Blade Runner and the Unicorn

“Blade Runner” (1982) | The Ladd Company, Warner Brothers

 

Some of my favourite creatives and cinephiles share a favourite movie experience: the film
that left a mark on them, that changed them, that influenced them personally, creatively or both.

 

Words by: Thomas Puhr

 

Blade Runner and the Unicorn

When my father took the VHS tape from its shelf at our local Blockbuster, I had never heard of Blade Runner or Ridley Scott. He explained how he and my mother had first rented the film and watched it at home while taking care of my older sisters. He thought I would like it, but, in case I didn’t, he picked up another movie before we went home.

Needless to say, I’ve forgotten what the second option was. I won’t pretend I can vividly describe that first viewing, but I can recall its impact and the fascination in film that it helped provoke in me. I remember feeling frustrated over not “getting” the ending (what was with the unicorn figurine left on the floor?), but also exhilarated from encountering a story that purposefully left some dots unconnected.

​Some years later, when in high school, I went with my father to see the remastered cut that was released in theaters. I had seen the movie many times by that point, but watching it on the big screen was like viewing it for the first time; it actually felt like a different movie (and not just because a few scenes had been slightly altered here and there).

​Though I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Blade Runner, I must admit that I’ve never seen the original original version; that is, the one with the infamous Deckard voiceover narration. A college professor once urged me to check it out, claiming that it was better than the director’s cut.

I’ve never watched it, and I don’t think I ever will. I know that by doing so I reject critical objectivity and succumb to nostalgia, but I want to keep this particular film memory untouched.
​ 
 

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular
contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, Film International, and Beneficial Shock!, he is
also the editor for The Big Picture and sporadically updates his film blog, Screen Icebergs.

 
From the same series: Favourite film: Lost in Translation / Favourite film: Alice in the Cities

 

Posted by classiq in Favourite film, Film | | Leave a comment

Sissy Spacek’s Extraordinary Ordinary Life

Sissy Spacek photographed by Lynne Brubaker

 

Being humble despite tremendous talent, dismissing disposable glamour for genuine character and unflinching dedication to her craft, having tenacity in an industry that can prop you up or make you come crashing down, eschewing Hollywood for farm life in Virginia, maintaining a low profile in the media despite forming a famous couple with production designer and director Jack Fisk (they have been married since 1974), valuing and protecting her privacy thus making the public respect it too. The well she draws from, for staying grounded and for honing her craft, is the real life. She has been a tomboy all her life and she had to come to terms with her first daughter wanting to paint her room pink. Sissy Spacek is my role model.

Through a career that took her from Texas small town Quitman to New York City and to the 1970s Hollywood, Sissy Spacek’s performing art has established her as a trailblazer in the world of film. She began as a singer in 1967, when she arrived in New York, but being a musician was not to be for her. As life would have it, after pursuing acting instead, she would win the Oscar and be nominated for a Grammy for impersonating the country music singer Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), followed by the release of her own country album, “Hangin’ Up My Heart”. Sissy’s impressive filmography includes Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), Brian de Palma’s Carrie (1976), Robert Altman’s 3 Women (1977), Costas Gavras’ The Missing (1982), Oliver Stone’s JFK (1991) and David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999). She has never looked for stardom, she just did the work that she loved. Fearlessly.

I have just read Sissy Spacek’s autobiography, “My Extraordinary Ordinary Life”. A great title for a great book, for a great person, for a great woman, for a great actor. Heartfelt, real, honest. It’s a book about real life, and it is about dreams, too, and about pursuing them, because what is life without dreams? I have taken it to heart, because it has much resonated with me. A happy childhood growing up with two older brothers and incredible parents, never straying from the deep roots that shaped her, transforming tragedy into bettering herself, going after what she loved, the thrill of being part of an actors’ generation that changed cinema but never changed who she truly was, raising a close-knit family, putting a smile on it. That’s life.

 
 

Childhood

“I can’t imagine having a childhood without being left on your own some time and being able to have some freedom. Jumping horses, riding bicycles and skateboards, and climbing trees all involve taking some risks, but how else can you know what you’re made of if you’re never allowed to test yourself?”

 

Self

“All the things that are important to me, I had before I left that little town. My values were formed in a community where material possessions didn’t count for much, relationships were everything, and where waiting for something you wanted could actually be better than having it.”

“From then on I would trust my own instincts about people and their rules. If I always did what was expected, I might miss out on the most wonderful things in life.”

 

Work

“Nothing I accomplished would be worth salt if I lost track of who I really was.”

 

Acting

“To be an actor, you have to live a life. If you want your work to be real, you have to be a real person yourself.”

 

Badlands

“Nothing has ever really matched the magic of discovery we all felt that summer in the Colorado desert, when we learned how a film could be a living, breathing, collaborative work of art.”

 

Style

“I prefer black suits and reasonable heels. I always want to be ready to run if I need to.”

 

Life

“My mother encouraged me to enjoy the beautiful things that surround me, not just put them up on a shelf to admire or hide them away in a drawer, and that’s just what I do. I use things up, wear my favorite clothes until they have holes, put the good rugs on the floor in the hallway, and stir my coffee with Big Mama’s silver spoons.”

“There are valuable lessons everywhere, if you are willing to receive them.”
 

 
More film reading and life stories: Ennio Morricone in His Own Words / Life Lessons from Abbas Kiarostami / Lubitsch Can’t Wait

Posted by classiq in Books | | 2 Comments

Open Road

photo: Kara Rosenlund

 
Take that scenic route. Ditch your smart phone. Bring along your camera and a paper map. Go analog. Fall is the best time of year for a long drive. And let good music be your companion. Here are some great songs to put on high rotation on an autumn road trip.
 
 

 
 

1. Call Me in the Afternoon, Half Moon Run / 2. Ode to My Family, The Cranberries / 3. Brand New Start, Paul Weller / 4. A Forest, The Cure / 5. Girl from the North Country, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash / 6. Sugar, Editors / 7. All These Things that I’ve Done, The Killers / 8. Stuck in the Middle with You, Stealers Wheel / 9. Incident in the 57th Street, Bruce Springsteen / 10. Maybe Tomorrow, Stereophonics / 11. Keep the Car Running, Arcade Fire / 12. When The Whip Comes Down, The Rolling Stones / 13. Up in the Sky, Oasis / 14. Hotellounge (Be the Death of Me), dEUS / 15. Fast Car, Tracy Chapman / 16. Redbud Tree, Mark Knopfler / 17. Waiting On the World to Change, John Mayer / 18. Dancing Barefoot, Patti Smith / 19. Last Day under the Sun, Volbeat

 

Posted by classiq in Sounds & Crafts | | 2 Comments

Mid-Autumn Culture Trip Newsletter


 
As I was sitting by the window of a newly discovered café downtown where I can peacefully work from remotely, one early, quiet and misty autumn morning, the images from the beginning of Three Days of the Condor with Robert Redford, before he is thrown into a reality he didn’t believe was possible, came to my mind. I can easily transport myself. I don’t use virtual reality for that. I use films and books. Pedro Almodóvar was saying in his book that “to make a film is to improve life”. I use films to take the best part of life.

“Where do you find the time?,” one of my loyal readers was asking me when I posted the photo above on Instagram about my current reading situation. The answer came fast: I don’t watch tv. I spend almost zero time on social media. I prioritise. I organise myself. And I am a really fast reader. So it all adds up. But there’s another aspect of social media I also wanted to talk about. I don’t use it much and I only use it for my work and my website. Be that as it may, the stories I want to tell and write about are to be found on Classiq Journal. I write for a conscious audience, whose attention span I trust is of more than a few split seconds required to scroll down one’s Instagram feed. But my spending so little time on social media also means that I don’t get to share much other quality content than what I provide on my website, like for example, the latest podcast episode that I enjoyed, without transforming it into a full-length article. Or it may be the other way around. I sometimes talk about the latest film I have watched at the cinema on Instagram, but as I don’t write film reviews on my website (my film writing is about content that one hardly finds anywhere else, such as fashion in film or interviews with artists working in the field), some of my readers will miss out on, because most of my readers don’t follow me on the social networks.

That’s where the Culture Trip Newsletter comes in. A regular round-up, not weekly, maybe not even monthly but most likely seasonally, where I gather and recommend the latest talks, films, music, interviews, books and cultural news that have caught my attention and have myself experienced in one way or another (not just put on my to-do list).

 
Elise Loehnen interviews Esther Wojcicki for Goop Podcast. Esther is a journalist, the founder of the Media Arts programs at Palo Alto High School, California, and the author of the book How to Raise Successful People. I know, there are so many books about parenting (I have read none) and every parent can come with their own list of advice on the subject, but the way Wojcicki talks about raising well-adjusted, independent children has hit all the right notes with me (her opinions are so sound and come from such a friendly place – she is a mother of three and an educator and she has developed such a beautiful relationship with her children and students) and also made me aware of mistakes I myself somehow knew I was making but unwillingly make nonetheless in raising my son. I can’t wait to read her book.

Dolor y gloria. I try to avoid reading film reviews. For not being even slightly influenced in my own writing about a certain film, and because critics so many times seem to judge a film based more on certain algorithms that must be checked rather than on their own emotions. So what do I do when I really want to learn more about a film or another? I look for interviews with the actors, directors, screenwriters, composers, costume designers, etc. So my recommendation for Pain and Glory, Almodóvar’s incredibly intimate, enveloped in such a quiet and ravishing beauty and enlivened by Antonio Banderas’ exceptional, career-best performance, is this: listen to Terry Gross’ podcast with Antonio Banderas and this talk with Pedro Almodóvar himself (scroll down to the episode). That laundry washing scene by the river that the director is talking about keeps coming to my mind, especially that, even if I am from a different country and from a different generation than Pedro, there are many similitudes between our cultures (both Latin) and that sequence took me down the memory lane of my childhood and stirred up so many emotions.

Ad Astra. Brad Pitt in his most subtle, understated performance. I’ve never seen him in such a role and I wish I saw more of this minimalist acting on screen in general. The film itself is minimalist, a sci-fi that is not showy, but meditative and realistic. Why is it that this kind of performances are always overlooked to the benefit of physically and mentally challenging or over-the-top characters? I wonder if Brad will get any nomination for his role and how many Joaquin Phoenix will get for Joker.

A new Editors album will be out October 25th and they are touring again next year in Europe. If you haven’t experienced a live Editors concert yet, you should. Here are their touring dates.

Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, by Ethan Hawke and Greg Ruth. After attending a Q&A with Ethan Hawke during a film festival a couple of years ago, I have started to pay even more attention to his work in film and elsewhere. So when this book came my way, I was eager to embrace it. Not only did I love the format, a graphic novel, but the rich cultural journey itself.

For TIME magazine, Suyin Haynes talks to Jessica Lange about “Highway 61”, the actor-photographer’s new book of photographs taken along the historic scenic route that runs the length of the American Midwest connecting Minnesota with New Orleans. “The discipline of acting and the idea of being present has helped with the photography. The photography gives me a chance to be absolutely alone, and that’s been a wonderful kind of antidote to the confusion and the chaos of working on a movie or being in the theatre. One really informs the other,” Lange says in the interview. Highway 61 is out now.

Permanent Record, by Edward Snowden. I will soon write more about the book, but, for now, I am just so ravished by how we have let technology rule and ruin our lives that I have to take a step back to straighten out my thoughts after everything I’ve read. The discussion is endless, and complicated, and disturbing, and terrifying. And it is still very hard for me to accept that no one in this whole wide world is completely free anymore. And if you tell me that you don’t care about your privacy because you have nothing to hide, then you don’t value privacy or you don’t know the meaning of and the right to privacy, nor the meaning of and the right to freedom.

Posted by classiq in Books, Culture, Film, Sounds & Crafts | | 3 Comments

He Wore Black

Paul Newman and Robert Redford in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, 1969 | Campanile Productions,
George Roy Hill-Paul Monash Production, Newman-Foreman Company, Twenties Century Fox

 
 
Henry Fonda gone bad, one of cinema’s most memorable endings with two of the greatest outlaws on screen fading into a photographic memory, and Montgomery Clift bringing in a new type of manly ideal and rivaling the man who was no less than the epitome of American manhood. These are the anti-heroes from three of the westerns that challenged the romantic notion of the West and brought in a new Western character archetype. They all wore black.
 

Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson in “Once Upon a Time in the West”, 1968
Rafran Cinematografica, San Marco, Paramount Pictures

 
 
“Jesus Christ, that’s Henry Fonda!”

When Henry Fonda reveals his face in Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), a big American movie cliché was capsized. Fonda had thus far been associated with the family man, with the good guy, with the classic hero, with Wyatt Earp, and that’s what the audiences were expecting to see. But there is nothing good about his stone-faced, piercing blue-eyed Frank in Sergio Leone’s film, and that was one of my most satisfying experiences as a cinephile. Fonda declared that Leone had chosen him specifically “to heighten the anticipation of his character’s entrance,” as Ennio Morricone tells Alessandro de Rosa in the book Ennio Morricone: In His Own Words. “The viewers were supposed to see a strange figure stooping over the little boy paralyzed by fear. At that point, the camera would pan around the actor’s back and with a circular movement it would reveal his face.” Only then would the audience realize that was Henry Fonda.

The distorted electric guitar that introduced the theme of the character was used to further heighten that suspense. Sergio Leone was painstakingly attentive to the balance between music, noises and effects, and he stretched out to the limit the long and cautious silence that opens the film into an operatic crescendo, by filling it gradually with a different sound (from the wind, to a creaking mill, or a buzzing fly), and then slashing it with the guitar sound that was “intended to wound the audience’s ears like a blade the first time” they hear it. It was as shocking as the kid seeing his family killed and being himself killed thereafter. And as shocking as Henry Fonda playing the villain. Clad in black, his presence not only portends bad things to come, but represents death itself.

Sergio Leone wanted Once Upon a Time in the West (from a story by Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento and Leone) to be his last western, and there is a sense of melancholy in the film, a film that is as much about a world vanishing in the face of rapacious civilization as it is about the end of a film era. The times were over, for the Wild West and for the Western, and even Fonda’s cold-blooded killer knows his times are over.
 

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in “Red River”, 1948
Monterey Productions, Charles K. Feldman Group, United Artists

 
 
Based on the story “The Chisholm Trail”, by Borden Chase, Howard Hawks’ Red River is about the nation’s first major cattle drive. Tom Dunson (John Wayne) takes the road with the scope of setting up his ranch in Texas and after the Civil War he leads his ten thousand cattle out of an impoverished Texas to the richer markets of Missouri. Matthew Garth (Montgomery Clift) is his foster son who rebels against the tyrannical Dunson and steers the herd West by a safer route. The screen story however suffered major changes, the biggest of all being that, to Chase’s disapproval, Hawks did not let Dunson die in the end, averting an epic finale. I was disappointed, too, when I rewatched the film recently, because it is forced, a disruptive note in the narrative and a wrong ending to an otherwise great film. In a departure from his 1930s films, Hawks had started to go for happy endings, keeping alive the characters he liked, a move that undoubtedly had its commercial reasons. Both Wayne and especially Clift objected to the ending in Red River. By not allowing that emotional climax, Hawks questions the entire careful build-up of the character of Matt Garth and of the psychological story.

Red River is a quintessential American film not only because it is a story of perseverance and of pioneers, and because it has a bad (meaning forced happy) ending, but because it describes America through two opposing characters and two contrasting masculine presentations. There is Wayne on the one hand, who represents the old views and an unbridled manliness, ruthless, solitary, imperious, for whom the only things that count are his work and the road to be travelled. He was also the product of the Old Hollywood system. And there is Clift on the other hand, who represents the new views, more sensitive, vulnerable and tolerant, who ushered in another kind of hero and man, introducing a new kind of masculine beauty on screen and signaling the manly neurosis that would start with the 1950s and would reach far higher levels in the following decades. Furthermore, Clift was among the first actors who questioned and changed the power balance between actors and studio chiefs, playing a major role in breaking up the major studio system. He can rightfully be called an antihero.

John Wayne’s Dunson is a man who has lost the woman he loved because of a mistake that he made and now, more than ever before, he would stop at nothing to go through with his plans, free from other men’s laws and free to make his own law. “Because a man who has made a great mistake to get somewhere is not going to stop at small things,” Hawks explained, as noted in Todd McCarthy’s book “Howard Hawks: The Grey Fox of Hollywood”. This kind of character that is also played by a physically imposing man like John Wayne is difficult to overpower, especially by a “compact, refined-looking, five-foot-ten” kid, as Wayne described Montgomery Clift. Because it was not his acting abilities, which, although at his first major film role, he soon enough proved, and so naturally too, that were questionable, but how believable he would appear on screen as the rival of John Wayne. So Hawks guided Clift in a new direction, going for a subtle, pensively cool approach. In was all in the attitude.

The costumes helped, too. Howard Hawks was a director who payed a great deal of attention to the clothes of his characters. He gave the Red River actors, men and women, “Red River D” belt buckles made by a silverman in Nogales and based on the design Tom Dunson draws in the ground. He also wanted distinctive hats (including derby and stovepipe in addition to the regular cowboy hats) for the characters, “because he believed that this was the easiest way for audiences to recognize otherwise undifferentiated characters, such as the cowboys”. Hawks was so impressed by Montgomery Clift’s dedication to getting into his cowboy character that he gave him a weather-beaten hat Gary Cooper had given him. He also dressed Monty mostly in black to allow him to cut a stronger profile and make him believable alongside Wayne. And he was. If only Hawks had let him be until the end.
 

Robert Redford and Paul Newman in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, 1969
Campanile Productions, George Roy Hill-Paul Monash Production, Newman-Foreman Company, Twenties Century Fox

 
 
With the arrival of the 1960s and of films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (at its 50th anniversary this autumn), American cinema left behind the sharp morality of Old Hollywood films and especially classic Westerns and dared to deal with people as individuals and their rebellion against society and against the norm and introduced more ambiguous characters and the outlaws as antiheroes: Paul Newman’s Butch Cassidy and Robert Redford’s Sundance the Kid robbed banks for fun and they won the audiences over with their charisma. The teaming of Paul Newman and Robert Redford was so magical that this kind of buddy chemistry has been attempted to replicate in vain ever since (the recent pairing of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood came closer than anything before).

Bathed in cinematographer Conrad Hall’s sepia hues, George Roy Hill’s comically elegiac Western offers more visual interest than the two handsome, well-defined, contrasting characters, and more narrative substance than the good humoured situations and damned-fool heroics of its characters. It has to do with the depiction of real bonding and real friendship. Because despite common belief, that doesn’t come off that easily on screen or in real life. It also has to do, as Paul Newman was saying in a 1994 commentary on the film, with the way he and Redford gave each other space on screen, the way they gave each other the stage in turn. Paul Newman was the one who wanted Redford as his co-star (and George Roy Hill fought for him with the producers) and screenwriter William Goldman was recalling in an interview how everyone who hadn’t wanted Redford in the picture in the first place told Newman not to allow Redford to have so many close-ups. But Paul had no problem with that, because he always wanted to play opposite good actors, because only that way he could better himself. They both let each other have their moments and that’s true friendship and that’s chemistry and that showed in the film.

Edith Head was the costume designer, but the costumes for Redford and Newman were pulled out of stock at Universal and Western Costume Company. And truth be told, you never knew how much credit Head was due on any given film, as she often had no real design responsibilities and her real job was to make sure everyone was satisfied with the costumes and to sell the film to the press, often by making up stories from behind the scenes. She supposedly made one up from the set of The Sting, the second and, surprisingly, last film that brought Redford and Newman back together, four years later. As noted in the book “Edith Head: The Fifty-Year Career of Hollywood’s Greatest Costume Designer”, by Jay Jorgensen, the two supposedly both wanted a blue shirt and blue tie that would bring out their eyes and Head alternated blue between them in each scene. I doubt that either Redford or Newman showed the slightest interest in outshining the other or playing up their star personae card in the detriment of their characters. And the reality is that only Redford wears blue in The Sting.

He doesn’t wear anything blue as Sundance the Kid. He repeatedly wears black instead although not entirely in those respective outfits. One of them is head-to-toe black (shirt, trousers, belt and boots), except for a brown corduroy jacket with black leather shirt-style collar. His hat is also black, and his clothes are for sure used for hinting at his dark side. Unlike the reckless and daredevil Butch, the leader of the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, an enthusiastic bank robber with a vision, Sundance is the golden boy with darkness within, quiet, ironic and cool, and the voice of reason. Their adventure does not end well, after all, but it is an ending that carries their memory in romantic legend.
 

Posted by classiq in Film, Style in film | | Leave a comment