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The Aesthetics Of One Cult Film Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2531 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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This essay will discuss the aesthetics of the cult film, Blade Runner. Firstly we will look at the way in which theorists have set out to define the extensive genre of cult film, looking at in particular, but not limited to, the works of theorists Telotte, Jancovitch and Sconce etc.  We will then analyse the film Blade Runner, dissecting the film and its aesthetics and discuss how, or if, they contribute to making it a cult classic, looking at its appeal to audiences, and what makes it transgressive in its theme and style.

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Cult film is a diverse and wide-ranging ‘quasi-genre’ that cannot be attributed to one set of stylistic conventions, as Sconce comments in his study ‘[cult film] would include entries from such seemingly disparate subgenres as ‘bad films”, spatterpunk,”mondo” films, sword and sandal epics, Elvis flicks, governmental hygiene films, Japanese monster moves, beach party musicals, and just about every other historical manifestation of exploitation cinema from juvenile delinquency documentaries to soft core pornography.’ (Sconce, J (1995) Cult fictions: Cult Movies, Subcultural Capital and the Production of Cultural Distinctions. p.373). There is one feature that can be attributed to that of all ‘cult’ films – the devout admiration that it receives from its fans, Sconce argues this further – ‘it is not defined according to some single, unifying feature shared by all cult movies, but rather through a ‘sub-cultural ideology’ in filmmaker, films or audiences are seen as existing to the opposition to the mainstream. In other words, ‘cult’ is largely a matter of the ways in which films are classified in consumption.’ (ibid p.373). 

As there are no clearly defined set of characteristics that define a ‘cult film’, I believe it is useful to look at the etymological root of the word ‘cult’, which comes from the Latin word cultus and means ‘belief’ and ‘ritual’. J.P. Telotte states in his 1991 book Beyond All Reason: The Nature of Cult, that the word signifies both adherence and mastery and also submission and domination, meaning that the word is steeped in a ‘dual purpose’ to both worship and control (p.14). Telotte furthers this argument by stating that a film transitions to its cult status by the actions of its fans – through a process of reception and conversion – a film is transformed into an object of cryptic worship and a ‘supertext’ is created by the audience’s actions with the original text (p.7). Other theorists such as Jancovitch and Sexton also empathise this strong link between ‘cult films’ and audience appropriation processes. All theorists also argue the process of ‘resurrection’ is a feature of a lot of cult films – that a film takes on cult status when it is ‘resurrected’ from its critical and / or commercial failures and takes on a new life through its adoption by this new niche audience. The film is brought back to life within a different cultural context, attracting strong emotional connections from audiences who use it to define themselves in opposition to what is considered as the ‘norm’ or mainstream at that time (Jancovitch (2003) Defining Cult Movies: The Cultural Politics of Oppositional Taste. p.1). This inference – that cult film viewers ‘love their’ films for ‘aggressively attacking the established quality of cannon cinema’ Sconce, J. (1995) Trashing the Academy: Taste, Excess, and an Emerging Politics of Cinematic Style. p.374) – and that the text is not always in opposition on its release, is often drawn upon when assessing the ‘cult film’. It is this ‘resurrected’ category of cult films that Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner falls into. 

Transgression is another feature of many cult films as, as stated, cult fans are often attracted to themes and styles that can clearly be understood as in opposition to the mainstream, ignoring the established conventions and rejoicing in difference. According to theorist Barry Grant, transgression can be understood in terms of ‘content, attitude or style’ (Grant, B K (1991) ‘Science fiction double feature: Ideology in the Cult Film. p.123). Saturated with cultural visual references and cliché’s, generic hybridity, collage-like excessiveness, and technical incompetence are all recognised stylistic and aesthetic examples of transgression in cult film. Transgressive subject matter in cult films are the subjects that often are ignored or deemed too taboo for mainstream cinema such as rape, transvestism, social / political critique, incest, dehumanisation, ideas of dystopia and slavery etc. Blade Runner can be seen as transgressive in its style, content and attitude by the way in which is paints a gritty, dystopian vision of the future that explores themes of dehumanisation, slavery, social criticism and crisis and corporate / capitalist greed. The aesthetic aspects of the film present a shadowy, rainy visual style that is indebted to the genre of Film Noir. This helps to reinforce the subversive themes, submerging the audience into a dark, oppressive world that is familiar (through its constant cultural references) but alien at the same time, namely though its captivating special effects. Blade Runner can also be seen as transgressive in its narrative style and pace – many viewers criticised the film for its slow-developing storyline and filming style that went against the speedy, action-packed action of sci-fi films of its time. It is also a prime example of generic hybridity, crossing over cinematic styles such as Film Noir, Science-Fiction, Thriller and Romance. 

‘You are no longer simply a fan of Blade Runner: you are part of the world of Blade Runner or even a blade runner yourself.’ (Brooker, W (1999) Internet Fandom and the Continuing Narratives of Star Wars, Blade Runner and Alien, p.60).

Ridleys Scott’s Blade Runner, released in 1982 (re-release 1992) by Warner Bros, was adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ by Hampton Fancher and David Peoples. Initially it was not well received but went on to achieve cult status with fans dedicating websites and fan conventions to the film. Depicting a dystopian Los Angles in 2019, it is now thought of as the benchmark with which to compare cinematic representations of urban decay. The film has made a lasting impression and long stayed in the minds of countless fans in the 30 years since it was released, justifying its further releases. Blade Runner was released during the same year as big blockbuster hits such as E.T. and Star Trek II. Not only did the film have to compete with such big-budget movies, but these films are almost in direct opposition to Blade Runner’s gritty disposition, and their up-beat attitude. Unsurprisingly the film was not a box-office success, taking only $14.5m in ticket sales whilst costing an estimated $28m to make. Critical reception was also disappointing with most reviewers failing to fully understand the film in one sitting, and so dismissing the narrative as muddled and inconsistent. Fortunately Blade Runner was produced around the same time as the arrival of home cable and videotapes and was chosen as one of the first films to be released for home video. This ultimately meant that the film was now made available for people who wouldn’t normally go to the cinema to watch sci-fi films and enabled the viewer to watch as many times needed in order to fully understand and appreciate the complex narrative, and it was in rental video and cable TV that Blade Runner found its devoted audience. Since this time the film has been released a further two times – once ten years on in 1992 as a ‘Director’s Cut’ and again in 2007 as a five-disc ‘Final cut’ including deleted scenes and commentary – the ultimate collectable for the cult fan. Although there were only two official releases, there are several different versions of the film. This enables the cult fan to research the details of the other versions, helping them to better understand and identify the film and fulfil their desires for more. 

‘First, the [cult] phenomenal experience is an aesthetic one. It is an experience that is sought for its own sake- as an end in itself.’ (Mathijis, E & Sexton, J (2011) Cult Cinema p.18). 

In Blade Runner, ‘cult’ aesthetic techniques help to articulate the film’s critique of capitalism. The shadowy visual style is all-encompassing and supports the films transgressive themes. The set design and narrative use of set spaces create an atmosphere of (frightening) splendour and mystery. The high towers are only accessible by futuristic flying crafts (only available to the police) or by controlled ‘access lifts’. Blade Runner contrasts an upper city for the authorities and the wealthy, with a dirty and more chaotic lower city for the masses. The continual darkness and absence of natural light constantly remind us of man’s destructive greed and is juxtaposed to the bright neon lights of the commercial adverts placed in every possible space. These mesmerising neon billboards and corporate adverts that dominate the city signify capitalist greed and are the only source of light in what would otherwise be a very bleak and depressing environment. The garish pink and red colours also evoke references to Hell. In their stark contrast to the obscure landscape below, the bright neon colours suggest the links in advanced capitalism, with the sparkling promises of consumption and the cruel realities of production and the mundane. These urban scenes manifest our fears about urban decay, and visualise our anxieties of complete corporate dominance of everyday life. The urban images paint a ruined and devastated natural environment with many buildings abandoned and streets overflowing with rubbish.

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I would argue that the use of the light in the film enhances the themes of social and political critique and thus helps cult fans to understand it as in opposition to the mainstream and thus identify themselves with it. Camera angles, shadows and the use of smoke are also very important aesthetics in conveying the films dark mood. POV camera angles are used to help the audience identify with the characters who are both humans and ‘replicants’- highly advanced cyborg ‘slaves’, manufactured by the ‘Tyrell Corporation’, that are ‘More Human Than Human’ (The fictional company’s marketing slogan) and eventually become hostile to their creator. Wide sweeping shots with high camera angles, looking either up at the tall imposing buildings or down at the dark streets, convey the enormity of the city and its intimidating atmosphere. This atmosphere of fear and intimidation is also created through the use of filming the city through the glass-bottomed police hover-cars that patrol the streets and see all there is to offer in this dismal landscape.

Scott uses shadow to continue the theme of darkness which, of course, lends from the Film Noir style of using shadow to create mood and enhance drama. The darkness continues even with indoor scenes and as in Film Noir movies, blinds are used to separate light and fragment the narrative visually. Shadowing is often used in the film to convey the underlying darkness in the narrative when it may not be apparent – this is evident in a scene in JF Sebastian’s flat where Pris and Ron Batty (replicants) are hiding out (Sebastian is not aware they are Replicants) and although the characters are being nice to Sebastian, the viewer can sense that something more sinister is going on. Smoke is another feature used heavily in the film to create mystery and fear. Most characters smoke, expressing their paranoia and anxiousness. Smoke also emits from the industrial buildings, polluting the city and again, adding to the sinister tone. 

Blade Runner’s generic hybridity is a recognised transgressive aesthetic within Cult film, with Telotte arguing that the generic mish-mash is a ‘defining element’ (Telotte (1991) Beyond All Reason: The Nature of Cult ). As discussed, Blade Runner embodies the visual style and aesthetics of many different film genres, such as Film Noir, Thriller, Romance, and of course Science-Fiction. Sci-Fi as a generic style is displayed in many cult films – the groundbreaking special effects and visuals present the possibilities of new worlds with strange creatures and previously unimagined landscapes. This becomes the perfect breeding ground to explore the transgressive and subversive themes mentioned above. If generic hybridity and collage-like excessiveness are recognised ‘cult film’ aesthetics, then Film Noir and Thriller are perfect genres to lend from, for their roots in formal complexity are articulated through aesthetic and ideological ambiguity. According to Nicole Rafter ‘Film Noir and crime films provide ways for viewers to enjoy fantasies of violence and law-breaking by offering forbidden pleasure and its chastisement, they offer viewers both transgression and the return to conformity, thus alleviating their anxiety about social norms’ (Rafter, N (2000) Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society p.153-154). This can easily be related to Telotte’s ideas on transgression in cult films – that they allow the viewer to embrace the other within them and that this is a ‘gesture’ or a ‘feeling’ of being transgressive without actually being transgressive (Telotte, J P (1991) Beyond All Reason: The Nature of Cult ). As mentioned above, the themes and narrative structure of Blade Runner are complex and the average viewer may find they need to watch the film many times in order to fully appreciate and understand it (which in itself encourages ‘cult’ viewing).

In conclusion I cannot deny that Blade Runner’s aesthetics are what set it aside from the popular movies of its time and so encouraging fans to read it as in opposition to the norm, and identify / align themselves with it. There is also no denying that the aesthetics and mis en scene come together to help narrate the story and support the film’s transgressive themes, again helping it to achieve its ‘cult’ status. Fans can surround themselves in this strange but magical world and rejoice in its difference. Ultimately I believe that it is not solely a film’s ‘cult’ aesthetics that establish it as ‘cult’ film or encourage a cult following. Instead they support and encourage the ‘cult’ themes and subject matter helping to visualise the films ‘sub-cultural ideology’ (Sconce, J (1995). 


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