Kathryn Bigelow - Strange Days (1995) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
4Apr/140

Kathryn Bigelow – Strange Days (1995)

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Kathryn Bigelow, with Strange Days, puts her studio-backed creativity in a nauseous, sprawling, and pessimistic view of the future as technology, memory, and experience fuse into one.  It put off audiences then, and is due for a revisit now.

Cutting to the pointAndrewCommentaryBannerBuddy, before we go too in-depth on Strange Days, I have a question.  Which film do you think would have benefited more with tighter editing - Strange Days, or Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds?Kyle Commentary BannerI will go wholeheartedly with Strange Days on that one. This is a movie that, while I really like it, starts off with such promise that to see it veer into the various territories (and sometimes, seemingly, genres) that it eventually becomes muddled up in is a little disappointing. I don't begrudge Bigelow & co. the audacity to tackle a sprawling story, but I'd have liked to see one that maintained the ambition of the opening act and not branching off in so many unrestrained directions.Out for a thrillNewer Andrew cutout commentaryTrick question Kyle, Inglorious Basterds is so terrible it can't be fixed.

I obviously digress here, and more seriously you caught on to my biggest problem with Strange Days revisiting it.  There are a few scenes that I remember vividly almost 20 years from now and it's a testament just how good the film is when it focuses and fires off on one plot point.  It's just that there's so damn much more to the rest of the film.  Bigelow's genre approach is a bit less jerky this time, we're strictly in a techno thriller with killer voyeur elements going back to Peeping Tom.

But let's count off the plotlines we've got going on here:
1)  Disgraced cop is presented with a path to redemption
2)  Battered woman finds strength in reinvention
3)  Oppressive police force is threatened with being exposed after being pushed too far
4)  A black market experience industry is poisoning its participants
5)  Race tensions are ready to explode after the failure of social programs and direct call to action from artistic leaders
6)  A serial killer with a bone to pick with our protagonist is stalking the women in his life (although what that specific bone is / was I admit I'm still really confused on)

I know there's more, any that you feel like throwing on the pile?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI think you've hit on plenty there, and I'll second your confusion on point #6. It sounds like you had a similar experience to my own—I remembered the movie being close to mind-blowing way back in high school when I saw it the first time around. This time it felt like I was watching an unnecessary expanded cut of the movie I remembered. Maybe the strangest thing about the generic plot-line overload is that a number of ideas rooted in your points above could still have had a strong effect on the movie without having been forced into the plot itself.

The racial tensions, for example, are a powerful enough part of the story that the plot could have followed the accidental recording of Jeriko One's murder and the ensuing cover up without also having a serial rapist on the loose. The Investigation into and revelations of that original "tape" would have been enough to propel the story. Likewise, Ralph Fiennes' character works just as well as a man mourning the loss of his girlfriend/wife without having to have his ex still around as an object of obsession to "win back."

As is, there are a lot of elements that don't contribute anything unique to the movie aside from obscuring some of the fairly prophetic observations Bigelow is making about this society.Some partyNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThis is where one distinction is crucial in looking at the film.  This is the second movie where Bigelow didn't write and direct, and one of the principal authors of the screenplay is James Cameron.  Cameron who, it should be noted, isn't exactly the slimmest of creators either in his creative output and has a tendency to co-opt American social and cultural crises to fuel his stories.  He based a whole movie on one (Titanic), heavily referenced our history with war atrocities in another (Avatar), and here is heavily relying on the L.A. riots to fuel some aspects of the story.

I agree that the racial tension component of the film would have been better served as its own movie, but as one piece of the apocalyptic L.A. tapestry that Bigelow had to realize, she and Angela Bassett do a lot to elevate the material.  I love the way that Bigelow introduces Bassett through a deceptively sultry answer to Fiennes car dilemma, only to find that she's not the purring kitten her '70s-styled intro (with a heavy nod to The Warriors) would leave us to be.  Her appearance also highlights another great point of the film - the costume design - as she appears in straight-laced formal wear but when she removes the jacket we see that her clothing is a lot more mobile than we might expect and helps the "bodyguard" function of her role quite well.

My rampant speculation is that Lightstorm Entertainment, who produced the film, already had a story on their hands packed to the brim with rape, disturbing projections of the future, and police brutality.  If they delved too deeply into the race riot part the film might not have been made at all as the wounds over Rodney King and the rampant corruption of the L.A. Rampart division were still fresh.  So I love the little touches - Bassett's rage when she confronts Fiennes about what to do with the tape, or the way the camera cuts to the modestly dressed black officer who guns down one of the oppressive cops at the end - even if they could have held the movie on their own.

If nothing else, Bassett's strict morality and subversive femininity make for an already excellent counter to the way the initially unseen killer preys on the women of Strange Days.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI think the only thing that disappointed me about Bassett's character was not the character itself, but the way she was pushed as the movie progresses into the role of love interest. That seems like another instance of possible studio pressure/interference, and acts according to convention as a way to resolve the Fiennes characters' hangup on Faith. I'd have loved to see Bigelow and Cameron more comfortable letting Bassett's character stand completely on her own without also having to use her as a way for Fiennes to move on, but that may be because Juliet Lewis' character doesn't need to be in the movie except in flashback.

Another thing I think is interesting is how the movie looks at systemic drug abuse and how providing an "escape" from the real world can work to keep people trapped in their own lives, and yet this never quite makes it to the point of politicized metaphor. Most of the people we see using the SQUID technology are middle-to-upper class, and we never see anything about the economy of this system—for something that requires such advanced technology, is it expensive? Has it taken an especially high toll on any particular demographic? For a movie that echoes the post-Rodney King tension you already mentioned, it seems strange to shy away from the deeper cultural implications of such a new "drug."Bassett - BadassNewer Andrew cutout commentaryI don't think that kind of speculation is going to be very fruitful here.  Those two observations you make are good enough without needing to delve further as they enhance the already tense atmosphere by giving a plot-laced example of the privilege one has and the other doesn't without expressly calling attention to it.  The same should be applied to Juliette Lewis' presence as to whether she "needs" to be in the film or not, she's here so let's look at how she's used.

Her character is the ultimate symbol for how many directions the film pulls itself and I know you're not a fan, but she does a good job keeping up with whatever she's required to be a that moment.  The excessive cheer that she exudes when we first see her is so different from the colder reality we see that it adds another layer of drug potential to the device - the reality that the jackers experience isn't "real" but the users perception.

Now, the many scene with her dancing around and singing average sexy rock?  Those I could have done without, and the only thing I'll add to the Bassett romance angle is that my own mental reel deleted that last scene because it confused me so badly.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThis is switching gears a little—but how do you react to the fact that the world we're seeing onscreen is a mere 4-5 years away from the one the movie was released into? On one hand there's a lot that seems unchanged, like we're seeing essentially a contemporary world that's just teetering on an edge not unfathomable to mid-90s viewers. But on another the world of the movie seems almost apocalyptic.

Some of that is due to the technology itself having seemingly taken hold on a large-scale so quickly, which is especially interesting considering the way technology turns around so fast today—but it's more than just that. Despite the issues we've talked about with the plot, Bigelow's vision in presenting the world is pretty well unfaltering.Avoided a NSFW moment hereNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThat is where the film gets so eerie.  A lot of the expressive lighting and smog is like a neon hell fusion of the constant night of Near Dark and '80s Michael Mann.  So, visually, it's a logical extension of the world that she's been working with and already feels familiar to audiences with even a passing familiarity to those styles.

Now, considering what was going on in the early internet community in the '90s her prediction gets even creepier.  There were art installations springing up dealing with the idea of shared experience through technology and getting downright Orwellian (a great documentary, We Live In Public, details one).  Cell phones were starting to become prevalent, and we were entering the height of one of the many "are we medicating ourselves too much" phases of our pre-9/11 mindset.

Finally, the setting of the seemingly rampaged city is something that you could get at a hardcore punk club.  Fuse that with the images of burning cars and rioting people from the early '90s, and that's where the visual style crystallizes into near-perfection for me.

The elements - visually, culturally, and technologically - all pointed in that direction and Bigelow used a lot of savvy fusing the possibly disparate elements together.  We could reenact this movie by going to Crimea with Google Glass and a pillowcase filled with drugs which, frankly, kind of scares me at how accurately she predicted the worst aspects of our future.

Tiny Kyle Commentary That's the major takeaway, and probably the reason the plot issues and detours end up being drawbacks without ruining the movie. Looking back on it now, the movie acts to forecast current technological trends so well that it succeeds on a high level even where some of the genre elements fail it.

 

IF the '80s got pissedNewer Andrew cutout commentary It's also why, compared to The Loveless or Point Break, this is still a vital Bigelow film and one hell of a visceral experience when it hits those highs.  Michael Haneke's Cache is a more streamlined when it comes to just how creepy it is when someone wants you to know you're being watched - but the sick thrill of it is replicated with all of those unhappy moans as people watch the tape of Iris' death.

Also, this is one of my final thoughts and a fleeting one at that, but did Fiennes performance remind you of Howard Stern?  Every time I listened to him and saw Juliette Lewis I thought back to Talk Radio, and how Fiennes' unique brand of mental addiction is an extreme, if somewhat logical, jump forward for trying to get their audience to feel through shock value.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI did think back to Talk Radio while watching this, though I can't remember specifically what caused that. Fiennes performance could certainly call up Howard Stern at the beginning, when he's mostly in control and still in smooth-talking mode. I think he also does a good job later of interjecting a sometimes truly pitiful level of desperation into things. It's a low level kind of sleaze that I wouldn't normally associate with the characters he often plays.

That is also a good way of stating in a very concise way the true damage that the SQUID technology has done here — pushed the level of experience and magnitude of feeling to such a level that the apparently unbearable alternative for the movie's junkies is simply sensory boredom. That this would translate also to emotional boredom and the underlying threat there reinforces how prophetic the movie was.Talk your way outNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe worst thing I can say about Strange Days is that there's just too much excellent material and not enough time to go around.  Am I sad to see Vincent D'Onofrio and William Fichtner languish in underdeveloped, if still creepy, roles?  Yes.  But if any of that came at the expense of the dark peddling, amazing visuals, and magnificent Bassett performance, then it wouldn't be worth it.

It's not an undiscovered classic, but one hell of a challenging film, and necessary for anyone who wants to discuss Bigelow seriously.

Tiny Kyle Commentary Agreed, and the utter control of tone and atmosphere is something I don't think we'll see again until The Hurt Locker, though I don't remember the next two films coming up well at all other than the fact that I've seen them.

I certainly don't think we'll see something with a goal quite this challenging until then, though I very well may be wrong.

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Bigelow with text

Posted by Andrew

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