Kathryn Bigelow: Don’t Look Back

Monday, July 13, 2009

“I’ve got to make films.”

It was back in the late 70s, and I was having a coffee with a friend. It was a common refrain from her. She wasn’t trying to convince herself. She wasn’t gearing herself up emotionally and practically for what she would need to do to make her dream a reality. It was just a statement of a basic need, like eating or sleeping, something not to be denied. I was certain that she’d achieve her goal--but I felt that way about lots of people I knew. But she was different.

I thought  Kathryn Bigelow could make great films. Kathryn Bigelow  Photo: Reid Rosefelt

I met Kathy (that’s what we called her then) in New York in the late 70s in New York. She was part of a circle of friends that gathered for a film club every weekend at cinematographer Ed Lachman’s immense loft on 19th Street. Somehow Kathy and I became friends and we started hanging out a bit outside the group. (She was way out of my league to be anything more than a friend). Kathy was (and is) strikingly beautiful and overwhelmingly talented; she would have been extremely intimidating to be around if she wasn’t so nice. Kathy probably could have made it as a painter if she had wanted to stick with that. She had received a scholarship at the Whitney, but then moved on to Columbia Film School.

She had a tremendous fascination with how violence could be portrayed in the cinema, particularly as seen through the filter of a French writer and George Bataillephilosopher I had never heard of named George Bataille.  I got the sense that Bataille was some kind of mélange of surrealism and eroticism and de Sade-like cruelty, but the precise way he blended them and what he put in of his own was vague to me then, and even more vague to me now. But what I did understand was that Kathy wasn’t just looking back to the styles and techniques of Hitchcock, Peckinpah, Romero, Argento, etc.—she was attempting to build on a highly aestheticized foundation. She didn’t want to ape anybody else, she wanted to make a kind of movie that hadn’t been made before. This I understood well, as it was a commonplace in European cinema for filmmakers like Godard and Resnais to use literary ideas as a means to “reinvent” cinema. The difference, and it was a huge one, is that Kathy was reading different books. What she wanted to create was more visceral and stomach-churning--more of a punch to the stomach and a battering of the subconscious than a detached and modish Brechtian challenge for the mind.

Kathy had a reckless ambition that made her want to be more than a director; she wanted to elevate the art. Sure, there was an abundance of would-be filmmakers around town, as well as lots of people who liked to talk about the aesthetic potential of cinema, but Kathy had everything working full cylinders, plus talent, charisma and determinism.

Reid Rosefelt, Kathryn BigelowJust for fun, I googled “Kathryn Bigelow” and “George Bataille,” and I found a 1998 academic paper, “Georges Bataille and the Visceral Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow,” written by Jeff Karnicky, then a grad student at Penn State. He wrote: “This essay finds similarities between George Bataille's philosophy of expenditure and Kathyrn Bigelow's films “Strange Days,” “Near Dark,” and “Point Break.” More specifically, I argue that, among other things, Bigelow's films viscerally elicit, in the film spectator, many of the concepts Bataille discusses in his writings, so that the practice of ‘joy before death’ becomes more than words on a page. Philosophy becomes visceral sensation, leaves the world of abstract thought and enters the domain of bodily sensations.”

When I watched her new film “The Hurt Locker,” my hands started trembling during the first sequence and they didn’t stop until an hour into the movie. They were shaking so much that the man who was sitting next to me got up and left. I suppose it’s possible that the movie was too much for him, but I doubt it—my hands were distracting me too. The movie had literally entered my nervous system. I’m willing to bet that if you’d measured everybody’s vital signs in that theatre, they’d have been off the charts.Hanna Schygulla, Reid Rosefelt, Kathryn Bigelow

Actress Hanna Schygulla, me with horrifying 70s hair, Kathryn Bigelow

In David Poland’s interview with Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, she says that the material was so strong that she didn’t want to aestheticize it in any way. It was intense enough that it didn’t require it.  While that’s undoubtedly true, I believe Kathryn Bigelow is such a masterful filmmaker because there are ideas behind what she does, and yes, aesthetic underpinnings to her style.   And the main one, decades ago, was Bataille.  Perhaps she jettisoned him while making this film, but can she really work him out of her system completely?   Let me count how many films I have seen in all my years of movie going that have made my hands tremble like that. Let’s see….there’s one. It’s hard not to think of Mr. Karnicky’s words:  “Philosophy becomes visceral sensation, leaves the world of abstract thought and enters the domain of bodily sensations.”

I remember seeing a monograph on Bigelow in a bookstore once, and being delighted.  Imagine!  Kathy, who once expressed herself with the high-toned jargon of academia, had gone on to become “Kathryn Bigelow,” someone with a book studying her oeuvre!  I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a lot of Bataille in that book.  Bigelow is a serious intellectual,  I’m sure she’s spoken about Bataille relative to her films, and I doubt Karnicky is the only one to study her from that angle.  Still, I don’t know if critics from popular magazines have written about her in that way.  And I’d like to.

Anyway, Bigelow is an artist, always developing and changing.  She’s taken what she could from all her mentors and the directors who preceded her and has lived to become someone that others study.  David Poland, in his interview, asked her:

Poland: Do you look back much?

Bigelow: Never. I don’t. I just kind of keep looking ahead.

(Poland was asking her about whether she looked back on her previous films, but it sounded to me like a more general philosophy.)


"The Loveless" DVD Box I’ll end with a story. After she finished her first feature (co-directed by Monty Montgomery), she brought her poster art to my apartment/office. (I don’t remember exactly why, but perhaps it was because I had supervised the printing of many posters while at New Yorker Films.) It was simple and striking—basically a very intense picture of an extremely young Willem Dafoe(it was his first film) in a leather jacket. But she didn’t like the title, “Breakdown” at all. It did seem too generic for the film. She left me some of her publicity materials and I took a look at them that night. In the midst of the text, she wrote, “the loveless and the damned.” I called her up and said, “Why don’t you call it ‘The Loveless and the Damned?” She didn’t say anything, but a little later, she called me up and said, “I’m going to call it “The Loveless.” And she did.