Kathryn Bigelow: Love and war

It's the battle of the Baftas as the film director's Iraq drama is up against her ex-husband's 3D epic

When Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker received eight Bafta nominations this week, it was very hard for critics not to start talking about the battle of the ex-spouses. After all, Bigelow used to be married to James Cameron, who also received eight nominations for his film Avatar.

As the awards season begins in earnest, there is a lot riding on The Hurt Locker. The film is flying the flag for independent cinema. It was made for less than $15m, chump change by comparison with the reported $300m budget for Avatar. It belongs to a genre that has so far proved to be box-office poison: the Iraq war movie. Antecedents from Brian De Palma's Redacted to Paul Haggis's In the Valley of Elah and Irwin Winkler's Home of the Brave have struggled to attract audiences. Although it has cameos from Guy Pearce and Ralph Fiennes, it's not a star-led movie. Nor is it gadget or 3D-driven.

"With The Hurt Locker, I wanted it to be as tense and real as possible, and that meant having actors who are relatively fresh faces so the audience wouldn't know who among the three main characters was going to live or die by virtue of their public profile," is how Bigelow explained her casting. She has a reputation for casting newcomers, having given early breaks to stars from Willem Dafoe and Keanu Reeves.

On an indie movie which was made without a studio distribution deal in place, it would have been a stretch to sign up major stars anyway. Fiennes, who gives a very spirited performance as a British soldier with a hint of T E Lawrence about him, had starred in her earlier film Strange Days (1995), co-written by James Cameron, and was clearly keen to work with her again.

Many spectators who've seen The Hurt Locker have expressed surprise that the film was directed by a woman. After all, this is an intense and claustrophobic drama about bomb squad technicians – three members of of the US army's elite explosive ordnance disposal squad. When they are not out on the streets of Iraq, defusing bombs, they're back in the base drinking beer or brawling with each other for recreation. Bigelow is exploring masculinity and male bonding. In one of the most poignant and ironic sequences, we see the hero Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner) back home with his family in the US. This soldier who has behaved calmly in the face of extreme danger simply can't cope with shopping in a supermarket. He doesn't accept the role of the nurturing husband or dad. Having counted down the days till he left Iraq, he can't wait to be back there, with his friends.

Bigelow has been this way before. Her 1991 film Point Break, starring Keanu Reeves and the late Patrick Swayze, was a surf thriller with a strong homoerotic undertow. Swayze played the cop who went undercover to bust a criminal gang led by a super-surfer Keanu Reeves' character, Johnny Utah, "young, dumb and full of come" as he is characterised.

Bigelow somehow managed to make a slightly preposterous thriller into a meditation on male friendship and the lure of death. In between the stunts and bank robberies, there was much existential musing. Bigelow makes it clear that the film's two heroes enjoy danger and violence. The Hurt Locker is very different but one of its most unsettling elements is its suggestion that Sgt James is addicted to the adrenalin buzz of what would seem to most of us like the worst job in the world.

Both Bigelow and Cameron can be seen as descendants of the great Hollywood director Howard Hawks, who relished telling stories about male camaraderie and judged their collaborators by their professionalism. Bigelow could even be described as a perfect example of what has become known (in sexist movie critic lingo) as "the Hawksian woman", that's to say, the self-reliant, insolent type, capable of running with the boys. In the publicity photos from early in her career, Bigelow, with her long flowing hair, even looks as little like Hawks' favourite actress of all, Lauren Bacall in Big Sleep days.

What makes Bigelow such a fascinating film-maker is the wide range of often contradictory influences on her work. Born in San Carlos, California, in 1951 to a father who managed a paint factory and a librarian mother, she studied with Susan Sontag at the Whitney Museum's independent study programme. The late 1970s marked the high point of semiotics-driven film theory and Bigelow was steeped in it. She was even briefly a film academic.

In interviews, Bigelow often strikes an ambivalent note about what it means to be a woman director. "If there is specific resistance to women making movies, I just to choose to ignore that as an obstacle for two reasons: I can't change my gender and I refuse to stop making movies," she commented. "It's irrelevant who or what directed a movie; the important thing is that you either respond to it or you don't. There should be more women directing: I think that there's just not the awareness that it's really possible."

At the same time, Bigelow's early thriller Blue Steel foregrounded gender. This was her 1989 film starring Jamie Lee Curtis as a cop being stalked by a serial killer. The cop is at once the victim and the protagonist: the gun wielding (and fetishising) action-heroine.

Academics have found rich pickings in Bigelow's biography and in her work. She is a film-maker they see perched between "independent countercinema" and "mainstream Hollywood". What distinguishes her from other directors whose movies are pored over in film studies departments that she knows the lingo. There have been frequent tales about Hitchcock or leading Hollywood directors being both flattered and utterly baffled by the way their work is interpreted by high-minded academic critics from magazines such as Positif and Cahiers du Cinéma.

That would never happen in Bigelow's case. After all, she has a master's degree in film criticism from Columbia. In a recent interview with Newsweek, she spoke about going to see a double bill of Mean Streets and The Wild Bunch and beginning to realise that an academic approach to movies could only get her so far.

"It took all my semiotic Lacanian deconstructivist saturation and torqued it. I realised there is a more muscular approach to film-making that I found very inspiring."

Prior to The Hurt Locker, Bigelow's career hadn't exactly been flourishing. Her biggest-budget film, K-19: The Widowmaker, (2002) was a box-office bomb that didn't come close to recouping its production costs. (According to Box Office Mojo, the film, about a disaster aboard a Soviet nuclear submarine, cost $100m to make and grossed only $65,716,126m worldwide.)

Bigelow was returning to her roots with The Hurt Locker. Like her early films The Loveless (her biker movie), Near Dark (her very bloody foray into vampire territory) and Blue Steel, she was making a provocative, high-impact genre movie. There is a certain irony in The Hurt Locker going head to head with Avatar. Bigelow is still friends with Cameron. When she received the finished script for The Hurt Locker, she told The New Yorker, Cameron was the first person whose opinion she sought out. The Hurt Locker is the kind of picture that Cameron himself might once directed. Unlike Avatar, The Hurt Locker is lean and pared down. If it is a chamber piece, it is an explosive one. The tension that Bigelow generates when she shows the sergeant sitting in a car, amid a spaghetti-like tangle of wires, trying to defuse a bomb is close to overwhelming. Bigelow also has an eye for the surrealistic side of the bomb disposal experts' lives. They dress in huge suits that make then look like old-fashioned deep-sea divers. Their work, which is painstaking and tedious, seems to onlookers like a stylised religious ritual.

Film awards are often nonsensical. They pitch completely different kinds of movies against one another in competitions in which there are no objective criteria. Nonetheless, few will gainsay the virtuosity with which Bigelow directed The Hurt Locker. The film has a current worldwide gross of only about $16m (as opposed to the $1.6bn and rising that Avatar has made). Even so, when it comes to pure film-making, Bigelow is surely the equal of her ex-husband.

A Life in Brief

Born: 27 November 1951 in San Carlos, California. An only child, her father managed a paint factory and her mother was a librarian.

Education: Studied at the San Francisco Art Institute for two years before winning a scholarship on the Whitney Museum's independent study programme. Studied under Susan Sontag for a master's in film criticism at Columbia University.

Family: Married James Cameron in 1989. They divorced in 1991. Lives alone with her cat and two dogs.

Career: Worked as a conceptual artist in the 1970s, but decided to quit the art world for cinema after seeing a double bill of The Wild Bunch and Mean Streets. Her films include The Loveless (1982), Blue Steel (1989), Point Break (1991), Strange Days (1995) and K-19: The Widowmaker (2002).

She says: "War's dirty little secret is that some men love it. I'm trying to unpack why, to look at what it means to be a hero in the context of 21st-century combat."

They say: "It's hard to imagine Ms Bigelow letting anyone push her around. She's unfailingly gracious but there's a ferocious undercurrent there too, as might be expected." Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

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