Overdue Reviews: 'Strange Days'
When Kathryn Bigelow's 'Strange Days' was released in 1995, it didn't even break $8 million at the box office; with a production budget of $42 million, it was by all accounts a commercial disaster. Even the critically panned 'Johnny Mnemonic' pulled in $19 million, and cinematic abortion 'The Net' snagged over $50 million. (Both were released in the same year.) Unlike those films, however, 'Strange Days' starred two Oscar nominees and one Oscar winner, and boasted a script co-written by James Cameron. What went wrong?
Many observers have noted that the racial violence depicted in the film directly echoed the 1991 Rodney King ordeal, which saw its 20th anniversary last month. Were filmgoers just not ready to deal with depictions hitting so close to home? And why has the film -- a hodgepodge of cyberpunk, action, and psychological-erotic thriller genres -- since gone on to become a cult favorite for sci-fi fans? Is it because it's a film that mirrors our own addiction to images, from the '90s obsession with virtual reality to our current love affair with YouTube?
Lenny is given a SQUID tape that shows the blatant murder at the hands of the LAPD of Jeriko-One, an African American activist and hip-hop star. The woman who recorded the SQUID tape, a prostitute named Iris and friend of Faith's, is later raped and murdered in an apparent cover-up. The murderer leaves Lenny a SQUID recording of the assault, daring him to find him. Lenny goes on a hunt for the murderer while trying to win back Faith, while worrying that, if the recording of Jeriko's One's murder gets out, the city will erupt into a total race war.
A Film About Watching and Being Watched
The eye means something different in the world of 'Strange Days,' though. Bigelow's film is all about voyeurism -- much like the classic horror film 'Peeping Tom,' which she references in the rape scenes with Faith and Iris (whose name itself implies the act of seeing). Films like 'Peeping Tom' and Pasolini's 'Salò' accuse filmgoers of complicity in the violence they present by using some cinematic trickery; we watch murders as they occur through a film camera's crosshairs in 'Peeping Tom,' or witnessing innocent children get tortured and dispatched in 'Salò' through the lenses of binoculars. The filmmakers put us in the director's chair; our voyeurism makes us partly responsible for the violence we're seeing.
Thinking about the implications of voyeurism isn't insignificant for the time the film was being made; this was the era during which the Rodney King video became emblematic of a new kind of viewing -- amateur video being broadcast and re-broadcast thousands of times. As video cameras became more cheaply available, we each became more devoted voyeurs: both recording events as they unfolded, and watching/experiencing them rapt as they were played over and over again.
Bearing Witness With YouTube and SQUID
With YouTube (along with Vimeo and other video-hosting services), we've become a society of both makers and viewers. While the film's SQUID tech was lifted from the military and remains an underground racket, the real world's cell phones have made everyone a potential documentarian. Had 'Strange Days' been shot in the 2000s, Iris would have quietly edited the footage of Jeriko-One's murder with iMovie on her iPhone... maybe with some fun templated bumpers.
The real-world interest in virtual reality has waned some since the 1990s, perhaps because the tech was so cumbersome (remember those pictures of the massive headgear?) and the content was still unsophisticated. It was film that really popularized the idea of VR in the first place, with movies like 'TRON' and 'The Lawnmower Man.' 'The Matrix' and 'eXistenZ' explored virtual reality in their own way -- more as an investigation into reality itself -- while recent films have replaced digitized worlds with vicarious experiences, like the bilocation of 'Avatar' and 'Inception,' and the time travel of 'Source Code.' The SQUID recordings of 'Strange Days' sit somewhere in between mediated experience and visceral documentary.
Dual Authors, Dual Visions
Cameron's obviously best known as a blockbuster director -- not always a thinking-man's auteur, but an auteur nonetheless. Bigelow also has taken to the action, horror and sci-fi genres, but she infuses them with her own cerebral bent, pushing her works beyond the traditional popcorn-fodder for films like 'Point Break,' 'Blue Steel' and 'The Hurt Locker.' But Bigelow was a fine artist  before she became a director, and that sensibility directly informs her directing.
Bigelow's roots in the New York art world  are crucial to understanding her directorial work in the typically masculine film genres. With 'Strange Days,' the context becomes even more muddied, as the film is a sort of co-authored conversation with her ex-husband, whose own style in sci-fi/action film seems to be diametrically opposed to hers.
In a 1995 interview with Ray Greene, Cameron indicated that he'd wanted to make the film more romantic, but Bigelow was more interested in creating a hard-edged movie. Bigelow also worked with Jay Cocks, the other screenwriter, to flesh out and retool both the rape scenes and Mace's character  -- pushing beyond Cameron's typical tough heroines (Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley) who have always been more like male characters embodied by female actors.
Bigelow was perhaps more interested in the themes the film explored -- racial tension, feminism, film-making and vision (more on that below) -- while Cameron was enchanted by the implications of the story's gadgetry. Christina Lane suggests that Bigelow "plays the mature professor to his succinct, childlike enthusiasm."  The comparison to 'Johnny Mnemonic' is apt again: While both directors are interested in strong female leads and action films, her vision was perhaps more artistically and academically inclined (like Robert Longo's), while Cameron was more interested in story and technology (like William Gibson's).
A Commercial Flop, and Disquieting Mirror
The rape scenes aren't easy to watch, either. Edward Guthmann at the San Francisco Chronicle noted that Iris' rape and murder "sent several people rushing to the lobby at a recent preview." Bigelow wasn't oblivious to that, or simply trying to peddle exploitative violence. Her screenwriter Jay Cocks noted: "Shooting the rape scenes absorbed a great deal of time and concern, none of which was diminished through the film's production, post-production and screening. But Kathryn didn't back down from those scenes. She's really great at digging her heels in. She went as far as possible, and then a bit further."
Compounded by the inept marketing push, the film itself was perhaps too difficult -- on many levels -- for a mainstream audience. It's nearly two and a half hours long; part cyberpunk noir, part Cameronian action flick (but without the flashy special effects or set pieces); it's high concept in theme but lowbrow in genre; it's exceedingly violent and, at times, politically uncomfortable.
And then there's the ending. (Spoiler alert, if that's not obvious.) If any of the script could be called flimsy, it's perhaps the sudden and ridiculous resolution of the plot's many threads. Iris' real killer is Lenny's friend Max, who's also been banging Faith. Max gets his comeuppance by being thrown off a balcony, and Faith is arrested for the death of her beau Philo. The two cops responsible for Jeriko-One's murder get handcuffed by Mace, and even though she is savagely beaten by the riot police, the Commissioner glides in to her rescue. The evil cops die in a hail of bullets. What seemed to be the beginning of a riot changes back into a party, as Mace hands off the SQUID tape with Jeriko-One's murder to the Commish, and she and Lenny share a passionate kiss. Roll credits.
It does, however, offer one other hope. Mace, always resistant to SQUID ("Memories are meant to fade... they're designed that way for a reason," she says), has a sort of victory in Lenny. He finally gives up on Faith and his devotion to mediated rememberances of her through SQUID tapes, opting for "real" love in Mace instead. Lenny is able to escape mediated experiences, finally taking Faith's earlier words to heart when she said, "You know one of the ways movies are still better than playback? The music comes up, there's credits, and you always know when it's over."
 IMDB user The_Movie_Cat points to a 1989 episode of 'The Twilight Zone' called 'The Mind of Simon Foster,' in which an unemployed man goes to a pawn shop and sells his memories, which can be copied and rented by other customers.
 Having come to New York on a scholarship program through the Whitney Museum as a painter, Bigelow eventually went on to Columbia University for her graduate studies, studying under and working with Susan Sontag and Vito Acconci. She worked with the Art & Language art collective, and appeared in videos by sculptor Richard Serra and conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner. She also appeared in Lizzie Borden's 1983 feminist sci-fi classic 'Born in Flames.'
 Bigelow told Gavin Smith in an interview in 1995: "I was doing a million odd jobs just to stay alive. One of them was helping Vito Acconci on an installation he was doing. He did these great, very assaultive performance pieces, and needed the slogans and phrases on film loops that would play on the wall behind him during a performance piece he did at [the] Sonnabend [gallery] in a rubber bondage room he created. The job was to film these slogans. I'd never worked with a camera. I was starving to death. If I hadn't been on the brink of economic disaster, I think I never would have had all these detours."
 According to Stepovich, no one knew how to describe the film -- it was sold as an "action thriller murder mystery" in Europe and a "cyberspace virtual reality film" in the US -- so the studio marketing department settled on the tag line "You Know You Want It." The problem was, nobody knew what "it" was. [Stepovich, Romi. "Strange Days: A Case History of Production and Distribution." The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor. Ed. Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond. London: Wallflower, 2003. 144-158. Print.]
 Lane, Christina. "The Strange Days of Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron." The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor. Ed. Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond. London: Wallflower, 2003. 178-97. Print.
 Cocks via Lane.
 Shaviro, Stephen. "Straight from the Cerebral Cortex: Vision and Affect in Strange Days." The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor. Ed. Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond. London: Wallflower, 2003. 159-177. Print.