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, Glenn Plummer, William Fichtner, and Vincent D’Onofrio
145 minutes, Rated R
Readers of this entry should be warned that it contains numerous mentions of sexual assault. Minor details of the memories depicted have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved.
In early September of 1995, I carried a potential new girlfriend in piggy-back fashion on an illegal midnight hike through a county forest preserve near the town in which we lived. This piggy-back ride, an act that was just as much an endeavor of kindness as it was an act of playful flirtation, cemented for good and all a crush on her that I had been trying to ignore for the months prior. Regardless of what my true intentions may have been, as we trekked through the darkened woods with our friends, all trying to be as quiet as we could be so as not to attract unwanted attention to our trespassing, I carried her on my back. Her soft voice was in my left ear whenever she whispered a quip or comment. I could feel the weight of her legs around my waist, the ups and down of her inhalations and exhalations on my shoulders, the pressure of her hand on my chest whenever our path got bumpy. I couldn’t see her, but I felt directly responsible for her, and I didn’t care one iota if this rarely-trodden path through the forest never ended. She felt lighter than air. Truth told, so did I.
In early October of 1995, this same girl and I attended the premiere of Strange Days with a large group of mutual friends. Amongst said motley crew, that night would forever live in hilarious infamy as the night that Adam got hammered on half a bottle of smuggled-in Wild Turkey and had to be physically-aided out of a crowded movie theatre as surreptitiously as possible, lest the management surmise that our underage companion was too intoxicated to maintain proper usage of his lower appendages and call the police. For me, as amusing as the machinations to hide the condition of our inebriated friend were, even as often as I have shared that particular anecdote at gatherings, that evening remained a pockmark in my memory for a good, long time to come because it was also the night the girl I keep mentioning ended our evening by kissing me for the first and only time before she broke up with me via a sob-addled and incoherent monologue that I spent the next several weeks attempting, with no luck, to decipher.
In August of 2022, this same girl– from here on out, I will refer to her as B– ran into each other randomly at Barnes & Noble. At first, I didn’t recognize her as someone from my past. She was just someone that I was aware of in my periphery. It wasn’t until I got a second or third look in her direction that I realized who it was. Even then, it didn’t quite register exactly who was standing there. She looked a bit different than the last time I saw her. She had put on some weight, her face a little fuller, her shoulders a little broader. She wore glasses now. She smiled, though, once eye contact was established, and that familiar dimple on her right cheek made its presence known. There was no mistaking exactly who this was standing fifteen feet from me. I said her name, adding an unspoken question mark to my inflection. She said mine and then gave me a hug.
We spent about an hour or so together that day, enjoying a cup of Starbucks coffee in the cafe as we chatted and caught up on each other’s lives. We talked a bit about the books we had been reading and both expressed joy that Cormac McCarthy would be publishing two new books before the end of the year. She commented that she always, over the years, thought that it would please me to know that the biggest legacy I left to her after our break-up was the authors she enjoyed. I had introduced her to a veritable hodge-podge of different genres and writers, a treasure trove of works she still relied on for escape. Then, apropos of nothing, she apologized to me for the confusing manner in which she had abruptly ended our relationship almost twenty-seven years ago. I assured her that no apology was necessary as she began to explain exactly what happened that night in October of 1995, but she really felt compelled to get something off of her chest, so I remained quiet and just let her speak. Her explanation for that long-forgotten heartbreak actually went back to well before she had met me. A full year, in fact, to the summer of 1994. A summer that she still considers the worst summer of her entire life.
She started like this: “It never occurred to you that I had turned eighteen before my senior year, did it?”
It is important, I think, at this point, to fill in some details about my relationship with B. At the time, I was a sophomore in college, enrolled at our local community college in their theatre program. I was residing in a room in the basement of my former scoutmaster; cheap rent in exchange for household chores and assistance with his three children while his wife worked on her Master’s degree. I was employed as a customer service representative at Blockbuster Video.
A large portion of the students enrolled in the theatre program that year were incoming Freshmen from one of the nearby towns. They had all graduated together and were a tight-knit group of friends. We worked together a lot, though, on various theatre projects and shared communal space in the C-wing lounges. True friendships began to form between me and some of the members of their group. On the outskirts of this new group of friends was B. She was also a student from the same small town and very interested in theatre, but she, though eighteen, had not graduated from high school yet. This, largely, meant that we really only saw each other in passing for our first few meetings, a chance encounter at a party or a memorable conversation at a gathering. I had a crush on her right away. A massive one. For starters, she was attractive– I still contend that she resembled a much-younger Madeleine Stowe– but seemed completely oblivious to this fact, a character trait that really only served to make her more pretty. More importantly, though: she had a quick sarcastic wit, an intense interest in old-school science-fiction and horror, worshipped the band Goo Goo Dolls, and could whip my ass at Backgammon.
As I said, though, she was still in high school. This meant that she lived with her parents and wasn’t always allowed to attend when we all got together on weekends for movies or board games. Any plans we might have had that called-for traveling were usually forbidden. I was nineteen, struggling to juggle academics with real-world responsibility, and very confused as to where I stood with Michelle, my girlfriend who had recently moved to Valparaiso, Indiana to attend her first year of college. For the longest while, I allowed my crush on B to be fleeting and unspoken, but another female in our group mentioned– almost in passing– that B had asked if I was going to be there before accepting an invitation to some event or another. I didn’t know for a certainty that this meant that B was interested in me as well, but it sure seemed like a possibility. From then on out, it became more and more difficult for me to hide that I was enamored with her. I actively sought her out for conversation when we found ourselves at the same events. Soon, we had exchanged phone numbers and would often talk on the phone late into the night while we both had the same movie playing on our respective bedroom televisions. After about two weeks of that, she joked at a birthday party that she wasn’t wearing appropriate footwear for an illicit midnight hike and I decided that I wanted her to officially be my girlfriend as she rode on my back.
Where was I? Oh, yes. Barnes & Noble. Overpriced coffee. Last August. It never occurred to you that I had turned eighteen before my senior year, did it? I had to concede that it had not. I mean, it was a little bit weird that the object of my desire was still in high school, but instead of finding it odd that she had become a legal adult before beginning her final year of schooling, I used it as a justification for continuing to pursue her. She was only one year younger than me. I’m not a creep for crushing on a high school girl if the high school girl is eighteen, right?
“No,” she reassured me. “You were never a creep. You were always a perfect gentleman. That’s what I liked about you.”
“In my mind, I think I rationalized it because we weren’t really dating,” I explained. “You weren’t my girlfriend. It was just pleasant to spend time with you and hope that it eventually might lead somewhere.”
“Oh, I think we both wanted it to lead somewhere,” she laughed. “And I thought that I had, at the time, made that abundantly clear . . .”
She had made that clear. On the same night of the piggy-back ride, in fact. The night that my crush became a full-on case of the smittens. I hadn’t fallen in love with her yet, but I wanted to.
At the end of that September evening, or, rather, early on that September morning, she gave me a ride home back to Champaign. It was on this journey in her car that she first asked serious questions about my girlfriend. It wasn’t an intense interrogation, by any means, but she was also not terribly subtle in her curious ponderings about where I stood with a girlfriend that was rarely mentioned, had never been seen, and didn’t seem to take up too much legitimate space in the gravitational pull of my day-to-day life. I had no real answers for her, but was as honest with her as I could be. Basically: Michelle and I had agreed to a long-distance relationship, but our communications had almost immediately become fewer and further between. We sat in her car in my driveway for what now seems like an interminable amount of time dissecting this information. What does it mean when your girlfriend stops calling you to catch you up on her day? What does it mean when she never seems upset that you haven’t bothered to call her to catch her up on yours? Is it appropriate to discuss with the (apparently, less-than-) significant other your intentions before you start dating and seeing someone new? Would they even notice if you didn’t?
“. . . but the fact that I had, I felt, made it clear and you didn’t take that information and barrel me over with it was just another reason to like you,” she continued. “It was one more item in a ‘pros’ list that was getting increasingly longer and longer.”
At this point, she paused. Actually, it was more of a hesitation. She knew what she wanted to say, but she needed a moment to formulate those words into passable sentences that could be linked into a coherent paragraph. She adjusted the top book in a small stack of paperbacks she was planning to purchase– a trade of Talk Talk by T. C. Boyle, a novel that I had recommended that very day. She took a sip of her coffee. Finally, she said, “There was only one ‘con’ on the list, and it had nothing to do with you.”
I noticed a tear beginning to form in her eye, and I reminded her that she was under no obligation to continue talking about whatever was on her mind. “I have no hard feelings about the end of our relationship,” I said. “It’s almost thirty years worth of water under the bridge to me.”
“I appreciate that,” she said, “but I feel you are owed an explanation.” Another pause, a hand wiping that lone tear from her eye, a second adjustment of the unaligned novel. “That one ‘con’ didn’t outweigh the ‘pros’. No matter how many of the latter there were. And that movie really fucked me up.”
The movie? I was confused for the briefest of seconds. I’m no dummy, though, and it didn’t take long to figure it out.
The movie we had viewed on the night she broke it off.
She was talking about Strange Days.
Strange Days is a 1995 cyber-punk thriller about end-of-the-millennium Y2K paranoia. I don’t recall how the movie ended up on our radar, but we had been anticipating it for months. All of us in our group had been fairly intrigued by it. At least, we were intrigued by the small amount of information we had been able to glean about the film. The trailers that we had seen really amounted to little more than a teaser. They showed no footage of the actual film. They said nothing whatsoever about what the film was actually about, but it was still a mesmerizing minute and a half of celluloid. In the teaser, the film’s hero (?) sits and addresses the camera directly. His words are a cryptic sales pitch for a product that goes unexplained (It’s not like “TV, only better” . . . It’s life, pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex . . . Are you beginning to see the possibilities here?) accentuated by random words from his speech flashing almost subliminally across the screen. The only other info in the teaser: directed by Kathryn Bigelow, written by James Cameron, and starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, and Juliette Lewis. Also, there was loud industrial music by P. J. Harvey. Not much to go on, to be sure, but enough to fascinate. At the time, James Cameron alone would have been enough to draw me into a movie theatre. I think this is a vastly underrated movie that would hold general interest for regular readers that enjoy thought-provoking science-fiction and deftly-executed action. It is of special interest, I believe, to filmgoers that appreciate innovative technical design– the camera systems used to film the POV “playback” sequences were invented for this film and used here for the first time. With that said, it is also a difficult film to recommend without a trigger warning for troublesome content. I assure you that there is so much more to this very impactful piece of cinema than a graphic act of brutal sexual assault, but I have to describe the film to you to make you believe that. For the longest time, the aforementioned sequence of sexual violence was the only thing I could think about when this movie came to mind, and I am well aware that “explicit rape” is not a selling point when trying to convince others to give Strange Days a try.
I have already mentioned that Strange Days is, at its core, an over-the-top meditation on Y2K paranoia, and that really is the simplest way to describe it. The entire film takes place on December 31, 1999 and every character inhabiting this imaginative cyberpunk vision of Los Angeles is anxious about the possibility that the world will, in fact, come to an end when midnight rolls around. Ralph Fiennes stars as Lenny Nero. He used to be a police officer, but he lost his job after it was discovered that he was addicted to “playback”, a digital drug that allows users to get high on other people’s memories. It works like this: using a piece of technology called a SQUIB (Superconducting Quantum Interfering Device), one can record everything they witness onto a disc. Other people play those discs on their own devices and relive the experience. They can feel the adrenaline rush of a bank robbery. They can participate in threesomes. They can live briefly in the shoes of their idols. It’s an addicting drug. As the film unfolds, we learn that not only is Lenny addicted to “playback”, but he makes a better-than-decent living acting as a middle man between the people who record the clips and the people who abuse them. On the night that our narrative takes place, Lenny comes into contact with two separate discs. One of those discs convinces him that his former lover Faith (played by an utterly stellar Juliette Lewis) is in danger. The other poses a threat to the integrity of the L.A.P.D. and two of its most rotten apples (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner) will stop at nothing to 1) get it back and 2) make sure that everyone who views it will be dead before word of its contents goes public. Protecting Lenny from a mess that he has, quite frankly, brought on himself thanks to his poor life choices is Mace (played by Angela Bassett), a professional bodyguard and limo driver.
Eventually, the film reveals exactly what is on the second disc. The societal implications of this surreptitious recording are what make this story so relevant to today’s audiences. This is, obviously, not an easy task for a film that dates itself right out of the gate purely by being so incredibly down-to-the-absolute-second specific with its time and place. After all, everyone watching this film knows that the world didn’t end at 12:01 am on January 1, 2000. It’s a difficult premise to build suspense with, but Strange Days manages it, weaving multiple germane societal questions into its tapestry (racism, misogyny, a national dynamic that enforces and upholds both). Wisely, the screenplay holds off on revealing exactly what is depicted on that second disc until the third act, allowing the importance of its message to not become too heavy-handed. It’s really the first disc, though, and its hard-to-watch contents, revealed in the first hour, that sets the tone for the larger theme of the story’s structure: technology– and our dependence on it– is taking our humanity. That message is lost on a first viewing due to the sheer stomach-churning brutality of the graphic rape and murder that enfolds before us. It’s horrifying and intentionally uncomfortable, made all the more harrowing by the fact that the assailant uses the film’s main technology (the aforementioned SQUIB) as a means to make his savage crime all the more terrifying for his victim. It is a difficult scene to come to terms with, especially given that the director of this film is female, but I do believe the film as a whole would lose some of its urgency and impact without it.
I believe that the film loses some of its impact without that scene. In retrospect. After repeat viewings. I certainly didn’t feel that way about it on opening night, and within seconds of the scene rearing its ugly head, it was painfully evident that my date for the evening did not either. Let me tell you, her visible discomfort was instant. A moment prior, she had been sort of slouched down in her seat, leaned in a bit toward me, but as soon as Iris runs from the room and it becomes clear what her invisible stalker has in mind for his victim, she stiffened and went rigid. I thought for a moment that she was going to spring out of her seat and make a run for it.
“Are you okay?” I asked her. She said that she was. “Do you want to go?” I queried. She confirmed that she did not. A few minutes passed, though, before she actually did decide to get up and excuse herself for a moment, assuring me that she would be back before long. When she returned, she appeared to have possibly been crying. She also seemed to be very ill at ease with me. At one point, I placed a hand on her knee and she withdrew, widening the physical gap between us in a way that was obviously intentional. I decided that it was probably best for me to leave her be. This turned out to be the smart move: by the end of the movie, she had become more comfortable and had nestled in next to me again, her head on my shoulder, her left hand on the inside of my lower thigh. The important distinction– and it was obvious to me even at the time– is that she was touching me instead of me touching her.
I mentioned at the beginning of this entry that opening night of Strange Days would eventually become famous amongst this group of friends for a reason wholly unrelated to the film and anything that might have transpired between her and I during its two-and-a-half-hour running time, and that reason turned out to be a better-than-good distraction from the unexplained discomfort that she was experiencing. Our friend, Adam, had purchased a large Coke with no ice and mixed it with a partial bottle of Wild Turkey that he had smuggled into the theatre. He and our friend Shannon shared it, getting refills on the Coke as needed. Keep in mind that this is a rather long movie. They had more than enough time to polish off what was left of that bottle. It’s also, visually, a very quick movie, filmed in the oft-scoffed MTV style. Comprised mostly of quick jump cuts, the movie looks and feels like an intense music video. The sections of the film that are not edited in this fashion are extended POV shots, done in one take, that might require a good dose of Dramamine beforehand for a viewer prone to car sickness. Not the best cinematic option for a guy getting slowly wasted.
The mechanics of escaping a very-crowded movie theatre without anyone realizing that our underage companion was too intoxicated to stand upright on his own would, in actuality, be sufficient to have made my first viewing of this movie memorable enough to write about. The whole process, from beginning to end, could really be enough fodder for an enjoyable entry on its own. I won’t distract from the point, though, by recounting them. Suffice it to say that it was a much-needed diversion from what was really on my mind. I am, in fact, grateful for Adam’s stupidity that night. It gave us a reason to laugh. It gave us something that we could talk about if the events of this evening were to ever come up again, an ointment to act as salve on wounds that were clearly reopened for her that night, even if I didn’t quite yet understand what they were. I just didn’t realize at the time that it would be almost twenty-seven years before it would ever come up again.
Twenty-seven years later. Barnes & Noble. Starbucks. A stack of tomes that B keeps adjusting and readjusting, wanting to talk to me, but unable to look me directly in the eye. “I could tell you were uncomfortable,” I told her. “I thought you were mad at me, like you thought I knew this movie had such a graphic scene and that I dragged you to it anyway. I thought for a long time that you thought I liked watching that sort of thing and that was, ultimately, why you broke up with me. Like, you were punishing me for turning out to not be the nice guy you thought I was. Like, you thought I was some sort of sadist who got off on sexual violence.” I am ashamed to admit that I really did believe this at the time. Selfishly. At the time, I believed that everything I touched would turn to shit and her rejection of me could only be explained by the irrational thought that the demise of our relationship was my fault and my fault alone.
“I did break up with you because of the movie, but not for the reasons you were thinking.”
And then she told me a horror story.
The story of B and I truly begins in September of 1995, but the story of B begins in June of 1994. I turned eighteen that month, and, like I said already, I hadn’t met her yet, nor did I have any idea that she was forecast anywhere in my future.
“I was eighteen through my senior year because I was supposed to graduate in 1995. I didn’t graduate until 1996 because I took a year off. I avoided school during my senior year because my mother and I were constantly traveling back and forth that year to Florida.” B states this to me as a series of matter-of-fact statements. Quickly. Just rattles them off, as if I can fill in the blanks between statements on my own. I can’t, but I let her talk. Her tone and delivery, no-eye contact demeanor, doesn’t change in the slightest as she continues. A long string of phrases that must have hurt like hell to recount, the most horrifying run-on sentence to have ever been uttered in my presence. Pretty much in one vast exhale, as if she knew she’d stop talking and never get it out if she stopped to take a breath: “We had to travel back and forth to Florida so that I could look at mugshots or help with sketches and pull people out of line-ups and eventually appear as a witness in a month-long trial because I was raped on the beach while on family vacation by a stranger who possibly might have killed me had a person walking their dog not happened to wander by.”
It was then that she inhaled. Several deep breaths. Her, I said. Not me. I had stopped breathing right around the time she said “mugshots” because I knew somehow just where her monologue was ending.
There was a long pause. Another tear in her eye, but she didn’t wipe this one away. She made eye contact with me, which made it safe for me to breathe again. I didn’t know what to say. She filled the silence for me, though. “He was a serial rapist. Seven women and we all had to appear in court. He was convicted. He raped me and he stabbed me. I lost my virginity to him.”
I still had no idea what to say. I said that I was sorry that this had happened to her, but that didn’t feel good enough.
Eventually, she spoke again. “Do you remember the night that you carried me on your back through Middlefork?”
I said that I did. “That’s the night I really fell for you,” I admitted.
“I really fell for you that night as well. And I decided that night that I might be ready to throw myself back out there and trust someone of the opposite sex again. . . I really liked you. You were always so gentle and kind and sincere. You never really tried to make a move on me beyond a hug or holding my hand. I decided that night that, if I was gonna do this, it was going to be with you. And then we saw that fucking movie and I had a painful visceral reaction to it. I knew I was making a mistake. I spent the rest of the night trying to convince myself that I was ready. That I deserved you. That you deserved me. You were the guy, after all, that carried me out of the woods for no other reason than that I asked you to. . . And I kept coming back to that: you carried me out of the woods. . . Well, I was not out of the woods yet; the movie proved that. I was going to need a lot of carrying. I could not expect anyone, even if it were you, to take on a burden that I wasn’t ready to haul myself.”
Understand that I am paraphrasing what she said. I can’t recall verbatim the words that came out of her mouth. It should be noted, however, that she has read this entry and approved it for public consumption, so I’m not too far off base.
“You kissed me that night,” I said. “Before you left. For the first time.”
She blushed, and then laughed a little. “That was my last-ditch effort to convince myself that I was making a mistake in walking away. I kissed you because I had been wanting to for a while, but I was scared to, for obvious reasons. And you hadn’t kissed me yet, which only, in my head, added credence to all the reasons I thought that I could probably trust you to not turn out to be a scumbag who was just trying to add another pretty girl he banged to his list of conquests. I just kept going back and forth in my head, and, eventually, I kissed you because I wanted to and I knew that I could without you expecting anything more from me. Ultimately, though, it wasn’t enough.”
We sat in silence for a long while. I think during that extended silence that I might have adjusted the books in the stack. I thought back to those days and realized that this was the reason that her parents were so strict about where she went and who she went with and how long she stayed away, despite her being eighteen and of legal age. I remembered actually going out to her parent’s farm once– on a Saturday after the night in the woods– and playing with her dog. I met her parents that day, and I later resented later how overtly critical they seemed to be of me. They weren’t rude to me, of course. They didn’t say anything untoward. But they never, from the moment I arrived until the moment I departed, took their eyes off of me. I can recall her mother watching us through the kitchen window as we threw a tennis ball for her Husky in the pasture. It made me uncomfortable then. Now . . . well, now I get it.
I apologized again. I said that I was indeed sorry that she had ever had to experience such life-altering trauma before her life had truly begun. She smiled, and then she grabbed hold of my left hand. She pulled it to her face and lightly kissed it, right below my center knuckle. And then she said, “Thank you for being a perfect gentleman.”
We both had places that we needed to be, prior obligations to attend to, so we didn’t stick around Barnes & Noble much longer after that. We exchanged social media information so that we could keep in touch and carried on idle chit-chat. I made some quip about her “disappearing without a trace in 1995” because it seemed okay, with it all out in the open and on the table before us, to joke about it. She reminded me of two occasions since then that we had seen each other. I had forgotten about both of them.
She said that she had been home on a college break in 1997 and gone to Legends, a bar on campus that I frequented after Michelle and I divorced. I have no memory of this, but B was full of details that were too accurate to have been a delusion on her part. Most notably, she remembered that my girlfriend, who was there and playing cards at a table with some friends, was named Sara. She also claims to have run into Shane and I at a Bush concert in 1996. I remember the concert. They were with the Goo Goo Dolls and my love for that band had no boundaries back then. You may recall– I mentioned it earlier– that B also had a fondness for this band. B says that she didn’t stay for Bush due to general lack of interest in their pseudo-grunge posturings but that she and I playfully danced together in the aisle when John Rzeznik played “Name.” I don’t remember this. At all. But I don’t know why she would have made this tidbit up.
I can tell you, though, that after we shared a long hug in the cafe at Barnes & Noble, promised to keep in touch, and then made our purchases at the cash register (I bought The Three-Body Problem trilogy, but I haven’t even cracked the spine yet), I got into my car and I’ll be damned if Spotify didn’t pick “Name” as the first song in my 90s-alternative shuffle.
You grew up way too fast
And now there’s nothing to believe
And reruns all become our history
A tired song keeps playing on a tired radio
And I won’t tell no one your name
And I won’t tell ’em your name