On of the more popular theories as to why Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to ever win an Oscar for Best Director is that she almost exclusively makes movies about men. Her prestigious war dramas aren’t exactly jingoistic love letters to American patriotism, but they do appeal to a kind of macho sensibility that helps explain why they would be praised over women-led projects with a quieter, more introspective bent. I don’t believe this is some calculated, cynical angle Bigelow chose in order to earn Awards Circuit accolades, though. The nature & textures of masculinity (and masculine violence) have been an auteurist preoccupation for the director dating all the way back to her early career as a genre film toughie. Her breakout success Point Break is a passionate bromance between an undercover cop and a dirtbag adrenaline junkie. Her cult classic vampire Western Near Dark follows the seduction & indoctrination of a macho farm boy into a subservient role among a clan of ghouls. Her Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days—our current Movie of the Month—follows history’s greasiest anti-hero’s exploits in worming his unwanted, uninvited way back into his ex’s life. Masculinity is the thematic through-line throughout Bigelow’s decades-long career. It’s even one that concerns her debut feature.
Bigelow’s debut feature as director, The Loveless, is an early 60s motorcycle gang pastiche. It essentially remakes the Brando beefcake classic The Wild One as in introspective art piece (as opposed to Cool as Ice, which remade it as a breakfast cereal commercial). A young Willem Dafoe stars as a tragically beautiful biker brute in his first lead role. Unlike the mouthy charmer Ralph Fiennes plays in Strange Days, Dafoe hardly speaks a word in his leather biker get-up. Rather, his classic machismo is communicated though intense stares and hardened body language. Occasional poetic voiceover about how “the endless blacktop is [his] sweet eternity” suggests there’s a poet’s mind behind his stern eyes and supermodel cheekbones, but that suggestion of vulnerability only makes his machismo more dangerous. When Dafoe’s biker gang parks in small-town middle-America on their way to the races at Daytona, his pronounced male beauty inevitably captivates local women – leading to their ruin at the hands of jealous, abusive townies. Dafoe’s biker beauty isn’t as actively malicious as Fiennes’s scumbaggery is in Strange Days or Patrick Swayze’s hedonistic thrill-seeking is in Point Break, but his leather jacket & rockabilly lifestyle is still a destructive force for those seduced by his allure. His masculinity is both a pleasure & a bane, something Bigelow would expand upon in later works.
Fortunately, her sense of filmmaking craft & narrative purpose would expand as well. The Loveless is visually sumptuous in a way Bigelow’s later features consistently are (reflecting her formal education as painter). However, it’s also frustratingly inert – often feeling like a nostalgic fashion magazine shoot rather than a proper feature film. Willem Dafoe is so goddamn beautiful to gaze at in his leather get-up that it’s hard to complain too much about the film’s narrative shortcomings, but its 82min runtime still manages to linger for a relative eternity. The closest the film comes to exhilarating action is in a climactic, crazed shootout at a townie dive bar. However, it’s a violet display Bigelow later perfected to a very similar effect in Near Dark – making this early trial run feel trivial in retrospect. The entire point of the film, then, is the visual seduction of Dafoe’s macho posing & posturing. It was Bigelow’s very first film and she was already fixated on what masculinity means, what it looks like, and what effect in manifests in the world. There can be a debate as to why that fixation is rewarded in critics’ and awards institutions’ circles over the preoccupations of other women auteurs, but it’s clear to me that the impulse in Bigelow is at least personal & genuine. Like Angela Basset in Strange Days, Keanu Reeves in Point Break, and Marin Kanter in The Loveless, she can’t help but fall for a loveable scumbag.
For more on December’s Movie of the Month, Kathryn Bigelow’s Y2K sci-fi epic Strange Days (1995), check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at the director’s continued fascination with police brutality in Detroit (2017), and last week’s comparison of its police brutality themes to those of Blue Steel (1989).