Archive for March, 2010

Kathryn Bigelow

Monday, March 8th, 2010

Despite all the snarky comments I’ve been getting, both about the film itself and about the director’s two acceptance speeches, I remain unrepentetly thrilled that Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director and Best Film Oscars for The Hurt Locker. There are just some times when, for me at least, rampant and delirious auteurism trumps everything. I have loved Bigelow’s films ever since I first saw Near Dark in 1987. My book The Cinematic Body (1993) begins with a discussion of Bigelow’s 1990 film Blue Steel; and I wrote a long article on Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) for this volume. There are just certain directors — not many — who captivate my gaze, and won’t let it go. Bigelow and Abel Ferrara are the only two American directors of their (and my) generation to do so.

I think it might have something to do with a kind of sensory immersion. This is aesthetics, both in the narrower sense of vicarious ravishment by works of art, and in the larger sense of “aesthetics” as a sensibility, a play of the senses, a kind of heightened reception. Near Dark, of course, is a nocturnal film, both as its title indicates and because it is about vampires, for whom sunlight is literally killing. “The night, it’s so bright…” Has there ever been a movie that has so well captured the tonalities of dim light (including starlight and artificial neon light), the ways in which (semi-)darkness is a sensual medium, a tender, welcoming blanket, an atmosphere in which previously unspoken desires can become manifest? These desires include the murders which the vampires must perform in order to feed; but they also include those of a romance in which the woman is the active one, pursuing the man; and Jenny Wright and Adrian Pasdar are both utterly ravishing. Not to mention the great Lance Henriksen as leader of the vampire clan. And then there are the marvelous set pieces, like the scene in the tough country-and-western bar, where the vampires take down a bunch of hardass dudes, while The Cramps’ cover of “Fever” plays on the jukebox… Near Dark is one of the great films about nighttime; and this includes poetic visions of dawn and dusk, and also the scene in which the vampires face a daytime shootout from the cops, the bullet holes in their motel room letting in stabs of murderous sunbeams. The vampires of Near Dark are classic American drifters, unmoored from the social contract, left out of the promises of the American dream, with a “family” that does not conform to bourgeois suburban norms. And although Near Dark ends, as genre pictures must, with the triumph of daylight and of “normalcy,” those nocturnal hauntings are what the movie leaves behind in our minds and hearts.

Blue Steel is, in its own way, as nocturnal a movie as Near Dark; its palette is largely blue-black, with hard neon lighting. Many of its scenes take place in the daytime, but the night scenes are the ones that stick in the mind. Add to that its scary gun fetishism, and Jamie Lee Curtis as a female cop stalked by Ron Silver’s psycho. Curtis’ performance is wonderfully butch, but at the same time she displays more than a hint of wry humor about her situation. This happens even as that situation becomes more and more unbearable, as Silver in effect draws Curtis into a situation of unwanted intimacy and complicity. As I say in my book, “the visual becomes violently tactile” in the course of Blue Steel; “something has happened to the act of looking… Bigelow pushes fetishism and voyeuristic fascination to the point where they explode.” I’d only add that this excess itself becomes sensual, bathed as it is in the alternations of darkness and light.

Point Break is also dominated by the color blue. But it moves in yet another direction, as everything comes out of, and returns back to, the element of water. Bigelow shows us the ocean and the beach as they have never been shown before. The images from this film that remain most in my mind are all those telephoto lens shots of waves breaking on the shore. (Though the images of bank robbers in Presidential masks are also pretty wonderful — especially the shot of “Reagan” as cheerful incendiary). Surfing and skydiving are both modes of activity in which beautifully vapid male bodies give themselves over to the primordial elements. The homoerotic tension/attraction between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze is itself immersed in the dynamics of waves and water. Surfer hedonism is taken up and transcended by the universal upswelling of a fluid dynamics.
Water is also central, this time in relation to female desire, and oppression and resistance, in The Weight of Water (2000); but I have only seen this once, when it first came out, so I cannot say very much about it. I do remember a kinetic moving camera, and the splashing of waves against the boat, but that is about it.
Strange Days has its own unique poetics of vision, which is what my article on the film was mostly about. Bigelow lovingly envisions nighttime Los Angeles, as part of the depiction of a post-apocalyptic (or at least, post-1992-riots) city riven by racial tension and virtually under martial occupation. This is the setting for a series of fluidly moving Steadicam action sequence shots. But the film also bifurcates into two regimes of vision. On the one hand, there is its series of first-person-POV shots (which play a major role in the movie’s science-fictional diegesis). On the other hand, there is its depiction of (as I wrote in my article) “the play of light and shadow, the foldings of space, and the impersonal movements of crowds”, mostly involving “visual clutter,” and “nocturnal blue-black lighting.” The postmodern angst/cool of Strange Days, and its portrayal of urban racial antagonisms (not forgetting the tough performance of Angela Bassett, whom I unreservedly worship in this film) is very different in feel from the cosmic or oceanic feeling that I was describing for some of the earlier films. But in its own way, the ironic cognitive dissonance of Strange Days is an adventure of the senses, an immersion into perceptuo-affective elements that stretch far beyond our own subjective measure.
K-19 The Widowmaker does not seem to be highly regarded, even among us Bigelow aficionados; but I think it deserves at least a moment’s consideration. Harrison Ford has never been more iconic, more self-subsistent, and (dare I say it) more John Wayne-like — something of an irony in a movie where he plays a Cold War Soviet submarine commander. As befits a movie set almost entirely inside a submarine, Bigelow’s mise-en-scene is tensely and intensely claustrophobic. In dialectical opposition to Point Break and The Weight of Water, here the liquid element is something that must be kept out, at any cost. The result is a kind of gripping minimalism, almost to the point of sensory deprivation. If Bigelow’s earlier films all bathed in ambiguous, sensual elements, the narrative of K-19 crackles and burns in the effort to keep out any trace of the elemental.
Which brings us to The Hurt Locker. This is a film that is once again bathed in the elemental — or better, it is a film in which the existential communicates directly with the elemental, with all other layers of significance stripped away. This is why the film is “apolitical” — it doesn’t take a stance on the Iraq war, which means in practice that (in the absence of critique) it can only be read as ratifying the war (or, at least as ratifying the late-Bush-surge and Obama-post-surge versions of the war, if not the idiotic Cheneyism that got us involved in Iraq in the first place). But to my mind, the film’s reductionism is part of what makes it work, and The Hurt Locker is vastly to be preferred to all the liberal hand-wringing films about the war, which for all their humanist anguish are not really any more radically critical of US imperialism than Bigelow’s film is. (I also prefer, speaking politically as well as aesthetically, the overt militarism of The Hurt Locker to the ostensible anti-militarism of Avatar; at least The Hurt Locker spares us the fantasy that progressively-minded white Americans are there in an “exotic” locale for the good of the “natives.” The story arc in which Jeremy Renner befriends an Iraqi boy shows us precisely that such connections, fantasized on the part of the invaders, are never real).
But I digress. What I loved about The Hurt Locker was, once again, as in Bigelow’s other films, the experience of sensory immersion. Only this time, we are not immersed in water, nor in the ambiguous protection and menace of the American rural and urban night. Rather, we get the harshness of sun and sand, the glare of the desert. Though there are a few night sequences, when we brush against the mysteries of the dark (particulary the on in which Renner’s character’s insistence upon nighttime pursuit puts his own men in grave danger), for the most part we are in a world without water or shadows, where everything is exposed to the sun’s pitiless glare. Now we are bathed (if I can still use that metaphor) in an element that leaves us fully exposed. The resulting harsh minimalism is comparable to that of K-19, but on a level of greater intensity. Despite the various incidents that crop up now and again (the Iraqi boy, the nighttime pursuit, the soldiers fighting in the barracks) the film is mostly a grim procedural (I am using this word on the analogy of the genre of “police procedural” — though here it is military rather than police). It moves from one set piece to another; and each set piece is another version of the dilemma of how to disarm a bomb. (The one more conventionally military episode in the middle, involving the sniper shootout in the desert, is itself a different sort of set piece, suggesting that the war as a whole has no narrative with beginning, middle, and end, but is itself only a series of endless, numbing serial repetitions).
The macho bravado of Renner’s character also only makes sense in the context of this purely routinized professionalism. The professionalism in turn seems only to be an inevitable quality of the element of sun and sand in which it is immersed. And this element is itself evoked, not only by the setting, but by the utterly dry and precise style of camera movement and editing, without a wasted moment or movement. Bigelow organizes each scene with the same tense exactitude that characterizes the actions portrayed in the scene. This is an amazingly self-conscious, higher-order-reflective version of action editing: it moves on a higher meta-level, but in an entirely different way than is the case with the usual self-reflexive pomo turns that we get in the films of Tarantino, the Coens, and all their lesser epigones. In The Hurt Locker, the senses are stretched to a point of acute tension and wary, analytical alertness; but one facet of Bigelow’s greatness is the way that this sort of subjective state, as well, can be seen, heard, and felt to overflow as a kind of nonsubjective sensorial immersion.

Let me bring this back to the overall question of Kathryn Bigelow as an auteur. I am entirely in agrement with Kathleen Murphy and Robert C. Cumbow, both of whom see Bigelow as a feminist daughter of Howard Hawks. And her action editing, of course, owes much to the example of such (male) predecessors as Sam Peckinpah, Don Siegel, and Walter Hill. But there is something else as well — a kind of directorial “signature” in Bigelow’s films. I am here thinking less of the French and Anglo-American auteurisms of the 1960s and the 1970s, than of the way that, in his first Cinema volume, Deleuze describes the “personal signatures” of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi, and relates them to the ways that these directors engage the elemental forces of landscape and weather, e.g., the sort of thing that makes Kurosawa “one of the greatest film-makers of rain”). Each of Bigelow’s films deploys a certain assemblage (to use a Deleuze/Guattari word) of color, camera movement, and physical/elemental atmosphere. These assemblages define a mode of perceptual experience, but they equally define a mode of that-which-is-perceived, and a mode of being of the environment — or, better, of the world – in which this perceptual interchange takes place. (I prefer “world” to “environment”, to emphasize that it is not just a setting for the subjective perceiver, but a matrix of which the perceiver himself/herself is also a part). This (ultimately asubjective or more-than-subjective) atmosphere of affect is what captured and captivated me when I first saw Near Dark, and what continues to enthrall me with regard to all her films. Given the Academy’s lame choices for best film and best director over the years, Bigelow’s Oscars can scarcely be credited as a verification or proof of her auteurial status; but I am nonetheless greatly pleased, and indeed thrilled, and indeed a bit amazed, that so singular and powerful an artist has actually (and quite unusually) received this sort of recognition.