|Strange Days, like Born in Flames and a handful of others, is a movie that got a grip on my brain the first time I saw it. It loses some of its surprise/shock power on subsequent viewings but remains an interesting and quietly subversive film. Unlike many “near future” sci-fi flicks it has aged relatively well and can be viewed 6 years after the millennium it tried to predict without too much embarrassment.|
The genre is noir and the tale told from the POV of the working class and the street. The cast of characters is small and typical of the genre. There’s the pathetic small-time hustler (and disgraced cop) Lenny Nero; his estranged ex-girlfriend (and club singer) Faith; his current friend and maybe-girlfriend Lornette Mason, struggling single mom, limo driver and security expert; his fellow busted cop and best friend Max Peltier; a sinister clubland impresario, Philo Gant; a couple of bent cops, and some scary muscle working for the impresario. So far, except for the punk/rave sensibility in the costume design and music track, we could almost be in the familiar world of Raymond Chandler. The flick is set in his beloved Los Angeles. The time is the last few days of December 1999: the end of the millennium, the dawn of Y2K.
Lenny, once a vice squad cop who went bad, is now a small-time hustler selling a black-market entertainment medium. The national intelligence services have developed the perfect “wire” — an electrode “hairnet” which records brain activity directly to a minidisc format, so that one person can play back and re-experience their own or another person’s visual and sensory experiences. [William Gibson formalised the technology in his Neuromancer novel series in the mid 80's, but Alice Sheldon might have beaten him to it with her story 'The Girl Who Was Plugged In'.] Anyway, the hairnet can be worn under a wig or hairpiece and the connection to the small recorder is wireless, so it is perfect for surveillance and infiltration. But technology leaks, and now the SQUID devices are on the streets — illegally — as a new and addictive entertainment technology.
Needless to say, the market has quickly focussed on pornography and illicit thrills. The film opens with what we will quickly learn is a SQUID playback. We see a violent, disorganised amateurish robbery from the POV of one of the participants, who dies when the heist goes wrong. As the screen goes dark with his death we cut to Lenny Nero, pulling the SQUID electrode net off his head and protesting to his contact that he doesn’t do snuff material, it’s not his thing, he can’t use this stuff. His contact Tick (a good character bit part for Richard Edson) haggles with him and we begin to understand what this new medium is about, as they agree on a price and we follow Lenny on his daily round, picking up new content for his customers. The porn theme comes in early — much of Lenny’s wares are simple smut: recordings of various kinds of sex.
Lenny himself is addicted to a different kind of recording. He has never got over a young woman he loved and lost (Faith), and has a collection of SQUID recordings of himself and her — roller skating, hot tubbing, etc. He spends his evenings alone, reliving these artificially preserved memories, addicted to the past. Faith, now a semi-successful rock singer in clubland, has left him to live with a promoter/agent (gravel-voiced Michael Wincott being convincingly unpleasant).
Later we see Lenny meet an upperclass client eager for an introduction to the illicit material, and we hear Lenny’s con-artist pitch, a practised spiel. Ralph Fiennes does very well as the smooth-talking con-man and smalltime grifter. In the course of the film he will recite just about every self-serving excuse and justification we’ve ever heard from pornographers, and thanks to Bigelow’s direction and Cameron’s script they will all ring hollow. Most of them will be skewered by the moral clarity of his friend ‘Mace’ — Lornette Mason, played convincingly by Angela Bassett (one of the most commanding screen presences in American film). She has no time for “wireheads” or for pornography, or for his pompous excuses about the “service” he provides. She can connect the dots.
In the classic thriller tradition, a dealer in media (especially hot or illegal media) will come into possession of a truly dangerous recording (as in the French punk/noir classic ‘Diva’). Sure enough, Lenny comes into possession of a SQUID recording, dumped in his car by a terrified prostitute who’s being chased by bent cops. The recording shows the murder by LA cops (the same bent cops) of a charismatic and radical Black rap artist and political organiser called Jeriko One (whose agent, it just so happens, was Philo Gant). It is irrefutable proof that Jeriko was executed in cold blood after a racially-motivated traffic stop (DWB). Jeriko One was a community leader and international pop star; news of his murder at the hands of white LA cops will tear the city apart.
Someone wants the whole affair hushed up, and that someone has murdered Iris (Brigitte Bako), the prostituted woman who managed to get the disc to Lenny. Mace and Lenny find out that Iris was murdered when someone leaves another disc for Lenny, anonymously. The disc is an uniquely appalling production and a powerful metaphor for the social function of pornographic hegemony. Iris has been attacked in her hotel room by a man who, after disabling her with a Taser, has attached a SQUID to her head and wired it in tandem with his own — so that as he rapes and kills her, she is forced to experience his sensations, and to see herself through his eyes, even as she dies.
This rape scene is disturbing and — along with a lot of other gratuitous violence in the Hollywood thriller tradition — may make the film impossible for some people to watch without flashbacks or other PTSD responses. It is disturbing however in the right way (imho) — despite being fairly graphic it does not seem to be intended to titillate the audience, but to convey the genuine horror and brutality of rape, and the abomination of documenting the rape as pornography. The ultimate colonisation — forcing the woman to experience her own rape from the rapist’s point of view — can’t help but strike any radical feminist viewer as a painfully accurate statement about the rape culture. Lenny plays back this disc in the back of Mace’s limo; he is horrified and shocked, and staggers away from the car to vomit in the street. The SQUID technology has enabled him, a man, to truly experience the violence done to a woman by another man. And it sickens him.
The film can only go so far (in the mainstream media culture) with its critique of porn; of course the snuff disc will be blamed on a “bad apple,” a really sick guy; but before it gets swept under the rug Mace will confront Lenny with his own words about “people’s need to visit the dark side of the street” — “and how do you like it?” she asks bitterly. Connecting the dots. Although he may never admit it and the plot may never hinge on it, she makes the connection between his peddling of “ordinary” porn and exploiting prostituted women, and the logical conclusion of that system which he has just experienced and repudiated.
Iris was a personal friend, and a friend of Faith’s. Iris warned Lenny before her death that Faith may be in danger. The motivation is now set up for “Loser Lenny,” hardly a scary tough-guy, to involve himself in a very dangerous situation; and Mace is dragged into it as well, by her affection for Lenny and her outrage over the murder of Jeriko and what it means to her (Black) community. It is the two of them — outsiders, people of little power — against the world, big money, racist cops, mysterious killers.
The film then pursues its fairly predictable course, with car chases, betrayals and revelations, fight scenes (Angela Bassett’s character gets to demonstrate her competence at both martial arts and marksmanship), more murders for which our hero is being framed, and so on. In the end, after both our heroes (Mace and Lenny) have endured risks and hardships with courage, the bent cops are arrested for Jeriko’s murder, the real killer of Iris and others during the coverup is identified, justice is (sort of) served, and Y2K rolls in.
The plot is not really the point of this film — since it is a rehash of the archetypical noir plots and like many thrillers a bit incoherent at times. The main attraction of the film (for me) is its not-quite-radical but borderline-subversive vision of the world and the coming millennium. In the guise of fantasy it presents realities that most American film doesn’t want to touch. The streets of LA are patrolled by militarised riot police; our characters in their cars move from checkpoint to checkpoint, eyeballed suspiciously by anglo soldier-cops. Gasoline is [gasp!] three dollars a gallon. Radical Black charismatic leaders are sympathetic characters. Police brutality is a background reality. Street people are not monsters — at one critical moment Mace is saved by a mob of street people from a savage beating by riot police. Rapper Jeriko intones from a video screen, “And don’t tell me I did this to myself / When the drugs I take and the guns I use came off of your shelf.” A politicised urban Black American perspective edges its way into the film, competing with the box-office-friendly whiteboy Chandleresque drama of Girl Lost, Life Ruined, Danger Confronted, Girl Found, Redemption Possible.
There are occasional high points in the dialogue (some of which is actually witty) and occasional moments of physical comedy that offer relief from the generally grim atmosphere. Angela Bassett’s character is a powerful presence in the story, competent and no-nonsense, a positive strong female character with some feminist resonance. Her delivery of dialogue sometimes seems a bit forced but her physical acting is convincing, and it is always a pleasure to see an actress of such dignity and gravitas on a movie screen. There are moments of gender reversal in the relationship between her and Lenny, not played for comedy but developing naturally out of their characters. I’m not sure the relationship is really believable (despite a somewhat contrived backstory that tries to explain her affection for this unlikely guy), but it has some appealing aspects.
But the film was memorable for me mostly because it came closer to an open critique of pornography, or an exposure of the social function of pornography, than any other mainstream US flick I can think of. There is a point when Mace throws Lenny up against a wall and lectures him with strained intensity that this is not the time for playback, this is the time for real life — that this is his life, this right here, now, in reality — that she is real, and that she demands to be dealt with in real time, as a real woman. I would guess that there are millions of women saying the same, or wishing they could say the same, to husbands and lovers who are as addicted to video and internet porn as the “wireheads” in Strange Days are addicted to their sensory recordings. The footage of (all male!) wireheads transfixed by playback may not be intended as a satirical social commentary on the hypnotic trance of men using pornography or the pathetic aspects of their dependence on it, but it reads that way to this feminist viewer. The film exposes something about the private and obsessive relationship of men with their pornography. And it presents a woman who is scornful and intolerant of pornography and male obsession with it — Mace — as a heroine (and a romantic protagonist) rather than as a comic figure or a cartoon Prudish Old Maid. For Hollywood this is damn near openly radical, which says something about the hegemony of porn in our media
In another whistle-blowing moment, Lenny finally confronts Faith and realises how completely she has turned against him and abandoned the romantic and tender idealised love he insists they once had together. She taunts him, referring to her earlier days as his lover (when he documented hours of their life together with his SQUID recorder, turning her into a box full of recordings) — she says that it was he, Lenny, who taught her “to enjoy being watched,” to enjoy being surveilled, to be alienated from herself and to value instrumental/consumerist, pornographic/violent sex more highly than loving tenderness. It is an strange moment in the script, as if the critique of pornography were being sneaked in by a subversive editor working at odds with the producers. By turning his girlfriend into home movies — into pornography — he destroyed their relationship and her life. [As a radical feminist viewer I would say there is a parallel between what his obsession with porn and reification through recording technology has done to Faith, and what the rapist/murderer did to Iris: he has forced her to see herself through his objectifying eyes instead of her own. But I doubt the director or screenwriter consciously intended this radical reading]. It is an interesting twist on the durable noir theme of the Heartless Woman who left our hero for a Bad Man; for once, Our Hero’s role in making her “heartless,” damaging her soul in some way, is briefly mentioned. He is not the innocent victim of the Treacherous Woman, as in male fantasy.
Little contraventions of male fantasy crop up throughout the movie. There’s an amusing scene when Lenny, suspecting an intruder in his apartment (and for good reason), grabs his automatic from under the bed and assumes the familiar cinematic Manly Two-Handed Shooter Stance, stalking stiff-legged into the next room, his gun snapping from target to target in best Hollywood tough-cop style. But then a strange expression passes across his face and he dives back into the bedroom and rummages under the bed again for the clip After loading the gun he starts over again with the Manly Stance, but just for a moment the director has poked fun at the mystique of guns and the mystique of masculinity. A grandiose male fantasy has been deconstructed.
There are some curiously beautiful shots in Strange Days. One which sticks in my mind is during a New Year’s party at Mace’s sister’s house. From a window, Mace watches her young son Zander down in the front yard: the little boy has a sparkler, and he dances gracefully to the party music with his sparkler in hand, happy in a moment all his own. Her anxious tenderness as she watches him, his innocent happiness, are visually convincing in a dialogue-free moment — the plot is not advanced, but something is conveyed about the texture of everyday life and resistance, our ability to find moments of connection and happiness even on the run from The Man. There are unfortunately a few too many “music video” scenes in the club [probably featuring aspiring LA club bands from 1995 ]. Of all the film’s conceits they have — for me anyway — aged worst, and while they were obviously intended to be visually memorable and artsy the film carries them as a kind of baggage, at times clunky and self-indulgent. The music’s pretty mediocre, too
Another merit badge is earned by the director, imho, for avoiding one of the most common racist memes of mainstream anglo film-making. Though the film is still undisputably a Whitefolks Production, with Angela Bassett in the familiar role of Black Sidekick to the white protagonist [(cf Danny Glover in the Lethal Weapon series, Will Smith in the first Men in Black, etc ad nauseam], at least she is not presented in total isolation — unlike most AfricanAmerican sidekick characters. She is an embedded person, with a living social context: family, friends, neighbourhood. It is the protagonist Lenny, the whiteboy, who is isolated, lonely, without family or community or friends except for the Fellow Ex-Cop Buddy required by the genre. It is he who is visually and socially out of place as the lone whiteboy in her vibrant, affectionate circle of Black friends and family. It is a subtle feature but somewhat satisfying to this viewer, to see the white protagonist moved off his anglo-only turf so that the viewer can perceive him as the outsider, not the insider.
Another pleasant feature of the film is that there is no contrived apocalyptic ending — nor any contrived Save the World ending. No nuclear bombs or crashing airliners, no alien invasions, just some ordinary people trying to stay alive, beat a bum rap, and expose a racist police murder. Despite the millennial background, the scale of the plot and action stays small rather than falling into the absurd grandiosity of Hollywood conventions.
Having dwelt on the hopeful aspects of the flick I must acknowledge that it can be faulted on many counts. It’s a mainstream US cine production, so it’s bound to toe the corporate line most of the time and therefore fail to live up generally to its moments of subversive insight. Despite an implicit critique of porn and rape culture, it does exploit female nudity in ways which I think are intended to pass for “futuristic casualness” but come off as prurient. Male bodies are not exposed in the same way, which means that some sequences read as eye candy for male audiences and introduce a bizarre irony into the viewing experience. Apart from Mace’s insightful comments there is no coherent connection made between “benign” porn of the kind that Lenny peddles and the “snuff” that he (as a Nice Guy) never deals in; and a non-feminist viewer could easily walk away with unshaken conviction that “girl/girl” porn is nice and wholesome, snuff is bad, end of story. A feminist would notice that the two girls who appear in a porn sequence Lenny is buying are being controlled by a male pimp, and would connect this exploitative relationship to the story of corruption, power, and violence as a whole; but the film-maker doesn’t make any effort to help the audience make this connection.
This is cinÃ©ma altermondialiste only in the sense that it is filmed from the perspective of “the third world inside the first world,” that is, the life of the working class and poor — with a strong Black presence and Black nationalist consciousness — on the urban street. It ventures timidly into critiques of power — police power, white power, male power over women, the power of technologies to enslave imagination and memory — within the limits of a commercial major-release project, but it’s saddening at times to imagine what it could have been had a radical feminist director and screenwriter been given the same budget and cast. As it is, it’s refreshing and creative by comparison with the deadly tedious drek the studios churn out and throw at us each month — faint praise perhaps, but enough to make it worth a view.