Wednesday, September 10, 2008

TIFF 2008 report: In conversation with...Kathryn Bigelow

Do you ever get the feeling, when discussing a movie, that everyone else saw a different one than you did? Same stars, same director, same story, but somehow your eyeballs took in a completely different film? I sometimes feel that way about Kathryn Bigelow’s work. Near Dark is one of my touchstone films; it’s among my top three vampire movies ever, the other two being The Addiction and The Hunger, and was a big influence on my own vampire script. From the incredible composition, to the brilliant casting (three key players from Aliens plus the luminous Jenny "why hasn't she acted in a decade?" Wright and stellar B-movie presences Adrian Pasdar and Tim Thomerson) to the eerie Tangerine Dream score to the assured storytelling, Near Dark is, in my opinion, a masterpiece.

And Bigelow has never been able to follow it up. Next up were Blue Steel, a gorgeously shot actioner with plot holes you can drive a winebago through and slack pacing; Point Break is a painful-to-watch early-90’s period piece full of hokey philosophizing that expects us to buy a 26-year-old Keanu Reeves as an undercover FBI agent; and then came Strange Days, to my mind one of the worst big-budget science fiction movies of the 90’s. I could expound for page after page on what I thought was wrong with Strange Days, but I guess my biggest problem was on the screenplay level. James Cameron (Bigelow’s ex) co-wrote the script, and while Cameron’s been able to get his key message—namely the dangers of mankind putting all his trust in machines that can turn on him—across in his own movies without whacking the audience about the head with it, in Strange Days one could almost see him at the corner of the screen pleading in a whiny voice: “You have to pay attention to this! This is soooo important!” Not to mention the scene where a racially-charged riot is stopped by the white Los Angeles mayor simply walking into the middle of the street and extending a saviour’s hand to a beaten black woman. I haven’t seen any of Bigelow’s films since, except for her latest, The Hurt Locker, on Monday night.

But apparently, I’m the one out of step. To judge from Noah Cowan’s introduction and the audience’s questions at the “In conversation with…Kathryn Bigelow” presentation at the Isabel Bader theatre, Blue Steel is a prescient feminist manifesto, Point Break broke new ground in chase technique and was ahead of its time in both casting and pseudo-homosexual interplay, and Strange Days is a millennial masterpiece. Maybe it is me, and I have to go back to give those movies another chance. This feeling of being critically out of step is one reason I wanted to hear Bigelow speak, and I emerged after an hour and a half even more confused than before, because the director we all saw onstage was nothing if not a smart, talented craftsperson with a clear directorial vision and a natural born filmmaker’s aggression and drive. Near Dark was a gorgeous movie: you could tell there was a brilliant visual stylist behind the camera. And her next two films, despite my problems with the storytelling, were a cut above most action films of the era; Bigelow struck me during this period as a female Tony Scott, only without so much reliance on smoke machines (which, despite the razzing Tony Scott gets these days which I feel is largely deserved, I do mean as a compliment, as his technique defined the North American action movie palette for more than a decade).

So am I just nitpicking the scripts? Does she just not spot what doesn’t work in a screenplay when she’s occupied with setting up her painterly compositions? Could she not tell that the “If only I had a knife! Oh, wait a sec…” climax of Strange Days was one of the funniest moments onscreen in 1995? When she devoted weeks to developing a portable 35mm camera fluid and light enough to shoot the POV virtual reality sequences in the same movie, did she not know about the digital video cameras that NHK-Nihon had invented for Until The End of the World four years earlier that would have done the same job?

I don’t know. I guess I’m still an admirer of Kathryn Bigelow. There’s something to be said for a solid action movie craftsperson and The Hurt Locker, despite my problems with it on a structural level, is probably the best film so far about the Iraq conflict. I guess I will have to go back and view her older films again to see what I missed, to see if the problem was with me. It was an illuminating evening, even if it didn’t exactly resolve my conflicted feelings about Bigelow, but then I guess that wasn’t the point.

As a side note, this is the second year in a row that I spotted a stellar rainbow to the east while waiting in line outside this particular theatre. As well, there were several directors in attendance with the seminar: Richie Mehta and Mark Hartley were both sitting a couple of rows behind me.