Strange Days

USA 1995, 145 mins
Director: Kathryn Bigelow

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

Kathryn Bigelow shoots in light. Cinema’s outlaw, she disrupts assumptions about where a film can go, taking genres and ripping them apart to see what they might be made of, always finding the dark stuff inside. Her debut, The Loveless, was a studied homage to the 50s biker movie (though in its fascistic fascination with the gleam of chrome and the contours of the leather more specifically Kenneth Anger than The Wild One). In Near Dark, she took on the Western, infecting it with a vampire-movie strain to produce a terrifying new mythology. Next she skewered assumptions about both genre and gender in Blue Steel, a melancholy policier set in a nightmare Manhattan cityscape, predating The Silence of the Lambs in its scrutiny of a woman’s place in the genre. And in Point Break, a kind of ‘Only Angels Have Surfboards’, the male body is thrust to its limits as Bigelow pushed her cinematic style to its own dizzyingly kinetic limits – in a spume-action movie that knowingly states, ‘There is too much testosterone around here.’ All these films fray the edges of genre, boasting protagonists who straddle the line between law and disorder. And Bigelow too furtively roams the spectrum, hard to pin down as she plans her raids on movie lore. Hollywood’s uncanny daughter, she gets up to all sorts of tricks, her work revealing her art-school background in truly arresting images – the Smith & Wesson in Blue Steel that her camera turns into an intricate metallic sculpture – and in her choosing to unstitch (rather than render seamless) cinema’s narratives. Which makes her a disquieting presence, unsurprisingly difficult to accommodate.

This rustler’s restless desire to confront and challenge the power of the medium is nowhere more evident than in Strange Days, Bigelow’s most provocative work to date, from a script by James Cameron and (former Time film critic and Scorsese collaborator) Jay Cocks. It’s a draining, dazing vision of a not-too-distant future in which urban America is ready to ignite, a cyber-_Peeping Tom_-cum-_Vertigo_ which puts a further spin on the history of film’s own interrogation of voyeuristic desires. Its strange beauty is in the staring, scared eye of the beholder on which the camera lingers in the opening credits: right from the jolting fast-forward false start, it invites a self-reflexive reading of all that unreels before the audience, as we fall, fatally, for what we see, only to be hauled up short, to begin all over again. As with the opening gambit in Blue Steel, in which Curtis’ Megan is shown going through with an arrest that turns out to be a dummy run, Bigelow demands that we be on our guard concerning what we are about to experience. We should also be on guard about the shape of things to come.

A techno-noir thriller in which lowlife hero Lenny Nero’s obsession for a girl who might once have loved him draws him deeper and deeper into darkness, Strange Days is a dystopian-nightmare movie set on New Year’s Eve 1999, in a decaying, riot-police-patrolled Los Angeles, city of tarnished angels, where teenage girls mug Santa Claus and one can only drive in a bulletproof car. The images the film draws on are only too familiar: including members of the LAPD pulverising Rodney King and the inferno their acquittal sparked. It is a collage of genres, as vérité jostles with romance and detective plot, and with other directors’ plots and styles, from Anger through Hitchcock to Walter Hill; it demonstrates film’s different possibilities, whether death-wish fulfilment or something more restorative. For amidst a ragged chaos in which the story itself seems to break up and split off into a multitude of endings, Strange Days is ultimately able to offer a utopian dream resolution in a final clinch scene, as the black and white protagonists are united amidst a spectacular hail of Technicolor light (this in a race-cleft Hollywood that still seems to have a problem with the miscegenation romance). Indeed, like cinema itself, Strange Days can be viewed in the positive and the negative, as it picks its way through a maze of first-world millennial fears. As such it is both a Cassandra-like storm-warning about distressed political-economic reality, and a disquieting examination of the medium used to portray it.

A range of points-of-view is scanned, the first being that of Nero’s down-at-designer-heel ex-cop currently sloping around the city hustling up an illicit trade in the latest technological booty: SQUID, an apparatus that can record audio-visual sensations ‘straight from the cortex’, allowing experiences to be mainlined from one brain to another, in the form of 30-minute ‘playback clips’ (the Superconducting Quantum Interference Device was purloined from William Gibson’s lexicon, but a similar gizmo is used in both Michael Reeves’ 1967 The Sorcerers and Douglas Trumbull’s 1983 Brainstorm – though it’s here that the idea’s potential is explored to the full). Crucially for the film’s mythology, SQUID, devised by the Feds for surveillance purposes but now out on the black market, offers opportunities for men and women to get inside one another’s skin. Unsurprisingly, though, Lenny’s clients all seem to be men; whether the sheepish husband who wants to err without tarnishing his wedding ring, or the wheelchair-bound amputee who wants the sensation of running again. Like so many dealers, Lenny himself seems to be the most hooked on his wares, replaying choice moments from his relationship with his ex-lover Faith (Juliette Lewis, perfectly cast as a flaky wannabe rock singer), losing himself in these memories and unable to see beyond the playback. (Lenny is played by Ralph Fiennes – in whose eyes one can detect a faint hint of coldness left over from Schindler’s List’s Goeth.)

In this Vertigo playback, Lenny is a latter-day Scottie who has fallen for the image, not the substance, of his own sweetly remembered Faith-Madeleine, while Angela Bassett’s sinewy, wise, tough-but-tender Mace is a new take on best friend Midge in Hitchcock’s film. Bassett played Tina Turner in the recent biopic, Tina: What’s Love Got to Do with It?; this follow-up role, part Angela Davis, part Cleopatra Jones, continues Bigelow’s line of androgynous women with Hawksian heroine-names: Blue Steel’s Megan and Point Break’s Tyler (Lori Petty, played with far more substance than she gave Tank Girl). Compared to Lenny (the ‘Teflon man who is really a goofball romantic’), Mace is a woman of extraordinary mettle, the steadying force who keeps a concerned eye on him and perspective on the disordered world all around. Importantly, she refuses to buy into the playback trip: ‘I don’t fool with that … it’s porno for wireheads.’ Which becomes particularly evident to Lenny when he finds a lethal ‘snuff’ clip depicting his and Faith’s friend Iris being brutally raped and murdered. Shot in a cold, foetid grey-green – one is reminded of the goggle-wearing Jame Gumb’s pallid view as he pursues his victims in The Silence of the Lambs – this is a flatly framed, degraded vision of murderous desire, cinema warped down to the lowest denominator. Wiring into this brutal vision, Lenny reels in pain. It is a draining, mournful moment: he and we look into Iris’ dead eyes and see reflected not just the girl’s hooded executor (who has taken her life as casually as one takes a picture), but the many dead eyes of cinema’s victims, from Janet Leigh onwards. By refusing to partake of the playback experience, it is Mace, the woman, who sees more clearly what it is all about, and with whom the moral centre of Strange Days can ultimately be found. If Mace is Bigelow’s alter ego, so is stolen-dream merchant Lenny, as the director negotiates with both the fascination and repulsion of cinema.
Lizzie Francke, Sight and Sound, December 1995

Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Production Company: Lightstorm Entertainment
Executive Producers: Rae Sanchini, Lawrence Kasanoff
Producers: James Cameron, Steven-Charles Jaffe
Co-producer: Ira Shuman
Unit Production Manager: Ira Shuman
Production Co-ordinator: Sharyn Shimada-Higgins
Production Accountant: Stevie Lazo
Location Manager: Robert Goldstein
Post-production Supervisor: David S. Grant
2nd Unit Directors: Phil Pfeiffer, Steven-Charles Jaffe
1st Assistant Director: Steve Danton
2nd Assistant Director: Albert Cho
2nd 2nd Assistant Directors: Suzanne Geiger, Sam Hoffman, Rebecca Strickland
Script Supervisor: Pamela Alch
Casting: Rick Pagano
Screenplay: James Cameron, Jay Cocks
Story: James Cameron
Director of Photography: Matthew F. Leonetti
2nd Unit Director of Photography: Phil Pfeiffer
Camera/Steadicam Operator (Main Unit): James Muro
B Camera Operator: Malcolm Brown
Chief Lighting Technician: Pat Blymyer
Key Grip: Dan Reilly
Stills Photography: Merie W. Wallace
Visual Effects Supervisor: James Lima
Visual Effects Producer: Mike Chambers
Visual Effects Editor: Shannon Leigh Olds
Special Visual Effects: Digital Domain
Underwater Miniature Effects/ Photography: Fantasy II Film Effects
Additional Visual Effects: Light Matters Inc.
Special Effects Co-ordinator: Terry Frazee
Video Graphics: Banned from the Ranch Entertainment
Graphic Design: Michael Marcus
Editor: Howard Smith
Production Designer: Lilly Kilvert
Art Director: John Warnke
Set Decorator: Kara Lindstrom
Storyboard Artist: Len Morganti
Buyer: Andrea Fenton
Property Master: Erik Nelson
Construction Co-ordinator: Walt Hadfield
Costume Design: Ellen Mirojnick
Costume Supervisor: Deborah Hopper
Make-up Supervisor: Mike Germain
Make-up Artists: Michael Blake, Deborah La Mia Denaver
Hair Design: Kathy Estocin
Hair Supervisor: Robert L. Stevenson
Hairstylists: Georgina Williams, Laura Connolly
Title Design: The Seiniger Advertising Group
Titles/Opticals: Pacific Title
Trode Design: Donald Carr
Playback Deck/Additional Trode Design: Syd Mead
Playback Deck Manufacture: Stan Winston
Trode Manufacture: Eric Allard
Colour Timer: Dan Muscarella
Music: Graeme Revell
Additional Music: Deep Forest
Music Supervisor/Producer: Randy Gerston
Music Editors: Josh Winget, Allan K. Rosen, Patty Von Arx
Sound Design: Gary Rydstrom
Boom Operators: Don Coufal, Cary Weitz
Sound Mixers: Jeff Wexler, David Ronne
Re-recording Mixers: Tom Johnson, Lora Hirschberg, Richard Beggs, Gary Rydstrom
Supervising Sound Editor: Gloria S. Borders
Negative Cutter: Gary Burritt
Dialogue Editors: Barbara McBane, Claire Sanfilippo, Clare Freeman, Sara Bolder
Sound Effects Editors: Frank Eulner, Tim Holland, Phil Benson
ADR Editors: Hugh Waddell, Marian Wilde
Foley Artists: Dennie Thorpe, Tom Barwick
Foley Recordist: Tony Eckert
Foley Editors: Mary Helen Leasman, Sandina Bailo-Lape
Stunt Co-ordinator: Doug Coleman

Ralph Fiennes (Lenny Nero)
Angela Bassett (Lornette ‘Mace’ Mason)
Juliette Lewis (Faith Justin)
Tom Sizemore (Max Peltier)
Michael Wincott (Philo Gant)
Vincent D’Onofrio (Burton Steckler)
Glenn Plummer (Jeriko One)
Brigitte Bako (Iris)
Richard Edson (Tick)
William Fichtner (Dwayne Engelman)
Josef Sommer (Palmer Strickland)
Joe Urla (Keith)
Nicky Katt (Joey Corto)
Michael Jace (Wade Beemer)
Louise Lecavelier (Cindy ‘Vita’ Minh)
David Carrera (Duncan)
Jim Ishida (Mr Fumitsu)
Todd Graff (Tex Arcana)
Malcolm Norrington (Replay)
Anaïs Munoz (Diamanda)
Ted Haler (tow-truck driver)
Rio Hackford (Bobby the bartender)
Brook Susan Parker (Cecile)
Brandon Hammond (Zander)
Donald ‘Donnie’ Young, B.J. Crockett (young Zander)
Dex Elliott Sanders (Curtis)
Ronnie Willis (homeboy)
David Packer (Lane)
Paulo Tocha (Spaz Diaz)

USA 1995
145 mins

Woman with a Movie Camera is generously supported by Jane Stanton

Missing Believed Wiped 2023
Sun 3 Dec 12:00
The Stylish World of ITC + intro by Lord Michael Grade
Sun 3 Dec 15:00
Woman with a Movie Camera: Strange Days
Tue 5 Dec 20:10; Sat 30 Dec 20:00
Members’ Festive Evening
Thu 7 Dec 18:00-20:30 BFI Foyer
Art in the Making: Imprint + Dancers
Thu 14 Dec 18:20
Silent Cinema: A Woman of Paris
Sun 17 Dec 13:30 (+ intro by Mark Fuller, Michael Powell expert); Thu 28 Dec 18:20
Film Wallahs: Mr India + Q&A with producer Mr Bonny Kapoor
Sun 17 Dec 14:30
Relaxed Screening: A Year in a Field + intro
Mon 18 Dec 18:10
Restored: Distant Thunder (Ashani Sanket) + pre-recorded intro by Sangeeta Datta (UK Premiere of 4K Restoration)
Tue 19 Dec 18:00
Member Picks: The Thin Red Line
Sat 30 Dec 19:40

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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