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Overdue Reviews: 'Strange Days'

'strange days'
Overdue Reviews takes a critical look at tech-centric films that are well-loved, well-loathed or eye-rollingly obscure.

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 in 'strange days'
'Strange Days' is set on the eve of the new millennium, the last moments of the 20th Century. 1999 Los Angeles looks like 'Mad Max'-lite, with burnt-out cars lining the streets as riot police prepare for what appears to be martial law. Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny, an ex-cop who deals in "playback," the underground sale of virtual memories. He employs spider-like headgear and a minidisc deck called a "Superconducting Quantum Interference Device" (SQUID) to record and play back experiences "direct from the cerebral cortex." A sympathetic urchin, Lenny replays SQUID tapes of his ex-love Faith (Juliette Lewis), who's dumped him to become the lapdog of a sleazy music mogul. Lenny's friend and bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett) drives Lenny around in a limo and takes the role of action hero(ine), all while quietly pining for his affections.

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

eyes from 'strange days' and 'blade runner'
'Strange Days' has its origins in classic sci-fi; SQUID tech and the idea of commodifiable memories were possibly inspired by a 'Twilight Zone' episode.[1] And 'Blade Runner' -- as the original cyberpunk film -- may have consciously or unconsciously served as a template for Bigelow's film. Both feature a near-future Los Angeles and male protagonists involved with the LAPD, and 'Strange Days' echoes 'Blade Runner' in its opening sequence: both feature a prominent, up-close shot of an eye.

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.
scenes from 'peeping tom' and 'strange days'
In 'Strange Days,' SQUID represents the evolution of the camera. (Even Roger Ebert noted the likeness between Lenny's device and the cinematographer: "It's fascinating the way Bigelow is able to suggest so much of VR's impact (and dangers) within a movie -- a form of VR that's a century old.") No longer do we just sit in a cinema and passively watch violence -- we now have the technology in our own hands (or, in the film's case, on our skulls) to bear witness and to record the horrors of the world of which we're a part.

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

william cardenas video and jeriko-one tape
While SQUID didn't exactly presage YouTube, there are echoes. Homespun recordings are now commonplace online, and some of them, like the one made by Iris during Jeriko-One's murder, have had major ramifications for the real world (e.g., the death of Iranian protester of Neda Agha-Soltan, NPR's Ron Schiller badmouthing Tea Partiers, the beating of William Cardenas by LAPD officers). While they may not stem "straight from the cerebral cortex" like SQUID tapes, the sheer proliferation of amateur video online gives us access to the most amazing footage (ground level views of the Japanese tsunami, for example) to the most mundane. This is the reality of "virtual reality" in 2011.

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.
mace and a VR headset
That's not to say SQUID is completely analogous with YouTube culture. SQUID tapes function more like traditional porn (Mace even calls Lenny a pornographer), a fantasy that allows the user to vicariously experience something they would never be able to in reality. The film opens with a POV-shot SQUID tape of an armed robbery -- ultimately a snuff film, or "blackjack," that ends with the user's death. An amputee uses SQUID to relive running through ocean waves. Lenny says, "This is not like 'TV-only-better'... this is life."

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

kathryn bigelow and james cameron
The film's script was written, in part, by James Cameron. Kathryn Bigelow, fresh off the success of 'Point Break,' was handed off the film by her ex-husband Cameron (they divorced in 1991) because he was working on producing three other films at the time. While Cameron only intended to write a treatment for the film, he ended up producing a 131-page "scriptment" (as he termed it), which was finished by screenwriter Jay Cocks. But Bigelow's strong, complex directorial vision shaped the final screenplay and the film.

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 [2] before she became a director, and that sensibility directly informs her directing.

Bigelow's roots in the New York art world [3] 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.
james cameron and kathryn bigelow
Some might argue that it was their differences that ultimately derailed 'Strange Days.' Sure, an unfocused marketing strategy left potential viewers wondering what the hell the movie was about -- posters for the film boasted the inscrutable tag line "You Know You Want It" while a bizarre trailer featured Lenny addressing the audience with questions like "Have you ever jacked in?" (That maybe had to do with the fact that the studio marketers had no idea what the film was even about. Was it action, sci-fi or psychological thriller? In the end, writes Romi Stepovich, "the marketing team decided to sell sex."[4]) But, perhaps like the competing interests in the production of 'Johnny Mnemonic,' the film's failure may also have to do with the separate creative goals of Cameron and Bigelow.

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 [5] -- 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." [6] 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

rodney king and mace beatings
But the film didn't flop just because Bigelow and Cameron had different visions. The racial violence portrayed in the film may have negatively resonated with viewers. It was only three years after the acquittal of three of the LAPD officers involved in Rodney King's beating and the subsequent riots; it came out less than two weeks after the jury in the O.J. Simpson trial returned with a "not guilty" verdict. Going to the theater to see the cold-blooded, execution-style murder of a black activist -- and later the riot cop beating of Angela Bassett (fresh off her Oscar nomination from playing the chronically abused Tina Turner in 'What's Love Got to Do With It?) -- maybe wasn't high on everyone's priority list.

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."[7]

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.
lenny and mace kiss
What the hell? As Ebert notes, the film's ending depends "more on mood and character than logic," but ends up suggesting that "you can turn off anarchy like water from a tap." That's one interpretation. Another one is that there isn't really any resolution at all. Sure, the Commissioner gets hold of the Jeriko-One evidence, but we have no idea what happens after -- perhaps he buries the whole incident and has a secret LAPD hit squad quietly disappear Mace and Lenny, or maybe the whole city erupts into chaos. The only happiness in the ending does depend on character, on Lenny and Mace sharing a kiss that both affirms their love and, at least on a micro level, resolves the film's racial tension. Steven Shaviro writes, "Indeed, miscegenation is the only hope the film has to offer." [8]

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."


[1] 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.

[2] 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.'

[3] 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."

[4] 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.]

[5] 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.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cocks via Lane.

[8] 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.

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