In the last decade, Kathryn Bigelow has become the most famous female American director. She has become the new chronicler of recent American history. Much like Oliver Stone’s films, her version of events seems to be what people remember more than they remember the actual events.
What’s strange is that, for such an important filmmaker, people don’t think about any of the films Bigelow made before 2008. I read a list not too long ago that was meant to inspire young people who hadn’t found their calling in life yet. The list used Kathryn Bigelow as an example of someone who didn’t quit, and “only reached international success when she made The Hurt Locker at age 57.”
You know who would be surprised by that statement? Kathryn Bigelow. That statement magically wipes away her television career, her blockbuster success with Point Break (Yes, she directed the Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze surfer heist film), her artistic and personal partnership with James Cameron, and the fact she was making feminist police thrillers at a time when such a thing was barely conceivable.
Maybe the reason Bigelow’s early filmography is so ignored is because it’s unlike anything she’s doing now. Bigelow’s early films were her attempt at creating genre blockbusters. She wanted attention as quickly as possible, so she prepackaged familiar plots and tried her best to inject something new in them. In Strange Days, it was the VR technology. In Blue Steel, it was the fact the protagonist was a woman. In Point Break it was…never mind.
But what about her first films. Do they offer a glimpse at the themes and techniques she’d explore later in her career?
Bigelow’s first feature film was 1982’s The Loveless. Like many other debuts, The Loveless is a tribute to the genre films that the filmmakers grew up loving. They wanted to share their passion with an audience.
The Loveless is an attempt for directors to share their child obsessions – cars, rock, rebelliousness – with the Reagan babies.
The most famous aspect of The Loveless is the fact that it’s what made Willem Dafoe’s career. Dafoe has become among the finest character actors of his generation. In this film, Dafoe’s quirkiness isn’t readily on display. He ‘s less a Willem Dafoe character than he is Martin Sheen from Badlands. Dafoe plays Vance, the stereotypical tough guy biker. Vance is an evil character who people attribute a rebelliousness to. Dafoe doesn’t really stand for anything. He’s in town to cause mischief. It’s an unsatisfying character. Dafoe does capture the dangerous rebelliousness that the biker films of the era captured.
Dafoe is stopping in town with his friends on his way to a car race. At first, we’re introduced to him as he helps a woman change her tire. But then he demands money for his services. It’s an effective introduction to the character, but then we don’t learn much more about him. He’s in town to talk, and that’s about it.
The Loveless isn’t about action. It’s about conversation. There are many scenes of the bikers hanging out in the bar, flirting and and trying to go home with the women of the town. Many of the scenes are underscored with classic ’50s rock tunes. This is probably the only technique from The Loveless Bigelow still uses. The Hurt Locker contained numerous pop culture references, such as characters anachronistically playing Gears of War, to set the mood and help the audience understand that characters’ mindsets. The Loveless does the same thing as a sort of take that to the conservative culture of the ’80s. Didn’t Reagan and his acolytes know that rock music was seen as vulgar when it was unleashed on the public and was cited as an inspiration by people like Vance?
The Loveless is a very male film. It has an obsession with cars, bikes, rock music, and ’50s greaser toughness. All of the bikers are obsessed with getting to the race at Daytona. We never find out exactly what the race is or why the characters are so obsessed with it. It exists so that the bikers can travel and hang out. We’re meant to fall in love with these characters only because they exist.
Probably the most shocking element, considering Bigelow’s involvement, is how the female characters are treated. They are each wholly defined by their sexuality. The bikers look at them as conquests and not as people. The women view themselves in the same way. One of Dafoe’s beaus talks about she’s been called a slut, but “I think of it more as a skill. Maybe a talent.” There are even prolonged stripteases in the film, with emphasis placed on the ’50s lingerie. The scene works because it feels rebellious against the conservative ’50s culture. But it’s still weird that Bigelow wouldn’t explore sexuality in the film more or treat female characters as being accessories to the men.
In the end, The Loveless feels like a ’90s indie film that came out way too early to make an impact. It’s not really a biker film. It’s not really a drama. It’s almost a parody of teenage films, but there’s no punchline. It’s a genre tribute that was meant to be more of a calling to showcase Bigelow’s technical skill.
Of course, the reason The Loveless doesn’t showcase Bigelow’s interests may be because this really isn’t Bigelow’s true solo debut. The Loveless was co-directed by Monty Montgomery, who became famous in his own right as a producer and as the guy who played The Cowboy in Mulholland Dr. If we want to get a real sense of Bigelow’s work, we’ll have to look at the first film she directed by herself.
Near Dark was released the same year as the similarly themed The Lost Boys, but only received a fraction of the attention. Perhaps a Corey or two could have gotten the film extra publicity.
The film covers a lot of the same themes that The Loveless did. At its core, Near Dark is a tribute to the genre films of the 1950s, including the western, horror, and biker films. Remakes of genre schlock were very popular in the Reagan era, and filmmakers like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg took the opportunity to explore darker aspects of humanity and how turning into a monster would affect a person’s psyche.
The biggest fault with Near Dark is that they never do any deeper examination of vampire lore. But it does treat vampires as serious and tries to examine how their actions would affect the real world. Near Dark basically a teenage love story of farm boy Caleb (Adrian Pasdar, of TV’s woefully underrated Profit) who meets Mae (Jenny Wright) and is immediately smitten. She’s a vampire and turns Caleb so that he may join her coven, consisting of Civil War veteran Jesse (Lance Henrikson), his girlfriend Diamondback (Jenette Goldstein), the sadistic Severin (Bill Paxton), and the eternal child Homer (Joshua John Miller).
That cast alone shows how James Cameron steered her career when she was first starting as a solo director. Bigelow also took Cameron’s obsession with bikers and the suburban idea of an underworld from the first Terminator film. The fact that Jesse and his clan are vampires is almost irrelevant. In fact, the word “vampire” is never mentioned. Jesse may as well be a Fagin type figure looking to corrupt the youth he comes across to keep his modest criminal enterprise going.
One of the central themes in the film is that Caleb is too scared to feed, so Mae has to do it for him. It’s noteworthy that Bigelow would make the more dominant character a woman and the tough farm boy the “damsel in distress.” It’s the first overtly feminist theme that Bigelow tackled. Yes, in the end the man is the key to the woman’s redemption, but Mae is never treated like a villain or even like she’s not the one in control over Caleb. While Caleb is too scared for violence, Mae has no problems helping him fake murders to stay on Jesse’s good side. It’s a twisted version of morality but it underscores the fact that Mae is clearly in charge in every situation.
Near Dark, despite its use of vampires as common criminals, does offer glimpses of something darker. Homer was a really interesting character, if only because he did the whole “I’m a being with adult desires trapped in a child’s body” thing seven years before Interview with a Vampire. We also never learn much about Severin and why he decided to take the sadistic route while Caleb has been so eager to avoid it. These are interesting characters who hint at something about the world in Near Dark that we never get to see. In some ways, this is a strength. Bigelow knows how to tease the audience into wanting more. I may have been let down that we didn’t explore certain characters more, but I never felt like I was being ripped off.
Near Dark also feels like a documentary at times, or at least an episode of Unsolved Mysteries. Caleb’s disappearance matters to his family and the activities are noticed by law enforcement. Most horror films like this keep realities separate. The monsters stay in one world while the rest of the people live out their lives none the wiser. One scene features a hotel shootout, something very common to films about people on the lam. That element was the one that Bigelow carried over throughout the rest of her career. Her more recent films feel like documentaries. They’re effective because they seem like they were shot using hidden cameras that were capturing secret, important moments. Near Dark feels the same way. The vampires’ actions carry weight. They’re committing crimes with real victims and leave a massive amount of wreckage behind. The bar scene exemplifies this the most. Severin brutally kills a man, which leads to Jesse teasing the bartender and Caleb being shot. But the vampires don’t just leave the scene. They burn the bar down with the bodies still inside. And we still see the vampires talking about that moment and how Caleb endangered everyone by letting someone go, leading the authorities to the clan. Most films gloss over the aftermath of a disaster, but Bigelow showed in Near Dark that she was already obsessed with it.
Near Dark is a fun B-movie that only hints about where Bigelow would go in her career. She was never really interested in horror and her next films were more traditional crime thrillers. Even Strange Days, despite it’s science fiction underpinnings, is a film noir at heart. It’s almost strange to think about Bigelow’s first films and how much she’s grown as a filmmaker. She’s moved on from vampires and is stuck in our reality, which is far scarier than anything Jesse could ever dream.