Friday, October 30, 2009

Interior / Exterior, or The Kids Play Russian

For all the cults around Near Dark and Point Break, all of the recent hubbub about The Hurt Locker and the defenses of Strange Days, it's really K-19: The Widowmaker that happens to be Kathryn Bigelow's finest film. This box office failure, already half-forgotten, from the most artificial of conceits -- an American film about the Soviet military-- complete with those half-British, half-"Russian" accents that sounded dubious even in Cold War spy thrillers. The credits are even in that blocky font, like Enemy at the Gates or some other nonsense. And, yes, it was a vanity project for Harrison Ford, but that isn't a strike against it: he's got the right face for playing a Russian, and he works surprisingly well as a shorter man, framed next to lanky Liam Neeson in a way that takes away his usual control of the frame and makes him work hard to get it back.

But these are all extras. They're beside the point. Let's get back to it: why'd I write that K-19 is Kathryn Bigelow's finest film? Because it's the most complete realization of that tendency that makes Bigelow not just distinctive, but important: her interest in relation. Not just relationships, but the very idea of things relating to one another. In her films, that means, on the most basic level, the relationship between the elements of an image, between a sound effect and a piece music, between one shot and the one that follows it. But there's also the relationship between a genre and a person's understanding of it -- she's certainly a genre director, but not in the sense most other people work in genres. She picks one, an exterior, and then makes a film out of its interior -- Point Break's direction, for one, is all about finding the psychology of a certain kind of action movie. And of course there are the relationships between characters and, even more importantly, between these characters and their actions: the dynamic between what a person is doing or saying and their facial expression or the tone of their voice. Interior / exterior.

Like John Carpenter, Bigelow's the kind of director who edits and frames in order to create a perspective for the audience. Carpenter seems to have derived it from an education in Hitchcock; Bigelow is more like Otto Preminger's adopted daughter. The goal of the perspective she creates is to show how different things form a whole -- Preminger's psychological direction taken to a level even more basic than human psychology. K-19: the relationship between people of different ranks, between the living and the dead, the able-bodied and those dying of radiation sickness. Between what's going on underwater and above, back in Moscow. Between simulation and reality, intention and result. Every aspect of the film is used towards this end. She even manages to find a function in this approach for CGI shots of the submarine's exterior; elsewhere they'd be just perfunctory special effects, but here they're always relating to something else. We feel how the crew feels their vessel. When the hull dents, it's framed and edited the same way you'd frame a face with a strained expression and then edit it into a series of other shots of faces. There are relationships men develop with their machines and instruments -- the meter with the arrow that always gets stuck and the cruel, temperamental reactor are certainly characters. We could even say they're part of the crew, as are the too-small doorways or the bottles of red wine that get rationed out by the captain. When the periscope shares the frame with the captain, we understand that there's a relationship between them -- even if we can't quite fathom what such a relationship would be like. But we know it's there. It's been shown to us.

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