Norrington: Blade (1998)
Blade now feels like one of the great underrated films of the late 90s – buried beneath other franchises that happened to become bigger, and all too often relegated to a mere precursor to Guillermo del Toro’s (supposedly) more auteurist sequel. Yet Stephen Norrington’s original film is an utterly visionary, singular, one-of-a-kind exercise – a stylistic feast that’s every bit as restless and brimming with ideas as, say, The Matrix, which draws heavily on its world and aesthetic. It’s amazing to think that it’s a Marvel film, and equally dispiriting to hear that it will soon be absorbed back into the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and yet so tantalising, too, to imagine a MCU where every film was this unique, this attuned to hyperbole and absurdity.
In fact, Blade made me realise that the MCU has almost ruined world-building for me, especially since Joss Whedon’s Avengers films, which turn a certain kind of corporate world-building into the spectacle of cinema in and of itself. By contrast, Blade is insatiable, irrational and utterly excessive in its world-building, brimming with details that you often glimpse in passing – as is appropriate for a film that is so fixated on fleeting and transitory perception. To watch Blade is to bask in the exhilaration of an older kind of world-building that is both more classical and innovative than the MCU present, since the great wonder of Blade is that none of its idiosyncrasies stopped it being a hit, from blending cult and mainstream appeal.
Indeed, so rich is the world of Blade that it’s hard to do justice to its plot in a simple summary, since this is the kind of sprawling universe that contains tantalising tangents at every twist and turn. In the barest possible outline, Wesley Snipes plays the titular Blade, a vampire-human hybrid whose mother was bitten by a vampire while she was pregnant back in 1967. Since then, Blade has set himself the task of fighting vampires, with the help of Abraham Whistler, a human, played by Kris Kristofferson, whose entire family was killed by vampires. When Deacon Frost, a vampire played by Stephen Dorff, starts to plan a vampire apocalypse, Blade teams up with Whistler and Dr. Karen Jenson, a haemotologist, played by N’Bushe Wright, who relies on Blade and Whistler to help her after she is bitten by a vampire as well.
While the opening credits unfold in 1967, Norrington quickly shifts us to a kind of heightened present space – a space that is more present than the present, but not quite the future either. In other words, the film opens at the cusp between the present and future, suffusing us in the futurity already incipient in the present, with one simple temporal designation that pops up in a simple intertitle – “NOW.” In order to evoke this intensified nowness, Norrington reaches for the visual ingenuity and insatiability of music video, or video games, starting with a rapid time lapse of New York City. From there, a series of hyperactive camera movements take us to a nightclub called Bloodbath, where strobe lights add to the manic mobility, which climaxes with blood pouring out of overhead showers and producing a feeding frenzy for the vampiric clientele. This progression from time lapse to camera mobility to strobe lights to blood showers hits the body directly, producing a vertiginous, nauseous sense of being embodied.
True to that kinaesthetic approach, Wesley Snipes also provides a highly embodied vision of Blade – almost a silent performance. He rarely removes his sunglasses, speaks mainly in campy monotone, and doesn’t seem to distinguish between his body and his armour. He treats his body in functional terms, whether by popping a dislocated shoulder back into place, or matter-of-factly injecting himself with the serum he needs to avoid feasting on human flesh – serum that throws his musculature into vivid and traumatic relief. This silent embodiment really captures the brooding presence of a character in a graphic novel, and beautifully captures Marvel’s original vision, while extending it into cinema in an innovative way as well.
From the very outset, Norrington seems to be partly questioning what it would take to envisage a black superhero at this point in time. In the early scenes, Blade feels like the repressed kernel of the inner city, the disavowed other of gentrification. These early visions of vampires also revolve heavily around motifs of black and white. The first dead vampire we see is a white man who Blade chars to a black crisp, while Blade has to perpetually inject himself with brilliant white garlic serum in order to stay alive. Even though the vampire world is multicultural, as I will discuss shortly, the pallid lighting scheme of the film casts everything in a lurid white glow that denaturalises and emphasises Caucasian and European skin tones.
At first, Norrington imagines a black superhero as a kind of queer outsider, drawing heavily on the Gothic New York of William Friedkin’s Cruising. Bloodbath, the vampiric nightclub, is in the Meatpacking District, and riffs heavily on the leather bars that Al Pacino visits to find his gay serial killer. Both films focus on alternative modes of penetration in the rejuvenated (but still grungy) warehouses of the Meatpacking District, although this analogy can only take Norrington so far before it starts to feel derivative. As a result, he abandons it pretty quickly, and comes up with an even more intriguing premise – that the only way Hollywood might imagine a black superhero is as part of a radical reconfiguration of the entire world system, which means that Blade can only ramify as the harbinger of a conspiracy of global proportions.
To evoke this conspiracy, Norrington presents vampires as an emergent species, inhabitants of an equally emergent global city. It’s the same emergence you see in The Matrix, the sense of an unseen world creeping up through the interstices of everyday analog life: “The world you live in is just a sugar-coated topping. There is another world beneath it – a real world.” We first glimpse this emergent vampire lifeworld in Norrington’s post-industrial sublime, his cybergothic taste for supernaturally intensified pockets of urban grime and decay – desuetude that becomes even more potent on the cusp of widespread gentrification. We also see it in the preternatural hush that gathers around key moments in the film, especially when we see representatives of the systems of law and order that the vampires have appropriated.
Gradually, this emergent world city coalesces into the vampire nation, the habitus of the hominus nocturna, which exists between two dramatically different poles. On the one hand, this unseen nation of vampires take their cues from a series of ancient sacred texts that (supposedly) can never be translated. On the other hand, these vampires depend on a complex series of blood archives and blood banks that resemble modern internet nodes and data hubs. As the film proceeds, Deacon Frost uses modern scanning devices to translate these texts, eventually discovering an apocalyptic-vampiric structure that has existed beneath Manhattan for millennia, but was only discernible through computer generated technology.
As this suggests, the vampire nation inhabits a different timeframe from regular humans. Having lived for centuries or even millennia, they span the very old and the very new. We first see them in a shadowy corporate boardroom that seems to have existed for centuries, while their appearance is often preceded by an eerie sense of simultaneity. When they finally invade Whistler’s laboratory, he sees them all at the same time, instead of being able to process them individually, just as Norrington often resorts to a fisheye lens, as if to evoke their existence just outside the frame – another city shimmering on the fringe of perception.
Paradoxically, this atemporality makes vampires peculiarly attuned to the neoliberal present. Since they exist all over the world, they effectively constitute the first global network, which means that the advent of globalisation provides them with their best cover yet. In effect, the vampire nation are the first fully globalised citizens, agents of gentrification who already own half of downtown Manhattan, and almost entirely control “politics, finance and real estate” by the time the film’s story gets into gear. This makes them less visible, in some ways, but also more visible if you look at the world in the right way – and Blade provides us with this perceptual apparatus. Time and again, Norrington resorts to extravagantly sped-up sequences, as if trying to get us to see fast enough, or peripherally enough, to catch the way these vampiric globalisers linger at the corner of our eye, between the individual film frames.
In that sense, Blade is a spiritual sequel to John Carpenter’s They Live, except that a pair of sunglasses is too crude a tool to perceive these new global overlords. Instead, Norrington cranks up his camera until it’s almost ungainly, evoking connections that are invisible to the naked eye but have a profound effect upon our bodies. At times, the film is like a kinetoscope, a flickering montage of images that gradually congeal into something greater than the sum of their parts. In one scene, Blade fights the vampires in the small corridor of space between a passing carriage and the subway wall, providing a brief glimpse of this otherworld for anyone who happens to be watching on the train. In another, Deacon calls out to Blade from across a busy street, drawing him into a conversation through multiple planes of passing traffic that remains invisible and inaudible to anyone who isn’t witnessing it via this intermediary zone.
Part of what makes Blade so eerie is that there is no solace to be found in subculture, which is presumably why Norrington’s own style is so hyperactive – like a line of flight from any one subculture. While the vampires have taken over the corporate world, they’ve also absorbed the counter-culture as well, gathering in the city’s hottest nightspots and grungiest bars, where they turn diversity itself into a predatory and mercenary endeavour. I distinctly remember the anxiety, at the end of the 90s, about the future of subculture – the creeping sense that all subculture had become complicit in the very systems it once critiqued, meaning there was nothing left for directors to do but to achieve a kind of critical distance in the manic oscillation between mainstream and counter-culture itself. Blade takes this mania to a fever pitch, shifting between Hollywood and indie cues with ingenious abandon to both evoke and escape the capacity of the vampire nation to commodify and internalise all hope of resistance.
We see this cannibalistic tendency in the extraordinary décor of the film. While the vampire nation have been waiting for globalisation to come into their own, they’ve also been waiting for high postmodernism so that they can indulge in décor that reflects centuries and millennia of accumulation. All of a sudden, it no longer seems strange for a vampire to deck out their house in a hodgepodge of different artifacts, because postmodern permits – nay, encourages – pastiche. This is a dream come true for vampires, who can now house the full spectrum of their centuries and millennia of collection under the aegis of postmodern style, rather than having to archive the material residues of lives that span many periods and types of design.
Yet the most primal affinity for the vampire nation is not with globalisation, or with postmodernism, but with the advent of digital technology as the medium that ties these two phenomena together. Only with digital data can Deacon translate the sacred scrolls into a specific prophecy – the return of the “vampire god,” and the emergence of a new vampire world order. As the film moves towards this climax, Blade becomes more immanent, sinking ever deeper into its intensified present in an effort to out-network the imminent vampire nation. In one of the cult shots of the film, he gazes at a plant while preparing for the final showdown, before executing a series of flo-mo martial arts moves that pre-empt The Matrix. Most of the vampiric scenes are set in coldly lit spaces, as if the fear of sunlight extends to warm light, and this culminates with Blade accessing Deacon’s computer program, which Norrington presents as a series of sublime white fields, exactly like the bedrock of the Matrix.
By the time we reach the ritual that’s designed to usher in this vampire god, Norrington has built a millennial fatalism that still feels spooky today. By trying to trigger a vampire apocalypse, Deacon is hoping to complete the project of globalised capitalism, bringing the film to an unbearable point of singularity that was unique to this moment in Hollywood. At this point, all the main characters are dead or partly dead – Whistler is dying of cancer (and is killed off by vampires anyway), Blade’s body is starting to resist the serum, and Karen is on the verge of turning into a vampire, even as the vampire nation are gathering for a final showdown. Blade, in particular, forms the last threshold to a new world order, since Deacon needs the blood of a “daywalker” to resurrect the vampire god and culminate his apocalypse.
This takes us to the vault beneath Manhattan, and to the kind of totalising, paranoid, conspiratorial and apocalyptic vision of late capitalism that was only possible at this precise moment in time – on the cusp of the millennium, when analog cinema was on its last legs, before social media had evolved to deflect some of the pressure of the crushing impact of the American propaganda machine, and when directors were given a license by studio systems that simply wouldn’t be tenable in the era of the MCU. In the most profound way, Norrington is trying to evoke a new world order that would itself soon counteract and absorb precisely this kind of vision, giving his film an arcane and apotropaic quality – like it’s a spell designed to ward off future appropriation, even if it destroys and exhausts its director in the process.
That manifests as a single cascading series of thresholds, as blood seeps from Blade’ hands down to the vampiric chamber, turning every structure into a sluice, and rendering every space permeable to human blood. As the ritual reaches its climax, and blood flows down figures and receptacles, every space and edifice appears to be bleeding, as Norrington glimpses a completed capitalist world that is more magnificent than anything we have ever seen, but also literally founded upon human blood. No matter that the CGI looks dated at a few moments – the concept and vision is still so futuristic that it puts virtually all subsequent superhero films to shame. No matter, either, that Norrington ends with some anticlimactic action that feels like little more than a crowd-pleaser – the last two beats are true to his vision.
In the first, Blade and Jenson emerge from the chamber to the roof of a skyscraper that’s in the midst of construction – a construction site fused with a skyscraper that literally places them at the precipice and coalface of the city’s push towards vampiric gentrification and globalisation. In the second, Blade continues his mission by turning, up, comically, to thwart a Russian vampire, who he greets campily as “comrade.” Norrington might not be able to envisage anything outside the vampire nation, or outside capitalism, except as a joke, but by ending with that joke, he raises the question of a new kind of horizon – what Jodi Dean would describe as the communist horizon, the vocabulary that so many of these late 90s films, supposedly made after the end of history, yearn for, to imagine history operating once again.
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