Friday, 16 March 2018

Strange Days: Kathryn Bigelow really wants to you watch

In the near-future of 1999, Los Angeles is on the brink of collapse. Economically depressed and riddled with racial tension, on the eve of the new millennium this city is ready to blow.

Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop who scrounges a living from selling memories recorded on illegal headsets called 'SQUID'. Originally developed by the government to replace body-cameras, SQUIDs record what the wearer sees and records them on MiniDisks. If you want to experience the adrenaline rush of taking part in a bank robbery, or great sex, or falling off a building, Lenny is your guy.

Hung up on his ex Faith (Juliette Lewis) and stirring trouble for his friend Mace (Angela Bassett), Lenny's life has been following a sad but predictable pattern. That lifestyle is disrupted when Lenny gets hold of a MiniDisk carrying information which could have potentially apocalyptic consequences for the city...

I have never really been a fan of Kathryn Bigelow - there is a sense with all of her movies that what she wants the movie to say and what the movie ends up being about are two very different things. While it is entertaining, visually exciting and features some noteworthy performances (okay, one), but at a fundamental level, Strange Days is a movie of contradictions.

Thinking about this movie post-viewing, I was reminded of Film Crit Hulk's comparison of The Revenant and Mad Max - Fury Road in his essay on the importance of cinematic language to a film's narrative, tone and themes, and - in relation to Kathryn Bigelow's work - Angelica Jade Bastien's review of her last film Detroit.

Technically this movie is a marvel. The POV sequences utilised new kinds of rigs and apparatus to help approximate the sensation of watching someone else's actions from the hot seat. In this era of virtual camera moves and 'seaming' (using CGI to join separate shots into a single extended take), Strange Days' voyeuristic vignettes are jaw-dropping. They are so seamless you do not notice the amount of effort and skill that went into their creation.

That technical precision is also problematic - while the movie wants to come down against the voyeurism of Lenny's devices, the movie is so polished and covers its violence in such a cinematic and visceral way that it ends up glamourising the violence. The movie is trying to juggle a couple of different genres (film noir, cyberpunk and action thriller), but Bigelow's directorial touch is not deft enough to handle the shift in tones and intent.

Beyond Bigelow's direction, the movie feels incredibly conflicted about what it wants to say. On the one hand, this is a 1995 movie (clearly informed by the 1992 LA riots) that pivots around an act of police violence against black people. For a while, the movie flirts with radical politics yet fulfils conventions of 90s actions movies - our heroes get a final reprieve from an honourable old white authority figure, the bad guys die and our heroes/lovers get a kiss-out ending.

And then there is the theme of voyeurism, which seems to be the movie's initial thesis yet this theme gets subsumed by the film's stylised take on violence, and the increasing focus on state violence against minority voices which criticise it. These ideas could have worked together, but they never gel in a satisfying way. Strange Days wants to have its cake and eat it, and it means the movie feels more superficial and less incisive about the ideas it thinks it is exploring.

Aside from its technical elements, the movie boasts a great cast, including Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore and Vincent D'Onfrio.

Neurotic, haunted and constantly out of his depth, Fiennes is a believable as a noir-style 'fall guy' - a good man who has been unmade. Unlike traditional noir, this is not at the hands of a bad woman, but his own image of who that woman was, an image that he re-plays through his recordings of his own memories.

While the character does not quite fit, Ralph Fiennes is really interesting in the lead role. At a glance, Lenny is a collection of qualities you do not associate with Fiennes - sleazy, anarchic and lacking spine. As the movie progresses, and Lenny's past is slowly (and then clumsily) revealed, Fiennes' casting makes more sense. Lenny feels like a fish-out-of-water among the dealers and hookers because he is - a cop who lost everything, now he is just acting the role of a smooth impresario to make his way in the world.

While Fiennes is compelling as the lead, Strange Days' standout performance is Angela Bassett as Lenny's friend Mace. Playing another Cameron action woman, Mace's relationship with Lenny is an inversion of the traditional action movie gender dynamic. While Lenny is the protagonist, Mace is the character who saves him and - literally - pushes him toward solving the mystery and getting over Faith.

There are parts of the character which are problematic. The flashback to how Mace and Lenny met is ridiculous: she is a waitress who comes home to find her no-good (I guess?) husband getting arrested, and then finds Lenny, previously a cop, comforting her son). It's such a short scene, is played so broadly, and trades in so many ridiculous stereotypes (the hardworking black woman;    absent black fathers; the requisite white saviour (he is good with kids!) that it just comes off wrong. It speaks to the movie's ham-fistedness - the character's relationship is pretty well established without it. All it does is undermine Mace's agency by reducing her to a stereotype.

Mace's desire to be with Lenny is pretty clear already until this point, and the flashback just takesout any ambiguity by turning her into a pretty traditional love interest, one who is pining for man who seems to ignore her interest in him.

As well as being a lovesick romantic, Mace also fulfils another type - the strong black woman who helps the white protagonist to find their way. This might be unintentional, but in respect to Mace's character,  the movie's trading in noir tropes does offer something of a critique of her relationship with Lenny. While Faith is ultimately the femme fatale bringing Lenny to his doom, he is also an emotional leech on Mace. While he is not overtly malignant, he ignores her needs, screws with her job and (consistently) emotionally manipulates her into helping him.

If there is a relationship that recalls classic noir, it is the one between Lenny and Mace - she even calls out how she cannot get rid of her feelings for him, and she knows that it will not end well.

Aside from this relationship, as a neo-noir Strange Days is not that impressive. While James Cameron and Jay Cocks' script flirts with dystopian and film noir themes and motifs, its violent resolution and tidy romantic finale undermine the movie's grab bag of genre influences.

Ultimately, the problem with Strange Days is that it cannot reconcile the action movie it is with the tech noir (to quote The Terminator) it wants to be. All the movie's more complicated (and interesting) threads - Lenny's psycho-sexual trauma, technical addiction and America's systemic racism - are ultimately subordinate to a more conventional catharsis of the bad guys dying in a hail of bullets and our attractive stars making out on New Year's Eve.

While flawed, Strange Days is an intriguing watch and definitely worth a look.

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