Saturday, February 2, 2013

Action woman

Time Magazine carries a fairly flattering profile of Kathryn Bigelow, as if her new movie needs extra promotion. The title, “Art of Darkness,” is perhaps also meant to flatter the smart readers who are expected - wink, wink - to recognize the allusion to the Conrad masterpiece which once inspired another famous war movie (as I did!). The profile says the successful director “is an astonishingly youthful 61 and exudes a warm elegance, equal parts Northern California mellow and and Northeast patrician.” Putting the obligatory rhetorical overkill aside here, this strikes me as a fairly astonishing characterization. Warm? If I were to make the call, I would easily cast her as the Snow Queen in an HBO adaptation of the medieval tale. This hunch is based mostly on the two B&W photos gracing the profile - one on the artfully designed cover, the other - bigger - next to the big title inside. I haven’t seen any of her movies, but the Time article offers plenty of evidence to corroborate the fuzzy impression created by those images.

Scanning the text, here are a few passages that caught my attention - in a roughly chronological order. When Bigelow attended art classes at the San Francisco Art Institute, she “loved de Kooning,” and “would do these big pieces that were like Abstract Expressionist-Renaissance fusion.” In a taxpayer-subsidized short film she made early in her career, “two semioticians provide[d] running commentary on a fistfight between two men.” Back in the mid-1990s, “her technical ambition expanded with the dystopian Strange Days.” In an earlier war movie about a Soviet nuclear submarine, she “wanted to dispense with all the movie tropes - the clean through line, the idea of the hero.” Her previous war film, The Hurt Locker, “was widely perceived as taking a neutral or apolitical stance on its subject matter.” That movie portrayed a “bomb disposal savant” who “routinely and willfully endangers himself and his fellow soldiers and seems permanently alienated from his wife and toddler son.” She is friends with Philip Glass. “She is still interested in learning the language and rituals of hidden world.” Consequently, her titles are “like coded language and she’s cracking the code.” The first almost half hour of her new film is “largely taken up with torture” (on Colbert, Bigelow said she had to show enhanced interrogation - and apparently had to do it in harrowing, graphic detail). She “choreographs the predawn raid in near real time with breathtaking suspense and precision as well as a chilling matter-of-factness that drains the sequence of elation and jingoism.” She thinks picking “topical material,” or “challenging, contemporaneous subjects that create controversy and noise around them” puts her immediately “with Apocalypse Now, All the President’s Men, A Clockwork Orange, In the Heat of the Night, Battle of Algiers.” And in an LA Times column she wrote her goal had been to create a “modern, rigorous film about anti-terrorism.”

Bigelow has been viciously attacked in the media for 0D30 - from the right and the national security establishment, for suggesting that the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” delivered the key piece of information which led to Bin Laden’s assassination; from the left, for “normalizing” torture and not questioning the role of the US as a self-appointed global policeman. Critics have also pointed out that she should not sell the movie as a paragon of “reported” verity, yet claim the cover of artistic license when confronted with counter evidence from experts. Such criticisms make some sense, though the movie could also be seen (by those who have seen it) as conveying a larger poetic truth even if not sticking to every single objective fact or making an acceptable ideological statement.

It might be just me, but I tend to see a deeper flaw in Bigelow’s fascinations, pretensions, and overall approach to the art of film making. They all strike me as unmistakably nerdy and cold-hearted - an impression reinforced by her use of jerky cameras, gritty imagery, greenish night-visionish footage, and other manipulative techniques calculated to draw you into the action sequence “as if you are there.” But you don’t need to take my word for it. Here is how Jamie Lee Curtis describes the woman who directed her in one movie back in 1990: “She had a quiet strength. There was this machinery to her. She was all business. Even down to her clothing - black jeans, black t-shirt, very simple, militaristic if you will, like a uniform.” Of course, the actress feels obliged to add at the end that Bigelow “is not a cold woman” or “a machine.” There is just this “machinelike execution to what she does. She is only there for the film.”

Jamie Lee shouldn’t have bothered to soften up the image she carries in her mind. The way she describes Bigelow puts the director right at the forefront of that new master race, described as “alpha geeks,” “the nerds [who] come marching in,” “the new cognitive elite,” etc. in various publications. In that capacity, she could, indeed, be a very convincing Time person of the year.

The nerdy, narrowly focused quality of her outlook might also explain Bigelow’s tendency to make contradictory statements without seeming to recognize the tension they contain: for example, she wants to expose the use of questionable interrogation methods, at the same time paying tribute to the “ordinary Americans who fought bravely even as they sometimes crossed moral lines, who labored greatly and intently, who gave all of themselves in both victory and defeat, in life and in death, for the defense of this nation.” Which reminds me - the person Bigelow can most easily empathize with could be Maya, the fanatical CIA analyst she created.

Here is my two cents on the recent controversy. Bigelow could be “perhaps the finest action director at work today” (as claimed in the Time profile). If she needs a great director to stand by, she should pick George Lucas (only she is way less sentimental). If I needed to see a "first draft of history" depicting the unfolding of momentous events, I would look elsewhere. And if I were a female American, I would probably see Bigelow's elevation to the status of the first woman to win that Oscar as an affront on my gendered professional honor.

P.S. Since I wrote the above without having watched any of Bigelow's movies, I had to see her latest. I have to say all my preconceptions were confirmed. I even wondered if the first two hours of the movie were mostly an excuse to show the whole Abbottabad operation - since the technicalities of the raid seemed so glaringly detached from the main plot line. But perhaps the celebrated director again wanted to challenge the conventions of conventional plot development.