Monday, July 14, 2014


Film history is revisionist and reactionary.  Most people writing about the classics or about "the golden age" weren't even there - they have only the reviews and the evidence of the careers before and subsequent to place any film or trend in context.

I've heard more than one person amazed why no one liked Carpenter's The Thing when it came out. They don't understand what it was like to see that shit back in 1982. (I know that disparaging words against The Thing get some people apoplectic. Consider that a trigger.)

So let this post be a kind of primary source for Kathyrn Bigolow's Strange Days (1995) which was highly anticipated, had a great pedigree at the time and should have blow our minds, we know we wanted it. And it was a film that opened in the large theatre where I worked in the '90s and I was there for the opening nights.

The reaction and the word-of-mouth was quite different than that which has come down to us through the years. A puzzle piece that's lost but may explain the career trajectories of some of those involved.

Strange Days was co-written and produced by James Cameron, who was hot off of True Lies (1994) and Terminator 2 (1991) and the ex-husband to Bigelow, whose last film was the equally testosterone-y (but more fun) Point Break (1991), only beginning to grow the street-Keanu-cred on it that it would enjoy in subsequent decades. Yet Strange Days is practically a lost film. Seemingly prescient, taking place on the cusp of the millennium and posing a hip blue-lit future out of Philip K. Dick or the Wachowski brothers (they were brothers then), it also has that Doors resonance (I taste The Lost Boys in there; people are strange even in your peripheral vision).

The action centers around a device that records your actions, sharing them virtually (this was barely a buzz word then) with headgear and a demonstration near the start of a recording of someone doing something, from inside their head - cool! it turns out to be a recording of the guy trapping then raping a woman.

Our heroes (relatively speaking) get ahold of the tape but can only watch that crime from the recorded POV - you "experience it" but still can't quite grab the evidence you need.

A lost film I have the feeling the filmmakers would rather stay lost. A novel, rather edgy techno- nerdy idea (well, not so new after all, a similar device was used in Brainstorm (1983) and was the fodder of much speculation then - if you could "read someone's thoughts" the first thing that came to mind was.... Rule 34 and all that. A provocative but ultimately flat homogenized Hollywood film (it was directed, after all, by Douglas Trumbull) the buzz on it was taken over by the untimely death of Natalie Wood and how the final cut became compromised)).

Starring Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List!), Angela Bassett (Tina Turner!), Vincent D'Onofrio (The Player!, Orson Welles in Ed Wood!, the donut guy in Full Metal Jacket). And of course, the huge balls of Cameron and Bigelow each seemingly trying to out cock each other with their arrogance, sci-fi savvy, hubris and ourheartsnotbroken.

Thing was they throw in a rape. Not just a rape, as like - a past event to motivate a character, but instead it's a rape from a 1st-person perspective. One that's subjective, that doesn't signify the bad guy as "bad guy" but as something the viewer experiences as it's happening. As a bit. A thrilling visual.

(Ebert complained about this kind of thing in the Friday the 13th films. If you don't position the killer as "other," cinematically you end up putting the audience in sympathy with the killer. With being the killer. With being the rapist. To what end? You know you want it. Indeed.)

Here's where I learned an important film-making lesson. Rape takes a film hostage. Irreparably and inexorably. When the first rape scene came on, in first person (when they're demonstrating the device), easily a dozen people hit the lobby - angry and in no mood to negotiate. Some of the women were in tears; everyone demanded their money back. They were violated - tricked. The sense of outrage palatable and scary. The men were red around the ears, protective or accusing us of crimes and irresponsible citizenship.

You see, you don't treat a rape scene as entertainment.

That arrogant cocky Cameron/Bigelow attitude got to them. This adolescent rape sequence, a provocative dare had added insult to invisible injuries, salt in unknown wounds.

The film's word of mouth was vitriolic and moved quickly. Who cares how daring or well done the special effects. The film doesn't really work anyway, as science fiction or as detective story. (Maybe as cautionary tale.) Trying too hard to be cool but with an elitist view of the poor and desperate, and by having (and this was not the first or last time Cameron fell in this trap) too much resources at his disposal they didn't attempt to be empathetic or smart, just brazen, colorful and daring.

It blew up in their face.

Rape is a trigger. Some people simply won't take it fictionalized or treated without the highest level of respect. (And don't make me tell you the Schindler's List story.) Certain topics are off limits. You don't hurt animals, you don't casually throw child abuse into your story, and you sure as hell don't use rape as a "plot point."

It kills your narrative dead and demanded you stop everything and lower your voice in those politically correct, victims-first times.

This was not a niche indie. This was a major 20th Century Fox production. The film was gone within 3 weeks as I remember and everyone's career experienced a speedbump. Whether because of this film, the decision to be in this film, or the fact they'd all graduated to big-Hollywood cocaine-sized budgets and trailers, Fiennes, Bassett and D'Onofrio's careers seemed to stall or got murked by less high-profile projects. Maybe no one trusted them anymore, maybe audiences had a bad taste in their mouth.

Maybe the paydays were big enough so they all went arty.

Cameron has always earned a begrudging respect, people enjoyed his films in spite of themselves (the racism in True Lies, so weirdly accidental and not even intentional makes it more distasteful. Avatar is already past its sell-by date.). Bigelow would continue to have trouble getting projects off the ground until she eventually had two good years 15 years later with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Two war films heavier on the art side and a little more careful with the clueless moralizing.

I think that big budget films are way too careful and well, I guess they have to be. Strange Days is an abject lesson lost to time but that many Hollywood types probably still remember.

Bad movies don't kill careers. Triggers do.


Bruce Fletcher said...

You see, you don't treat a rape scene as entertainment.

See also: THE ACCUSED.

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