Depiction and Endorsement in 2018 (or, how to criticize Blade Runner 2049)


I first envisioned this post as a “New Year’s Resolution,” but I got too bogged down with other stuff in January to post it then. Better late than never, though.

Now that Blade Runner 2049 is out on video formats (meaning that I can take some lovely screenshots of it), I wanted to revisit the critical reception the film was greeted with back in October 2017. Partly, this post is about Blade Runner 2049, and its legitimate faults. But I also consider the film’s reception to be emblematic of trends in political criticism that were ascendent in 2017. I personally consider these trends to be leaning in a direction that is, shall we say, unproductive. Buckle up.

Within 72 hours of its release, a backlash had solidified against Blade Runner 2049. Feminist critics didn’t like its treatment of women. New York Post critic Sara Stewart established the trend early with her October 4th article “You’ll Love the New ‘Blade Runner’—Unless You’re a Woman.” By October 9th, this particular gripe had spread like wildfire, spawning think pieces like Rosie Fletcher and Sam Ashurst’s “Can We Talk About Blade Runner 2049’s Problem With Women?” and Charolette Gush’s “Why Blade Runner 2049 Is a Misogynistic Mess.”

These headlines are clickbait-y. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they were written by an editor, with no say at all on the part of the author. The actual articles beneath the headlines are more nuanced. Still, though, let’s be realistic. It’s the late 2010s. Plenty of people share articles on social media, hit “like” or “angry face,” offer up their own hot takes, and draw lines in the sand based solely on clickbait headlines, without ever reading the articles in question. It is impossible, in this day and age, to truly separate out the quality of the criticism in these individual pieces from the realities of the ecosystems in which they circulate.

Anyway, within days, lines had indeed been drawn in the sand. (At least on my social media feed.) Blade Runner 2049 was proclaimed to be problematic. It had “iffy politics” that “aren’t that futuristic.” That is to say: it didn’t imagine a future that was particularly progressive. Blade Runner 2049 quickly became a Bad Object, something that no one was willing to defend, less they themselves be labeled “problematic.”

I am not going to defend Blade Runner 2049 in this post. In fact, I am going to criticize it. (Quite harshly, at that.) But, along the way, I’m also going to criticize the dominant forms that cultural criticism had begun to take in 2017. I think that those forms are bad, and I think that we can do better in 2018. Prepare yourself: this is going to be a long post.

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Worlds Viewed: Spring Breakers


One of my long-standing dreams is to teach a class on cinema and the concept of world. It’s a topic that runs through the writings of numerous film theorists. (Possible readings would include Stanley Cavell, André Bazin, Annette Michelson, V. F. Perkins, Parker Tyler, Daniel Yacavone, and Jennifer Barker.) It is also, frankly, one that I have found to be somewhat ill-expressed in most film theory, which is why I would split the course readings between film theorists and figures in phenomenology. (Possibilities here include Heidegger, Arendt, Merleau-Ponty, Aaron Gurwitch, Iris Marion Young, Hubert Dreyfus, and Maxine Sheets-Johnstone.)

The screenings for this course would all center around characters encountering a new world. I don’t mean this in a fantasy sense. There would be no stepping through wardrobes into uncharted realms, here. Instead, I mean encountering a new configuration of possibilities: adjusting to a new social role, learning new skills, abiding by new constraints, adopting new goals … or, in the worst case, failing to, and losing the meaning of one’s life as a result. Screenings would potentially include Woman in the Dunes (Teshigahara Hiroshi, 1964), Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle (Werner Herzog, 1974), Perfumed Nightmare (Kidlat Tahimik, 1977), My Brother’s Wedding (Charles Burnett, 1983), Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999), Une prophète (Jaques Audiard, 2009), How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders, 2010), and Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho, 2013).

And, as the title of this post implies, Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2012). Since its theatrical debut four years ago, Spring Breakers has been a favorite in University of Chicago Intro to Film courses, particularly as a way of illustrating nontraditional editing techniques. I’ve never taught it in that context, but I have been itching to include it in a class, as it remains one of my favorite films of the past decade. Below the jump, you’ll find a long-overdue appreciation of it.

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Lesson Plan: Irony and Lies, pt 2

24 City (Jia Zhangke, China, 2008)

Ian here

Here’s the second week in my “Ironic Narration and Lying Photographs” section for my course “Moving Images and Arguments.” Below the fold: Mitchell Block’s …no lies (1973), Luis Buñuel’s Land without Bread (1933), and Jia Zhanke’s 24 City (2008). Let the beguilement commence!

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Lesson Plan: Irony and Lies in Photography and Cinema, pt 1

Pierre Vallieres (Joyce Weiland, Canada, 1972)

Ian here—

In my fall 2016 course “Moving Images and Arguments,” a survey of rhetorical techniques across cinema (including plenty of documentaries and essay films), video art, and videogames, I devoted two separate class sessions to the theme of “Ironic Narration and Lying Photographs.” What follows is the first. (I’ll be posting the second later.)

One learning objective for this week was to get students thinking critically about where, exactly, the “lies” come from in photographs that we consider untrustworthy. To this aim, I assigned “Two Futures for Electronic Images,” a chapter from D. N. Rodowick’s The Virtual Life of Film, as reading. I also directed students to the website for “Altered Images,” the Bronx Documentary Center’s exhibition of manipulated documentary photography, to peruse the images and stories collected there. My second learning objective, though, was to slide away from issues of documentary and “lying,” toward issues of humor and irony. Where do we draw the line between lies that are meant to deceive, and lies that are meant as entertaining winks?

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Lesson Plan: Bruce Conner’s A Movie


Ian here—

Bruce Conner’s A Movie is one of my favorite films to teach. I’ve taught it while covering theories of editing in an Introduction to Film course, I’ve taught it for a course on cinematic rhetoric, and I’ve taught it in courses on the history of American avant-garde cinema. I’ve been lucky enough to teach at a school that had a good-quality 16mm print of it in its collection, and since then I’ve made frequent use of a MPEG-4 rip of a VHS copy of that print (formats upon formats!). It’s less than ideal, but the poor image quality never seems to diminish students’ fascination with it.

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