Stranded in the Jungle--13

Strange Days

PLAYBACK. "This is not like TV, only better. This is life. It's a piece of somebody's life. It's pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex." Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is explaining what it means to be wired. The technology is called SQUID: superconducting quantum interference device. It's a kind of tape player, plugged directly into the brain. It records and plays back actual lived experience. Such is the premise of Kathryn Bigelow's 1995 film Strange Days. Being wired is like being in someone else's body. You see exactly what they see, feel exactly what they feel. You can have hot sex, without the risk of AIDS. You can get the thrill of pulling an armed robbery, without so much as leaving your chair. Bigelow presents SQUID playbacks as first-person shots. Events unfold in real time, in a single take, from a single point of view. These sequences are more tactile than visual. The subjective camera doesn't just look at a scene. It moves actively through space. It gets jostled, it stops and starts, it pans and tilts, it lurches forward and back. It follows the rhythms of the whole body, not just that of the eyes. Bigelow omits the reverse shots that usually anchor film narrative. Except in the mirror, we never see the person through whose eyes we are looking. He or she is so close, the intimacy is so extreme, that all sense of self is lost. It could be anyone. Any experience can be exchanged for any other. Instead of having reverse shots, the SQUID sequences are intercut with reaction shots of whoever plays them back. Usually it's Lenny. He sits with a metal mesh fit over his skull. His eyes are closed. His face is strained in ecstasy or horror. His arms flail about, as he mimes the action in empty air. It's an uncanny sight. The passion is real, but it has been divorced from any context. The non-SQUID portions of the film have a very different style. The camera weaves through a crush of traffic and crowds. Its movements are fluid, dreamlike, and nearly disembodied. Nighttime Los Angeles glimmers in subtle gradations of light. The city is a battleground. Cops stand by in riot gear. Tanks sit on street corners. Surveillance helicopters buzz overhead. Fires burn in garbage cans. Teenagers throw rocks at the cops, or smash the windows of cars. Some drag queens mug a Santa Claus, as the camera glides by in a long tracking shot. Visual clutter is everywhere. The Retinal Fetish nightclub is a three-dimensional maze of stages, catwalks, multi-level dance floors, alcoves, corridors, and pulsating lights. The New Year's Eve celebration that closes the film is packed with crowds, confetti, and fireworks. Huge video screens magnify the scenes in front of them. Objects of the most varied sizes and scales co-exist in the widescreen frame. Heads are posed, in close-up, against a swirling background of street life and neon lights. Claustrophobic views from ground level alternate with extreme long shots from above. The camera floats free of any personal viewpoint. Instead, it explores the nooks and crannies of social space. Its restless movements and unexpected cuts trace the invisible workings of power. Its images express the rage of crowds, the tensions of class and racial conflict, the dynamics of police control. The public scenes extend anonymously beyond the self, even as the SQUID sequences stop anonymously before it. Plot and character only exist at the point where these two regimes meet. The film is both a love story and a political thriller. Lenny is the center of a triangle. He still yearns after his one-time lover, the punk singer Faith (Juliette Lewis), even though she wants him out of her life. In turn, Mace (Angela Bassett) pines after Lenny. She comes when he calls, and gets him out of one jam after another. But Lenny refuses Mace's love, just as Faith refuses his. At the same time, Jeriko-One (Glenn Plummer), a rapper and black political activist, is murdered by racist cops. The two plot strands converge when Lenny gets hold of a SQUID tape that reveals the identity of Jeriko-One's killers. The personal and the political are inescapably intertwined. When Lenny kisses Mace, at the very end of the film, he finally accepts the love that she has offered him all along. But the poignancy of this kiss also comes from the fact that Mace is black, and Lenny is white. Miscegenation is the only hope the film has to offer. We get a happy ending, on the personal level at least. But we also know how fragile that personal level is. The camera lingers, for a long moment, on the kiss. Lenny and Mace share the screen in close-up. Then there's a cut, to a long shot from above. For a moment we can still make them out amidst the crowd. But the camera pans upward, and they are lost in the anonymous distance.

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