Kathryn Bigelow and the Grammar of Obsession

Authors: Van Raalte, C.

Start date: 11 July 2019

The work of Kathryn Bigelow is more often than not discussed in terms of her technical and stylistic achievements. Critics have focused on her knowing experimentation with genre and aesthetics, and the way in which story-telling devices such as point of view and surveillance become the subject matter of her films. Laura Rascaroli has described her early work as ‘a discourse on vision’ , while Caetlin Benson-Allott has identified the way in which the later work is dominated by a relentless, ‘slow burning’ intensity . Relatively little has been written about her characterisation, arguably because her protagonists tend to be less than sympathetic – enigmatic to the point of illegibility and driven in ways which can be hard to fathom. Arguably, however, it is precisely their detachment and single-mindedness that makes them so watchable. What Bigelow’s protagonists – and indeed her villains – have in common is an obsessive quality that also haunts her filmmaking. In this paper I will draw connections between some common themes at the heart of her films and the aesthetic and structural strategies she employs. In particular I will explore how her use of point of view and close-up highlights her characters’ obsessive qualities; how her use of surveillance and mediated vision creates a recurring atmosphere of paranoia; how an uncanny stillness at the centre of her jumpy, frenetic camera work emphasises the single-minded focus of her protagonists; and how framing and narrative structure work with performances to create the fascinating, if at times infuriating, inscrutability that characterises so many of them. I will also look at how her rare engagement with out-and-out villains creates variations on these themes. I will thus seek to define the grammar of obsession that pervades Bigelow’s filmmaking, connecting visual language, thematic content and characterisation.

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