Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, April 10, 2017

Director Report Card: Kathryn Bigelow (1981)

Before becoming the first woman to ever win the Best Director Oscar, Kathryn Bigelow had a few cult hits to her name but not much mainstream success. In many ways - and draw your own conclusions about how women's achievements are considered when compared to men's from this - she was best known as one of James Cameron's ex-wives. After "The Hurt Locker," Bigelow suddenly became the most prominent female director in the world. So it's fitting that she's the first woman to get a devoted series here as Film Thoughts. It shouldn't have taken me so long. So let's enter a world of hard men and the violent acts they commit.

1. The Loveless

Kathryn Bigelow would begins her career with “The Set-Up,” a seventeen minute long short film about deconstructing an act of violence between two men. It would seem that Bigelow was speaking towards her thematic interests as soon as she began making movies. After “The Set-Up,” Bigelow would collaborate with producer-turned-director Monty Montgomery on “The Loveless.” The film would launch the career of Willem Dafoe but would be largely overlooked upon release in 1982. It wasn't until its video release that “the Loveless” would gain any attention, eventually developing a small following. To this day, it remains one of Bigelow's more underappreciated films.

A motorcycle tears down a lonely Southern freeway. The bike belongs to Vince, a wayward man without much direction in his life. He stops in a dinner in the next small town, waiting for the other members of his motorcycle gang to arrive. When they do, one of the bikers reports that his bike has a broken chain. The gang is forced to stay in town until the repairs are made. Soon, the bikers are interacting with the locals. Some of them, like a teenage girl running from an abusive father, welcome the bikers. Others, like the redneck town mechanic, are more antagonistic. Conflict will arise eventually.

Most of “The Loveless'” advertising makes it look like a throwback to biker pics from the fifties and sixties. In a broad sense, this seems accurate. The movie is, after all, about a biker finding trouble and romance after pulling into a small town. This same plot synopsis describes “The Wild One” and roughly a hundred other movies. Yet tone and presentation counts for a lot. “The Loveless” isn't very rowdy. Instead, it's an almost laid back story of a group of bored friends trying to pass some time in an uninteresting little town. They sit around in the town dinner, hang out at the garage, and eventually find their way to the local bars.

In some ways, “The Loveless” resembles a classic hang-out movie. Long scenes are devoted to the characters just trying to pass the time. They unsuccessfully hit on the waitresses at the dinner. They play a bowling themed pinball machine. They trade super awkward small talk with the town mechanic, who attempts to start a conversation about NASCAR. One biker gets challenged to a race by a local gear head. Mostly, they bitch about how dull this little town is and they hope to get on their way soon enough. It's comfortable in a sense. Anybody who grew up in a small town is familiar with that feeling of creeping boredom, trying to find something to do in the middle of nowhere.

Something else “The Loveless” has in common with the likes of “The Wild One,” besides being set in the fifties, is how the townsfolk react to the bikers. The gang members are immediately outsiders. Anywhere the group goes, they get greeted with dirty looks. The cook at the restaurant refuses to cook for them. The mechanic initially denies them service at his garage, before being talked into it. Just to cement the conservative mindset of the people who live there,  the bikers are also baselessly accused of being communists. The bikers, in comparison, mostly mind their own business. Trouble finds them anyway.

It's clear that Bigelow's fascination with the thoughts and action of violent men began early. When shined through a certain light, “The Loveless” becomes a story about male entitlement. The opening scenes has Vince helping a woman who has gotten a flat tire. After repairing her car, he grabs her breasts and forces a kiss on her. There's a female among the bikers. She is not treated well by the others, often being bossed around. Later, the men hoot and holler when a woman begins a strip tease in a bar. There aren't very many women in the film who aren't subjected to casual abuse.

This theme becomes most apparent through “The Loveless'” unusual romance. After a few hours in the town, Vince catches the eye of Telena, a teenage girl. She's running from a monstrous father. Her dad drove her mother to suicide with systematic, psychological abuse. When the man discovers his daughter has been sleeping with a biker, he shoots out her car's tires, drags her into his own vehicle, and speeds off. Unsurprisingly, this same man also initiates violence with the bikers. Yet Vince's reaction to Telena's strife is hard to read. He watches, dispassionately, as the girl's father removes her. Later, when Telena takes violent actions against her dad, Vince continues to watch the fallout with cold, laconic eyes.

Inhabiting that stoic part is Willem Dafoe. “The Loveless” was the proper screen debut of the scratchy voiced character actor. Considering Dafoe would become known for his grizzled appearance, it's quite surprising to see how baby-faced he looks in his first movie. He's practically a teen heartthrob. Dafoe looks about as wholesome as someone clad in an all-leather suit can but his behavior is harder to read. A sparse narration provides some insight into Vince's personality, characterizing the biker as a natural nomad. Yet he spends most of the movie as an observer, watching with interest but not exactly sympathy. Dafoe's performance is fascinating but strange, keeping most of the protagonist's feeling interior.

Most of the characters in the film cut a mysterious figure. Robert Gordon, better known as a musician, plays Davis, another member of the gang. Gordon has a frantic energy as a performer, a ball of nerves that frequently lashes out at the world around him. Tina L'Hotsky plays Debbie, the sole female among the bikers. L'Hotsky's good looks immediately draw the eye but the character is a mystery, acting on whims unperceived by the audience. If “The Loveless” has a raw, bleeding heart, it's Marin Kanter as Telena. The abused girl that spends a few hours with Vince, her tiny frame conceals a world of hurt. As her abusive father, J. Don Ferguson is a storm of hate and resentment, a disgusting man lashing out at everything around him, desperate for a sense of control.

“The Loveless” may be a slow, character based film but it's easy to see Bigelow's future career as an action director. The sense of motion and editing in “The Loveless” is strong. One especially notable sequence cuts between the woman undressing in the bar, and Vince's mumbled descriptions of the gang's life on the road. The moments carry over into each other, building on one another. Other scenes have a kinetic approach, the camera quickly cutting around a car crash, establishing the fury and motion of the moment.

As I said, “The Loveless” has a laid back tone. There's very little drive to the story, as the film mostly sits back and watches the characters go about their day. The conflict between Telena and her father provides some purpose to the plot. Even then, Vince does little to affect either character. “The Loveless” stays committed to this nomadic pacing all the way through. Even at the end, after an especially dramatic sequence. Once the movie reaches its end, Vince and the gang jump on their bikes and drive off, seemingly untouched by what they have witnessed. It's a good thing “The Loveless” is only 88 minutes. At any longer a length, the audience probably would have been worn out by such an experiment in loose narrative.

I suspect much of “The Loveless'” small cult following appreciate the film as much for its soundtrack as anything else. Though set in the 1950s, the film would become a favorite among rockabilly and psychobilly fans. “Relentless,” the title theme from Eddie Dixon, has a slithering beat, Dixon crooning the lyrics with a boozy draw. Co-star Robert Gordon's “So Young” seems to draw attention to the age difference between Vince and the girl he seduces, a slinking song with lyrics that had to be creepy on purpose. Gordon also contributes “Wasting My Time” to the soundtrack, a blues-influenced track with a  nice beat. The lurching horns of the Diamonds' “The Stroll” add an uneasy energy to another sequence. Recognizable names like Brenda Lee and Little Richard also appear on the soundtrack, rooting the movie in its period setting.

That “The Loveless” has never received much attention isn't too surprising. The film's mixture of rambling story and burst of intense violence probably wouldn't please too many viewers. Yet there is a terse sense of cool surrounding its character, people married to the road with few reasons to care about anyone else. The film has some interesting thoughts in its heads and some notable sequences, even if the final result doesn't hold together much as a whole. “The Loveless” keeps a little too much distance from the audience to be truly satisfying. Yet it is worth seeing and a suitable beginning for Kathryn Bigelow's career as a feature filmmaker. [Grade: B]

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