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Living in the End Times: Close-Up on Kathryn Bigelow's "Strange Days"

"Strange Days" is a very 1990s film: excessive and peculiar, confrontational yet flippant, deeply serious in a trashy kind of way.
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days (1995) is showing March 25 - April 24, 2018 in many countries as part of the retrospective The Present Is Woman, the Woman Is Present.
The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images.
—Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
Bodies confused
Memories misused
—“Strange Days,” The Doors        
A blindfolded woman experiences her own rape and murder through the eyes and senses of the man raping and murdering her. The act done, the life gone from her, the blindfold is removed. In her eyes, dark black in the unlit room (the woman's name is Iris), we see the masked perpetrator. It’s an image of an image: displaced. For we are watching this heinous monstrosity unfold as a point-of-view shot, our viewing experience shared by a helpless onscreen witness located at a remove from the action. The crime is suffered first- and second- and third-hand thanks to a SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interfering Device) attached to three people’s heads. Killer-voyeur, victim-voyeur, witness-voyeur—and us: a fatal four-way whose complexities are rooted to and deepened by our own participation as viewers.
“It’s not like ‘TV only better,’” says Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a black-market trader of Playback discs, which allow buyers to live through other people’s memories. “It’s life, pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral vortex.” He would know: the protagonist of Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) satisfies his own desire for former girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis) by channeling into his own supply and reliving moments spent with her in a happier and sunnier past. Faith, we learn, is now partnered with Philo Gant (Michael Wincott), the type of dodgy music producer who sits around in underpants and an ungirdled robe. Lenny, a Teflon-goofball romantic and ex-cop who fears for Faith’s life when he’s drawn into a murder mystery in the most horrific way imaginable, solicits the help of pals Mace (Angela Bassett), a chauffeur trained in martial arts, and Max (Tom Sizemore), an employee of Gant, to rescue his old flame.
Lenny identifies himself to a prospective client as “the magic man, the Santa Claus of the unconscious.” At the beginning of the film, driving the nocturnal streets of Hollywood, he observes a reveler dressed as Father Christmas being violently accosted by two women. It’s the penultimate night of the second Gregorian millennium: December 30, 1999. From the vantage point of Lenny’s Mercedes, we see burning vehicles, national guardsmen, riot police rounding and beating up black civilians. On the radio, there’s a phone-in: “I mean, what’s the point? Nothing changes on New Year’s Day. The economy sucks. Gas is over three bucks a gallon. Fifth-grade kids are shooting each other at recess. The whole thing sucks, right? What the hell are we celebrating?”
The end of times. Originating from a treatment by James Cameron dating back to 1986 (Cameron developed the eventual script with Jay Cocks), Strange Days is set in the kind of near-future whose mise en scène and narrative content demanded in 1995 very little in the way of a suspended disbelief (they still don’t). Shot in Los Angeles over the back half of 1994, the film frames its primary story against social tensions following the summary execution of Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), a popular black hip-hop artist. When Lenny and Mace discover through a Replay disc that the killers are two LAPD cops (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner), Bigelow aligns the film’s edgy paranoia and small-time pulp with a more cutting view of a country whose institutional fabric is rooted in white supremacism.
Bigelow has said in interviews that she partook in the cleanup efforts following the civil unrest in Los Angeles in 1992, which engulfed the city after the acquittals of four white police officers, tried for beating 25-year-old black taxi driver Rodney King a year earlier—and the director works an undeniable anger and unease into her B-movie premise and graphic novel palette. With cinematographer Matthew F. Leonetti, she captures the noir sheen of the roads, while a general neon excess refracts through flare smoke in the urban warzone. This is a cyberpunk L.A. inhabited by greasy- and straw-haired losers attired in knock-off beige and brown. If Fiennes is hopelessly miscast as one of these—as a man who “could sell a goddamn rat’s asshole for a wedding ring” (he is generally better at being intense than pathetic)—co-star Bassett provides the film with a toughened, learned skepticism. When Mace fires a line at Lenny like, “You want me to trust a cop?” one hears in the emphasis Bassett’s own incredulity.
Strange Days is a very 1990s film: excessive and peculiar, confrontational yet flippant, deeply serious in a trashy kind of way. Seen from our present-day vantage point, its madly epic, saturated delirium is both quaint and discomfiting: a safely stylized response to, and anticipation of, sociopolitical extremes. Even when—spoiler alert—the cops appear to get let off lightly (one shoots himself in the mouth, the other is killed by a colleague) there’s a sour, anti-cathartic overhang stemming from the implication that, yes, two bad apples can merely be chucked away. The system survives.
Racism, misogyny, the power structures that embed and sustain both; tapping into these through the metaphoric lens of Y2K hysteria—a networked anarchy, a scorched-earth implosion that posits Hollywood as the center of a mostly terrible world (but don’t worry, we’ll always have the movies)—Bigelow’s film thematizes The Society of the Spectacle. Guy Debord’s opus diagnoses an everyday life crippled by the production and consumption models of capital, a world not merely of the image but mediated by and through it. “Understood in its totality,” he wrote, “the spectacle is both the result and the project of the present mode of production. It is not a mere supplement or decoration added to the real world, it is the heart of this real society’s unreality. In all of its particular manifestations—news, propaganda, advertising, entertainment—the spectacle is the model of the prevailing way of life.”
Bigelow’s film has an energy and tone to it even when its narrative unbuckles, falls away. In this sense it is a true noir: oneiric, uncanny, anchored by some tangible essence even when it isn’t making much sense. The opening scene, revealed after four minutes to be a memory relived via SQUID, is a virtuoso action sequence that draws upon and prefigures advancements in the first-person shooter genre of video games (Strange Days was released two years after the pioneering Doom debuted for MS-DOS and two years before GoldenEye was released for the Nintendo 64). Lenny rejects the disc on account that the recorder of events—the person through whom he experiences the thrill of a botched armed robbery—falls from a roof, Vertigo-style, to his death. Later, Lenny squirms but—crucially; go figure—stays connected to the sensory live-stream of a man raping and killing a woman he knows. Lenny himself is hooked on a neuromagnetic drip-feed of remembrance. Mace tells him, later in the film: “Memories are supposed to fade. They’re designed like that for a reason.” In a film in which human relations and the emotional modes they encompass are both expressions and constituents of spectacle, this otherwise throwaway line lands like a bombshell.
Images cannot be unseen; they writhe their way into our moral infrastructure. The same technology that permits the real-time consumption of a snuff movie—of, that is, a straight-up actual murder—might also have value as a means of immortalizing an incident in which two white cops (or four, or whatever) shoot (or beat, stomp, kick, truncheon, et cetera) two unarmed black men (or one), and holding the assailants to account. (But again, in real life, they get away with it.) Lenny and Mace are pursued by the uniformed executioners, who understandably want to cover their tracks, but their real burden is the responsibility that comes with knowing something society doesn’t. Mace understands the consequences of the truth about Jeriko One’s murder reaching the public—what the kids these days refer to as going viral. “Well maybe it’s time for a war.” Only there’s no maybe about it.

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