an overview of Kathryn Bigelow's career and an inflammatory but apt comparison to a German filmmaker of note
Bigelow's favorite subject
On the night of September 10, 2001, a filmmaker of great talent, but no clear artistic identity, went to bed. She woke up to a different world. Terrorists had crashed planes into the Pentagon and destroyed the Twin Towers in New York City. A fourth plane crashed into a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after being retaken by the passengers. The official number of deceased casualties was recorded at 2,996, with thousands more wounded. This was the best thing that could have happened to the career of Kathryn Bigelow. It was the best day of her artistic life. As the country watched in horror, somewhere in Hollywood, this 49-year old woman, a desperate auteur, stared at her television and found her subject.
In 1978, Kathryn Bigelow filmed The Set-Up while in the graduate film program at Columbia University. This short film runs for twenty minutes and depicts two men in a violent fight. Sylvére Lotringer and Marshal Blonsky, two well-known semiotics professors, narrate and analyze the fight. The film, in its simplicity and directness, clearly illuminates Bigelow’s interests in male violence and sexuality. It showcases the high-art intellectualism that can be found in her later work, as well as a strong stylization of masculine violence. These are all themes that she will return to over and over again.
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Her first feature film, The Loveless, was Willem Dafoe’s first role. He plays a member of a biker gang that settles in a small town, and, surprise, surprise, goes on a rampage, stealing, attacking and murdering the residents. The characters are little more than 1950’s archetypes, with pompadours, leather jackets, pointed sunglasses and sideburns. They all smoke, coolly, and ingest huge amounts of alcohol. You couldn’t come up with a more abstract notion of a man. The film is scored with rockabilly tunes, and the dialogue and characters are in line and defined by the stereotypes of that era. Again, it’s a strange combination of the intellectual, the inept, the stylized, the dumb and the beautiful. It failed critically and financially, but highlighted Bigelow’s obvious interest in beautiful men doing bad things.
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In 1989, she takes a stab at a mainstream cop thriller, Blue Steel, with Jamie Lee Curtis as a rookie cop in the New York City Police Department who becomes the focus of a psychopathic killer’s fantasies (overacted rather effectively by Ron Silver). It’s notable that it’s the first film of Bigelow’s to use a female lead character, albeit the rather masculine Curtis. You can clearly see the origins of Zero Dark Thirty’s Maya (Jessica Chastain) in Curtis’ Megan Turner. Turner is the epitome of a woman working, and succeeding, in a male-dominated environment that is oriented towards violence. In terms of gender dynamics, there might not be that much difference between the NYPD and the Central Intelligence Agency. It’s interesting that Bigelow seems, at this point in her career, to have begun searching for those narrative situations that enable her characters to come to life (in the form of quasi military structures). She is searching for the proper context for Turner’s character and her subsequent dramatic development, but it doesn’t really work because the police department isn’t structured or hierarchical enough for her needs. I just want to emphasize this again: the police department is too loose for Bigelow’s imagination.
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Point Break was released in 1991, and stars Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves. Reeves is an undercover FBI agent named Johnny Utah (oh yes, that’s his name), and his mission is to infiltrate a group of surfers who rob banks disguised as former presidents. One of the great standout scenes is Utah trying to chase down a surprisingly swift Richard Nixon. The film succeeds (finally) at the box office, and becomes something of a cult hit. Bigelow continues her interests in images of men engaged in violent work and impassioned play. There are masterfully shot scenes of Swayze and Reeves surfing, skydiving, fighting and running on the beach. Some scenes could be commercials for a church that worships beautiful, athletic men. Swayze, who began his career as a dancer, is a wonderful cinematic embodiment of Bigelow’s obsessions. It is a beautiful film, but the story itself is limited and rather dull. There’s never any true dramatic action or structure, or, in other words, perfect for Reeves. What Bigelow never limits is the running, the skydiving and the surfing of the beautiful men in action.
These films, along with Bigelow’s others, are very different in terms of their narrative structure. However, they share thematic similarities. They are extremely focused on action and violence. Many of them have an overt emphasis on masculine power and/or dominance. Many of them have not been particularly successful, in terms of box office success, nor in critical response. Point Break is the only film that made up its budget. They are all technically well-made films, with the quality of editing, cinematography, and actor performances ranging from above average to excellent. Sean Penn, Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, and Ralph Fiennes round out a list of the A-list acting talent Bigelow has worked with. In all of these movies, there are pieces of great work here and there. At times, they display her immense gifts, but they always seem to falter in crucial ways.
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K-19: The Widowmaker is the last film in this period of her artistic evolution. It stars Harrison Ford as the captain of the first Soviet nuclear submarine and it chronicles the (sort of) famous deadly reactor accident in 1961. I do not think it is coincidence that this is the first film where Bigelow uses a specific historical event to lend her work a journalistic integrity, along with the focus on the technology and politics of war. She’s finding her voice, but it’s not quite there yet, either for her or the world around her. You can sense how desperately she wants to put it all together, to find her true subject and the means to express it. K-19 was released in 2002, and made $66,716,126 back of its $100 million dollar budget. Another failure. Yet, for all the demonstrated skill in filmmaking, the simple fact was, there was no audience for this story. No one cares about Russia anymore, and, after making the movie, probably including Bigelow. Filming was most likely completed by the day of the attacks in 2001.
For the next 7 years, she makes no films: the world changes. The United States begins two wars. Politicians throw around abstract terms, such as the “War on Terror.” Some of these abstractions are made into law: the “US PATRIOT Act.” The Department of Homeland Security is formed. Her obsessions of violence, fear, masculine dominance and intimidation become American cultural obsessions. More importantly, there is an interested and large audience for what once were marginal ideas. The stories she was trying to tell for 20 years are happening in reality, under circumstances that lend themselves exceptionally well to the art of film. And there is no one better equipped to give them cinematic expression than Bigelow. This is the story she has been waiting for, and the world is ready. This is her era; she’s got it.
In 2009, the Hurt Locker is released in the United States. Set in 2004, Jeremy Renner, in a breakout role, plays Sergeant Will James, a member of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal team disassembling IEDs during the Iraq War. Bigelow calls it a “boots-on-the-ground” immersive film capturing the experience of the conflict for the audience. The film wins the Oscar for Best Picture and Best Director for Bigelow herself. She is the first woman ever to win the award, besting her ex-husband, James Cameron, for Avatar. As I watched it, I felt as if she had stumbled onto the perfect situation for her obsessive interests: the imminent, unpredictable absolute destruction of a beautiful male body by an IED blast. Those reports coming from Iraq must have fascinated and inspired her. And not only were these men, these were men in the one organization where her obsessions make sense. These were Army men.
Close to the end of the film Sergeant James walks aimlessly down an aisle in a supermarket, his shopping cart empty save for some soda. He runs into his wife, with her own cart, carrying a full load of groceries and their son. “Wow, you did some shopping,” he says. His wife answers, “Yeah.” The rest of their interaction is almost sublimely mundane: James: Got some soda. We done? His Wife: Wanna go get us some cereal, and I’ll meet you at the checkout? James: Okay, cereal. … Where? As she disappears into another part of this fluorescent hell, he sighs and moves on to find the proper aisle. The film jump cuts to a long view of the shelves of cereal. Sergeant James stares down to his left and down to his right. Then, seemingly resigned to the ridiculousness of it, he randomly grabs a box, throws it in the cart and walks off, hitting a hanging display of something along the way. It is both amusing and pathetic. It is almost as if Bigelow is saying, “Look at him, how he sees these endless aisles of cereal, immersed in the sublime. Look at how he sees all he has fought to protect. He survived so many near-deaths. He is an adrenaline-addicted heroic man of war. This is not home for him; his natural habitat is the battlefield. Why waste all this beauty in a supermarket?”
In the following scene, Sergeant James asks her toddler son, “You love everything, don’t you?” “But you know what, buddy? Once you get older, the things that you love might not seem so special anymore. Like your Jack-in-the-Box. Maybe, you’ll realize it’s just a piece of tin and a stuffed animal. The older you get, there are fewer things you really love. By the time you get to my age, maybe it’s only one or two things. With me, I think it’s one.” With that bit of fatherly advice, we hear the sound of the twin rotors of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter take over, along with a hard rock song accompanied by pseudo-Middle Eastern vocals. The film cuts to the Sergeant as he exits the transport and is welcomed back to Delta Company. The camera pans down to his boots in slow motion—boots on the ground indeed. Another jump cut occurs in tandem with the beginning of a guitar riff and we see him in the EOD suit. A long view takes over, showing him walking down the street, as his Army comrades guard the Humvee. The text motif of remaining days in the company’s duty rotation, steadily decreasing over the course of the film, is shown as 365. Another year. It had just ended, and it never will.
Zero Dark Thirty was released on December 19th for limited release in 5 specific theaters, and wide release on January 11th, 2013. Artists who are aware of a zeitgeist and able to manipulate it have always been the ones who define a generation. With Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow both engages a post 9/11 audience, while satisfying her own subconscious auteuristic desires. It’s not just the subject matter, but also how it relates to Bigelow’s rather odd conception of the cinema. In Loveless, archetypal characters just fit a schema. In Zero Dark Thirty, her characters achieve a psychological depth in the American experience of 9/11 and its subsequent conflicts. The archetypal robots have come to life.
For the first few minutes of the film, the screen is pitch black. We then hear 911 calls from the morning of 9/11 and, as intended, we are psychologically taken back in time to that morning. The chatter that we imagined, heard in our nightmares, is taken from life and is made to serve a fiction that desperately wants to be real. The effect is reminiscent of a high concept museum installation, like some unholy child of Bill Viola and Maria Abramovic, and Bigelow uses it to put us in the one place in the world that is both unbearable and irrefutable. It’s like nestling up to a gaping psychic wound. Of course, that’s where Bigelow wants us, because it’s the one place where her crazy aesthetic makes sense and can find narrative coherence.
The protagonist of Zero Dark Thirty, “Maya,” is the embodiment of the modern woman, empowered in the male-dominated workplace of CIA espionage by her obsessiveness, her logic and blunt willpower. She seems more than human at times and at others, much, much less. Her co-workers are similar: one is the tired boss, hindered by bureaucracy; another is an interrogator, who seems oddly more of a frat bro than a government agent. Yet another is the well-intentioned woman, who mothers an al Queda informant by baking him a cake. Agent Betty Crocker gets blown up for her troubles. They are all archetypes and yet within this hyper-charged world, strangely individual. Whether they are good or bad, effective or not, it is this mode of classifying people that distinguishes Bigelow from other 9/11 artists. The truth hardly matters; what matters is the realization of an ideal. It no doubt helps that American consciousness is thinking the same things.
I went to see Zero Dark Thirty after reading and seeing a ton of articles and videos arguing that the film was pro-torture. I hadn’t read one that seemed convincing, but maybe that’s a result of my generation, a generation that happily defends the death penalty during school debates. Of course, the left intellectuals were “shocked” by what they saw as an excuse for the Bush administrations worst tendencies, but for my generation, I think we derive unconscious pleasure from seeing our distorted vision of justice played out on screen. It so easily recalls our shared cultural trauma of waking up to crying parents, school cancellation and a continuous replaying of the destruction of a then-meaningless pair of tall buildings. We are perpetually afraid, drowning out our fear in social networking media, video games and shockingly dumb films. The fall of the towers is our shared trauma. So, is Zero Dark Thirty pro-torture? Of course. Probably. It doesn’t matter or very little. What matters is it got our attention and catered to a cultural sensibility that exits in a perpetual state of slight trauma. If we weren’t having so much fun, we’d be kind of hurt.
There was once a director in another time and in another country, but who also came from a culture in a perpetual state of war. An aesthetic obsessive, she also enjoyed the spectacle of male organization found in the military. Like Bigelow, she preferred to promote the image of her film as just a film, regardless of how it was interpreted or put to political use. She’s still famous, but maybe in ways she never imagined. In 1934 Hitler hired Leni Riefenstahl to film a documentary of the Nuremberg rally. Hitler rather grandiosely called it, Triumph of the Will, and certainly found it to be more than just a film. Riefenstahl went on to deny any intent to make a pro-Nazi film and was disgusted that Triumph was used for such a purpose, which seems more than a bit naive. This is not to say Nazi Germany is anything like the United States, that Bush, Obama or the CIA hired Bigelow to make Zero Dark Thirty or that Bigelow will find Riefenstahl like infamy in the future, but the commonality of their aesthetics and cultural interests are undeniable. The have both, possibly for unique and apolitical reasons, created works that tap into the political hurt and aspirations of powerful and military-minded nations. It feels like a dangerous game.
That said, I think Bigelow’s “success” is irrelevant. Nobody really cares who she is as an artist. Twenty years of failed films proved that. The power her films have is not really about art; it is only a carefully directed use of sociological pressure points. Nobody cared who she was before she spoke to the traumatized American spirit and nobody cared whom Riefenstahl was until she united the German people. Saddled with obsessive-compulsive design sensibilities, Bigelow creates an aesthetics of sensation. Zero Dark Thirty is our Triumph of the Will. It is a perfect film for our age and we just have to figure out what that means.
I can’t say if I think Zero Dark Thirty is a good or bad and in a way I don’t think it’s either. It has received rave reviews and within a month made back its budget twice over. Bigelow has been lauded, although the middlebrow Ang Lee took home the best director Oscar. Bigelow, though, is that rare artist who found her artistic identity in a major cultural event and then had the means to express that identity. Post 9-11 Americans, like Hitler’s Germany, have looked for ways to express their sense of hurt. She has given us that, as Riefenstahl did for her countrymen, and the results are artistically stunning, if a little dispiriting. Of course, with every chance she gets, Bigelow separates herself from the impact of the film. It doesn’t matter if it’s an article in Artforum, or as a guest on The Colbert Show, she claims the social effect that her films have is unrelated to her work, that it is out of her control, or as she put it herself, “I just made the movie.” As an artist, she feels her conscience is clear, as Riefenstahl’s must have felt as well.
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