Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
#13: Strange Days|
(USA, 1995; dir. Kathryn Bigelow; scr. James Cameron and Jay Cocks; cin. Matthew F. Leonetti; with Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Glenn Plummer, Brigitte Bako, Vincent D'Onofrio, William Fichtner)
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The personal is the political. Well, yes and no. Every one of those words is complicated and context-specific, including "is" and "the." Consider: I re-watched Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days last Wednesday night, for at least the dozenth time, thinking again about how instrumental the film was in expanding my view of cinema's aesthetic dimensions, imaginative potential, and political capacities. Strange Days opened about six weeks after I started college, and though it wasn't the first movie I paid to see in a theater during school (that was To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar), it felt like the start of a four-year syllabus that took me hither and thither all over Boston, being pushed and tested by movies old and new. Strange Days never stopped pushing, then or now, from the virtuosic sequence-shot that opens the film (dazzling in execution, grisly in content) to the climactic fusion of cross-racial alliance and interracial romance as blazons of hope amidst a dismal-looking future. Along the way, Bigelow, the screenwriters, and their on-set collaborators force us through plenty of formally impressive and thematically provoking episodes. Two are especially hard to stomach. One involves the simultaneous rape and strangling of a female murder witness, forced to experience her violationas is the audiencethrough the perspective of her assailant, sustained across another grueling sequence shot. The other is a mediated flashback to the killing that made her a fugitive and a target: the point-blank execution by two racist cops of Jeriko One, a black hip-hop prophet and political organizer. I will always owe to Strange Days my unwavering conviction that mass-market films can be ideological risk-takers, particularly on themes of race, gender, and state violence. I marveled again at the film's principled, discomfiting audacity last Wednesday night and began formulating this piece in my head.
While I did so, as I live and breathe, the downtown street corner outside my apartment was abruptly populated by antiracist activists, justly incensed by the 16 shots fired by a Chicago policeman into the body of Laquan McDonald, a 17-year-old black man. The murder transpired a year ago but the horrendous video evidence was squelched for a year by cops and politicians, up to and including Chicago's mayor. Forced into public record by a judge who would not tolerate such censorship, the audiovisual record belies a year's worth of deceptions and diversions that have flowed from powerful figures. The protesters on my block, nearly all of them black, locked elbows and stopped traffic across all four sides of a busy intersection, protecting a smaller cadre in the middle of the ring who shouted their demands for justice and their exasperation with racist corruption and violence. I posted this photo of the sudden occupation. You will note that I snapped the picture from my window, not from streetside, which would have expressed more direct solidarity with the activists. Two days later, as protests spread on so-called "Black Friday" to the upscale shopping hub of the Magnificent Mile, I was home writing letters of recommendation as well as further essays for this feature. I was thinking about my personal relationship to the film that 20 years ago stoked my awareness of systemic racist violence and underscored the power of media to foment necessary outragethrough a series of plot-beats in many ways prescient of Laquan McDonald's downfall and video-borne legacy. I did this rather than take the more clearly political step of throwing my body into the ring, lending my voice to the outrage I was feeling. I am instead voicing that outrage here.
Watching Strange Days, you can't help wanting to be Lornette "Mace" Mason, the single mother, ass-kicking armored-car driver, and inflamed voice of conscience played by Angela Bassett in one of the decade's indelible screen performances. If you aren't impressed enough by how Bassett finesses the complex character beats and sustains the demanding physical requirements of the role for two hours, just consider the psychic and emotional toll the last act must have extracted. Bassett kneels on the concrete, shivering and barely dressed amid cold midnight winds, publicly withstanding the choreographed blows of the monstrous cops played by Vincent D'Onofrio and William Fichtner. She must surrogate the outrage but also the humiliation and pain of black Americans in a nation perpetually stacked against them. Remember, filming took place only two years after the point-blank execution of Rodney King by quickly-acquitted LAPD officers failed to instigate the changes it should havea moment I experienced distantly, while living in Germany. This context made Strange Days unusually responsive to scalding currents in modern life, especially for a big-budget action film, but also must have weighed down the hearts of the movie's artists, particularly its black artists. Remember, too, that Strange Days is as ferociously alert to pervasive misogyny as to structural racism, and that by the finale Mace stands in the crosshairs of both legacies, with two targets on her back. Her moral victory, plus the gauntlet of agony she withstands in its pursuit, land more strongly on the audience because the preceding film has made her moxie so impressive, her ethics so acute, her principles so fixed, even when they cost her something. Her readiness to jettison her unconfessed love of several years, as he prepares to parlay footage of Jeriko's assassination into a personal advantage within a tawdry love triangle, proves how deeply Mace means what she means.
But who among us are really the Maces? Who among us, especially those of us sutured to the internet, looped into endless reading and writing, don't see part of ourselves in Lenny Nero? Lenny is the spurned, self-pitying lover and the scuzzy, rationalizing, tech-addicted pleasure-peddler who would be even more obvious as a flawed protagonist if he lacked the perfect, sculptural beauty of Ralph Fiennes underneath his greasy hair and bad suits. Fiennes's casting, just like mind-blowing set design of near-future Los Angeles, the hard-charging song score and sound design, the punk polychromatics of the palette, and the sinuous movements of the camera, keeps luring us into aesthetic delectation when perhaps we should be focused on political outrage. (In truth, the chief reason I hit up Strange Days on opening day was that I was trying to resolve my confusing, pre-sexual attraction to both Fiennes and Bassett, before I came to the queer realization that love means never having to say you're sorry, and never having to choose.) Lenny is not a bad man or a hero. He eventually has the ethical epiphany the audience wants him to have, though circumstance strongly forces his hand. He places the right object in Mace's hand at the right time for change to be effected, but he is not really the agent of that change. In this as in all else, as Strange Days clearly realizes, Lenny is more of a watcher than a doer. It's not that they can't go together, though the film verges on that implication, making Lenny a visual glutton and Mace a conscientious objector, and naming a scummy concert venue-cum-underworld hangout the Retinal Fetish. Strange Days embeds enough cues to refuse the total conflation of looking and violence, media dependency and moral failure; even Lenny is tentatively redeemed. But if you check Twitter every few minutes, or you favor bandwidth over ballots as your preferred forum for activism, if you're vigilant about what's Trending but somewhat aloof from what's really happening, youwhich is to say, Imay warrant some rude awakening.
Strange Days famously sank at the box office. Rationales volleyed loudly through the media. The newly anointed, Oscar-nominated cast, including Fiennes, Bassett, and Juliette Lewis, simply weren't bankable. Casting them had been a heedless risk. All the 1995 movies about new and future technologies stumbled, including Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, and The Net. All the movies released on that Friday the 13th failed, including the lurid Joe Eszterhas thriller Jade and Demi Moore's laughable Scarlet Letter. I'm sure there is merit to some of these diagnoses, but most seemed determined to lump Strange Days together with blatantly sketchy product and to let the public off the hook for not showing up, not rallying to the cause. These verdicts felt more expedient (it could never have worked! that date is truly cursed!) than asking why audiences might reject a narratively and stylistically challenging thriller that bears witness to systemic pathologies in L.A., the U.S., and the world, implicating audiovisual media and their insatiable clienteles within an architecture of postmodern complicity. This wide-release movie seemed not just ignored but somehow suppressed, like Jeriko's execution. Even generically bracketing Strange Days as yet another under-attended "cyber thriller" became a way not to position it as yet another under-heeded indictment of homefront terrorism against women and minorities, with urban black people as the principal avatar of precarious life.
So it's one thing to applaud Strange Days as a nervy synthesis of invigorating artistry and enraging protest. It's another to acknowledge the film as a transition-point in my own political education, a measure by which my own moral agency often feels inadequate, and a hypnotic object whose call I sometimes heed over those of real-world travesties it echoes and presages. Even while writing this piece, during the last two hours, another mass shooting has unfolded in California, less explicitly synced to Strange Days's critique but requiring focused attention I will furnish once I finish these final sentences. The personal is the political, yes, but only if you make the political personal. I'm not implying there is only one model for doing this, or that public writing has no standing as a channel for activist feeling. But Strange Days isn't just about feeling some kind of way about a world gone wrong. It's about recalibrating one's relation to multisensory technology, admitting its allure and seizing its evidentiary capacities for the side of Good, but not sinking back into its narcotic and narcissistic cloud. It's about doing the right thing, the really right thing. It's about tracking powerful figures all the way to the bathroom. It's about showing up in the street.