Time to Die

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. 

Rutger Hauer likely had no idea he was presenting humanity with its own perfect eulogy when he said those words. According to Ridley Scott and screenwriter David Peoples, Hauer made several last-minute changes to the soliloquy he was about to deliver on the set of Blade Runner.  

The original text of the monologue, though about the same length, included a few more oblique references to the film’s universe. Roy Batty was to have watched “C-beams glitter” from “on the back decks of a blinker.” He burning attack ships were to be described as “bright as magnesium.” 

Hauer removed much of this, describing it as “opera talk,” adding nothing to the film. And then he added “All these moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”  

His delivery similarly struck the balance between the marvel of being human and the vast destructiveness of a world that has grown so violently beyond the limits of a single planet. Though the other replicants simply and understandably are afraid of dying, of having their short consciousness snuffed, Batty stands apart as a lifeform in deep and unrequited love with his ability to live.  

Even the manner in which he says “tears in rain” is that of someone who has just discovered that he is able to come up with such a simple yet sublime metaphor. And though we’ve seen Batty do brutal and gruesome things to others throughout the film, we have also rooted for him as he spends his last moments thrashing against the inevitability of his own death. We have to regard the unfairness of seeing his consciousness slip away while the world that teased him with it gets to continue. 

Of course, that world isn’t continuing. It’s ending. At the time of Blade Runner’s release the idea that a society would so willfully and cruelly design itself into its own doom was a controversial one. Words like “cyberpunk,” “global warming” and “neoliberalism” were still only edging into wide consciousness.  

The film flopped at the box office. Years and decades were spent re-cutting it. Scott rightfully knew he was on to something with Blade Runner, but finding the right way to end and tell the story, the perfect way to articulate the something, was a challenge. 

We know very well what he was onto now. In 1982, viewers still had to imagine such a bleak world. Today we are seeing it converge into reality. David Harvey and others have spent years saying that this future is more or less in the DNA of the contemporary city. To walk around Los Angeles, a city of obscene wealth and inequality exposed to increasingly hostile elements, that rapidly shifts between development and neglect and decay, still grasping in vain to convince anyone who will listen that it contains the seeds of an unlikely future, is to see this premonition borne out. 

And so we have caught on. Blade Runner is a classic. One of the greatest films ever made. And in no small part due to the performance of the now late Rutger Hauer. Our own short memories have had Batty’s dying soliloquy etched into them because, past all the pollutants we have shoved into them, we know when we are seeing something purely and magnificently human. 

We too have seen things we wouldn’t believe. Whole cities flooded and burned simultaneously. Gargantuan glaciers come apart like a child’s sand castle in the wind. We know that we’ve created what we’re seeing and can’t help but marvel at the raw obliteration we are capable of unleashing. Even by accident. 

We have, in that recognition, attempted to replicate it. To convince ourselves that we can push our collective human awareness past extinction. In so many other films and books and TV shows that populate the glut of 21st century sci-fi. We have even made a sequel which, unlike its predecessor, was a notable success at the box office. 

But Blade Runner: 2049 was not the accurate sequel. It never could be. The only sequel worthy of the original would by its nature have to be far simpler. And by dying the same year as Batty, Hauer managed to achieve it in a haunting, terrifying, heartbreaking way.  

He reminded us that mortality isn’t a fantasy, or a plot device rendered by a unique and versatile actor. That sapient beings will die. Are dying. Are being killed by forces we created but are now well beyond our control.  

Fair? It’s never a question of fairness. Only of how we ultimately fit in with the same cosmic logic that leaves all of us in awe.  

Dérive 1: Lighthouse Realty Associates

Los Angeles is a city that should not exist. No desert was meant to hold an urban hub of this size. As its fifteen year (we may as well call it permanent) state of drought confirms, it is a non-location, a place that that manages to weirdly persist due to simple inertia over sustainability. The wildfires that grow in size and intensity every season, ever-encroaching into La-La Land, are not only general reminders of a planet that will soon be too warm to contain the current civilization; they feel like deep time retching up a virus contracted long ago. That it is also where the United States manufactures its ego, its own version of cultural relevance, is only too appropriate, as the recent burning of Malibu makes so very clear.

The further one travels from the city’s most famous hearts, however, the more frequent and undeniable the desert becomes, the more Los Angeles seems to become ordinary, pedestrian, completely and maddeningly unremarkable. Take Eagle Rock, wedged between Pasadena and Glendale, two entirely separate municipalities both from each other and from the city of LA, it is something of a transition point from urban to suburban and quickly into exurban. Directly to the neighborhood’s north are several miles of highway and relatively sparse urban sprawl that quickly spill into Angeles National Forest.

Walking along the edges of Eagle Rock is a lesson in how an unplanned city architecturally improvises. The palm trees and cacti are predictably everywhere, incorporated into the landscapes of well-to-do middle class homes and shops. But venture out along Colorado Boulevard in the direction of Glendale; watch the pretense of uniqueness give way to the prefabricated and undeniably utilitarian.

Walk under the highway, perhaps to get a pack of cigarettes from the nearest gas station, and you’ll see the ways in which the architecture of commerce utterly fails in its notion of “welcoming.”

Gas stations may have themselves given up on being welcoming long ago — or at the very least traded it for overwhelming you with the illusion of unlimited choice — but when you turn back around you come to a real estate office: “Lighthouse Realty Associates.”

When I walked by it this past week, I had a very odd kind of flashback, to summer vacations in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The wood on the building’s side is deliberately a bit rough even as it is painted an earthy brown, warm in intent if not in actuality. The bushes out front are sculpted and well kept, but read as a species of plant more native to the American South than that of the West. Even the sign and name of the place appeared as more reminiscent of the east coast. Of course, there are plenty of lighthouses in Southern California. But they do not play as prominent a role in constructing a historical narrative and current imaginary like they do back east.

Of course, there is nothing specifically North Carolinian about this little plot of urban design. To me it only read as such because of the contours of memory that have been left in my own emotional and mental being by a childhood that was uniquely mine. But that’s the point. How many current concepts in the wheelhouse of contemporary office design have made “welcoming” and “cookie cutter” interchangeable? What does this do to our notion and experience of space? Of time? Of our ability to progress on either plane? Are we left with any indication that we are in Glendale other than a bestowed but somehow shared knowledge that we are just… in Glendale?

Turn around. Walk back into Eagle Rock and into Los Angeles, a distinction you can make thanks not to any landmarks or lighthouses, but simply because the signs tell you that you have crossed over from one to another. But then you see an unmistakable reminder that you are back in LA and, in fact, have never left the county: a small encampment of tents under the overpass.

Los Angeles’ homelessness crisis is one of the worst in the US, and one doesn’t have to go to Skid Row, with its 8,000 strong tent city, to be confronted with this. It is on every other block, in every neighborhood save for the richest (where residents experiencing homelessness are hassled along by compliant cops and, increasingly, private security forces). And if that somehow fails to remind you, then at the very least you will see it whenever you try to find a new apartment in your price range.

Which brings us to the real problem. How much of the unremarkable, the quotidian and faceless that tweaks with our sense of time and place, have we simply come to accept and integrate into our daily experience? And how much does this go to prove to us, on however subconscious a level, that the city is beyond our control?

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.

Ode to an Ancient Shark

The world’s longest-living vertebrate. Older than Shakespeare they said. (Initially…)

Can we say she has a memory? What lives inside her instincts? What imprints and echoes?

“The Arctic as we know it” is over. Soon it will be ice free. The permafrost becomes impermanent. Waters warm. Gasses trapped inside glaciers escape into the atmosphere and the process accelerates.

Humans know how to accelerate. We do it without trying. History now exists at an inexorable speed. Beyond the brakes.

The world’s longest-living vertebrate does not know how things accelerate. She feels it. Oblivious to Shakespeare. Oblivious to the achievements and fears of a history’s weight, she is present as that history turns inward.

But she must feel as the water warms. Even if only by a few degrees. She notices there are fewer glaciers blocking the sunlight from peering through the waters. She goes hungrier with fewer seals, walrus and polar bears.

For life so long it cannot posit change to experience the one thing it never knew to anticipate.

For such deep time to rupture.

This post originally appeared at an earlier blog that I used to run. I have migrated it with its original post date.