After her history-making Oscar win in 2010, the media appointed Kathryn Bigelow as the “symbol” of all female filmmakers. As such, her influence and work is often diminished. Despite becoming a symbol, her path to success is similar to other directors: long and not always easy.
Many tie Bigelow’s success and longevity in the industry to her former marriage to James Cameron. (If this were BuzzFeed, I’d post a “bitch, please” gif.) Another common misperception is she’s one of the few women who directs studio films, but in fact, all of her films have been produced independently.
Even though Cameron was a frequent topic of discussion during the 2010 awards season, Bigelow dodges any questions about her personal life and remains intensely private. Perhaps this is why the media finds her so alluring: despite her success, she still manages to avoid the spotlight. She’s not comfortable with self-promotion, instead pointing to the hard work of her actors, crew, and frequent collaborators.
Bigelow, who grew up in San Carlos, a suburb of San Francisco, describes herself as shy. “I’m kind of shy by nature.” In a work situation, communication and social ability come very easily. “Any other situation: not at all,” Bigelow said in a 2013 interview with The Guardian.
But despite her shyness, Bigelow, an only child, says she developed the habit of mind to believe in her own abilities and decisions early on. “There is no other way to direct,” she says. “You wouldn’t get through the day.” Her father was the manager of a paint factory and her mother was an English teacher. “This is so crazy, but as a child I had to make all my own decisions.” If a friend asked if she wanted to sleep over, when Bigelow asked her parents, they would say, ‘It’s up to you.’ “It created a tremendous sense of independence, which of course my mother regretted when I left home at 17 and went to school.”
She studied painting at San Francisco Art Institute and at 19, was awarded a fellowship at the Whitney Museum of Art. Bigelow moved to New York–“I’d never been east of Lake Tahoe.”–and worked with advisors like Susan Sontag and Vito Acconci while living in an old bank vault. (For real.) She became part of the downtown art scene of the 1970s and 80s, befriending and working with Lawrence Weiner, Philip Glass, and Richard Serra, but during this time, also became fascinated by the films of Peckinpah, Fassbinder, and Hitchcock.
“A Malevich or a Mondrian requires that you come to it with a certain amount of information, a context. And you don’t necessarily need that with film. A movie is accessible, available. That was exciting to me from a political standpoint,” Bigelow explains.
She enrolled in Columbia University for a master’s in film theory. Her thesis film, The Set-Up, shows a physical confrontation between two men and uses VO of philosophers articulating the semiotics behind the men’s actions. In 1981, she co-directed her first feature film with Monty Montgomery. The Loveless stars Willem Dafoe riding motorcycles and clad in leather. The cinematography and stylized 1950s design is indicative of Bigelow’s artistic eye. She no longer paints, saying, “It isn’t something soothing and relaxing for me. I have to be passionately committed, all or nothing, and for me, that’s films.”
Bigelow moved to Los Angeles to take a job at Cal Arts teaching classes on genre and B movies of the 1930s-50s. She spent her spare time writing scripts. She landed a job in Walter Hill’s production office and through Hill’s connections, Bigelow directed her sophomore effort, a “vampire western” Near Dark. (You can read more about Bigelow trying to break into the studio system in a great write up by Nancy Nigrosh, a former literary agent.)
The concepts from Bigelow’s art world days still inform her work and she perhaps feels most at home when discussing the mechanics and intellectual interpretations of film. Critic Manohla Dargis says Bigelow’s career does seem improbable, not only because she’s working in a sexist industry, but “also because of the stubborn persistence of her artistic vision and intellectualism.”
Near Dark was followed by Blue Steel, the cult classic Point Break about bank robbing surfers, Strange Days, The Weight of Water, and the $200 million K-19 before Bigelow spent seven years developing and filming The Hurt Locker, which of course, won her the Academy Award. Partnering again with Hurt Locker screenwriter Mark Boal, Bigelow’s most recent work was the controversial Zero Dark Thirty. Any of Bigelow’s previous films are worth watching, although some are more well-developed than others. If watched in chronological order, it’s easy to see the hallmarks of her style develop.
Perhaps ironically, Strange Days was the brainchild of Cameron, who spent years developing a futuristic sci-fi thriller set on the eve of the new millennium. (Remember Y2K?) He passed the project on to Bigelow and she brought Jay Cocks on to hammer out the script. Cameron financed the film through his production company but has said in interviews he had very little involvement from then on.
The film starts out with a POV sequence of a robbery. Voyeurism has reached new heights. Via SQUID technology, people can record their first person experiences. Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), deals in these recordings and sells them to voyeurs on the underground black market. The Los Angeles of Strange Days is apocalyptic: people vandalize property and set things ablaze while military tanks roll by impassively.
Lenny takes in the news about the killing of an influential rapper and spokesman for the black community, Jeriko One (Glenn Plummer). These events are creepily prophetic for today’s audiences considering the unrest and violence in Ferguson, Missouri after the shooting of an unarmed black teenager, the militarization of police, and the high number of African-American men who continue to be killed at an alarming rate across the country.
Bigelow said she was heavily influenced by the 1992 Rodney King riots and was involved in the clean up of Los Angeles. “There are two tracks,” Bigelow explains of the film. “The character story and then the landscape against which the story takes place, which is a narrative in and of itself, a charged political arena.”
Lenny is addicted to the very product he pedals, but his vice isn’t robbery or murders, but his ex-girlfriend Faith (Juliette Lewis). His friends, chauffeur and bodyguard Mace (Angela Bassett) and private investigator Max (Tom Sizemore), try to keep Lenny from getting his ass kicked by Faith’s current paramour, music producer Philo. When Lenny formulates a plan to trade a SQUID clip–which has significant political and criminal ramifications for the LAPD–in order to keep Faith safe, Mace must wrest Lenny out of his focus on his personal past.
Strange Days caused controversy for its depiction of rape. The scene is filmed from the POV of the rapist and while it’s not visually sexually explicit, it is unrelenting. However, I don’t believe Bigelow shows these scenes as an aestheticization or endorsement of violence, but as the film critic Hanna Rosin cited in her write-up of Zero Dark Thirty, “The real moments of horror, which recur in her movies, happen when the ‘main character goes through the looking glass and can never return,’ Bigelow has said. They are moments when the characters are forced in a profound way to ‘identify with the antagonists’ and thus lose their innocence.”
“She simply invites us to witness,” Rosin concludes. Bigelow has always expected viewers to fill in the blanks and form their own conclusions about the meaning in her films. In Strange Days, the futuristic society so much like our own is a reminder of societal issues such as racial injustice, sexual violence, and our ever-growing comfort with voyeurism and surveillance.