21
Nov
2010
Whose Film Is It Anyway?
Kathryn Bigelow
Jordan
Note: The purpose of Whose Film Is It Anyway? is to examine the validity of the auteur theory through the lens of individual film-makers, taking a look at their bodies of work and highlighting the technical elements, personal style, and thematic consistency of their films. Ultimately, the goal of this column will be to generate a discussion of the merits of auteur theory through examinations of directors widely considered auteurs, analyses of directors whose status as auteurs is more tenuous, and occasional looks at non-directors who may drive the quality and content of their films with more assuredness than the directors they work with.

"You're a real blue flame special, aren't you son? Young, dumb, and full of come, I know. What I don't know is how you got assigned here. Guess we must have ourselves an asshole shortage, huh?"-Ben Harp (John C. McGinley), Point Break


Last March, there was a showdown of potentially epic proportions in the Best Director's race at the Oscars. Kathryn Bigelow was poised to become the first woman to take home the prize, and all she had to do to be assured of victory was bypass her ex-husband, James Cameron who had made the highest grossing movie of all time a few months earlier and was looking to replicate his Titanic winning streak. Unfortunately for movie geeks the world over, Bigelow and Cameron have an amicable relationship and were both very supportive of one another's films and chances at the awards. Bigelow has garnered a strange mixture over the course of her career of critical respect and feminist regrets. While she has flown further in her filmmaking career than any other woman has yet, Bigelow is often criticized for attempting to make "a man's movies" to fit into a "man's industry."

As Salon writer Martha P. Nochimson rather reductively put it in this piece in response to Quentin Tarantino calling Bigelow that Queen of Directors, "I prefer the 'Transvestite of Directors.' Looks to me like she's masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity." To say I disagree with Ms. Nochimson's presumptive, reductive, and self-serving analysis of Bigelow's work is an understatement. Not only is she flat out wrong about Kathryn Bigelow, she comes off sounding like a crazy person in the process. One of the most puzzling aspects of the feminist movement to my far from feminine (though I would say strongly feminist) eye is the desire to take down women who have found success for having done it in "the wrong way." Kathryn Bigelow gets the harshest reviews of her career from women who seem to think she has only reached success by making "guy movies." Personally, I think Bigelow deserves more criticism for being wildly inconsistent and for stringing together a career of near-hits between two very well done movies, yet apparently there is no way to extract her gender from a discussion of her work.

So let me preface my analysis of Bigelow as a potential auteur with this statement: I don't think men can make movies any better than women. I don't think men can inherently do almost anything better than women. And I don't think Kathryn Bigelow makes her movies as a way of masquerading as a man. I do, however, think that Bigelow ties her films (both those that work and those that don't) together through an examination of the male psyche, of male bonding, and finally, of the ways that the men who dominate her films alter the ways that the women in them can function. Rather than reading Bigelow's work as an attempt to disguise herself as a man to find success, I see Bigelow's films as a criticism of the kind of destructive machismo that has made the film industry as consistently male-driven and occasionally flat-out misogynistic as it is.

The first example of this trend can be seen in 1990's Blue Steel, in which Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis), one of Bigelow's few female leads, is plagued by the psychopathic Eugene Hunt (Ron Silver). Turner is a policewoman who kills a man in the line of duty in front of Hunt, who steals the man's weapon from the scene and begins committing murders with it while simultaneously trying to seduce Turner. Over the course of the film, Hunt's masculine machinations rob Turner of her job, potentially her freedom, and possibly her sanity as he tries to drive her completely insane. Turner's life has certainly spiraled out of her own control because of Hunt's sick games, yet by the film's end she manages to regain a semblance of it through the exercise of what Bigelow dibs as a typically male activity--violence.




In perhaps her most famous film, Point Break, the trend is slightly more obviously. Tyler (Lori Petty) has easily the smallest of the lead roles in the movie, and is almost drowned out by the cavalcade of masculine posturing that surrounds her. The film is centered around Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), an FBI agent who goes undercover into the surfing subculture to catch a band of bank robbers called the Ex-Presidents, lead by surfing guru Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). The film is like a love letter to masculine posturing, from the gun fetishizing police officers to the hard-ass superior, and from the adrenaline fueled male bonding to the cocky game of chicken between Utah and Bodhi as they free-fall out of an airplane. Throughout, Tyler is mostly there as Utah's love interest and Bodhi's ex-girlfriend, until her control is literally stripped from her when she is kidnapped by one of Bodhi's cronies.




In 1995, Strange Days, Bigelow's most interesting failure, follows Lenny (Ralph Feinnes) through a near-future in which "clips", virtual reality experiences of real people doing real things, are traded like drugs. The world of the film is trapped in the L.A. riots of the early '90s, but the focus is still on the ways that men subjugate women just as much as it focuses on the way that the white police officers subjugate the black community. The clip at the center of the movie depicts the killing of a popular rapper (Glenn Plummer) by the LAPD, yet the more intriguing subplot comes from a mysterious man sending clips to Lenny of him subduing, raping, and murdering women. The film's greatest misstep comes in the casting of Juliette Lewis as someone who is supposed to be desirable (she may be the most annoying actor alive, rivaling Elizabeth Banks for the ire she inspires in me), yet her character is one that left Lenny for greater freedom and now finds herself in a relationship that restricts her even more. The real hero of the film, however is Angela Bassett's hapless sidekick, who is constricted by her inexplicable love for Lenny and yet is the freest character in the film. She kicks the most ass, is not addicted to clips, and is not in a misogynistic relationship either.




In easily Bigelow's best film, The Hurt Locker, a woman appears for only about five minutes, but is depicted as one of the film's multitude of tragic characters. She is Will's (Jeremy Renner) hapless semi-ex-wife, who stays in their house and with him despite the fact that he spends all of his time in Iraq and cannot find it within himself to really love her or their child. Will is Bigelow's most fascinating creation, a man singularly obsessed with the adrenaline of war to the point that he tells his son that as you grow older you love fewer and fewer things, and "for me its just one." Will has lost his ability to care about anything or anyone except the bombs he deactivates on the battle field, and in the process has become the most tragic of Bigelow's male creations--a man so consumed by masculine posturing that he fails to function in real society.






Bigelow has spent her entire career fighting charges that she makes male movies to make the men in her industry happy. As she herself put it, "If there's a specific resistance to women making movies, I just choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can't change my gender, and I refuse to stop making movies. It's irrelevant who or what directed a movie, the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don't. There should be more women directing; I think there's just not the awareness that its really possible. It is." Bigelow has refused to be stopped by any obstacle thrown in her way, and has forced people to take notice of her for the last three decades. Rather than being mired in the misogyny that often fells women in Hollywood, she has spent her career making people question their preconceptions about masculinity and about the effects it has on women's freedom and ability to live their lives. Unlike many of her female characters, Bigelow has consistently refused to be subjugated and has repeatedly brought forth her view on the world to be seen, and often criticized both fairly and unfairly, by the masses who sadly are still questioning the role of women in the film industry well into the 21st century. Kathryn Bigelow has not single-handedly solved the problem of sexism in the film industry, but she has certainly made strong steps toward bringing the issue into the light.


Read more Whose Film Is It Anyway? here

Coming up on Who's Film Is It Anyway?:

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1/2: Mike Myers

1/16: Kevin Smith
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