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The rise and demise of virtual reality

by Critical Commons Manager

It is remarkable how repetitive the tropes of virtual reality are when depicted in commercial cinema of the past three decades. And while the technologies driving VR have evolved, the promise of their actualization and the ways they interface with human bodies has remained relatively static, at least in the cinematic imaginary. The possibility of experiencing illicit, dangerous or forbidden actions give rise to repeated extremes of exoticism, adventure, violence and erotics, relentlessly portrayed through a first-person camera point of view. Another way of looking at it is that VR provides an excuse for Hollywood cinema to simultaneously indulge in the excesses of such visual pleasures, while distancing itself from the technology that is diegetically responsible for presenting such content to audiences.

A cursory survey of movies and TV shows since the early 1980s reveals the inscription and reinscription of standard tropes of VR - complex technological apparatuses that deliver "safe" (but never completely safe!) experiences that we may be denied in everyday life: particularly extremes of violence, sexual pleasure and other kinds of exoticism. The apotheosis of these depictions in American entertainment came in 1995, with the release of more than a half-dozen feature films and TV shows within the space of a few months. Among these, Strange Days, Virtuosity and VR5 all delivered a vision of virtual reality that was indistinguishable from real life -- that is complete sensory, emotional immersion in a world that was entirely generated by a computer. In 1995, if TV and movies were to be believed, the coming generation of VR technology was poised to deliver consumer-level virtual reality that was indistinguishable from the real world. Ellen Strain has termed this phenomenon of the cinematic imaginary "virtual virtual reality," noting that the Hollywood fantasies of VR led to impossibly high expectations in comparison with actually existing virtual reality technologies in the 1990s. So by the time Nintendo released the Virtual Boy in 1995, consumers who paid nearly $200 for the 3D gaming system experienced not sensory immersion but a 2-bit monochromatic LED display with images about the size of a YouTube video.

Nintendo went on to release a limited number of cartridges based on existing Game Boy titles such as Mario Tennis, Bowling, Golf, Baseball, Pinball, Boxing and Tetris. But the primary sensory response from players was a combination of nausea and headaches and The Virtual Boy was discontinued the following year. A year earlier, Sega also discontinued development of its own visor-based VR system, issuing a tongue-in-cheek public explanation that the virtual reality experience had been so realistic that test subjects were injuring themselves by attempting to walk into virtual spaces while wearing the visor. Put bluntly, we can consider the rampant commercial depictions of VR in 1995 as an instance of the movie industry launching a highly effective attack against the gaming industry, successfully raising consumer expectations to the level of big-budget Hollywood feature films.

Subsequent years saw the rapid decline of commercial viability for Virtual Reality in the decade after 1995; development funds that had been channeled to VR labs at Atari and NASA Ames were eclipsed by the frenzy of speculative investment in the Internet, leading to the dotcom bubble and subsequent collapse just five years later. To overstate the case only slightly, "virtual virtual reality" on TV and in movies *killed* real virtual reality as a medium for commercial entertainment in the mid 1990s.

RE: Changing the Outcome

by Sanghee Oh

Is "Strange Days" a feminist tale with a strong non-white female lead? While there are certainly elements of strong feminist leadership depicted in the film, mainly embodied by Angela Basset's character Lornette "Mace" Mason, the overwhelming tone of its blindly accepting the problematic virgin/whore binary of women is quite alarming. It is no doubt that the female characters in "Strange Days" exhibit strong distinctive personalities, yet their gender identities fall into two extreme stereotypes of virgin/whore. Let's start with Faith, the underground rock star. Faith is a fair-skinned seductive songstress with ambiguous morals, who is always dressed in skimpy clothes or simply nothing. She radiates an aura of decadent sensuality, yet plays a damsel in distress. In the beginning of the film Faith is depicted as the protagonist Lenny's ideal woman, but later revealed as an adulteress who has relations with Lenny's best friend Max. On the other side of the spectrum exists Mace, the polar opposite of Faith. Mace is a dark skinned single mother and a fearless fighter with a rational mind who constrains her sexuality in professional attires. Mace is in fact the only character in the film without a fault. She is a perfect mother figure to both her child and Lenny, whose moral is never questioned or corrupted, and later becomes a martyr who nearly sacrifices herself for a revolution, and is rewarded in the end by Lenny's returning affection. Within this logic of binary female identity, the bad white woman is replaced with the black good woman (or of any other race) while the white man remains in the scene. The bad ones are punished for her sins (Iris is raped and murdered while Faith is escorted by the police) and the good one is bestowed with the once-bad one's place in the relationship. However, despite of her winning of the good standing for being good and proper, Mace is also sexualised and exoticised, turning into something of non-human entity. In the Y2K finale scene, being chased by two corrupt cops in the New Year's crowds, she takes her shoes off and sprints. As she runs, the camera rapidly follows her along with the high tempo music and fast editing, inevitably portrays her less of human, more of animal who is on the run. Once she hides herself in the crowds, she counterstrikes two cops, took them down single-handedly with some animal-like reflex. What is Mace? Is she truly a new example of strong female leadership? Or is she just a subject of the ongoing fetish-isation that simply turns her into the Other? Can she ever escape from the exotic racial stereotypes?

Re-Membering Rodney King

by Brian Flory

Re-Membering Rodney King

The events of Strange Days explicitly revolve around memory and personal history, but in a peculiar sense. While Lenny Nero markets his playbacks as “tv, only better,” they are actually lived experience, recorded and relived by the consumer, a consumer never present for the actual events. It isn’t remembering, it’s re-membering, a substitution of the original, historical participant for a new, passive observer, one totally without agency, but for whom the memory seems real. This complicates the technology in a variety of ways. For example, the rich can re-member the lives of the less privileged, “take a walk to the dark end of the street,” as Lenny puts it - but without funds to buy, the poor and the oppressed lack access to the experiences of the rich. Leaving aside for a moment the gap in technological proliferation across socioeconomic lines, there are other things at stake in playback.

                Even Lenny is hooked on his own product, reliving his memories of his relationship with Faith (Juliette Lewis). It’s clear from his reactions, though, that even in this case, the re-membering function of playback is intact. He is a different person now, appreciates even his own memories in a different light than the old Lenny. His ability to let these memories fade (or not) is a major turning point of the film, as Mace (Angela Bassett) must convince Lenny to live fully in the present.

                As is often the case in cinema, however, Strange Days inscribes as personal what is a strongly political act. From Lenny’s reliving of his own story to Keith’s (Joe Urla) trip into the memories of an eighteen year old girl, it’s implied that playback is a solo experience, highly personal, tailored to some extent to individual desires (Lenny even serves as director at one point, telling a woman who sells him a sex playback: “Honey, you gotta move your eyes slower next time. It’s too jerky.”).

                Of course, it’s more complicated than this. The end of the film takes place in a party atmosphere, where a crowd of many different ethnicities gathers to celebrate the turn of the year from 1999 to 2000. When Mace overpowers the two dirty cops (Vincent D’Onofrio and William Fichtner), she’s assaulted by their fellow officers (whom we only suspect are dirty). The framing and blocking are clear in their evocation of the Rodney King beating, and the response is predictable: the party crowd turns into a riot when young teenage African-American leaps on one of the cops and shouts “leave her alone.”

                This is our re-membering, sold to us by director Kathryn Bigelow rather than Lenny Nero. Here, however, we have re-membering on a large scale. It’s apparent that the film diverges from history in the sense that Mace is rescued by the mob while the mob response to Rodney King’s beating came far too late to save him physical injury, occurring instead in response to an acquittal verdict at trial.

                More significantly, though, while the LA riots took place in South Central Los Angeles, an area heavily populated by African American and Hispanic residents, these ethnicities were the most heavily represented in the riots. In contrast, while the riot in Strange Days is sparked by an African-American youth’s action, it takes place in an area set aside for an enormous New Years party, and involves party goers of all ethnicities. In fact, it is the first cop we see clearly after the riot breaks out that is African-American (which is not to say there were not African-American police on the job during the 1992 riots, only that the other police present in the scene in Strange Days are until this point wearing riot gear so their ethnicities are not obvious).

                By re-membering the 1992 riots as pan-ethnic, Strange Days functions in similar fashion to Sim City: Sim City’s riots are notable for the erasure of the social and ethnic tensions that prompt such action, thereby eliding the tensions themselves. In Strange Days, the long simmering tensions in South Central, tensions rooted in socio-historical causes, are reimagined as a common response to the personal experience of witnessing Mace’s beating.

                Yet where Sim City (according to Julian Bleeker) invokes traces of racial tension through their absence, through the way in which the riot seems to spring up  almost ahistorically, Strange Days fails to invoke that same tension because of the display at the epicenter of the riot. Sure, Mace is African-American, but so is the cop. And many of the rioters are not. Isn’t it natural that everyone would take her side, the side of the sympathetic hero? It isn’t just angry minorities finally reacting to decades of injustice who save her. Even the white police commissioner took her side. We all did. At least, that’s the way we like to re-member it.

                Of course, this strategy can also be deployed in other ways, such as in the JFK Assassination simulation. If, through the program, we re-member conditions under which it is impossible for a lone gunman to duplicate the shots of the day, then it must be impossible for Lee Harvey Oswald to have made those shots. Never mind that he was not attempting to produce those exact shots, but was instead attempting only to kill the president. It’s an impressive feat in perfect conditions to reproduce one shot exactly, much less successive shots in adverse conditions. Production is not necessarily difficult, even if reproduction is obviously so (and this is without even addressing the fidelity of the game engine). But the re-membering of the game is nonetheless convincing (that is, when we’re not busy re-membering the events of the day to involve spectacular crashes and bloodshed).

                Just as one of Lenny’s playback customers re-members someone else’s experiences, experiences rooted in a concrete, and probably unpleasant lived personal history, as a site of pleasure, the subject-audience of Strange Days re-members the Rodney King beating and the 1992 riots not as a painful memory, but as a locus for personal catharsis, an expiation of social and economic injustice.

Changing the Outcome

by Kristina Thomas

As you can tell from Angela Bassett's character in "Strange Days," she is a strong woman that you do not want to cross paths with. But near the end of the movie, she finally is taken down, and beaten. It is almost the same reenactment of Rodney King being innocently beaten down racist cops. In this case, Angela is beaten down and saved by the crowd. The events of the past, are now used to change the future. We often see women taking on very feminine roles, and they always have someone to save them. As Angela is beaten down, this is the one point in the story where we see this strong African American woman being broken down and beaten down, after fighting everyone along the journey to find Jericko's killer. "Strange Days" does show that she carries a lot of the motherly instincts; taking care of everybody, and making sure her friend Lenny stay out of harms way. In a lot of games we play we see female characters being portrayed as extremely sexy beings. Tomb Raider, Laura Croft has nothing but skin tight outfits, and yet is jumping from buildings and cars with a gun in hand, while male counterparts try to keep up. Also in Barb Wire, Pamela Anderson barely has any clothes on at points, and emphasizes sex. Yet times are changing, and Angela's character is not skin tight, and letting the whole world show her body, but see into how she thinks. “I’ll Make a Man Out of You: Strong Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Television" written by Anita Sarkeesian explores in her thesis paper, heroic women in science fiction and fantasy television shows have done much to represent strong, successful women in leadership positions. However, she writes that an abundance of female roles viewed as strong and empowered, embody many masculine identified traits, helping to portray a patriarchal division of gender roles. In that case, an example would be of Angela Bassett, strong muscles, hard exterior, until she is shown in her home. Sarkeesian continues in her thesis paper to "analyze strong female characters within nine television shows by deconstructing their stereotypically “masculine” and “feminine” gender specific attributes, by cross referencing how they play within and against traditional archetypes." Changing history, we change the way people view archetypal characters that need a change in the script formula. Popular culture and mass media messaging uphold the levels of power by giving more value to masculine attributes as observed in patriarchal discourse. It is most essential and critical to foster media supporting feminist ideals that breaks out of traditional oppressive gender binaries. This helps to promote, encourage and envision a just future society. In some ways, rather than watch the fight happen, the crowd does something about it. Change the future, change the way people think.

"Strange Days" and "Y: The Last Man" comparison along race and gender

by Josh Eiserike


When initially watching this sequence in class I didn’t make the Rodney King connection at all. I was too immersed in the story to really consider that and was making another connection to the popular comic book series “Y: The Last Man.”

In “Y,” protagonist Yorick Brown is the only male survivor of a mysterious plague that wipes out ever creature with a Y chromosome on the planet. He’s kind of a goofball (interested in magic and escape tricks, more interested in reconnecting with his girlfriend in Australia than anything else) and the story is about, as writer Brian K. Vaughan says, “how the last boy on Earth becomes the last man on Earth.”

But the main supporting character is a secret agent called “355” (her name is never given), a black woman with braided hair tasked with protecting Yorick as he goes on his journey. Like in “Strange Days,” the white male protagonist ultimately falls for his black female protector. (However, the ending to “Y” is a much, much better ending which I won’t spoil here). I know for a fact Vaughan likes to turn stereotypes on their head and challenge racial notions (in creating a villainous black character). He wrote on his Web site, defending that decision, “I know there are criminally few good black heroes in comics, but how many cool black villains are there?”

Race was only one facet of 355’s character and for me, the same was true with Angela Bassett in “Strange Days.” She was Raph Feinnes’s protector and ultimate love interest, but it struck me as much more obvious here that she loved him. Otherwise why put up with him?

But the connection I made to “Y” was a narrative about a white guy who has a lot of problems, issues with their (white) exes, maturity issues and a need to be protected. In the end, they both fall for their black protector.

The Rodney King angle is a bit different. I didn’t read it like that at all. I was thinking “If she’s the 355 character, she should be wasting these guys!” I have thought it would be more appropriate for her to have come out on top, not need the help of the city to save her (especially since the subtext is that a woman needs help to stand up to men). Another thought when watching that: if such a scene played out today, everyone would be on their camera phones, filming it, and the cops probably wouldn’t think twice… which is essentially the democratization of technology-- and essentially what caused the Rodney King riots. Now the filming would be on a much larger scale. 

Strange Days Y2K finale

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The final scene of Strange Days remediates the Rodney King beating and justifies intervention by a mob on the eve of Y2K

from Strange Days (1995)
Creator: Kathryn Bigelow
Posted by Critical Commons Manager