Archive for January, 2010

Kathryn Bigelow. Woman. Filmmaker.

On March 7, Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) may be the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director. It will be a cause for celebration.  Not because she will be the first woman to win the award, but rather because she will have been the year’s best director.

It’s hard to pin down a directing force like Bigelow and that’s exactly what makes every film of hers excitingly fresh.  It seems that she is, at heart, a genre filmmaker.  However, she isn’t interested in the genres that one associates with other female American directors, those even more influential and commercially mainstream than Bigelow, such as Nora Ephron and Nancy Myers.

Given Bigelow’s oeuvre, it is hard to imagine she would direct a film called “Hanging Up,” as Ephron did, or “It’s Complicated,” as Myers did.  Instead, Bigelow has dipped her feet into such male-dominated genres as science fiction and horror, and made them her own.  “Strange Days” (1995), starring Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett and produced and written by ex-husband James Cameron (“Titanic,” “Avatar”), displays an eerie version of the future that will either be viewed as schlocky entertainment or frighteningly prophetic in the coming decades.  Its cinematic impact can only be guessed at as well.

Bigelow’s critically-acclaimed endeavor into horror, “Near Dark” (1987) avoided the bombastic clichés that have come to define the genre.  I’m referring  to the breathy female, not smart enough to escape from the knife-slashing killer but also too determined not to stop running. “Near Dark” was an early showcase for actor Bill Paxton (now of “Big Love” fame) and an interesting study of a group of vampires, bound to a life in shadow and pitted against one another by selfish ambition.  The film has reached cult status and for many, Bigelow is still known as the woman that made “Near Dark.”

Her grossly underrated 2002 film, “K-19: The Widowmaker,” provided a fresh perspective on a dead genre: the submarine film.  Viewed largely as a Harrison Ford action vehicle, “K-19” provided audiences with all of the tension that accompanies men driving a tin can under the sea, whilst injecting real drama into the misadventure.  Centered upon a damaged nuclear reactor upon a Soviet submarine in the 1950s, the true incident almost brought the U.S. and Russia into WWIII.  Beneath Ford’s heavy-handed Russian accent is an expertly layered film.  Bigelow was careful to depict the reality and humanness of men under extraordinary pressure.  Even with one of Hollywood’s top stars, she moved the film to its tragic and honest end.

In hindsight, “K-19” was a warm-up exercise to Bigelow’s professional masterpiece, “The Hurt Locker.” The film has been hailed by both sides of the political aisle for its impartial storytelling of the war in Iraq. It depicts a military unit who may have the most dangerous job in the world: dismantling and disposing of insurgent bombs.  Bigelow’s gritty visual palette is aided by Barry Ackroyd’s cinematography.  Ackroyd isn’t a stranger to depicting true stories, having worked on “United 93” (2006) and the excellent Irish drama, “The Wind That Shakes the Barley” (2006).  Bigelow constantly draws amazing talent to her projects both on- and off-screen.

While she certainly isn’t the only female director making waves in contemporary cinema—Palestinian filmmaker Cherien Dabis and Sofia Coppola come to mind—you would be hard pressed to find a director, male or female, that has pushed the envelope in genre filmmaking or cinema itself as far as Kathryn Bigelow.

Keep an eye out for this one.  Two, if you can spare them.

– Jonathan Michels

Gather round me people,

there’s a story I would tell,

about a brave, young musician,

that became mad as Hell.

Everyone knows Johnny Cash for such hits as “I Walk the Line,” “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues”.  He’s famous for his live albums recorded at Folsom and San Quentin Prisons and his American Recordings under the direction of veteran producer Rick Rubin.  But how many have heard of the album that may just be Cash’s best, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian?

Author Antonino D’Ambrosio corrects this injustice by shining a burning light on Cash’s controversial attempt to bring the plight of the Native people to the forefront of the American consciousness in “A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears.”  The act of recording and releasing an album sounds mundane compared to the pleasure of listening to its music, but D’Ambrosio shows us that there was nothing simple about the release of Cash’s 1964 indictment of the white man’s treatment of Native people.  In fact, the events that led to its release stretch back decades, to a little boy in Arkansas who listened fervently to the sounds of The Carter Family and Jimmie “The Brakeman” Rogers; folk superstars to Cash who would inspire the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s led by Pete Seeger; and later, Bob Dylan.

It’s also the story of the Civil Rights Movement which provided a blueprint for the Native movement to follow.  Folksingers like Pete Seeger and Odetta led the musical march for freedom under such banners as “We Shall Overcome” and “This is Your Land.”  But along the edges of the civil rights movement, pushed to the edge of the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, was the Native movement.   D’Ambrosio juggles these overlooked and seemingly unrelated events by putting Johnny Cash and his Bitter Tears album at the center of the action.

“A Heartbeat and a Guitar” seeks to inform the reader of the courage of the Native people in their struggle for justice and the music, more specifically the stirring protest anthems of Peter La Farge, which brought much needed attention to their pursuit.  The broken treaties with the Seneca tribe and the appalling travesties of cutting off tribal reservations from government aid, also known as termination, are displayed in La Farge’s songs “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” and “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow.”  The life of Ira Hayes, a Pima Indian from Arizona who became legendary for being one of six Marines to raise the American flag at Iwo Jima and was later found dead under mysterious circumstances in a ditch, mirrors that of La Farge himself.

D’Ambrosio’s book focuses its attention on La Farge as much as it does on Johnny Cash, paying dues to one of the lost voices of the Folk Revival.  Although his identity as a pure blood Native was largely his own fabrication, La Farge was surely an outsider to the folk movement of Greenwich Village and he pushed for fringe issues like the treatment of Native people.  His pleas for justice were largely ignored by the folk community as they saw their primary battle being civil rights for blacks.   Like Ira Hayes, La Farge died young, but he died unsure why justice for people couldn’t be fought for through music and grassroots movements.

There was one musician who heard the Native people’s pleas.  He was an outsider himself, continually pigeonholed by the record industry and even his own fans.  But D’Ambrosio points out that even during the late 1950s, Cash thought of himself as a folksinger first.  Anything else—country star, rock star, crooner—came second.  Even as Cash’s addiction to amphetamines steadily increased, at one point taking as many as 100 pills per day, his steely determination to expand on his musical ability was rivaled only by his growing anger at the shameful treatment of Native tribes across the U.S.  Slowly, the Native movement was coming together to create such political action groups as the National Indian Youth Council (NIYC) and later, the American Indian Movement (AIM).  Cash befriended La Farge and the result was Bitter Tears, a collection of original La Farge ballads and a few penned by Cash himself, but all from the perspective of the American Indian.

The resulting backlash tested Cash’s nerve and would arguably shape the artist that he became from that point forward.  He not only challenged Columbia Records but also radio DJs, taking out a full-page ad in Billboard Magazine that challenged them to get some guts and play “Ira Hayes.”

“A Heartbeat and a Guitar” is a music lover’s dream.  It is a musical journey that contains in its pages a history that beats with life even as one hears the boom-chicka-boom of Cash’s guitar and the screams of the Native people, still calling for justice.

– Jonathan Michels