KATHRYN BIGELOW: A Visionary Director

Logo image credit: Marc Austin

Carl Sweeney interviews Stacey Abbott, author of a new BFI Film Classics volume on Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987)

Near Dark (BFI Film Classics)

by Stacey Abbott, London, British Film Institute, 2020, 104 pp., £10.79 (paperback), ISBN 9781911239277

Reviewed by Carl Sweeney

Compelling arguments can be made that several of Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial efforts merit inclusion in the BFI Film Classics book series. Whilst critical and commercial successes such as Point Break (1991) or The Hurt Locker (2008) may seem obvious contenders to receive such attention, Stacey Abbott (2020) focuses instead on the director’s first solo feature, Near Dark (1987).[1] For various reasons, including a recurrent tendency to reconfigure traditional genres, the notion of what constitutes a typical Bigelow film is a challenging one. Nevertheless, Near Dark can be understood, in some ways, as one of her most atypical works, because it represents her most sustained engagement with the conventions of horror. If this makes the film something of an outlier in Bigelow’s canon, its horror aspects provide the primary impetus for Abbott, who contends that Near Dark warrants close analysis as an example of a transgressive vampire narrative. This point is convincingly argued throughout the book, which is indispensable to anyone interested in Bigelow’s film.

In the opening chapter, Abbott deftly sketches in the circumstances surrounding the film’s production and reception. Near Dark had a complicated journey to the screen, shaped by issues including an enforced late change of shooting location, a demanding filming schedule and distribution problems. On release, its box-office takings were disappointing, although it received some positive critical notices which served to frame Bigelow as an exciting directorial prospect. Meanwhile, a 1988 screening at New York’s Museum of Modern Art further contributed to a sense of her as a potentially significant auteur and served as an early marker of Near Dark’s post-release reappraisal. Alongside her engaging discussion of such factors, Abbott also locates the film within the specific context of the 1980s, which ‘marked a notable return to the vampire in American horror cinema’ (2020: 6). By authoritatively comparing Near Dark with other contemporaneous films such as The Lost Boys (Schumacher, 1987), Abbott provides a useful contextual frame through which to situate Bigelow’s efforts. At the same time, this early section also establishes the book’s recurrent concerns, including the film’s blend of genres and its rich stylistic design.

This latter point forms the basis for the second chapter, which concentrates on the film’s aesthetics. In essence, Abbott argues that Near Dark’s distinctive visual and aural design serve to connect its classic horror trappings and its status as an unusual vampire narrative, with the film achieving ‘a cinematic Gothic aesthetic’ (2020: 16) despite the omission of traditional iconography such as garlic and crucifixes. This is ascribed, in large part, to cinematographer Adam Greenberg’s skilful chiaroscuro lighting, with the close analysis of the motel shootout serving as persuasive evidence that the film’s frequent interplay between darkness and light is a significant facet of its distinctiveness. A balance between competing factors is also relevant to Tangerine Dream’s score for the film, with Abbott noting that the music imbues Near Dark with an ambivalent, mystical quality. In her view, the film’s visual and aural qualities provide an appropriately modern Gothic ambience that facilitates an amalgam of generic conventions.

Bill Paxton as Severen in the roadhouse scene of Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)

Further expansion on this point emerges in the third chapter, which examines the film’s action sequences within the context of other vampire narratives and 1980s cinema in general. Abbott considers Near Dark as unique in that it ‘takes the potential for violence that underpins the vampire figure itself and projects it outward in a series of explosive and visceral action set pieces’ (2020: 30). More broadly, she identifies the film’s bloodiness as a facet of the dialogic relationship Near Dark establishes with other 1980s action films such as The Terminator (Cameron, 1984), with the extended analysis of the roadhouse slaughter scene being one of the book’s highlights. Abbott also pinpoints other factors that are pertinent to the film’s status within the broader tradition of action, including the use of humorous wisecracks that enhance the presentation of the vampire characters as ‘dangerous but alluring’ (2020: 50).

The dual nature of the vampire is considered further in the fourth chapter, which provides a close reading of the character of Mae (Jenny Wright). Although observing that Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) seems to fit the broader template of the sympathetic vampire protagonist, Abbott proposes that it is, rather, Mae who represents a significant example of this trend. However, she does not embody this character archetype in every respect, due to her lack of self-loathing and the pleasure she takes in killing. Therefore, Mae’s complexity ensures that she is illustrative of ‘the coexistence of light and dark that defines the film’s Gothic aesthetic’ (Abbott, 2020: 53). Furthermore, the careful analysis in this chapter reveals how the character, like other women in Bigelow films, frequently challenges gender stereotypes. For instance, Abbott comments incisively on how Mae both personifies and runs counter to the tradition of the femme fatale, with factors such as her androgynous appearance ensuring that she stands as a counterpoint to more familiar representations of such figures. Accordingly, the chapter argues that Mae is difficult to label with certainty, and that she represents ‘a distinct moment in the trajectory of the female vampire’ (2020: 62). This is indicative of the successful overarching contention of the book, namely that Near Dark is a transgressive film.

In the final chapter, this point is argued in relation to criticisms of the film’s apparent conservatism. Upon release, some reviewers commented disapprovingly on the ending, which can be read as reaffirming traditional values, whilst the narrative ‘cure’ for vampirism was also seen to carry troublesome associations in light of the AIDS crisis. Abbott acknowledges that these perspectives are relevant, before offering a reappraisal founded on elements of the film that can be read as disrupting such criticisms. For instance, she problematises the film’s attitude towards the institution of the family and highlights how the generic interplay with the western can be seen as undermining older traditions such as that of the ‘captivity narrative’. Most persuasively, Abbott draws out the ambivalence of the final scene, which concludes on an ambiguous freeze-frame image and raises more questions than it resolves.

Caleb (Adrian Pasdar) and Mae (Jenny Wright) in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987)

Overall, the book demonstrates credibly that Near Dark ‘transgressed and reshaped generic, aesthetic and cultural boundaries’ (Abbott, 2020: 86). Consequently, it represents a valuable resource for several groups. It is accessible and concise, so it will be worthwhile reading for general cinephiles who admire Bigelow’s film. For students and researchers interested in cinematic vampire narratives, this is an impressive addition to Abbott’s other works in this field. Finally, any future scholarship about Near Dark specifically will be obliged to consult it as a key text, since the analysis contained within is consistently illuminating.

[1] In 1981, Bigelow co-directed the arthouse biker film The Loveless with Monty Montgomery.

Available through Bloomsbury Publishing and booksellers

<strong>Stacey Abbott</strong>
Stacey Abbott

Stacey Abbott is Reader in Film and Television Studies at the University of Roehampton. She is a leading scholar of horror film and television with specific expertise in the vampires and zombies.  She is the author of Celluloid Vampires (2007), Undead Apocalypse: Vampires and Zombies in the 21st Century (2016) and the BFI Film Classic on Near Dark (2020). She is currently developing a new project on animation and horror. 

<strong>Carl Sweeney</strong>
Carl Sweeney

Carl Sweeney is a PhD candidate at the University of Wolverhampton. His research interests include film and television stardom, auteurism and Foucauldian spatialities in narrative cinema. He completed an MA in Film Studies at Wolverhampton in 2018, with his final thesis representing a re-evaluation of Robert De Niro’s onscreen persona. His recent publications include chapters in A Critical Companion to Steven Spielberg (Lexington 2019) and A Critical Companion to Stanley Kubrick (Lexington 2020).

Special Issue coming Fall 2021

From Guest Editor Frances Pheasant-Kelly’s introduction

The essays here propose to address specific aspects of [Bigelow’s] films in ways not previously examined. These include her preoccupation with aesthetic spectacle, visual cartographies and formal framing techniques; an approach to characterisation through a ‘poetics of obsession’; a reframing of her directorial status as a ‘neo-star auteur’; the projection and reception of Bigelow herself; and a consideration of her films as controversial and propagandist.


The Poetics of Obsession: Understanding Kathryn Bigelow’s Characters

By Christa Van Raalte

Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) in Blue Steel (Bigelow 1990)

The work of Kathryn Bigelow is more often than not discussed in terms of her technical and stylistic achievements. Critics have focused on her knowing experimentation with genre and aesthetics, and the way in which story-telling devices such as point of view and surveillance become the subject matter of her films. Laura Rascaroli has described her early work as ‘a discourse on vision’ (1997, 232), while Caetlin Benson-Allott has identified the way in which the later work is dominated by a relentless, ‘slow burning’ intensity (2012, 41). Relatively little has been written about her characterisation, arguably because her protagonists tend to be less than sympathetic – enigmatic to the point of illegibility and driven in ways which can be hard to fathom. Arguably, however, it is precisely their detachment and single-mindedness that makes them so watchable. What Bigelow’s protagonists – and indeed her villains – have in common is an obsessive quality that also haunts her filmmaking. In this essay I will draw connections between some common themes at the heart of her films and the aesthetic and structural strategies she employs. In particular I will explore how  her use of point of view and close-up highlights her characters’ obsessive qualities;  how her use of surveillance and mediated vision creates a recurring atmosphere of paranoia; how an uncanny stillness at the centre of her jumpy, frenetic camera work emphasises the single-minded focus of her protagonists; and how framing and narrative structure work with performances to create the fascinating, if at times infuriating, inscrutability that characterises so many of them. I will also look at how her rare engagement with out-and-out villains creates variations on these themes. I will thus seek to define the poetics of obsession that pervades Bigelow’s filmmaking, connecting visual language, thematic content and characterisation.

Variations on ‘The Lonely Walk’ in the Films of Kathryn Bigelow

By Thomas Britt

The Lonely Walk in The Hurt Locker (Bigelow 2008)

Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial approach prioritises spatial relationships in narratives featuring groups of men in high-pressure, threatening situations in the context of the action film. Bigelow distinctively contributes to this genre in her foregrounding of the inner, individual experiences of characters within ensembles and institutions, ‘the lonely walk’ affording a useful way to visualise the action of isolated characters in their path to danger. Certainly, Bigelow’s use of spatial relationships to convey the inner lives of such characters is an unorthodox mode for action films, which are popularly understood to depend on external conflicts. Consequently, under Bigelow’s direction, spectacularization is secondary to the dramas of individualism amid rigid institutional systems. In Point Break, this aesthetic/formal approach is associated with philosophical or psychological pathways available to characters, especially in their relationship to judicial law. Bigelow stages the plot, of an FBI agent getting drawn into the lifestyle of a group of bank robbers, in a series of face-offs leading towards transcendence of the laws that define most cops-and-robbers films. K-19: The Widowmaker, an adaptation of a real-life Soviet submarine disaster, also contains a face-off between two men with contrasting philosophies. Again, Bigelow directs the film’s most tense sequences by accentuating individual action, as each man faces his own walk towards radiation poisoning and inevitable death. In The Hurt Locker, a significant turning point for political readings of Bigelow’s films, the central character and his harrowing missions are defined by his rogue single-mindedness within life-or-death scenarios. He is an impenetrable action hero, but under Bigelow’s direction, that status is one that occurs from the inside-out. Finally, in historical drama Detroit (2017), Bigelow’s attention to individual volition and systems shifts to characters that lack freedom and equal treatment because of institutional racism.

Sway of the Sea: Kathryn Bigelow’s Imperial Eco-Eschatology

By Benjamin Halligan

Testing by Nature in Point Break (Bigelow 1991)

In a 2013 public letter to Bigelow, which concerned Zero Dark Thirty, Naomi Wolf wrote: ‘Like Riefenstahl, you are a great artist. But now you will be remembered forever as torture’s handmaiden’. This essay will expand on this condemnatory Riefenstahl/Bigelow association – but not through a straight likening of Riefenstahl’s exaltation of the Nazi Party in Triumph of the Will to Bigelow’s apologetics for torture in the ‘War on Terror’. Rather, the concern will be that of aesthetics in relation to landscapes and ecology, that is, the parallel is to Riefenstahl of her earlier ‘Mountain Films’ period. Bigelow, at times, reaches for a feminised, New Age mysticism through which her characters are momentarily lifted out of their mundane earthly concerns to commune with the wider universe. And it is this wider universe which seems the ultimate arbitrator of their actions, rather than any (Geneva-based) concerns around human rights. Thus different paths to psychic fulfilment seem to determine Point Break, or the idea of the restless spirit against the failings of the Repressive State Apparatus in Zero Dark Thirty, or soul against the system in Detroit. And thus, and most tellingly, in Last Days of Ivory, Bigelow advocates for military action against African tribal people in the name of conservation, on the grounds (soon revealed to be highly questionable) that the illegal ivory trade funds the terrorist group, Al-Shabaab. The crudity of Bigelow’s propaganda in Last Days of Ivory, which chimed with Hillary Clinton’s position on the same (a greenwashed liberal interventionism) is lent the approval of elephants, and of the wider ecology, in Bigelow’s film. In the same way that Riefenstahl once repurposed German Romanticism for a sequence of Hitler descending from the clouds as the saviour of Germany from its enemies, Bigelow reworks such Romanticism in the name of the ‘white woman’s burden’: the Western imperial feminist speaks out on the part of the oppressed, and summons the ecosphere as her witness.

Zero Dark Thirty, Maya, and The Myth of the Calydonian Boar

By Kirsten Adkins

Looking from the Outside (Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow 2012)

Zero Dark Thirty depicts its female protagonist as a leading strategic character in the fictionalised account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Yet, as this study argues, she is paradoxically framed in terms of her capacity to disrupt the status quo. Kathryn Bigelow’s Maya (Jessica Chastain) is often marginalised by the male-dominated culture within which she works. This is a recurrent theme in military/combat narratives, evident as far back as Ovid’s tale of the warrior woman Atalanta. Research challenges the idea that physical and psychological differences make women less fitted to active combat, yet Bigelow’s cinematography and staging establish a narrative that expresses a mythological fear and mistrust of women’s inclusion into the fraternal unit. In arguing that the fate of Maya represents a cultural template which extends back to ancient mythology, this study unpicks the ideological forces which inform Bigelow’s framing of her female protagonist.

Kathryn Bigelow: New Action Realist 

By Vincent Gaine

Night Vision Attack in Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow 2012)

This article argues that Kathryn Bigelow is an auteur of new action realism, a distinct sub-genre within contemporary action cinema. As a new action realist, Bigelow and her collaborators create films that feature unresolved narratives and an aesthetic characterised by claustrophobic immediacy and obscuration. Through discussion of theory, genre, narrative and style in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, I argue that, as a new action realist, Bigelow problematises notions of film realism. Bigelow’s work brings the viewer into intimate and sometimes uncomfortable proximity with the violent action depicted onscreen, this proximity being a key feature of new action realism. The presentation is explicit and sudden, the graphic presentation creating a discomforting nearness which is partially created through immediacy. Such imagery, particularly evident in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, echoes footage captured by military personnel, news reporters and civilians on portable cameras and smart phones, recalling news reports of 9/11 and similar reports of crisis. With this aesthetic of intimacy and immediacy, Bigelow’s new action realism hints at as much as it explicitly presents. This incomplete visual display imbues her films with a sense of confusion and hopelessness and consequently presents a world of fear and paranoia that is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, captured by and yet obscured by its medium.

Kathryn Bigelow and the ‘Director as Neo-Star’

By Carl Sweeney

Kathryn Bigelow: Director as Neo-Star

Scholarship on Kathryn Bigelow contends that auteurist thinking struggles to accommodate her eclectic career. Though her work displays recurring characteristics, contradictions are also evident that mean she is challenging to situate theoretically. In addition, an ironic component to the discourse about Bigelow is that disproportionate focus on her appearance serves to bolster her position as a significant filmmaker (Lane 1998). In some respects, she therefore aligns with Timothy Corrigan’s (1991) notion of ‘the auteur as star’ in which the extratextual profile of contemporary directors represents an important facet of their artistic standing. However, Corrigan’s theory alone is not a fully appropriate model through which to analyse Bigelow’s work. After contextualising relevant discourses pertaining to auteurism and stardom, this article combines Corrigan’s model with Richard Dyer’s (1998) star theory and Jeanine Basinger’s (2007) discussion of ‘neo-stardom’. By analysing several aspects of Bigelow’s career through this framework, she emerges as a quintessential example of a new concept, the neo-star auteur.

How does she look?: Bigelow’s Vision/Visioning Bigelow

By Deborah Jermyn

Visioning Bigelow (2010 Academy Awards)

In a career spanning four decades, the critical and popular reception of Bigelow’s work has repeatedly returned to the question of her gaze: what constitutes the ‘Bigelow look’?; how is it distinctive, and, moreover, unsettling or otherwise surprising? Such querying might be said to be fundamental to the reception of virtually any director. But it undoubtedly takes on a particularly loaded nuance when asked of Bigelow as a woman director working in what are still enduringly widely perceived to be ‘male’ genres and fields of enquiry, being broadly concerned with action and violence. This curiosity around Bigelow’s gaze has also been key to her unusually heightened visibility as a woman director, one who, unlike the majority of her female peers, has made it into what Deborah M. Sims has termed the ‘celebrity directors’ club – that is ‘an elite community of auteur filmmaking that is coded as masculine’ (2014). At the same time, interwoven in this ‘celebrity director’ status is the gaze on Bigelow, since her recognition factor has unquestionably been bolstered too by her arresting looks, style and deportment. Her particular model of (by Western standards) attractiveness and photogenic-ness has ensured she is an apt subject for the kinds of coverage (feature-articles, red carpet appearances, awards ceremonies) that attract celebrity-style attention, beyond and outside of promotional shoots of her at work on-set. Yet analysis of this regime of visibility remains limited in feminist film criticism, in part no doubt because it risks compounding exactly the kind of gendered scrutiny and conservative discourses of judgemental comparisons between women that feminist film criticism wishes to challenge (Jermyn 2018). As Yvonne Tasker has noted, then, ‘visualizing the woman director [remains] a problem’ (2010). In this article, analysing a range of images of Bigelow that have circulated in the public domain as well as the critical reception of her work, I thus examine the duality of the question, ‘How does she look?’ I find that the particular practices of looking surrounding Bigelow are entangled in such a way that they have fuelled the striking degree of cultural prominence she holds as a woman director working in contemporary US cinema.