Saturday, February 6, 2010

Oops... I Didn't Know We Couldn't Talk About Gender, Kathryn Bigelow

With the Oscars just mere weeks away I finally just got the chance to watch The Hurt Locker (2009). Shameful, I know. But it was released with a squeak last summer and I wasn't listening. And let me say that it is so powerful I had to pause and take a break before the climax because I was too into the story and was feeling ill as a result. That, my friends, is powerful filmmaking. It literally made my gut wrench.

Despite Katheryn Bigelow being just the fourth woman in the history of the Oscars to just be nominated for Best Director she is reluctant, at best, to talk about her status as a woman in a man's world.

"I've spent a fair amount of time thinking about what my aptitude is, and I really think it's to explore and push the medium," Bigelow says. "It's not about breaking gender roles or genre traditions."

It is hard for me to sit back as a fellow female director (albeit on a much, much smaller scale) and listen to her not talk about the possibility that she could be the first woman to ever take home the Best Director Oscar. I want her to join up with the feminist army and laud her accomplishments. However, then I read about instances like this:

At the Q & A after a screening of The Hurt Locker at AFI Dallas, moderator Gary Cogill commented that his favorite book about the Iraq war was written by a woman (The Long Road Home by Martha Raddatz) and then asked Bigelow a question that essentially amounted to, “Isn’t weird that The Hurt Locker is so good, since you’re a girl?” Bigelow deflected the question, but the issue came up again when an audience member who introduced herself as a member of Women in Film gushed that it’s “almost miraculous” that Bigelow has “embedded” herself in the making of “big boys movies.” This is when I decided it was time to leave; as I made my way out, I heard Bigelow respond that he choice of material is chiefly “instinctual” and not motivated by a desire to step where she supposedly doesn’t belong by virtue of chromosomal difference.

Ah. Audience Q and A sessions. I swear - the bigger the director, the stupider the questions get. With queries like these no wonder Bigelow is deflecting the comments and queries about her gender.

However, issues of her gender abound in the way the the film and her directorial skills are reported upon in other ways:

Just before dawn one July morning, Kathryn Bigelow was setting up a shot for The Hurt Locker in the Jordanian desert. The movie follows an Explosive Ordnance Disposal bomb technician, one of the hundred or so soldiers in Iraq who dismantle roadside IEDs planted by insurgents. For the scene, the tech and two of his co--workers would detonate a bomb in the middle of the desert, and Bigelow wanted to shoot them from atop a high sand dune. This meant that the crew had to tote all their gear to the top of a hill in the brutal summer heat. "There were a lot of macho guys on the set, British SAS, not to mention all these young, studly actors, and all those guys were falling by the wayside," says Mark Boal, who wrote and co-produced The Hurt Locker. "I'm not walking this hill, no way in hell. I drive past one of the crew who's literally puking on the side of the road. People are dying on this hill. I drive up, and Kathryn is already at the top. She's beaten everyone up there."

In the great tradition of tough-guy filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller, Kathryn Bigelow is one of the finest living crafters of male-bonding genre films. It may seem an odd fit, as the beautiful, elegant, highly intelligent 57 year-old woman was educated at the San Francisco Art Institute with a background in painting; she's hardly the eye-patch-wearing, cigar-chomping type like her Hollywood predecessors.

Critics can't seem to get over the idea that a female director could devote herself to making adrenaline-charged films that owe more to Ridley Scott than Nora Ephron. They rhapsodize, in high academic prose, about the role of guns as phallic symbols in Blue Steel, a thriller about a female cop; or the homoeroticism of Point Break; or the androgynous female figures in Near Dark, a hybrid Western/vampire movie. At the same time, it's hard to believe that Bigelow would dedicate her oeuvre to genres that are typically made by, for and about men, and not have a few thoughts on the subject.

True. And while I want to hear Kathryn Bigelow acknowledge that she is a woman in no woman's land I completely understand her reluctance. After all, her directing skills are the result of years of working hard on her craft and have nothing to do with what is between her legs.

It is also interesting to note that the same rhetoric is not applied to male directors who have made careers making "women's films". In fact, Douglas Sirk, the man credited with initiating the "women's picture" genre was never seen as subversive or treading where he didn't belong when he made such classics as Imitation of Life (1959) and All that Heaven Allows (1955). In Bright Lights Film Journal Sirk's place as a male director of women's pictures is only questioned due to the questionable nature of the genre:

While the "action" movie had long had its defenders as poor man's Hemingway, most of Sirk's best-known films were "woman's pictures," a genre regarded by male critics as the domain of that mythical incarnation of bad taste, the "shop girl," and even (especially?) disowned by feminists.

As a feminist, I disagree. I thoroughly enjoy Douglas Sirk's body of work. But I digress...

George Cukor, another man who directed "women's pictures" was called:

...legendary 'women's director'; noted for The Women (1939) - a melodramatic comedy based on the hit play by Clare Boothe Luce with an all-female cast (Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine, among others) - a group of catty, back-biting, competitive, and richly-spoiled high-society women, although its tagline tauts: "It's All About Men!"; while seeking divorces in Reno, women learn of other affairs and infidelities and are forced to make tough decisions.

Despite my decrees that Kathryn Bigelow should flaunt her femaleness all over Hollywood I hope that when all is said and done and she becomes the first woman to ever win the Best Director Oscar (Pretty please!) that she is remember much like the quote above of George Cukor - legendary. After all, she is a director with an impressive resume that spans genre and decades. For heaven's sake - she directed Keanu Reeves to the point of believability in Point Break and I am pretty sure that most would agree that isn't easy! As a proud feminist filmmaker I channel Aretha Franklin when I say that all I want is R-E-S-P-E-C-T for my work and I get the feeling that is what Kathryn Bigelow wants too. At the end of the day we just want to be remembered as "legendary" for mastering our craft, not just because we were women. Oooooohhhhh. A little respect.

Quotes from:
* Kathryn Bigelow: Road Warrior
* "THE HURT LOCKER & Kathryn Bigelow's Girl Problem"
* Interview: Kathryn Bigelow on THE HURT LOCKER
* Imitations of Lifelessness: Sirk's Ironic Tearjearker
* Melodrama Films


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