Thursday, 24 June 2010

Santa Claus of the Subconscious: Strange Days

Now that we all live in the future - the twenty-first century, setting for so many comics and sci-fi novels - it can be a curious experience to look back at the futures of the past, those predictions of a future that is now past, from a past that somehow seems slightly futuristic. Kathryn Bigelow's (1995) thriller Strange Days, an otherwise poor film propped up by too much awkward and unnecessary exposition, offers just such an opportunity. Set only a few years ahead on the last night of 1999, Bigelow doesn't have far to look and musically, of course, she has little choice but to pick and choose from her own present. And no doubt the indie-metal of Skunk Anansie and the trip-hop of early Portishead, both heard as Lenny (Ralph Fiennes) scans the dial on his car radio early on in the film, seemed bang up to the minute in 1995. Of course, by 1999 few musics were being looked upon quite so unkindly by such small history.

The plot revolves around the murder of hip hop artist Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) who raps about America the "boogeyman", saying "the drugs that I smoke and the guns that I tote all come from your boat." But by 1999 this kind of aggressively conscious rap was being decidedly displaced by the 'bling' celebration of money and status. Of course, Strange Days is really set less in 1999 than 1992, (writer, James Cameron admitted to being inspired by the murder of Rodney King) with the L.A. riots re-imagined as the "party of the century" and any hint of violence speedily quelled by the One Good Cop, floating gracefully through the crowd like a white Moses

Where the film correctly predicts the music of its near future (our recent past) is in its brief references to the endurance of the 'classic' - Bob Marley, and perhaps even more conspicuously, Rossini's aria "Contro Un Cor Che Accende Amore" from The Barber of Seville. Though I'll give them the music career of Juliette Lewis and the continuing hegemony of a rock "alternative" in name, but anything but in sound, these remain such pessimistic sonic predictions that they were almost bound to come true.

Where Strange Days might most excite a historian of sonic futures though is in its proposal of a true gesamtkunstwerk - the 'clips' that Lenny sells which allow you to experience a few seconds of another's life, recorded directly from their conscious brain. "This is not like TV only better," Lenny insists. "This is life. It's a piece of somebody's life. Pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex. You're there, you're doing it, you're seeing it, you're hearing it, you're feeling it." Thus offering the ultimate fulfillment of Bazin's impossible promise of a "total cinema." And Juliette Lewis as (appropriately enough) Faith echoes Bazin in pining for the finitude of cinema as a limit to its reality effect. "Do you know why it is that movies are still better than playback? Because the music comes up, the credits roll, and you know when it's over."
Nonetheless, the promise of an art closer to everyday life has been central to much sonic utopianism, and the narcotically immersive 'playback' here is frequently discussed in aesthetic terms. "Skip the art criticism," Lenny says at one point, and at another we are told the killer, who 'records' himself in the act of murder, "needs an audience". We then have in this killer's tapes the return of everyone's favourite urban myth, the snuff film, only here taken a step further. These 'clips' in which you get to experience your own death or the murder of someone else are called 'blackjacks' - presumably as a reference to jacking in, or jacking up. A true art form for the end times. "Do you know how I know it's the end of the world?" asks Max. "Because everything's already been done: Every kind of music's been tried, and every government's been tried, every fucking hairstyle, fucking bubblegum flavours, every breakfast cereal, every type of fucking. What are we gonna do?"

So the artwork of the future becomes a metaphor for drug abuse and dependancy, with frequent shots of users 'strung out' or 'overdosed' on clips. While Lenny is cast sometimes as a kind of film director himself, at other times a depraved voyeur who, about to get beaten up, pleads, "Not my eyes!" But it is his surname, Nero, that rather unsubtly gives away the author's intentions. All this utopian talk of an artwork of the future is just so much fiddling while Rome burns. Hilariously, this artwork of the future is stored on a Sony MiniDisc, probably the shortest lived fad format of all time.