Strange Visions: Kathryn Bigelow's Metafiction *

Laura Rascaroli

Enculturation, Vol. 2, No. 1, Fall 1998

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"Screen" is one of the many terms which cinema and psychoanalysis share. Leaving aside the most common meaning of "screen" in psychoanalysis, [1] I would like to refer to another use of this term that presents a strong connection with the cinematic situation, and even derives its name from it.

As Ernst Aeppli pointed out in 1944, the events in a dream take place in a luminous field, which is surrounded and framed by a large, dark space. [2] In Aeppli's description there is an evident analogy with the cinema auditorium, which soon found confirmation in American psychoanalyst Bertand D. Lewin's work. In two communications dated respectively 1946 and 1948, Lewin reported the existence of "a special structure, the dream screen, . . . distinguished from the rest of the dream and defined as the blank background upon which the dream picture appears to be projected." [3]

According to Lewin, the dream screen represents the idea of sleep itself. But what is of particular interest to me is one analogy between the oneiric and cinematic screens. This analogy is that both dreamer and spectator, who focus mainly on the images, are usually unaware of the screen's presence; at times, though, the screen becomes perceptible, both in dreams and in films. In the cinematic experience, during the projection of a film the spectator may suddenly remember that she or he is at the cinema, and thus return to perceive the screen. Furthermore, the filmmaker always has the possibility of purposely highlighting the existence of the screen, for instance through a certain use of the gaze and of the off-screen space.

Despite this oscillation by the spectator between awareness and unawareness, the screen is always present, delimiting and at the same time making the film possible. To be more precise, even when maximally absorbed by the film, the spectator is always conscious of being at the cinema, of watching the projection of a film onto a screen, as--according to Freud--the dreamer is always conscious of dreaming. [4]

The screen's rectangular shape and the particular functioning of the cinematic apparatus are responsible for all the most important metaphors that have dominated classical and modern film theory: the picture frame, the window, and the mirror. [5] As Vivienne Sobchack pointed out in The Address of the Eye, each of these three metaphors refers to the film as "a static viewed object, and only indirectly to the dynamic activity of viewing that is engaged in both the film and the spectator, each as viewing subjects". [6] For Sobchack, they are unsatisfactory descriptions of the complex inter-subjective cinematic viewing experience. Perception, in fact, is always--and also at the cinema--a mutual act, taking place in the reversibility of seeing and being seen and in the indistinguishability of activity and passivity. In my opinion, these metaphors--and in particular that of the mirror--are still interesting inasmuch as they recall precisely this paradox inherent to human perception. The picture, the window and the mirror are all objects which return our gaze.

With reference to the question of the gaze in general, the mirror is, I would argue, the most interesting of these visual metaphors. This is probably because of its role in Lacanian psychoanalysis; but also and more simply because, as Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote in The Eye and the Spirit, "Vision is the mirror or concentration of the universe," in the sense that the same object--or if you want a similar object--is there, in the heart of the universe, and also here, in the heart of the vision. [7]

Vision, according to Merleau-Ponty, is the mirror of the world; also the cinematic screen may be defined as a mirror of the world. Christian Metz has been the most authoritative promoter of the metaphor of cinema as mirror. In his writings on cinema and psychoanalysis of the 1970s, [8] the author defined the cinematic signifier as plus perceptif, "more perceptive" than those of the other arts, since it produces a very strong impression of reality and, at the same time, as deceptive, because what we perceive is not the real object, but its shadow, its double, its reproduction. Hence, Metz described cinema as a new type of mirror, reflecting everything but the spectator's body, and compared it to the Lacanian mirror phase.

If we follow Metz, this is why the figure of the mirror, when used in films, is often openly metadiscursive; but even if we reject his construct, which is not completely convincing, the mirror continues to be an undeniable metalinguistic presence in films. This is, I would argue, for three reasons: because the film is always also the reflection of a world; because the looking glass, as the film, is simultaneously a viewed object and a viewing subject; finally, because the mirror--a component of virtually all the machinery used in the past for the production of optical illusions--is part of the prehistory of cinema.

A recent film showing an interesting self-awareness when using the figure of the mirror is Kathryn Bigelow's Strange Days (US, 1995). I would argue that Strange Days can be read on one level as a metafiction, in which the metaphor of the mirror has a particularly relevant position. The film is set in Los Angeles, during the last two days of the year 1999. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes) is an ex-cop who buys and sells clips for the illegal market of the Squid. This is a machine which records on a diskette the wearer's perceptions during a lived experience. A consumer may afterwards play back the diskette, re-living the same experience at all levels. As Lenny explains to a new client, "This is not 'like TV only better'. This is life. Pieces of somebody's life. Pure and uncut, straight from the cerebral cortex."

The analogy between the Squid and the visual media is evident throughout Strange Days, but cinema itself is, more than television, the constant point of reference of this film. Maybe it is not just a coincidence that Antonin Artaud had already described the cinema with words not very different from Lenny's, as a medium "acting directly on the grey matter of the brain." [9]

Artaud's definition and Lenny's description of the Squid could be said to coincide with Bigelow's conception of cinema--straight from and to the cerebral cortex, in a movement that doubles (or mirrors) that of human perception. Clearly, there is a difference between unmediated human perception and instrument-mediated cinematic perception; but Bigelow seems to aim to reduce the distance between the camera's eye and the human eye, in order to reach a "transparent" cinema. [10] This quest takes place at a narrative level through the characters' attempts at extending the scope of human vision--for instance, in Strange Days, by means of the Squid. The same search can be also traced at a discoursive level, both through Bigelow's experimental use of technology and her work on the language. The experiments with technology are a constant of her work. For instance, in Blue Steel Bigelow used the Innovision, a camera with a system of fibre optic bundles which allowed her to insert the lens into very small areas, such as the barrel of a gun; for Strange Days, then, a special camera was built to reproduce the agility of the eye.

As for Bigelow's work on the language, I refer in particular to her use of the POV shot. In Strange Days, to reproduce the playback of the Squid clips, Bigelow uses a very rigorous subjective camera and long sequence-shots, without any cuts. [11] Bigelow's extremely dynamic camera, kept at a quasi-zero distance from the action, produces a strong effect of "subjective human vision." This vision in Strange Days is shared by multiple viewers--the Squid's wearer, the playback-clip's spectator, and the film's spectator--whose eyes superimpose, to the effect that the screen, barrier between the auditorium and the action, between fiction and reality, disappears. The spectator's eye is there, in the film's space, or, to use Merleau-Ponty's expression, in the heart of the universe, more then here, in the heart the vision.

Let us consider the distressing opening scene of the film. The screen is black; a male voice asks: "You're ready?" Then, we are shown the detail of an eye. The eyelid blinks a couple of times before closing. "Yeah. Boot it," a second male voice answers. After a burst of bright white static, we are shown the inside of a car, seen from the back seat in POV. We are visually and emotionally tied to one of three tense burglars, who are preparing to rob a Thai restaurant. We follow them inside; we swing our gun around, threatening the clients. We shout, run around nervously, and steal the money. A police car cuts off our escape route. Scared and excited, we follow one of our comrades onto the roof of the building. There is another building in front of us, the police behind us. We jump, we miss, we fall down screaming. Blackness. We have died. After a cut, we are shown the main character, Lenny Nero, taking a playback Squid machine off his head.

Lenny's was the eye that we saw at the beginning of the sequence. We realise that the subjective images we have seen, as if they were our own perceptions, where inside Lenny's visual apparatus. They were recorded perceptions, coming from the robber's cerebral cortex, which were projected straight to Lenny's cerebral cortex. Thus, they were a projection, a reproduction, a double, that came back to Lenny as the perception of a real object. A projection, and not a hallucination, since Lenny knew all the time that he was watching a clip, as we know all the time that we are watching a film.

In other words, those images were cinema. The Squid is metalinguistic, because it reproduces, it mirrors the functioning of the cinematic visual apparatus. In fact, two main machines constitute this apparatus: the camera, which records a piece of reality, and the projector, which projects the recorded images onto a screen. The screen, then, like a mirror, reflects the projection towards the spectator, as if it were a real object, perceived from the outside, but which does not reach the strength of a hallucination.

Faithful to her project of making an increasingly transparent cinema, Bigelow created with the Squid a sort of cyborg of perception--half human brain, half machine--and realised Artaud's dream of a cinema acting directly on the grey matter of the brain. A cinema of cruelty, we could say adapting from Artaud's theory of theatre, that "upsets our sensual tranquillity, releases our repressed subconscious." [12] A cinema that reflects on itself, on the voyeuristic pleasures inherent to the spectator's viewing activity, on the risks and fascinations of contemporary technological experimentation, and on the displacement of the subject.

Bigelow uses the screen as a mirror not only of the world, but of cinema itself--and, in fact, it is not an accident that Strange Days is full of mirrors and windows, that work metadiscoursively as secondary screens. The number of sequences inside cars, for instance, is incredibly high; the characters are very often shot through car windows and windscreens, or reflected in rear-view mirrors. Also, there are many mirrors in the rooms that we see; for instance in Lenny's apartment; in the clip in which Lenny and Faith make love; in the toilets of the night club where Faith performs; in the hotel room where Iris is killed; and in Faith's hotel room, where the last, deadly fight between Lenny and the killer takes place. Often the same mirror reflects two characters, who look at and talk to the other character's reflection; other times a character is doubled by two consecutive mirrors, so that the cinematic screen seems to mirror itself.

Further secondary screens are provided: by the many windows through which the characters look, often resembling theatre stages because of the curtains that frame them; by the numerous television sets placed in houses, in bars and clubs; by the maxi-screens in the streets; and by the cabinets in Faith's hotel room, whose opaque glass doors, lit from the inside, strongly resemble the screen of the shadow theatre, cinema's direct progenitor. This idea is confirmed by the abundance of gigantic shadows that characters and extras project on walls.

The importance of the question of vision in Strange Days is also highlighted by the presence of other visual devices, such as the binoculars used by the two corrupt cops to spot out Lenny and Mace in the crowd, and the big telescope that stands out in Faith's hotel room. Two eyes are drawn on the cover of one of Lenny's diskettes; his eyes are what Lenny tries to protect during a fight; Lenny's eyes are what Faith once said she loved, and then added: "I love the way they see." On one occasion, even the eyes become mirrors, and not of the soul, as in a popular metaphor. After murdering Faith's friend, allusively named Iris, the killer leans closer and closer to her face and stares into her dead eye, until his own image reflects in her pupil. Retinal Fetish is, in the screenplay, the name of the night club where Faith sings. Finally, the fact that the killer is colour blind is, perhaps, just a joke.

The macro-sequence of particular interest for an understanding of Strange Days as a metafiction is the film's second last, set in Faith's hotel room, which we could rightly call "the room of mirrors," since in here we find a big glass sliding door, framed by curtains; a telescope; opaque glass cabinets, lit from the inside; a round, glass coffee table; a whole wall covered in mirrors; and more mirrors on other walls.

Even knowing that this is a set-up arranged by the killer, Lenny goes to the hotel with the purpose of protecting his ex-girlfriend Faith, with whom he is stubbornly still in love. In the room, he finds a Squid-clip in an envelope addressed to him, the last of a series of three. He plays it back. Through a rigorously uncut POV, both Lenny and the spectator are tied to, or better, literally become the unknown killer who had previously raped and murdered Iris, and who now attacks Faith precisely in the same way. Lenny and the spectator are desperate--horror, fear and excitement repulsively mix together. This event has already happened twice, once to Iris and once to Faith, but it is also happening in this precise moment, before our eyes. We can anticipate the terrible ending, but there is nothing we can do. During the clip, the killer turns his eyes toward the mirror wall, and looks at himself, revealing his identity to Lenny and to the audience: it is Max, Lenny's friend. But this time his act of violence unexpectedly does not end with a murder. Max, in fact, shows concern for Faith, he wants to know that she is fine; she says that she loves him. Lenny and the spectator now realise that it was an erotic game, a set-up in the set-up, a representation in the representation.

This idea of a double representation has, again, much to do with cinema itself, since the film is the reflection, the double of a representation previously staged by the actors for the camera. It is not accidental that the theme of the double, present throughout the film, reaches its peak precisely in these sequences. A whole wall of the bedroom in which the clip was recorded and where Lenny now is, is covered in mirrors, that reflect and double the characters' bodies and multiply the perspectives. [13]

The clip above described constitutes just the first part of a long scene in which this game of doubles and mirrors becomes convulsive, until it literally explodes in a thousand reflections. Actually, this "explosion of the mirrors" is introduced by a previous, short scene, in which Lenny and his friend Mace arrive at the hotel. It is the last hour of the millennium, L. A. streets are swarming with partying people, small episodes of violence are controlled by the police. A youth jumps on Lenny and Mace's car and repeatedly kicks its windscreen, cracking it.

This broken windscreen is clearly an anticipation of the main figurative theme of the last section of the film. I refer to the high number of glasses which break, in the clip and in the scene immediately following it. First, at the beginning of the clip we see Faith smashing a champagne bottle by throwing it on the floor. Then, again in the clip, Max cracks a mirror by slamming Faith's manager and official lover, Philo, against it. After the playback, during the fight between Lenny and Max, two wildly fired bullets open holes in the mirrors, and a third one smashes a glass lampshade. Still fighting, Lenny and Max fall onto the glass coffee table, shattering it, and later they crash together through the sliding glass door onto the balcony, producing a shower of flying glass.

The theme of the broken mirror is also traceable in other details of these sequences, such as the sequin dress worn by Faith, and a mirror made up of a patchwork of glass pieces, each surrounded by a lead frame. Furthermore, the sequence in which Max reveals to Lenny the reasons behind what has happened, gluing together all the film's events as pieces of a jigsaw puzzle (or of a broken mirror), is made up of a high number of very short close-ups of Max, shot from noticeably different points of view and linked by a very fast editing. This sequence gives the spectator the strong impression of a face reflected by the many chips of a broken looking glass.

This "explosion of the mirrors" is not an end in itself, rather it presents a strong connection with Strange Days's narrative development. Lenny has been tied to Faith and to his past for the whole film, in other words he has constantly looked back, or used his rear-sight, as the metaphorical figure of the rear-view mirror alluded to. By means of the Squid, Lenny has re-lived bits of his or other people's lives, virtual lives, "used emotions," as Mace once called them. A playback, or better a mirroring of reality. But in the episode that we just described, the truth becomes patent, and Lenny cannot and does not want to escape it any longer. The mirror crashes.

That is why Strange Days had to end as it ends, with the first, real and not playback human contact in the film: the long, warm kiss between Lenny and Mace, exchanged on the threshold between the second and the third millennium. I said, the first real human contact. I should have said: the first cinematic human contact, as opposed to those of the Squid. The narrative is ending, and it is a happy ending: the heroes are finally in each other's arms. The spectator's eye, after having been dangerously there, lost through the Squid in the heart of the universe, recognises the codes of the filmic fiction, becomes suddenly aware of the presence of the cinematic screen, and comes back on this side of it, here, in the heart of the vision. With relief. As Faith once said to Lenny, "You know one of the ways that movies are still better than playback? 'Cause the music comes up, there's the credits, and you always know when it's over. It's over."


* This article is based on a paper presented at the VI Annual Conference on Cross-currents in Literature and Film: "Metafictions," School of Language and Literature, University College, Cork (25-26 April 1997). (back)

1. Screen memory is "A childhood memory characterized both by its unusual sharpness and by the apparent insignificance of its content. The analysis of such memories leads back to indelible childhood experiences and to unconscious fantasies" (J. Laplanche, J.B. Pontalis, The Language of Psychoanalysis, London: Karnac Books, 1988, pp. 410-411). Screen memories are extremely important for psychoanalysis, because they represent the forgotten years of childhood. (back)

2. Ernst Aeppli, Der traum und seine deutung (Erlenbach-Zurich: Eugen Rentsch, 1944). (back)

3. Bertram D. Lewin, "Inferences from the dream screen", International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol. XXIX, no. 4 (1948), p. 224. The first article published by Lewin on the dream screen is: "Sleep, the mouth and the dream screen," The Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 1946, vol. XV. Robert T. Eberwein exploited Lewin's theory of the dream screen in relation to cinematic dreams in his Film and the Dream Screen (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984). (back)

4. In an often forgotten passage of The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote: "I am driven to conclude that throughout our whole sleeping state we know just as certainly that we are dreaming as we know that we are sleeping" (Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, in The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, London: Hogarth, 1953, vol. 5, p. 571). (back)

5. If we take into account Lewin's theories, we must ascribe to the screen also the fourth famous cinematic metaphor, that of film as dream. (back)

6. Vivienne Sobchack, The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 15. (back)

7. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, L'Oeil et l'Esprit (Paris: Gallimard, 1964). (back)

8. I refer to his article "Le signifiant imaginaire", Communications, no. 23 (1975), pp. 3-55, afterwards published in Le signifiant imaginaire. Psychanalyse et cinema (Paris, Union Générale d'Éditions, 1977), pp. 7-109. (back)

9. "Il agit sur la matière grise du cerveau directement." Antonin Artaud, "Réponse à une enquête" (date unknown), in Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1961), vol. III, p. 74. (back)

10. I have developed this argument also in "Steel in the gaze. On POV and the discourse of vision in Kathryn Bigelow's cinema", Screen, 38:3. (back)

11. Or more precisely with very few, "invisible" cuts. (back)

12. Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and its Double (London: John Calder, 1970), p. 19. (back)

13. It is compulsory here to quote at least the famous, final scene of Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai (1947), with Welles and Rita Hayworth's images endlessly multiplied by the hall of mirrors. (back)

Copyright © Enculturation 1998

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