A Strange Gaze
Kathryn Bigelow is one of Hollywood’s most successful female directors, notable for her foray into “typically male” genres with films such as Blue Steel and Point Break, and yet despite her box office success, her work has been relatively under-explored and her place as an auteur director with a defined set of stylistic signatures and motifs has been seldom discussed within academic circles.
The Wallflower Directors Cuts series explores the most significant international directors and it is interesting and timely that Bigelow should be considered as such. She is, after all, one of the few female directors to have broken into Hollywood and carved out a successful career. One of the key objectives of this book is to locate Bigelow as a filmmaker who is able to transcend the industrial and commercial constraints of Hollywood cinema to individually author her films in innovative and transgressive ways. The publication of The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor is long overdue, but arrives at a time when Bigelow’s career is at a rather low point with the disappointing box office and critical reception of The Weight of Water and K19: The Widowmaker.
Essays in the collection are divided into two sections; ‘Bigelow’s Moving Canvas’ offers a chronological look at her work by way of themes and motifs and posits her as an important contemporary auteur. There is a distinct focus on gender identities and the blurring of genre conventions which, it is argued, is present within all of her work, even Point Break, an overtly commercial and accessible film. The second section of the book—‘The Strange Gaze of Kathryn Bigelow’—is dedicated to Strange Days, arguably her most ambitious and controversial project. This is a film that has gained much academic attention, but was poorly received at the box office.
The first section of the book deconstructs Bigelow by looking at her politics, authorship, and her status within New Hollywood. Gavin Smith’s interview with Bigelow is perhaps the most fascinating. Here she emerges as an extremely skilled technician who recognises the influence of her art background and provides an absorbing overview of how this is evident within her work. Her discussion of the development of the use of the Steadicam further proves her technical accomplishment and provides an insight into her aesthetic environment and approach to the filmmaking process.
Robynn J Stilwell’s ‘Breaking Sound Barriers: Bigelow’s Soundscapes from The Loveless to Blue Steel’, an exploration of the fluid nature of the authorial signature in creating sound for a film, argues that Bigelow offers a challenge to the conventional pairing of director and sound designer a la Scorsese and Walter Murch. What Stilwell proposes is that Bigelow is a different kind of auteur, in that she depends on her collaborators and selects them for their idiosyncrasies, thus creating a body of work with varying approaches to the soundscape.
A self-conscious toying with genre is present within Bigelow’s work and this is discussed at length in a number of essays in the collection. Sean Redmond’s ‘All That is Male Melts into Air: Bigelow on the Edge of Point Break’ addresses this and provides a lucid explanation of why Point Break, a film that many critics view as Bigelow’s least politically motivated film, should be viewed as a subversive text which plays with gender, identity and hegemonic values.
The essays on Strange Days provide an overview of a film that to some was morally reprehensible, in light of the fact that Bigelow could direct scenes of the rape of another woman and present such images of exploitation, and to others was an absorbing melange of images which presented a challenge to our culture of voyeurism.
Romi Stepovich’s introductory essay, ‘Strange Days: A Case History of Production and Distribution Practices in Hollywood’, neatly contextualises the remaining essays and offers an explanation of why the film failed at the box office. There is an emphasis on her relationship with James Cameron and his subsequent influence on her work in Christina Lane’s ‘The Strange Days of Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron’, which offers an overview of their relationship and an exploration of the film’s themes. This essay somehow tempers her sense of authorship and lessens the emergent picture of Bigelow as a maverick director, unafraid to make typically male films in a male dominated arena. It must be noted, however, that she was already a director with some standing long before Cameron arrived.
Will Brooker’s essay provides an interesting, if slight, analysis of web discussion boards and fans’ reception of the box office failure of Strange Days. ‘Rescuing Strange Days: Fan Reaction to a Critical and Commercial Failure’ provides some insight into the cult appropriation of the film and its misrepresentation in terms of author, given James Cameron’s input.
The wide range of essays in the collection offers a fascinating insight into Bigelow’s work. There is a clearly structured and logical approach to the material for those wishing to investigate her work further although the intended readership is most certainly academic. What emerges from this important and squarely theoretical text is a picture of a director whose intentions are often distorted, who is clearly misunderstood and misrepresented within Hollywood and academia, but who must surely be recognised as a contemporary auteur. This book is long overdue. What will happen to Bigelow’s career after the recent box office failures remains to be seen, but what is evident in this welcome and worthy text is that Bigelow remains one of Hollywood’s most contradictory and complicated characters.