Bird Watching – Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days”
It’s probably fair to say that Kathryn Bigelow is the most famous female film director working today. Maybe that’s why I’ve taken my time in getting to discussing any of her work in this column. Nobody needs to be told who she is. She has, for the most part, broken into the boys’ club. She’s an extremely technically skilled director, with a knack for creating tense sequences of action (or the anticipation of action). Hollywood loves the kind of films that she’s adept at making. Yet, it seems like discussion of her work pre-The Hurt Locker falls mostly under the category of “hey, betcha didn’t know a woman directed that!” Perhaps that’s a little cynical of me—I need look no further than this very site for a nice analysis of her film Near Dark—but it does seem that she’s still viewed through an “ain’t it nifty that a lady can do action” kind of lens more often than not. I’d much rather she be looked at simply as a director who is hitting the prime of a career that has produced some very good films, and some interesting but highly problematic ones. I believe the commercial failure that’s become something of a cult film, Strange Days, falls into the latter category.
Strange Days was released in 1995, and is set on the last two days before the beginning of the year 2000. The film could really have taken place in any “near future” sort of setting, but given that the story was developed by James Cameron, it’s not shocking to see the dramatic symbolism of the millennium played up to near-ridiculous fashion; the man is many things, but subtle is not one of them. For better or worse, Y2K it had to be. So, in a Los Angeles that has apparently seen quite a downhill slide in that five year gap, we follow Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes, looking disconcertingly like Bradley Cooper somehow, with that certain floppy haircut), peddler of a bizarre kind of contraband. Lenny deals in recordings of real-life events that are meant to be viewed in an intense sort of virtual reality. They’re known as SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) recordings, and, as Lenny describes to a potential customer, it’s not like just pretending to be someone else for a bit—it’s actually getting to live someone else’s experience, and feel their emotions, by having it run through your own brain. The ultimate in vicarious thrill.
As with all technology, this one can be used for some nefarious purposes. There is a market out there for snuff recordings (known as “blackjack”), and Lenny wants no part of it. Which, of course, means that he’s about to get sucked into that world, whether he likes it or not. An old acquaintance of Lenny’s, Iris (Brigitte Bako), is in some sort of trouble. We see her being chased by police officers, and barely escaping on the subway. She has a recording that she desperately wants Lenny to see, but it ends up misplaced in his towed car. Before Iris can explain anything, she meets a disturbing end, as a man breaks into where she is staying and rapes and murders her, recording all the while. Then the murderer sends that recording to Lenny.
Lenny and his two friends, professional bad-ass/driver Mace (Angela Bassett) and private investigator Max (Tom Sizemore), try to unravel why Iris was murdered and what bigger implications her death has. Iris had warned that Lenny’s ex-girlfriend, Faith (Juliette Lewis), might be in danger as well. The case somehow also seems to tie back to the shooting death of rapper Jeriko One, an artist on the label of Faith’s record producer boyfriend. Twists and turns abound, and ultimately the plot threads come together at a massive New Year’s Eve party. (It’s the sort of scene where you can’t help but wonder how much money it cost to stage.) By the time the clock hits midnight, we’ll know the truth about the mess Lenny’s been caught up in.
Strange Days starts off with an intriguing premise, and features many visually impressive scenes, from P.O.V. shots within the SQUID recordings to fights staged in the middle of elaborate set-ups. Some of the cyberpunk vision-of-the-future art direction feels a bit dated, but not to the point of distraction (though the same cannot be said for Tom Sizemore’s hair). Technically, it’s a very well put together film, all Steadicam and dazzle. But story-wise, I had a lot of problems. For every interesting theme the film brings up, there’s some eye-rolling plot twist to distract from it. It begins to explore some aspects of the appeal of voyeurism, but then veers away to focus on clunky, over-simplified talk of race relations in this hyper-L.A. In the final minutes, we’re asked to accept a “shocking” villain reveal that’s poorly explained, a romantic pairing that’s unearned, a perfect deus ex machina coincidence of timing with the arrival of the cavalry, and the idea that one man essentially saying “quit it” could turn what’s become a racially charged riot back into a nice New Year’s celebration. It’s too much ending for a film that already had too much plot, and it exploits the willingness an audience has to have to “just go with it” when dealing both with dense noir plotting and with sci-fi elements. Nice try with all the confetti, but I didn’t come away satisfied.
What bothers me most about the film is how it at times seems to be trying to say something real about the subject of voyeurism, but ultimately comes across as more interested in staging scenes that’ll illicit a “whoa” reaction than in actually making a point. For example, the scene of Iris’s rape and murder is shown to us as a SQUID recording, so that we are in the P.O.V. of the attacker as it happens. The attacker puts a second SQUID device onto Iris, meaning that as she’s being assaulted, she feels the emotions of the attacker—his thrill along with her own terror. It’s incredibly disturbing. To put the audience in that position should be for something more than to just get a visceral reaction. But the film never goes back to address the motivation of the attacker in doing that to her. Perhaps if we were just dealing with a Buffalo Bill-style psycho, that might make a little sense. But we’re not, and in the end that scene is nothing but gratuitous.
I suppose I shouldn’t look to a story by James Cameron for any sort of graceful handling of theme—this is the man who gave us Avatar, after all. His framework here lets Bigelow craft a film that shows off technical skill but is ultimately shallow, much like that aforementioned film. I’m not letting her off the hook, either. As the director, she could have guided this story with a more careful hand. Strange Days ends up failing to live up to its promise, and while it’s worth seeing, doesn’t reflect the best of either of these filmmakers.