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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“She came to my class to understand what was going on with semiotics, and Lacan especially,” says Lotringer. “It’s a very controlling thing, to make films. And semiotics is a system of control.”

Bigelow took classes with Lotringer, Marshall Blonsky, Edward Said, and Andrew Sarris, whose two-year film survey was another revelation. “I remember Sarris talking about Orson Welles and The Magnificent Ambersons,” Bigelow says. “To this day I can see him against the screen; he had this almost cherubic smile, infecting everyone in that room with his pure love of film. You walked out of that class unrecognizable, even to yourself. All he did was give his love of film to you and defy you not to pick up on it.”

In 1978, Bigelow completed her thesis, a 20-minute short called The Set-Up. In it, two men have a sloppy fistfight in a dark alley, trading insults of “fascist” and Photos Courtesy Summit Entertainment“commie.” As the men tussle, two scholars — Blonsky and Lotringer — deconstruct the action in voice-over.

The following year, Bigelow began working with other students on an issue of Semiotext(e) called “Polysexuality,” which, says Lotringer, “was meant to invent new categories for sexuality, like soft sex or corporate sex, so that nothing could be considered abnormal or deviant. The cover showed a gay biker in San Francisco with a leather jacket and bare ass. On the back was a picture of a man who impaled himself on a giant phallus. Seductive image in front, disquieting image on back. Sex and Death. You give people what they want, but you prevent them from enjoying it in full.”

Fair enough. But what about that Lacanian saturation?

“In Lacan and Deleuze, you have the whole idea of neuroticism and perversion,” Lotringer explains. “For French theorists, perversion is taken more positively than in America. The word has no moral connotation. It means experimenting with your desires, instead of repressing them, as most people do. Neurotics repress things. In perversion, you acknowledge your desires and try them out.”

Cut to Staff Sergeant William James, encased in body armor, in punishing heat, plodding toward a roadside bomb.

Could his courage be a form of Lacanian desire?

“What becomes the discovery in the movie,” Bigelow says, “is that James is actually quite self-aware. He knows what switches him on, and he accepts it. He’s not living in a state of denial.”

The temperature generated by the heat lamp approaches Jordanian highs, and Bigelow graciously asks the waiter to turn it down. She hadn’t actually expected nuclear. “We could warm up half of Southern California,” she jokes.

Just then, a woman comes over. She’s an agent who has been lunching at a nearby table.

“Congratulations,” the agent says to Bigelow. “What an amazing year for you, I mean, all of this attention! Welcome to the Oscars, dear, you’re going to have a lot of opportunities. I think this is your year.” She returns to her table, and comes back a moment later with a well-known actress, whom she introduces to Bigelow. There is no doubt as to which direction the compass needles are pointed.

When the women go, Bigelow returns to Columbia and The Set-Up, to illustrate a central idea about her process.

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