April 13, 2010

"Blade Runner" & New York's Landscape


By Kurt Brokaw

Once upon a time in New York City, it was possible to fly in from a business trip and cut one's commuting time back into Manhattan by taking a helicopter from LaGuardia airport to the roof of the Pan Am building (now the MetLife building), next to Grand Central Station.

I did this twice in my advertising career, both times at night - once to impress a marketing director client I'd flown in with, the second time to tempt a complete and beautiful stranger who I'd shared a long and bumpy and liquor-laden flight with. The views, of course, were staggering as the chopper made its way over and around Manhattan, sweeping gently and smoothly and pretty close-in to the skyscrapers of Broadway, Sixth, Fifth and Madison Avenues, then navigating down Park Avenue and climbing to the very top of the Pan Am building and settling onto its helipad. I recall the largest lighted sign in midtown at the time may have been the Admiral Television logo, about two stories worth of lights attached to a building in Times Square.

As it happens, the great film director Ridley Scott had the same experience, some years before he prepared the production design of his 1982 film, "Blade Runner." Writer Don Shay's hugely detailed article in the July, 1982 issue of Cinefex magazine describes Scott's experience. Scott had a second notion of a massive city where New York and Chicago join, and even a third idea of the 800 mile western seaboard as a single population center with giant cities and monolithic buildings at either end. But Scott elected to stay with Lost Angeles, advanced to 2019.


"Blade Runner" was adapted from Philip K. Dick's novel, "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" in which global war has forced much of the U.S. population to move "off-world" into settled interplanetary colonies. The colonies are managed by genetically engineered robots called replicants. A gang of these killer replicants return to Los Angeles, and Harrison Ford's job as a blade runner is to retire them, i.e., eliminate them. Ford spends most of the movie pursuing and being pursued by four of these elastic, super-strong creatures.

The familiar cityscape of Los Angeles is imagined as an industrial slagheap in 2019, with gigantic factory towers spewing hot flames into the air. The major settings are usually seen at night in dense fog through either mist or rain, except for one governing corporate headquarters, which is a monolithic pyramid of buildings that are almost always brightly lit. The one crowded thoroughfare of shops in which a number of scenes take place seems modeled on Canal Street in Manhattan's Chinatown. It's think with unsavory types and infested with mysterious shops that seem to offer everything from exotic foods to auto parts. Gangs of midgets march about at 3:00a.m., watched by police "spinners" which are next-generation helicopters without the whirly blades.


This blended vision of Ridley Scott and his "visual futurist", Syd Mead, is quite extraordinary. You may think you're watching something cooked up by Federico Fellini and Salvador Dali. The movie has elements of science fiction, fantasy, noir, horror, Grand Guignol, Times Square, and carnival and midway life (one gorgeous and short-lived replicant appears to be a snake charmer), all riffing on each other in unexpected ways. Budweiser, Atari, RCA and Coca-Cola signage is present, and at one point the old Pan Am logo is seen atop a distant skyscraper.

The scenes in Ford's apartment – high above all this urban malaise – sometimes give us an approximation of metropolitan life as we knew it in 1982 and still live it today. Part of the apartment appears to be a loft, rudely framed with Aztec or Mayan walls that are decorated with mazes of electrical circuiting. But adjacent to a pile of video security monitors is a fine grand piano – Ford spends a fair amount of time slumped next to the keyboard, sipping Johnny Walker Red on the rocks and staring sadly at the dozens of old, black-and-white, oval-framed family photos that sit on the piano, a solemn reminder of America a century earlier. Ford's one gal pal in the movie (Sean Young) plays a classical piano etude once in a while, as Ford spits up blood and cleans himself up from another beating. A gigantic blimp drifts by his windows, blinking and broadcasting an "off-world colonization" appeal. It's all very disorienting, and you can't take your eyes off the screen.

Scott's concept of a 2019 Los Angeles included some buildings almost twice the size of the World Trade Center. He envisioned "rotorless jump-jet platforms on every rooftop." In the film, Ford is transported in the police spinner to the helipad on the roof of the police precinct, which looks about 200 stories high.


But Ridley Scott's central fascination was with mammoth advertising billboards on whole sides of buildings. Working with effects supervisor David Dryer, who like Scott had many years of experience directing television commercials, the "Blade Runner" artists envisioned that media would be omnipresent and that huge billboards would illuminate thousands of tubes, all interconnected and computer-controlled to display ad messages. Dryer's idea was to build the screens directly onto his miniaturized buildings, using screen surfaces silvered at the top and black in the valleys. "Thus any image projected from the front would be reflected back off the silver but absorbed by the black... it would look like a matrix of tiny TV tubes," Dryer told Cinefex.


"Blade Runner's" bold look was a futuristic preview of Times Square as well as the Ginza in Tokyo, engineered and built to Ridley Scott's specs. Scott figured that by 2019 Japanese and Hispanic cultures would be dominant in real-life LA, so the billboards show radiant young nationals popping gum into their mouths. But Scott's crowning glory in the film is his blimp, which grew out of the novel and screenplay's concept that people with means would be moving away from the fog, rain and congestion of LA. Far away – not merely up to Big Sur or some hideaway on Pacific Coast Highway, but to outer space. "Off-world colonization", if you will. And so the blimp looks like the perfect advertising vehicle to reach city dwellers in 100-story towers, urging them to get away for good.

times square 2.jpg

Ridley Scott, who grew up in a London suburb during the Second World War, spoke in Cinefex of his childhood, and what he remembered most vividly were the barrage balloons flying overhead. I remember seeing March of Time newsreels of them. Bigger than weather balloons, these balloons were mounted on cables that were flown across the southern seaboard of England in a kind of triangular wedge leading into London. Scott reminds us that the strategy was to force Hitler's Messerschmitts and buzz bombers to fly into the cables and be knocked down or deflected off course before they got to London. (The idea seems wonderfully quaint today.) Scott melded this army of balloons into one humongous movie blimp outfitted with screens and sound – the crew called it The Mother Blimp. It drifts in and out of scenes throughout "Blade Runner" with the same kind of attention-holding impact of the Energizer bunny.


If you live in Manhattan and watch "Blade Runner" today at home (the letterboxed Director's Cut is the recommended version), and then walk around town, you'll see Ridley Scott's film has virtually come true. Over on First Avenue at the United Nations, Trump World Tower offers 90 stories of apartments priced from $1.4 to $14 million dollars, including a $17 million dollar penthouse, all with GE Monogram kitchens. Travel and Leisure magazine carried a two-page co-op spread on those GE kitchens and the penthouse for sale in Trump World Tower. And if you're in Chicago reading this, you probably know Trump recently demolished your 1957 Sun-Times building, which will become a second 90-story mega-condoplex. (Note to potential Windy City protestors: you will want to note that a Manhattan citizen group headed by newscaster Walter Cronkite failed to persuade the Federal Aviation Agency that a 90-story residence posed a safety hazard to low-flying commercial airplanes.)


But it's in New York's Times Square that the future suggested first by Philip K. Dick and then Ridley Scott is growing daily to jaw-dropping proportions. The first and in many ways the dominant element has been the emergence of gigantic commercial screens, and most are higher and wider than the movie screens in your stadium seat multiplexes. Today there are several dozen of these 20' x 30' Jumbo-trons blazing away night and day. Walking into the midtown Broadway area is like walking into the biggest big-box store in the universe.


In the heart of Times Square, where the Admiral Television sign once reigned, the screens and logos are piled higher and deeper: a sculptured front half of a Cadillac juts out at the bottom…under a multi-story Coca-Cola screen/display... under a Samsung display... under an HSBC display... under the Prudential rock poised at the top of the heap. Morgan Stanley has wrapped its building in three tiers of constantly moving LED stock quotes. A Hershey's Cocoa cup big enough for an Olympic swim team to exercise in looks a tad lost facing a vertical of Rod Stewart that's tall enough (if it were real life) to reach across the street and easily pick up the cup.

The top-of-the-line technology at the moment appears to be the eight-story NASDAQ MarketSite Tower, featuring a $37 million cylindrical screen (probably more than the entire budget of Scott's "Blade Runner"), with nearly a thousand digital switching supplies, then times that many modules, and 18 million LEDs. The security guards (and there are many) also tell me the Tower house its own broadcast studio. Advertising in Times Square clearly requires two commitments: one to bigness and one to brightness. How else can marketers compete?

Donald Trump has always led this New York parade of extravagance, of "too-much-ain't-enough" expansion. Aided by a city planning commission that has historically affirmed real estate development, Trump and his competitors buy up building after building on a desired site, and then combine the air rights to legally build one all-time-high tower after another. Trump revels in bringing what he calls "a new height of luxury to (a city's) most sophisticated residents." No question, it's a robust market segment in the national and global marketplaces. For the rest of us, well, there's always that off-world colonization waiting out there.


But even that frontier may have been seized. Virgin Airlines' CEO Richard Branson, a visionary who builds in real life what Ridley Scott builds for the movies, is moving on off-world potentials. Sir Richard is collaborating with Paul Allen (Microsoft's co-founder) in launching the world's first private spaceship – a five-passenger, Virgin Galactic spaceliner. The first voyage is predicted for 2007 and reportedly has sold out its advance reservations at 100,000 pounds each. The spaceliner will take off from the Mojave Desert and the journey into outer space will last about three hours. Imagine, three hours. That's about how long it will take you to view the special edition "Blade Runner" DVD and its best extra features. Branson, however, envisions longer flights in a more distant future, and even a possible hotel for overnight stays somewhere in the off-world.

Watch for the advertising blimp outside a high rise near you.


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