The End of a Millenium: The State of Violence in Kathryn Bigelow’s STRANGE DAYS

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 08/23/2018

This is the third installment of our intern Josiah Berger’s exploration of science fiction films. Spoilers ahead.

Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days was released in the fall of 1995. The film now carries with it a certain notoriety, not only for the grand technical scale the production required (taking years between inception of the idea and completion of the film), but also for being one of the few large-scale blockbuster films directed by a woman to receive major studio financing, science fiction or otherwise.

Unlike many other science fiction films that take place in the distant future, Strange Days gives us our world in the year 1999. The film is set in a Los Angeles that has descended into an ultra-violent police state, a natural extension of the 1992 L.A. Riots. The police bear no resemblance to public servants, instead bearing the heavy weaponry of a militarized force.

The film’s protagonist is Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a former cop turned street hustler. Nero, much like his Roman emperor namesake, watches with indifference as the world around him burns. He deals mostly in selling the world’s hottest new addiction, a device referred to as the wire. The wire connects to the person’s optical nerves and records the individual’s point-of-view and sensations. In a process referred to as playback, the wearer puts on a headset and experiences life from the perspective of the recorder. This is not just seeing memories from their perspective, but living in those memories with all the sensations and feelings that they hold.

Bigelow displays a world which digitizes pornography to the extent where the viewer receives the sensation of themself having sex. With the dramatic proliferation of digital media since 1995 and the subsequent rise in point-of-view pornography, Bigelow clearly foresaw where society’s sexual interests were headed. While the internet does not possess the ability for viewers to “feel” what the actors feel, one wonders whether simultaneous stimulation for the viewer is the next step since virtual-reality is now becoming a facet of actual reality.

Though the processes of wiring-in and playback are outlawed, the growing amount of users are diverse, with customers ranging anywhere from lower to upper-class. Bigelow makes the entire process resemble substance abuse, and Lenny’s condition is most certainly that of an addict. Whenever seen in the process of playback, he quivers and absentmindedly feels himself. This is Lenny at his most vulnerable, and it’s the last place in life from which he can derive pleasure. While this hinders his personal life, he finds living in his own past preferable to accepting his grim present.

The most dangerous of recordings are referred to as blackjack tapes, the playback equivalent of snuff films, which display the deaths of different people. Each of these tapes bringa with them a whole new level of sensation, a feeling which Lenny adamantly claims to loathe. While he may disapprove, a significant portion of the playback clientele ask for these tapes–here a person can experience the ultimate danger without ending their own life.

Lenny’s closest friend is Mace Mason (Angela Bassett), a driver for a higher-end limousine company. Lenny was the police officer that came to her house the day her ex-husband was arrested, and their friendship began with Lenny comforting her son. However, Lenny and Mace’s relationship is now entirely one-sided, with the former’s playback addiction causing him to constantly ask for favors. As an African-American woman, Mace’s distrust of the LAPD is repeatedly reinforced by the corruption she sees around her, while Lenny’s dislike of the police seems to be rooted solely out of spite having been fired.

In the beginning of the film, there is a scene where a man calls into a radio station to list his frustrations with society and lack of enthusiasm for the New Year. The final frustration he lists is that “fifth grade kids are shooting each other at recess.” Strange Days reveals a prescience in predicting a world where school shootings have become an aspect of society’s status quo. Considering the film was made and released in a pre-Columbine United States, it makes the modern viewer reconsider Bigelow’s predictions on the outcomes of America’s gun culture.

One of the film’s themes is the uncomfortable confrontation to our culture’s violence. The way Bigelow positions this is  through the use of the wire and having the audience observe life from the perspective of the film’s characters. Lenny gets an anonymous-marked tape sent to him, one which shows the brutal rape and murder of Iris (Brigitte Bako), a friend of Lenny’s who operates as a sex worker and  personal escort. Bigelow puts the camera in the perspective of the rapist, not revealing his face, and having the audience see the pleasure he derives from the cruelty he commits. The scene is brutal and relentless, and it forces Lenny to accept the dark side of his trade.

In addition to this, Bigelow shows violence that stems from societal racism. This is shown in a tape of police officers committing acts of brutality against two African-American men, one of whom is Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), a popular musician and social activist. When the police discover Jeriko One’s identity, they execute both men on the spot. These police are then immediately able to cover up their crimes, as the word of law enforcers is believed above all others.

Bigelow highlights the religious fanaticism that centered on Y2K, particularly the connected belief in an impending apocalypse. For some, this belief is the apparent conclusion to the state the world has descended into. It seems that instead of fearing such an outcome, many prefer the world’s ending to the chaos that currently exists. These people have no optimism for the future, no belief that their actions can have an impact.

Even for those who don’t believe in the Earth’s impending destruction, there is an indifference to the situation which they are asked to accept. Citizens are told to be pleased with the status quo, to believe they are in protective hands no matter what the evidence shows. After viewing the tape of Jeriko One’s death, Mace tells Lenny, “I see the world opening up and swallowing us all.” Many of the characters in the film have given up altogether with upholding standards of morality, preferring instead to live in a world where there are no repercussions to their actions.

In addition to the mixed critical response it received, Strange Days also underperformed at the box office. While many fans of Bigelow’s current work might have forgotten it exists, this film feels amazingly present. The violence that Bigelow shows, which stem from the unconfronted racism and sexism that society would rather ignore, is never glorified. Even when showing this from the perspective of the perpetrator, which shows the satisfaction they received in committing these crimes, Bigelow guides the audience’s attention towards how the victims feel. The audience is then left with a painful question–how many voices of the oppressed has our society chosen not to hear?

JB

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