Kathryn Bigelow - Blue Steel (1990) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Kathryn Bigelow – Blue Steel (1990)

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Kathryn Bigelow's first major studio film enlists Jamie Lee Curtis for Blue Steel, a film that tries to cover all the psychosexual, financial, slasher, crime, romantic, buddy-cop influences that the '80s had to spare.  Like Frankenstein's monster it means well even if its intentions get a bit muddied in the presentation.

Survival through rageAndrewCommentaryBannerKyle, this week feels like we're taking a slight step back for Kathryn Bigelow.  I think I may have been spoiled because of how many films I've watched, even in the past year, that try to put to rest the harmful gender stereotyping of slashers.  But Blue Steel fuses that with a romantic drama, business potboiler, and suspense thriller all at once, so it feels like the kind of mess I'd expect a first film to be, not a third.Kyle Commentary BannerYes. There are a couple of reasons for that I think—one very specific one I want to get to later, but then also on a more general level, which is that Bigelow plows through (and sometimes then back and through again) so many of those narrative elements you mention that it becomes difficult to root the subversive elements in a character-driven story as opposed to a device-driven one.

We get a few scenes that try to genuinely develop Jamie Lee Curtis' character—the barbecue scene where her friend introduces her to a guy, the dinner scene establishing her abusive, disapproving father—but these gradually get pushed aside to make room for more and more (and more) scenes where she's manipulated, scoffed at, etc. The movie seems intent on pushing her over the edge at times simply so we can watch it, rather than observing how she as a person reacts to the situations she's put in.All mine nowNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThat part of the film didn't bother me so much and it's where I've got to hand it to Bigelow considering the era it was filmed in.  Outside of Aliens and Terminator we didn't get that many strong action roles for women throughout the '80s.  Both of those films found grotesque ways to show their horror, so I can't quite begrudge Bigelow for going so over the top with it.  I also have to hand it to her that every time I thought I'd heard or seen too many men sticking their penises out at her that she'd find a new way to present it.

The point where it started to become a bit too over-the-top for me was not so much with the leering - which is something that Jonathan Demme would also put to great use in Silence of the Lambs a year later.  Bigelow's visuals, which use light as a weapon in a way even Near Dark couldn't accomplish, during those scenes is superb.  I loved the blue shafts of light out to obscure or block Megan's progress when she is trying to get people to listen to her.  But when Eugene Hunt (already a kind of too perfect name) has killed his third or fourth victim and despite the glaring evidence and him literally transforming into a wolf man the men around her still refuse to do anything.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryYeah it becomes a bit ridiculous. That also leads to one of the most logically baffling scenes in the entire movie, which is also one of the most thematically inconsistent: the scene where Megan goes back home with the Kurgan and sleeps with him moments after Hunt has escaped yet again.

The way the sequence is constructed, the threat level is still presented to the viewer as a (pretty obvious) raging code red. We know that Hunt is still out there just being a roving maniac, we know he knows where she lives (and found out where her family lives), and yet despite all this we get a weirdly forced scene where, both oblivious to everything that has happened before, she goes home and falls for the dickish insulting cop, because he kind of stood behind her finally (?…)ImpedimentNewer Andrew cutout commentaryIt's not so much that I need that sequence to make logical sense.  After all, the wolfman is going around firing his penis at people and bathing in what is essentially is red sexual discharge.  That stuff I really like, and in truth I still dug the hell out of this movie.

But the two stabs at romance, both with Nick and Eugene, don't work at all.  Everything else I get and I understand even if I have a hard connecting point.  After all, we're still seeing rape cases where the victim is blamed to the point of suicide and afterward way too many people are content with continuing the blame long after any victims are buried.  This point really came crashing down with the last shot of the film, after she's pushed herself to the limit and vanquished the monster, but the cops still approach her vehicle with their weapons drawn and pointed at her.

I'm just having a very difficult time parsing out the two romances from all the other very effective material.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI'm glad you pointed to the ending, which is the strongest point for me. Not only do we see the mostly faceless officer primarily in motions that jut aggressively toward her through the driver's side window of the car, but we also get no catharsis at all. The last shots aren't triumphant—they don't even offer a sense of relief. Instead we get the Curtis character as shell-shocked, silent, PTSD already setting in hard.

And then that's it. The ending doesn't seem to be particularly out of the ordinary in form—there are other, similar films that end pretty abruptly once the threat or conflict has been neutralized—but in the way it uses that standard form to deny viewers any satisfying resolution, it is more effectively subversive than a lot of the other things going on (effective as they may be).PTSDNewer Andrew cutout commentaryIn a way this is a nice continuation of the themes from the previous two films.  Megan was already born into a family life that tried to neuter her of any kind of power, and her immediate punishment after the stickup at the beginning is like when Mae wakes up from her transfusion.  What she wants to be is completely denied by ideas of what she should be - a mom, girlfriend, victim - anything but the power carrying cop that she is shown multiple times to be great at.

But I still find myself coming back to the romances and really want to get your thoughts on the two of them.  I get why the stuff with Nick doesn't work - it feels tacked on even though the sight of Megan giving her love to Nick is a good inciting point.  It's because it comes at the end of one of the shots of New York stock footage that feel like leftovers from Wall Street, almost as if someone saw a rough cut of the film and said, "Nah, people won't get that she went home.  Better get a voiceover to explain that."

But the Eugene obsession is so integral to the film, yet it doesn't work for me.  Is it because of the repetitious nature of his killing, is there something else you think went off, or do you think I'm off-base by feeling so dissatisfied with what is the focal point of the film?

Tiny Kyle CommentaryI don't think it's off-base. The repetitive and obvious nature of his escalating crime spree may be part of it, but that's also an extension of the overall way in which the character is presented. Even before he becomes, as you fittingly put it, a wolfman, we see him alternate with alarming speed and frequency between schmoozy, normal 80s rich guy and completely unhinged delusional psychotic. And while I get that it would potentially work in theory to have the audience bear witness to such a stark contrast between these two opposing states, he plays the crazy one at such a level that I couldn't buy him ever being able to act as normal as he sometimes does.

So what should come off as a jarring transition between "seemingly nice guy" and the threatening, predatory person that this façade disarms us (and Curtis) against, instead comes off as an unconvincing generic dude/cartoon madman Jekyll and Hyde situation. And we shouldn't feel in those early scenes like these are two different versions of a person—we should feel like there's one version (predator) and then the façade.

So by the time he's running (at one point literally on all fours) around the city like a trader on bath salts, there's no more genuine threat—just the cartoony one manufactured in an obviously manufactured movieverse.StabilityNewer Andrew cutout commentaryYou hit it exactly.  Bigelow's films, so far, have been effective precisely because they don't spell things out as clearly.  The earlier bloodshed has been working with similar gender analysis but has not had the case for or against so clearly laid out.  There are moments that work well, like when Eugene literally replaces his penis with the gun (something that Nic Cage may have taken inspiration from for his role in Port of Call: New Orleans).  This has a great callback at the end when Megan, wounded and with one arm, reloads and disposes of Eugene while arming it in a similar phallic position.

But the moments where it doesn't work are borderline terrible - like when Eugene is alone in his apartment yelling at the voices to be quiet.  Prior to that moment is great as he's working himself up into a libidinous frenzy by watching the news of his events.  Afterward?  Almost comic overstepping.

Going back to some of the decisions I love, and that we can tie back to Bigelow's earlier films, are the casting decisions.  Willem Dafoe, Lance Henrikson, and now Clancy Brown don't look like leading men but their unusual appearance works for the murky morality that they're working in.  Also, casting Jamie Lee Curtis was a masterstroke, working with her familiarity in navigating violent plots while simultaneously against her normal roles by letting her be more in control of the power in her life.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryThe yelling-at-voices moment is precisely the one I was thinking of—and it is hilarious.

But yes, Jamie Lee Curtis anchors the movie perfectly, and one of the ways she does that may be easy to ignore: even as things are spiraling into borderline-unbelievable nightmare and she's being continually doubted and berated by the male figures in authority positions, she manages to retain a strength over her desperation. This is not the slasher scream queen role of Halloween, where she's terrified and helpless—she may not be able to exercise the kind of control she needs or deserves over her situation, but she doesn't let that stop her. So the anger there (and pointed, focused anger rather than just knee-jerk rage) actually presents her as the strongest one of the bunch.All cocked upNewer Andrew cutout commentaryUnfortunately, I'm already tapped out when it comes to Blue Steel.  I long for the ambiguity of the previous films but there's still a strong style, interesting moral battle, and suite of compelling performances that still make this a film I'd like to revisit later.  It's got the markings of a transitional film as Bigelow entered the larger studio system.  In some cases that's great, like the stronger lighting and set work that she has access to.  In other ways the studio fingerprints are left at the wrong locations, like some of the unfortunate voice-over exposition.  The most important thing, and I think a key transition, is that she was able to make the move without losing any of her identifying traits, which will be something I'll be keeping in mind as she does her studio action film next.

Tiny Kyle CommentaryYeah I'm pretty well out of things to say too—you are correct in that it's not by any means a poor effort, just one where some louder notes ring less true than in the first two movies. I also haven't seen Point Break in a really long time, so one thing I'll definitely want to look at there is how she finds ways to make some of the more obvious studio-influenced elements you mention integrate more smoothly into the film as a whole.

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Bigelow with text

Posted by Andrew

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