Posts Tagged Kathryn Bigelow

Bigelow #8 — THE WEIGHT OF WATER Drowns Ironically in Shallow Melodrama

Titles

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.

You're pretty sure you'd remember this.

“Hmmmm…. nope, sorry. Not ringing a bell.”

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?

Liz Hurley

“Eyes on the narrative, please.”

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 kind of thing that makes the Academy drop their Oscars on the floor.

That sound you’re hearing is the Academy whipping out their Oscars.

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.

pictured: the movie

pictured: the movie

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 movie starts kicking once Deathstorm arrives with the blue filter.

She seems more comfortable once Deathstorm arrives with the blue filter.

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

6. ???

7. The Weight of Water

Bonus: The Loveless

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Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘The Loveless’ Favors Mood Over Mayhem

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.

More brooding

That this shit is coooool.

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.”

Like right now.

Like right now.

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.

Ladies, every inch of me is sweating right now, and you don't care.

Ladies, every inch of me is sweating right now, and you don’t care.

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.)

One of them loved the hell out of some staring.

One of them loved the hell out of some staring.

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.

The Girl

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

7. ???

Bonus: The Loveless

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