As most everyone on the planet knows by now, James Cameron and Kathryn Bigelow were briefly married to each other in the early 90s. No match in Hollywood seemed more apt, if judged solely on the basis of devotion to a cinema of harrowing energy. It was during this time that I worked for them both, first at Cameron’s fledgling Lightstorm Entertainment’s bunker-like facility, situated in the industrial wastelands behind Burbank Airport. The joke around the office was that the place could take a direct nuclear hit. This was when Jim was filming T-2 and the office canteen featured a Terminator pinball machine as well as a life-size model of the Terminator itself, a demonically glowering metal skeleton. The industrial bay that took the entire back half of the building was large enough to park a plane inside. Under the direction of Jim’s younger brother, Mike, it was a thriving shop floor, packed with heavy-duty machines that cranked out hi-tech widgets. It was that kind of place: juiced on testosterone and apocalypse.
I later came to work, much more closely, with Bigelow, fresh off the now iconographic Point Break, from the couple’s home, perched on a cliff off Mulholland Drive. During this time they divorced and the huge double-terminated quartz crystal that adorned a table in the living room, a gift from Kathryn to Jim, spoke volubly for me of a potent absence. One day, when things were nearly over, Jim came into my “office,” a converted carriage house stuffed with Kathryn’s books, which included works by Louis Althusser and Robert Bresson, and began reciting the opening quatrains of Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and The Carpenter.” It struck me as a kind of oblique elegy, full of heartfelt loss, but tossed off with a boyish shrug of sangfroid.
Years and divergent career paths later, these two incredibly gifted filmmakers have given us an extraordinary pair of movies, each of which, in its own way, demonstrates powerfully the need of art to push violently against its own boundaries. In a perverse way, they’ve made the same movie. Both set their stories in far off lands, among alien cultures, where a brutal colonial war is underway. Both offer critiques of that war and of the allure and dangers of violence. And both are deeply invested in cinema as the medium par excellence for total immersion in the immediate.
Avatar and The Hurt Locker want to overwhelm the viewer, not merely with images of wonder or terror, but with a near-absolute experience of being-there. The formal virtuosity they employ to achieve this effect in both cases is breathtaking. Resistance is futile.
Cameron’s critique of violence is bluntly sentimental. He extols the virtues of primitivism while dazzling us with cinematic shock and awe. But the immense set pieces of destruction that make up the film’s bloated second half bludgeon feeling, rather than quicken it. Bigelow’s critique of violence is more subtle and complex, pervaded by a weird and unsettling ambiguity. For while The Hurt Locker is at pains to show us the brutal human costs of warfare, it also gives us war’s visceral thrill, its disturbing elations.
The estranging effects of violence don’t factor into Avatar. What Cameron has ingeniously created instead is a film about the experience of seeing films. Jake occupies a roughly analogous position to the filmgoer, a prompt for our own experience. Slide into your casket and slip on your trodes; settle in your seat and put on your glasses – and whammo – you’re transported, instantly, to utopia, ecstatic otherwhere. The power of the medium is such that it erases the mediation in order to make one feel the immediate. Film is a prosthetic device that makes us complete.
For Bigelow, immediacy is everything, too. The Hurt Locker opens with a sobering epigraph, from war journalist Chris Hedges: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” But if war is a drug, then so is film. Both intensely claustrophobic and exhilaratingly expansive, the film plunges us into a closed-in universe where the sound of your own heartbeat is a ticking bomb. Indeed, the entire premise of the film, built around the defusing squad, stands as a rich metaphorical mirror image to the work of the filmmaker, who constructs intricate devices to capture and replicate sensations in order to blow us away. No other film in recent memory, Avatar notwithstanding, demonstrates so powerfully the potentiality of filmmaking itself. Like Avatar, The Hurt Locker is a film about filmmaking. It’s an allegory for not only how we structure representations of experience, but for how those structures are susceptible to estrangement.
Avatar and The Hurt Locker are not the same film. But they are dreaming the same dream. The name of that dream is total cinema and it begins with Wagner’s massive operas. Since then, Western art has striven to immerse us entirely within works of art that are simultaneously hermetic and diaphanous, self-contained and boundless. Avatar and The Hurt Locker, the one lumbering and elephantine, the other manic and termite-like, to use Manny Farber’s shrewd distinction, come achingly close to realizing the old dream of a total work of art.
Yet for all their aggressive modernity, the pleasures that both movies offer are ancient pleasures, little different, for all their bedazzlements, from what Homer achieves in The Iliad with the death scenes of Patroclus or Hector. Avant-garde technology still serves humanist needs.
In her famous essay, “The Iliad, or The Poem of Force,” Simone Weil writes that the true subject of the poem is force and its distorting effects; the way it turns humans into things. Force is an idol which extracts a heavy toll from all who would pray to it. In The Iliad, she asserts, “the human spirit is shown as modified by its relation to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.” The commitment of both filmmakers to what I would call intensity, rather than force, poses a significant question about the ethical implications of their formal accomplishments. Can we critique something even as we enjoy its representation? And to what extent do we then become complicit in the subject of such a critique?
Avatar’s narrower emotional range forecloses these questions. For all its delights, the movie is finally too much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy, a gameboy wetdream, to return any dividends along these lines. The Hurt Locker, on the other hand, precisely because it does not address the ideological content of its subject head on, is the more serious moral work. It invites us to consider, amid its frenzied mayhem, what it means to submit oneself to force, to risk losing oneself in force’s narcotic rush.
Once, we were viewing a clip from a silent film Kathryn admired as part of the preparation for our own project. In the middle of a particularly anguished scene in which the heroine undergoes an excruciating internal struggle that seems to magnify her face, Kathryn exclaimed, "she's like a force of nature!” I always thought this got to the core of what Bigelow tries to do in nearly every one of her films. This is where she likes her heroes – in extremis, at the very edge, hanging on by their fingernails. Think Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel, Keanu Reeves in Point Break, Ralph Fiennes in Strange Days.
They are not so much redeemed by the violence they unleash as undone by it, left shaken and trembling. Bigelow’s staging of violence in The Hurt Locker is grittier and more morally complicated than the comforting mythic scenarios of Avatar. It makes more stringent demands of both its hero and its audience. And while it trades openly in the electric currency of the immediate, it also asks us to consider the cost of our addiction to immediacy. It’s a movie about shock that asks us to reflect on shock’s melancholy wages. In other words, it’s a movie for grown ups who like some moral doubt mixed in with their sense of wonder.
That’s why, come Oscar night, I’ll be rooting for Kathryn, not Jim.