Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Women in Film Blogathon Part II: Kathryn Bigelow

I've started the exciting second part of the Women in Film Blogathon but it seemed to make sense to put together an entry of my own, especially seeing as I've entered the other Blogathons I'm running at the moment. The trouble is, unfortunately, that I don't know that many female directors. There are some female directors I can respect for a specific film. I was intrigued by Maya Deren's experimentation in Meshes of the Afternoon. I also enjoyed Sally Potter's Orlando and Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. However, I don't seem to know that many women directors through more than a name or a tiny sample of their work. Nearly all of my top favourite directors; including Stanley Kubrick, Sergio Leone, John Carpenter, David Lynch, David Cronenberg, The Coen Brothers, Georges Méliès; are all white men. Evidently this is something I need to work on.

I needed to write about someone I knew well, someone who had a fascinating body of work, and who better than one of the most famous women in contemporary filmmaking? There is no questioning the historical significance of Kathryn Bigelow. She is after all the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Picture, but what is it that makes her such an unusual director? There is something about her that seems to make her stand out in a profession where women are slowly starting to become more prominent, arguably bringing her to just as much fame as her male contemporaries.

Kathryn Bigelow has directed a total of nine feature films, but she is probably best known for her most recent projects: The Hurt Locker (for which she won the Oscar for Best Picture) and Zero Dark Thirty, though some might also know her for Point Break and K-19: The Widowmaker. Other more obscure films under her belt include The Loveless, Near Dark, Blue Steel, Strange Days, and The Weight of Water, and that's not even getting into her television work. Across her movies, Bigelow has proven herself to be a versatile director, starting with horror movies and later branching into action, war, political thrillers, crime, and historical pictures, as well as combinations thereof. It is becoming more common today to see women working as directors, so what is it that makes Bigelow stand out so effectively as she has.

I think part of what makes Kathryn Bigelow such an interesting auteur is simply in how un-feminine her movies are. She often takes on subjects and genres that would generally be considered "masculine", and her films often have all-male or predominantly male casts. The Hurt Locker has a grand total of one significant female character who only appears in a few scenes very late in the movie. K-19 has only one woman with a very brief speaking part who serves as a motivation for a male character. Even Zero Dark Thirty, which actually had a female protagonist, still had her surrounded by men with only one other female character playing a notable role.

Naturally, male bonding becomes a major theme in her movies. Point Break has a love story but a lot of the focus is on the relationship between Johnny Utah and Bodhi. The one major female character, Tyler, is used in large part as a "playing piece" for the men, first as a way for Johnny to enter the surfing community and later by Bodhi to manipulate Johnny into joining his gang. In many ways it resembles a "buddy film", with the relationship even taking on a few homoerotic undertones at times (which is odd considering the presence of a heterosexual romance). K-19 has a sense of camaraderie among men that I'd swear draws from Battleship Potempkin, particularly in the relationship between the two senior officers. The majority of The Hurt Locker concerns the tension between Sgt. James and his partners.

Even Zero Dark Thirty has a bit of the male bonding. Despite the presence of a female protagonist, the cast is still predominantly male, which makes Maya stand out all the more. Out of all the people she could have connected with, it is the only other female character of significance, Jessica. These two form a close friendship very quickly. Unfortunately, Jessica's death forces Maya to rely more on herself. The male bonding in this case is used as a way of isolating the heroine, making her feel more like an outsider as well as to single her out as the one person who can catch Bin Laden. There is also a sense of camaraderie among the Navy SEALs, who take up most of the climax.

Of course, just because Bigelow's films are predominantly male does not mean she is incapable of including strong female characters when she wants to. When watching Point Break, I was actually far more invested with Tyler and her relationship to Johnny than I was with the whole "surfers pretending to be presidents robbing banks" plot that the movie insisted on focusing on. I think it actually might have been better if they had changed the focus around. Zero Dark Thirty also has a very strong female protagonist who persistently moves onward in her mission to stop a dangerous terrorist. She also has a great array of male characters, one of the most interesting being the adrenaline junkie Sgt. William James in The Hurt Locker.

At first glance, the predominantly masculine nature of Bigelow's work could be seen as detrimental, but she is still every bit as much a feminist filmmaker as the likes of Sally Potter or to be fair any of the women directors that have been discussed in this blogathon. The feminist aspects of her filmmaking just work in a different way. While other women might want to put the focus on creating strong female characters or promoting women's rights (as is the case with Orlando, a film that is hardly subtle about its feminist messages),

Bigelow seems to take whatever scripts interest her. Few if any of her movies actually address gender dynamics, at least not directly. Instead, she can be seen as a feminist filmmaker simply on the grounds that she shows a woman can make great movies. I don't see any reason why it should be a problem. After all, most of the few all-female movies that have been made (i.e. The Women and The Descent) were directed by men, so why shouldn't a woman be allowed to direct an all-male film. She was briefly married to James Cameron, a male director for whom strong female characters are a trademark, so it seems to fit.

In Bigelow's films, the interactions between the characters take precedence above all else. In many cases, there isn't a linear story in the strictest sense, at least not one that is presented in a classical fashion. Instead her movies take the form of a series of vignettes that focus on the interactions between a small group of characters, The Hurt Locker being one of the best examples of a such a structure. The central focus becomes the relationships between the main characters, with their ultimate objective being marginalized.

This leads to a common trend in Bigelow's films involving the "invisible enemy". In her films, the true "antagonists", if you can call them that, are shown as little as possible. K-19: The Widowmaker, has a sub-plot involving an American destroyer and helicopter, but since the focus is on a Russian submarine, the only Americans we see are in filmstrips and one man seen from a distance in the helicopter. The Hurt Locker refrains from showing us any terrorists outside of when they are visible to the three main characters and deliberately avoids addressing the politics of America's role in Iraq. Even in Point Break, the actual villains are kept anonymous by wearing masks resembling former presidents.

One of the best examples of Bigelow's interest in an "invisible enemy" would have to be Zero Dark Thirty. There are a number of ways a film about hunting down Osama Bin Laden could have been done, but Bigelow prefers to keep us in the dark about his operations. We never so much as see a photograph of Osama Bin Laden until the very end... after he has been shot and killed. Even then, Bigelow prevents us from getting a clear look at the body, keeping shots depicting it brief, dark, or at an angle that makes it harder to see. Audiences of the film likely have seen pictures of Bin Laden, so we see enough to recognize it is in fact him, but that is all the film is inclined to show us.

The antagonists of her films are not even treated as an anonymous enemy the same way as the German or Japanese soldiers in the old World War II combat films. In those movies, the enemy soldiers were stripped of their humanity in order to eliminate the emotional repercussions of killing a human being. Bigelow certainly does not skip on the psychological effects of killing someone (even the Navy SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty are a bit shaken after killing Bin Laden), but marginalizing the enemy makes them less an actual antagonist and more like part of the background.

If anything, the central conflict becomes less about finding the enemy than it is about how the relationships between the main characters interfere with that ultimate endgoal. Point Break may be one of the best examples, as it is Johnny's friendship with Bodhi that interferes with his task to put that man behind bars. Likewise K-19 focuses on the mounting tension between different members of the crew, first questioning the orders of their new commanding officer and later as they desperately try to figure out how to respond to a disaster in the submarine's reactor. The conflict over whether the crew should call for help or stay aboard and attempt to prevent the submarine from exploding while facing radiation poisoning interferes with them reaching a solution. Zero Dark Thirty has Maya struggling to persuade her superiors that she has indeed found Bin Laden.

Most great directors have a style that defines their work and makes it unique, and this is a big part of why Kathryn Bigelow stands out so well. She has this style of filmmaking that is all her own, with nobody else quite like her. Her movies do not stick strictly to a classical model, but still make sure to tell coherent and compelling stories about relationships, usually in a non-romantic light (Point Break being a partial exception) and among men. You don't see a lot of directors, at least not in Hollywood, who take such an approach to their movies.

The classical system of Hollywood filmmaking developed in the Studio Era (and arguably still the dominant mode of storytelling today, though perhaps not as strictly enforced) is that narrative comes above all else. Every other aspect of the movie: character development, visual effects, exposition, is secondary to advancing the narrative. The story is presented in a linear cause-and-effect format, with one scene leading into the next, and any deviation from that structure (i.e. flashbacks) are to be clearly indicated.

Many Hollywood directors who have managed to make their names stand out, such as Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Sergio Leone, Alfred Hitchcock, and to a lesser extant John Carpenter; are people who have dared to challenge the established formula. All of these men made movies in their own way, not letting the confines of Hollywood hold them down. Kathryn Bigelow has done the same, making movies the way she feels they need to be made. Some are more successful than others: The Hurt Locker was a great movie that deserved that Best Picture Oscar while Point Break was okay at the most, but in both cases she made them in the way that seemed to make the most sense to her.

The fact that Kathryn Bigelow is a woman does not play into or influence her films in the slightest. Like any great male director she has a style all her own that makes her films unique, including allowing her stand apart from other feminist filmmakers. Watching her movies, one gets the sense a director like Bigelow simply takes the scripts that interest her, regardless of their content or whether they have a strong female lead (and if it does, that's just an added bonus to an already great movie). She works more or less the same way as any male auteur in Hollywood, showing that a woman can be every bit as capable of making great movies as any man.

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