THE take on Kathryn Bigelow is that she is a great female director of muscular action movies, the kind with big guns, scenes, themes and camera movements as well as an occasional fist in the face, a knee to the groin. Sometimes, more simply, she’s called a great female director. But here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker. Because while it is marginally interesting that she calls “action” and “cut” while in the possession of two X chromosomes, gender is the least remarkable thing about her kinetic filmmaking, which gets in your head even as it sends shock waves through your body.
Her latest is “The Hurt Locker,” a film about men and war. Set in Iraq in 2004 and shot just over the border in Jordan, it centers on a three-man American bomb squad that sifts through the sand day and night disabling explosives. It was first shown at the Venice Film Festival in September 2008 (it opens Friday), where it was greeted with rapturous praise and some misapprehension. Mostly, it seems, because its extraordinary filmmaking, which transmits the sickening addiction to war as well as its horrors in largely formal terms, doesn’t come wedded to a sufficiently obvious antiwar position. One British critic went so far as to say that while the film had “excellent acting, camerawork and editing, it could pass for propaganda.”
“The Hurt Locker” doesn’t traffic in the armchair militarism of Hollywood products like “Top Gun” and “Transformers,” but neither is it an antiwar screed. It’s diagnostic, not prescriptive: it takes an analytical if visceral look at how the experience of war can change a man, how it eats into his brain so badly he ends up hooked on it. And, like all seven of Ms. Bigelow’s previous feature films, this new one is also as informed by the radical aspirations of conceptual art as it is by the techniques of classical Hollywood cinema.
She might live and sometimes shoot within driving distance of the major studios that have distributed if not financed her films. But in many respects she remains an industry outsider.
“I’ve never made a studio film,” Ms. Bigelow gently reminded me during a leisurely conversation here not long ago. Although most of her movies have been released by studios, they have been bankrolled by independent companies, which nonetheless don’t necessarily grant the autonomy any artist seeks. The experience of making “The Hurt Locker” — the “purity” of it, as she puts it — marks her return to liberating conditions under which she thrives. She hasn’t had this kind of freedom since her 1987 breakthrough, “Near Dark,” an erotically charged vampire movie made on the cheap, or her 1995 science-fiction thriller “Strange Days,” which came with some heavy protection courtesy of one of its producers: her former husband, James Cameron.
It’s hard to imagine Ms. Bigelow letting anyone push her around. She’s unfailingly gracious — and tends to speak in the second person, preferring “you” over “I” — but there’s a ferocious undercurrent there too, as might be expected. She works to put you at ease, but even her looks inspire shock and awe. Because she was early for our interview and already tucked into a booth, I didn’t realize how tall she was until we both stood up, and I watched, from a rather lower vantage, her unfurl her slender six-foot frame. It was like watching a time lapse of a growing tree. Like a lot of tall women she describes herself as shy, but she has learned to take up space.
At first that space wasn’t on screen but on a canvas. An only child, she was born in 1951 and raised in a town, San Carlos, 25 miles south of San Francisco, where she first nurtured a lifelong love of art and horses. (When we meet again her arms are flecked with bruises after a perilous ride on her mare.) She was a student painter at the Art Institute of San Francisco and later the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program, where she studied with Vito Acconci and Susan Sontag. She joined a conceptual art group, appeared in the feminist movie “Born in Flames” and earned her master’s in the film division of the Columbia University School of the Arts, where she immersed herself in theories about signs and meaning and the cinematic spectacle.
“Film,” she says, “became the interchange where all these ideas were intersecting.”
As she moved between uptown and down, she also made her first film, “The Set-Up” (1978), a short in which two men (Gary Busey included) fight each other as the semioticians Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky deconstruct the images in voice-over. Although she now plays down the film, it seems like a template for much of her later work, with its emphasis on men, masculinity, violence and power. A few years ago she elaborated on its themes: “The piece ends with Sylvère talking about the fact that in the 1960s you think of the enemy as outside yourself, in other words, a police officer, the government, the system, but that’s not really the case at all, fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time.”
That enemy lurks in the anomie of the motorcycle biker (Willem Dafoe in his screen debut) who motors through her 1982 debut feature “The Loveless” (made with Monty Montgomery) and in the bloodstream of the young cowboy initiated into a gang of vampires in “Near Dark,” the western-horror hybrid that made her a cult favorite. It sneaks into the head of the undercover F.B.I. agent in “Point Break” (1991) who’s philosophically seduced by the koan-spouting leader of some bank-robbing surfers. And it slips into the rigid body of a devout 19th-century immigrant wife in “The Weight of Water” (2000), who, after sharing a chaste bed with another woman, responds to her awakened sexual desire with a murderous swing of an ax.
Much as she does in her far-out 1990 feminist freak-out “Blue Steel,” about a female cop (Jamie Lee Curtis) literally seduced by a male killer who fondles her gun with lethal results, Ms. Bigelow isn’t just playing with genre. She’s having her unruly way with gender, sometimes by inverting traditional masculine and feminine roles, as in “Strange Days,” a future shock love story that also explores voyeurism and the pleasures of violent spectacle. Shot in a Los Angeles still hurting from its 1992 civil unrest, it features Angela Bassett (whose bare, sculptured arms outmuscle those of Michelle Obama) rescuing a hapless white man (Ralph Fiennes) who, despite being the narrative’s center, never becomes its hero.
“Strange Days” originated with Mr. Cameron, who wrote the first draft before handing it over to her. With Jay Cocks, she finished the script and made the film her own. (She and Mr. Cameron divorced in 1991; she’s now in a relationship she prefers to keep private.) It was poorly released by its studio, which seemed unsure of how to sell it (kinky sex? millennial meltdown?), and it flopped. “The Weight of Water,” a trickily plotted drama that toggles between two bad marriages in separate time periods, and notably her only movie to touch on matrimonial life, followed and disappeared on impact. Two years later, in 2002, she returned to blockbuster form with “K-19: The Widowmaker,” an unnerving, very human thriller about the first Soviet nuclear submarine. It too died a quick box-office death.
She had to scale back for the next one. “I definitely wanted to have full creative control and final cut,” she says of “The Hurt Locker,” which was written by Mark Boal and based on his experience working as an embedded journalist in Iraq. She wanted up-and-coming actors who weren’t so famous that their characters couldn’t die, even if their names wouldn’t mean much in the ads. She also wanted to shoot in the Middle East. Her security detail talked her out of filming in Iraq, though she inched close to the border. Given her demands and the scant interest that American audiences have expressed in fiction films about the war, she looked outside the country for financing. The French company Voltage Pictures gave her money and control.
“It was a no-note experience,” she says, referring to the suggestions that movie executives like to issue — and enforce — “absolutely zero interference.” She laughs when I ask if she might become addicted to the freedom, much as the bomb tech played by Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker” becomes hopped up on war. It’s a ludicrous comparison, granted. But moviemaking is littered with broken spirits, and there’s something improbable about the longevity of her career in the mainstream. Partly because, yes, she’s working in an sexist field where even female studio chiefs are loath to hire female directors, but also because of the stubborn persistence of her artistic vision and intellectualism. She’s still investigating signs and meaning, but now through genres she deconstructs and sometimes immolates.
It’s telling, then, that after she made “The Loveless” a postmodern motorcycle movie in which she stretched narrative to the limit, she started receiving scripts for high school comedies, which she quickly realized was considered a suitable subject for her gender. “It was an intersection of absolutely inappropriate sensibilities,” she said, though I would love to see what havoc she could wreak on that genre. She was living in New York in a condemned building without heat and electricity. A juvenile comedy might have paid the bills, but instead she accepted an offer from her friend, the artist John Baldessari, to teach at the California Institute of the Arts, just north of Los Angeles. Hollywood was the inevitable next step. Through the director Walter Hill, she landed a deal at a studio, but it led to nowhere.
It was at this point, she said, that she understood “if I had a prayer of shooting something that intrigued me, I was going to have to be the architect of my own fate.” She went off and made “Near Dark,” a vampire film steeped in the kind of hot, sticky, shocking violence that’s alternately exciting and appalling. It was the perfect vehicle for a director discovering that we go to movies for what they do to our bodies and not just the ideas they plant in our heads. She wants to take you on a mental journey: “To transport you to an event or a physicality or a location or an experience or an emotional odyssey that is purely experiential.” Her use of the word odyssey seems significant. I can’t imagine her sitting at home and weaving.
If anything, her refusal to make the types of movies most associated with women suggests that in American movies, at least, genre is destiny, to repurpose a familiar Freud maxim about gender. She’s steered clear of the industry ghetto to which female directors are usually consigned, bypassing the dreaded chick flick for stories and archetypes traditionally if reductively seen as the province of men. She still makes relationship movies, but the relationships evolve both through the chatter at which women are supposed to excel and the contact of bodies, often male, sometimes female, running, surfing, parachuting, living and dying out in the world. She learned from the masters — De Kooning, Peckinpah, Goya, Pasolini, Rembrandt and on and on — in order to become her own woman.
The number of male mentors and aesthetic influences seems instructive as does her seeming discomfort when I ask why she likes to make movies about men. It’s one of the few times when she searches for her words. She mentions Richard Serra, whom she’s known for years, and “Torqued Ellipses,” his curvilinear steel sculptures that weigh about 40 tons apiece and which she describes as “real statements of power.” Suddenly I’m reminded of the moment in “K-19” when the camera glides between two submarines sitting parallel on the surface of the water, a glorious image of heavy metal that is itself a statement of power. When she was painting, she says, she loved “big, gestural, visceral, raw, immediate pieces.” She starts to move her fingers, as if she were sewing.“Nothing really struck me,” she says, of the art she first loved, “that was tight and precise and patient and careful and perhaps more introspective. Perhaps,” she laughs, “it’s just a sensibility defect.”