'I THINK it's about time a movie coming out of the studio system had some content," says Kathryn Bigelow about "Strange Days," her latest film. "I know it's disturbing. I know it's provocative. But it's about something. And that, in and of itself, is a step in the right direction."
Many who disagree about the merits of "Strange Days" would agree with Bigelow on that point. Although the movie has not stirred major waves at the box office, to the disappointment of 20th-Century Fox, it has stirred major discussion among critics and audiences. It also earned the distinction of an American premiere at the New York Film Festival, one of the most selective and prestigious events of its kind.
Love it or hate it, most moviegoers have a hard time dismissing it - and that's unusual in an age when Hollywood would rather duck difficult issues than risk a slump in ticket sales. Supporters of the movie cite its technical brilliance and its cautionary view of so-called entertainment that wallows in vicarious sex and violence. Detractors say "Strange Days" does some wallowing of its own, and note that the movie's finale wishes away its social issues by pointing fingers at a couple of rogue cops rather than the system that spawned them.
The story takes place on the eve of the 21st century. The main character is Lenny Nero, a former cop who now peddles software for an illegal entertainment device that pumps images and feelings directly into the user's brain. His latest "clips" contain clues to the murder of a popular rap singer, whose death threatens to spark the most destructive race riot of all time. Other characters include Lenny's former lover, a rock star with bad habits, and a friend who uses her street-smarts to steer Lenny toward a more constructive life.
Ralph Fiennes plays the hero, supported by Juliette Lewis and Angela Bassett as the women in his life. Bigelow wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, based on a story by James Cameron, whose high-tech adventures include hits like "Aliens" and the "Terminator" movies.
One of very few women to build a sustained career as a Hollywood director, Bigelow started work on "Strange Days" soon after the Los Angeles riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. "I was involved in the downtown cleanup," she told me in a recent interview, "and I was very moved by that experience. You got a palpable sense of the anger and frustration and economic disparity in which we live."
This sense of urgency found its way into Bigelow's movie. "It was important to me to hold a mirror to society," she says, calling the film "an environment, a canvas, a landscape that speaks about issues which should never be forgotten."
Among these issues are racial tension and the misuse of official power. But another subject of the film is "the need to watch, the need to see," Bigelow says.
"What is this need we have to experience life vicariously?" she asks. "Does it mean we find our own lives so mundane we have to escape them? Does this create a kind of passivity ... a 'distanciation,' a constantly mediated view of the world through television, the press, or cinematic experience as opposed to genuine experience?"
Perhaps the most controversial scene in "Strange Days" is a vicious murder vicariously witnessed by the hero - and by us - as recorded on a sensory "clip" by the killer himself. Bigelow acknowledges it's a horrifying episode, but insists it serves a positive purpose. "My challenge was to approach it in as cold and honest a light as I could," she says.
Then why include such a segment at all? "Because knowledge is power," the filmmaker replies. "The answer is not to shield one's vision and cut oneself off from awareness. There's nothing more dangerous than lack of awareness."
In the end, Bigelow says, the movie means to make an optimistic statement. "I wanted to treat 'the system' fairly," she says, "because if it's the enemy, then we're the enemy, since by not changing it we're reproducing it.... The film ends in a strong insistence on hope. Ultimately it's humanity - not technology - that takes us into the next century and the next millennium."