1990s

Visions of the Future from 1995: I Am the Law

The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, known as the 1994 Crime Bill, was drafted by U.S. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, and signed into law by U.S. President Bill Clinton. The bill was a response to the disorder that had arisen from multiple social sectors — an anti-government sentiment which resulted in the fatal standoff at Ruby Ridge in 1992; religious separatism that led to the siege at Waco in 1993; inner-city disintegration that was accelerated by the crack epidemic; racial discontent that exploded in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The American crime rate peaked at 5,856 offenses per 100,000 in 1991, and there was a fear that these uprisings could challenge the validity of a teetering system. In an attempt to prove its “tough on crime” credentials, the “third way” Clintonite Democrats put forth the most comprehensive crime measure in U.S. history. Candidate Clinton promised to “take our country back” by “taking our neighborhoods back.” The Crime Bill was a clear signal to what Clinton regarded as “a culture alien to our own” — one that Hillary Clinton correlated with “super predators,” and one that Biden believed had “not been socialized.” A reckoning was at hand. The rhetoric was racially coded, but it applied to anyone who chose to stand in defiance of “law and order.”

Where previous generations of Democrats had sought to ameliorate social conditions through programs like Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, the Clintonites embraced punitive politics. Sociologist and criminologist William R. Kelly put it best: “Crime control or ‘tough on crime’ became a bipartisan issue.” If the aim was to create a criminal class, the Crime Bill was an unqualified success. The message was sent to those at the center of American life that the only effective means of pacifying the recalcitrant fringes was force — more police, more prisons, more executable offenses, fewer paths to rehabilitation. Clinton’s 1992 campaign slogan was “Putting People First,” which positioned those on the other end of the Crime Bill as something less than people. The capacity to dehumanize has always been present in cinema; to witness the vanquishing of enemies on the screen has served a cathartic function for every society in which cinema has taken hold. The enemies shift according to social priorities, but in the 90s that enemy became associated with urban criminality, and new methods of pacification were pondered. Subtleties get shaved off in the rush to project strength, and there is no better illustration of this than Judge Dredd, which took the satirical 2000 AD comic and turned it into a breathless paean to the monopoly of violence in the subjugation of refractory elements.

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Where Judge Dredd in comic form had been a playful extrapolation of Dirty Harry (1971), on the screen he is transformed into the embodiment of brute force at the service of political triangulation. Judge Dredd traverses the fantasy of absolute control; it is an act of wish fulfillment where a ruthlessly efficient, and largely bloodless, means of prevention is devised. Judge Dredd offers the audience a jouissance of conquest, flattering the viewer that violence can be controlled and guided as the optimum instrument of discipline. Just as the first Gulf War was the first military campaign to be presented as an antiseptic television spectacle — from whose narrative was edited by the reality of events like the Highway of Death and externalities like Gulf War Syndrome — Judge Dredd promises that the administration of fear will be just. Sylvester Stallone’s Dredd is reimagined as the desired disciplinary figure; he announces his arrival with seven “summary executions,” harnessing the libidinal charge of power. Stallone’s presence complicates this presentation; it is entangled in the star’s seductive aura, raising disquieting questions about the line that separates desire from domination. Judge Dredd asserts that we long to place ourselves under the boot that we recognize, to prostrate ourselves before the emissaries of ideology — who in this world are the Judges, a priestly class dispensing doctrinal writ.

The crawl at the beginning of Judge Dredd informs viewers that “In the third millennium, the world changed. Climate. Nations. All were in upheaval.”  The world of the 2080s is divided into the Cursed Earth and Mega-Cities; the choice is between “a poisonous, scorched desert’ and the vertical agglomeration of Mega-City One, whose lower streets are terrorized by “roving bands of street savages,” and whose skies are populated by flying cars and penthouses straight out of Metropolis (1927). One’s proximity to the ground determines their treatment by the “elite force” of this new order. Mega-City One’s class stratification is literal in Judge Dredd , and the role of policing in maintaining property relations is made clear. The lower orders are sold piety and restraint — they are encouraged by automated food dispensers to “Eat recycled food. For a happier, healthier life” — while they endure layers of incarceration: poverty or prison. Judge Dredd’s revulsion undoes its attempts at satire; the Judges are cast as the last bulwark against a tide of squalor and degeneracy that stems from a fundamental failing (Dredd’s locker contains a copy of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, drawing a clear historical parallel).

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Dredd is presented as the tool of a benevolent system’s will, symbolized by the noble Judge Fargo (Max von Sydow). For Fargo, force is the price of upholding civilization; it may not be elegant, but it is the only thing keeping the explicitly authoritarian designs of Judge Griffin (Jürgen Prochnow) in check. Griffin states that “for social order, we need tighter reins”; he wants to expand executable offenses, and stakes a claim to “the force of will that these times require’.” Clintonite liberals were engaged in a struggle between their inner Fargo and their inner Griffin — how best to deal with the alienation that was germinating in the imperial center. The material conditions of Mega-City One are a breeding ground for totalitarianism, and Dredd represents the liberal desire for a return to normalcy, to reinstate a previous set of values when the conditions no longer exist for them to be implemented in a recognizable way. Meaning flows from the Book of the Law which guides the Judges, but it has within it the contradictions which it must combat, and will be replicated endlessly. The world of Judge Dredd offers its underclass two outcomes: extermination or persecution. Dredd is the best they can hope for: a benign tyranny which exalts retribution as the supreme means of social hygiene. Dredd is the total absorption of the law into the subject; as he himself makes clear: “I am the law.”

The legitimacy of the law’s monopoly is once again cast into doubt by Strange Days. The 1995 film centers on a figure of the law thrown into turmoil, Lenny Reno (Ralph Fiennes), a disgraced former Vice Squad officer who now makes a living selling clips for the SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interfering Device), an illegal recording device which burrows into the cerebral cortex to capture the user’s point of view on MiniDiscs. The SQUID user can jack in and sample unfiltered experience — it’s like hooking your brain up to LiveLeak and feeling everything that life (and death) holds. Lenny may no longer be affiliated with the LAPD, but his new career stakes out the next zone of contention for power — it is explained that this technology was developed by the Feds, and one gets the sense that Lenny is engaged in an off-the-books mission, in his own mind at least. Lenny sells himself to his clients as their “main connection to the switchboard of the soul. The Santa Claus of the subconscious.” He assures himself that he is serving a crowd control function, taming the war-torn streets of L.A. by wrapping people in an overwhelming illusion. Lenny is not immune to the allure of the SQUID; he relives his time with his ex-lover, Faith (Juliette Lewis), by replaying cherished clips and lapsing into electronically stimulated recollections of a golden age he believes he can claw back.

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In Strange Days, the grammar of authority has become jumbled. Coming out of the L.A. riots, the city of this projected 1999 is pitched on the brink of exploding: militarized police patrol the streets, armed business owners protect their property from the mob, flashes of violence serve as the backdrop for the film’s narrative. These are the final fetid breaths of the 20th century, the death rattle of a failed consensus — a caller to a radio phone-in show laments that “nothing changes on New Year’s Day. The economy sucks, gas is over three bucks a gallon, fifth-grade kids are shooting each other at recess. The whole thing sucks.” Militant rapper Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer) prophesizes that history is about to be dramatically restarted, and he is then gunned down in what is described as a gang-related incident. The gang who murders Jeriko turns out to be the LAPD, the city’s most deadly gang who took exception to the man’s condemnation of the police organization as “a military force turned against its own people” and his attempts at “getting all the gangbangers together.” Jeriko represents a form of Black leadership which has to be extirpated; his consciousness poses a threat to the tribalism which justifies the LAPD’s tactics in handling the city’s Black community. This depiction of the LAPD is all the more remarkable for coming before the revelations unearthed by the Rampart scandal.

In the absence of a functioning state, personal protection becomes a matter of engaging with mutual aid. If it is understood that law enforcement is pursuing its own agenda, then ordinary citizens are drafted into what amounts to remedial gig work. When Lenny witnesses a murder on a SQUID disc, he must reckon with the power that the technology confers. Strange Days begins as an exegesis on emerging technology, then becomes a neo-noir;  a shadow procedural in which the washed-up flatfoot must step into “the dark end of street” to crack the case. Lenny is pulled between the nihilism of louche PI Max (Tom Sizemore) and the compassion of hard-working chauffeur Mace (Angela Bassett). Max avers that “Everything’s already been done. Every kind of music’s been tried, every government.” He speaks to the feeling of despair that all the old idols have been discredited, and all that remains are used memories and dissipation. Mace is a galvanizing force, as she tries to draw Lenny out of the stupor induced by Faith’s memory into a confrontation with the real, to drag him from voyeurism into action. When the investigation leads Lenny to the SQUID clip which proves that the LAPD murdered Jeriko, it is Mace who tells him that “It’s real time. Time to get real,” that “Maybe it’s time for a war,” that confronting the big beast on its own terms is the only way of breaking its hegemony.

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Strange Days does a great job of identifying problems, but it is ideologically predisposed to shy away from their implications. In the end, it takes the position that good individuals can redeem corrupt institutions — deputy police commissioner Palmer Strickland (Josef Sommer), the only honest man on the force in Lenny’s estimation, helps to bring down the plot to cover up Jeriko’s murder. There is talk of death squads, but Strange Days doesn’t have the stomach to pursue this, pulling back to conclude that it is all paranoia. There can be no structural critique, merely individual wrongdoing. Strange Days assumes the centrist ideal that these corroding vessels of public service can be salvaged by placing the right people at their helm; they are not constructed in prejudicial ways, but are steered towards bad outcomes. It falls into line with the prevailing doctrine of the mid-90s that a more conscious form of law enforcement is possible, that punishment can be wedded to progress, that we can create better people at the barrel of a gun. Despite all the evidence on the streets, it is merely the over-exuberance of the heavily armed grunts which creates friction. The stormtroopers who had previously beaten Mace and set off a riot are valorized for turning their weapons on the bad apples in the LAPD. As the year 2000 arrives, the celebrations are part street party, part siege — a chilling portent of the coming disorientation. Revelers hug National Guardsmen as fireworks pop and confetti falls. The relief is palpable that the crisis has been averted and history has been repelled.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.