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Bigelow, Kathryn

BIGELOW, Kathryn

Nationality: American. Born: San Francisco, 1953. Education: Studied art, San Francisco Art Institute, graduated 1972; studied film at Whitney Museum, New York, 1972; studied film under Milos Forman, Columbia Graduate Film School, graduated 1979. Family: Married James Cameron (director), 1989 (divorced 1991). Career: Worked with radical New York-based British art collective, Art and Language; photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe; directed short graduation film, The Set-Up, 1978; lectured in film at California Institute of the Arts, 1983; co-direct of TV miniseries, Wild Palms, 1993. Agent: Creative Artists Agency, 9830 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills, CA 90212, U.S.A.

Films as Director:


The Set-Up


The Loveless (Breakdown) (with Monty Montgomery, + sc)


Near Dark (+ sc)


Blue Steel (+ sc)


Point Break (+ sc [uncredited])


Wild Palms (for TV) (with others); "Fallen Heroes: Part 1," "Fallen Heroes: Part 2," and "Lines of Fire," episodes of Homicide: Life on the Street (for TV)


Strange Days


The Weight of Water

Other Films:


Born in Flames (Borden) (ed)


American Cinema (for TV) (ro as herself)


Undertow (Red) (sc)


By BIGELOW: articles—

"Dark by Design," interview with Victoria Hamburg and Firooz Zahedi, in Interview (New York), August 1989.

Interview with Elvis Mitchell, in Interview (New York), March 1990.

"James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow," interview in AmericanFilm (Hollywood), July 1991.

Interview with Ana Maria Bahiana, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), January 1992.

"Momentum and Design," interview with Gavin Smith, in FilmComment (New York), September/October 1995.

"Big Bad Bigelow," interview with Graham Fuller, in Interview (New York), November 1995.

"Reality Bytes," interview with Andrew Hultkrans, in Artforum (New York), November 1995.

"Vicarious Thrills," interview with Sheila Johnston, in Index onCensorship (London), November/December 1995.

"Hppy New Millennium,"interview with Roald Rynning, in FilmReview (London), April 1996.

"No Retreat, No Surrender,"interview with Ian Nathan, in Empire (London), April 1996.

On BIGELOW: books—

Hillier, Jim, The New Hollywood, London, 1993.

Foster, Gwendolyn Audrey, Women Film Directors: An InternationalBio-Critical Dictionary, Westport, Connecticut, 1995.

On BIGELOW: articles—

Travers, Peter, "Women on the Verge: Four Women Attempt to Infiltrate a Male Stronghold: The Director's Chair," in RollingStone (New York), 21 September 1989.

Taubin, Amy, "Genre Bender," in Village Voice (New York), 22 November 1989.

Hoban, Phoebe, "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," in Premiere (New York), April 1990.

Cook, Pam, "Walk on the Wild Side," in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), November 1990.

James, Nick, "From Style to Steel," in City Limits (London), 29 November 1990.

Powell, Anna, "Blood on the Borders—Near Dark and Blue Steel," in Screen (London), Summer 1994.

Murphy, Kathleen, "Black Arts," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1995.

Charity, Tom, "Extra Sensory Projection," in Time Out (London), 25 October 1995.

Francke, Lizzie, "Virtual Fears," in Sight and Sound (London), December 1995.

Raphael, Amy, "American Bigelow," in New Musical Express (London), 2 March 1996.

Keane, Colleen, "Director as 'Adrenaline Junkie,"' in Metro (Melbourne), 1997.

* * *

Almost single-handed, Kathryn Bigelow has lastingly scotched the assumption that the terms "woman director" and "action movie" are somehow incompatible. So far, no other female director has shown herself so adept at handling the intricate ballets of stylised violence that constitute the modern Hollywood action genre. But it may not be a coincidence that Bigelow's career, which until the mid-1990s was riding high, got stopped in its tracks by one ambitious picture that proved a commercial flop. Most male action directors can get away with a single box-office dud, or even two; but it seems that a woman who trespasses on such classically all-male territory can't expect the same latitude.

Not that Bigelow has ever been content to produce routine rollercoaster exercises; she translates the conventions of the genre, bending and blending them into fertile new mutations. Her first feature, The Loveless (co-directed with Monty Montgomery), put a dreamy Sirkian spin on the standard biker movie. Near Dark is a vampire western; Blue Steel laces a cop drama with horror film devices; Point Break crosses a surfing movie with a heist thriller. For Strange Days Bigelow mixed an even richer cocktail: sci-fi plus love story plus political satire plus murder mystery. Her films, though vigorously paced and tinged with ironic humour, are shot through with a dark romanticism; and by delving deeper into formal, psychological, and thematic patterns than mainstream Hollywood generally cares to, they lift their material some way towards the condition of arthouse fare.

Though Bigelow avowedly aims at a mass audience, the moral and aesthetic complexity of her films has kept her a slightly marginal figure in the industry. This status may be reflected in her choice of protagonists: for her, as three decades earlier for Arthur Penn, "a society has its mirror in its outcasts." The black-leather bikers of The Loveless, the nomadic vampire clan of Near Dark, the surfing bank-robbers of Point Break, all defined by their opposition to conventional mores, represent an alternative darkside structure, respectable society's hidden needs and appetites made manifest. A local citizen, gazing fascinated at the bikers' remote otherness, fantasises about "be[ing] them for a day or two"; while Bodhi, leader of the surfboard criminals, even claims their heist exploits are meant to inspire the downtrodden masses. "We show them that the human spirit is still alive!" he exults.

Bigelow's artistic training—prior to becoming a film-maker, she was active as a conceptual artist, a member of the Art and Language group in the ultra-politicised New York art scene—shows in the stylised and highly textured look of her films. Her images are tactile, often sensual to the point of fetishism: in the opening shot of Blue Steel, light caresses the contours of a handgun in extreme close-up, transforming it into an abstract study of curves and shadows. This close-grained visual intensity becomes another means of subverting and reappropriating generic material, turning it to her own ends, while her dark, nihilistic plots serve as prelude to soft-edged, sentimental denouements where love conquers all. Not least of the contradictions that fuel her work is that, while not shying away from graphic incidents of violence against women—the rape scene in Strange Days caused widespread shock—her films often feature women as the strongest, most focused characters, acting as mentors and protectors to the self-doubting males.

In her early films Bigelow played these various tensions off against each other, deftly maintaining a balance between mainstream and "serious" audience appeal. With Strange Days the strategy came unstuck. She herself describes the film as "the ultimate Rorschach," an artefact lending itself to as many interpretations as it has viewers. Drawing its inspiration from an eclectic multiplicity of sources—Hawks, Hitchcock, and Ridley Scott, cyberpunk fiction, and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom—the film torments and probes us, forcing us to question not only what we're seeing but our own motives in wanting to watch it.

In creating such an intricate, demanding collage, inviting simultaneous engagement on any number of levels, Bigelow may have outpaced her public. Many reviewers raved over Strange Days (though there were dissenting voices), but the film stalled badly at the box-office, failing to recoup its substantial budget. Since then her career has suffered: Ohio, a projected film about the 1970 Kent State shootings, came to nothing, and her long-cherished Joan of Arc movie, Company of Angels, foundered over a dispute with Luc Besson. Bigelow wanted Clare Danes as Joan; Besson, the film's executive producer, insisted on casting his then partner Milla Jovovich. When Besson withdrew his backing in order to direct his own film, Bigelow's financing vanished.

It's a deplorable loss. Few directors could have been better placed to give us a fresh take on the woman who, in all history, most famously trespassed on male territory. It remains to be seen if Bigelow's The Weight of Water, a maritime murder thriller and her first feature in five years, restores the status of one of the most original and stimulating of current American film-makers.

—Philip Kemp

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