Archive for category Kathryn Bigelow
If Jamie Lee Curtis is the star of Blue Steel, the gun is her unofficial costar. Scan the poster for another face and you’ll eventually find Ron Silver’s deranged Wall Street broker-cum-serial killer in a tiny box off to the side, less than half the size of Curtis’s drawn weapon. In this image he’s the devil on her shoulder, which makes the gun the angel by default. The gun is good, someone or other once said, and Blue Steel is a believer.
By the time the film begins, even Curtis defers to the gun, as the opening credits play over what I can only describe as a striptease seduction scene highlighting the weapon’s contours and curves. The camera first slides smoothly down the barrel and along the textured grip before peeking softly down into the bullet chambers. The sequence is downright naughty, gun porn all the way, and slyly warns the audience that what they’re watching is a step sideways from the boilerplate cop dramatics. Blue Steel has something else entirely on its warped mind.
BLUE STEEL is not Kathryn Bigelow’s best film. Frankly, it’s kind of a mess. The story, such as it is, concerns Megan (Curtis), a rookie cop disgraced on her very first night on the job by a shooting gone wrong. She confronts and finally kills an armed robber at a convenience store (Tom Sizemore), but the perp’s gun disappears in the chaos, winding up in the hands of a bystander named Eugene (Silver), an oozy stock trader so overwhelmed by the experience of becoming a burglary victim that it drives him insane. He fixates on the gun and on Megan, ultimately committing a series of random murders using bullets he’s etched with her name. While Megan and her partner (Clancy Brown) piece together the murders, Eugene weasels his way into Megan’s life, threatening her family and her friends before finally confronting her.
The screenplay is by The Hitcher’s Eric Red, and like that film’s John Ryder, Eugene displays an almost supernatural knack for his new hobby, and a talent for turning the tables on Megan every time she has him caught. But The Hitcher worked partly because of its isolated location that left its protagonist with no help and with nowhere to go. In Blue Steel, the heroes are cops in the biggest city in the world, and the script has to go through increasingly frantic gyrations to keep its villain from simply being locked away. The result is a film constructed of uncommonly dumb logic and far-fetched decisions. Watch it with care or risk straining your eyes from rolling them too hard.
But Red’s script has a secret agenda, and in Kathryn Bigelow’s hands, Blue Steel becomes something more than the action movie claptrap it seems destined to be. The project was Bigelow’s coming out party for Hollywood after her skuzzy, wooly vampire movie Near Dark (also written by Red) turned heads, and her hunger is unmistakable; a young filmmaker’s eagerness to transform the medium drips from every frame. Bigelow pinpoints the psychological subtext inherent in the script, finds her bin marked ‘subtext,’ burns it, and then with nowhere left to put the stuff, throws it right up there in the text. When she’s done, Blue Steel quits being a cop thriller and instead becomes a Freudian nightmare and the gun a phallic avatar in the war between the powered and the powerless.
Take the character of Megan. Bigelow cannily casts Jamie Lee Curtis whose physical androgyny makes the presence (or not) of her firearm a defining trait. With her gun, Megan can traffic in the macho male cop circles and stand up to Eugene, who has tragically confused his stolen gun with his masculinity. Both Eugene and Megan need their guns to avoid becoming the victim—Megan has watched her mother wilt in an abusive marriage and violates a family code against cops to empower herself, while Eugene feels powerless during the stickup and only gets his strength back when he’s armed.
Megan is stripped of her gun (and, therefore, her power) when she’s removed from the case, and she spends the rest of the film attempting to get back to where she was. She doesn’t seek violence, not consciously, but without her job, her gun, Megan is out of balance. For Eugene, however, balance is never again an option. Somehow, his murders seem only a prelude to the grossest misuse of his stolen power, that of a gunpoint rape that becomes the logical extreme of his other sexually-charged crimes. The movie explicitly suggests that Eugene can’t find arousal without the gun, without pointing it and making a decision to snuff out a life. For Eugene, murder is a sexual release. Folks, sometimes a gun is just a gun, but not today.
If Bigelow has made one thing clear in her action films, it’s the idea that, despite the great myth to the contrary, there’s no such thing as meaningless cinema violence. There’s a communicated message behind every bullet that the audience receives. It’s one thing to depict two men in a room firing guns at one another, but audiences, especially American audiences, have historically layered their own meanings into that action, specifically associating violent success with masculinity. Ask Americans to name the most masculine icon in our history and you won’t have to wait long before hearing the name John Wayne, he who may have fired more bullets on screen for more audience members in the history of the form. Bigelow directed Blue Steel in 1990, during the last days of a decade partly defined by thickly-muscled demigods carrying impossibly large guns. Blue Steel is her answer to that, her first attempt to flip the script on the boy’s club and pop their pectoral balloons.
Bigelow’s ideas, though, bring out the weird and turn out to be more than the film can handle. Silver, especially, mugs like crazy for the camera and as he becomes further unhinged, he just loses his damned fool mind. Bigelow highlights his performance with a visual landscape that’s at turns erotic and frightening, using strategic slow motion and smoke machines to craft a steamy, dreamlike atmosphere. Paired with Red’s disjointed narrative, Bigelow’s style transforms Blue Steel into a fairly surreal, and singular, experience. There’s literally nothing out there in mainstream movies quite like this one. Is it action? A thriller? Watching it again recently, I finally settled on the term “Eroticop.” One gets the feeling that a gunfight or a sex scene could break out at any moment, and neither would be particularly pleasant.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
6. Blue Steel
Bonus: The Loveless
Kathryn Bigelow’s Soviet submarine drama K-19: The Widowmaker had a no-doubt premise, a top-tier movie star, and an established, bankable action director. It’s the kind of total package that studio executives snuggle up to as they drift off to sleep.
Naturally, the film was a total disaster.
To understand how K-19 went so wrong, let’s turn to a story Bigelow herself shared in Time Magazine.
“I remember sitting in some executive’s office, and they said, ‘O.K., but who are the good guys?’ ‘What do you mean? The Russians are the good guys.’ ‘No, I mean who are the Americans?’
That quote has mysterious depths. Stare at it too long and you might see sounds or swallow your tongue. Here was Bigelow—still at that time known primarily for the megahit Point Break—peddling a tale about a heroic crew racing against time to avert nuclear disaster. The stakes: no less than the survival of every living being in the world. The story contains tension, danger, sacrifice, and a couple of meaty roles to attract big names for the poster. And the story happened to be 100%, absolutely true. Roll your money wheelbarrow to the back of the line, please.
The only way we could make more money is if the submarines make out.
But even for an America that’s left the Cold War behind, that’s shifted its attention to the burgeoning superpower of China or the specter of global terrorism, the fact that the story’s main characters wear Russian uniforms was enough to transform K-19 from no-brainer to a tough sale. The true story of the K-19—not actually called “The Widowmaker” by anybody, but given the far-sketchier nickname of “The Hiroshima” after the incident—remained classified until the 1990s, 30 years after it nearly wrecked the world.
In July of 1961, the ship was performing maneuvers out in the Arctic, pretending to be an American sub attacking Moscow. The Cold War was good like that. On the way home, the K-19 sprung a reactor leak that turned the ship into a nuclear oven. Considering the state of international relations, everyone reasonably presumed a seaborne meltdown could be perceived as an act of war and so, rather than allow their deaths to put fingers on the big red buttons, the ship’s crew underwent drastic, deadly measures to save the reactor. If you didn’t start your day wrestling with a giant cancerous rat for the last known can of chicken soup, then you probably know how the story ends.
With yellow shirts and, somehow, Fredo Corleone.
Bigelow’s first attempt to finance a film adaptation was halted by the release and mediocre box office of the 2000 sub drama U-571, and so, frustrated, Bigelow turned her attention to The Weight of Water, a movie that developed a toxic reputation at festivals before languishing away on a distributor’s shelf. That movie eventually made it out into the wild, but not without some problems of its own.
In the space of a few years, Bigelow’s bright career had suddenly flickered. Originally, she had wanted to tell the story of the K-19 crew. Now, she needed to. Bigelow eventually found her funding, but all outside of the traditional studio system, making K-19 the most expensive independent film ever made at that time. So not only did Kathryn Bigelow seemingly need K-19 to be a hit, but so did a bunch of investors whose pockets weren’t as deep as one might expect.
(One of the film’s major contributors was the National Geographic Society, who may have had their plans to enter the big budget movie scene dashed by K-19’s failure. This melancholy little site is still out there, promising that the film is opening this July 19th, every July 19th, the internet equivalent of the Mary Celeste. Somewhere, a marketing guy’s wife stands on the shore, hoping he’ll someday find his way home.)
To be fair, I’ve included a healthy amount of my own speculation into this history, and it’s hard to really know for sure what Bigelow was thinking or what she wasn’t. Maybe Bigelow approached K-19 like just another movie, and maybe the version that finally made it to the screen is exactly the movie she always intended to make. It’s irresponsible for me to just assume that the film was compromised except, well, K-19: The Widowmaker just feels so damned compromised.
“This time, nerds, I can breathe because I’m inside the sub.”
There was a magical time in the movies when all you needed to open your blockbuster was Harrison Ford on the poster, and baby, Harrison Ford is all up on this poster, despite the fact that he’s all kinds of wrong for the part. The term “miscast” doesn’t even cover the notion that fans would line up to see Ford, the most Midwestern-American action star to ever grace the screen, play Captain Vostrikov, the crusty leader in charge of this particularly crusty ship. Worse, somebody allowed Ford to do the part in a blisteringly awful Russian accent, which Ford delivers like he’s trying fit his mouth around the fat part of a soda bottle. In 2013, it seems crazy to think that Ford would have been handed this role while a perfectly good Liam Neeson is standing right there, but in 2002 it was Ford’s name and face that held the burden of bringing the customers.
“Four-Quadrant” is a marketing term meaning that a movie appeals to every demographic, and K-19 does its utmost to be a four-quadrant performer. The threat is appropriately apocalyptic, but surprisingly clean, barely leaving a mark on the crewmen dying of radiation sickness. The K-19 herself is one of the most brightly-lit submarines in the sea, revealing a dull, repetitive set design. The sitcom-style lighting dispels the ship’s shadows and opens the place up. Gone is the claustrophobia needed to bring the setting to life. For a story that could have ended with the annihilation of the world, it’s strangely antiseptic, with all the sharp edges dulled so that it’s safe to handle. Even the film’s cumbersome title suggests a compromise between two different names in an effort to make everyone happy.
“We can all agree that we’ve eliminated ‘Was’sub!?’ as an option, right?”
One hurdle K-19 had to overcome is that the submarine movie is well-traveled. People know what a sub movie is supposed to look like and sound like, and any deviation or experimentation in the form comes off as false. Unless your sub is helmed by Roy Scheider and has a talking dolphin in the crew, your ship better look like a damn submarine. The K-19 doesn’t really cut it in a world where Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot and all of its gloomy tension exists. For a sub movie to make its own mark, it has to find another way to distinguish itself, such as the way Tony Scott’s Crimson Tide filled the cramped setting with Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman’s war, and while there’s a little equivalent tension in K-19 between Neeson and Ford’s characters—and even a minor mutiny subplot—it never really gains traction. Instead, the audience has to decide how invested they are in the struggles of the crew to stop the leak, and the film provides few reasons to get invested, especially since we already know the ending. Films like Crimson Tide and others get around that problem by making the obvious global stakes seem deeply personal, but we get very few hints about the lives of the soldiers away from the sub, or about the people they personally hope to save. Their noble sacrifice is both suitably epic and really, really generic, as if Bigelow expects the fact that the crew is Russian to make us surprised when they start acting like human beings.
This person is in the movie for 10 seconds and is the most significant female in the film. This is not a joke.
K-19: The Widowmaker strikes me as hollow and false. Again, maybe this is exactly Bigelow’s movie, and I’m totally wrong, but she’s never made anything that felt so lifeless and inert before or since. K-19 is little more than a series of facts capably strung together in the proper order, like IKEA furniture that somebody forgot to screw together—it looks like the real thing, but a gentle tap is enough to tear it apart. That just isn’t how Bigelow works. Whether her films are up or down, and she certainly has enough of both directions in her career, they are always personal. Even The Weight of Water, for all of its problems, feels like an artist is guiding the movie in the directions she wants it to go. The film still feels like a statement.
K-19 doesn’t feel like anything other than perhaps a missed opportunity. Bigelow has made a career out of exploring makeshift families, especially within groups of men—the SEALs in Zero Dark Thirty; the bomb squad in The Hurt Locker; the desperate bonds between the main characters in Strange Days; the surfers in Point Break; the bikers in The Loveless; the vampires in Near Dark are like a family of cowboys, and even the girls are covered in dirt and absorbed into the whole. Here, Bigelow has at her disposal a group of men who rely on one another, live and die and each other’s mistakes, and who agree to make sacrifices to save lives. Do they care about the rest of the world, or is the sacrifice only to save the man who sleeps in the next bunk? We’ll never know, because the theme goes almost entirely unexplored. This movie feels like it was shipped in from someone else entirely.
It’s easy to suppose that after Strange Days flopped and Bigelow ran into trouble financing her next projects, that she threw up her hands. She went from being one of the most electric and in-demand young filmmakers to an outsider nearly overnight. It’s hard to imagine men like James Cameron or John McTiernan being given so little rope at that same time. (McTiernan, especially—he directed the legendary bomb Last Action Hero, but still had a new, great Die Hard sequel out two years later.) I’m sure that K-19’s disappointing reception made that film executive, the one who wondered about the Americans, feel pretty good about himself. But K-19’s failure doesn’t seem to come from its premise, but from a filmmaker who’s pushing the material in an uncomfortable direction, a filmmaker exasperated by needing to prove herself again so soon. K-19 feels cynical, which could explain why it failed to connect with pretty much anybody. After its release, Bigelow retreated to television for years, waiting until the right project came calling. Which, of course, eventually, it did.
I’ve wasted an unusual amount of fake ink in this post discussing the business end of K-19, its budget, its failure, and all of that boring stuff. But in trying to appreciate and explore the career of Kathryn Bigelow, it helps to understand how something as impersonal and blank as K-19 can even happen. A career is a weird journey, and it helps to know why sometimes we end up on the calmest, least interesting of seas.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
7. K-19: The Widowmaker
Bonus: The Loveless
Let’s be honest with one another. You haven’t heard of this movie. I know you haven’t. You know you haven’t. Let’s not play games.
Even if you have heard of the movie, the odds are fairly amazing that you’ve never seen it. The box office and rental numbers back me up here, so it’s OK. Don’t be nervous. We’re going to get through this together because that’s what I’m here for. Why don’t we ease in with a metaphor?
Imagine your perfect high school reunion. You look great! You hug all of your old friends, make cracks about Jimmy’s beer belly, and dance like crazy to songs you used to love. Man, what a party. But then, near the punchbowl, you meet Larry Stintsfield. You don’t remember Larry, but boy howdy does he sure remember you. You took classes together. He can draw a map to your old neighborhood. He knows all the in-jokes, even the secret handshake from that one band trip to the state finals. But all you can do is nod vigorously while looking around and hoping Jimmy shows up to save your ass, because you’re wracking your brain and, nope!, no Larry in there.
If Kathryn Bigelow’s films had a reunion, The Weight of Water would be poor Larry Stintsfield. The Hurt Locker is dancing with the prom queen. Near Dark and Strange Days are getting high together behind the gym, and Point Break keeps pranking everyone by showing “the goat.” And there’s The Weight of Water, hanging out in the corner, anonymous.
And that’s pretty incredible, really, because The Weight of Water is not the kind of movie you’re supposed to forget. The film is based on a bestselling novel, has a totally stacked cast, and hits those art house beats that usually translate to critic cred, but still it’s a ghost. Even the skin flick crowd ignores it, and they’ll watch anything if it has a pair of famous boobs, like Anne Hathaway’s Havoc or Alyssa Milano’s Embrace of the Vampire. Right smack in the middle of The Weight of Water is a very topless Elizabeth Hurley at the peak of her powers, but nobody knows that. If the movie can’t please the film lovers or the flesh lovers, who does that leave?
The film had big ambitions, at least. Based on Anita Shreve’s 1997 novel, the movie follows two women through a dual narrative across two time periods. Catherine McCormack plays Jean, a journalist in the present writing a story about the true-life Smuttynose Island murders off the New Hampshire coast in 1873, in which two women were killed and a fisherman hanged for the crime. Jean’s investigation suggests that the sole survivor, Maren (Sarah Polley) might have been more than just a lucky witness, and while she looks into that idea, she and her poet husband, Thomas (Sean Penn), vacation with Jean’s brother (Josh Lucas) on his boat. His girlfriend, Adaline (Hurley), has more on her mind than sunbathing, however, and while Jean is distracted with the case, Adaline makes a play for Thomas. While this love triangle unfolds, the film flashes back to Smuttnose Island and explores the circumstances of Maren, speculating on the truth behind the very mysterious crime.
The Weight of Water wound up as a Kathryn Bigelow film kind of by accident. For many years, Bigelow pursued a big budget action project about Joan of Arc, even working with Luc Besson on the idea until they had a falling out over the casting of Milla Jovovich in the lead role. Besson went on to make The Messenger without Bigelow and wound up in court when she sued him over the use of her historical research and script. Forced to give up on her dream project, Bigelow moved on to the true story of K-19, the Soviet sub that narrowly averted causing nuclear war, but even that project stalled when Universal released its own submarine epic, U-571. Bigelow suddenly found herself with a free schedule and, I presume, a whole lot of frustration, and so she decided to turn her attention to the much-lower budgeted, much more manageable historical drama.
The first thing to know in any discussion of The Weight of Water is this: Sarah Polley absolutely rocks. This should come as no surprise to people familiar with her Canadian work, or even to Americans who know her as the determined hero of Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake, but The Weight of Water provides a fresh reminder. Polley layers her performance with nuance and weight, and when the script fails her (which it does often), she finds a way to elevate the material. She fills her simple line readings–that is, the reading of simple lines–with nuance. Sometimes she’s chillingly detached; sometimes she seems just barely in control.
The stars of the present day story can’t get their engines revved in the same way. Despite all the star power Penn, Hurley, and Lucas provide, their story just isn’t that interesting. Penn brings his standard holy-shit intensity, but the story boils down, frankly, to a bunch of rich intellectuals fucking around on a boat. The script leads its characters by the hand through scenes where you can’t believe what they’re saying to other scenes where you’re stunned they’re saying nothing at all. To name just one example, despite the very obvious threat to her marriage, Jean baffles for ages by failing to act, speak up, or even acknowledge what’s happening in front of her, what’s sometimes happening right in the same room. Her total plan appears to be staring and looking pensive. Actually, that’s a huge portion of the film: people looking pensive.
The fact is, the dual storylines never feel like they’re from the same movie. Beyond Polley’s great performance, the historical story feels like a reenactment you might see on a cheap cable channel. (Frankly, it’s difficult to believe this was the followup to Bigelow’s kinetic, powerful direction of Strange Days) But ironically, it’s the story of the boat that pulls the production underwater. The boat is a big floating melodrama machine that never earns its place in the story until a convenient, god-sent storm arrives to do something appropriately apocalyptic in the film’s final act. It’s only here that the film almost—almost—earns all the hand wringing and misty-eyed stares of the first two acts.
In an article entitled “Cherchez la femme; The Weight of Water and the Search for Bigelow in ‘a Bigelow film,’” author Deborah Jermyn suggests that the film’s melodrama is a Kathryn Bigelow signature trait, one that’s just left to stand on its own without the trappings of genre. Where some people have reductively labeled Bigelow an “action” filmmaker–or, even worse, a masculine one–Jermyn argues that Bigelow is still being Bigelow in this film, and the audience simply missed it.
The Weight of Water isn’t such a surprise or aberration at all. Rather its sibling rivalries, its exploration of a marriage in crisis and the unspoken jealousies and resentments that haunt Jean and Thomas…. all sit firmly within the melodramatic interests that have underlined Bigelow’s films…” — Deborah Jermyn (Buy the book!)
Jermyn may be right, but my opinion is that this hurts Bigelow more than it helps her. Melodrama fits more snugly into the genre films on which Bigelow cut her teeth than it does something that relies on emotional truth like The Weight of Water. In movies about vampires and gunfights and bank-robbing surfers, the emotions can match the outsized tension of the plots. But when you strip those elements away, and all that’s left is The Weight of Water, then I’m moved to the uncomfortable conclusion that maybe Kathryn Bigelow just isn’t that great with melodrama. Instead of a cypher to understanding her work in a positive way, The Weight of Water is an unsettling little signpost that threatens to take her entire early filmography down a peg or two by suggesting that Bigelow needs genre to keep from being exposed as less deft with drama. I’m not saying that’s true, necessarily–The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty suggest otherwise, if nothing else–but it’s that lingering doubt that keeps The Weight of Water standing in the corner.
The Weight of Water faced mixed reactions on the festival circuit and took years to find distribution, finally arriving in the states in November of 2002 before vanishing, a disappointing result for a disappointing film. Her attempt at an intimate drama—her only attempt to date—failed, and so she quickly moved on to the comforting embrace of genre by getting K-19: The Widowmaker off the ground. The film should have been so much more than it is, but in art, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Just ask Larry Stintsfield. Not everyone gets to dance with the prom queen.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
7. The Weight of Water
Bonus: The Loveless
Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery’s The Loveless is one of those movies for which the term barely applies. Movies are supposed to, you know, move, and large portions of this one are devoted to staring at characters who are staring at something else. And since the film takes place in a tiny rural haven, there’s not even very much to stare at. The movie has little dialogue and even less action. (Put aside any hope of an actual plot.) But it’s a film that’s surprisingly squirrelly, capable of working its way under your skin and nesting in your brain. It’s a failed, mostly-forgotten student film, but it lingers like a haze.
The film concerns the “story,” such as it is of Vance (Willem Dafoe), a top dog in a small biker gang traveling from Detroit to the Deep South for a stock car race. Along the way, a bike breaks down and the gang stops for repairs in a deeply rural community, where the locals don’t warm to pompadours and rock music. Cultures clash over the course of one long, lazy day, culminating in a violent, deadly confrontation. The story is straight pulp, a near-clone of the famous Marlon Brando flick, The Wild One. But where Brando’s film is mannered and alarmist, The Loveless ducks biker movie tropes and abandons cheap thrills in search of a more profound truth.
The film began life in New York at Columbia University as a joint idea between fellow students Bigelow and Montgomery. They spent months hammering out the sparse screenplay with a goal to make a movie that felt like cheap exploitation, but that had more on its mind, something in the wheelhouse of Kenneth Anger’s experimental biker short, Scorpio Rising, which likewise favored image and ignored narrative to give its fierce personalities room to exist. Although The Wild One was certainly an influence, Bigelow and Montgomery’s script changed directions. For comparison, look at the first part of the clip below. Brando’s Black Rebels are a roaming party, and when they motor into town, they wield thick accents and kooky lingo like a biker-minstrel show, taking pride in needling the terrified locals.
Stick with that video and you’ll see a scene where the bikers dance with their ladies while avoiding physical contact with one another. Both traits are directly reversed in The Loveless. The bikers have little interest in mingling with the locals and keep to themselves at a garage for the bulk of the film, while the women are relegated to sub-second class, barely acknowledged as the men fix their bikes and play macho games, like flicking knives at one another’s feet. (To test their boot strength, one presumes.) The rebels in The Loveless aren’t acting out or putting on a show. They face inward, only interested in their own dynamics, their own bikes, camaraderie, and maleness. If The Wild One’s message is “don’t let this happen to you,” then The Loveless says “this is happening, with or without you, so you’d better just get out of the way.”
Montgomery and Bigelow conceived the movie in the style of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (which explains those long gazes into nowhere), and even planned an Ennio Morricone-esque score before spending the entire music budget on one calypso song. As a student production, money was a constant concern. On the prowl for cheap sets, Montgomery–today a Hollywood society icon and a close friend of David Lynch; he appeared as The Cowboy in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive— booked the shoot in Hinesville, Georgia, a tiny speck of a town outside of Savannah on US-17. Montgomery spent a lot of time in the area as a kid and knew how to make the location work for cheap, as the road was largely abandoned in that stretch, and empty gas stations, hotels, and garages were just standing around waiting to be used. These shelled out sets help give the film its empty, lonely tone, as does the film’s score, provided by another Montgomery addition to the production, Rockabilly musician Robert Gordon. Gordon not only provided music, but also agreed to play Davis, another leader of the biker gang, and to help the struggling production perfect its 50s style and motorcycle lingo. The rest of the cast was filled out with local Atlanta talent, save the lead role of Vance, who went to a young, hungry New York theater actor named Willem Dafoe for a whopping $20,000. The Loveless became Dafoe’s film debut, and if he regretted agreeing to spend the 100-degree Georgia summer in thick biker leathers, he likely didn’t for long. Thanks largely to his role in The Loveless, action director Walter Hill agreed to cast Dafoe in Streets of Fire, kicking off his Hollywood career.
The presence of Hollywood royalty like Bigelow and Dafoe on the marquee is likely why The Loveless still persists today, despite its molasses-pacing and its uneven quality, a side-effect of Bigelow and Montgomery’s process. Like many student films, The Loveless was a training canvas on which its makers could experiment, and the co-directors rethought the process from the ground up, ignoring traditional notions of film authorship to share all duties. The pair literally alternated days as the lead director on set. Montgomery would be the director one day, and Bigelow would sit in the chair the next. On their off days, each director would be close by in case the lead had a question, but otherwise, it was a purely split production.
(It’s tempting to identify shots and scenes that remind me of Bigelow’s later work, such as the gunfight finale, where Gordon fires his weapon with the same kind of sadistic, sexual glee that Ron Silver uses in Bigelow’s Blue Steel, but there’s just no way of knowing who shot which scene.)
Although The Loveless has a cult following, it isn’t much of a crowd-pleaser, and it doesn’t really reward mining for deeper layers. Audiences seem to enjoy just getting drunk on its liquid cool. But there is a message in the film about clinging too closely to those who share your values, about circling the wagons too tightly. The bikers are a clique, an isolated group with their own rules, uniforms, and patterns of behavior, and the film throws them with all of their machismo and hostility up against another closed, insular, and violent group—the town—and the two mix like dynamite and a crowded room. The groups attempt to coexist in isolation, but eventually the clash of values proves to be too much for either to stand and the result is violence. To the people in town, the bikers aren’t just outsiders, they represent the outside, and the town’s secrets can only last on the outskirts. I’m thinking in particular of the young woman (Marin Kanter) who attaches herself to Vance, a girl who carries an ugly secret. If the bikers hadn’t entered town that day, how long would she have lived with her problems, unchanging and helpless? For a long time, I’d imagine.
The Loveless had its American premiere early in 1982, but by then it had already become something of a darling on the festival circuit, and today the Modern Museum of Art in New York boasts a copy as part of its film collection. The film is largely attributed to Bigelow, but that might be because she’s a much more famous name than Montgomery. I’ve always felt like the movie pulses more with his southern rebel blood than with Bigelow’s cool detachment, but who knows? It’s a true collaboration, and kind of a weird, cool, problem child of a film. The Loveless is outsider art about people living and shitting inside their own spheres, rejecting anything else that comes along, but it’s also occasionally a cheap and surface riff on the dangers of rednecks. The irony is that a group of well-educated New York students invaded a small Georgia town to make a movie about northerners invading a small Georgia town, and both the real and fictional groups left damage in their wake. The Loveless unfairly presents the Deep South as a place that’s going nowhere (“Fast,” according to the film’s tagline.) The bikers who ride through don’t know and don’t care about why the town is this way. It’s just another stop for them on their existential ride, and they deliver Northern wrath on their way out.
Only Vance seems to be genuinely touched by the human tragedy that he encounters and the little girl whose life changes because a bike broke down. But earlier in the film, we see Vance’s true colors when he casually molests a woman who asks for his help changing a tire. He makes friends with sociopaths and has little love for the world. We come to realize that there’s nothing moral about any human being in this film. The original title of the film named it after the dead road, US-17, and that title seems even more appropriate, because on that road there is nothing and nobody, just a lost moment in history rotting in the sun.
The Kathryn Bigelow Project
Bonus: The Loveless