Strange Days (1995)
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
Written by James Cameron and Jay Cocks
Starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, Glenn Plummer, Bridget Bako, Richard Edson, and William Fichtner
145 minutes, Rated R
September. 1995. I was enrolled in classes in the Theatre Department at Parkland College. I knew that when I eventually transferred to a bigger university that I would be changing majors, but I felt at home in Parkland’s Theatre Department and had lucked into a scholarship that paid my tuition. As a requirement for keeping my scholarship, all I had to do in return was remain enrolled in Theatre Practicum and be a part in some way (be it as an actor or stage crew) of every single show that took place in the theatre. It was through such heavy involvement that I became a part of PIGs (the Parkland Improv Group), and it was through that involvement that I became friends with Ian. It was through Ian that I met Amy.
Amy looked like Madeleine Stowe. Those big, brown eyes. The button nose. The long, dark hair. She could have believably played Madeleine Stowe’s daughter in a movie. I was, at the time, quite smitten with Madeleine Stowe. I was, at the time, quite smitten with Amy.
This would have been my sophomore year in college. Michelle (a woman who would later become my first wife) was in her freshman year of college. She was, however, two and a half hours away in Valparaiso, Indiana and neither one of us had a vehicle for easy travel. We had agreed between us to date other people. She was better at it than I was. I had made attempts at dating girls, but none of them had come to fruition. There was Kim, who was insanely talented and adorable, but annoyed me. There was Rochelle, who was very hung up on a relationship that just ended. There were actually two Amys: one I fell for hard, but frightened away because of what she only referred to as “my intensity”, and then the Amy I’ve already mentioned. The one who looked like Madeleine Stowe.
Amy was still in high school. She was eighteen years old but had just begun her senior year. She and Ian had gone to high school together. She was still actively involved with his group of hometown friends. I saw her a lot. And often. I enjoyed her company immensely. She was very funny and sarcastic, but she still lived at home with her parents and they were very strict. Most of the time that I spent with her was cut short by a need to get home before her curfew. There were a few phone calls. Once, I brought lunch to her at K’s Merchandise, where she worked in the customer service department. We were not really dating, I suppose. I was almost never alone with her.
Ian’s group of friends, a large group of rowdy, rambunctious prankers, and my group of friends, which was, largely, the cast of the improv troupe had made plans to see Strange Days in the coming weeks. The weekend of October 13 had been booked solid for weeks. This was a movie that we were pretty excited about.
The film was co-written by James Cameron. Between Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and True Lies, I considered myself a pretty big fan. The film was directed by Kathryn Bigelow, a woman, to this point, who was most well-known for an independent vampire film called Near Dark, a movie that select members of this group were obsessed with and had been watched often at many a party. Most intriguing, though, was the fact that none of us knew anything about the film. The trailers were cryptic, consisting of nothing more than Ralph Fiennes (as Lenny Nero) speaking directly to the camera, peddling his wares amidst flashing lights and subliminal messages that flashed across the screen (“I am the magic man . . . Santa Claus of your subconscious.”). I had read in Entertainment Weekly that it was a cyberpunk thriller. I had also read that a special type of camera had to have been invented for many of the film’s point-of-view action scenes (but that’s film nerd information that nobody cared about but me). Then, ten days before opening day, the official soundtrack was released. This only served to get us more pumped: thirteen solid tracks of headbanging industrial, including one song performed by . . . wait for it . . . Juliette Lewis. It seemed to us that if she sounded even half as good in the movie as she did on the soundtrack, we were gonna get more than our money’s worth on opening night.
So . . . opening night. October 13. 1995. We were all set to finally see the movie that we had spent many weeks pining for. Reviews had come out that morning, and they were favorable. The combined two groups of friends had made great plans, a plan that was intended to last hours after the movie and into the wee hours of the morning. That last part there was a kicker for Amy, whose parents were not too keen on her staying out so late with a bunch of college students. They almost said she couldn’t go. But Amy promised them that she would come straight home after the movie and not participate in any after-hours festivities, so they relented. Amy came to town several hours before the movie, and she and I embarked on what would be our first, and only, date.
The film was playing at Co-Ed Cinemas, a large multi-screen complex on Green Street, right smack dab in the heart of Campustown. We decided to stay on campus to avoid too much driving and met for coffee at Espresso Royale. We had dinner at Garcia’s, took a long walk around the Quad, and perused the science-fiction section of Follett’s, the University of Illinois bookstore. We went to Acres of Books, where we perused more science-fiction (and I bought a paperback of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), and Other Realm, where I made recommendations for comic books she might enjoy. We had ice cream cones from McDonald’s and looked for a Bad Religion record that we never found at Record Swap. Mostly, we talked. We laughed at squirrels, too, but mostly, we talked. We laughed a lot, truth told. Did I already tell you how funny she was?
When the time came to head to the theatre to meet our friends, I recall that she hugged me and then kissed me on the cheek. I thought that strange at the time, simultaneously strange and promising. I almost kissed her back. Like, for real. But I didn’t want to press my luck.
The actual act of watching the film was in itself an eventful one. Our group was large enough– and the theatre was packed enough– that we wound up spread out all across the auditorium. I can’t even be now one hundred percent positive how many of us were actually there. I remember having Amy to my right, and Mikel to to my left. Jenny and Dave were behind us (I actually recall Jenny tapping me on the shoulder before the movie began, motioning to Amy as she headed toward the bathroom, and saying, “Congratulations on that, by the way!”). Doug was in front of us. Ian, Shannon, and most of his group of friends were way the hell up toward the front, so we were unaware that they had smuggled in a bottle of Wild Turkey. They finished it during the course of the movie. This is important later.
I can’t speak for anyone else, but I was completely blown away by this movie within the first five minutes. It was clear why a new camera had to be fabricated to make this film. The opening scene is one, continuous, three-minute long take that appears to be shot from inside a criminal’s head. The sequence depicts a robbery gone wrong right up until the final seconds of the heist, where the criminal falls to his death from the top of a large tenement building. It’s harrowing. Pulse pounding. Intense as hell.
That intensity doesn’t let up for most of the movie’s two-and-a-half hour runtime. What isn’t shot in these long, headache-inducing takes is cut in a frenetic MTV-like fashion. The edits are fast and furious. The sounds are larger than life. It is, for all intents and purposes, an onslaught of audio and visual. I had never seen a movie that got my adrenaline flowing so readily before.
The plot is complicated: Set in Los Angeles on the last night of 1999, Y2K paranoia is in full effect. Police are preparing themselves for the inevitable rioting when the clock strikes midnight and the end of the world begins. Central to the story is Lenny Nero, a former cop who now makes his living as a dealer of illegal “playback.”
This requires some explaining: “Playback” is a digital recording of an experience through someone else’s eyes. Recorded with a head-apparatus (called a Super-conducting Quantum Interference Device, or “SQUID”) that connects directly to the cerebral cortex and records everything that the user sees. Given its connection to the brain, it also records the emotions that the user feels as well. Addicts of playback– and they are legion– are, essentially, getting high on the sensation of what was recorded by the SQUID. To that end, you can get high on the adrenaline of a bank heist. You can experience a threesome. You could even, in theory– by watching rare clips known as “blackjack”– know what it feels like to die.
Okay. Back to the plot: Lenny is a playback dealer, but he is also a playback addict, strung out on memories that he recorded with his ex-girlfriend, the up-and-coming rockstar, Faith (played by Juliette Lewis). Lenny is secretly delivered a “blackjack” clip that shows the brutal assault and murder of his friend, Iris (played by Brigitte Bako). While investigating the identity of who recorded this clip, Lenny accidentally uncovers a vast conspiracy to cover up some dirty dealings by the L.A.P.D in regards to the execution-style death of hip-hop artist, Jeriko One (played by Glenn Plummer). The officers involved in this incident (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) are now on the manhunt to find Lenny and kill him before he can divulge what he has seen through Iris’s eyes. Lenny is aided in his attempts to flee by his former partner, Max (played by Tom Sizemore), and Mace (played by Angela Bassett), a hired driver who has taken it upon herself to be Lenny’s bodyguard. Add into this mix music producer Philo Gant (played by Michael Wincott), whose paranoia and own addiction to playback is the direct cause of all the depicted societal discord, and you have one of the most gut-punching cyberpunk thrillers that I think I have maybe ever seen.
It is, however, a difficult film to watch. Not only because of its need for a heavy dosage of Dramamine before viewing, but because there is one sequence that stands as one of the single-most disturbing acts of sexual assault that I have ever seen committed to film. As I mentioned before, one of the major plot points is the murder and assault of Iris, and we see this murder and assault in all its terrifying detail. In fact, we see it all in one excruciating take as Lenny experiences the assault on playback. It’s terrifying, difficult to watch, and it didn’t sit very well with Amy.
Up to this point, Amy seemed to be enjoying herself. She had even taking hold of my hand at some point during the first fifteen minutes or so. At some point, she was using a finger from her right hand to lightly and delicately stroke my right wrist. The above-mentioned sequence started, though, and Amy went stiff. I could feel her hand go tense in mine. Then, it went limp. A few minutes later, Amy was up and out of her seat, squeezing past the legs of a horrified crowd as she excused herself to the lobby. She remained gone long enough that I began to worry about her, thinking that maybe I should go and check on her, but, after what seemed an interminable amount of time, she returned. She had clearly been crying. She had a bucket of popcorn. She offered some to me, and we shared it. But she didn’t take my hand after that.
In those moments that she was gone, my thinking became very self-centered. I was embarrassed. I had asked this girl to come with me to see this film. I had almost begged her to be my “date” and then I subjected her to a sequence that was clearly traumatizing to her. I began to worry that Amy might think that I had intentionally invited her to view such carnage. I was worried that Amy might think that I was not bothered by the gruesome footage and I became preoccupied with making sure she understood that I had no prior knowledge of the major plot points of this film. I mean, I realized that we couldn’t talk about it during the film, but her newly-waged indifference to me was concerning. I asked her if she all right. I told her that I almost came to check on her. She flashed a dimpled smile in my direction, kind of chuckled, and shrugged. I told her that we could go if she wanted, take a walk until the film was over. She kissed me on the side of the face for the second time that night and assured me that she was okay. After a pause, she said, “I like Mace” and directed my attention to an extended sequence where Angela Bassett is trapped underwater in a burning limousine. Like I said, she never took my hand after that.
Amy’s assessment of Mace was spot-on. I really like her, too, and believe wholeheartedly, after umpteen viewings of this movie, that her character is the soul of this movie. It becomes clear as the movie progresses that her desire to protect Lenny is not born of duty, but out of love. Angela Bassett is inspired casting in this role, and, as an actress, she manages to hit this point home without ever once saying that she loves Lenny out loud. It’s all facial expressions: loving glances when he is broken, exasperation when he screws everything up (“Don’t just be usin’ the time that I’m talkin’ to be thinkin’ ’bout what you gonna say next.”). As an actress, she is a favorite of mine, and it might be because of her role in this film. Another harrowing sequence depicts her making the commitment to watch playback for the first time, a necessity if she intends to understand why Lenny is so hellbent on pursuing this cause. We do not see the video as she watches it, but we know what it contains. We see her expressions change, her body go limp, as the illegal clip invades her brain, and we, finally, see her resignation to help him. All of this done without a word.
By the film’s climax, an extended scene at a street party to celebrate the possible end of the world, I began to notice that Amy was frequently checking her watch. It’s at this moment of the film, when all of the myriad loose threads are being knotted and tied, that one does begin to notice that, perhaps, the movie is overlong. In typical James Cameron fashion, it just seems to keep going and going and going, one false ending after another. I did not, of course, know if this cinematic tedium was the cause of Amy’s impatience, or if it was just a flat-out need to end this evening and go home before anyone else was subjected to more discomfort.
I wanted to talk to her after the movie, get to the bottom of just what exactly had happened that made her become emotionless and cold. More selfishness on my part, because I should have understood. I did not get a chance to talk to her about much of anything, though, because, as the credits rolled and the audience filed out of the theatre, we all got sidetracked by Ian, who, as previously mentioned, had finished an entire bottle of Wild Turkey during this frenetic, hyper-cut film. The onslaught of sights and sound coupled with the zoom rush zoom of the crowd as they exited the auditorium was too much for our drunk friend. Discomfort about talking to Amy became a need to get Ian quickly and unmarred to the restroom (which, at the Co-Ed, was in the basement), where several people allowed Ian to cut ahead of the line so that he could purge the contents of his stomach into the garbage can and into the sink. He threw up outside as well, right off the curb into Green Street as late-night traffic careened by.
Once we got Ian upright, he was wanting to go to La Bamba and get a burrito as big as his head. It was universally agreed that Ian probably ought to call it a night. Amy, who wasn’t planning to stay out after the movie anyway, volunteered to take him home. I volunteered to help her get Ian to her car. With Ian a limp bag of straw between us, we took our time getting back to the car. We didn’t say much to each other, mostly laughing at Ian and telling him to put a sock in it whenever he suggested that he might be sober enough to go get some food. Back at her car, there was a lot of awkwardness. Should we hug? Shake hands? Make arrangements for another night? The most I got from her was a “We’ll see” when I suggested that we go do something together next weekend. She smiled that dimpled smile again and waved as she backed out of her parking space. I saw Amy with the group a few times after that, but we were never alone in the same space again.
I found out several months later, from the good offices of a mutual friend, what readers have probably by now suspected. Amy was so bothered by the depiction of assault because she, too, had been the victim of assault a few months prior. The assault was enacted by a former boyfriend. It has, to date, gone, as far as I know, unreported. It seems that the midst of a date that is going well is a terrible, terrible time to be reminded that the last man you let yourself get close to turned out to be a piece of shit.
I think about that night a lot. Over the years, my memory of that evening has forced me to consider something unpleasant about myself. Why was I less worried about Amy and why she was so upset than I was about the possibility that she was upset with me? In that moment, I was more concerned that Amy might think differently of me now than I was that she might be second-guessing what I was thinking of her because of something terrible that she, more than likely, blamed on herself. It strikes me as narcissistic behavior, if even only mildly. I would have liked the chance to prove the opposite were true.
I recommend this movie to others quite often. It really is one of the best cyberpunk thrillers I have ever seen, even if it’s focus on Y2K paranoia became outdated one-and-a-half minutes after the ball dropped for the beginning of the year 2000. It’s tense and scary, suspenseful and adrenaline-rushing. Well-acted and a technical marvel. But I always feel it appropriate to warn people ahead of time that the film contains this traumatizing sequence. You just never know who has a score to be settled with that sort of thing.
I imagine if I had known what I know now then, I might not have gone that weekend to see the film at all. Maybe Amy and I could have gone to do something else. Maybe our friendship would not have ended so abruptly, and we might have, in time, become close enough that she might have trusted me with this bit of her personal history. It would have been better, I think, to spend the rest of our time being cautious about the sorts of movies we watched together than to have never felt that one finger delicately stroking my wrist again. Yes, that’s selfish.