I’ve Seen Things You Wouldn’t Believe

Death-Sentence Testimonies in Blade Runner, Wings of Desire, and Nomadland

Blade Runner (1982) | Art by Gary Mills
illustration by Gary Mills

“It’s not dark yet,” I said, quoting Dylan. “But it’s gettin’ there.”

My friend Bob—Denst, not Dylan—kept on reading the patio’s bar menu in the magic-hour light outside Santa Fe’s Hotel St. Francis. 

I was impressed: “Brother, I’ve got better than 20/20 vision, and I can’t read in this light.” 

He glanced at me over the rims of his glasses. His eyes narrowed. Then he removed the readers and handed them to me. “Put these on.”

Bob Denst is an inventive photographer and a poet. He turns what he sees into art. Why wouldn’t I want to see what he sees? But I bristled with arrogance. My perfect eyes were something I bragged about so often that any mention of them made my wife Anne roll hers.

Playing along, I put Bob’s glasses on and glanced at the menu. The fierce clarity of the fine print hit me like lightning. Reader…I cussed. 

“You’re turning 50 soon, right?” Bob was enjoying this way too much. “Get ready. At 50, everything falls apart.”

I felt as if a catapult had thrown me forward a whole decade. Were other systems already failing? Sulking, I bought my first set of readers and dismissed Bob’s grim prediction. 

But three more surprises—and three visits to the ER—struck in quick succession: first, an alarming EKG told EMTs I was having a heart attack; months later, a doctor told me I was having a stroke. In both cases, tests proved otherwise, and nurses determined I was in very good health. But then, adding insult to literal injury, a reckless driver totaled my car and committed me to long-term physical therapy. Meanwhile, a deadly pandemic! And mass shootings, trending in schools and churches! That Dylan lyric about a darkening world—it’s ringing in my ears. I’ve never been more aware of the hourglass within. When the possibility that this could be it hits you hard repeatedly, it’ll rewire your brain. 

Dylan’s isn’t the only voice haunting me at the half-century mark. I’m also hearing echoes from a movie I’ve seen many times, one strangely preoccupied with the gift of eyesight, and with how we bear witness to what we have seen. I hear famous last words from an iconic character as he gives up the ghost in his machine. With his final act and his dying breath, he touches the meaning of life. And I glimpse how I might live with the time and the vision I have left.

~ The Replicant and the Blade Runner ~

That’s Harrison Ford there, clinging to the slippery edge of a skyscraper rooftop in a rainstorm, a literal cliffhanger in Ridley Scott’s sci-fi noir Blade Runner (1982). And we know he’ll get out of this, right? Ford’s iconic heroes—an intergalactic smuggler, a wisecracking archaeologist—take beatings and get back up again. We’ve learned to trust him. But still, we’re uneasy. This isn’t a galaxy far, far away, and it isn’t a Saturday-matinee world where Americans wield bullwhips against Nazis. This is a futuristic Planet Earth gone wrong all too plausibly. Clouded by corruption, Los Angeles is an ominous jungle of towers. And Deckard looks beaten.

Ford’s character Rick Deckard is a reliable hunter, a gunslinger who neutralizes threats. He shoots to kill (or ‘retire’) rogue robots, slave-labor runaways called Replicants who blend easily into crowds of humans. Deckard knows how to sniff them out and snuff them out. We’ve watched him check four of five boxes on his to-do list. He’s good at this.

But even though his job title—blade runner—is cool, Deckard hates his occupation. Replicants value their so-called lives. Implanted with false memories that give them a strong sense of selfhood, they rage against their expiration dates. Thus, Deckard’s brow is furrowed by ethical questions: what separates flesh-and-blood humans from melancholic machines? Is retiring a Replicant different from slaying a human? 

Here, in his clash with the final fugitive, the lawman has lost his gun. With a thousand feet of open air between him and the street below, and only a four-fingered hold on survival, Deckard is losing his edge. 

Does his life flash before his eyes? If so, what memories return? And are they really his?

Roy Batty, last Replicant standing, looms over Deckard—shirtless, musclebound, smug. Played with mad bravado by Rutger Hauer, Roy has left carnage in his wake. It won’t take much to finish off the disarmed blade runner. “Quite an experience to live in fear, isn’t it?” he asks his helpless adversary. “That’s what it is to be a slave.

Adventure-movie experience offers us feeble options. Can our hero still gain the upper hand? Maybe a supporting-role colleague will come to Deckard’s rescue, Han Solo-style, and strike Roy from his predatory perch. But is that what we want? What do we do with the empathy we’ve felt for both hunter and hunted? Uncertain, we brace for the blow.

It never comes. In a startling reversal, Roy acts on empathy. Maybe he sees in Deckard’s terror a reflection of his own anguish. The Replicant reaches down, seizes Deckard’s wrist, and saves him. 

Deckard slumps in a puddle, bewildered, while Roy speaks in a new voice, like a world-weary regular at the neighborhood pub. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.” He stresses the second word of that line—an interesting choice.

Let’s give it the attention Rutger Hauer apparently hopes for. Roy has a thing about eyes. He and his fellow runaways made this journey from “Off-world” to confront their designers and demand an upgrade, a second helping of life. First, they cornered the humble tech wizard who invented their eyes. Smiling wryly at his trembling prey, Roy mused, “If only you could see what I’ve seen with your eyes.” It’s a funny line, but I suspect few moviegoers remember it later when Roy hunts down the ultimate target of his rage, the megalomaniac Tyrell, and makes his appeal: “I want more life, fucker.” When his maker fails to comply, Roy goes for the eyes. It’s one of the most unwatchable killings I’ve seen at the movies. Son kills father. Machine slays maker. Or, better—runaway slave kills slave master. 

Here, though, as the robot’s clock winds down, he restrains murderous impulses. He has new priorities: he wants to be heard, which is a way of saying he wants to be seen. Deckard is Roy’s last chance for an audience. 

Time traveling back to the mid-‘80s to find my first impressions, I see myself leaning in to my TV/VCR combo. That final Deckard-v.-Replicant showdown is a thrilling rejection of binary black-hat/white-hat storytelling, an innovative refusal to play to audience expectations. It’s as if both characters and audiences realize that we’ve been sold a lie. The classic hero/villain paradigm—it was just a setup. Here, the final showdown is not won; it’s abandoned as if this whole us-versus-them thing were a hoax. Combatants become confidants. They contemplate what matters: their search for enlightenment in a world that has exploited them.

My deep roots in Christian tradition resonate with the obvious symbolism: nails piercing Roy’s hands, a dove within his clutches. He sets the bird free first, then shows Deckard mercy. Ridley Scott might as well have elbowed me in the ribs: “Catch the Christ imagery here? Is Roy experiencing a stigmatic epiphany? Is this what it means to be born again?”

In my experience, that reading has been a common denominator for Christian cinephiles. But over years of revisiting Blade Runner—in early ‘90s Cinerama revivals, and again in 1992, at the thrilling Seattle premiere of the Director’s Cut (on the weekend of my birthday!)—I’ve come to suspect there’s more to that scene’s mystery. Watching the Final Cut Blu-ray in 2011, I began to believe that this movie has something to say about testimony. The expiring Replicant speaks in a way uncharacteristic for a machine. Where many a dying human might confess sins or voice resentments, Roy describes wonders he has seen with artificial eyes: “Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser gate.” 

If you know the movie, you’ve imagined these things. Fanfiction writers have speculated about those fires, those beams. But the movie doesn’t satisfy our curiosity. Their value for us isn’t in what they refer to, but in the fact that they mean so much to this witness.

As the last grains in the android’s hourglass tumble into their funnel, Roy shares what he holds closest to his “heart” as if he’s making an appeal: I’ve seen, therefore I am. After slavery and suffering, violence and vengeance, he meditates on moments that make him want to go on living: experiences of inspiration, terror, and awe. 

I can relate. Browsing back through images that flash before my eyes, I find that many carry me back to immersive experiences in the great outdoors. But many take me back to cinema. Great filmmakers have mentored me in the art of seeing. 

And I can’t help but notice the irony: many of the most important to me resemble the scene of Roy’s epiphany. As I draw nearer to my finish line, I cherish memorable moments about characters who, nearing their own finish lines, cherish memorable moments. I’ll spotlight two more of them here.

~ The Motorcyclist and the Angel ~

A fallen motorcyclist, blood trickling down his head, stares into space as passersby ogle the wreckage. We hear his thoughts turn from bitterness to anguish: “You never saw anyone die? I stink of gasoline. I saw it all clearly—the Mercedes, the pool of oil. Karin, I should have told you. It can’t be that simple. I’ve still so much to do.”

A stranger in a long, dark coat kneels beside him. This is no ordinary first responder. He’s a Good Samaritan—an angel of the Lord, in fact—invisible to onlookers and the dying man. This is Damiel (played with endearing benevolence by Bruno Ganz), whose assignment over centuries has been to witness God’s glory in the world and then bear that witness in journal entries. He observes and then testifies, just as the dying Replicant testifies. 

Thanks to director Wim Wenders’s collaboration with Nobel prize-winning poet Peter Handke, few films offer us more transcendent moments than 1987’s Cannes award-winning Wings of Desire. And this one comes about halfway through, as Henri Alekan’s camera, exploring both sides of the Berlin Wall, arrives at the scene of this accident. 

What does Damiel do in this moment? With tenderness, he directs the dying man’s attention away from his distress and into memories. “The fire on the cattle range,” he murmurs. “The potatoes in the ashes. The boathouse floating in the lake. The Southern Cross.”

Having primed the pump, the angel goes quiet, while the mind’s eye of the motorcyclist flickers with indelible images: 

“The Great Bear Lake. Tristan da Cunha. The Mississippi Delta. Stromboli. The old houses of Charlottenburg…The morning light. The child’s eyes. The swim in the waterfall. The spots of the first drops of rain. The sun. The bread and wine…The veins of leaves. The blowing grass. The color of stones. The pebbles on the stream’s bed. The white tablecloth outdoors. The dream of the house in the house. The dear one asleep in the next room. The peaceful Sundays. The horizon. The light from the room in the garden. The night flight. Riding a bicycle with no hands.” 

We’re left to imagine what the man is seeing. As he turns pages of his private photo album, we sense the fullness of his life and his deep reverence for mystery. Damiel has saved him from despair by giving him the gift of time travel back into moments when he knew, or at least suspected, life’s meaning. Meanwhile, Damiel himself walks away burdened with questions. The encounter has brought him one step closer to living a fully human life.

If beauty can save us from “the tyranny of the urgent” and shift us into a posture of receptivity, then I want…no, I need to practice such attention here and now. I would learn from Damiel and live as he comes to live: as an open-hearted witness to every present moment that remains.

~ The Nomad and Her Apprentice ~

Late in Chloe Zhao’s Oscar-winning 2020 film Nomadland, the silver-haired Swankie, a loner living in a van in a traveling community of kindred-spirit vagabonds, suffers a dizzy spell. Retreating to her van with the help of her friend Fern (played with guts and grit by Frances McDormand), Swankie confesses: she has been diagnosed with a terminal illness and has only months to live. Fern, a rookie in this nomadic life, can only whisper, “I’m sorry.”

We might expect Swankie to unpack fears, regrets, and resentments. But that’s not what happens. Played in Zhao’s film by the real Swankie, this woman has lived her last years in relative solitude, skirting the edges of mainstream America, rejecting the compromises of consumer society. She has wandered, making small talk with other wanderers, and beholding things none of us are likely to see. Given this chance to share her treasure with a respectful listener, Swankie announces plans for one last adventure: she will return to Alaska. Why? She must look once more on natural wonders that have left haunting impressions. “I’ve seen some really neat things kayaking all those places,” she says. And then she contributes her very own verse to the same song sung by the motorcyclist and the Replicant: “Moose in the wild. A moose family on a river in Idaho…and big white pelicans landing just six feet over my kayak on a lake in Colorado.” She recalls rowing her boat alongside a cliff and discovering something that took her breath away: 

“…hundreds and hundreds of swallow nests on the wall of the cliff. And the swallows flying all around and reflecting in the water, so it looks like I’m flying with the swallows, and they’re under me and over me and all around me. And the little babies are hatching out, and eggshells are falling out of the nests, landing on the water and floating on the water. These little white shells. It’s like…just so awesome. I felt like I’d done enough. My life was complete.” 

Swankie is speaking of holy ground. She has perceived, in the temporal circumstances of the swallows at work, something True with a capital T. We can sense in the swallows’ choreography a mystery she will soon know more fully. Her choice to go back in search of that dance strikes me as an assertion of faith and hope, an intuition of grace in the Great Beyond. 

Zhao’s film has reminded me of my need to disconnect, for the sake of mental health, from the clamor of my city life and my digital habits. What’s more, Nomadland has slowed my tendency toward being judgmental of those who disengage from the world as I know it. Fringe-dwellers miss out on much that life has to offer, sure. But in their monastic ways, while they may see less than we do in a typical day, I suspect they see more clearly.

~ “If You Could See What I Have Seen With Your Eyes” ~

Swankie’s remembrance feels familiar to me. During a writers’ conference in Texas in 2019, I wandered down to the reading room of the riverside Laity Lodge. I’d been immersed in buzzing crowds, and, an introvert by nature, I knew this place to be the quietest place at the lodge. The reading room has an extraordinary view of the glacier-blue Frio River, and it was mid-morning, when sunlight paints a canyon wall on the river’s far side. Breathing deep the dust of old books, I decided to collapse into a comfy chair and read. What else would one do in a reading room? 

Reader, I did not read in the reading room. Rather, I sat spellbound by waves that crashed against the room’s floor-to-ceiling windows. It wasn’t river water; the reading room is high above the Frio’s crystalline current. No, this roar and rush was a flock of cliff swallows—hundreds of them—swooping right up underneath the awning formed by the lodge’s observation deck upstairs. 

Strange wildlife encounters are everyday occurrences at the lodge. I’ve seen river turtles mingle with massive catfish in the clear river; two tarantulas amble across a dimly lit path at midnight; cardinals peck at the edge of my breakfast plate on the patio. Once, a walking stick slow-motion danced in my hand. Another time, I interviewed a racoon so old she’d lost her stripes. But this—I had the best seat in the house for an air show of precisely coordinated stunt flyers that went on for five, ten, thirty minutes, and more. I dared not move for fear of breaking the spell. The birds were so agile that they never collided, directed by some advanced guidance system. Their synergy teased me with rumors of a design beyond the reach of my senses. 

When my initial bewilderment passed, I noticed that swallows were sticking small spots of mud in corners and cracks beneath the upper deck, expanding dark clumps that would soon serve as nests. Their motion was perpetual—birds would arrive with mud, dab it in, and dart out for more. It was like watching a siege, except that this army was building instead of destroying. 

I could have stayed for hours, mesmerized by this communal, creative act—an acrobatic art project driven by hope. In my silence, I did not recognize the emotion welling up in me. I realized it later, reading The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers, where Amy Hollingsworth writes about Fred Rogers’s deep love of silence: “He knew that silence leads to reflection, that reflection leads to appreciation, and that appreciation looks about for someone to thank.” There in that silence, my heart beat a clear refrain: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. 

In each of the movie moments I’ve described, the reality of mortality looms large. Roy, his time running out, abandons his frenzy of vengeance to savor encounters with beauty. The Berlin motorcyclist, despairing as his blood runs out, accepts the prompt to remember occasions when he touched something sacred, and his dying eyes widen. Swankie, when she might rage against the dying of her own light, instead recalls a light more glorious, one to which she belongs.

Perhaps it’s predictable, but having been forcefully reminded of my own mortality recently, I’ve been feeling compelled to write a memoir. I know I cannot make readers see what I have seen with these eyes. And yet, I go on writing—even in film reviews—hoping to pass on wonders I have witnessed. As the wide-eyed Robert Siegel testified in his poem “Half a Second,” I am compelled to share “an ecstasy of particulars.” 

Once, hiking up part of Mount Rainier in the footsteps (literally, in deep-snow footsteps) of a guide, I stopped and stared at a vivid splash of fire-engine red on the sunlit snow ahead. “What,” I gasped, “is that?” 

Dr. Luke Reinsma, my English professor and hiking guru, smiled knowingly. “Go see.” 

I charged off at a diagonal, punching deep impressions in the snow, and stopped at the edge of that glistening dome, gobsmacked. They were ladybugs. Bright, red lady beetles clustered, motionless, as if someone had spilled a bucket of them there. 

Reinsma arrived beside me. “They hibernate here. Isn’t that amazing? Ladybugs hibernate on mountain snow.”

On another mountain hike, we peered over a cliff’s edge down at passing clouds. Suddenly, a flare! A rainbow, but not a typical arc—a little round mirror of color. God’s eye gazing back up at us. 

“This,” said Reinsma, “is a very rare sight. There’s a word for it. Do you know it? Coleridge wrote about it. It’s called a glory. Some think that the tradition of painting haloes around the heads of saints came from this phenomenon. These glories.” 

More and more, the world seems to me to be a living language I’m meant to heed and understand. In what time I have left, I want to live in the expectation of revelations that cannot be reduced to paraphrase: the mountain’s crown of ladybugs, the glory above the clouds, the heavenly host swarming over the Frio. 

On a hike in the desert just outside of Roswell, New Mexico, my wife Anne and I stumbled upon a complete fox skeleton. And although we found scattered shotgun shells, the bones seemed as charged with life as the singing cicadas and the circling vultures, likely to run with the tumbleweeds across the cracked clay ground. I remember looking at it for a long time. Anne savored her impressions by writing. She made something of it: a poem called “After Ezekiel,” which appears in her book Delicate Machinery Suspended

I want to act on revelations the way that Anne does. Maybe that’s why I’m writing this now. In a surge of gratitude, I must testify. 

~ The Replicant Poet ~

Something more intrigues me about the scene of Roy Batty’s passing. 

Feeling the last grain of sand fall through his hourglass, Roy glances tenderly at Deckard, perhaps embarrassed by the insufficiency of his words. Then he takes one more step. And this is the most remarkable moment of all: he offers some simple wordplay to express his grief. “All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.” 

“Art,” my high school English teacher Michael Demkowicz once told me, “is what happens when a person encounters mystery and feels compelled to make something of it.” His was a simpler way of saying what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn expressed in his 1978 Nobel lecture on literature: 

The task of the artist is to sense more keenly than others the harmony of the world, the beauty and the outrage of what man has done to it, and poignantly, to let people know. Art warms even an icy and depressed heart, opening it to lofty, personal experience. By means of art we are sometimes sent dimly, briefly, revelations unattainable by reason, like that little mirror in the fairy tales. Look into it and you will see not yourself but for a moment, that which passes understanding, a realm to which no man can ride or fly and for which the soul begins to ache. 

Roy receives—“dimly, briefly”—a revelation. And with his final breath, he seeks to “let people know.” Tears, rain. He quoted William Blake early in the film, showing an affinity for poetry. Here, he composes a line of his own. It’s a beginner’s simile, but a simile all the same, and thus creative—a way of suggesting something “unattainable by reason.” This is not the report of a machine; these words are distinctly artistic. And thus, human. 

My parents tell me that when I was a small child, I’d run ahead of them on trails and then come running back, eager to announce in hyperbolic description what they were about to see next. I believe their story. That feeling came back today as I watched the end credits of Brett Morgen’s Moonage Daydream—which began, to my amazement, with an echo of “tears in rain.” I suspect it’s what drives most film critics, this urge to make something of what we have seen. 

I’m reminded of lines I sang in church before I was old enough to understand them: 

Oh Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed,
Then sings my soul… 

What causes a soul to sing? The Swedish poet Carl Boberg—like Roy, Swankie, and the dying Berliner—suggests in these lines that when we perceive the sublime, we respond with art. We realize, as Hamlet did, that “there are more things in heaven and earth…than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” and so, to grasp the ineffable, we make something new. We become, as Tolkien called us, ‘co-creators’ with the Divine.

Roy’s soul is singing, making poetry of what he has witnessed: “Like tears in rain.” And then, he bows and surrenders: “Time to die.” 

Imagine what he might have become if he could have lived long with that kind of attention. While his passing is tragic, it is also touched by grace. In this act of merest creativity, he has become more human than machine. A synthetic Pinocchio, dancing free of strings, has become a real boy.

~ The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me ~

At the end of the term, I ask film students to time-travel back through the films we have studied together. I ask if any images spoke to them. Did anything really matter? Was it just a gallery of experiences they can rate on social media and offer like currency in cinephile exchanges? Or do they find that any moments influence how they see the world around them, or (imagine!) inform their decisions? Their responses often amaze me.

Art can so easily become an end in itself—a distraction, an addiction, a job. But if we pay attention, attention pays. If, to borrow a phrase from e.e. cummings, “the eyes of our eyes” are opened, we might find illumination that compels us into meaningful action. Roy Batty and Swankie, having not only witnessed but having borne witness, depart in moments of epiphany and acts of creativity. When we know that sense of connection and belonging within the Great Mystery, we might overcome our fears and reach out with greater courage, greater humility, to others.

Meanwhile, Swankie’s friend Fern, moved by Swankie’s video of swallows in flight, makes a decision. Rather than compromise the nomadic code and conform to cultural norms, she flees into new frontiers. She refuses to miss out on available glory. Damiel the Angel becomes Damiel the Man, driven to become fully human, becoming a part of what he sees. And Deckard? Granted mercy, he survives. Transformed, he climbs out of the hole that has limited his vision. He casts off the burden of his old self. Perhaps he, too, has been imprisoned by systemic circuitry. He reaches out to cut another puppet’s strings—Rachel, the woman he loves. New nomads, they flee the dark city to places where the streets have no name. We don’t know what will happen. But we’re certain that, even though we’re left with another Harrison Ford cliffhanger, Deckard has been saved.

In those final moments, moved by the Replicant’s testimony, a dreamer is learning to see. And, even as my eyesight begins to decline, so am I.