Posted in: Essays

Black Arts

[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]

Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.

A jerry-rigged Bigelow family in "Near Dark"
A jerry-rigged Bigelow family in “Near Dark”

Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.

Bigelow’s pilgrims need to be seen to be believed, to be real: “I” must mirror large in the hungry eyes of audiences – call it vogue-ing or feedback or eye-fucking, in the lingo of whatever genre she’s currently mutating. As in Hawks’s besieged circles, acting out is give-and-take, with seasoned stars narrowcasting encoded signals of survival to fledglings, who may turn a blind eye or take heart. But Bigelow’s movies are also hi-tech Hitchcockian peepholes, penetrated by shafts of infecting light, that make us secret sharers in the sins of amped perception, succubi of dreams and nightmares generated out of the imagination and experience of another.

In The Loveless, a film as stylized as kabuki, a black-leathered flock of Fifties wild ones stop for repairs in a one-horse Southern town. The Harley-Davidson clan vamps in armored hipness, feeding on the fear, envy, and hatred of their sidelined auditors. Watching these exotic “road movies” breeds fantasy: a nerdy Norman Bates type, starstruck, mounts the seat of a glamorous hog; a desperately lonely young waitress is driven to stage a raunchy stripshow; and a faded, long-married man, eyeballing the gang’s curvaceous moll, dreams of being “one of them” for just a day.

The summer air in The Loveless throbs and superheats with nonstop rockabilly rhythms, eerily suspended visual and emotional violence. Vance, the biker family’s cool daddy (Willem Dafoe), affects to such chill, nothing seems to move him. But when he “gets into the open door” of a local Lolita (Marin Kanter), his penetration works like germ or ammunition, aiming the sexually abused tomboy at her brute father like a cocked gun.

The bikers briefly take crazy fire from Terena’s bloody patricidal shoot in a crowded bar, but as orgasm it soon peters out, just a brief detour into a cul-de-sac on an endless roadtrip to nowhere. The Loveless‘s penultimate moments presage the full-fledged moral ambiguities of Strange Days‘ digitized voyeurism – feeding on someone else’s freakout: watcher Vance and gun-eating child are wombed in the storm’s utterly silent eye. Director-actor-audience are complicit. Vance has gotten inside Terena, hitchhiked on her pain without guilt or accountability, triggered and recorded her performance. Tranced, we’ve gone along for the ride. Dafoe’s hardcase is father to Strange Days‘ bruised Lenny Nero, crucified on the electrified fence between watching and acting.

Near Dark‘s coven of cowboy-punk vampires gets its kicks and calories in Southwestern juke joints and on main drags of hicktowns. Leathered or buckskinned, peroxided, mohawked, and pigtailed, fathered by one Jesse (James?) Hooker (Lance Henriksen), this feral family is stitched together out of ragtag remnants from American genre movies, drive-in fare. They are the shattered mirrors of heartland desire, the nightmare spawn of sensory deprivation. Hard to tell who’s more vampire as summer-dusk boredom draws all-American boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) to the sad-eyed siren (Jenny Wright) clutching an ice cream cone prop: “Can I have a bite? I’m dying for a cone.” Reluctantly, this bent, distaff Peter Pan “adopts” the motherless Caleb into her cranked-up, familial horrorshow: when he won’t kill to stay alive, his demon lover nurses him with her own hot blood, almost letting her rapturous fan to suck her dry.

Holing up during daylight in abandoned warehouses and campers with aluminum-foil-covered windows, Jesse and his brood let off nighttime steam by playing out bloody scenarios in roadside dives. These hunger artists are, of course, the strutting stars, supported by ordinary flesh-and-blood types, expendable extras and stuntpeople who never survive the shoot. Once, curled in sleep like fabulous snakes, Jesse’s family wakes to police ambush. Bullet-riddled, the flimsy walls of their motel are perforated by spears of light, anyone of which might strike the vampires like a match.

At the moment he’s irised out of the show, just before his blackened flesh ignites into flame, Jesse Hooker’s Steadicam eye dominates the screen. Through the vampire’s lens we see ourselves – avid audience – darkly. Bigelow’s nosferatu are like nitrate; the heat and light of the movie projector always threatens to incandesce their fatal glamour. (Near Dark falls under the long shadow of Bergman’s Persona, a vampire-movie meditation on metempsychosis and the black-and-white magic of projected images.)

Blue Steel ups the ante on family matters and doppelgangers. New cop Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) costumes and arms herself as ritually as any of Bigelow’s bikers or vampires. (The fetish of style is potent magic in Bigelow as it is life-saving in Hawks.) Bred of a cruelly flawed father (Philip Bosco) who beats his impotence out on his passive wife (Louise Fletcher), Megan as policewoman is persona non grata at home. This poisoned child prescribes her own best antidote, the thin blue line as a sustaining hit of empowerment and working relations. Blue Steel kicks in as incestuous psychodrama from its opening scene: rookie cop crashes into a domestic dust-up, disarms the abusive husband, and is shot for her pains by the woman she’s rescued. We then discover the show’s not for real, but as training run-through, it reflects the gender dynamics of androgynous Megan’s conflicted soul.

"Blue Steel"
Jamie Lee Curtis: “Blue Steel”

Bigelow extends Megan’s righteous shoot during a supermarket holdup in jazzed rhythms of in-your-face and long-shots, stop-and-go, freeze and fire: welcome release comes when she pumps bullet after bullet into the bad guy (Tom Sizemore). But her buttoned-down darkside has been outed. Riveted to the psychosexual action is an audience, a supine shopper – Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver) – ready to run with his star’s killing rage. The perp’s gun slides up to Hunt’s very eyes; this reality cop show sets him off, arming him figuratively and literally. The sightline of Megan’s outstretched arm runs through the barrel of her aimed revolver to hook into her fan’s as-yet-unarmed but certainly primed psyche. She’s as married to Hunt as Ahab is to his harpooned whale. Later, when she arrests and handcuffs her own father, the circle of bad blood is complete – not to be broken until Megan’s sexually breached by Mann, her new cop partner (Clancy Brown).

Strictly one of a screaming mob on the floor of the stockmarket, and bedeviled by a yammering voice in his head, Hunt ascends to a god’s-eye-view of the world – auteur of a voluptuously silent movie – as he helicopters over New York, far above the buzz and press of the human insects below. He contrives to meet and charm the lonely, gauche Megan, enticing her to share a cab, then dinner, on a rainy evening. Megan’s smitten, ready to consummate their strong rapport, but Hunt’s notion of sexual penetration is to carve her name into bullets that he then fires into the flesh of randomly chosen victims. The potent line of her outstretched arm in the supermarket scene, signature of projected soul-rage, now extends through Hunt to fatally fuck strangers. Phallic imagery, yes, but rendered richly complex by an unimpeachably female hand.

In a superbly choreographed scene, Hunt gets into her parents’ livingroom, invading the very heart of Megan’s conflicted personality. While mother and father mask their true natures behind Good Housekeeping-approved smiles and patter, daughter and doppelganger, as poised as gunfighters in any Western faceoff, take turns at signaling that each is carrying. Bigelow then cuts outside the apartment to screen the window in which Megan stands, her hand stretched out to her mother, both men locked out of frame. It’s a Rear Window moment: a nextdoor neighbor might read something – or nothing – into that partial view. For us, it’s like being bounced from a murderous encounter group at crisis-point, cinematic coitus interruptus.

Not much later, slant-rhyming Psycho, Megan’s bleeding bad dream hides out in her bathroom, getting off on the amplified, distorted sound effects of lovemaking in the next room. Acting out seminal Freudian fantasy, Hunt crashes the sex movie, “killing” father – Megan’s cop lover – and, usurping his role, raping the gun-lover who mothered him into psychotic life. Family therapy cum exorcism concludes Blue Steel: in the prolonged, hallucinatory chase-and-shootout sequence, through subways and streets as offkey as back projections, Megan’s demon – conceived inside her – is laid to rest again and again, until, played out, this now-whole huntress subsides into catatonic stasis, the aftermath of possession.

What drives The Loveless, Near Dark and Blue Steel into ever-deeper cinematic waters is Bigelow’s ability to cross and recross the border between dreamtime and real-world mise-en-scene with such pure and uncut sensual assurance that the very concept of border disappears in her epistemological investigations. Point Break possesses only flashes of dreamtime, and its surfer tribe of endless-summer aboriginals lacks the juice or charisma to work as a medium of transport. Tempting straight-arrow FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) to brave mythic waves, sky-dive into nothingness, and live off “beached” folk and their banks, Patrick Swayze’s Bodhi is too shallow to be seductive as a guru Mephistopheles. Utah vaguely vacillates between his old man in the FBI (Gary Busey), a rebel within the law, and Bodhi’s family of arrested adolescents. Watching fragile flesh skim a delicate curve of surf breaking with the power of a tons-heavy hammer is a rush without the hook of conviction: Point Break‘s outsiders are low-rent Hawksians, far too gabby about what they signify, more derivative than exotic.

But the torqued bank robbery sequences – with gun-toting Billy the Kids masked as ex-Presidents, our national fathers who-know-best – are like crazed commercials advertising anarchy. When Ronald Reagan, smiling in sweet senility, whips a gas-spewing, flame-shooting hose from side to side after a job gone wrong, it’s berserker campaign iconography promising good times, a tiger in every tank. Which is what Point Break is lacking, so that as Bigelovian narrative it drifts about like a vehicle without Baedeker. All of Bigelow’s films end up on the road, stalled or cannon-balling, so it’s no surprise that Point Break fetches up on a stormy Australian beach, where dry-landers register the spectacle of mystical Bodhi disappearing out to sea while Utah turns grimly away and angles out of frame, shedding his shield – and old psychic skin – as he passes. What new avatar has been generated out of Point Break‘s baptisms in water and fire remains unclear.

All of Bigelow’s previous work presses toward Strange Days, a go-for-broke fantastic journey through the sizzling neurons of a society turbocharged by nonstop stimuli. A “come dressed as the short-circuited soul of America” movie, Strange Days is set only four years in the future, on the eve of the millennium. Hearkening back to Blue Steel, Bigelow’s latest film opens by plunging us into a “movie” that isn’t the movie, but rather a name-your-poison preview. In what might be a clip from any straight-to-video heist flick, we’re assaulted by motion, light, heavy-metal sound, danger. Physically cranked for fight or flight, we suck in excitement like oxygen, carried away by primitive narrative drive – until our screen suddenly decomposes into pixels, and we’re parasites no more. We’ve been running with electronic ghosts, in the tracks of someone else’s experience.

"Strange Days"
Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett greet the future in “Strange Days”

At century’s end, with rumors of Rapture everywhere, “playback” decks are the new designer drugs of choice, peddled by ex-vice cop Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes). Strange Days is supercharged eschatology, epitaph for single-souled humanity, as increasingly cross-wired lives evolve into an incestuous network of hot-linked pseudo-events.

A techno-vampire himself, Nero hunkers down in his shabby room, red neon pulsing through foil-covered windows, pours a drink, and trips – his POV ours – into memories of happier days with his onetime lover Faith (Juliette Lewis). His addictive home movies look benign enough: a pretty girl pulling him/us along on rollerblades until we lose our balance and fall; ecstatic lovemaking afterwards. But when the film-proper edits us outside of Lenny’s dream, we’re forced to watch him pawing blindly at the air, caressing nothingness, the dehumanized object of something like a digitized bear-baiting. The bright-wire cloche that jacks him into remembrance of things past looks more like a crown of thorns as it becomes clear that, unlike his insatiable clients, Lenny can’t see anything new. Trapped in an Old Testament, Lenny has cast Faith as vulnerable angel, notwithstanding her present lowdown role as zombied-out consort to a corrupt music mogul (Michael Wincott). She’s the good that Lenny must salvage out of his own long fall from grace; he cannot apprehend the flesh-and-blood Faith, who Judas-kisses him off at every opportunity, except in the clouded mirrors of his own deluded hope.

Nero’s closed system is darksided by an assassin so maxed out on playback that he stays high on borrowed existential blood and snuff movies of his own making. We ride his pay during the bathroom murder of a prostitute: in this vampiric, three-way eye-fuck, we feel how it is to rape and murder a woman whose face feeds back to us her every agony and terror. Ultimately, the killer’s/our tiny ski-masked face is freeze-framed in the victim’s eye – the last shot of an interactive horror movie. Bigelow’s made us complicit in the sin of seeing and getting off on bad things, in the tradition of Psycho. Remember, after Janet Leigh’s bathroom murder has simultaneously repulsed and aroused, her blood swirls down a shower drain and her dead, echoing eye, once the window of a soul, shrinks to just another black hole.

Hitchcockian reflections of tainted angels and sad demons, hands clasped, dangling over abysses, are conjured in the film’s climactic moments, as Nero finally discovers the true identity of his double, and divests himself of his mad Siamese twin. Penthouse high, on the top of the world, the killer hangs over a new-century’s-eve vast crowd/audience, clinging desperately to Lenny’s tie. Umbilically linked in just another sideshow of the millennial phantasmagoria, these siblings in solipsism could fall in tandem, flesh-confetti in a multicolored blizzard celebrating the end of the world – or a new age.

Lenny Nero’s fallen angel has her own twin in Amazonian Mace (Angela Bassett), black warrior-mother to Faith’s slutty, drugged-out Tinker Bell. While the man she loves obsesses over images of a woman who no longer exists, Mace flashes on – in spontaneous memory – her first and lasting familial “take” on Lenny: a cop with his arm around her frightened son. Homegirl Mace drives her own car. Her vision is unmediated, warmed and powered by emotions straight out of her own bloodstream.

The destination of Strange Days is apocalypse. In its final scenes in the crowded, din-filled streets of a city collapsing into anarchy, Bigelow creates a bizarrely biblical tableau, Grand Guignol in the round: a rogue cop, his face a mask of blood, inches crazily toward the watching, encircling mob, his arm stretched backwards to drag along the handcuffed body of his suicided partner. He’s like some mutant Christ burdened by a cross of his own making. Other cops club Mace to the ground, stoning a fallen woman.

Shooting from above, Bigelow looks down at an arena-in-small, a cinematic version of bread and circuses. The air thickens with bits of confetti, a screenstorm deconstructing image/content into techno-nihilism, a random scatter of pixels. Welcome to the New Millennium.

© 1995 Kathleen Murphy