Shoot Shoot, Bang Bang

The visceral cinema of Kathryn Bigelow ’79SOA has heady theoretical roots.

by Paul Hond Published Winter 2009-10
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You must be dreaming, because when you open your eyes, you find yourself seated at a table in the brick patio lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. Birds chirp. Across from you is a woman, tall and slender, wearing a black leather jacket, blue jeans, and a small crucifix around her neck. She has long chestnut hair and expressive hands. “The light is so beautiful these days because we just had this giant windstorm,” she says, a poet of extreme conditions. “The clarity — it’s just so magnificent.”

Yes. Magnificent. Sunlight seeps through a canopy of blade-shaped leaves. There are pink stucco walls, and clay pots of luminous pink and purple bougainvillea.

A scene from The Hurt Locker

The woman is Kathryn Bigelow, the director of The Hurt Locker, a psychological thriller involving a unit of U.S. Army bomb technicians in Iraq and one of the most acclaimed movies of 2009. Having just consumed all eight of Bigelow’s feature films in 72 hours, your brain is revved up for blasts, killer waves, hunks of metal, erotic obsession, blood, guns, burning rubber. Bigelow has long been one of our most daring and original filmmakers, and The Hurt Locker is the most potent cocktail yet of her vast visual powers and her lasting formal and thematic concerns. The movie examines, in a war setting, the attraction to physical risk, which, for the freewheeling, industrial-metal-listening bomb dismantler Staff Sergeant William James (played by Jeremy Renner), has a chilling intimacy: “Hello, baby,” James murmurs, brushing dirt from a plump, leaden bomb that he’s uncovered in an empty square. Later, after snipping more wires, and coming within a whisker of his life, he retires to his Humvee and lights a cigarette: the Marlboro Man of Mesopotamia. “That was good,” he says.

It’s a classic shot from the Bigelow canon, where desire and death often converge, and heroes are seduced by things that might kill them. The Hurt Locker ups the ante by employing an immersive visual scheme — multiple Super 16 millimeter cameras, hair-trigger point-of-view shots, a 360-degree field of vision — that implicates the viewer in the action.

“It’s an experiential form of filmmaking,” Bigelow says between sips of fruit juice. “You’re inviting the audience to walk in those soldiers’ shoes, to look at the conflict through those soldiers’ eyes.”

As she speaks, you recall standing outside a UN compound, within range of a carload of bombs that the unit has come to defuse. You are surrounded by apartment buildings, from whose balconies and windows Iraqi men gaze impassively, unreadable as the wind. Your vision whips from one potential trouble spot to the next, until it locks onto a man on a rooftop: he is aiming a small video camera directly at you. It’s as terrifying as it is absurd. Should you kill him? Who is he? And who are you?

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