Big Explosions with Bigger Questions: Kathryn Bigelow at the MoMA

Kathrny Bigelow, SoA '81, on the set of "The Hurt Locker," Photo coutesy of Jonathon Olley

“Visceral is the best way to describe her films, because you come out of the theater, and you are literally sweating, but you also come out thinking about the violence and ask ‘why did I watch that?’” So describes Jenny He, a film programmer at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) who has helped organize the new exhibit and screening series “Crafting Genre: Kathryn Bigelow.” For most people, Kathryn Bigelow’s name has become synonymous with her 2008 Oscar winning film The Hurt Locker, for which she became the first female to win the Academy Award for directing. But for cinephiles like myself, Bigelow, SoA ’81, has been one of the most unique voices in cinema–big boy action flicks that put meaning behind the images, and question the nature of why we watched these movies. This is what makes “Crafting Genre” a pure delight, as the series explores not only her films, but her work behind the scenes and as her roots in experimental art.

If you are unfamiliar with her work, it’s best to start with the screening series of her eight feature films, which traces her evolution from a young independent artist to a hot Hollywood commodity. Her first film, a co-written and co-directed work from 1982 entitled The Loveless, is a 1950s biker movie by way of Kenneth Anger and Jim Jarmusch. Jenny He sees it as a film that explores American youth and “trying to find your own place, and creating hell while trying to do it.”  Her second film, Near Dark, continues the track of an emphasis a poetic landscape over narrative, but spins it through its dueling mix of genres, following a group of vampires across the American West. The film marks both Bigelow’s entrance for displaying violence in an unflinching manner, best shown in a long sequence set at a shady bar, and her push toward using genre in unique ways, As He described it “She knows exactly what to do in order to make the audience think Western….But then she subverts it, and all of a sudden there are vampires…It’s kind of about how she’s able to bend genre to her own will.”

Willem Dafoe stars in Bigelow's first feature, "The Loveless." Photo courtesy of Jeannette Montgomery.

Some of her other films border on parody (Blue Steel, a female cop film with Jamie Lee Curtis, is too obsessed with its heavy handed commentary that its story is laughable) or simply boredom (The Weight of Water–part period drama about female colonial life, mixed with a really bad modern day soap opera). But when Bigelow sticks to characters obssesed with their own masculinty, along with sequences of intense action, she finds the sweet spot. Of course there is The Hurt Locker, as well as the Keanu Reeves-Patrick Swayze surfer-cum-bank robbery flick Point Break. But her most unique work to date is her collaboration with James Cameron, 1995’s Strange Days, which blends the neo-noirs of the 1970s with the sci-fi films of the 1980s. Set in (what was) the near future of the end of the millennium, Ralph Fiennes stars as a former cop who sells SQUID disks, which allow viewers to experience the virtual reality of others from their perspective, most often in sequences of extreme sex or violence. The film opens with an intense robbery, all seen from the first person perspective of the robber himself, playing like a Call of Duty like shooter (of course, the film came out years before such video games were even popular).  Jenny He notes that “The virtual reality clips are more true to life than the film itself. It kind of flips on the audience where the filmed scene become less real than the reality.” As the film weaves its central mystery in this intensely bleak vision of the future, Bigelow questions our desire to constantly see more, and how vouyerism can become its own kind of addiction.

But as someone who had seen most of Bigelow’s films, I was excited to see the behind-the-scenes and early work of Bigelow. He roots her filmmaking in her artistic work at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Whitney, as well as her time learning both film theory and philosophy at Columbia, much of which is on display. This collection of conceptual art, all dedicated to explosing the medium, includes her thesis film The Set-Up, which begins with two men fighting in a dark alley. However, Bigelow subverts the action by having former Columbia professors Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky deconstruct the attraction to violence in voiceover while she tears apart the convention of filmmaking. It is a little obvious in the methods, but you can see the roots that drive the same sort of themes of the attraction of violence, whether in real life or simply watching it.

Viewers examine a painting by Bigelow she did to prepare for "The Hurt Locker." Photo courtesy of Scott Rudd.

As He describes her early paintings and experimental videos, “You can see Kathryn has certain themes, certain motifs. Here, she’s working in both film and paper, and you realize she’s still working on paper, but you don’t see it….there’s always this synergy between her past and her present.” Along with conceptual work, the collection displays production work that goes behind the scenes of her films, including scripts, storyboards, architecture designs, and scrapbooks. For a lot of filmmakers, these steps are all heading toward the creation of the film. But for Bigelow, the preparation can become a work of art in itself.  He is a big fan of these works, as well: “You can take any individual image, and you can tell Kathryn’s style, as well as the way she creates.”

Bigelow has received attention in the last couple of years for being a female filmmaker who works against the grain by not focusing on female genres, but instead on masculinity and its domains. I questioned He on what she thought about this fascination, which she promptly rejected as what makes her unique: “[David Fincher] makes movies about the brotherhood of men, about friendship between men, about competition between men. But because he’s a man, no one points that out, whereas Kathryn is doing the same in Point Break and The Hurt Locker. But I think it just happens that way, where she’s attracted to the story, she’s attracted to the characters, and you can see in The Set-Up, she’s not afraid of subjects and content that’s relegated to the realm of men. The fact that she’s a daring filmmaker and not afraid to take risks…a lot of women might be afraid, but Kathryn wasn’t.”

And if anything defines Bigelow is a filmmaker, it is her audacity to do projects that push boundaries, while still taking us for a ride through totally different worlds. Few filmmakers can make both films that are explosively on the edge of your seat, yet still provoke discussions of not only the thematic content but the form as well. Bigelow is not only aware of how to create a well directed narrative in the sense of classic Hollywood, but also challenge the way we watch films or view violence. And as she continues that career, I’m sure we’ll continue to enjoy the spectacle, and question it as well.

“Crafting Genre: Kathryn Bigelow” runs through August 13th at the Museum of Modern Art. Admissions to both the exhibit and the films are free with a student valid CUID.

Peter Labuza graduated from Columbia College with a Bachelors in Art in film studies in 2011. You can read more of his criticism at www.labuzamovies.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @labuzamovies.

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