Strange Days

A sprawling, stylish and very expensive 'tech-noir' from Kathryn Bigelow, from a story and script by James Cameron. It was released in 1995 and bombed massively – apparently almost destroying her career in the process. But history and hindsight should restore it as one of Bigelow's best and most idiosyncratic films.

The story revolves around a technology called SQID, which allows people to record and 'playback' their entire sensorium, and allows Bigelow to innovate in the use of first-person action sequences. The technology is military but available on the black market, and the protagonist and anti-hero Ralph Fiennes is a peddler of thrills and smut to wealthy clients. Fiennes is a user and abuser as well, and the film positions him at the midway point between Angela Bassett's purist adhearance to 'real life', and the villain's complete decent to nihilism and virtual depravity.

Hitchcock's Vertigo is a clear antecedent, with Bassett playing Midge to Fiennes's Scottie obsessing over Juliette Lewis's Madeleine. Bigelow allows Fiennes to come to his senses, and ends her film on a moment of hope for humanity – with a kiss between Bassett and Fiennes that broke ground in the portrayal of interracial romantic relationships. Fiennes is brilliant (and quite sexy) in the role, and Bassett is cool and fierce. Both actors together bring a lot of soul to an otherwise rather grubby film.

Because Strange Days doesn't shirk from rubbing the sleaze and violence of its pre-millennial tension society almost literally in our faces. We've pushed further than Hitchcock in Psycho – there are fewer cutaways now. Post-Halloween, audiences are permitted into the minds and perspectives of rapists and serial killers. But the film's references to past cinema history flattens out any sense of outrage you might feel. The point Bigelow seems to be making is that films have always had this dark undercurrent to them – presenting the possibility of experiencing forbidden things, whether violent or sexual.

The other motivating force behind the film is Bigelow's observations of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which led her to depict her future LA as a police state with the black community on the brink of revolution. What's interesting is that the supposed conspiracy at the heart of government to oppress the people turns out to be a mirage – instead the renegade cops turn out to be a bunch of bad apples. Indeed, Bassett's salvation is placed in the hands of a very traditional authority figure – an old, white, male police commissioner, who proves incorruptable in the end and arrests the perps. Ultimately the system remains in place. the revolution is held in check and the New Year party keeps going. The tension between the two sides remains in place, and like 'playback' vs real life, the film refuses to throw its weight behind one or the other.


Summer with Monika

One of Bergman's early works, and mostly an excuse for Harriet Andersson to be as sexy as possible. Bergman recounts that several filmmakers were racing to work with her, though not many actually valued her abilities as an actress. Bergman did, and his main recollection of the film is that it was cheap to make and fun to shoot (and he did also manage to get in her pants, kicking off a four-year affair).

Andersson's Monika is a force of nature – cooped up in the city, she is at her happiest where social expectations are lifted and she can escape the poverty and abuse in her family by going sailing around the archipelago with a good looking boy in his father's boat. Bergman underlines the nature theme at the beginning by having one of the drinkers in the pub remark that the young people's friskiness is a sign that spring is coming. We then cycle over the summer, autumn and winter of a relationship, where the demands of adulthood prove too much for Monika and she has to escape once more.

The film feels longer than its short running time. The pace is languid – with a great deal of set-up and denouement occuring in long theatrical takes allowing for plenty of insight into the families and jobs of the two lovers. Monika doesn't come out of it too well in the final third – too restless to be a homemaker but too lazy to work, she wants to enjoy her youth. But perhaps we should blame the environment she is in – caught at the crossroads between the glamour of Hollywood and the constraints of tradition, where female ambition is confined to bringing up babies, but the temptations of films, bars and sex linger outside. Her abandonment of her two families is spurred by moments of physical abuse – the men in her life also don't have safe ways of expressing their frustration. Everyone is both a victim and a perpetrator.

The French new wave embraced the film, and given its theme of young lovers throwing off the shackles of society perhaps that's not surprising. But just as important was the moment where Andersson has her cigarette lit by a lothario at the bar while her husband is away, leans back and then looks directly into the lens, almost daring the viewer to condemn her impropriety. In Bergman's account that was her idea, and the first time this had happened in the history of cinema. Bergman holds the shot, but it is only a spark of transgressive brilliance in an otherwise slight film.


Dazed and Confused

The 70s were evidently a crueller time in which to grow up, judging by the glee with which Richard Linklater portrays the hazing rituals of American teenagers on the last day of school. The film takes an anthropological stance – taking account of the paddlers' pleasure and the paddled's pain, but it does give the most vicious of the senior bullies a comeuppance at the hands of the freshmen.

The film reminded me a lot of this year's Mektoub, My Love, in that it's a nostalgia fest for being young and beautiful, but also a sprawling investigation into the knotty relationships between a vast group of characters – their little squabbles and flirtations, and the overlapping friendship-groups they coalesce around. Linklater is less of a letch, and more of a romantic, than Abdellatif Kechiche, which is a mercy given that his kids are younger. But that youth and romanticism also mean that the conflicts and choices faced by the characters are more straightforward.

The film makes two big statements. The first is a speech by Adam Goldberg's overtalkative nerd Mike (very much a Linklater stock character) yearning for a moment of carefree abandon where the promise of tomorrow isn't sacrificed for the pleasures of the present. The earnestness of the speech is punctured by Mike then preposterously revealing a secret desire to dance, which may be a standout line but is too absurd to be funny. The willingness to delay gratification is a marker of success for children and adults, but Linklater's point is that sometimes people need a break from the daily grind and an opportunity to run riot. The true value of life is to be found in the carnivalesque atmosphere of the film – where the rules are turned upside down and you're free to do whatever you want.

The second big statement is basically the same as the first. The film is given some shape by Pink's dilemma of whether to remain on the football team and renounce drink and drugs. His older friend (a magisterial Matthew McConaughey in his breakout role) gives a big speech about the importance of living your own life and not kowtowing to authority, advice Pink follows with uncertain results.

But the most subtle aspect of the film is how both these instances of rebellion are couched in a context where everyone is being pressured by everyone else to fit in. Pink receives constant representations from his friends on the team begging him not to quit. Mike's idea of cutting loose is to go to a party and get in a fight – a very traditional view of how cool dudes spend their time. The contradiction at the heart of the film is that being dazed and confused isn't all that subversive when everyone around you is trying to get you dazed and confused.