Saturday, February 18, 2012

Michael Dean Benton: Kathryn Bigelow's Wild Men -- Gender in The Hurt Locker

[This was a short review for North of Center when the film was first released in the theaters.]

Kathryn Bigelow's Wild Men: Gender in the Hurt Locker
by Michael Dean Benton
The Smirking Chimp

"Here’s a radical thought: She is, simply, a great filmmaker. Because while it is marginally interesting that she calls “action” and “cut” while in the possession of two X chromosomes, gender is the least remarkable thing about her kinetic filmmaking, which gets in your head even as it sends shock waves through your body." Manohla Dargis, “Action!” (The New York Times: June 18, 2009)

Manohla Dargis is both right and wrong in this statement about action film director Kathryn Bigelow. First, Darghis is right in reminding us we should be able to approach Bigelow’s oeuvre as the work of an auteur free from the fact that she is a woman. If we lived in the supposedly free and equal society that many believe we do, then this would not be a consideration. Unfortunately, we live in a culture in which female artists face considerable barriers in getting their work out to the public.

Consider that this “great filmmaker” is releasing her first feature film in the last seven years. When Entertainment Weekly posted their pick for the 25 Top Directors earlier this year, they did not choose one woman. No female director has ever won an Oscar for directing, and only three have been nominated. Less than ten percent of films yearly are made by women directors. The film industry is dominated by male executives, and like the art world in general, there is a long tradition of privileging the male gaze. The male domination of the film industry suggests the “extent to which the dreams that radiate off theater screens and into our culture are still almost exclusively the dreams of men” (Michelle Goldberg “Where are the Female Directors,” Salon, August 7, 2007).

Secondly, and this is where Darghis is clearly wrong, “gender” is extremely important to any consideration of Bigelow’s “kinetic filmmaking.” However, the gender that should be under consideration here is not female, rather it is Bigelow’s repeated construction of the aggressive, adrenaline-junky, male outsider.

There is a continuing series of charismatic, dangerous male characters in Bigelow’s films: Jesse Hooker (Lance Henriksen), the patriarch of the outlaw vampire clan in Near Dark (1987); the extreme-sport guru Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), who leads a gang of bank robbers in Point Break (1991); Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), the ex-cop turned street hustler, who deals the adrenaline-junk vids that his consumers are addicted to in Strange Days (1995); and the unyielding Russian submarine Captain Alexi Vostrikov in K-19: The Widowmaker (2002).

In her latest film, The Hurt Locker (2008), this role is filled by the reckless, dangerous, yet sympathetic Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). James is reckless in his disarming of bombs and in his pursuit of a sense of justice; he clearly follows Bohdi’s philosophy that “fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true.”

Usually these “wild” figures are opposed by more rational, empathetic and/or civilized counterparts, who alternate between worshipping these Alpha Males and seeking to end their reign. This is most fully brought to life in the classic Point Break through the figure of ex-college football star and undercover FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), who develops what can be clearly defined as a romanticized love for the rogue outlaw Bodhi, who represents for him the ideal “wild” male figure. The eroticism of their relationship is clearly represented as Utah, while chasing the masked Bodhi after a bank robbery, falls down in pain as a result of his recurring, career-ending, football injury. Utah aims his gun at the retreating Bodhi, and has him clearly in sight. But at the last second, Utah lifts the gun skyward and shoots repeatedly into the air, screaming ecstatically, while Bodhi smiles back at him.

In The Hurt Locker, this role of the “civilized” male is filled by former intelligence operative, Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie). Sanborn is confused by his mixed feelings toward James. On the one hand, he admires the extreme bravery and capability of James in high intensity situations; on the other hand, he recognizes that this same aggressively gung ho attitude is a danger to the soldiers surrounding James.

A macho rivalry between James and Sanborn soon erupts into unexpected punches, drunken brawling, and even a scene where James literally mounts a prone Sanborn, riding him like a bronco as Sanborn reacts with killing force. Sanborn even openly considers putting James down like a dangerous animal in order to save others.

In these films, the audience is usually placed in the role of the civilized male counterpart. We are there to observe these men who refuse to bend to the rules of society. We marvel at their freedom to engage in behavior that most of us would be too timid to pursue. We alternate between envying, desiring, imitating and fearing their unbending attitude.

These violent Alpha Male leaders have long been adopted as a symbol of ideal maleness in patriarchal American culture, and Hollywood film culture has played a traditional role in influencing society to accept them as their leaders. It is in the swagger of George W. Bush as he states “you are either with us or against us.” It is in Ronald Reagan’s challenges to the “Evil Empire.”

However, there is a difference in the typical Bigelow hero from these presidential portrayals of “propertied individualism” (Michael Rogin: Ronald Reagan, the Movie, 1987). Unlike the traditional swaggering American leader, Bigelow’s heroes make no claim to the rewards or benefits of the society they struggle against or retreat from. In fact, like the tragic Western man of action, Shane, there is no place for them in proper society.

This is clearly exhibited in James’ experiences stateside in a store. He stands confused in the aisles and is overwhelmed by the programmed choices of the cereal aisle. Later, he speaks to his little son about the slow process of social erasure of pleasure. Bit by bit, as we are raised, as we conform, he tells his son, we lose each pleasure of life, until there is but one left, and that becomes your only reason for living. For James, his sole pleasure in life is the challenge of defusing a bomb. Tragically, nothing else matters.

The film opens with a Chris Hedges quote that “war is a drug” (from War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning) and this sets the tone for the addiction that James suffers from. He cannot find pleasure in civilized life and must resort to the addictive challenge of navigating the violent chaos of the Iraq War. The criminal surfer Bodhi would have understood the EOD Specialist James completely: “If you want the ultimate, you've got to be willing to pay the ultimate price. It's not tragic to die doing what you love.”


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