A diner stuck in the '50s becomes the hot spot for dread and dry heat as bikers and townspeople glare at one another with mutual hostility. Can these people drop the act and be honest with their rough natures, or will their desire manifest itself violently? Kathryn Bigelow examines this tension in her first film, The Loveless.
Thanks for tuning in to the first in our look at the films of Kathryn Bigelow. Kyle and I are going to do something a bit different and try more of a conversational back and forth. We encourage you to leave comments and criticisms as we go along in the project.
Starting broadly, for a first film The Loveless is really impressive—almost doubly so as this is also the screen debut for Willem Dafoe—though the film goes at a very deliberate pace, and I admit it took me the first act to really fall into rhythm with it.It's definitely a movie you could unfairly write off in the first half-hour or so. My patience was waning pretty hard toward the end of the first act, mostly because I wasn't quite sure how to take what Bigelow was doing. It vacillates back and forth a little between being flat and objective, just watching the characters (which gives them a sense of potential danger that fits with what the slicked back hair and leather jackets of the era were supposed to accomplish), and a contrasting, almost surreal level of seriousness when regarding what even in the early 80s had to be campy stereotypes.
I definitely want to touch more on the interplay between those two things, but I'm curious—what was it that caused you to fall into rhythm with it eventually? (And that's a good way of putting it I think.)It wasn't the opening tire change sequence, because those takes are painfully drawn out, to the point where I was paying attention to the soundtrack more than the visuals. This, I think, is a learning technique. She does a really good job allowing the sweaty, almost disgusting body of Dafoe lean in rhythm with the music, but the scene drags on exactly with the song instead of the image leading the music. So when he finally reaches over and molests the driver, the song was climaxing along with it.
I started feeling the rhythm in the scene almost immediately afterward, when he arrived at the diner where, again, Bigelow is using the soundtrack but in a more interesting way. In that overhead far shot, the dialogue is muted by the distance between us and the camera, as well as between Dafoe and the waitress and the other patron. It was an interesting early way to get me to focus not on the rhetorical positioning of the dialogue, but how empty the physical posturing between everyone is.
That's interesting—I think that's a technique that comes up later but almost in reverse. Once the group takes one of their motorcycles to a local garage to fix it up before getting back on the road, we get a handful of close quarters scenes over an extended period where they're just hanging around (Dafoe is off driving around with a girl he's met), and you can almost literally feel the sense of stagnation. To the point where it seems like there could be something explosive under it, but instead they all just continue to kind of "hang out" and waste away while they wait for their buddy to fix his motorcycle.
These scenes are intercut with scenes between the Dafoe character and this girl he's just met, and they're driving around out on the open road in a convertible—there's this crazy contrast between how space is being treated, but yet you don't get a sense that there's any less threat and/or emptiness with regard to whatever's going on with the Dafoe character. I think that becomes key to the lasting impression the movie leaves—how it's dedicated to stripping any romanticized notions from the archetypes and myths it's employing.That scene with the girl and the biker highlights some of that empty posturing through the dialogue, and the love/hate relationship I have with a lot of Bigelow's writing on this one. Their conversation is one of the few times where they drop their mutual acts, if only for a second, then connect in the hotel before one moment of horrifying honesty ("He didn't do to me what ain't been done 100 times before!") brings them back to their posturing.
All of the performers have this one-second delay between each of their lines, and that's also absent from the exchanges between the girl and the biker—but that delay felt less interesting coming from just about anyone else in the cast. That's partly because Dafoe would go on as one of the best actors on the screen, and the rest have a difficult time making the cliched dialogue sound both authentic and somewhat self-mocking. I like Bigelow using these exchanges to show how these affected manners projected a hostility toward people who might not otherwise feel it, but only Dafoe had the talent to pull it off. How did you fare with the dialogue?
The dialogue was one of the things that made it so hard for me to get into the movie to begin with, but it was also one of the things that left a lingering impression on me. As the movie goes on, we settle into the fact that there's no substantial plot here to speak of—basically it's just that these kids are trapped in this small town, and it turns out more threatening than they project themselves as. Eventually the combination of the slow but deliberate tone and things like the awkwardly stunted dialogue started to remind me of Twin Peaks. It's as if by the end, when we get to that sequence where the bikers return to the diner they meet up in at the beginning, and it's now been converted to a late-night strip club bathed in red light, they've gone into some bizarro otherworld where they're no longer the attention-grabbing disruptions they originally prided themselves to be.
When I looked into the co-writer/co-director, Monty Montgomery, I found that he hasn't done much, but he has done some work with David Lynch, the best highlight of which involves my favorite movie, but readers can check into that for themselves.Appropriate that you bring up the Lynch comparison, because the way that the red bathed over everything at the end felt like the color wheel accompaniment to the end of Mulholland Drive. The images that really stuck with me had the same kind of daymare, threatening quality—like the knife that one of the gang slowly cuts into the wall—that lingers just long enough to let us know what each one of them has concealed before going back to the '50s slang.
Also, I want to point out that both of us has referenced David Lynch, but The Loveless was released three years before Blue Velvet made his nightmare fascination with the '50s known. If anything The Loveless should influence Blue Velvet instead of the reverse. Why do you think we both placed Lynch's films before the film we're actually here to talk about?
That is a good point (and I wouldn't be surprised if it did influence some of his later films). I took Twin Peaks as a reference point because it seems to have the same sort of small-town menace as we see here (and in Blue Velvet, as you mentioned), and that's a series that has worked its way into contemporary consciousness on a more prominent level. It may also be that Lynch turns the volume up on these qualities a little stronger than Bigelow wants to do here, so it's an easier reference. The tone of The Loveless is difficult to firmly put my finger on.
You brought up the idea of concealment being a driving factor behind the characters, and that seems like the main concern of the film. Not only the characters, but this non-threatening town they've stumbled across also seems to be systemically concealing its own scars and secrets.That's also a good point about how Lynch turbocharged these ideas, so they weigh a lot more heavily in our memories. I also think he did it a bit more successfully, as those fleeting images in The Loveless—like the knife, or the pathetic back-alley love sessions—at times are outweighed through more overt suggestion of those problems. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than the man who drags the girl away from Dafoe and goes off to get blitzed on sauce and rant about how the gang is a bunch of Communists. I liked the overt suggestion that he's concealing his own sins by demonizing the gang, but that revelation was stunted somewhat by the scene of the girl after he hurts her in the car. After those two things it felt, once again, like Bigelow was dragging out the devolution of raving Communist man (Father? I wasn't quite clear on this point) to match the music instead of shortening the step to the violent conclusion.
When it was successful, it was lodged both in the secret sins of the town and the way they prey on each other. The striptease by one of the waitresses had the length of the dialogue exchanges, but was bathed in the red lust that no one is honest enough to admit to each other. Funny, too, that they are "Red"—literally Communist colors—when they're honest with each other's vices at night.
The Communist concerns you mention would be interesting to go back and take a second look at. I also took it that the man periodically harassing the girl Willem Dafoe meets was her father, but now I can't remember if that was explicit or if I just assumed that. There's also a disturbing element we haven't touched on yet, which is the ending. Without spoiling anything, it takes the idea of an objective gaze (like that of the camera a lot of the time), and applies it to the Dafoe character. It makes him into more of a wanderer who simply observes without interfering, but it doesn't answer why—it leaves a pretty significant impression once the credits roll.Considering the experience we've shared with Bigelow's films in the past, it's safe to say that dissatisfaction in your chosen role is a theme from the start. What's great in the case of The Loveless is that the role is that of The Villain. Had the town not been so obsessed with keeping its secrets locked down, he may have been able to settle there and get some measure of happiness. But since he's decided to play the part of the renegade, no matter how small, that's what he's stuck with.
It makes you wonder what the Dafoe character looks like updated to the early-80s contemporary America Bigelow was making the film in. It's also interesting that her protagonists were often placed in action settings later on, though after this I wonder if that was simply a more commercially viable way to tackle the sorts of themes she wanted to. She never really gave up on the strong, overarching tone guiding her movies in later years, and this idea of concealment will be a good one to come back to I'm sure as we move forward.