Illuminated Landscapes: The City in Blade Runner and Lost in Translation
The French philosopher Gaston Blanchard wrote “Tout tremble quand la lumière tremble” – “Everything trembles when the light trembles” suggesting an intermingling between the presumed passivity of light and the role of an actor it seems to implicate. It is not only the fragility that the manufactured, anthropogenic light inhabits, but also implies that everything around it and touched by it is in a permanent connection and in a continued dependence of it. While there is a fundamental element to light that accompanies all life, and appears to be an essential scientific and philosophical presence in the world, it also seems, as literary scholar Bill Brown points out, that “the backstory is missing in the history of light – it ought to begin with a godly explanation of the sort ‘Let there be light!’” implying more than the inanimate object suggests. Approaching light as an inanimate object, contrary to the natural occurrence of light and its integral connection to life, then suggests that technical man-made light is part of a society and has taken on a life of its own.
The modern city in the 20th and 21st century provides a perfect embodiment of light outlining a network and having its own agenda, especially the flashing and flickering neon lights illuminating the urban space. Although the neon lights of today are mostly not filled with the gas neon, but with other types that fulfill the same purpose, they appear to merge under one term as “neon.” The multimedia artist Rudi Stern details this in his work Let There Be Neon (1979) where he describes the transient existence of the classical neon signs. Neon lights hold a short lived life from their beginning at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893 to their mainstream arrival in the 1930s, followed by their demise given the availability of cheaper synthetic materials. The connection to the urban landscape suggests that the association with the word “neon” commonly stands in relation with the lights of the city, the neon signs and not only the old-fashioned and hand-crafted fluorescent tubes filled with the gas neon.
It is the incorporation of neon lights into the landscape of the city, that as Stern suggests “has given the city its visual identity,” such as Las Vegas, New York, and Tokyo. Stern dedicates entire chapters to the visual landscapes of the Las Vegas Boulevard and New York’s Times Square. He points out that neon was “one of the available local building materials, and neon has been a vital element in its freewheeling, exuberant architecture” in Las Vegas, while the Times Square “before television … was America’s national billboard and piazza.” The city landscape embraced itself as a monumental advertising board, in which it furthermore became the imagination of a futuristic condition, or as the French philosopher Bruce Bégout puts it a “Zeropolis.” This city of the void created the impression that there is an emptiness behind the flashing neon lights, which might only be filled by giving into the fiction constructed by the city.
The effect of neon light as seen in popular film productions from the 1980s, most notably in the Warner Brothers production Blade Runner (1982), and Walt Disney’s TRON (1982), highlight the significance of neon lights and their effect on the culture of the 20th century. Both movies emphasize not only the coming of new technologies, foreshadowed in the artificial intelligence in Blade Runner, but also the impact of the then relatively new computer game culture and the accompanying factor of total emersion into the digital world in TRON. More contemporary productions like Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) and Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), have less of a science fiction component but emphasize the lostness in a seemingly surreal and inhuman environment amid the flashing setting of neon signs. This rather artificial and inanimate space of fluorescent neon lights suggests not only that the lights themselves have agency in that they perform for the society around them, but they also enable something for the social beings that act in their habitat.
Comparing the use of neon signs in Lost in Translation with Blade Runner reveals a somewhat resembling portrayal of the city as one omnipresent billboard that seems to be inescapable for the society in its surroundings. This new ‘cinematography’ and its flashing lights, implied a illuminating supremacy that enabled the urban space to be viewed in its own fiction rather than reality. While Blade Runner plays with the ideas of the hostile urban space, dominated by large advertising and genetic creations, it also portrays the opposite of the anarchic turmoil of the city, and portrays its possibilities. The cultural scholar Christoph Ribbat describes this as a “delirious chaos,” which can also be seen in Lost in Translation, where the protagonists Bob Harris (Bill Murray) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) struggle with their loneliness but eventually find meaning in the flashing jungle of Tokyo’s neon signs, which seemingly act as an enabler for their transformation.
In Lost in Translation the protagonists Bob and Charlotte are seen living out their lives mostly in front of the city lights, which appears to orchestrate the neon lights as some kind of passive third protagonist. Reviewing the film in 2003 movie critic Maria San Filippo presents the city itself, mostly brought to life through its lights, as an actor that portrays the romance between the characters. She considers “Lost in Translation’s third significant character … Tokyo itself” made visible through its lights. In a scene where Charlotte sits on the windowsill of her hotel room gazing faraway into the neon signs of Tokyo below her the camera changes its main focus from the lights on Charlotte, suggestively changing the main actor from object to human. In another scene Charlotte is riding a taxi back to the hotel, while looking out of the window, seemingly merging with the fluorescent billboard signs mirrored on the glass. Her interplay with the neon signs suggests that she has become part of the network of neon lights, while simultaneously embracing the object of light as an actor. The constant intermingling of actress and object creates its own visual cinematography, revealing a relationship between the material object and the social. Charlotte’s affinity to Tokyo’s neon signs implies a similarity to Bachelard’s notion of the intermingling between active and passive light, as well as being embraced by the human protagonist.
Likewise close up of signs in Lost in Translation, the focus on neon lights in Blade Runner gives room for the art of the fluorescent tube itself, revealing it to be an artful installation. The neon illuminations used in Ridley Scott’s classic movie appear to be an homage to the old-fashioned, hand-crafted fluorescent lights of the 1930’s. Scott used neon lights for his vision of the futuristic, yet brutal city of the future. The various shots that center on the neon signs, and the flickering city lights, give not only room for the lights to be an actor, but also give room to focus on the art of the neon sign itself. The incorporation of close ups and emphasis on actual neon art stresses the movies ability to create art likewise the artists Dan Flavin’s neon installations. The neon art displayed in Lost in Translation and Blade Runner is dependent on systems that assure a rather rationally urbanized and industrialized space, as well as fictionally romanticized landscape to be fully incorporated into the act of the movies. Especially the contrast of the humans versus the object suggests that there is more to the neon sign, implying it to be what Stern calls a “living flame,” which reveals to appear highly expressive in moments of despair.
When Bob drives through the inner city of Tokyo seemingly depressive and lonely, the neon signs stand in an intense contrast to him. The neon tubes take on an agency of their own, exposing his emotional condition in an act of becoming the additional element in the story. It is the element of the “third (inhuman) character” as seen in Dan Flavin’s art, that enables light to have its own agency here. When the bioengineered replicant Roy Batty lives through his final moments next to Rick and in front of a neon sign, he surprisingly reveals an array of human emotions in a powerful dying monologue. Even though the two movie scenes are very different, they both allow the neon lights in the background to enable their full fictional potential.
Incorporating the background lights into the storyline, and making them an actor empowers them to achieve some sort of “visual identity,” as Stern puts it. Neon transcends the void of the “Zeropolis,” and enables new compositions narrated by the urban space itself. In cinematography this enables a whole new way of narrating, and furthermore allows for seemingly invisible and inanimate characters to take an agency of their own. To put it like Stern – Let there be Neon!
Brown, Bill. “Eine kleine Geschichte des Lichts (Dan Flavin / Gaston Bachelard). Materialität: Herausforderungen für die Sozial- und Kulturwissenschaften. München: Fink. 2015. Print. 1-13.
Ribbat, Christoph. Flackernde Moderne: Die Geschichte des Neonlichts. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2011. Print.
San Filippo, Maria. “Lost in Translation.” Cineaste Winter 2003: 26-28. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 21 May 2016.
Stern, Rudi. Let There Be Neon. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979. Print.
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