February 04, 2010

As you”€™ve no doubt heard by now, leading Oscar nominees Avatar and The Hurt Locker are directed by ex-spouses: James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow, who were married from 1989-1991. What you might not know is that traces of each can be seen in the other’s movie.

But first, the question of the female director. Although women have directed such solid films as Big, Clueless, and Sleepless in Seattle, Bigelow is only the fourth woman out of the last 170 Best Director nominees. Oscar nods are decided by members of each craft, and the old boys club of directors doesn”€™t see much need for diversity.

Bigelow, however, has long been an honorary old boy, at least since Cameron executive-produced her boggling 1991 action flick about surfing bankrobbers, Point Break, which starred Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, and Gary Busey. As that cast suggests, Bigelow, who was trained in modern art theory, is intellectually rigorous about keeping her films non-intellectual.

“That’s what The Hurt Locker is: soldiers filmed in Baghdad-like Amman, Jordan through telephoto lenses that deliver the exact opposite of Avatar’s famously immersive 3D.

And that, ironically, makes her films simple enough to intellectualize over. The Hurt Locker begins with a title card: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” The rest of the movie illustrates that single statement.

Hit movies are generally about characters Learning Important Lessons that Will Change Their Lives Forever. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, is about a man, a reckless but brilliant Explosive Ordnance Disposal technician, finding out what he already knows: that he doesn”€™t want to change his life, even if it will kill him.

Indeed, that largely sums up Bigelow’s long career (she’s now 58): over-the-top explorations of male obsessiveness. And who provides a more memorable example of masculine single-mindedness than her prodigious and difficult ex-husband?

Is it a coincidence that the name bestowed upon the hero of The Hurt Locker, who loves his job more than his wife, is “€œSergeant First Class Will James?”€ Typically a Christian name, “€œJames”€ makes an awkward surname in a movie in which the surest clue to how the three EOD soldiers feel at any moment is whether they are calling each other by their first names (comradely), last names (business-like), or ranks (homicidal). Perhaps Bigelow finds the name “€œJames”€ personally compelling enough to hazard the confusion its use induces in its audience. (It’s hard to imagine the clarity-loving James Cameron taking a similar risk.)

Or is it a coincidence that Bigelow rather resembles a real-life version of Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, that classic nerd’s heroine in Cameron’s 1986 sci-fi film Aliens? Like Weaver (whom Cameron also cast in Avatar), Bigelow is almost six feet tall. And unsurprisingly, Cameron, to whom too much is never enough, made Avatar‘s blue leading lady ten feet tall.

Both Weaver and Bigelow are well bred, lady-like, and attractive, but Bigelow is also an expert at blowing stuff up. Bigelow is a real Ripley. For example, like the EOD specialists whom The Hurt Locker portrays, Bigelow disdains typical Hollywood gas fireball explosions. She strove to make her blasts “€œa very dense, black, thick, almost completely opaque explosion filled with lots of particulate matter and shrapnel.”€

Bigelow can talk explosions and lenses all day long. And that’s what The Hurt Locker is: soldiers filmed in Baghdad-like Amman, Jordan through telephoto lenses that deliver the exact opposite of Avatar‘s famously immersive 3D.

The telephoto effect compresses the apparent distance between the near and the far. For instance, in this typical street scene, if an Improvised Explosive Device were concealed within that hulk of the car behind the American G.I., would he be within the blast zone? The viewer can”€™t even guess.

This art house action flick transpires in a disorientating, flat, and cluttered pictorial space. Bigelow’s telephoto shots keep the viewer from being able to discern what’s safely far away from the three heroes and what’s close enough to kill them, much like the potentially lethal uncertainty confronting the soldiers as they try to disarm IEDs of unknown magnitudes.

Yet it concludes with a quiet bang. Back in America, still somehow in one piece, Sgt.  James is dispatched by his wife to pick out a box of breakfast cereal. After all those telephoto depictions of war, Bigelow unleashes one memorable fisheye lens shot of the valiant warrior in a supermarket cereal aisle seemingly a mile long, befuddled by peace.


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