Through the Looking Glass

"The entire life of societies in which modern conditions of production prevail, heralds itself as an immense accumulation of SPECTACLES. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." So began Guy Debord's 1973 anti-film film Society of the Spectacle, made from his book of the same title, about how late capitalism has turned us into alienated, scopophiliac consumers. Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days concerns a new, creepily intimate cinematic spectacle called SQUID, and takes place during the penultimate extravaganza that is Los Angeles on New Year's Eve, 1999: It's about as keyed into to Debord's worldview as any modern Hollywood film could be.

Debord and Bigelow both made films while they were part of avant-garde circles--he as a leader of the French Situationists, she while hanging with the conceptual art crowd in 1970s New York. But the Situationist International fell apart, Debord eventually banned all his films from screening, and he became a crank: In 1991 he was still threatening (now via classified ads in literary newspapers) to "expose the modernization of the society of the 'integrated spectacle.'" That same year, Bigelow--by now a Hollywood player--began work on Strange Days, produced and co-written by James (Terminator, True Lies) Cameron. It's an integrated spectacle if there ever was one, but rather than exposing our complicity in the society of the spectacle--after all, what's left to expose?--it probes and exploits it. It assumes a certain level of mass depravity right from the start, intensified by its masquerade as a sci-fi thriller set just four years from now.

Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) is a former cop turned aimless hustler, trading in SQUID: black market recordings of human experiences downloaded directly from the cerebral cortex onto "clips," a type of mini-disc. When someone plays back the clip on a special deck, he or she becomes the person who recorded the clip: that streetwalker, that bank robber, that 18-year-old caressing herself in the shower. At first it's hard to believe that the government would ban such a technology, but considering how it would decimate the movie industry, maybe it's not so implausible.

Still obsessed with his former lover, aspiring rock star Faith (Juliette Lewis), Lenny himself has a playback addiction to a shoebox-full of sexy but innocuous clips he made while they were together. While spying on Faith at a nightclub, he's anonymously given a particularly twisted "blackjack clip," the equivalent of a snuff film. In it, the killer jacks his victim into his deck so that she sees and feels herself being raped and strangled through his experience of it. Afterward he lingers, opening her lifeless eyes and framing his final shot, director-style, with his hands. The murdered girl is a prostitute who made clips for Lenny for extra cash, and when he receives another anonymous clip--this one from the viewpoint of an intruder in Lenny's own apartment, threatening to slit his throat while Lenny sleeps--he realizes he's stumbled into a conspiracy.

With its various multilayered scenarios, Strange Days joins the canon of self-reflexive dramas including Rear Window, Blow Up, and Body Double. It leads us into a hall of mirrors (and mirrors do figure prominently in the film), then picks apart what's behind our stares: Watching the clips, we become complicit in whatever atrocity goes down. But because this is film, Bigelow can (and does) snap us out of a playback at will, presenting us with another kind of queasy eroticism: the fluttering eyes, soft gasps, and quivers of whichever film character is jacked into a clip. Who is, of course, merely a heightened reflection of ourselves as watchers.

For all its sexy and sickening thrills, what's perhaps more important is the way Strange Days gently insists on undermining our cinematic desires and expectations. As in her other genre-bending, gender-subverting films (Point Break, Blue Steel, Near Dark), Bigelow confounds popular ideas about movie heroes: Lenny, who should be the prime candidate, is a whining, pudgy, greasy-haired wimp who exploits his friends and has bad fashion sense to boot; he's about as unappealing as the comely Fiennes can make him. The film's public hero, rap star/prophet/statesman Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer), has been executed; we know him only through TV footage and the "genuine" memories of other characters--as well as a clip of his final moments, which shows him enjoying the company of a pair of white whores.

So it is that Lenny's friend Mace (Angela Bassett), a chauffeur/bodyguard and struggling single black mom, becomes the film's truly heroic figure. As dignified as she is alluring, she coolly kicks butt all over the place; one of the film's most exhilarating, politically charged spectacles shows her manhandling two white male cops before a throng of onlookers. Moreover, given the means to provoke the riot of the millenium, she's saddled with the film's most crucial moral decision.

Like Aldous Huxley's "feelies," William Gibson's "stims," and more recently, the stuff of Jeff Noon's novel Vurt, Strange Days's SQUID is the emblem of a world where humans have little use beyond their ability to consume spectacle, which stokes and then sates our desires to keep us docile. But what is one to make of this captivating, complex, big-budget spectacle about spectacle? For all its glamour (not to mention an unabashedly sappy ending), the movie does condemn the characters who are "playback junkies" to a brain-fried purgatory; it's a rather strong suggestion that we, as a nation of ever more brutish and benumbed watchers, are undergoing a similarily insidious psychic implosion. "Spectators do not find what they desire: they desire what they find," wrote Debord, who killed himself last year. So, short of suicide, what's to do--stop watching? That's about as likely as witnessing the Rapture in the year 2000.

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