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.

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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.

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