Blade Runner 2049: Propaganda, Obviously, For an Oppressive Cause

09 October 2017

Film criticism had grown increasingly hostile to the image, to the artform itself: beauty was inherently devious, not to be trusted. Tired of form, we wanted meaning. The medium was no longer the message. ‘In fact, just give us the message.’

The soldiers of justice were winning. ‘Like its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 reduces white women to tired archetypes and sidelines nonwhite characters.’ Not again: this is what happens, I felt compelled to note after reading that dime-a-dozen article, when criticism is predicated on a specious, tedious demand for art to be nothing more than an advert for some prescribed social ideal. Film criticism had grown increasingly hostile to the image, to the artform itself: beauty was inherently devious, not to be trusted. Tired of form, we wanted meaning. The medium was no longer the message. ‘In fact, just give us the message.’

You couldn’t win. In 2016, some of the same folks who came to dismiss Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi blockbuster, for what they perceived to be a vision of the future that wasn’t futuristic, or which was a little less pleasant than the one they were presumably hoping will come into being, had also dismissed I, Daniel Blake. On that occasion, the charge was: assaultive propaganda. A politics lecture rather than a proper film. When I eventually saw it, I was inclined to agree: neither Ken Loach nor Paul Laverty, in that film, communicated through images; they had taken their story’s earnestness, its historical urgency, for granted. But Blade Runner 2049 had struck me, whatever else one thought of it, as a film by someone who did think in images: a filmmaker.

You wouldn’t think it. Cursory—obligatory—nods to Villeneuve’s frequent cinematographer Roger Deakins aside, there was scant engagement with the film’s form. Rather, it seemed, its images were merely conduits for ideological statements. The whole film, in fact, was reducible to a single political comment. One more white male had made, as another headline claimed, ‘a misogynistic mess’. It would have been helpful, certainly, if such propositions were falsifiable. What, indeed, could the film’s statement be? What could its single political comment look like? In which ways could it be advancing a particular ideological position on women? And which interpretive frameworks could exist for such a critique to be quantified?

It might have had some relevance that these questions emerged in response to a mournful film about human existence, a film in which sentience is simultaneously a curse and a miracle. But weren’t they a series of eisegeses contingent upon the possession of psychic powers, a foreknowledge of not only an artist’s intentions, but also her or his political leanings and moral disposition? And weren’t these, in turn, taken for granted as things that we should be taking care to care about?

Critics, like film scholars, were under increasing pressure to validate their practice as a thing of social relevance. They knew that, in order to survive in a climate where their questions and strategies were always less urgent than actual politics, they had to normalise the notion that films could be anthropomorphised, that they could be approached—often with murderous intent—as living entities, capable of articulating a coherent system of (disagreeable) propositions. Propositions from which, so the implication went, you could glean clear-cut meanings that allowed you to treat it like a research paper, not so much as evidence of some political thesis as a political thesis in itself. That was the trick: to circumvent the tension, inherent in all criticism, between having to formulate a critique in one language about something that operated in another. Things got much easier once you adopted a position of bad faith: you could file the same article every time a new film with cultural currency came along. If you had seen one film made under a particular socioeconomic system, you had seen them all. Measure them by the length of the female characters’ skirts: you didn’t need a degree in art history, and you didn’t even need access to back issues of Screen. And you could boost your social capital in the process.

And so it went. In Blade Runner 2049, it became enough to note the onscreen presence of prostitutes, a servile holographic girlfriend, a bitch boss, an evil (but kickass!) antagonist, and the costumes in which all of these appeared: propaganda, obviously, for an oppressive cause. One colleague—who also curiously suggested, referring to himself and/or to others, that one shouldn’t have expected this film to be ‘the second coming’—proved his feminist credentials by reading, as if he wasn’t at all being disingenuous in doing so, a bunch of nude sculptures in one sequence not as ‘some Freudian metaphor of maternal longing or an image which holds a deep relevance,’ but as, ‘apropos of nothing, an image of guilt-free titillation for the road’. Even accepting the truth value of this (dubious) claim, the question was: guilt-free titillation for whom?

It was an unworkable tenet, this. Media Studies with a vengeance. An embalmed form of proletkultism, which expected art to be interventionist and artists—not modes of production—to be ambassadors of an identifiable social cause. Never mind the fact that Blade Runner 2049 was conceived as dystopian fiction. Never mind that, as fiction, it was under no obligation to advertise a future for which we might want to fight—to say nothing of reflecting the world in 2017, or of an explanation as to why said future hadn’t, in its own hermetic universe, come to fruition. Never mind, in addition, the complexities of a discussion as serious as onscreen representation: it was enough that stocks with regard to this discussion, and with regard to its oversimplification, had increased in value. Investing in them had become a thing. A career opportunity, even: all opinions my own. Retweets were not endorsements. Bylines at: etcetera.

Criticism was, now more than ever, a valid means by which the practice itself could be aggrandised, through a kind of self-deluding, self-elevatory pedantry, proceeding on the presumption that the film-going public consisted of nothing but uncritical consumers, unquestioningly and unthinkingly lapping the medium’s shit up. Its shit being: neatly packaged, easily decoded arguments for the active and continued suppression of people based on their gender, race, and so on. (But not too easily decoded, because then those same unthinking hordes could all become critics too.) The going presumption was that an absence of positive role models in a film could—that it should—be weaponised against its makers, used as a tool with which to drag them through the ad hominem mud. Because the validity of a critique was reflected in the social media interactions it prompted (a dialectic of statistics), it was preferable for the shaming to be public: in the form of rapid-fire quote-tweets, in the form of an Elizabeth Banks awards speech singling out Steven Spielberg for not directing films with female leads, in the form of an article about the third season of Twin Peaks positioned around its depiction of ‘embittered wives’ and other dinosaur ethics. Because, again, we should be taking care to care not only about what David Lynch thinks about women, but also what his art tells us about what he thinks about women.

This didn’t strike me as politics. It was too easy. It wasn’t, for instance, organising or unionising behind hiring quotas (which was difficult, often dispiriting, and time-consuming work); it was an attempt at psychology by textual analysis (which was neither difficult nor time-consuming, though it might well be dispiriting, and it was probably work). But all of these propositions—that cinematic images should have a recognisably agreeable social function, that the stories we consume must have a utilitarian value, that movies should foster ideas and role models to which we can aspire, that an artwork is the comprehensible and delineable embodiment of its maker’s worldview, and that a fictional character who fits into a particular social category must inevitably represent that category—were preconditions of a political criticism. It was nothing if not relevant: hire me at.

Even taken on its own terms—that there was value in demanding an artwork to be a prescriptive blueprint from which we might argue for a better world—all of this seemed counterintuitive. To simultaneously demand, on the one hand, emotional plausibility and psychological nuance from a dramatic work and, on the other hand, remain comfortable with the idea that progressive artistic renditions of womanhood must only and inevitably involve an onscreen female character being confident (and successful) in her transcendence of oppressive social mechanisms: this argument, if it was the argument, was unreasonable. A reduction of the very notion of feminism to a political position befitting a particular social type.

This wasn’t merely a strawman. Recording the third episode of The Habitus (forthcoming), we noted the predictability with which the think-pieces on mother! had arrived: Aronofsky’s film was egregious because it depicted a woman suffering for two hours of screen time; some critics, instinctively aware of how the popularity of their critical framework depended upon a disregard for the boundaries between signifier and signified, had gone so far as to confusedly refer to the onscreen character as ‘Jennifer Lawrence’. In 2015, critics—those head-in-ass know-it-alls, with their endless bounty of joyless, ‘here’s why’ clickbait—had also argued that Villeneuve’s Sicario was problematic or distasteful on the grounds that Emily Blunt’s character—or, again, Emily Blunt the actor—was too doe-eyed, too passive. They read her (character’s) failure to defeat the predatory mechanisms of imperial patriarchy as a dangerous precedent: keep young girls away from seeing this R-rated movie, they seemed to be saying, lest their impressionable minds be infected and they become… what, exactly, a cop?