Monday, 23 April 2012

“And the time has come!” The Hurt Locker: A Kathryn Bigelow Film

Yvonne Tasker and Eylem Atakav

(extract taken from ‘The Hurt Locker: Male Intimacy, Violence and the Iraq War Movie’, Sine/Cine: Journal of Film Studies, Vol.1, No: 2, 2011)  

“There’s really no difference between what I do and what a male filmmaker might do. I mean we all try to make our days, we all try to give the best performances we can, we try to make our budget, we try to make the best movie we possibly can... On the other hand, I think the journey for women, no matter what venue it is - politics, business, film - it’s a long journey.” (Bigelow, 2010)

Kathryn Bigelow’s 2010 awards season, in which she became the first woman to take the Director’s Guild of America and the Academy Award for Best Direction, renewed critical and scholarly interest in the position of women filmmakers and the sorts of films for which they do (and do not) receive acclaim. The run up to the Oscars made much of Bigelow as a filmmaker contending against ex-husband and former collaborator James Cameron, not the first time that coverage of her career has foregrounded his. The melodramatic terms in which this run-off was covered was attributed by some media pundits to a desire to reinvigorate falling ratings for the once must-see ceremony. Ironically enough, while Bigelow had long had admirers for her action-oriented movies such as Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991), and Strange Days (1995), the terms of this particular opposition managed to suggest a generic opposition between Avatar’s mega-budget fantasy adventure and The Hurt Locker as an Iraq war movie with a very different budget and aesthetic. The Hurt Locker was effectively framed in opposition to Avatar’s innovative 3D technology as something of a realist movie, a positioning which its contemporary setting and the documentary feel of its camerawork no doubt exacerbated. Of course, The Hurt Locker is also very much an action movie, albeit coupled with masculine melodrama. Indeed the two movies suggest the very different visual possibilities for the cinematic rendition of combat in other lands.

Revealing Bigelow as winner of the best director Academy Award, Barbra Streisand (herself a director) placed her hand on her heart, declaring “The time has come!” Inevitably critical and popular attention has highlighted Bigelow’s directorial “firsts.” Although reviews celebrated her achievement, thoughts on the relevance of her gender are divided. While at an earlier stage of her career reviewers frequently expressed themselves perplexed by Bigelow’s work in supposedly “masculine” genres, some contemporary critics affirm her seeming gender neutrality.  Others like Martha Nochimson, who provocatively labelled Bigelow a “hyper-macho bad boy” in her essay, detect double standards in the fact that it is such an intensely male-oriented movie that netted this particular directorial first. 

Titling her essay “Kathryn Bigelow: Feminist pioneer or tough guy in drag?” Nochimson argues that Bigelow is “...masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.” Labels such as feminist or woman filmmaker have indeed proven problematic for many women filmmakers who look to forge a career in Hollywood or indeed the shrinking independent sector. 

The mismatch between Bigelow’s often bold, always accomplished, generic movies and a critical category of feminist filmmaking highlights the difficulties of an assumption that women filmmakers will do gender in predictable political ways. Indeed the 2010 US media furore over the legitimacy or otherwise of right wing women’s claim to the term “feminist” indicates the wider resonance of this point. As both cases suggest, feminism is not just about the success of high profile individual women. While the involvement of more women in male-dominated arenas such as politics and filmmaking suggests movement in gender hierarchies, neither feminist policies nor feminist movies simply happen because women are involved.

Bigelow does not tend to promote a feminist, or even a feminine, sensibility in her films; neither does she introduce herself as a feminist or a feminist filmmaker. Rather she engages in what Nochimson calls “muscular filmmaking”. This idea of muscular filmmaking is also central for Barry Keith Grant who explores Bigelow’s films in relation to action as a genre. For Grant, her films attempt to negotiate a place for women both in front of and behind the camera within traditionally masculine discourses whilst at the same time mobilising “a range of the genres traditionally regarded as ‘male’ precisely to interrogate that term specifically, as well as the politics and pleasures of gendered representations in genre films more generally” (Grant, 2004, p. 372). Similarly Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond, editors of the volume The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor, emphasise both terms in that clause, arguing that “her work partly falls within and partly infringes the parameters of Hollywood cinema” (Jermyn & Redmond, 2003, p. 3). In addition, as Jermyn appositely observes, “Bigelow’s refusal to be easily compartmentalised, to be labelled a ‘female director’ or to work within the confines of a given genre, has often made the concept of a Bigelow film a slippery one” (Jermyn, 2003, p. 126). 

Drawing together formal and narrative devices from both generic and art cinema has allowed Bigelow to produce films that foreground sensation – central to the action genre since the 1980s – and a visual style that simultaneously participates in a range of genres.  While K19: The Widowmaker (2002) is a military movie, The Hurt Locker is Bigelow’s first war film. Its visceral, at times deeply sentimental, evocation of men at war - yet not in combat – figures male intimacy and masculine heroism in familiar generic terms.

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