A book about Kathryn Bigelow has been long overdue, but recognition of her talent has at last emerged in the shape of Wallflower Press’s The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow: Hollywood Transgressor, a collection of essays exploring different facets of her work. As one of Hollywood’s top directors of the late 80’s/early 90’s, she has had to deal with a fair amount of controversy in her career. Her films have consistently defied genre and gender conventions and expectations, and yet her work has received very little academic attention. In this book much emphasis is placed on her position as a female auteur in a male based industry and her decision to work in "traditionally" male genres – notably the action film. What emerges is a portrait of a sound and reasoned filmmaker who is unafraid to court controversy (two of her films remain censored on video in this country) or push the boundaries of what is technologically possible. Tempering this, however, is the influencing hand of ex-husband James Cameron, which at times (in this book at least) seems to throw into doubt theories of Bigelow’s directorial authorship, despite his relatively short period of influence on her career, and the fact that she had firmly established herself as a formidable and innovative director long before Cameron came onto the scene.
Split into two main parts, the essay approach leads to a variety of perspectives on Bigelow’s work, and also means that it occasionally covers some similar ground. The first section deals with Bigelow’s work in general. Sara Gwenllian Jones discusses Near Dark as a vampire western and Robynn J Stilwell explores Bigelow’s use of music as soundscapes within her early films. Sean Redmond meanwhile defends Point Break as a subversive, left field text: though Bigelow’s most commercially successful work, the film was dismissed by most critics as little more than a lightweight, enjoyable romp.
The second section deals with one of Bigelow’s more controversial projects, Strange Days. Little is made of the furore surrounding the film’s release in this country (most of which was of the "how could a woman make such a reprehensibly violent film" sort), but there is a discussion about the funding and production of the film by Romi Stepovich, which also examines possible reasons for its financial failure. Will Brooker dissects more recent attitudes through an analysis of some (relatively scant) postings on the internet that attempted to define the film’s "cult" status. In Christina Lane’s article the question of authorship is placed in some disarray – somehow having James Cameron as producer alters the director’s authorial control if it’s Katheryn Bigelow, but not if it’s Oliver Stone.
Most fascinating is the interview with Bigelow herself. It provides an insight into the mind of a woman who has very specific ideas about her subjects and also reveals herself to be a very competent technician. She was heavily involved with the adaptation of a steadicam which made it lightweight enough to produce the smooth, yet handheld feel that made the ex-presidents’ chase sequence of Point Break one of the most exciting and exhilarating filmed in Hollywood. When filming action sequences she is conscious of the geography of the environment and explains how she uses the location and breaks the rules in order to capture the dynamics of a sequence.
The Cinema of Kathryn Bigelow is a welcome study into the work of one of Hollywood’s most under-appreciated directors. While the casual reader would probably have to wait for a more accessible book on the subject (this is an academic tome after all), it nonetheless provides a valuable springboard from which to launch further research.