Strange days have found us…
In the short span of just two decades, we survived the Y2K apocalypse only to face another apocalyptic year that draws to a close, but this time without the delirious end-of-the-world partying. When 1999 bloomed into 2000, I was just 4 years old. I have no memories of it at all. What I won’t ever forget, however, is standing on a rooftop at midnight on the 1st of January, 2021, and hearing total silence except for a bunch of people yelling, “Where’s the fireworks?!” Finally, at around 5 past midnight, one or two illegal, desperate fireworks burst up at some nearby street before quickly crackling out as we ushered in December 32nd, 2020.
I was pretty depressed that night. After midnight, I walked around with a beer in my hand and a deep scowl on my face. I’ll never forget it. You can cynically tell me that New Year’s Day doesn’t mean anything, that nothing ever changes and everyone always forgets their resolutions and optimism within the first week, but I’ll still remain a savage caveman: I need this ritual in order to confirm that time is actually passing. After a year that began with Vision 2020 being deferred and proceeded in the fashion of other such non-events — including COVID-induced cancellations, but also the struggle over COVID-19 itself, which some claim is an unprecedented, life-changing Event, but which others claim is no worse than the common flu — after a year of non-events, the failure of New Year’s Day 2021 to arrive seemed to confirm what many experts had warned us at the beginning of the pandemic, which is that this stasis could last indefinitely. That time had stopped, indefinitely.
A conversation in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:
ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will? Or pessimism of both?
But history didn’t end on December 31st, 2020, did it? What cultural theorist Mark Fisher termed “the slow cancellation of the future” is a process that begun years before I was even born. So when exactly did history end? If you follow Francis Fukuyama’s theory, you might say that history ended the moment the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, proving the eventual default to capitalist liberal democracy. When communism no longer existed as a viable alternative, when the remaining communist states started to seem repressive and backwards, and “capitalist realism” (a term Fisher coined) became the dominant reality principle.
According to Mark Fisher, history ended around 1985, when the Miner’s Strike in England was crushed by Margaret Thatcher’s government. It was the end of a certain era of revolutionary hope for the future and the beginning of neoliberalism’s dominance, with its tentacular grip that squeezed meaning out of everything, leaving the world full of hollow objects and figures who continued to ape their symbolic purpose in deference to a simulation of reality, but whose purpose was ultimately void. Reality became “reality”. Prime Ministers and politicians became public relations managers. Fisher’s entire oeuvre can be characterised by this sense of melancholia over a future that never arrived, a melancholia that’s not to be mistaken with nostalgia for a time passed, although the objects that precipitate this melancholia are the relics of a cultural past. Nowadays, everything in culture is pretty much recycled, and the nostalgia mode is the dominant influence of cultural production under capitalist realism. Nobody really seems to remember much of anything nor be capable of attaching a sense of time to any cultural artefact, and the styles in fashion, music, and art that initially burst into the scene in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s often re-appear as novelties in present-day culture, and nobody knows any better to say, “Hey, hasn’t this all been done before?” And to rub salt in the centuries-old wound, we are constantly sold the idea that we live in the most technologically-advanced society in all of human history, and yet 21st-century “technological progress” no longer makes the revolutions in culture or communications that it once did. Sure, some new Emojis are added every now and then.
So did the world really end at midnight on the first of January, 2021, or have we been in a prolonged state of melancholia over something that died a long time ago? Are we the last man of history standing right at the precipice, or have we long reverted to something ancient and savage within ourselves, huddled among the trash heap fires of a purgatorial dead world, simulating the motions and emotions of everyday life as a way of clinging on to them, though they have long lost their meaning? (And yes, it is either one or the other. There is no third option where I still see myself only at the beginning of a wide expanse of future. None. But I welcome any attempts to try and convince me otherwise.)
What happened when the fireworks of the future failed to arrive that night was a disappointment personal to me, as someone born in 1996. Maybe for many people, the world ended a long time ago. Maybe for some, they can’t tell that the world has ended, because they’re still high on an inexhaustible but exhausting supply of past-culture being re-sold to them as a contemporary identity or ‘alternative’ sub-culture. On that night, it really dawned on me how tired I was of being cynical, how tired I was of indecision and distrust — you know, contrary to my dreariness, I actually WANT to trust people, I actually WANT to be ambitious and hopeful for something, I actually DO respect the ideas of government and mass media in theory, and I wish I could trust them in practice to lead me — on that night, it dawned on me how badly I had wanted some symbolic rupture with a year full of stasis and discomfort, so that I could start hoping again for the future. Now I write at the end of the end, in the final days of January 2021, and things have mostly gotten worse (if you measure better/worse by the metric of how many new COVID cases there are every day), so.
In director Kathryn Bigelow’s and writer-director James Cameron’s 1995 vision for the end of the world (projected into the then-future of the last days of December 1999), Los Angeles is a paranoiac police state filled with decadent street revelry and violence, soundtracked by a strange mix of gangster rap for the homies and Hole-esque grunge for the ladies. Note that a police state doesn’t entail Orwellian totalitarianism like you’d expect, but is rather continuous with a hyper-stimulated decadence that doesn’t give a shit if anyone lives or dies — in fact, they’ll pay to have the death caught on tape.
The film revolves around Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a disgraced and dishevelled neo-noir Neo(as in Keanu)-inspired but more Deckard-looking disc-jockey-cowboy who trades in the black market for simstim discs that simulate the perverse desires of their buyers. But this is no AR shit. Real-life actors, usually prostitutes or assassins, are paid to act out these desires and record their sensations via a device worn on the head, like a metal skullcap, that jacks into their cerebral cortex. (The movie’s slang for simstim addicts is “wire heads”.) Most of it is porn, but you can occasionally find snuff films caught from first-person-shooter POV. The movie follows two parallel murder mystery plotlines. The first mystery is to identify an actor in a snuff film before he kills his next target, and the second mystery is the murder of a high-profile gangster rapper who was a revolutionary voice unifying black Americans. (The film eerily presaged Tupac Shakur’s murder by a year.)
One murder leads to the other, but though the killers are not the same, both murders are a feature, not a bug, of a decadent society. Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium is a Bacchanalian free-for-all so far beyond any stable point of reality or morality that it’s more like a collection of individuals rather than a functioning society. It’s a 90s movie that’s really a post-60s movie. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like, ever since the 60s ended, American culture and politics has subsequently just been an attempt at dealing with the fallout of the unleashing (others might say “liberation”) of the individual self, and all its attendant emotions, in the hysterical and militant 60s.
In Strange Days, the streets are a war zone littered with an ethnically-diverse cast of human trash. The war is raging between blacks and whites, between the rich and the poor, between the police and everyone else. The 60s promised a freedom, if not racial- or class-based, then at least the personal liberation of the mind and the soul. And look what that freedom has begotten: a city of “liberated” whores, “liberated” pimps, “liberated” gang-bangers and thugs, “liberated” swindlers, and an even more repressive police force that’s certainly at liberty to do anything they want to a population that mirrors back their Bacchanalian violence. No one in the movie has a “real job” except for Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), one of Lenny’s only friends in the world. It’s every man for his own free self out there.
This decadence is also what allows for the film’s intoxicating delirium. The plot, while certainly captivating enough, can be boiled down to the typical, Dostoyevskian elements common to noir (disgraced cowboy/ex-cop/scumbag with a good heart tries to save an angelic prostitute who represents his salvation from the silt of society), so it’s not just about the story. It’s about the atmosphere, the sense of garbage time, the vertiginous first-person perspective shots that are almost nauseating in the jerkiness of their movements, the amphetamine rush of numerous well-paced, high-impact action and chase scene that don’t hold back on gratuitous collateral violence (thus making the chaos more palpable, instead of the usual stuff where just a few people fall over). The citizens of this city may not act like a society, but they’re perfectly capable of acting as a crowd, as a fizzing, undulating force whose general amphetamine rush could easily go off the edge into paranoia and violence at any moment given the trigger. The streets are the over-ground, and then there is the Bacchanalian underground, which looks like the backstage of the world’s theatre: everyone in costumes, from punk/grunge to BDSM leathers to rainbow-haired drag to lolita babydolls to eyeliner’d gothick boys to lioness strongwomen to sleek, un-charmable, black militants: a nation spazzing out on the question of individual identity, where it’s just so easy to be whoever the fuck you want to be. Limousines roll through streets alongside military tanks and drivers apathetically flash their licence at numerous police roadblocks before rolling up at the underground sex-dungeon-rave-club. Only in a decadent society — a society that has lost all conception of a common social good — can these extremes of fascism and permissiveness exist side by side without contradicting each other. Here, on the streets of Los Angeles on the cusp of the millennium, the police state doesn’t mean repression in a totalitarian way, but repression in a sexy way — they’re the sadistic daddies that add an edge to the whole thing and justifies its nihilistic thrill.
31 December 1999. It’s not the end of the world. This isn’t an apocalypse movie. Everyone knows that time will continue, except nothing will change. So we might as well act and celebrate as if it’s the end of the world, because reality was shot dead in its sleep a long time ago, and time, just like happiness and morality and race and the government, is just another societal construct.
In the last days of the millennium, the only place where a form of society (which I’ll loosely define as a collection of people who intuitively understand the imperative of sacrificing individual pleasure and gain for the benefit of the larger community) can be said to still exist is in Mace’s world, amongst the persecuted black community. In Lenny’s world, he’s totally alone; even the side characters he’s friendly with all have a transactional and transient feel to the relationship. His only real, lasting friend who sticks with him even at cost to her own self is Mace, who has the austere beauty of a Nefertiti, a high-principled Apollonian queen surveying a nation of savages.
Plot spoilers ahead, but as I already said above, this is a movie to be watched less for plot and more for the atmosphere of “fin-de-millennium” decadence (to borrow a portmanteau from film critic Nick Pinkerton’s review of the movie).
The Rahab figure who needs saving is a prostitute-turned-rockstar called Faith (Juliette Lewis) who, despite her musical success, remains in the grips of her noided wire-head music agent, Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). Faith and Lenny have a history, and saving her becomes Lenny’s only guiding purpose in the ruins of his life, until his friendship with Mace enters a deeper level of intimacy. The movie ends with Faith being saved, but also conveniently pushed out of the picture.
Given where she ends up by the time the credits roll, she won’t be a trouble to Lenny anymore. Out of sight, out of mind. She was a promising young star and, in the light of Lenny’s graces, she was a free person. But ultimately, she and her friend Iris fail to rise above their status as common whores, the redeeming angels who cannot find redemption for themselves. The character of Mace is written as an alternative, tough-love saviour-angel, and it would be nearly unconscionable, against the background tumult of police brutality, for the audience to root for Faith, who starts seeming more and more like an opportunistic slut, over Mace. This even though there’s little to no chemistry between Mace and Lenny until New Year’s Eve, when she emerges in a glittery party dress that causes him to do a double-take, a plot device typical to corny romcoms that’s unnaturally transplanted into this cutting-edge noir thriller.
The prostitute is a central figure in cyberpunk fiction, acting as a female mirror to the noir cowboy. In her own way, she’s also an underground hustler, using her body and her charm (instead of geeky wires and machinery) to seduce her way into getting more information, or drugs, or tech. Sometimes she gets roughed up in the process too, just like her male counterpart. Mace is no cyberpunk figure. She’s fortified both physically and mentally, with a solid grounding in reality and a pair of arms like sexy boulders; she’s deeply bonded to her immediate and extended family; and she refuses to even try using “wires” (in the movie there’s a distinct but unspoken racialisation of this simstim technology — only the white people seem to be users). She’s the much-needed reality principle beyond the convoluted games of the cyberpunk underground; she’s not a gambler, she makes honest money, and therefore feels no compulsion to entertain, let alone participate in, the mindfuck-y networks of treachery and delusions that noir is built on, and which make it great as a genre. Cyberpunk’s “high tech, low life” vision of a future is one where lowlifes can flourish, but this does not make it a vision of equality. The institutional hierarchies remain, it’s just that there’s more opportunities to game them via modern tech.
The cyberpunk future is a decadent one. It’s not a vision of structured equality, but of total anarchy, in all its bacchanalian brutalism. After all, cyberpunk as a genre arose alongside visions of cosmopolitan disasterism, and the increasingly tight squeeze of the de-centralised market in the grips of vague, multinational corporate monopolies. Cyberpunk is a vision of moving harder, faster, and more unintelligibly than the market does; an underworld utopia where the individual identity can be preserved instead of succumbing to the anonymous brainwashed masses. In essence, cyberpunk is little more than a glorified criminal lifestyle, a techno-Ubermensch vision for those who have no past, no future, and no problems.
I love cyberpunk, and I maintain that the cyberpunk figure of Faith was got rid off way too conveniently (a writerly shortcoming that hurts both her character and Mace, who seems unconvincing in comparison), but I understand Bigelow’s bigger hand as director: the 60s/90s have to end sometime. The era needs to close, so that time can start moving forward again, instead of being trapped in a slum spiral regurgitating its own waste from bygone eras.
In 2021, I want time to finally start moving forward for us, too. At least in Strange Days they got fireworks.
Depending on how you look at it, hopelessness can also spring eternal. In a COVID world, we envision the future as a return to the past: instead of moving forward, we long for things to return to the way they were before masks, social distancing, lockdowns, and this weird evil invisible thing in the air. Time becomes a production line of progressive worsenings, so that each new event makes us long for a lesser evil. Hindsight makes a lot of things seem better than we remember. So, in a way, the absence of fireworks was a true reflection of reality, a denial of denial. To have ended 2020 with fireworks would have just been a placating lie. Now that I know there’s no future, I can plan for the future. Now that I know I won’t have years to get it right, I can start getting right now. This is perhaps the real liberation for the millennium mind, what Jacques Lacan (h/t Slavoj Žižek) called jouissance.
 My ideas of the Apollonian and the Dionysian (or Bacchanalian) are drawn from Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson by Camille Paglia, a titan in cultural theory.