Among the feast of visual artifacts in the new Blade Runner movie is a scene where Ryan Gosling’s K and Harrison Ford’s Deckard finally meet in a desolate, irradiated Las Vegas casino. Like Orson Welles’s The Third Man’s Harry Lime stepping out of the shadows, Deckard’s presence is felt in his conscious absence up until that moment we’ve all been promised – yes, Harrison Ford is in this movie. And the screen legend pops in after almost forty years since the original movie, a habit Ford is making in returning to other iconic roles like Han Solo and Indiana Jones. But the film, by consciously referring to, and dipping into the nostalgia of an earlier time, does something interesting in the set. Deckard lives in a broken casino, frozen in time, a relic of the not so distant 20th century.
The casino lights up occasionally, bringing up holograms of Frank Sinatra and Elvis, icons of Vegas past and 20th Century Americana, their songs broken, barely coherent, going in and out of focus, vestiges of a broken utopia. It’s the kind of scene that is a sort of a mini trope in science fiction, particularly dystopian fiction, a measuring stick from which the horrors of the near future are measured from 20th century cultural time. In V for Vendetta, V introduces Natalie Portman to his retro jukebox and dance to “cry me a river,” in A.I., robot lover Gigolo Joe cranks out schmaltzy mid-century romance ballads. In the Fallout video games, one Itself set in a destroyed Las Vegas, the irradiated barren future of mutants and rogues is set to a mid-century pop soundtrack.
The echoes of our life seem to all derive from the pop cultural space of the near past, which haunts us with a life of its own. The sound bites, famous quotes, clips, scenes, have become cultural shorthand, meme-filled metaphors and memories shared in pop culture. The other day I texted a friend “I feel like when Morgan Freeman goes into the library in Seven.” Which meant an entire set of circumstances. It’s a bit like that episode “Darmok” of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Picard is stranded with an alien who speaks entirely in metaphor, conveying a whole meaningful stories with a shorthand like “Shaka when the walls fell” and “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.” It’s an improbable language, as linguists have commented, but it conveys the meme-driven society, the pop culture short hand echo chamber we’re all living in.
Pop culture has its own self-insistent life, repeated by all of us in daily interactions. It’s evident in watching sporting events where the PA gives a few cues, a couple of chords and gets the entire crowd to sing along, chant, clap and so on and everyone with enough pop culture literacy can participate. In some stadiums a live organ belts out a few bars from some tune, five seconds of a Black Eyed Peas dance hit and everyone’s clued in. In the 80’s, contestants would win prizes for being able to “Name that Tune,” now we’re all naming that tune with our pop culture educations.
What strikes me about this is that mass media society has total domination of our cultural memory. We scarcely have any cultural memory from before film or television. We have what I call here a motion picture mind, a post-literate mind inculcated with new media. Culture from before mass media was transmitted by text, a form which is increasingly dying – poetry is lost, and the novel is phasing out now. Who has the ability to sit for long concentrated intervals to read Melville or Dostoevsky today? It’s almost as if mass media not only goes so far back – the Sinatra and Elvis being the earliest days of the motion picture mind – but has replaced cultural memory altogether. Anything before this time, anything not captured in motion picture technology somehow an ontological rung down, confined to silence.
Nothing really exists outside the cultural industry echo chamber. Its memes and short hand are now the omnipresent universal language, its jingles, quotes and memes echoing in both our dreams, waking life and private moments. Dates become like Love, Actually or When Harry Met Sally, sports become like Hoosiers, and everything like Star Wars. We are all re-living the 20th Century’s greatest hits in HD, but really there is little that exists besides.
Sure, one can try assiduously to unplug from it all, but as Rick Roderick said, “Only at the risk of not knowing anything resembling reality. Not reality itself, but of what resembles the resemblance.” That’s the feeling one gets when seeing that casino scene in Blade Runner 2049. A very unplugged and destroyed Las Vegas, once the adult Disneyland, has become quite literally the Desert of the Real. Once kicked into gear, Vegas reveals the ghosts of the culture industry where Sinatra and Elvis nostalgically reassure us of our once vital cultural industry bedrock (not to mention Blade Runner itself), a cultural life raft in unknown wasteland where antiquities like Harrison Ford are locked, frozen in time.