Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Steven Shaviro: Kathryn Bigelow

Kathryn Bigelow
by Steven Shaviro
The Pinocchio Theory

Despite all the snarky comments I’ve been getting, both about the film itself and about the director’s two acceptance speeches, I remain unrepentetly thrilled that Kathryn Bigelow won the Best Director and Best Film Oscars for The Hurt Locker. There are just some times when, for me at least, rampant and delirious auteurism trumps everything. I have loved Bigelow’s films ever since I first saw Near Dark in 1987. My book The Cinematic Body (1993) begins with a discussion of Bigelow’s 1990 film Blue Steel; and I wrote a long article on Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995) for this volume. There are just certain directors — not many — who captivate my gaze, and won’t let it go. Bigelow and Abel Ferrara are the only two American directors of their (and my) generation to do so.

I think it might have something to do with a kind of sensory immersion. This is aesthetics, both in the narrower sense of vicarious ravishment by works of art, and in the larger sense of “aesthetics” as a sensibility, a play of the senses, a kind of heightened reception. Near Dark, of course, is a nocturnal film, both as its title indicates and because it is about vampires, for whom sunlight is literally killing. “The night, it’s so bright…” Has there ever been a movie that has so well captured the tonalities of dim light (including starlight and artificial neon light), the ways in which (semi-)darkness is a sensual medium, a tender, welcoming blanket, an atmosphere in which previously unspoken desires can become manifest? These desires include the murders which the vampires must perform in order to feed; but they also include those of a romance in which the woman is the active one, pursuing the man; and Jenny Wright and Adrian Pasdar are both utterly ravishing. Not to mention the great Lance Henriksen as leader of the vampire clan. And then there are the marvelous set pieces, like the scene in the tough country-and-western bar, where the vampires take down a bunch of hardass dudes, while The Cramps’ cover of “Fever” plays on the jukebox… Near Dark is one of the great films about nighttime; and this includes poetic visions of dawn and dusk, and also the scene in which the vampires face a daytime shootout from the cops, the bullet holes in their motel room letting in stabs of murderous sunbeams. The vampires of Near Dark are classic American drifters, unmoored from the social contract, left out of the promises of the American dream, with a “family” that does not conform to bourgeois suburban norms. And although Near Dark ends, as genre pictures must, with the triumph of daylight and of “normalcy,” those nocturnal hauntings are what the movie leaves behind in our minds and hearts.

Blue Steel is, in its own way, as nocturnal a movie as Near Dark; its palette is largely blue-black, with hard neon lighting. Many of its scenes take place in the daytime, but the night scenes are the ones that stick in the mind. Add to that its scary gun fetishism, and Jamie Lee Curtis as a female cop stalked by Ron Silver’s psycho. Curtis’ performance is wonderfully butch, but at the same time she displays more than a hint of wry humor about her situation. This happens even as that situation becomes more and more unbearable, as Silver in effect draws Curtis into a situation of unwanted intimacy and complicity. As I say in my book, “the visual becomes violently tactile” in the course of Blue Steel; “something has happened to the act of looking… Bigelow pushes fetishism and voyeuristic fascination to the point where they explode.” I’d only add that this excess itself becomes sensual, bathed as it is in the alternations of darkness and light.

Point Break is also dominated by the color blue. But it moves in yet another direction, as everything comes out of, and returns back to, the element of water. Bigelow shows us the ocean and the beach as they have never been shown before. The images from this film that remain most in my mind are all those telephoto lens shots of waves breaking on the shore. (Though the images of bank robbers in Presidential masks are also pretty wonderful — especially the shot of “Reagan” as cheerful incendiary). Surfing and skydiving are both modes of activity in which beautifully vapid male bodies give themselves over to the primordial elements. The homoerotic tension/attraction between Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze is itself immersed in the dynamics of waves and water. Surfer hedonism is taken up and transcended by the universal upswelling of a fluid dynamics.

To Read the Rest of the Essay

No comments: