By Karina Longworth
When I was finishing my BFA in the Film Department at the San Francisco Art Institute in the early 00s, Kathryn Bigelow was the school’s most famous filmmaker alum, despite the fact that she matriculated at SFAI as a painter (she studied filmmaking as a graduate student at Columbia after a stint in the Independent Study program at the Whitney Museum). The work of the woman who made "Point Break" and "Strange Days" wasn’t exactly part of the curriculum of the then fine art-focused (sometimes to a fault) Film program at SFAI, where Hollywood film was rarely considered worthy of scrutiny; those who did readily embrace her success as part of the school’s pedigree often named glass ceiling smashing as Bigelow’s greatest achievement — as if to say, “Yes, she makes mainly action and genre blockbusters with big name stars, but she’s a woman, so that makes her subversive.” The argument that Bigelow’s work is somehow subversive just because she has a vagina is not only ludicrous, but unnecessary, being that her films are actually subversive. Marked by moral ambiguity, insistently complicating easy distinctions between good and evil, using Bigelow’s patented point-of-view camera to implicate the viewer in the dark worlds and questionable choices of her subjects, her films literally subvert the viewer’s expectations dictated by genre.
And yet the “good for a girl” backhanded praise continues to dog her. At the Q & A after the screening of "The Hurt Locker" at AFI Dallas on Saturday night, moderator Gary Cogill commented that his favorite book about the Iraq war was written by a woman ("The Long Road Home" by Martha Raddatz) and then asked Bigelow a question that essentially amounted to, “Isn’t weird that "The Hurt Locker" is so good, since you’re a girl and all?” Bigelow deflected the question, but the issue came up again when an audience member who introduced herself as a member of Women in Film gushed that it’s “almost miraculous” that Bigelow has “embedded” herself in the making of “big boys movies.” This is when I decided it was time to leave; as I made my way out, I heard Bigelow respond that her choice of material is chiefly “instinctual” and not motivated by a desire to step where she supposedly doesn’t belong by virtue of chromosomal difference.
That the conversation surrounding Bigelow’s work seems to consistently get stuck in the mud of gender politics is all the more tragic in the case of "The Hurt Locker," a film of such complex construction and complicated values that it should be able to sustain much deeper inquiry than what it feels like for a girl. If anything, it’s a film that bears the mark of a painter, full of deceptively beautiful imagery masking multiple layers of meaning.
The story of the final month in rotation of a three-man IED dismantling crew in Baghdad circa 2004, Locker is less a linear story than a character study threaded with increasingly hard-to-bear tension and punctuated, with no predictible rhythym, by bursts of violence and fire. The explosions in the film carry an unusual beauty, one which inspires its own tangle of questions. Since its Toronto premiere, there’s been much talk that "The Hurt Locker" is the first apolitical Iraq film; at the Q & A, Cogill praised it for “not trying to beat us to death with message”, to which writer Mark Boal responded, “Fact is, when you’re standing over a bomb, you might know about geoglobal politics or the price of oil, but you’re not thinking about it.” But the audience may not be able to abandon such thoughts so easily, and Bigelow plays with this. She’s not afraid to fetishize lethal, politically motivated explosions, to invite us to take visual and even emotional pleasure in a screen filling with fire in a way that no film about this conflict has dared.
There’s a likely reason for the reticence: as a media event, 9/11 made the taking of pleasure in cinematic imagery of politically motivated destruction a tricky business. Shooting digitally with multiple cameras with virtually verite immediacy, Bigelow even seemingly reappropriates the “techniques” that mark the news network’s image blankets of disasters like 9/11: zooms, devastating slow motion, the jerk of a hand held camera finding its unexpected subject. Bigelow’s confidence that the audience is psychologically ready to enjoy imagery of bombs detonating in the context of our real life fight taken under the pretense of preventing another terrorist attack *is* a political statement, if not an ideological one. Its characters may not be thinking about politics within the space of their work, but "The Hurt Locker" is nothing if not a work of political engagement.