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July 1 - July 13

Kathryn Bigelow – Filmmaking at the Dark Edge of Exhilaration

Kathryn Bigelow (b. 1951) is in the midst of a singular career. Trained in the Seventies art world, she has made a reputation for herself as a leading action film director whose work forms a fascinating bridge between the American genre film and the intellectual practices that inform conceptual art.

Bigelow studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in the mid-1970s before being accepted into the prestigious Whitney Studio Art Program. Extended collaborations with conceptual artists Vito Acconci, John Baldessari and Lawrence Weiner drew her towards the moving image and a more politicized mode of art practice. Attending film school at Columbia University and later teaching at CalArts, Bigelow immersed herself in the critical theory that heavily influenced her first feature film, The Loveless(1982), and continues to inform all of her subsequent work. Bigelow’s second film, Near Dark (1987), became something of a cult hit, pushing her towards the bigger budgets and star casting of such major studio pictures as Point Break (1991) and Strange Days (1995). In recent films, K-19: The Widowmaker (2002) and The Weight of Water (2000), spectacle has receded in favor of a greater and more nuanced emphasis on character. Bigelow's latest film, The Hurt Locker (2008), is perhaps her most perfect synthesis between action and character.

Bigelow’s earliest works are often radical experiments with genres—combinatory, subtractive, subversive, offering a tool for crafting a mode of vital self-reflexive cinema in which the spectator becomes a thrill junkie, like the restless characters in Bigelow’s films. Ultimately, however, the raw exhilaration experienced by Bigelow’s characters must end so they can come to terms with reality and the laws—be they legal or gravitational—that anchor them to society. The later films show an interest in group dynamics as a form of politics or, perhaps, as an ideal of social living contained but not determined by politics. The turning point between these two parts of Bigelow’s career is Strange Days, whose protagonist attempts to wean himself off his addiction to spectacle in order to face the violence of his urban surroundings.

This is the double bind Bigelow investigates: while thrill is ultimately an alienating form of individualism, the “real world” tends to be a trap, whether confining or merely banal. While Bigelow’s films reveal genre cinema’s promise of glossy escapism to be a dead end, they also pointedly argue that re-engagement with community is tantamount to conformity. One possible escape is offered to Bigelow’s protagonists by seeking out those extreme situations on the bohemian, criminal and physically fraught margins of society, where the rules can be broken and the self fleetingly transcended.

Special thanks: Mark Boal; Sabryna Phillips, Summit Entertainment; Susan Ciccone, 42 West; Sara Rosenfield, Allied Advertising.


Wednesday July 1 at 7pm

willem dafoeThe Loveless

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
With Willem Dafoe, Robert Gordon, Marin Kanter
US 1982, 35mm, color, 85 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

Bigelow’s first feature immediately reveals her canny talent for simultaneously fulfilling and deconstructing popular film genres, here by using the biker film to deliver a meditative critique of machismo and small town America. Set in the 1950s and starring a young, pomaded Willem Dafoe in his screen debut as the charismatic leader of a leather clad and immoral bike gang, The Loveless deliberately uproots the genre’s traditional embrace of youthful rebellion—embodied by touchstone films such as The Wild One (1950)—by introducing a notably noir shading and sharp feminist perspective into its story of generational and gender conflict. Bigelow’s training in painting and experimental cinema informs the film’s (relatively) slow pace, meticulous framing and sparse, deliberately iconic dialogue–not to mention the evocation of Scorpio Rising (1963) in the camera’s close attention to the bikers’ gleaming chrome and leather.

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Special Event Tickets $10
Thursday July 2 at 7pm

man running from explosionThe Hurt Locker

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, Appearing in Person
With Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty
US 2008, 35mm, color, 131 min.

The Hurt Locker offers a sandblasted portrait of an overworked and under-fire U.S. Army Bomb Disposal unit in Iraq. Like her hypoxic submarine thriller K-19, Bigelow’s latest film focuses more on the mercurial dynamics of the beleaguered male group than any larger geopolitics. A decidedly unconventional war film for an infamously unconventional conflict, The Hurt Locker avoids battle scenes to instead follow the taut tripwire strung across seven agonizingly suspenseful sequences of the unit at work defusing explosives devices. A riveting character study centered around the team’s newest member, a frighteningly carefree adrenaline junkie, The Hurt Locker is a fascinating return to Bigelow’s frequent theme of moral and ethical identities reinvented by extreme danger.

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Friday July 10 at 7pm

man and woman embracingNear Dark

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
With Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen
US 1987, 35mm, color, 94 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

Near Dark reimagines the vampire film as a kind of modern day Western, replacing the outlaw gunslinger gangs so iconic to the genre with an itinerant band of predatory vampires prowling the edges of the rural heartland. Like many of the darker characters in Bigelow’s cinema, these bloodsucking outlaws are both repellent and undeniably attractive, expressions of the vexed choice between law and anarchy posed as a central dilemma in Bigelow’s films. Making evocative use of its Arizona locations, the insouciant punk eroticism of Bigelow’s cult classic is tempered by a somberly starker vision of the desolate West, beautifully captured by the crepuscular cinematography of Adam Greenberg (The Big Red One, 1980).

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Friday July 10 at 9pm

boy on mopedBlue Steel

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
With Jamie Lee Curtis, Ron Silver, Clancy Brown
US 1989, 35mm, color, 102 min.
Print from MGM

With Blue Steel, Bigelow wrote and directed one of the rare contemporary police thrillers that can be read on another level—as a pointed questioning of whether the Hollywood action film, with its deep roots in misogynistic violence, can be used to critique itself. Jamie Lee Curtis stands out as a zealous rookie policewoman whose career choice poses an overt challenge to the patriarchal norm, a point provocatively made by Bigelow’s artful emphasis on the blatant phallocentrism of the policeman’s tools and trade. Frighteningly fast-paced and suspenseful, Blue Steel follows the increasingly disorienting cat-and-mouse game that suddenly unfolds between the novice cop and a vicious killer. For all of its intellectual sophistication, Blue Steel remains a viscerally charged experience, seething with palpable anger, sorrow and fear.

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Saturday July 11 at 7pm

keanu reeves with a gunPoint Break

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
With Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey
US 1991, 35mm, color, 120 min.
Print from the Harvard Film Archive Collection

Among Bigelow’s most enduring and successful films, Point Break offers an unexpected amalgam of the policier and the surfing film, following an undercover FBI agent infiltrating a violent gang of surfers who brazenly rob banks to support their alternate life style. Although the plot winks at broad satire—with the surfers donning masks with the faces of ex-presidents—Bigelow focuses principally on the strange undertow pulling the agent towards the charismatic ringleader. Perhaps more than any of Bigelow’s other films, Point Break foregrounds the raw exhilaration of physical danger through intensely cinematic surfing and skydiving sequences.

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Saturday July 11 at 9:30pm

men in a submarineK-19: The Widowmaker

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
With Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Peter Sarsgaard
US 2002, 35mm, color, 138 min.
Print from Swank

Bigelow’s tense thriller retells the frightening and little known story of the K-19, a Soviet nuclear submarine launched at the height of the Cold War by a disastrous first voyage. While a clear anti-war thread runs throughout the film, K-19 is primarily concerned with the tense drama of men trapped in a deadly crisis and the ways in which disaster begets heroes and cowards alike. Unfairly dismissed during its initial release as her most conventional film, K-19 finds Bigelow bringing new energy and inventiveness into the submarine film, one of the most literally and metaphorically confined male-oriented action genres, through kinetic camerawork and the orchestration of extreme close-ups that find new expressive potential in the vessel’s close quarters.

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Sunday July 12 at 7pm

man and woman in a crowdStrange Days

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
With Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliette Lewis
US 1995, 35mm, color, 145 min.
Print from Criterion USA

Strange Days delivers a heady and far-reaching critique of the society of the spectacle that presciently foretells the intoxicating appeal of reality television. In the film’s darkly metaphorical future, the most fashionable drug is a cunning new technology that allows users to fully enter into the lives and experiences of others, be they emotional, physical, sexual or traumatic. The superbly conjured science-fiction world of Strange Days is nevertheless grounded in very real tensions—especially around race and police brutality—at work in turn-of-the-millennium America, and the post-Rodney King Los Angeles where the film is set. An imaginative and often terrifying meditation on the powers and process of spectatorship, Strange Days includes several bravura point-of-view shots and powerful references to Michael Powell’s masterful portrait of cinematic scopophilia, Peeping Tom (1960).

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Monday July 13 at 7pm

couple on deck of boatThe Weight of Water

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow.
With Sean Penn, Sarah Polley, Josh Lucas
US 2000, 35mm, color, 113 min.
Print from Swank

Approaching the melodrama with the same deconstructive impulse Bigelow usually applies to action genres, The Weight of Water interweaves two parallel stories from a century apart—a present day story of sexual tension, jealousy and bitterness envenoming two couples and a period tale of a double murder driven by the same emotions. Bigelow characteristically heightens ambivalences inherent in the genre at hand, mounting the psychosexual tension between affection and rivalry, identification and competition traditional to melodrama, only in this case among women rather than men. One of Bigelow’s most intricate and ambitious films, The Weight of Water adds a more metaphysical dimension to the vein of dark fatalism that runs throughout her work.

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