Kathryn Bigelow: The Art of Darkness

To understand the controversy around Kathryn Bigelow's hit film Zero Dark Thirty, it helps to understand Kathryn Bigelow's kind of movie

  • Paola Kudacki for TIME

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    "This territory has been controversial since the early part of the decade, so I knew that the film was going to be controversial, though perhaps I didn't anticipate this kind of volume," Bigelow says. Slim and just shy of 6 ft. tall, in a black sweater and jeans, she is an astonishingly youthful 61 and exudes a warm elegance, equal parts Northern California mellow and Northeast patrician. "I feel we got it right. I'm proud of the movie, and I stand behind it completely. I think that it's a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force. It questions what was done in the name of finding bin Laden."

    In common with Bigelow's other films, Zero Dark Thirty doesn't tell the audience how to answer the questions it raises. Instead "the film creates a conversation," says Jessica Chastain, who gives Zero Dark Thirty 's protagonist, CIA operative Maya, shades of austerity and obsession that edge into a kind of religious devotion to tracking her prey. "I believe that was Kathryn's intention when she made the film — to open a conversation. She ends it with an unanswered question, Where do you want to go? She's asking the audience, Where have we been, and where do we go from here?"

    Maya — an ethereally beautiful redhead whom we first glimpse hidden behind a menacing balaclava — is what she does; her mission is all we know of her identity or of her CIA colleagues. "Part of Kathryn's brilliance has always been that she doesn't let you get involved in trying to know what the person onscreen is thinking," says the conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner, one of Bigelow's early mentors. "She takes the trouble to show you what they are doing , and then she steps back." It's that space between the action and the stepping back that helps define Bigelow as a filmmaker. It's that space, perhaps, that has allowed so much controversy into the frame.


    Bigelow grew up in San Carlos, Calif., in the Bay Area. As an only child, she says, "you kind of become peers with your parents." Her mother taught English; her father managed a paint factory and was something of a frustrated artist. "I guess his great passion in life would have been to be a cartoonist, but he could never figure out how to go from A to B," Bigelow says. "But he would draw for me, day in, day out — sketches, caricatures. He thought of himself as extremely unattractive, and he would exaggerate his features."

    She painted from age 6 and after high school attended the San Francisco Art Institute. "I loved de Kooning, and I loved big canvases, and I loved oil, not acrylic. I loved the smell of it and the giant brushes and the goop — I mean, I was always covered head to toe in paint. I'd kneel down, and the paint was so thick on my pants that it would crack. I would do these big pieces that were like Abstract Expressionist — Renaissance fusion. I would take a corner detail from a Raphael, blow it up and paint it in an Abstract Expressionist way."

    In her early 20s, she enrolled in the Whitney Museum of American Art's independent-study program. "I remember walking all over Manhattan in my little Levi's jacket and my jeans and cowboy boots, so excited, so happy to be there and, I suddenly realized, so cold . I went into a hardware store because I could no longer feel my legs." The Whitney gave her a studio, which doubled as a living space, in a repurposed bank vault three stories below ground level in an offtrack betting facility in present-day Tribeca. "Tribeca, SoHo — those concepts didn't really exist in the early 1970s," she says. "You actually couldn't get a cab to take you down there. So I'd be down in the freezing bank vault in a sleeping bag, hearing gunshots up top quite often. But none of us students were worried for ourselves. It was a great community that formed. We were constantly communicating to one another about what we were making and trying to challenge one another. In film you don't find that. Like, I never see other directors."

    At that time, she was also constantly communicating with an all-star cast of cultural figures. At the Whitney, her advisers included artist Brice Marden and Susan Sontag. Other formative influences were Weiner (Bigelow served as subject or editor of several of his 1970s videos) and sculptor and video artist Richard Serra (she appeared briefly in his film Prisoner's Dilemma ). She teamed with her friend Philip Glass to fix up former printing factories in SoHo as artists' lofts, living in the spaces while she worked. (Bigelow sanded the floors and put up the Sheetrock walls; Glass handled the plumbing.) In one of these buildings, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe lived above her. Later, when she was crashing in a condemned building with no electricity near the South Street Seaport, photographer Cindy Sherman lived below her. Filmmaker Milos Forman saw an early version of The Set-Up and offered her a scholarship to a Columbia graduate program. At a Wooster Group performance toward the end of the decade, she went backstage and offered a role in her first feature film, a 1950s-set biker-gang tone poem called The Loveless , to the young stage actor Willem Dafoe, who accepted on the spot.

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