Kathryn Bigelow: Action Painter 


Crafting Genre: Kathryn Bigelow June 1-August 13 at MoMA

It's a little disappointing that Kathryn Bigelow's next (understandably much chattered about) movie is going to be about killing bin Laden. Whether it remains about one of the unsuccessful attempts, or commits to chronicling the Navy SEALs mission that, well after the original idea was being developed, finished the job, it sounds too similar to The Hurt Locker. For what was Osama if not an explosive device stashed in plain view near a war zone? And how different are the SEALs who stormed bin Laden from Jeremy Renner's bomb-defusing Sergeant William James? All are recklessly brave, adrenalized, quick-thinking, and potentially complex - will the top SEAL get his own home front supermarket aisle inner void-contemplating moment? A SEAL would fit a long line of Bigelow protagonists, respectfully fetishized for their innate drive and commitment to codes of justice that they sometimes draft themselves, but the leap from the last one seems too short. We'll see.

Bigelow developed and made her multiple Oscar winner with embedded Iraqi journalist turned screenwriter Mark Boal, who is also working on the bin Laden project. The 2009 film was her first since 2002's K-19: The Widowmaker, and its reportorial, shaky roughness marked a shift from the unique, romantically lush style she refined in films like Blue Steel and Point Break. But the concerns were similar, and close viewing revealed that The Hurt Locker's superficially "vérité" camerawork and editing were just as, and in some ways more, meticulous—playing with ideas of perspective and how it defines different personalities—as that in her great 80s and 90s films. (An excellent L Magazine video essay explicates The Hurt Locker's visual strategy and relation to previous Bigelow films.)

The California native earned a painting BFA in San Francisco and studied at the Whitney Museum, and while it can be banal to compare painting to film, every one of Bigelow's movies up until K-19 evinces a painter's concern for color palette, composition, and visual mood. The Hurt Locker continues the director's interest in deconstructing and questioning genre (while remaining very entertaining). It's visually sneaky, but having more kinship with war photography than Edward Hopper, it doesn't have as many frames you'd want to hang on a wall. MoMA is acknowledging Bigelow's artistic process and multimedia background by pairing a complete retro of her directorial features with a gallery exhibition that includes "paintings, concept art, film posters, drawings, storyboards, scripts, short films, and props." It's a thorough way to explore the development of a style of which The Hurt Locker and slated journo-political films do not, to me, seem an inevitable progression.

Bigelow's precociously slick 15-minute debut film Set-Up (1978) shows two dudes violently fistfighting while two semioticians deconstruct the action on the soundtrack. It sounds like either a microcosm or parody of her filmography in toto, in which she questions the complexities of violence and masculine assumptions. As quickly as 1987, with Near Dark, she had become too skilled as a genre stylist and entertainer for her work to sit comfortably entombed in theory class textbooks. The film, a practically perfect western/horror mashup, follows Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), a cowboy-civilian introduced into the Nightlife by adorable Mae (Jenny Wright)—an equation of vampirism and dumb young small town love that predates the glossier Twilight by 21 years. This early triumph, shot by Adam Greenberg, is a ravishingly photographed series of magic hour dreams and dawn nightmares, scored aggressively and gloriously by Tangerine Dream. "We keep odd hours," grins Severen (a patently insane Bill Paxton) about his leathery posse of vampires, and the understatement is typical of the movie in which the "V" word is never uttered.


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