Sara Campbell Remembered

This a post about Sara Campbell, a fan of Blade Runner way back in 1982 who I never met but whose name to me is forever linked to the film, from a letter in a magazine and a published review by her. It’s based partly on a post I did for my old blog back in 2008, which I’ve reposted further below, with some other material. Consider it a Directors Cut of my original post, or perhaps more fittingly, a Final Cut.

But first, as the post below was originally written almost eleven years ago now, a few thoughts to offer some perspective.

To be clear, I never met or knew Sara. All I know of her is her writing that I read in magazines back in 1982 and in online reprints of her fanzine CITYSPEAK, and later in anecdotes or commentary about her second-hand posted that was posted online over the years. I didn’t even learn of her death until many years after it. She is just a name, and the words she wrote that I read.

Films can be more than just films, more than pieces of entertainment, more than pieces of art. Well, yes, most of them are ‘just’ films/entertainment but sometimes they make a connection, achieve a particular resonance, particularly when you are growing up. They can be seminal events/experiences, markers of memory and of one’s past, bubbles of spacetime later revisited by rewatching the film. That’s how it sometimes is for me, whenever I rewatch Blade Runner, or at least the original 1982 version. It doesn’t feel quite the same rewatching the Final Cut of 2007- that isn’t the Blade Runner of my youth. My Blade Runner is the mistake-ridden, mind bogglingly intense version I saw in the cinema back in 1982 and again in 1983. The version I had on a pirate VHS tape given to me in Christmas 1983 that I damn near wore out with religious reverence.

Whenever I watch that flawed version, which thankfully we still have on the SE box-set of 2007, with its continuity errors and cables pulling up spinner cars, other than finding it almost unwatchable now and actually even ‘broken’, I’m swept back to being sixteen in September 1982, and the world I lived in then. Back in 1982  Blade Runner was an incredible experience which had a profound impact on me. But of course it was for many other people too, long before it became a cult movie or a reappraised classic popular movie. We just didn’t have the internet to spread the word and share our thoughts, we fans were isolated like lonely islands separated by great distance. The world was really quite different back then. We relied on magazines and fanzines to share our thoughts and interests in ways forums make instant and easy now. So anyway. There was this Blade Runner fan, by the name of Sara Campbell…

First, my words from my 2008 post, written, at the time, pretty much 26 years to the day that I had first seen Blade Runner…

blade1982e

Remembering Sara Campbell…

The other evening I was browsing through some old film magazines and picked up the Fall, 1979 issue of CINEFANTASTIQUE, which featured ALIEN on the cover. Old magazines are fantastic time capsules, particularly those from before the Internet and before industry marketing teams turned the mags into publicity rags. But what particularly interested me was the letters section. It’s here you get the real meat of both the mag and the times in which it was published. Something like the forums that litter the Internet today, the letters columns of those old mags really give an insight into what people thought back in the day.

So I noticed a short letter berating the editor of CINEFANTASTIQUE for his negative editorials regards the popular science fiction films of the time- namely STAR WARS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and ALIEN. “I keep running across articles devoted to films which you feel are beneath your standards,” the letter stated. The writer of the letter contended that rather than being the film magazine with a ‘Sense of Wonder’ as proclaimed on the editorial, it was instead one with “a sense of hypocrisy”. Indeed, the writer of the letter noted that CINEFANTASTIQUE evidently believed that “STAR WARS was too much fun, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS is nice, but its aliens too cute, and ALIEN is too yucchy and besides, it reminds you of a still you saw from  PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES.”

The response from the editor, the late Frederick S Clarke, argued that he did indeed have a sense of wonder, still feeling the buzz from watching 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY back in 1968. He just didn’t seem to think much of the then-modern offerings.

I noted with some irony that I have a similar feeling nowadays, loving STAR WARS and ALIEN as old classics and disliking all the modern cgi-dominated mindless dreck we have now. Times change and yet they don’t. But what really struck me was the name of the writer of the letter- Sara Campbell. I knew that name.

Sara Campbell will forever be linked, in an albeit minor way, with BLADE RUNNER lore. Few people appreciate the fact that when BR was released, it really bombed in spectacular fashion. I think it grossed only $17 million on a $24 million production budget that needed $50 million to break even. No-one saw it and generally critical opinion was very negative. Back in late 1982 the film was over, dead, finished, and the industry was very different back then. Films didn’t turn up on £20 DVDs and Blu-Rays after four months, they disappeared for years. Films were only kept alive by their fans, who read magazines about them, collected memorabilia and the like. There was no Internet to gather together the thoughts and love of fans of movies in forums.

Here in England I watched BR dumbstruck, fell head over heels in love what has always been since then my favourite film, and watched in dismay as the film faded away out of public consciousness. It was a Cult movie back when the word Cult meant something. When in College a few years later, a lecturer looking through my art folder saw an image I had drawn from BR and waxed lyrical about the film… I remember feeling how odd it was to actually meet someone other than my mate Andy who shared my high opinion of the film. Of course years later thanks to video, BR became popular, the Directors Cut got released, critics rewrote their opinion of the film… but for those of us who saw it back in 1982, I honestly think BR feels different, special in a way later fans could never understand.

Sara Campbell was one of those fans from 1982. Just as I was blown away over here in an old ABC cinema that had known better days, over in America, in Oshkoshi, Wisconsin, so was Sara, someone I would never know or meet but who shared with me a love of a special film. Sara got together with a few friends and they made a fanzine about BR, titled CITYSPEAK. You can find the first issue online if you run its title through a search engine. It’s a fascinating window into a time when BR was something new, before it became imitated, before it became popular. Back when it was something special, almost secret. Sara’s love of the film shines through. Reading CITYSPEAK I’m dragged back to those old days, how it felt back then. Later when the film became popular and the book RETROFITTING BLADE RUNNER came out, Sara’s name was mentioned as one of the first voices to popularise and analyse the film. It was the first time I had read about her and her fanzine devoted to BR.

I never got the opportunity to know or meet Sara on Internet forums, share memories of those golden days of 1982. Sara never got to see her favourite film in either its flawed Directors Cut version or completed Final Cut. Having produced three issues of CITYSPEAK, Sara died in 1985.

But it’s funny how someone can live on, in the thoughts recorded in letters to magazines or self-produced fanzines, so that someone halfway across the world who loved the same movie can share those thoughts and opinions, and wonder what they might have thought of the films later renaissance. I guess Sara would have been as excited about the Final Cut as I was last year- I guess she would have loved it. Its a damned shame she never saw it.

So how odd the strange coincidence after all these years, reading through an old film mag and stumbling upon that letter by Sara Campbell some three years before BR came around? How weird is that? Anyway, I urge any fans of BLADE RUNNER to run CITYSPEAK through a search engine and read that fanzine and re-live that buzz from 1982, or if they saw the film years afterwards on video, learn what it was like back then for the original fans.

blade1982So that was my old post. Funny thing was, I neglected to mention Sara’s review published in an issue of Fantastic Films which was, at the time, the first serious critical evaluation of the film that I ever read, a precursor to all the many thousands of analyses and opinions that would be written about the film over the years. A few days ago I stumbled upon my dog-eared and worn copy of that issue and saw Sara’s review again, marvelled at it and decided that I really should resurrect my old post about her, especially as that old blog is lost now, its website long retired. Which is why this post is here now- and I note the odd synchronicity that this month now marks 37 years since I first saw Blade Runner in that old ABC cinema on a Saturday afternoon. 

Finally, here is a moving  memoriam for Sara that I found a few years ago on the internet, from CITYSPEAK. Written by someone who knew Sara I add this partly as a footnote to my ramblings, but more importantly as a token effort to assist in keeping her memory alive in a way that my own writing, as someone who never knew her, could never really manage. As I noted earlier, for some of us films are more than films, and while films can live forever as moments frozen in time on celluloid or digital hard drive, they leave us all behind, eventually. We are the tears in the rain eventually lost to time, but the films we love remain. Well, here’s to remembering Sara, who for original fans like me, while Blade Runner will always remain, so does she.

In Memoriam: Sara Jane Campbell

February 3, 1959 – August 20, 1985

Sara Jane Campbell is dead.

She entered Doctor’s Hospital in Manhattan on August 5, 1985, for major-but-routine surgery. The operation was uneventful. Sara was doing fine. She was going to come home on Sunday, August 12th.

At 5:30 in the morning on Saturday, August 11th, the phone rang. It was Sara’s doctor. He needed to reach her parents. Now.

Because at 4:00 a.m. Sara Campbell, 26 years old, young, healthy, and with a brilliant future ahead of her as a writer, as a human being, had suffered a massive stroke. The right side of her body was paralyzed. She was unable to speak.

She was transferred to the neurological unit at Mount Sinai. When I arrived at the hospital, frantic and terrified, Sara set up a system of gestures and hand-movements that enabled her to express herself just fine, even without speech. She played a practical joke on me. I, always her straight man, fell for it. Sara made me do something I’d thought impossible under the circumstances — laugh.

I thought — I knew — it was only a matter of time before Sara recovered. She was young. She was healthy. Dammit, she was Sara. She was my friend. We had plans.

CITYSPEAK was almost ready — she’d just finished her novel, MEMORIES OF GREEN, for inclusion in the zine. CITYSPEAK was half laid-out; as soon as the last stories were in, it would be done. Then Sara and I were going to finish our LADYHAWKE novel. And we were going to collaborate on a novel set in our shared BLADERUNNER universe — we planned to take it pro. We were going to travel. We had just finished redecorating our apartment —

This couldn’t be happening. Not really. Not to someone I knew, someone I loved.

Tomorrow she’d be fine.

Between noon and one o’clock on August 11th, Sara started running a high fever. The paralysis spread.

The next day she was in a coma, on full life-support.

It was the day she was supposed to come home: August 12th.

She never came home.

On August 20, 1985, Sara Jane Campbell, aged 26, was taken off life-support in accordance with her own wishes and at her parents’ request. Without machines forcing “life” to continue, her heart stopped. Her breathing stopped.

Sara was dead.

I an a writer. Words are my tools; I always thought they were poetic, eloquent, powerful. I prided myself on my ability to make them convey what I wished: actions, emotions, character. Life.

I was wrong. Words are empty things; words are useless. How can words on a page describe Sara to all of you who now will never meet her?

She was five-foot-ten. (She had a dimple that she hated.) She had short blonde hair. (She had prehensile toes.) She was a poet, an idealist. (She rescued a stray kitten and named her Zuul, after the refrigerator demon in GHOSTBUSTERS.) She was a writer. (She was a friend.)

She was my friend.

No, that’s wrong again. These days the word ‘friend’ describes everyone from your co-worker to your dentist; a word overworked until it has lost all meaning. Sara was not my ‘friend’. She was part of me.

And nowhere in all the words in the world are words that can tell you truly about this sister not of my blood. None to describe the loss — a loss not just of Sara, but of myself. None to describe the waste — or to help understand why a brave, brilliant young woman with so much to give was not allowed more time in which to give it.

It has taken me a long time to keep my last promise to Sara. In the hospital, while she was still conscious, I told her I would make sure CITYSPEAK was published.

Here is CITYSPEAK.

I hope you like it, Sara.

Anne Elizabeth Zeek
August 1985/January 1988

 

 

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