Posted in: Essays

The Loveless Worlds of Kathryn Bigelow

First things first: We’re not jumping on the Bigelow Bandwagon here. We’ve known from the beginning. We saw the promise in The Loveless and Blue Steel and the genius in Near Dark and Strange Days, defended Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker against detractors who saw them as nothing more than shallow pandering to the mainstream action movie market, and now watch with satisfaction the triumph of The Hurt Locker and with amusement the teapot tempest over the implications of a Best Director Oscar for Kathryn Bigelow.

Kathryn Bigelow

The issue is whether it is more politically incorrect to honor a woman for excelling in the making of films viewed by many as fundamentally “women’s movies” (say, Jane Campion) or to honor a woman (say, Kathryn Bigelow) for breaking out and excelling at making films that appeal chiefly to men. Nora Ephron sought to neutralize the dilemma in her apt comment that when you make a movie you’re not a “woman director,” you’re a director. But Ephron herself doesn’t make very interesting movies, and her observation may suggest why. Why shouldn’t we expect a woman director to make films that are about—or at least sensitive to—a woman’s point of view? Don’t we expect a black, or a Turkish, or a disabled director to bring to his art the unique perspectives of his experience? Isn’t that what artists—at least the best ones—always do?

For too many years, it’s been standard to characterize Bigelow as a maker of “action movies,” “men’s movies,” or “movies that appeal to men.” The growing body of critical work on Bigelow’s films, however, takes a different view, one that invalidates both the Bigelow-Campion debate and Ephron’s nullification. Read almost any serious study of Bigelow and you are likely to encounter the phrase “the female gaze.” And rightly so. Bigelow is compellingly drawn to the things that make men and women different, the things that separate them. When her films focus on predominantly or exclusively male communities, they betray an interest in how the absence or rejection of women affects male behavior and consciousness.

In almost equal proportion, Bigelow is also fascinated with the things that separate women from one another. Her films are virtually devoid of “girl talk” scenes in which female characters bond and share what they cannot or will not share with men. Indeed, women in Bigelow’s films don’t really get along with one another much at all. The only exception I can think of is Megan Turner and her friend Tracy Perez in Blue Steel, and their relationship costs them both dearly.

Although Bigelow’s first feature film The Loveless (1982) was co-written and co-directed with Monty Montgomery, it already exhibits a “female gaze,” and establishes a number of the themes, images, and techniques she would revisit, revise, and perfect over her 27-year odyssey to The Hurt Locker. It’s a reasonably safe bet that the directorial vision present in The Loveless is Bigelow’s rather than Montgomery’s, given that the film remains Montgomery’s only directorial credit.

A re-take on The Wild One, The Loveless is set in a different era, at a time midway between The Wild One’s jazz-fired roar against conformity and Easy Rider’s acid rock abandon, and is laced with a stiff shot of fetishist imagery—loving montages of cars and bikes, leather and metal, tools and body parts à la Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising. But The Loveless was made well after all of those films, and is equal parts homage to and reinvention of the biker genre.

A salient feature of the film is the way its rhythms are dictated by and echoed in the almost constant music. Robert Gordon, who also costars as the edgy biker Davis, composed some of the music, and is credited with selecting, planning, and arranging the rest, a rich fabric of early rock, late swing, blues, Latin, and rockabilly. The anthem of the film is “Relentless” by Eddy Dixon, a compelling rockabilly blues whose shimmering, hiccupping guitar intro and underbeat are echoed in the scores to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Wild at Heart, and Mulholland Dr. This is no surprise: Monty Montgomery became a producer for Lynch not long after The Loveless, co-produced Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart, and portrayed the enigmatic “Cowboy” in Mulholland Dr.; and Dixon himself acted in Lynch’s short “The Cowboy and the Frenchman” and in Wild at Heart. Angelo Badalamenti’s scores for Lynch’s films often feature the strong influence of Dixon’s truly relentless guitar riffs. (My efforts to find a recording of Dixon’s “Relentless” have been so far unsuccessful, but it seems inconceivable that this song should be unavailable, so if anyone has a good lead on where a disc or download could be had, please let me know.)

“Relentless” plays through the credits of The Loveless and into the opening shot, where the wheels of a motorbike meet the road, and the boots of its rider stride into the shot and plant themselves for a tilt-up reveal of the then-new Willem Dafoe in all his disarmingly androgynous, leather-clad glory. The music fades away to ambient sound as the camera cranes away to an overhead shot. The rider preps the bike with stately ceremony in a wry, shortcut version of the opening shot of Lawrence of Arabia, then mounts and, rising in the saddle, pumps down on the starter pedal—and the engine doesn’t turn over. Silence. A beat. A second pump, the engine roars to life, and the music fades back in, like a sigh of relief, as if it had never gone, as if there’d been no interruption at all. There is, after all, nothing silly or embarrassing about taking two kicks to start a motorbike. The joke is not about bikes or bikers, it’s about movie style and audience expectations.

In a voiceover, we learn of the rider’s attachment to the road: “This endless blacktop was my sweet eternity.” But this is no road movie; it concerns itself with what happens between the time a gang of bikers bound for Daytona leave the road for unscheduled repairs in a forgotten Georgia truck-stop of a town and the time they head back out. It’s a duration of less than a day, but it’s an important day in the life of the town, for The Loveless is about how a band of outsiders catalyzes the implosion of a town already so full of anger, resentment, and dirty secrets that nothing short of implosion will do.

But we aren’t quite there yet. As the rider continues down his sweet eternity, we get a shot of a woman sitting in a Thunderbird on the shoulder of a country highway. As we look at her sitting in her disabled car, our rider roars by in the background, almost incidentally. The shot doesn’t end; the camera stays by the woman in the car, but readjusts its view as the biker sails on down the highway. Only after we have decided he isn’t going to stop does the bike slow and circle back. So already, before the actual encounter between biker and stranded driver, the film’s gaze establishes multiple possibilities: he doesn’t care, he really does want to help, or he has something more menacing in mind. All of those possibilities are borne out in the remarkable short scene that follows, a sustained exercise in reversal and re-reversal of expectation that could stand alone as a short film of itself.

By the time the rider rolls up in front of the diner that is the social and cultural center of the unnamed town, Bigelow has already established a grammar of well-planned, leisurely long takes in which the camera’s adjustments of angle and viewpoint manipulate our sense of possibilities, and challenge our generic assumptions about bikers. The diner scene adds something new to the grammar: a long stationary shot in which the space itself is filled with possibilities. The shot is dominated by the diner’s windows, and we don’t for a moment believe this biker is alone, so we are expecting to see, through those windows, the rest of his gang come rolling up at any moment. It doesn’t happen. But as we watch this unmoving composition, it might occur to us that it is like a reverse-POV of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” and we might remember that Kathryn Bigelow was a painter before she was a film maker.

Willem Dafoe as Vance
Willem Dafoe as Vance

The rider orders breakfast and sits in contemplation as Brenda Lee’s “I Want to Be Wanted” emanates from the jukebox. The biker’s conversation—in VO and with the waitress—is couched in eclectic slang that cuts across decades: “Things could be goin’ jake one moment, then, presto, b’fore you know it, you’re history”—not so much suggesting anachronism as unifying different eras into a time and place that never were—anticipating by two years Walter Hill’s rock ’n’ roll fable Streets of Fire. Over time, the accumulation of diegetic music (“So Young,” “Goodbye Baby,” The Diamonds’ “The Stroll,” Sandy Nelson’s “Let There Be Drums” sans guitar part, “Raunchy” in the Ernie Freeman, not the Bill Justis version) will finally place the film pretty squarely in 1959. But in this small town in Georgia, it’s always 1959, and 1959 is anytime, anywhere.

The waitress Augusta, to the irritation of a more senior waitress, is a little heated up by the biker. She actually seems a little heated up by everything. When the biker asks her if this is a town, she doesn’t get it, and he has to ask twice. She carefully formulates her answer: “If you weren’t born here, you wouldn’t have much reason for stayin’.”

We keep watching those windows. But when the rest of the gang finally do arrive, it’s offscreen. We hear the bikes roar up, but don’t see them; and next thing we know, they’re in the diner too. Soon all six bikers are in place: Vance (the Dafoe character), Davis, Hurley (with his name on his belt buckle), Ricky (who flirts with risk and shows photos of his post-wipeout abdominal surgery), La Ville, and the lone woman biker, Sportster Debbie.

Bored, a little impatient, but game for anything, Debbie is a delightful character who gets one of the film’s best lines—a line that might, in fact, be the signature of the film. While the gang hangs out in the town’s garage, repairing a damaged motorbike chain (the raison d’etre for the gang’s stopover, and for the film), she steps out for a smoke, all in leather but with the ’50s lady-biker’s trademark chiffon scarf around her neck. The garage owner, who is as suspicious as the rest of the town about these outsiders, but also admits to being titillated by their lifestyle, asks her, “Those grease monkeys givin’ you a hard time?” To which Debbie replies, both contentiously and provocatively, “Do I look affected?”

The conversation resumes as Debbie, ignoring the garage owner’s come-on, diverts her attention to the closest thing the town has to a nerd, the bespectacled late-teener who seems to be hanging around everywhere. “That your boy?” she asks. “Yeah,” the disappointed garageman replies. “Got a wife?” “Yeah.” A beat. Then Debbie: “Good. I like families.”

Debbie’s a Howard Hawks woman, smart, confident, gives as good as she gets. But she’s a secondary player to the film’s principal female character, Telena, the first in a line of Hawksian women that spans Bigelow’s career.

Telena, a short-haired mid-teener who matches Vance for androgyny, rolls up in a slick Corvette to the accompaniment of a reprise of the instrumental line from “Relentless.” Vance fixes on her, she on him, and the two of them join the car, the camera and Dixon’s guitar in an encounter so rhythmically choreographed you could watch it again and again.

“Gonny cigarettes?” she asks. Vance replies, “Yes—but I’d feel like I was promotin’ child abuse”—a witticism that takes on poignant power in light of later revelations. He gives her a cigarette anyway—a whole pack, in fact—and she lets him drive the Corvette. During the drive he gives her as much of a back story as we’re going to get: says he did time for stealing cars, then adds a Mann Act violation, and we’re not at all sure he isn’t making it up to perpetuate the child-abuse motif of his earlier line. When she asks for an explanation of the Mann Act, he changes the subject, so we’re left thinking it is true after all. Again we are given the dual possibilities of menace and wise-ass humor.

They make a liquor run that takes them to a store run by “darks,” by which Telena is visibly repulsed, but which doesn’t faze Vance. Treated coldly by the store-owner whose card game he has interrupted, Vance rejoins, “I’m not as white as I look.” We take this as a reference to his prison time.

When Vance drops the liquor with his mates at the garage, they get their first look at Telena. One of them coos to Vance, “Does it have a name?” Telena jumps on the reply: “It has a voice, too.” Ricky regales her with a showing of his surgery photos, which resonates with Vance’s asking Telena about the indistinct scar on her face, and the story she tells him in reply.

Vance and Telena’s sexual moment in a nearby motel is capsulized in a single overhead shot of post-coital exhaustion; the two, both seen from behind, could easily be taken for a pair of male lovers. We hear “So Young,” we see no real tenderness (though no suggestion of brutality or exploitation either)—the moment is one of sexual confusion, both on their part and ours. Neither the momentary lovers nor their audience senses satisfaction, and it’s partly because each of them seeks something different from their sexual act.

After this, the film turns dark and moves toward a climax that pulls out all the stops both musically and dramatically, recalling films as diverse as La dolce vita and Shack Out on 101. It does not end well for Telena, the one truly precious thing in town, the one thing with a real chance for life, and though Vance is not indifferent (he genuinely looks affected), we get the troubling feeling that he might have saved her.

But something keeps Bigelow’s band of outsiders from connecting with women—from the lady in the T-Bird to Augusta the waitress to Telena to even their own Sportster Debbie, who has outdoor sex with one of the locals while the gang gather in the diner to witness the humiliation of Augusta. Like the night people of Near Dark and the blissed-out thrill-seekers of Point Break, the bikers live on the edge of society, banned by a kind of infirmity from ever grasping the completeness of real connection with others. Are they unloved or unloving or incapable of love? Again, all the possibilities are preserved.

As Bigelow’s Loveless are brought into sharp relief by the women around the edges of their world, so are the members of the predominantly male communities that populate most of her other films: the old-boy police force in Blue Steel; the FBI, the territorial surfers, and Bodhi’s mystical adventurers in Point Break; the underground network of men who eroticize thrills stolen from the memories of others rather than risk real interpersonal connection in Strange Days; the immigrant fishermen and the verbally brawling brothers of The Weight of Water; the bomb disposal squad of The Hurt Locker. The all-male world of K-19: The Widowmaker is the sole exception; the absence of or failure to connect with women is almost wholly absent from that film. The doomed Russian submariners’ separation from women is not of their choosing, and though it plays a psychological role in the film’s character relationships, it is not as important a theme as it is in other Bigelow films.

Sarah Polley as Maren in "The Weight of Water"
Sarah Polley as Maren in "The Weight of Water"

Bigelow’s women, the best of them, are Hawksian with a vengeance: the vampire Mae in Near Dark, prepared to make for her man the supreme sacrifice he could not make for her; Megan Turner, the unwelcome and untrusted female who penetrates the police force and the world of a serial killer in Blue Steel; Tyler, the surfing teacher and girlfriend of Point Break’s Johnny Utah, a re-imagination of Telena who becomes relegated to the role of woman in distress, pressed out of the film by Johnny’s all-consuming passion for Bodhi and what he represents; Lornette Mason, the strong center who ultimately owns the world of Strange Days; the willfully ill-fated sea-wife Maren and the confident intruder Adeline in the two worlds of The Weight of Water.

Hawksian males and male communities reject such women at their peril. The films of Hawks—which by now must be understood as forming a key to the films of Kathryn Bigelow—remind us that focusing on, even celebrating, the man-centered world of action and bravado does not preclude critiquing that same cult of masculinity. Red River’s Tom Dunson, to cite just one example, is defined—and cursed—by the fact that he has willfully excluded women from his world. The result is the fact that his adoptive heir, Matthew Garth, comes to represent femininity for most of the film—stressing the critical importance of reconciling and recombining both the masculine and the feminine principles in synthesizing the whole man.

Kathryn Bigelow’s oeuvre rings changes on this theme by counterpointing it with the image of the interloping outsider. The bikers of The Loveless intrude into the life the small town, and are counter-intruded upon by Telena. The vampires of Near Dark attack their victims, but their community is penetrated by the blundering Caleb. Blue Steel’s Megan Turner breaks into the police force, only to find her own world disrupted by the intrusion of a murder. Point Break’s Johnny Utah infiltrates Bodhi’s surfer band, only to find that he can never get out. Lenny Nero cracks into the world of traffickers in stolen memories and stumbles into a corrupt political infrastructure from which only the tough determination of Mace can extricate him in Strange Days. The harmonious community of Captain Polenin’s submarine crew in K-19: The Widowmaker is disrupted by the insertion of Captain Vostrikov as their new party-appointed watchdog and commander. Maren’s unhappy life in The Weight of Water is brought to crisis by the intrusion first of a German seaman and boarder and then of the unwelcome bride of her beloved brother, while in the film’s present-day story Thomas’s wife Jean disrupts the solidarity of Thomas and his brother Rich, and Rich’s girlfriend Adeline is the outsider who pierces the already fragile marital community of Thomas and Jean. And the bomb disposal squad of The Hurt Locker sees the arrival of a radical risk-taker as a threat to their professionalism as well as their lives, while the only thing that scares him is women.

The Weight of Water (2002)—as comparatively unfamiliar as The Loveless in Bigelow’s filmography—sets up some interesting resonances with that earlier film. On a boat trip, a woman photographer takes snapshots of her husband and his brother, establishing a female gaze at the bodies of men that echoes the imagery of The Loveless. The occasional use of voice-over gives The Weight of Water the same quasi-nostalgic “remembered” tone that Vance’s tough guy VO provides in the early part of The Loveless. In both films, a facial scar is a critical image recalling a painful past. Both films involve a woman whose passions have been numbed by incestuous sexual encounters and who finally can express herself only in violence. In a reversal of the Hawksian male’s exclusion of the feminine, the principal women of The Weight of Water reject men—Jean becomes increasingly distanced from Thomas for reasons she, and we, barely understand; Maren, inhibited from fulfilling her physical attraction to her brother, seeks sexual pleasure from her brother’s wife, and rejects the conventional love of men altogether.

The Weight of Water may be Kathryn Bigelow’s most ambitious examination of the space that separates women from men. Thomas and Jean—whether intentionally or not—embarrass each other by talking to a stranger (Adeline) about personal moments they barely discuss with each other. When Jean tries to openly profess her love for Thomas by sharing her fond memory of something he said to her when they first met, Thomas denies having said it, and condemns the sentiment as “shit.” The hurtfulness of their relationship seems sometimes intentional, sometimes blundered into, but always inevitable.

In the world of a century before, the wrongly accused German boarder Wagner does not know that he goes to the gallows to preserve a fiction, to conceal a woman’s forbidden passions. Jean’s re-examination of the 100-year-old case puts her in touch with her own—what?—passions? Lack of passion? Fear? She responds with initial exuberance to Thomas’s effort to make dangerous love in the aisles of a library, but then backs off: “I can’t … it’s not you, it’s me.” Even as he responds to her request to “hold me,” Thomas remains visibly irritated, unsympathetic to his wife’s most intimate revelation, and the feeling is like the one created by the simultaneous junction and separation of Vance and Telena in the motel room.

The distance that is always present in the greatest acts of closeness is the space where Bigelow’s films unfold. Passion is inseparable from fear of loss; frustrated passion makes people capable of anything; and that may be the closest we get to understanding the radical results of the passions of Kathryn Bigelow’s loveless.

© 2010 Robert C. Cumbow