FILM: Lights, camera, lots of action

Only one woman in Hollywood specialises in thrillers. Sarah Gristwood meets Kathryn Bigelow, director of 'Strange Days'

AMERICAN Vogue may have exaggerated when they said Kathryn Bigelow looks like the world's most expensive dominatrix. But not by that much. Hollywood's only high-profile female action director stares inimically from her photographs - tall, black haired, snake hipped and leather trousered. Her image may be the result of conscious myth-making, or it may be a legacy of the New York art world where Bigelow cut her teeth. But there's no denying that her career has been founded on a style of film-making she describes as "visceral, high impact, kinetic, cathartic". Violent, basically. And it was a very successful career - until her latest movie, Strange Days.

Strange Days is an apocalyptic techno-thriller, starring Ralph Fiennes, co-written by Bigelow's ex-husband James Cameron, who made The Terminator and The Abyss. Because of its subject matter (voyeurism, racial tensions, rape), it was always going to be controversial - especially coming from a woman director. Of course, a little controversy can help a film. But after mixed reviews, Strange Days did poorly at the American box office. Bigelow is no longer "keeping all the balls in the air", as she put it recently; perhaps as a result, when we meet she looks more defensive than in her photos, a little more battered - closer to her real age of 43.

Kathryn Bigelow was born in California, where her father managed a paint factory. Her first interest was visual art: after studying at the San Francisco Institute of Art she won a place on an elite scholarship programme at the Whitney Museum. So, a high flier - but one who admits that moving to New York to be taught by Susan Sontag and Richard Serra was "scary". Later, Bigelow worked with the British performance group Art and Language, was photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, and starved in a garret. She saw her move into film-making as a natural extension of visual art.

The movie influences she cites are Peckinpah and Kubrick, Fuller and Scorsese. Her student short, Set Up, showed two men fighting in an alley while being "deconstructed" (says the ex-semiologist) in voice-over by two professors of philosophy. The Village Voice called it the first skinhead movie. She now calls it pretentious - albeit indulgently.

Her next film, The Loveless (1982), was a stylish, low-budget biker story, "a film about power which also conformed to my idea of a drive- in movie". Then came Near Dark (1987), a vampire western which got Bigelow a retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art, a lot of attention, and put her, in the studios' eyes, into a whole new category. Blue Steel (1990) was a female-led film noir, and the massively successful Point Break a surfing cop story, whose two heroes, Patrick Swayze and Keanu Reeves, enjoyed what Swayze described as "a love story without sex". To Bigelow, Strange Days is another love story, operating within the architecture of a thriller. But film "enables you to work on so many levels" and Strange Days is also, she claims, "the ultimate Rorschach test".

What does she mean? The plot revolves around a piece of new technology, a headset which allows other people's experiences, even the most brutal, to be purchased like porn and felt directly by the viewer/voyeur. The moral for the audience is clear. "We have become a society of watchers. Strange Days makes the viewer culpable," Bigelow says. At the film's core is a particularly savage rape scene, for which the director is unapologetic. "Art imitates life and you have to be unflinching to be faithful to the truth," she says. "Films don't make violence, there is violence in society." As for the question of a woman filming a rape: "Fantasies of power are universal. Film-making is not gender specific."

Hollywood might disagree. It boasts only a handful of commercially successful women directors - Amy Heckerling (Look Who's Talking, Clueless), Penelope Spheeris (Wayne's World), Penny Marshall (Big) - and most of them are very different in approach to Bigelow. Not for her the ditzy den-mother style - those who work with Bigelow speak of her discipline, while she herself finds "kind of insulting" the idea that women should make emotionally oriented movies. But addressing questions of gender makes Bigelow unhappy. She slides away from them with a blankness which looks like non-comprehension, though it may be simply boredom. All she'll say is: "I hope there are more women who want to get into this line of work. I feel like an endangered species. But we're only imprisoned by our own imagination. Stereotypes are made to be broken."

Bigelow's next putative project is, she says, something smaller and quieter - a film about Joan of Arc. Sight and Sound, predicting that posterity will look on Strange Days more kindly, compared Bigelow herself with that vilified visionary. But, liked or disliked, Bigelow told a lecture audience recently at the NFT that Strange Days at least "represents the culmination of a lot of things I was interested in since Set Up, a way of working out a lot of ideas. Now I feel like there are a lot of possibilities."

! 'Strange Days' (18) opens nationwide on Fri.

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