Friday, 2 May 2014

Kathryn Bigelow: One of the Guys, Just a Different Sex

Back when I wrote about my favorite directors, I tried to pick the four that I thought to have had the biggest impact on me. As I noted there it wasn't the most diverse selection, given that all four choices were white men and only one (Sergio Leone) was non-American. I think it makes sense then to write something on a female director that I admire. More specifically, the fascinating character of Kathryn Bigelow. She has already made history as the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Picture, which is admirable in itself, but there is a lot more to her work than that alone.

She is hardly the first woman to gain recognition as a director. Before her we had the experimental filmmaker Maya Deren with advant-garde shorts such as Meshes of the Afternoon (which I strongly suspect may have been an influence on David Lynch, one of my favorite directors). One thing I do find interesting about Kathryn Bigelow, at least from what I have seen of her so far, is the fact that her films are very masculine. In fact, there actually aren't a whole lot of female characters across her body of work. She's even done a few moves that for the most part have an almost entirely-male cast as with The Hurt Locker or K-19: The Widowmaker.

In The Hurt Locker you have Evangeline Lilly appearing as the ex-wife of the protagonist, but she doesn't have a lot of screentime. K-19: The Widowmaker has no female characters outside of a few extras near the beginning, largely because it centers on the crew of a Russian submarine during the Cold War. Some of her other films have female supporting roles but it was not until her most recent film Zero Dark Thirty that we get a strong female protagonist in the form of the C.I.A. operative Maya.

The subject matter itself is also stuff that may seem "manly" and may be more commonly expected to be handled by a male director. The war genre in general is very masculine, given how hard it is to find a war movie with any major female characters at all, let alone a strong female lead. Naturally, this is the sort of genre you'd typically imagine to be directed by a man, and indeed a lot of the best-known war films were (Paths of GloryZulu, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and Saving Private Ryan to name a few), and yet The Hurt Locker may well be, at least at the moment, the most iconic depiction of the war in Iraq on film.

One reason could be that she may not be attempting to enforce a feminist agenda, or at least not one as obvious as other women in the film industry. You could say she is sort of like a real-life version of the "Hawksian woman" (minus the usual romantic sub-plot, unless you include her brief marriage to James Cameron) in so far as she is the intelligent, atractive, sharp-witted woman who also happens to just be "one of the guys". She may be a woman in a predominantly male field but she does the kinds of projects that interest her, as opposed to simply doing ones that help promote woman's rights or draw attention to the fact that they were made by a woman.

Compare her work to the likes of Sally Potter's Orlando, which is a great film but not exactly subtle in its messages about gender inequality. Whereas Potter's films seem to focus on emphasizing the role in society, Bigelow's films tend to focus on more masculine subject matter. In that sense you could call Bigelow a feminist, but in a different sense, as rather than looking to convince the viewer of society's issues with gender relations Bigelow proves her worth and capability as a director by just making great films.

It is for this reason that Kathryn Bigelow is an admirable director. While other women in the business may try to emphasize promote equality in their films, Bigelow opts for something different by proving herself every bit as competent at making the same kinds of movies as the guys. Over the course of her career, Bigelow had made action films, war movies, thrillers, and historical films. Her significance to modern cinematic history is undeniable as a result.

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