Young Ahmed
e353e7ec-992a-4aa7-b3f5-40fd9f1967b9.png Saturday March 7th, 2020

This is a long read from our new book 1995: The Year the Internet Broke, published in conjunction with our film series of the same name. The book can be purchased on our store or at Anthology Film Archives, where it shows March 7, 8 and 11.

In a strict sense, Strange Days (1995) is not a film about the internet. Rather, its plot involves the trade of bootleg physical recording media, an activity that would soon be obviated by the internet. The technological innovation it imagines instead is SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device), a wire headset by which raw human experience is captured "straight from the cerebral cortex," and through which it can be transmitted to another person. SQUID, like the internet, was originally a government technology but has since succumbed to the depravities of the market.

Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, a pornographer of this new medium. We meet him on the eve of the millennium, peddling his wares to entertainment lawyers and weathermen. If the premise seems not to invoke the techno-utopianism of the World Wide Web's early days, it does predict the relative isolation of our contemporary internet. "Wire-trippers" prefer to wade into the shallow nostalgia of "playback" than to engage with the political urgencies of "real time." Promised pure connection, users are repackaged as both consumer and product.

The film proceeds to send Lenny and his buddy Mace (Angela Bassett) through hell (Los Angeles) in order to procure the only copy of a recording depicting the police assassination of the rapper and activist Jeriko One. It is certain, we are told, to incite rioting and even revolution if broadcast. After some consternation, the disc is turned over to the LAPD Commissioner instead. And thus a film that rightly asks "How we gonna make another thousand years, for chrissake?" becomes a retrograde fantasy of police accountability. A story of the last two days of the world turns finally to the question of who to kiss at midnight.

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor shortly after the film's release, director Kathryn Bigelow explained why Strange Days ends on this note of faith in power: "I wanted to treat 'the system' fairly, because if it's the enemy, then we're the enemy, since by not changing it we're reproducing it." Only a perverse identification with force makes this apologia possible. In treating “the system” fairly, the film fails to imagine that anything other than profound complicity might be possible. As a symptom of its time and circumstance – as a portrait of failure – it is terrific.

Like Bigelow's other work of the 1990s, Strange Days is about and for adrenaline enthusiasts. Point Break (1991) and Blue Steel (1990) before it also chased their characters' lurid highs to harrowing ruin. Formally, these movies exhibit the same peculiar pacing, with double-length second acts and quick, half-hearted denouements. All feature improbable plot twists that are nonetheless broadly apparent to the viewer well ahead of time, a sort of dramatic irony homeostasis that is oddly satisfying. Their biggest moments are hampered with overblown dialogue and tonal miscues. They are dumb, seductive, just drunk enough to dance.

Bigelow’s early films love a cop who can throw his badge away – as Keneau Reeves does at the end of Point Break – or one who lands herself on administrative leave after her first day on the force – like Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel. Their heroes are singular, agonized agents whose own moral codes supersede the restrictions of the law. None waste a second on the pathos of their supporting characters, keeping them around just long enough to kill them off. All reserve a special contempt for the unfeeling, and thus ineffectual, lackeys of the state who bluster in the background. They are fascinated by that tormented passion which unites our supposed protectors and our supposed enemies, but always evince an authoritarian bent that wills the world to order.

In retrospect, it seems all but inevitable that Bigelow would find a muse in the American military. After Strange Days recouped only a small fraction of its $42 million budget, her prospects as a director were uncertain. Her first few films of the new millennium were similarly disappointments to their producers, and it wasn't until The Hurt Locker (2008) that she locked into her current groove. Looking for her preferred passions among the subjects that will reliably put asses in seats, she discovered modern warfare.

Her later work, written and co-produced by the journalist Mark Boal, attracts the right kind of negative attention, the kind reserved for based-on-a-true-stories. The Hurt Locker has been unfavorably compared to recruitment propaganda. Zero Dark Thirty (2012) stoked controversy with its inaccurate depiction of torture as having provided information that led U.S. forces to Osama bin Laden. Both movies made their budgets back several times over. Bigelow's luck broke in 2017, when not even the coveted moral opprobrium of Richard Brody in The New York Times could tempt audiences to see Detroit (2017), a dramatization of the Algiers Motel killings.

On screen, the director's frenetic vision has had to adjust somewhat to the relatively slow pace of war. Handheld camerawork compensates by adding jabs and jerks to even still, quiet moments. Bigelow's interest in the suffering human body acquires new range with the implication of actuality. Otherwise, much of the old playbook is still in use. Brooding renegades make their own rules. Camaraderie develops via endurance rituals and willful endangerment. Try-hard dialogue gets soaked in music and made more palatable. Despite her "depiction is not endorsement" boilerplate response to questions about the political dimensions of her recent work, a sense of duty runs through it. She makes sure to thank the troops, of course, in her acceptance speeches.

With time, Bigelow's war films may claim a place among the classics of the genre, for whatever that’s worth. Forgive me, then, for imagining that under different circumstances she might have continued making bizarre, schlocky thrillers, parables of American grandiosity without realism and jingoism to hide behind. Though the essence of her narratives has not changed, it was more clear – more resonant – in the absurdist register, when the guy saying "My whole life has been about this moment" was only talking about a wave.

In a recent advertisement for Rolex, Bigelow urges young filmmakers to "make a difference in this world," advising "compassion is your best friend." In Strange Days, Lenny is always attempting to use his Rolex as collateral to get out of unpleasant responsibilities. When he needs a new one, he pulls it from a stash of fakes in his briefcase.

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Become a Patron
Seduction of a Cyborg
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Ghost in the Shell
Mamoru Oshii 1995 83 min
Strange Days
Kathryn Bigelow 1995 146 min
Leaving the 20th Century
Max Almy 1982 10 min
Dušan Makavejev 1968 75 min 35mm
Iain Softley 1995 107 min
Hackers: Wizards of the Electronic Age
Fabrice Florin 1985 26 min
Ashutosh Gowariker 2011 224 min
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Sarah Maldoror 1972 102 min 16mm
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1:00pm 3:00pm 5:00pm 7:00pm
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Alice Winocour 2019 107 min
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Bong Joon-ho 2019 131 min
Rebecca Zlotowski 2019 92 min
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* Q&A with Rebecca Zlotowski
Chantal Akerman 2002 99 min DCP
Chantal Akerman 2016 1997 min
Vivian Ostrovsky 2016 4 min
Moderated by film critic Nicholas Elliott. Panel includes Sonia Wieder-Atherton, Leora Barish, Henry Bean, and Andrew Bujalski
Featuring cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton. Post-Show Q&A: Sonia Wieder-Atherton and actor Stanislas Merhar in conversation with film critic Nicholas Elliott.
Stanley Kubrick 1980 146 min DCP
Quentin Tarantino 1994 154 min DCP
Tim Burton 2001 119 min 35mm
James McTeigue 2005 132 min DCP
Carlo Mirabella-Davis 2020 94 min DCP
* Q&A with director Carlo Mirabella-Davis following the screening.
David Lynch 1986 121 min DCP
Enrique Rosas 1919 224 min
Fruit Chan 1997 108 min DCP
New 4K Restoration
12:45pm 3:15pm 5:45pm 8:15pm 11:30pm
Ingmar Bergman 1966 83 min DCP
Kevin Hooks 1991 84 min 35mm
Dino Risi 1962 108 min DCP
Charles Laughton 1955 92 min 35mm
Rainer Werner Fassbinder 1972 124 min DCP
New Digs
Martin Sen 2010 2 mins min
The Dingles
Les Drew 1989 8 mins min
2014 7 mins min
Le Poulet
Claude Berri 1963 15 mins min
Life After Love
Zachary Epcar 2018 8 min
Philip Cartelli and Mariangela Ciccarello 2015 14 min
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New Red Order 2019 7 min
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Aura Satz 2018 9 min
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Maximilian Schmoetzer 2019 12 min
Jan Komasa 2019 116 minutes min DCP
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Levan Akin 2019 113 min DCP
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D.W. Young 2019 99 min DCP
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** Q&A with rare book dealers Rebecca Romney (Type Punch Matrix) and Heather O’Donnell (Honey & Wax Booksellers) along with director D.W. Young, moderated by Adam Schartoff (host of Filmwax Radio podcast)
12:15pm 2:30pm* 4:45pm 7:00pm** 9:20pm
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Robert Voskanian 1977 82 min Digital Video
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