Friday, February 19, 2010

A World of Hurt

According to the director herself, Kathryn Bigelow was given one day to prove herself on the set of Near Dark before the producers replaced her with another (presumably male) director. She used that day to maximum advantage, using it to orchestrate the motel shootout in which our band of white trash vampires find themselves dodging bullets and sunbeams. If you know the movie, you haven't forgotten that scene, and Bigelow kept on directing. At this writing, she's favored to become the first female winner of the Academy Award for best director for The Hurt Locker (2009), having already become the first female winner of the DGA award. I've already seen speculations that, if she should win, it's because she "makes films like a man." Bigelow's movies occupy a "male" space only if you believe demographic research that states that women don't like action movies ("'Action' is a label for video store owners," she has said in the past) or only like romantic comedies. What bullshit.

What strikes me hardest about The Hurt Locker, an account of a bomb disposal tech in the Iraqi theater who gets off on the adrenalin rush from his very dangerous occupation, is not that it has the point of view of a female director, but that it has the point of view of a director who has always explored the obsessional appeal of violence. She often eroticizes it (the movie The Hurt Locker most reminds me of is the director's own Blue Steel, in which Jamie Lee Curtis answers the question of why she became a cop with "because I get to shoot people"). And here, Bigelow's background in another genre--the horror movie--bleeds into The Hurt Locker. There are two specific sequences in the film that could not have been made by a director who wasn't in touch with the sensibilities of the horror film: first, the sequence where our squad of heroes explores a captured bomb-making facility only to discover the makings of a "human bomb." In the second, our protagonists are touring the aftermath of a nighttime suicide bombing and take off into the darkness in pursuit of the enemy. Neither of these sequences reads as "action." Both of these sequences are palpably horrific.

Another element of the movie that sticks out like a sore thumb: although Bigelow is using the "run and gun" style of shooting, presumably to give the proceedings a documentary feel, she never does so in a way that obscures the geography of the scene. You always know precisely where everything is in space. In this regard, Bigelow kicks the holy crap out of directors like Paul Greengrass at their own game.

Finally, The Hurt Locker is an interesting exercise in subtextual political critique. The film goes out of its way not to point fingers about the Iraq war, or, really, to pretend that it's about anything other than its very particular characters doing their very particular jobs. Some critics have taken this to mean that it's apolitical. I don't believe that. Its acquaintance with horror is one giveaway, which kills any kind of jingoist thrill that might transform the film into war porn. Another is the jump cut at the end of the tour that places Jeremy Renner's character in a supermarket, confronted with an oppressive consumer culture. "Is THIS why we're going to war?" is the unspoken question. This is a political film, all right, but Bigelow has used the time honored technique of "smuggling" the politics into the movie in the subtext. Sometimes, movies are stronger for the elements that the director hides. This is such a movie.

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