in Profiles | 01 SEP 96
Featured in
Issue 26

Listen to the Night

Kathryn Bigelow's Strangedays

in Profiles | 01 SEP 96

Let's begin with a little philosophical game. This sentence is not true. If the sentence is not true then, of course, it is true; and if it is true then it must not be true at all. The philosophical game, call it life, call it seeing life, call it seeing life through your tremendous peepers. Let's begin again, since it is only about beginning again.

Let's begin with a little philosophical game. Seeing is not true. No 'of course' follows. If seeing is not true it is true; and if it is true then seeing must not be true at all. You are not seeing what you think you see. This is a strange way to think about seeing. You see something, a sequence of things, and it is not until later that you figure out that this is not what you have seen at all. Some schism between sight and thought, between seeing and thinking, some lapse, call it seeing, call it vision, or just a look. It is not trompe l'oeil, but the way of the world. You are not seeing what you think you see - but what does it mean to tell simulation from the real thing. What is the real thing?

Such thoughts run across the mind's prairie like wildfire when encountering the cinema of Kathryn Bigelow. In each movie following her intensely visual (Edward Hopper redirects Easy Rider) first feature, The Loveless (1981), Bigelow shows seeing and its accompanying technologies (eyes, video, film) as reliant upon lapses, duplicities, mistakes. Kathryn Bigelow's movies (explicitly, implicitly) suggest that seeing is not true - but by listening to the night (darkness, blindness, ocular blackout, shadow, the quotidian tricks of vision) something quite true is what remains to be seen.

In Strange Days, a discussion of seeing's dealings with the real (whatever that may be) would seem inevitable. Set at the end of the millennium, Ralph Fiennes plays Lenny Nero, a street hustler who sells 'clips', described by the press release as 'little bits and pieces of peoples' lives, everything they saw, heard, and felt for 30 minutes captured on a digital recording. As Lenny says, "This is not like TV only better. This is life..." Sight, sound, smell, touch. You go through it whole, as if it were happening to you right then, right there.' But in all the interviews she has given, Bigelow disavows any of the complex readings of reality that her movies traffic in, and most critiques of her work do not bother to press the issue. This excerpt from a recent interview in Artforum is typical: 'The SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device) disks offer pure experience, unmediated. They're "pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex"; you can't get more unmeditated than that.' Her take on the technology in Interview was even more succinct: 'There's nothing virtual about it. It's reality.' A quick playback to some of Bigelow's earlier movies, whose opening sequences often connect directly to the stunning beginning of Strange Days, demonstrates that what reality means when it comes to seeing is a tricky matter indeed.

Near Dark (1987) begins as Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) eyes Mae (Jenny Wright) and, feeling his oats, tries to pick her up. Things seem to have a recognisable order - teen love, its flirtations and initiations. But what Caleb and the audience have just seen turns out to be really not really what it seemed at all. It is Mae, a vampire, who is on the prowl - Mae is the one in control, the one who initiates Caleb into an entirely different way of seeing things. 'It is so bright it will blind you', says Mae about the night. When night is bright enough to blind you other things must be seen to be not what they are. Mae's knowledge can be seen as a feminism that Caleb wants no part of - one which proposes that it is women who initiate men into the ways of the world; that there are many kinds of blood relations; that familial norms do not have to be as they are (the youngest-looking vampire, a small boy, is actually senior). Caleb is just one of those woozy boys who can't get into it (feminism, the night life, submission).

The movie comments on movies - light is the vampires' enemy just as it is any moviegoer's. As in later films, Bigelow uses the envelope of genre (broadly called action but encompassing noir, western, suspense, melodrama) to send a letter about new ways of seeing. She has suggested as much when she recently discussed her admiration for Sam Peckinpah: 'The thing that is so interesting to me about Peckinpah is that a lot of people think the work that he was doing was about violence and I really disagree. It's not about violence at all, it's about honour. The Wild Bunch is absolutely about honour, he just happens to use violence as a language to speak about honour.' Bigelow's movies may seem to be action movies, but she just happens to use action as a language to speak about the consequences of seeing, and, despite statements to the contrary ('I think that gender is not the content'), she has created some of the most crucial investigations of gender, sexuality, and androgyny in Hollywood film. Rather than argue for the gender of seeing (the male or female gaze, etc.), Bigelow's movies show that seeing engenders, even embodies.

At the beginning of the movie Blue Steel (1989), when Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) is aiming and shooting, cautious and premature, tense and poised, we believe that what we are watching is 'real' - police in the process of a bust. But again it is the 'real', or our easy belief in it, which is busted. Megan is in the process of failing a police-test crime simulation. A rookie on seeing's beat, Megan loses her new job by being overly aggressive (perhaps wanting to be overly sure) - shooting a suspect over and over. This aggression excites a wealthy businessman (Ron Silver) who murders and rapes, each of his aggressions an ode to Megan, his bullets inscribed with her name. Megan has to learn to see what she is not seeing. Seduced by Silver's character, she quickly realises he is the murderer she is chasing, but with his look of stability (wealth, the accoutrements of patriarchy - suits, sedate grooming) she has difficulty making anyone else see it. Megan Turner examines the gender of privacy, or, perhaps, the sexuality of privacy which has to do with control and who may have it. The crime simulation of the opening sequence (recalled directly by the beginning of Strange Days) is crucial to the understanding of Bigelow's project, and raises familiar questions: what exactly does anyone see when seeing? Who are you when you see? How do you tell if what you are seeing is real? The latter is particularly interesting since, to begin with, what we are seeing is a movie. Why do we want to believe that what we are seeing is 'real'?

Although Point Break (1991) also opens with a police test, this time it is easily discernible. There are, of course, numerous examples of mistaken identities: robbers look like ex-presidents; a cop looks like a surfer; ex-nazi drug-running surfers are mistaken for bank-robbing ones. These confusions structure the movie rather than framing it from the outset. Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), a cop, goes undercover. His training, by Bodhi (Patrick Swayze) hinges on whether he believes what he is being told or not, believes what he is seeing or not; whether or not what is seen on a video can be believed; what it means to go undercover. (Utah eventually finds that his assumed persona is closer to who he is.) Point Break seems, at first, a deceptively superficial movie, even ridiculous, but its merits become apparent when attention is paid to its surface - Bigelow's control of the camera, her actors, and narrative. The movie has some of the most beautiful surfing shots going and the most extraordinary chase of any contemporary film - on foot, through the alleys and byways, backyards and living rooms of L.A. If Blue Steel showed masculinity to be a uniform, in Point Break it is a wet suit, the proper attire for dealing with things fluid, not fixed. It chases an ever elusive gender, (masculinity), finding it balanced, like a surfer in perilous waters, between what is and what is believed to be seen.

Before shooting Strange Days, Bigelow was selected as one of the directors for Oliver Stone's television miniseries Wild Palms. The plot of Wild Palms spins around a new intertwined television and psychotropic drug technology which allows three-dimensional visual images to interact with viewers, an experience close to the SQUID technology of Strange Days. Wild Palms is the bridge between Bigelow's early works, which are structured by the problematics of the real and the 'real', and her most recent movie, which is about a technology which digitalises such problematics as if they were the same. Strange Days' opening sequence is the most extravagant of all Bigelow's simulations - a 'clip' of an armed robbery and chase sequence through L.A.'s Chinatown which only ends when the wired 'director' of the chase plummets to his death. While most of the movie is dominated by Bigelow's vision of a grim future, at the end of the film she pulls back from its dismal yet highly probable conclusion: that the computer technology which promises to web us all together, giving us insights into one another's experiences of the world, will lead to a freaked-out interiority based on isolation.

Bigelow's bravery as a director lies in her willingness to use the action-movie format to leave her audience with questions, with an adrenaline rush of thought. Consider that although Bigelow has proposed SQUID as an unmediated experience - the 'truth' - what is seen is something which only looks like the truth. Since Strange Days refers to the Rodney King fiasco - a 'clip' showing the killing by two rogue LAPD cops of Jeriko One, a 'rap star/militant activist', is one of two which fuel the narrative drive of the movie - it is strange that Bigelow did not confront one of its most crucial consequences: that video easily loses any grip it has on the real (watching the LAPD/King video the first jury saw no crime.)

Consider that SQUID technology seems unmediated because seeing has just not yet caught up with the technology. Even though an unmediated event, the SQUID experience does not look like the rest of the film, but more like video. What is fascinating about these wired PoVs is that they depend upon visual tricks that our eyes actually use. A SQUID clip is unedited - what someone's mind sees uncut. Bigelow's director of photography, Matthew F. Leonetti, came up with a way of making these clips. 'We learned from some of these tests', he revealed, 'that if we panned the camera very quickly, and cut in the middle of these whip pans, then we could make a seamless cut.' The principle, in theory at least, is fairly simple: the audience's eyes move in the direction of the whip pan, which disguises the cut.

Wild Palms was perhaps more interesting in its handling of a different ocular experience since there was rarely any visual clue as to whether or not what was being seen was what was being seen - the 'real' and the real looked alike. But by relying on the failure of visual technology - our eyes - Strange Days is more daring, fetishised, and beautiful. When cinema first began, positioned between the fantasies of Melies and the verité of the Lumière brothers, most viewers did not know how to 'see' what they were seeing: they would flinch away from an oncoming train on screen, etc. It is not only a new technology which can cause such confusion. When people complained that his portrait of Gertrude Stein did not look like her, Picasso said that it would come to, meaning that the portrait would look like Stein and that Stein would come to look like the portrait.

Consider that there is no stopping the arrival of various technologies of seeing, nor should there be because given these eyes and bodies, which at their best and worst ground us somewhere, there is no 'real' as real as the real and if there is, each of us is left in the end alone to prove it.