Archive for October 13, 1995

River of Grass

October 13, 1995

Nothing could be more exhilarating and erotically dangerous than a young man and woman on the lam, right? River of Doubt twists the trope inside out, exposing the situation as the uneventful dead end it probably usually is in real life. The debut film by writer-director Kelly Reichardt (who went on to make the critically lauded Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy), River of Grass (named for the Everglades near where the non-action unfolds) is almost like Badlands left out in the sun to blanch and peel for two weeks. The pair on the lam are Cozy (Lisa Bowman), a thirtyish housewife and mother dismally dissatisfied with her lot in life, and Lee (Larry Fessenden), a dentally challenged ne’er-do-well who finds himself in possession of a gun. One night, Cozy leaves her baby alone in the house and wanders off down the road, where Lee almost runs her over. She tracks him to a bar, and after a possible accidental killing, they’re on the run from the cops — including her dad (Dick Russell), a failed jazz drummer who tends to drop his gun.

In this comedy of ennui, Cozy and Lee don’t fall in love, don’t even have sex (from what we see); they just slouch through an extended vacation in which the monotony is broken only by a cockroach. Cozy is thrilled to be forced to leave her life behind; it’s the sort of dramatic escape she’s probably been yearning for, having seen the same movies we have. But this sort of fantasy is much less rejuvenating in actual practice, where Lee tries to sell his mother’s record collection just to put gas in the car. Bowman’s daydreamy, laconic manner (she also narrates) bumping up against Fessenden’s white-trash creepiness (in between directing his own films, he usually specializes in being creepy in other people’s films) creates its own kind of erotic friction, though not one that’s ever acted on or even thought about. (The closest to physical they get is sharing a joint, passed back and forth between their toes.) Cozy lazes around in a swimming pool like a lackadaisical mermaid, while Lee sits on the edge, staring down at his feet and playing with his gun. You can almost hear Reichardt chortling behind the camera.

There’s an element of wit in Reichardt’s minimalism here that isn’t present in her later, more somber work; though this film is set in suburban Florida and her latter two films camp out in Portland, Oregon — basically kitty-corner across the country — they all take place in the depressed parts of America, the lonely roads bracketed by industrial machinery, the disenchanted people shuffling around aimlessly. It’s a consistent vision and, to me, an appealing one.

Strange Days

October 13, 1995

You walk up to a door, jimmy the lock, and step inside. You’re in a swank Los Angeles hotel room. You sneak across the carpet, put on a ski mask, and keep going until you see the woman. She sees you — she screams and runs away. What do you do now? You catch up to her, overpower her, and handcuff her wrists to the wall. She’s helpless; she’s crying. You take out a razor and tease her with it, cutting off her bra and underpants. What do you do now? You wrap a cloth around her throat and go to work — simultaneously raping her and strangling her, until she dies at the moment of your orgasm.

If you felt as appalled reading that paragraph as I did writing it, wait until you see it and (almost) experience it. This interactive-atrocity sequence, which has the immediacy and inevitability of a nightmare, is the most horrific and memorable part of Strange Days, an apocalyptic thriller about the next big thing in multimedia. “Clips,” they’re called — playbacks of experiences ranging from luxurious showers to armed robbery. Originally a surveillance device for undercover police (they replaced body wires), they’ve been co-opted by the underground: People are paid to wear electronic skull-caps that record everything they see, hear and feel, and the resulting clips are sold to wealthy clients who want to see, hear and feel the forbidden without leaving their living rooms. The most popular clips — the clips we see the most of — deal with sex and violence.

Strange Days gets into a weird contradiction. The hero, Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), is an ex-cop and shady dealer in clips. His clients, by and large, are coarse scum with money, and he gets them what they want. If the movie is trying to say something distressing about the American appetite for sex and violence, I’m confused. The clips deal with the sort of fringe stuff that generally doesn’t go over with a mass audience; furthermore, the clips are available only to those rich enough to buy them (or computer-literate enough to pirate them) — in other words, they’re sold to the rotten elite, not to anyone the movie audience can relate to, so the movie blows its chance to be an attack on our appetites.

There is an idea here: The street-level guys like Lenny and the people paid to wear the recording device provide gutter entertainment for the corrupt, jaded princes of the city. But the script, by James Cameron (yes, him) and Jay Cocks, doesn’t develop this idea into a theme that would put an ironic spin on the premise. Straining for a big statement, the writers juggle too many balls and drop most of them. The wild card is director Kathryn Bigelow, an erratic filmmaker whose movies have almost all focused on escapist brutality (her best previous film was Near Dark, a vampire noir). “You know you want it,” say the ads for Strange Days, and Bigelow, who’s made her share of violent clips, knows you want it, too.

But do you want to rape and murder? Or how about falling to your death off a building while escaping the cops? Or experiencing your own near-murder through the eyes of your stalker? Individual scenes in Strange Days are as forceful and compelling as anything ever filmed. I admit I would consider that you-are-the-rapist sequence very morally iffy had a male director put it on the screen. Since the director is a woman, the scene takes on a wilder resonance. For a few awful moments, we’re all rapists — you, me, Bigelow, everyone around us in the audience. In an odd way, the scene is a harsh affirmation of one’s own morality: To recoil from it is to know, once and for all, what we could never be capable of. Still, we watch, don’t we? We stay in our seats; we don’t walk out. When Lenny receives the rape-snuff clip and experiences it, we wonder why he doesn’t remove the skull-cap receiver in disgust. He keeps watching and suffering. So do we. No movie since Peeping Tom has implicated the viewer so directly.

The clips lie at the heart of what a lot of recent, inept virtual-reality movies (Johnny Mnemonic, Virtuosity, The Lawnmower Man) have been trying to say about the future of sensory input. I wish Bigelow, who’s a real exploitation artist when she doesn’t waste herself on crap like Blue Steel, had done more with the clips. Not necessarily more rape scenes (one is quite enough) but more breadth of experience. There’s a lovely scene in which Lenny visits a hacker friend (Todd Graff), a legless nightclub worker, and brings him a clip that gives him the sensation of … running. Just running, along a beach, catching the eye of a young woman in a bikini — that’s his exquisite fantasy. Another man jacks in and “becomes” an 18-year-old girl lathering herself in the shower, and I wish Bigelow had tried to get that on film; what an innocuous yet sensuous thing to want to experience. Lenny himself keeps jacking into clips of himself and his ex-girlfriend (Juliette Lewis), like a mournful, jilted single guy torturing himself with homemade porn videos taped when he still had a sex life. The clips carry an emotional charge that the script, as it pushes forward, seems to lose track of. Perhaps Cameron and Cocks didn’t have enough faith in (or didn’t anticipate) the visual power and intimacy of Bigelow’s clips.

That rape-snuff clip, it turns out, is part of a larger mystery. Strange Days, set during the last two days of 1999, addresses the social problems turned up just a notch. That “just a notch” is scary: Nothing in this millennial L.A. is all that far-fetched. Four years ago, nobody knew from CD-ROMs or cyberspace; four years from now, it’s quite likely we’ll be seeing something like Lenny’s clips. Yet the whole mystery of the movie depends not on technology but on … police racism. Come again? I’m not saying this is a non-issue, but it comes out of left field in a movie that gives us so much else to chew on. The racism angle feels like visceral, hot-button stuff grafted onto a basically cerebral concept.

At the precise moment when Strange Days seems ready to iris in on meaty, personal issues, it mushrooms into a crusading PC statement. If the clip business itself were revealed to be racist — escapist experiences aimed first at rich whites, and then trickling down, in corrupted form, to hook the underclass on it, like crack — or if the technology were shown to be misused by police violating civil rights, I’d have accepted the plot twists. As it is, Strange Days is almost two and a half hours long, so I don’t know how the filmmakers could have solved the problem except by losing Lenny’s chauffeur-protector-unrequited lover Mace, who adds an unnecessary half hour. Angela Bassett, however, is so lively and touching in the role that I can’t object too strongly. She makes magic with a role that’s token in every way: Mace the black superwoman is in the movie to fend off charges of sexism and racism.

Lenny shuffles to and fro, tracking down clues to the identity of the snuff-clip killer, always getting in trouble that Mace always bails him out of. Strange Days has a saggy, repetitive middle section redeemed partly by the clips and partly by the performances. Lenny is one of those blurry James Cameron heroes who are what Cameron needs them to be at any given moment, but Ralph Fiennes works well with the hand he’s dealt. He may be the most likable of the new screen chameleons; he uses his technique to invite you in, not shut you out (that’s what made his work in Schindler’s List so chilling). When he’s on the screen with Bassett or with Tom Sizemore as a grungy ex-cop, you’re watching some of the finest acting teamwork of the season.

Fiennes makes a good salesman; I’d buy a clip from him. But he isn’t good enough to hawk what Cameron and Cocks are selling. Strange Days belongs to the same hypocritical genre as Kids and Showgirls: outwardly rebellious, secretly conservative. (Cameron dug himself a hole in T2 when he decried the same technology that gave him those fabulous morphing effects.) The movie also belongs to the Network media-evil club, along with Natural Born Killers, Serial Mom, and To Die For. The media has replaced drugs as America’s boogeyman, and Strange Days ties the knot between the two: The media is a drug, stringing us out on hellbound sensation. Yet Strange Days itself does the same thing. (If we didn’t see the clips, the movie would be just another Blade Runner knock-off.)

Kathryn Bigelow gets caught in the same contradictory tangle that ensnared Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers: the dilemma of becoming part of the decay you’re trying to illuminate. She thrashes around inside this movie, the way Sam Peckinpah thrashed around trying to make an anti-violence western and ended up with The Wild Bunch. Bigelow doesn’t resolve the problems of the material, but you can feel her coming up underneath it, straining against the surface of zombie sensation and trying to push through into the fresh air of common sense, common decency. That’s what you take with you, and what makes Strange Days fascinating despite all the awkwardness and chaos of the climax, when the movie seems to cave in on itself. Of course Bigelow can’t resolve the questions her movie raises; no one can. Strange Days is like our own disordered thoughts put on the screen — our thoughts about violence and the audience’s complicity with violence, with some other ingredients thrown in, plus Juliette Lewis singing PJ Harvey for some reason. It’s a big messy sprawl, and it’s satisfying as only a flawed movie can be.