Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Foreshadowings - Do Goths Dream of Electric Bats?

We've a little over a week to go until our first session of 2014. As usual, we're kicking off with a film: Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, but this time we'll also be reading the film's source material: Philip K. Dick's short novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Both 'texts' are famous within the canons of science fiction cinema and literature (Blade Runner is the 20th best film of all time according to Empire magazine and Androids was one of the first novels re-issued under the SF Masterworks imprint). . . but are they Gothic? Mark isn't sure, but, by way of an introduction to the session, he's going to have a think.


Do Goths Dream of Electric Bats?; or, Why Are We Watching Blade Runner?

Mark Bennett

Ignore the preamble: Blade Runner is as Gothic as it gets. The film exists in either four or seven versions depending on how you count them. To speak of the film, Blade Runner, is to speak of some sort of strange palimpsest, overlaid and ripped apart: a tattered manuscript from which (as anyone who's up on their voice-overs and origami will know) characters' testimonies, histories and memories have been excised only to be rediscovered, locked away in multi-disc boxed sets. It's a tale told by the ultimate unreliable narrator, Ridley Scott: a man who released a Director's Cut of his film only to subsequently declare that it wasn't definitive enough and make another one. Lest we forget, Ridley Scott is also a mad-scientist: a genius filmmaker who is as liable to produce lasting monuments to the power of cinema as he is to sneak back in and ruin them with overcooked gobbledegook about octopus monsters.

Oh and it rains a lot. That's pretty Gothic. There are some oversized helmets in Sebastian's apartment too. Maybe Vangelis is a bit Gothic as well. Sort of. 

This blog will be fairly short if I leave it there though, so, jokes aside: why are we watching Blade Runner and reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep in a 'Gothic Reading Group' - other than the obvious fact that our members suggested and supported the idea?

I've been having a think about this today (in-between reading old Sicilian travelogues) and plenty of fairly obvious responses have occurred. In a general sense, both the film and the book it draws upon are concerned with ideas we view through the 'Gothic Imagination': this is a tale of a partly abandoned Earth, of people living in the 'ruins' (like Wall-E, but with more guns). Its cinematography is designed to bring that out: ever-present rain and dripping water, a darkened palette, Harrison Ford being isolated and moody (more isolated and moody than in the novel, perhaps?). In fact, one of the most striking things about Blade Runner, with its dilapidated architecture, its collage of familiar fashion and food, even its tattered vision of new technology, is that it does such a good job of making the future feel freighted with the past: and what could be more Gothic than that? 

Tracing the film's generic pedigree back through Sci-Fi into the Gothic would probably be interesting (though labyrinthine) but I'll leave that for the actual discussion next week (if it's a road we choose to take). Instead I'll do something much more blog-friendly here and pick one point at which Blade Runner (and, by extension, Androids) intersects with the Gothic in an obvious, but fruitful way. . .

Because Blade Runner is Frankenstein, and Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty is one of the best versions of Shelley's Creature ever to be seen on film.

Clearly reads Milton
This is a story of the pursuit and confrontation, of a monster (in the figure of Roy Batty) who is immensely strong and resilient, in rebellion against his creators' abandonment and disdainful of his pursuer's moral position. Through Roy, the text also deals with a quintessentially Romantic ethics of subjectivity and its accompanying anxieties. Like the Creature, Dick (and Scott's) replicants seek the right to experience and the time to comprehend those experiences. This, in essence, is the reason they cannot be 'innocent.' In his final confrontation with Deckard, Roy speaks of his experiences as foundational to the value of his personhood and leaves the protagonist with an unspoken reciprocal question - ambiguously answered in different versions of the story. In a world of replication and artificiality (emphasised even more in the novel), the fact that Roy's experiences are his and his alone (as opposed to programmed implants) are what make him 'human' in a very Romantic sense; the fact that they cannot be recognised, communicated, valued or preserved means this is a Romanticism that speaks through the Gothic. Or so I reckon. We'll see what the group as a whole thinks next week. . .


Mark Bennett is a PhD student in the School of English, working on the relationship between Gothic and travel-writing in the late-eighteenth century. He's seen things you people wouldn't believe. Most of them at music festivals. 

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