Kathryn Bigelow has most unusual origins for a Hollywood director. She started out in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, studied with Lawrence Weiner and made her first film about the semioticians Sylvere Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky. Somehow, all this high art merely served as prelude to lensing the notorious Jamie Lee Curtis sex scene in Blue Steel, messengered via Playboy to the bedrooms of teenage boys all over America, and a subsequent career making paranoid sci-fi-action films like Strange Days, nicely dovetailing with her now-terminated marriage to director James Cameron.
At 57, Bigelow has been justly praised for her new film The Hurt Locker, based on her communiqués with journalist Mark Boal, who was embedded with a U.S. Army bomb defusing squad in Iraq in 2004. The movie, shot under warlike conditions in Jordan, follows a typical American loner named William James, a master bomb undoer, who, as it was said about his namesake, the philosopher William James, lived "from one edge of sadness to another," sadness temporarily mitigated by encounters with transcendence, in this case the simple but deadly devices known as roadside bombs.
The eminent film historian David Thomson has oft remarked that the experience of the movies is about under what conditions one sees them, which he characterizes as the audience being manipulated in the dark. As such, I found myself on at Yom Kippur sundown, seated with my neighbor Cooky in the Paramount Theater, a restored Art Deco Palace in Peekskill, N.Y., and about ten other people seeking atonement through the gruesome reality of the Irag War via The Hurt Locker.
Here were the twin towers of art, decoration in the theater and meaning in the film, with the quaint addendum that the projectionist at the Paramount changes reels, leaving the audience in the dark halfway through Hades. And Hades it is, the Hades of the desert, the Arab poor, the overloaded-with-gear American soldiers, and the ever-present bombs, no more esthetically pleasing than an auto muffler, getting ready to blow.
But there is something peculiarly Hollywood about Bigelow's very independent film. The closer she comes to the verisimilitude of mindless war, the more she falls back on the devices of other, famous films. Hence, the first time we see young Sergeant James, he is approaching a set of bombs in a robot suit that exactly references the astronaut approaching the computer HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, also on a mission of defusion. The breathing and the sweat of our protagonist are exactly the same.
When the Americans join a British contingent (led by Ralph Fiennes in a cameo) in a desert firefight with some mujahedeen, Bigelow's slow arcing shots, syncopated with pointed guns, is a direct steal from the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, right down of beady eyes interdicted by stray insects. At the climax of the film, Sergeant James searches the souks of Baghdad for the family of a boy whom he mistakenly thinks is the corpse, turned into a grisly human bomb, he has seen in a terrorists' ammunition dump.
Reeling among the locals, touched and repelled by "the other," James, tracked by Bigelow, exactly resembles the detective Charlton Heston, tossed and spit out by the main strip of a Mexican border town in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. The accumulative affect of these cinematic homages is to deprive The Hurt Locker, upon reflection, of the gut-punching, nihilistic power that is its signature. (And a grandiose Cameron-style ending is unnecessary and false). Nevertheless, The Hurt Locker stands with films such as Red Badge of Courage, Paths of Glory, and All Quiet on the Western Front as a witness to the idiocy of war.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).