What’s the Jo(K)e? Or, Deckard’s Hand.

SPOILER ALERT. This post spoils everything.

So, BladeRunner 2049. That was a bit of a ride, wasn’t it?
– Yeah, but … can we talk about the women in this film?
Hold on. I mean, first, everyone’s awestruck, aren’t they, by that astonishing vision of the future, extending and elaborating, supplementing and enhancing Ridley Scott’s famous film, now even more dystopian, dusty, decaying, yet darkly aglow with the magnificence of pure, empty spectacle, flying cars trailing clouds of glory, missiles that arrive and explode with stomach-punching immediacy, immense orange-lit post-nuclear vistas (thanks, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) of collapsed buildings, piles of detritus, broken monuments, like a shattered world (well, a shattered Las Vegas) horrifically reified complete and monstrous within some kind of huge, planetary semi-translucent Trumpian skinjob …
– Yeah, but, the women characters …
And skin, hey, its all about skin, isn’t it. Skinners. Skinjobs. “You construct intricate rituals to enable you to touch the skin of other men”, said that Barbara Kruger piece from, what, 1981 – the year before Scott’s BladeRunner … well there’s a lot of those rituals in the Villeneuve sequel. A lot of punching and grappling and rolling around. A lot of stroking and holding of chins and heads and faces. A lot of self-repairing (glueing one’s own wounds, what better signifier of the essential alienness of the self to itself … self-repair in the smithy of the soul, of which it seems – and the film makes abundantly clear – there’s precious little to go round in this world).
– Yeah, and the women …
And all the literary stuff. It’s a film made out of a burning library. It grabs fragments of text spiralling upwards in the smoke and flames of its imaginary conflagration and uses them relentlessly to authenticate its high-culture credentials through machine-gun barrages of quotes from Nabokov’s Pale Fire and endless allusions to Hamlet. There’s even an “Alas, poor Yorick” moment with Rachael’s skull, and, Ophelia-like, a drowned madwoman –
– Yes, that’s one of the women I wanted to …
– and all the Kafka stuff. Surely it’s Kafka. He’s called K, our heroic replicant who apparently isn’t one (or is he? Oh, how these clever uncertainties become distractions), and later renamed Joe. Joe K. Jo(K)e. It’s a Kafka joke, isn’t it? So we have levels of allusion – to BladeRunner, to literature, to other books and movies (there’s a lot of I am Legend in here, in the monster-hunter who becomes a kind of monster himself). But all this is by the by, the plot after all is so lazy, something about parenthood and how hard it is to manufacture a woman that can have a baby or something, how to produce something that can reproduce, is that it? It’s not important, though, because, the critics scream, this is all about the sheer spectacle (“Watch it on the IMAX!!” scream the critics. “Marvel at the utter bigness of its bigness! Revel in its time! Be amazed, be very amazed!”).
– And then there’s the endless references to the patriarchal tradition of the female corpse …
But wait. Surely it really IS all about that huge dystopian vision, our revelling in the sheer visceral encounter with a possible/probable future where everything is completely capitalist and corporate and actually, unbelievably, more utterly shit, more blatantly corrupt, more obscenely power-centred, more brutally ruthless than our current reality. And boy is it huge. Its deserted cities and desolate landscapes, dry and dusty, all furnace-red and scorched-earth, all near-three hours of them (it’s even hugely long), are nevertheless awash with swathes of grating, deafening synthesised noise, a superbly demonic cathedral-like battering of shrieking tones and body-shaking subauditory bass throbs. Its darkness – the gloom of huge satanic wings flapping across the screen – is punctuated by artificially bright light – weapon-flashes, neon advertising, mere glimmers in the immensity of a sepulchral futurity.
– Yeah, that advertising, did you notice it’s ALL FEMALE BODIES, huge ones, mostly naked ones, a massive spectacle of unreconstructed and barely controlled perverse male voyeurism …
But wait. The film meditates ponderously on birth and death, creation and destruction, production and reproduction (one character almost literally lives out the lament of Beckett’s Hamm – “they give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more”) –
– Yeah, that’s a woman character …
and does so by a narrative twist on its precursor, the death of Rachael, her return as a box of bones, broken, scarred by scalpels, dying in childbirth …
– See what I mean, it’s all about dead women …
What do you mean?
– The film’s entire logic centres (insofar as she’s its symbolic centre, an absent centre that’s also a lost thread, a prematurely dead future like Hicks and Newt at the start of Fincher’s Alien3) on a dead woman who, it seems, has, illegally and apparently technically impossibly, reproduced, dying (oh, the blatant, brutal irony) in the prohibited/impossible act of childbirth (for replicants in this dual world of 2019/2049, everything is/was prohibited, including procreation …). Later in the narrative, she is briefly artificially reconstructed (and hey, we all KNOW she was already, in the earlier movie, artificially CONSTRUCTED, and, ostensibly, spared the four-year life span of the 2019 replicants –  but she seems to have been given exactly that by this film, a corpse, a boxed skeleton buried beneath a tree two years after escaping with Deckard …). The new Rachael is presented to her aged former lover (conspicuously undead, no four-year life-span for this pseudo-replicant Deckard), and immediately shot through that Yoricky skull for having the wrong eye colour (oh, how racism intersects with sexism in this Brave New World – where, after all, are the African Americans in this vision of California, 2049?). Elsewhere in this bloated parable of contemporary misogyny, another woman replicant is born, lasciviously caressed and groped by blind Niander Wallace, this film’s tyrannous Tyrell, and then viciously knifed in the stomach BECAUSE SHE CANNOT REPRODUCE. K’s boss is a woman (a Madame, no less, which tells us much …). She’s shot dead too. By another woman, a murderous replicant, who also literally stamps out of existence K’s love interest, a sentient female hologram called Joi (“a basic pleasure model”, Bryant would have called her, in 2019) who’s been confined/reduced for whatever borderline abusive reasons to a futuristic memory stick. The murderous replicant, agent of Wallace the creator, is of course a woman WHO ALSO CANNOT REPRODUCE (god, all this female failing-to-reproduce, and all this creation-production of women who fail to reproduce, you’d think there was some kind of male anxiety or something somewhere. It’s Frankenstein, but not as we know it). She is strangled and drowned in the sea (la mer – mother – geddit?) by our hero K-Joe. Meanwhile, his cloned sister, the film’s Messiah-substitute, hides, screened from the world, in a sterile tent, officially cursed by immune deficiencies and thus excluded from the social (and, like her analogue JF Sebastian, the off-world). The film’s final shot, its closing symbolic gesture, is not of her, harbinger of a replicant-reproducing future, but of her ageing father’s hand on the isolating screen (which is, of course, also our screen, the film that ostensibly separates us from contamination by the ideological fantasy of the film-world itself) – the father’s hand, a metonymy of a (his, our) replicant-killing present and past. Like the dead hand of Casaubon in George Eliot’s novel, Deckard’s hand – the hand so brutally and pointedly broken by Roy Batty in Scott’s film, in payment for the replicants Deckard has murdered (and let’s remind ourselves, these movies are basically about mercenary cops hired to kill illegal immigrants) – this hand controls this narrative, from the monument of its inception (ha!) to its evasive, handrocentric conclusion. Paternity (“at best a fiction”, Harold Bloom once wrote) determines this film’s pretend-but-not-really obsession with maternity. It insistently overrides the ostensibly mother/daughter-centred narrative (Deckard’s hand performing a huge ideological sleight-of-hand), repeatedly produces and then destroys the feminine (all the while relentlessly consuming through a kind of punitively prolonged handjob its violently sexualised virtuality). Women, of course, lead the vestigial “Revolution” of the Replicants – but that’s part of this film’s imaginary future, not ours, something the father’s hand half points to and half dismisses with a wave. Our ideological poverty – the curse of the Western 21st Century, our repeated failure or deliberate refusal (we have a choice, at least) to imagine a world different from, or better than, less disgracefully misogynist than, less appallingly racist than, our own – is writ large – huge – by this hand as Blade Runner 2049 progresses, reflecting back to us on a gigantic scale the size of our secret prejudices, the violent potentials of our secret fantasies. Mothers, it repeats, are born to die, to be killed, to exist in our visual and ideological field only as real or potential corpses. Fathers … well, they just go on and on, disastrously producing and producing again everything that’s flawed, fucked-up, failed, futile. Deckard’s hand, the hand of the father and the past, replaces in this final image the daughter’s potential future. It holds the key, the digits that code this digitally-created world. Deckard’s hand, the hand of patriarchal power, pulls all the strings in this narrative. And we’re all dealt a dodgy hand from the deck of cards held by this father’s hand.

Yeah, but, but, but, I haven’t even started yet, the, the critics are right, aren’t they, just marvel at the spectacle, the sheer sheery sheerness of it all ..

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