Strange Days in Feminist Film Criticism

I saw Hurt Locker in a theater last summer, or I think I did. After reading this rather nasty take-down of the film and its director from Martha Nochimson over at Salon, I think I might have seen something else.

For instance, Nochimson sees in Jeremy Renner’s Sgt. Will James a modern John Wayne character, stripped of the humanity and feeling that marked Wayne’s protagonists and reduced to being masculine machine. And she’s convinced the film gives this character the hero treatment.

When they bonded with young, earnest boys, Wayne’s men became meaningful mentors — Gillom Rogers (Ron Howard) in “The Shootist” couldn’t have grown up without the wit and wisdom of Wayne’s John Bernard Books. But Will, with his Wayne-ian steely gaze, his laconic ease at the portals of death, and his patented hero saunter, loves “just one thing,” as he tells his baby boy before leaving him, maybe forever, to return to the killing fields of Iraq. And it isn’t women or kids.

To their credit, director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal never reduce “the thing” to a word. Will’s unnamed passion is left to the enormity of our imaginations when we see him back in Iraq in the humongous bomb-disposal suit that insulates him from any direct contact with the world. What’s less happy is the confused adulation of this solitary savior at the end of the film, as Will takes the place of the bomb-disposal robot we saw in the opening scene — a better “bot.”

Adulation is a strong word there at the end, and I’m pretty certain that nothing in the film supports its usage. If you look at Hurt Locker as, among other things, a character study of Will James, then it reveals him to be a man who is fundamentally broken and unheroic in spite of numerous admirable traits. He is brave to the point of foolishness, and unconscionably reckless with the lives of the soldiers around him. And the last shot of the film does, indeed, show him with that “one thing” that he loves, but it never asks the audience to share or admire that love. Coming on the heels of his unsuccessful and half-hearted attempt at resuming life with his family, James’s return to Iraq seems more like a defeat than anything else.

But I was really taken aback by this passage. I love a nasty cheap shot as much as the next guy, and I’ve taken a few of them here, but shouldn’t the targets at least have it coming? Nochimson really dislikes Bigelow and this film, and she doesn’t care how she comes across.

Quentin Tarantino, who should know better, having just directed a piercingly original ironic study of war and blood lust, dubbed Bigelow the “Queen of Directors” when she took the DGA award. I prefer the “Transvestite of Directors.” Looks to me like she’s masquerading as the baddest boy on the block to win the respect of an industry still so hobbled by gender-specific tunnel vision that it has trouble admiring anything but filmmaking soaked in a reduced notion of masculinity.

OK, I see you objecting back there in the last row. Is it because Bigelow and Boal seem to think they have made an antiwar film, as they made clear when they accepted their BAFTAs (the British Academy Awards)? Something to do with an ironic presentation of Will? Uh-huh. We spend one-and-a-half hours enduring crisis after crisis in which Will is the only person with the daring and skill to save us (since we identify with the American soldiers) from being blown to bits. We hover over him anxiously, for seemingly endless stretches of time, watching (beautiful) extreme close-ups of his skillful and steady fingers palpating wires and wielding wire-cutters, our vicarious lives hanging on each motion. Our field of vision is so completely limited to his expertise in defusing bombs and dealing with invisible enemies that our capacity to think about the larger context of the American presence in Iraq is replaced by nuance-free instincts more characteristic of the tea party movement.

No, I can’t believe she just played the “Real Woman” card either. But we’ll come back to that in a moment, because Nochimson is going to revisit this theme. I’m more interested in her interpretation of the film.

First, we hover anxiously over Will because this is a movie about defusing and disposing of bombs, and Bigelow has told the story with all the tension and stomach-churning terror that it deserves. But in a number of those scenes, I think it’s easier to identify with the other members of Will’s unit. Because here is the funny thing about what Will does: he’s not really saving anybody. He doesn’t really even need to bother with defusing the bombs. He is summoned to sites where US troops have already found, or suspect they have found, explosives or booby-traps and have withdrawn to a safe distance. And the bomb squad always has the option to detonate the bombs from safety. But Will, regardless of what the smart or safe course of action would be, insists on sticking his head inside the lion’s mouth. And his men are forced to come along for that ride.

Nochimson also underplays the importance of Sgt. Sanborn and Spc. Eldridge in this film. Eldridge is wrestling with severe PTSD from the start of the film, and it’s obvious that he needs to get the hell out of Iraq but can’t until he is finished with his tour. We last see him being placed on a medevac chopper and cursing out Will. He is being sent home wounded because Will, as he always does, needlessly put his men in danger. Sanborn, Will’s second in command, is the responsible one of the group. When the unit comes under a deadly sniper attack in the desert, Sanborn reveals himself to be as steady and skilled as Will. The difference is that Sanborn doesn’t feel the need to test himself, nor does he relish such occasions. He is a professional soldier. Will is a cowboy in the worst sense of the word.

None of this is subtext. It’s front and center throughout the film, and while there are moments we might think Will is brave or heroic, by the end we’ve seen through him, as has Sanborn.

As for the “larger context” that The Hurt Locker supposedly lacks, I’m not certain what more Nochimson could want. We have a sequence where Will, in a blind fury at the murder of a child he believes to be one that he befriended, breaks into an Iraqi’s home and holds him at gunpoint and demands answers through a mild language barrier and Will’s own incomprehensibility. Will is demanding an explanation from a man who has no idea what Will is talking about. I don’t think we need to look very far for ways this scene applies to our endeavors in the Middle East. And honestly, a movie about guys fighting the shadow war against Iraqi insurgents seems to invite some serious thought about context.

Toward the end of the piece, Nochimson comes to her real complaint. Bigelow has been praised to the skies for directing a brutal, kinetic war film. She demonstrated her technical proficiency in the kind of macho genre that Hollywood loves. In the meantime, the work of other female directors is the veritable tree falling in the forest if it’s work that can be dismissed as part of a “chick” genre.

I think the outsize admiration for her masterly technique and the summary dismissal in the current buzz of directors like Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers reveal an untenable assumption that the muscular filmmaking appropriate for the fragmented, death-saturated situations of war films is innately superior to the technique appropriate to the organic, life-affirming situations of romantic comedy.I don’t begrudge the praise for Bigelow’s depiction of urban war violence, but why the general opinion that Ephron and Meyers aren’t up to much because they don’t use hand-held cameras and flashy cuts that tensely survey an inscrutable environment? That’s not their material. Why isn’t there also some praise for Ephron, for example, for the scenes in “Julie & Julia” that capture the love of life conveyed by Meryl Streep in her celebrated performance as Julia Child? When Julia and her sister, reunited in a Paris train station, run toward each other, so adorably full of affection they don’t care about their resemblance to two lurching cows high on jouissance grass, does anyone think that incandescent moment was achieved only by acting? That the director’s framing of the scene had nothing to do with it?

I sympathize on this score, but I see two problems. First, Nora Ephron is not a great standard-bearer for female directors (I can’t speak to Meyers). I watched Julie & Julia six weeks ago, and I cannot for the life of me remember the scene that Nochimson describes here. I can remember The Hurt Locker almost scene for scene, and I saw it only once about nine months ago. The scenes I tend to remember from Julie & Julia stand out because of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, or because they are the flat Julie Powell sequences that bear the self-conscious cuteness that is practically Ephron’s signature. Ephron makes enjoyable, often charming movies that usually have one or two flaws or tics that drive me insane each time I see them. She does not make movies I consider great.

The larger problem is that the issue Nochimson identifies has less to do with gender than it does with Hollywood’s views on what constitutes a “serious” film. Hollywood has always been a sucker for the passable epic, the “issue” film (Gentlemen’s Agreement, anyone?), and the oppressively serious drama. Spend a few minutes poking around IMDB comparing academy award nominations in a given year versus which movies came out that year, and the full scope of the travesty should be clear. To get you started, here is 1995: A year in which Braveheart beat out the superb Babe and Sense and Sensibility for Best Picture, and Before Sunrise and Clockers received no nominations. Heat, Se7en, and The Usual Suspects also came out that year. Men and women both have grounds for complaint when we consider the types of movies that always seem to make the biggest pseudo-critical, pseudo-artistic splash. So Nochimson has identified an old, recurrent problem and interpreted its latest instantiation through the lens of gender-bias.

Nochimson’s critique of The Hurt Locker is based, I think, on a seriously flawed interpretation of the film. But her attack on Bigelow highlights a persistent problem between women and Hollywood. Nochimson accuses Bigelow of playing the transvestite to advance her career. She has made a masculine film and has therefore somehow betrayed feminism by not using her talents to direct feminine “life affirming” movies. Ironically, by using this line of attack, Nochimson has tacitly accepted sexist Hollywood’s gendering of the genres. The Hurt Locker isn’t a masculine film, and I don’t consider Julie and Julia a feminine film. They are films about different subject matter and characters, and different material requires a different approach. But it doesn’t require a gendered approach, and it’s wrong to insist that female directors take one.

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