any idea what was going on without the voiceover? It not only clarified events; it also clarified Deckard’s role as protagonist. Without it, he was a much more morally ambiguous character. Indeed, everything was murkier and more confusing.

In the video above, Frank Darabont puts the case for removing the voiceover, but it was also clear that the original ending was an arbitrary addition, not least from the contemptuous way in which Harrison Ford intones the relevant voiceover text, as if he can barely bring himself to say the words. But for some of us it was necessary to relieve the unmitigated gloom of the film up until that point. The original ending was like opening a window onto Scott’s fictional world, and letting light enter into it from outside.

The original version of Blade Runner is a classic example of a deus ex machina ending. Deus ex machina literally means ‘god out of the machine’. It originally suggested the introduction of divine intervention as a story device to resolve intractable plot complications. The phrase refers to the stage machinery that was used to frame such divine characters in theatres, where they descended (literally) from above, and the implication is that this kind of resolution was entirely alien to the logic of cause and effect that governs the succession of events within a realistic narrative mode. The gods descend from above: that is, from outside the sphere of the story itself. Thus the deus ex machina is a cheat, by definition, and the last resort of a desperate writer. While modern stories rarely resort to divine intervention, they do introduce such related, arbitrary devices as outrageous coincidence, or, in the case of the initial release of Blade Runner, the hitherto unsuspected revelation that Rachel, the android replicant with whom Deckard has fallen in love, is ‘special’: that, unlike all other models, she has an open-ended lifespan.

This is a deus ex machina move because absolutely nothing in the story thus far has prepared us for this eventuality. Indeed, the rules that give this fictional world its integrity would seem to actively preclude this possibility; and thus the revelation destroys the credibility of everything that precedes it. This impression is only reinforced by the visuals in the tacked-on ending, which reveals vistas of unspoiled nature, whose existence is similarly inconceivable in the polluted city that has been so meticulously constructed over the previous two hours (the final longshots were, in fact, borrowed from outtakes of Kubrick’s The Shining).

The whole concept of the deus ex machina implies a secular world view, in which divine intervention can never be the real subject of a drama, and so its introduction is always evidence of a failure of human imagination. But what if you actually want to say something about the nature of divine grace? By definition, it is arbitrary; by definition, it violates the laws of cause and effect; by definition, it is unmotivated and unforeseeable. Its true manifestations never provide closure. Rather, they radically destabilise narrative logic. That is what is implied by a conversion experience: that the entire story is rewritten retrospectively.

And this brings me to the films of Robert Bresson, which almost always conclude with some kind of deus ex machina. Or rather, the ending invokes divine intervention without dramatising it explicitly, as in The Trial of Joan of Arc, excerpted above. God does not actually appear; the contradiction is not actually resolved. It is up to the viewer to complete the story by making the requisite leap of faith (or not, according to one's personal beliefs). In Bresson’s earlier films, this invocation is presented as, generally, successful. Whether or not we choose to believe in it, the protagonists of his films experience that transformation as real. This is, as I understand it, the meaning of the empty stake revealed as the smoke clears in the clip above, which recalls – the comparison would be anathema to Bresson, but is irresistible precisely because of that – the empty cloak of the slain Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

This is a kind of negative theology. God is not a presence in Bresson’s films. He does not appear as a character, wheeled in from above, and therefore inevitably trivialised. He is instead manifest by His absence. He is arbitrary in cinematic terms as well as in narrative terms: that is, he is a non-diegetic effect, and as such, is associated with similarly non-diegetic cinematic effects, notably music, which in Bresson is often confined to the climax of the film.

This sounds like a radical Augustinian, Protestant theology, and Bresson’s background was Catholic, but perhaps of a Jansenist persuasion: that is, from a group within Catholicism that emphasised the unmotivated nature of divine grace, and the consequent inability of man to ever earn it. This allies him with Pascal, among others, for whom divine grace can never be an effect with a human (or a scientific) cause, and thus divine intervention can never be necessary in narrative terms.

In Bresson’s later films, this negative theology is taken to its pessimistic conclusion. These films are about failed attempts to invoke transcendence, most obviously in Lancelot du Lac, which begins with the return of Arthur’s knights from their unsuccessful quest for the Holy Grail. Here the Grail is, like the ritual of communion (itself, in Catholic theology, a miraculous, inexplicable transformation), a kind of metonymic substitute for the Body of Christ, and thus a symbol of divine immanence. But in the world of Lancelot du Lac, as in Bresson’s subsequent films, the divine presence is always out of reach.

'Lancelot du Lac' film poster

[Continues in the next post:]


plumeofwords said...

Very interesting post. As someone who never saw the first released version of Blade Runner, but only the director's cut, I thought I'd offer my viewing experience. I didn't find the film confusing, and didn't doubt that Ford's character was the protagonist (although I'd agree that his character was morally ambiguous, which I liked). But I have just watched the first commercial release version you posted and was struck by a significant difference: in the case of the director's cut, I interpreted the ending as meaning Ford's character was actually an android as well, a sense that seems to be absent in the commercial ending. His dreams about the horse, and his contemplation of the origami horse, seemed to point to this in the DC. Perhaps this was a very personal response, but on my first viewing it seemed justified (it's a few years ago now, so I can't remember the other aspects I saw as 'clues' all that clearly.) Thus, I found the DC ending to be a revelation.

Jonathan Walker said...

I think that your interpretation is correct, although I suspect it was a post facto one applied retrospectively by Scott when revising the film. It's valid though, because if one asks, 'How does this proposition affect our understanding of what has gone before?', its consequences are interesting, or at least they do not undermine the film's integrity, as the original ending does.

Hence I think the revised version of the film is superior, but I am nonetheless interested in the whole history of the 'tacked-on happy ending', which is stereotypically imposed against the director's wishes by a studio executive, who thus neatly occupies a deus ex machina role within the economy of the film's production (she comes in right at the end and imposes her will).

Since I am fond of counter-intuitive thinking, I wanted to start with the question, 'What positive meaning might such a tacked-on ending express?', or 'How might it possess its own integrity?', or even 'How might it express a higher truth about the way in which we experience our life as / through stories?'

Bresson is a particularly interesting case study, first because the aesthetic of his films is so resolutely anti-Hollywood, and secondly because his endings are never really happy in any conventional sense, but they nonetheless violate the internal logic of the stories they conclude. It's like they combine the worst of both approaches: the misery of death and imprisonment joined with the violent wrench of discontinuity.