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It has been over thirty years since Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) was first released in theaters. Raised to cult film status after being distributed as a Midnight Movie, it continues to circulate in popular culture and has been the subject of numerous articles and books of academic nature (see, amongst others, Kerman 1991 and Brooker 2005). While some authors (Sammon 2007, Redmond 2008) have briefly addressed the cult of Blade Runner, this short book (112 pages) by Matt Hills is the first to be entirely devoted to the subject. Published in 2011, it is part of British publisher Wallflower Press’s “Cultographies” collection, which aims to introduce the reader to the cultural significance of a series of cult films (1). Matt Hills, author of Fan Cultures (2002) and Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-first Century (2010), analyzes the cult, critical and academic discourses surrounding the many versions of Scott’s film, in order to theoretically and historically define the “LA 2019” (Hills 2011, p. 2) cult.
Hills proposes to reconcile two approaches which generally divide cult film studies. A text-based approach, developed by Umberto Eco, emphasizes the cult film’s intertextual density. An audience-based approach, inspired by the works of Pierre Bourdieu, emphasizes the object’s cultural capital built upon extra-textual discourses and fan activities. According to the author, an analysis of the cult of Blade Runner should focus on the encounter between the textual properties related to the film’s genre and artistic design, and the attribution of a “subcultural capital” (2011, p. 65) supporting discourses of authenticity.
The first of the four chapters has two objectives: first, to define the object of worship and second, to define the relationship between said object and its fans. Hills rapidly engages with details of Blade Runner which have been the subject of fan discussions without contextualizing them, assuming from the outset detailed knowledge of the object of study on the part of the reader. He focuses on the textual multiplicity which complicates the question: “Which is the ‘real’ Blade Runner?” (2011, p 5). No less than seven versions have been listed. Add to that the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep? (1968) which inspired the film; a comic book adaptation by Marvel Comics (1982) and three novels by K.W. Jeter (1995, 1996 and 2000) which extrapolate upon the film’s diegesis. Originally conceived as a standalone movie, Blade Runner became a multi-platform franchise, a model for postmodern cult films built on the principle of “transmedia storytelling” (Jenkins 2006).(2) Although understanding the film does not require knowledge of other products, fans can read them intertextually in order to discover ever more information about the world of Blade Runner. Matei Calinescu’s (1993) concept of heuristic hope is favored over that of branching, suggested by Will Brooker (2009), to define the ludic process of creative rereading: “[…] ‘heuristic hope’ more strongly emphasizes ongoing openness of interpretation. It stresses the creative pursuit of new textual details and discoveries, as opposed to an apparent switching between alternate diegetic routes” (Hills 2011, p. 12).
As is customary in the Cultographies collection, the introductory chapter includes a section on the author’s evolving relationship with Blade Runner and its multiple versions. The interest of this autobiographical account lies in the issue of various audience responses to the cult object. It allows Hills to discuss the sense of belonging to the text, distinguishing first generation fans (those who were there from the beginning in 1982) from fans of subsequent generations who experienced the cult at other moments of Blade Runner’s cultural life.
Chapter two examines the textual properties of Blade Runner that encourage fans’ cult activities: its intertextual density and its hyperdetailist aesthetic. First, Umberto Eco’s paradigm, which distinguishes between “accidental” cults (consisting of a proliferation of clichés) and postmodern meta-cults (deliberately incorporating references to other films), can account for the variability of audience readings as each viewer identifies different intertextual connections according to his or her own generic skills (3). While Hoberman and Rosenbaum, in Midnight Movies (1991), have classified Blade Runner in the first category, Hills argues that it belongs to both the category of accidental cult with its mixture of genres (horror, sci-fi and film noir) and to the category of a postmodern meta-cult: “[…] simultaneously appearing at the very moment in film history where Eco sees ‘unconscious’ cult as giving way to Spielberg/Lucas ‘metacult’. And, of course, as the ‘academic cult movie par excellence’, it has repeatedly been claimed as a veritable poster-boy for theories of the postmodern” (2011, p. 37). Then, in the second part of this chapter, Hills considers how the accessories and architecture of Ridley Scott’s futuristic Los Angeles have contributed to turning Blade Runner into a cult film. On the one hand, fan activities (rereading, pilgrimages, collecting objects) are prompted by the film’s mise-en-scène of intermittence, a concept adapted from Roland Barthes (1973): the excess of visual detail makes it impossible to capture the entire universe in a single viewing, pushing the viewer to always want to see more (4). On the other hand, by integrating to its mise-en-scène elements inspired by the works of architects and designers like Frank Lloyd Wright, Edward Hopper and William Hoggart, Blade Runner transgresses the boundaries between popular genre and high art, therefore reflexively engaging in a debate regarding the cultural significance of genre cinema
Based on Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital, the audience-based approach is the subject of the third chapter. Hills analyzes discourses surrounding the authenticity of the cult of Blade Runner from a historical perspective. The author discusses the ideological distinction made by cult followers between the authentic cult – i.e. the adventurous and “masculine” discovery of an obscure film by a small community of fans – and the inauthentic cult of the mainstream film, accessible to the general public for a more “feminine” domestic consumption (5). The distribution of Blade Runner as a midnight movie following its failure at the box office has had the effect of enhancing the film’s value in the eyes of a handful of adventurous fans. Hills uses the term « subcultural capital », proposed by Sarah Thornton (1995) as part of a book on British club and rave culture, to illustrate the aura of authenticity that is created around increased fan knowledge about the cult object. The author shows how this concept of authenticity is challenged by the mass distribution of Blade Runner on VHS or DVD format and by “counter-poaching” (2011, p. 74), a recuperation of fan discourses by producers who then incorporate them into the DVD supplements, allowing all viewers (fans and non-fans) to have privileged access to extratextual information. Finally, an analysis of reviews of the Final Cut in DVD and sci-fi magazines emphasizes a recovery of the cultural distinction. Critical discourses focus on a careful and detailed reading of the almost imperceptible changes made to the world of Blade Runner when it was digitalized. This reading revolves around two oppositions, between fans and the general public, on the one hand and between Blade Runner and Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), on the other hand: “[…] this sub-niche […] discursively restores Blade Runner’s ‘authentic’ cult status by contrasting it to the ‘inauthentic’ cult of ‘Mr. Lucas’; by emphasizing tasteful, non ‘flashy’ work on Blade Runner’s digital restoration; and by validating the ‘art’ of Blade Runner” (Hills 2011, p. 88).
The closing chapter goes beyond a chronological and linear perspective by considering the different types of cult that coexist in a single generation of fans, which Hills calls “cult retrofitting” (2011, p. 92) in reference to the mise-en-scène’s principle of industrial design. The first section compares the residual cult – fans of Philip K. Dick who transfer the cult of the novel to their relationship with Scott’s film in a hierarchical intertextual perspective – to the emergent cult – fans of Ridley Scott who are attached to the film and see it as a standalone object. This comparison is situated in a broader debate about the cultural value of sci-fi literature and the concept of auteur in cinema: “Blade Runner is linked to discourses of art and design, to be sure, but nonetheless remains a victim of ‘media SF’ versus ‘literary SF’ cultural hierarchies, making it unsurprising that Blade Runner fans are less confident in their fandom than Philip K. Dick aficionados” (Hills 2011, p. 99). Continuing on an issue that was the subject of Hills’s article in The Blade Runner Experience (2005), the second part of the last chapter deals with Blade Runner’s academic cult, which saw it as an exemplar of Jean Baudrillard’s postmodern theory in the late 1980s and early 1990s. According to Hills, although fans and academics seek to dissociate themselves from each other, their discourses show the desire, each with different arguments, to elevate the film’s cultural status:
[…] “academic cult” also operates, and has operated, outside cult discourse. “High theory” such as postmodernism (perhaps Deleuzian readings more recently) constitutes a cultural transposition of cult discourses, potentially performing the same kinds of subcultural distinctions (see Sheen 1991), and seeking to similarly valorize popular-cultural texts. Postmodern readings of Blade Runner can be thought of as unintended cultifications, contributing to the film’s cult(ural) profile despite not drawing directly on cult discourses (2011, p. 107).
Adapted to Blade Runner’s textual multiplicity, Hills’s approach allows him to spare no aspect of the cult that has formed around the film, and the method is certainly appropriate to study any other cult object from an extratextual perspective. His study provides an excellent introduction to the issues surrounding the interpretation and reception of the film, although it does not offer any new perspective on the textual properties that made Blade Runner into a cult film. It is not a reinterpretation of the object, but rather an analysis of the discourses that have proliferated around it and elevated it to cult status. Hills announces from the outset that he does not intend to discuss information available elsewhere: “this should not be considered as a one-stop introduction to Blade Runner’s world. Rather, it is designed as a contribution to one strand of debate: how and why has Blade Runner become a cult movie?” (2011, p. 2). Hills’s work certainly demonstrates extensive research and in-depth knowledge of Scott’s film, but the author seems to assume that readers possess the same degree of knowledge; therefore this book is more appropriate for readers familiar with Blade Runner and the field of fan studies than the general public. The distinction between fans and non-fans that characterizes cult discourses is reproduced in his argument’s relationship with the reader. The pedagogical style of writing, with occasional summaries and frequent reminders of important issues, however, renders it easy to read. Recommended to anyone interested in the world of LA 2019, this book brings the discussion up to date at a particularly appropriate moment, since Ridley Scott has announced in 2011 that a sequel to Blade Runner is under development.
(1) Films which are the subject of monographs in this collection include The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981) and Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly, 2001). For more information, see the official website of the collection: <www.cultographies.com>.
(2) “A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each new medium does what it does best – so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa” (Jenkins 2006, p. 95).
(3) For another perspective on various audience readings, see Joly-Corcoran 2007. Considering the range of possible interpretations of The Matrix (Andy and Lana Wachowski, 1999) according to the various intertextual connections that a viewer could identify, Joly-Corcoran traces the film’s hermeneutic circle in order to illustrate “the film’s full hermeneutic and ludic potential” (2007, p. 114, my translation).
(4) Barthes was already encouraging rereading of texts in S/Z: “[…] rereading is here suggested at the outset, for it alone saves the text from repetition (those who fail to reread are obliged to read the same story everywhere), multiplies it in its variety and its plurality: rereading draws the text out of its internal chronology (‘this happens before or after that’) and recaptures a mythic time (without before or after) […] rereading is no longer consumption, but play (that play which is the return of the different)” (1974, p. 16).
(5) This issue is discussed in more detail in Hills 2002 and Hollows 2003. A similar distinction also marks discourses surrounding the collecting of vinyl records (see Straw 1997 and Wojcik 2001).
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Andréane Morin-Simard est étudiante à la maîtrise en études cinématographiques à l’Université de Montréal. Ses intérêts de recherche portent sur la relation entre la musique populaire, le cinéma et le jeu vidéo, ainsi que sur l’intertextualité dans les médias audio-visuels. Elle est également membre de l’équipe de recherche Ludiciné de l’Université de Montréal.