Wednesday Editor’s Pick: “The Loveless” (1982)

by on May 31, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Jun 1 at 7:00*, Thu Jun 9 at 4:30 & Sat August 13 at 5:00 at MoMA [Program & Tix]
*Intro and post-screening Q&A with director Kathryn Bigelow
MoMA kicks off their two-and-a-half-month Kathryn Bigelow retrospective with a newly preserved print of the director’s 1978 debut, the meta-Action short Set-Up, along with her under-seen 1982 project (co-directed with Monty Montgomery) The Loveless, a revisionist biker-gang flick that introduced the world to Willem Dafoe. Bigelow will introduce the films and conduct a Q&A following today’s screening.
And now on display through October 3rd, Curator Jenny He has organized a gallery exhibition of Bigelow’s paintings, conceptual art and film ephemera. The show is open to museum-ticket holders during regular MoMA hours (i.e. it is not included in the single-screening admission price).
A very excited Steve Dollar for The Wall Street Journal:

She gave us hemophiliac splatter and star-crossed Texas-biker vampire love in Near Dark—20 years before bloodsuckers became the pop-culture vogue and star Bill Paxton was a household name. She came up with the most iconic use of a Richard Nixon mask in movie history in Point Break. And she was the first woman to win the Academy Award for best director in 2010, with the high-tension Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker.


In light of her 2010 Oscar breakthrough, MoMA revisits the entire stretch of Ms. Bigelow’s career, prompting an overdue reappraisal. Of unique interest are her earliest films, made after the San Francisco Art Institute graduate enrolled in the graduate film program at Columbia University, where she studied with such luminaries as Susan Sontag and avant-garde video artist Vito Acconci.


Bigelow in an interview with Artforum’s Andrew Hultkrans:

I was studying painting at the San Francisco Art Institute and one of my teachers put me up for the Whitney Program, so I went. This was ’73 or ’74, when Conceptual art really came to the fore. I did a couple of videos with Lawrence Weiner, and I worked with Art & Language, an artists, group who were critiquing the commodification of culture. So I was very influenced by them, and my concerns moved from the plastic arts to Conceptual art and a more politicized framework. And I became dissatisfied with the art world – the fact that it requires a certain amount of knowledge to appreciate abstract material.


Film, of course, does not demand this kind of knowledge. Film was this incredible social tool that required nothing of you besides twenty minutes to two hours of your time. I felt that film was more politically correct, and I challenged myself to try to make something accessible using film, but with a conscience. I still work off that foundation. So I shot this short piece called Set Up 1978.I was matriculating in film history and criticism. I was reading Freud, which led me to the philosophy department. I was working on Semiotext(e). I had Peter Wollen as a teacher, and Edward Said – extraordinary thinkers. So naturally I was influenced by them, which ironically pulled me back into the art world. Structuralist thought is hopelessly out of fashion now, but it’s what led me to The Loveless, my first feature-length narrative film. I was still resisting narrative; that film is more like a meditation.

Bigelow again in a BBC2 interview (via Christina Lane):

The Loveless was a psychological bikers’ film. We wanted to suspend the conventional kind of plotting where everything spirals into problem solving after problem solving, and create a meditation on an arena, on an iconography, using the bikers as an iconography of power.


Christina Lane for Cinema Journal:

With a focus on the macho posturing and male flirtation of this group of bikers, who boast a spectacular array of black leather, chains, knives, and, of course, motorcycles, the film becomes somehwat of a spoof on Kenneth Anger’s films combined with several psychological elements of the film noir. The film is also a response to reknowned motorcycle film The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando.  Clearly grounded in avant-garde style, The Loveless‘s camerawork results in a strong sense of local culture and a lingering on minute detail. The plot is driven by psychological geography as each of the characters is strategically positioned and repositioned in relation to one another and the small town environment. At the same time, connecting the scenes is an almost nonstop soundtrack, featuring Little Richard, The Diamongs and Brenda Lee.

Fernando F. Croce for Cinepassion:

An excoriation of Reagan-era nostalgia for the Fifties, in the manner of Christine and Blue Velvet. The central image has Willem Dafoe swathed in leather from head to toe, posed atop his motorcycle against roadside verdure and bathed in bluish light. As it did for Kenneth Anger, The Wild One provides Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery with a key into a culture’s trance of polished metal and violent sensuality, l’amour et la mort. “This endless blacktop is my sweet eternity,” the biker leader muses, a “weekend in the country” pits the daddy-os against the leery, envious small-town squares. Dafoe saunters into a café in a rhomboid composition scored to Brenda Lee, then into a bit of Hawksian courting around the jailbait tomboy’s (Marin Kanter) corvette: “What’s a bum gotta do to drive this thing?” “Turn the key.” The gang slut steps out for a Coke while the fellas throw switchblades between each other’s legs, the tangled flesh of Dafoe and Kanter in the motel room is alternated with race-riot footage flickering on a TV screen. Finding the kinetic melancholia in this material is a job for Walter Hill (Streets of Fire), for angular, languid, deadpan satire you turn to Bigelow and Montgomery. A film-school thesis stretched to feature length, yet the hunger for pure form is unmistakable — the South is a coiled abstraction of extra-crimson soda machines and garages, a phosphorescent green cloud surrounds a waitress as she strips down to her pointy bra. The pop-art lines could be out of Lichtenstein, their disproportionate intensity is humorously reflected in the scene in which a tiny matchstick is lit with a hail of target-practice bullets.

A video tour with MoMA curator Jenny He of the Bigelow gallery:

Troy Howarth for Eccentric Cinema:

Bigelow and Montgomery make the most of virtually every shot — the compositions and use of color are frequently striking, sometimes to the point of distraction (one can really sense the filmmakers falling in love with some shots and just hating to cut away from them; in fairness, the same could be said of Leone, too). The rockabilly soundtrack also adds a lot of flavor, and the ending is a nice mixture of outburst and understatement. Then there’s Willem Dafoe’s debut performance as the enigmatic head of the biker gang. While the role doesn’t exactly tax his abilities, Dafoe is every bit as cool as the movie requires. His terrific intro, the camera panning up his leather-clad physique, could easily appear hokey and affected, but somehow the actor makes it work. Even when he appears to be posing unnaturally, one gets the sense that it’s coming naturally for him — he’s just that cool.


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