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The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor
Deborah Jermyn & Sean Redmond, eds.
London & New York: Wallflower Press, 2003.
£13.99, 232 pages, ISBN 1-903364-42-6 (paperback).
£42.50, 232 pages, ISBN 1-903364-43-4 (hardback).

Diana Dominguez
Texas Tech University

Editors Deborah Jermyn and Sean Redmond, film studies lecturers at the Southampton (UK) Institute, have compiled an intriguing, thoughtful, and thought-provoking collection of essays on the work of director Kathryn Bigelow, whose best-known films are Blue Steel (1990), starring Jamie Lee Curtis, and Point Break (1991), starring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze. Bigelow is a controversial figure in Hollywood because she both conforms to and subverts the male-dominated culture of Hollywood's commercial industry. Her choice of projects, her refusal to capitalize on her status as a successful and visible female director in order to align herself with feminist or women's issues, and her preoccupation with the recurrent themes of what have been called voyeurism and excessive violence in her films have garnered criticism from film critics to fans. Jermyn and Redmond, and most of the essayists in the collection, concede that Bigelow and her films defy easy categorization, and it is precisely this difficulty that prompted the editors to produce the collection. As they say in their introduction, "this study makes major inroads towards demonstrating why, and ensuring that, Bigelow's oeuvre should be examined, celebrated and respected within and across the politics and the poetics of film studies" (19).

The essays in the collection provide valuable insights and a new way of looking at Bigelow's body of work. What is most valuable about the compilation is that, because the essays cover the span of Bigelow's directorial career, it gives readers a comprehensive perspective of the themes and issues that appear repeatedly in her films. The essays analyze all her films from 1982's The Loveless to 2000's The Weight of Water. The only film not extensively analyzed is the 2002 K-19: The Widowmaker, starring Harrison Ford, although the editors do discuss it critically in their introduction. Taken together, the essays reveal a coherent and consistent thematic thread running through all of Bigelow's work: going beyond the limitations of genre, blurring gender categories, examining race and class relations, exposing the (dys)functional nature of family relationships, and exploring the social/political aspects of sub- and counter-culture lifestyles. Additionally, Bigelow emerges in these analyses as something of an enigma: a successful female director in what is still a male-dominated industry, who has made a name for herself as one of the few female directors to successfully helm action-thriller films, but who refuses to specifically call herself a feminist or a director who brings a specifically female perspective to her films and characters. The editors state that Bigelow's consistent and public attempts to distance herself from the concept of being a "female" director "serve to actually underline the sense that in reading Bigelow one has to attend to her as an author who is at the very least immersed in gender politics" (4).

The essays are an eclectic mix of analytical approaches—psychoanalysis (Lacan and Freud), feminism, queer theory, cultural studies, and authorship studies—making the book suited to an audience of film studies or film theory readers. Some of the essays are more heavily laden with theoretical language, with the clear assumption that the reader has enough background in the critical method to understand the connections the writer makes. While other essays are certainly more accessible to the casual reader, the collection is clearly targeted at a specifically theory-grounded readership. The book is divided into two parts. The first part contains essays aimed at analyzing Bigelow's films from a chronological perspective (all but Strange Days and K-19: The Widowmaker). The essays in this part look at thematic motifs that run through the films in order to present a foundational perspective for describing what a "Bigelow film" is. Two essays deal with Near Dark (1987), and there is one essay each for Blue Steel (1990), Point Break (1991), and Weight of Water (2000). Her first film, The Loveless (1982) is discussed in two essays that cover other aspects of Bigelow's filmmaking concerns. Part two is devoted to a specific examination of Strange Days, her 1995 box-office and critical failure. The editors felt such attention was warranted because "[s]uch is the growing body of interest and debate over this film that the essays here form a case study exploring its making, reception and circulation from a variety of perspectives" (13).

The overall sense I received from reading these essays is that Bigelow, indeed, warrants critical attention, but that, most likely, she will continue to evade clear categorization. The authors all contend that Bigelow 1) is not easily categorized (feminist director, action director, Hollywood mainstream director, art house film director), 2) has an outsider's mentality but works within the parameters of the Hollywood system, 3) reveals a troubling, paradoxical, and sometimes quite disturbing vision, and 4) uses elements of gender, genre, violence, and racial politics to question the status quo, but cannot be easily marked as a "subversive" or "feminist" director because there are troubling instances in her films where she seems to ascribe to the patriarchal/dominant culture view of sex and class roles. The essays deal with these tensions well, some of the authors even admitting that close readings of the films yield no easy analytical views because of these paradoxes and ambiguities. Additionally, many of the writers contend that an analysis of any Bigelow film must consider her biographical or political background, for she is grounded in art, psychoanalytical, and cultural theory and studies. This approach clearly places her in the tradition of auteur studies, but, because of her history of collaborative projects, and her insistence on distancing herself from the label of "female" director, a straightforward analysis based on authorship theory becomes problematic. For many of the authors included in this collection, deeper analysis of Bigelow's films produces more questions and confusion than answers, perhaps the best justification for the production of this collection and call for further study of this director's work.

Along with the essays that analyze the narrative and visual aspects of her films, the collection includes three essays that approach Bigelow from quite different perspectives. The first is an excerpt of an interview Bigelow did with Gavin Smith in 1995, in which Bigelow discusses visual and technical aspects of several of her films and of her television work. The interview is fascinating because it reveals that Bigelow's attention to story and vision extends to even the smallest technical details, dispelling a common stereotype that female directors are focused primarily on the emotional aspects of their stories. Musicologist Robynn J. Stilwell discusses the subversive and innovative qualities of the music/soundscape of Bigelow's three early films: The Loveless (1982), Near Dark (1987), and Blue Steel (1990). Stilwell concludes that Bigelow, like director Michael Mann, famous for his minute involvement in the sound/music of his films, pays as much attention to the sound of her films as she does the narrative and visual aspects. She says, "the use of sound and music in these early films reveals that the traits of genre and gender play at work in the visual and narrative fields of her films are more often than not key in the soundscapes as well" (35). The last essay in the collection, by Will Brooker, a communications professor focused on audience studies, is an interesting look at fan reaction to Strange Days (1995), which allows readers to gain a perspective on this film from "the outside"—its reception and popularity among fans that, for the most part, "discovered" the film long after its theatrical release (the comments are from late 1999, early 2000). It is an interesting case study of how a film "lives on" after both critical and commercial failure.

In the final analysis, I found this collection to be worth the read. The authors and editors do not claim to be experts on Kathryn Bigelow, or that this collection is the definitive study on her or her films. They concede that Bigelow's films, like Bigelow herself, contain contradictions and paradoxes that are not easily resolved nor accepted. A case in point comes in the essay by Deborah Jermyn, in which she discusses a highly controversial and strongly denounced (by critics and audiences alike) rape and murder scene in Strange Days. Jermyn concedes that an analytical approach to this scene does not detract from its being objectionable:

Of course to condemn this sequence on the grounds of its voyeurism neglects the other kinds of readings it lends itself to. Is it precisely in its perplexing excess, its deliberated manipulation of the spectator, forcing them [sic] into an uncomfortable position whereby they experience a rape from the dual-gendered position of both male rapist and female victim, which makes it a daring, confrontational and politically charged representation of male sexual violence? Or is this kind of "progressive" reading merely a willful justification of the fact that a woman directed it and therefore it must surely amount to "more" than mere exploitation and voyeurism? (136)

Jermyn has no answer to her questions, but that the questions must be asked succinctly reveals why Jermyn and Redmond (and the writers of the essays) insist that Bigelow and her work merit sustained and careful study. While I found several instances where I did not agree with some of the conclusions and readings of the essay writers, I did come away from this collection with a sense that I need to revisit Bigelow's films, in order to form my own critical conclusions about her vision, narrative, and sound transgressions. I suspect that others with an interest in film theory and criticism, and, certainly, film scholars and students will have the same reactions. Perhaps this is the best praise I can give this collection; it has inspired questions and a desire to look further into Bigelow's works, which is exactly what the editors intended.

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