Thursday, February 25, 2010


Some potential reactions to The Hurt Locker:

A. "This movie is metal, bro."
B. "This movie is about how soldiers experience contemporary warfare as metal, bro."
C. "This movie is metal, bro, and it was directed by a woman."
D. "This movie is about how soldiers experience contemporary warfare as metal, bro, and it was directed by a woman."
E. "This movie is about how soldiers experience contemporary warfare as metal, bro, and it was directed by a woman, and I am vaguely cognizant that there are, like, kickass gender implications at play."

Obviously there are additional, and different potential reactions to The Hurt Locker, but I'd be lying if I said that I didn't pick up some of these vibes from hearing about the film, which I recently caught up with on DVD. (Eh, it's so-so.) But why is it that so many people feel compelled to express their affection for Bigelow primarily through the prism of her being, essentially, a tomboy, and then relating this 'praise' as though patting oneself on the back for it? (As one piece of evidence: Rob Nelson's comments in the current issue of Film Comment, where he writes, "Note to Marc Webb, Todd Phillips, and Oren Peli: Kathryn Bigelow is a more muscular director than all of you combined." One might as well be saying: Yeah! Let's make fun of them nancy-boys! It's OK to do so because we've snuck in under the umbrella of gender equality!)

Isn't this really just a symptom of the sorts of thinking we should be moving beyond? Yes, Bigelow is a quite talented director. Some people consider her one of the preeminent directors in Hollywood today. She is also a woman, and there are not so many of those directing films (and doing a lot of other empowered jobs) as one would think there should be. And one could count on one hand the number of women filmmakers in Hollywood who might be granted, in public and critical discourse, the status of "authorship" and, what's more, a respected authorship, over her films. So indeed it's important to discuss gender, like genre, with respect to a lot of Bigelow's movies. Including The Hurt Locker. At the same time, hasn't she been around, doing her thing, long enough for people to have come up with better ways of understanding her than (implicitly) by strict analogy to one of the tough female action heroes in one of the films helmed by either her or her infamous ex-husband!?


Jaime said...

I also thought the movie was so-so. I remember liking STRANGE DAYS a lot, but that was a long time ago when I thought BUGSY was a great film, etc. Anyway, Bigelow inspired what was effectively the centerpiece in HOT FUZZ, and for that I am most grateful!

No, that's flip. (Although I *do* think HOT FUZZ is amazing.) SD is definitely ambitious, and she made a string of minor classics in the '80s and '90s, but I have a feeling that we should look back to BLUE STEEL to find a studio-subsidized action movie as troubling and jaundiced as Tony Scott's two 1990s "poisoned well" films, THE FAN and THE LAST BOY SCOUT. That's the movie I want to hear more critics explain in terms of conventional "manly man" cinema - not THE HURT LOCKER.

ZC said...

Yeah, I think I'm agreed. Somewhere Adrian Martin wrote that Blue Steel, Secret Beyond the Door, and one other film that escapes me, would make a great double bill ... and I'm still waiting to see those three films together ...

Jon Hastings said...

Part of it is that it's a good story in a "man bites dog" sense: there aren't that many women making action films, which makes it notable that she directed it instead of, say, Michael Mann or William Friedkin. It's a hook and journalists (including film writers and amateurs) love hooks! (Alas, that didn't help get much in the way of good words for Punisher: War Zone - a personal fave).

Another part is that film writing - at all levels - still values "men's genres" over "women's genres" by a wide, wide margin. There's a sense that by making a serious action movie and not, say, a serious costume melodrama, Bigelow is earning her place at the "big boy's table". (This argument was advanced recently in the Dave Kehr comment section wrt critics etc. making a bigger deal of The Hurt Locker than Bright Star). This sentiment is all over the recent discussion of Sirk's reputation at Glenn Kenny's blog: melodramatic weepies are either too "girly" to take seriously or we can only take them seriously when they have been properly subverted.

Finally - I also was a bit underwhelmed by the movie. I think that Bigelow's rather pulpy conception of her adrenaline junkie hero plays much better in the context of a cops & robbers movie like Point Break (or Thief or To Live and Die in L.A.) than in the context of a purportedly "realistic" war movie.

Brian said...

It's a very well made and mature genre movie, which is rare. It's also a genre movie that works for the art-house crowd, which is even rarer. This movie's critical reception is similar to that of Cronenberg's A History of Violence. When that came out it was the most accessible thing that Cronenberg had maybe ever done and gave his long-time supporters the feeling of vindication, while giving others a reason to go back and reexamine his work.

Part of the reason that people bring up the themes of masculinity is because it's rare to see such themes actually explored thoughtfully, instead being merely an action film that takes the morality of such things for granted and uses machismo for its own visceral sake.

Micheal Mann is another director who gets praised for this sort of thing. Obviously that praise doesn't stem from director exploring material that focuses on the opposite gender.

Like Mann, Bigelow focuses on these masculine themes and her being female [i]is[/i] interesting. The reason this is brought up so much, is because it's an easy observation. The actual reason for the movie's critical success has much more to do with its place in her career (not to mention its place among Iraq war movies) and the actual substance of its themes and how well it works as an entertaining genre movie.

ZC said...

Jon, I'll have to check out Punisher: War Zone some time! Definitely also a genre hierarchy at work.

Brian, I think A History of Violence is a good point of comparison in many ways.