The Loveless

(Kathryn Bigelow & Monty Montgomery, USA, 1981)


The fascinating career of Kathryn Bigelow began in mid 1970s conceptual art (the Art and Language group), and her work offers much rich material for the study of the “painterly image”, and indeed the entire film/painting/tableau relation. A study that might take in, amongst much else, Slightly Scarlet (1956), Routine Pleasures (1986), Andrei Tarkovsky, Jean-Luc Godard, Richard Hamilton’s paintings of stills from Douglas Sirk’s movies … In Bigelow, this is particularly so on the level of the frozen moment/temps mort, verging on the tableau, thus thickening the descriptive side of filmic narration – and producing a different duration, setting up new relations of the static image with editing, camera, movement, gesture, speech … and music. Her Near Dark (1987) remains one of the most striking genre pieces of the 1980s in its heightened, parametric use of pop music.


The Loveless (Bigelow’s very low-budget feature debut, co-made with Monty Montgomery who went on to work extensively as a producer for David Lynch and on The Portrait of a Lady [1996] – as well as making an indelible appearance as The Cowboy in Mulholland Drive [2001]), is among the richest films of that fertile period of truly independent USA cinema, when films were poised between experimentalism and fiction. It is decidedly cool and jokey, but with an authentic nihilism, and genuine work on cinematic materiality. It far surpasses all the Repo Mans (1984) and Highway 61s (1991) that came after it.


On its minimalist side, there are touches of Chantal Akerman, Jon Jost, Monte Hellman. It boasts an extraordinary concentration of elements: songs, radio and TV snippets on the soundtrack. Willem Dafoe gives a remarkable performance, completely posey and model-like, but also true and soulful, quite affecting. The film poses a Wim Wenders-like equation of narrative and death: the “last ride” is announced from the first, brief bit of voice-over narration, and it arrives, crashing, with the intercut melodrama of the finale. Up until then, The Loveless maintains an open, empty temporality. There are events with strange holes in them, such as the knife-throwing game.


The Loveless is full of elements that are effortlessly cool way before their time: an endless stream of shaggy one-liners (some of which are impenetrable in their low-life poetry); and an attitude to the biker plot that is almost flip and parodic, but never too much so. There are traces of a sordid, trashy mélo in the father-daughter story (and in the striptease scene). Not to mention the Hellmanesque solitary existentialism of the hero, his place apart from the group; or the rednecks with their absurd paranoia over “Commies”.


The influence of Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1963) is strong: the intermeshing of music with what anthropologists would call a “thick visual description” – especially in the section that concentrates on the bikes. There are wondrous framings throughout, right from the very start: the guy in the diner; the woman in the car as he approaches … And an emphasis on arcs and trajectories of people or objects moving in and out of empty frames, thereby showing, again, the influence of Wenders (especially The American Friend [1977]) via F.W. Murnau. Songs are sometimes used as ironic commentary. One that declares “my love for a young girl” is placed over the languid post-sex scene in the hotel (a somewhat Jost-ian spectacle – and one of the best in the film – with a wide angle of the threesome, and an uncharacteristically repeated shot of Dafoe contemplating himself in the mirror beforehand). But, mainly, the music tends to drift over the scenes it accompanies …


I first saw The Loveless (which has long been hard to get hold of, until a few 21st century DVD releases) in a special context: on Spanish television in 1994, in a series titled My Favourite Film, presented that night by … Guillermo Cabrera Infante! (The adjacent week, Fernando Trueba introduced The Mother and the Whore [1973].) Cabrera Infante began by declaring that he might have been expected to pick Vincente Minnelli’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1962) or Howard Hawks’ Scarface (1932) – but that The Loveless was indeed his favourite film. Delighting in its miniscule resources – “expensive, huh?” – Cabrera Infante sang the praises of its “perfect construction” and the “absolutely feminine” approach of Bigelow. It was a great moment of public turnaround from a writer/critic who had for many years extravagantly regarded cinephilia as the decidedly male exploration of an infinitely female body …

MORE Bigelow: Wild Palms, Strange Days, Point Break

© Adrian Martin March 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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