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Saturday, 03 January 2009


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In what sense is Blade Runner an epic? It's not about great heroes, massive conflicts, etc. It's not even very long. It has a lot more to do with noir than epic: detective story, corporate forces bigger than ourselves, uncertainty of good and evil, dark spaces and tight interiors. Maybe you meant Star Wars?

"Start listing epic films and I'll start listing films with grandiose tableaux."

Seven Samurai.

Scott Eric Kaufman

In what sense is Blade Runner an epic?

That's my point: it's always one of the first films listed as "epic," but it's not. Seven Samurai's a closer fit, but even it's a fundamentally local film: one small village recruits seven heroes, &c. Ran comes closer, but that's Shakespeare. There's a larger argument to be made here about Kurosawa and the unsuitability of Western definitions of epic to his work, I think, as Sanjuro would be epic, but for its focus on the niceties of local feudal politics. The same goes for pretty much all Kurosawa's samurai films---not a bad thing so much as a bad fit with Western epic.


Okay, but then it sounds like you're saying that Lord of the Rings isn't an epic, and that doesn't make sense to me. (If it's because it's all shot in New Zealand--well, The Iliad all takes place outside of one city.) And what about Star Wars?

I also have never heard Blade Runner described as epic, anywhere. I did a Google search to find counter-examples; no dice. I guess mainly I'm not sure what you're saying.

Scott Eric Kaufman

I also have never heard Blade Runner described as epic, anywhere. I did a Google search to find counter-examples; no dice. I guess mainly I'm not sure what you're saying.

There's a lot of noise in that Google search because EPIC's also the name of a pirated copy of the film, but there's this, this, this comparison to Milton, &c. Essentially, though, we're in agreement here: Blade Runner shouldn't be considered an epic. I've just read more people who mistakenly say otherwise than you have.

The point about Lord of the Rings is that it's deemed an epic for the wrong reasons: it's the big canvas, not the epic tale, that wins the film its epic accolades.


Okay…so to prove that film cannot be epic (is that what you're trying to prove? total guess on my part), you picked one epic that we agree is not an epic (Blade Runner) and one that is an epic, but which some people apparently have the wrong reasons for thinking it's an epic (Lord of the Rings). Also Seven Samurai isn't epic because it's about one place, ignoring the epics that also focus on one geographic location (The Iliad).

I looked at the comments at Edge of American West, and I'm really glad to see that no one there really knows what you're talking about, either. I was worried that I was an idiot.


Scott, I think the problem is with the definition of epic, which has undergone a change under the influence of films. Before, it was primarily a poetic genre, but now it just signifies big landscapes. Indeed, it's hard for me to hear the word without thinking of Lawrence of Arabia, even though by the old definition there's little that's epic about LOA.


Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, The Leopard, East of Eden, Godfather I & II, Giant, The River, Empire of the Sun, The Sorrow and the Pity, Ashes and Diamonds, Andrei Roublev, where are you going with this?

I will say that I am intrigued by the application of "about" to film. In many senses, film is never "about" what is seen. It is always made up of what occurs in between the 24 frames a second, what goes on outside the camera's view, and what is left behind on the editor's floor. The idea of small screen vs. big screen is also intriguing. Do you mean movie (projected) vs. television (projecting)? Or do you mean big screen theaters vs small screen art houses and multiplexes. You have a lot of ground to cover here and I think its worth covering the ground.

And btw, not Blade Runner.


Oh look, Wikipedia has an entry on this. You should all stay away from it! It's untrustworthy.


Tom, you're right that I punted the bit about Seven Samurai. Or punted it a bit: I do think there are similar translation problems moving from Greece to Japan as there were from Greece to Rome---the difference between oral and written epic being one of them, but also the cultural difference between a work self-consciously written as a national epic and one which is arguably only incidentally so. But Seven Samurai fits into the Aristotelian definition.

JP, this strikes me as absolutely correct:

Before, it was primarily a poetic genre, but now it just signifies big landscapes.

But what I wanted to investigate is how those two ideas are interrelated, so much so it's seems intuitively wrong to not call a film with a suitably big canvas "epic" no matter its narrative.

Drip, yes! I mean, yes, that's what I'm getting at, however obliquely or wrong-headedly---"epic" is a description of form and content that, with film, seems to have become wholly about form. An epic film need not address epic content, because LOOK AT THE SIZE OF THAT SCREEN! As I wrote at Edge of the West:

when directors mistake the kind of narrative they have, their judgments about how to present it end up skewed. To a certain extent, they make movies for the big screen because that’s where they’re displayed first, but not necessarily best. The reason I brought up The Dark Knight and Iron Man is because, in both cases, the directors got caught up in the faux-epical quality imparted by the screen—whereas both worked better as the smaller, more character-driven pieces they appeared to be on the television set.

I think the experience of watching a film---be it shared at the multiplex or intimate on the couch---radically changes how we perceive the material, and that because films seem to have "epic" as their default setting, they miss the opportunity to become the epic they purport (or are purported) to be.


I addressed this at EotW, but it seems more likely to get discussed (instead of dismissed) here: I suspect that Blade Runner is cited thusly because it was an epochal film, and because the process of making the film (there’s your focal point) was itself something of an epic. Similarly with Lord of the Rings: even if the film itself fails on all counts, the making of the film was an epic task….
Marc Bloch said, “To the great despair of historians, men fail to change their vocabulary every time they change their customs. ” (The Historian’s Craft, p. 34). The use of “epic” in regard to films such as Blade Runner and LotR may be an error, but it is not a simple matter of ignorance of Aristotle.


I kind of half paid attention to the EoAW comments and a weird art and history in film thing at L,G&M and well, I try to earn a living, all of which is by way of excuse for not responding more quickly or fully to this wonderful topic. Film is a distinct medium from that of sculpture, painting/photography, and narrative (whether poetry or prose.) Inherent in the medium is what is not there. Film is discontinuous and two dimensional. It exists in time. It shows only part of what goes on; seems to show more that words can describe and yet film is always and necessarily incomplete. The brain must both fill in gaps and ignore what isn't there. This is so obvious it should go without saying, but watching a film on a small screen is like looking at a picture of a sculpture or a poem. Such a picture might stand on its own as art, but it is not a sculpture or a poem; it is a picture. When you see a movie on a small screen, it is not the same thing that the director created in the same way that the postcard of the Sistine Chapel is not the Sistine Chapel . The movie epic can be epic because it is in an epic scale and it will fail if it does not have the size to carry it off. This is the idea of little movies. You can see an epic narrative on your TV, but that is the narrative that is epic, not the film. And that's what I have time for now.


Speaking as someone who doesn't think about the art of film very much, I'm surprised you all make such a big distinction between the experience of watching movies at a theater vs. at home. I can see how the grandness of the giant screen and cavernous hall of a movie theater contribute to a feeling of "epicness". But this seems to say more about the invalidity of the category of "epic" than it does about any particular movie. If (say) "Ben Hur" (or substitute whatever can pass as unambiguously epic) isn't an epic when I watch it on my 15" black-and-white television, then what is it?

The discussion would seem sillier if the genre in question were "comedy" or "horror film", but not by much. Certainly some humor or horror feels different in a theater full of strangers than it does alone with your family, but not enough to shake the foundation of either genre.

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