Monday, July 11, 2011

Blue Steel (1989)

Blue Steel (1989)
seen online via YouTube

I admit that I never gave much thought as to whether or not a woman would ever direct a Best Picture Oscar winner. So few women have even come close that the odds seemed mighty long, to say the least, but then one could say that prior to February 2010, those odds were still better than that of a woman being elected president, especially given the fact that the history of women directors goes back further than most people think. New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis hit the nail on the head, though, when she stated that these days, a male director is "allowed to fail in a way that a woman is not allowed to fail." How many women are even being given opportunities to direct Oscar-caliber pictures (however you define that)?

Prior to The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow, to me, was simply "James Cameron's ex, who makes action movies." I'd seen some of her films, but I never thought of her body of work in the same context as a DePalma or a Mann or a Fincher, and perhaps that was my chauvinism at work. I never thought about how she could sustain a career making movies that weren't stereotypical rom-coms or dainty costume period pieces. Bigelow's films were generally entertaining, but Locker was on a completely different level, and represented a great leap forward for her.

Blue Steel is one of three feature films Bigelow either wrote or co-wrote (IMDB says she also wrote a TV movie and an episode of The Equalizer) and the last screenplay with her name on it. A rookie cop saves the life of a dude in a robbery (unbeknownst to her), and he develops a creepy fixation on her while going on a killing spree, for reasons that aren't made entirely clear. There are some good character moments in this story, but the third act kinda devolves into a cross between Dirty Harry and Fatal Attraction, and the bad guy takes so damn long to die that you'd think this was a horror movie. Perhaps it's appropriate that the star is the original scream queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis.

What struck me about Blue Steel was how very 80s it looks. The soft lighting, the cinematography, the generous use of close-ups, all gave it the look of a Bruckheimer-Simpson 80s movie, like Beverly Hills Cop or Flashdance. One would not recognize this as a Bigelow film if one saw it after seeing Locker, but then, Locker was made far outside the studio system.

The opening credits of Blue Steel have lots of slow, lovingly-rendered pan shots of a gun, which we eventually see get loaded with bullets. This fetishized sequence seems a bit at odds with the movie. In the robbery Curtis' character stops which sets the plot in motion, she does use excessive force, but more out of fear than anything else - she's a rookie cop, remember - and she faces direct consequences for that act from her superiors. Ron Silver's character seems to get off on the power of a gun, but that's not his primary motivation, so I'm not sure what kind of point Bigelow was making with the opening credits.

I found the subplot with Curtis' parents at least as interesting, and I would've liked to have seen a little more development with it. Dad abuses Mom, who takes it passively. Plus, Dad really hates that his daughter's a cop. Curtis' attempt to resolve the problem with Dad fits her character, and it nicely compliments her situation with Silver, whom she can't prove is the killer even though she discovers it's him.

Bigelow has carved a niche for herself by making the kinds of movies that appeal to her, and while they may vary in quality, the fact that she has lasted as long as she has is a testament to her persistence in a field that has been difficult for women to thrive in.

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