9. Zero Dark Thirty: The Director As Backing Singer?

A Wellington Sevens costume. Thanks, Stuff!

I didn’t much want to go to Zero Dark Thirty. I scare easily at the movies and don’t often watch war films or action films. I love thrillers though, and I’m waiting for a new thriller about the war against violence against women, an ongoing event in real time – on 14 February Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising is a turning point in that story.

But I’d followed some of the controversy about Zero Dark Thirty, read reports of what Kathryn Bigelow says about her film and watched her speak on various clips. And I’m very interested in issues around work that’s hybrid, a mix of documentary and fiction (in New Zealand, Alyx Duncan’s recent The Red House and two projects that are on their way, Leanne Pooley’s Beyond the Edge about Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest in 1953 and Gaylene Preston’s Hope and Wire series about the Christchurch earthquakes.)So when a beloved friend was willing to go to Zero Dark Thirty, someone I knew would hold my hand if I needed that, off I went.

I didn’t need my hand held. The film didn’t engage me enough on a visceral level. It’s very ‘talky’ and uses the talk  and ‘chapter headings’ to move the story along, so I kept missing bits and became confused (as did my mate). There was no point at which I cared about the central character, played by Jessica Chastain. If a man had directed Zero Dark Thirty, I’d have shrugged, enjoyed the rest of the evening on Wellington’s wild streets (it was a Rugby Sevens night and a lot of fun for an observer) and not given it another thought.

But because Kathryn Bigelow directed Zero Dark Thirty, I thought at length. Tweeted my interest in discussions and got a couple of responses. And kept thinking. I’ve come to two conclusions. One is that the film can be read as an art historically influenced statement about women and wars between religions and nation states. The other is that Kathryn Bigelow’s statement is compromised by her role as Mark Boal’s backing singer.

SPOILER ALERT! Skip to SPOILER ALERT ENDS if you haven’t seen the movie!

Women, war & art history

So what is Kathryn Bigelow saying about women and war? The film starts with voices speaking from and to individuals at the World Trade Center on 9/11. My impression was that they’re predominantly women’s voices, women calling for help and women responding to them. The lines I most remember are ‘I love you’ and something like  ‘I’m burning up’. From the predominance of women’s voices, I understood that this is a woman director’s film about (some American) women’s responses to their country’s international conflicts. And Maya (Jessica Chastain) and her colleague Jessica, a mother of three (Jennifer Ehle), provide two examples of what may happen to women who choose to involve themselves directly in the work of their country’s armed forces, unlike those of us who align ourselves with Virginia Woolf–

As a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.

In what for me were among the most effective sequences of the film, Jessica dies – as the result of her too-trusting decision to sidestep protocol – alongside another young woman, Lauren, played by New Zealand’s Lauren Shaw (also Jessica Chastain’s stunt double – two more New Zealanders were stunt co-ordinators). Together, Jessica and Lauren highlight the reality that America’s beautiful young women and mothers of young children can lose their lives because of their involvement in the American state’s conflicts. These sequences may ask if this is something that Americans want to risk and to discuss. Maya’s tears in the final frame possibly provide Kathryn Bigelow’s response: women’s active involvement in war will always end in tears.

Some visual elements in the film undermine this view, beginning with the beautifully constructed, lit and framed initial torture sequences, which reminded me of renaissance paintings. (It’s well known that Kathryn Bigelow trained as a painter and her ‘painterliness’ often shows, although there’s also some video-game-clunky footage. For example, repeated shots of two helicopters flying through the landscape compromise the tension built through stunning shots of the action inside the helicopters and the accompaning sparse dialogue and then the raid that follows their arrival.) Those first torture scenes sent me to look at some of the many paintings of the Biblical story of Judith beheading Holofernes, the general who was going to destroy her home, including a nineteenth century one by Goya, who is sometimes referred to as ‘the last of the Old Masters’, whose work Kathryn Bigelow loves. Does Zero Dark Thirty refer to the Judith story as part of an argument that women should fight in every possible way if our home(land)s are threatened? Did she intend us to think of this story, and to reinforce it through depicting Maya throughout the film as fully dressed? Desexualised, as Judith often was in early Renaissance paintings? And enigmatic?

Lucas Cranach the Elder (c 1472-1553) Judith & The Head of Holofernes c1530

This one, by painter’s daughter Artemesia Gentileschi is a little less demure. Cleavage. More action. More blood. She needed a mate to help.

Artemesia Gentileschi 1593 – c1653 Judith Beheading Holofernes 1611 or 12

Does Zero Dark Thirty‘s penultimate scene, where Maya partially unzips a body bag so we see Osama Bin Laden’s head, refer to Judith and Holofernes too?

I was also intrigued that in some scenes of the first torture sequence, the detainee was depicted in white Christ-like garments, that he was placed several times in positions reminiscent of crucifixion, was ‘entombed’, and then appeared later unmarked and co-operative, in a kind of resurrection. I’m still wondering what that was about. Were we meant to understand the detainee as a kind of saviour and Maya as his follower? This seems both a little bit too obvious and clumsy, as were the detainee’s primary torturer’s monkeys-in-a-cage alongside detainees-in-cages. Or was the resurrection scene supposed to convey that the torture did not have any lasting consequences for the detainee – he lived happily ever after, eating well and almost a friend to his primary torturer and to Maya, her head now modestly covered? Cumulatively these aspects of the detainee scenes made me wonder what we’ll see in any film now being developed in response to Zero Dark Thirty.

I don’t like writing this, but I watched Jessica Chastain because I enjoyed her beauty and the beautiful way Kathryn Bigelow frames that beauty. Not because I was caught up in Maya’s story. Not because of her performance.  And I can look at beautiful women without watching a movie. I asked myself whether Pixie Geldof would have been more interesting? What would a young Meryl Streep, or Lena Dunham, have done with the part? Or a guy? (And I remembered that I also found it very hard to relate to Jeremy Renner’s Sergeant William James in The Hurt Locker. Because these are action/war movies, does it matter if I feel nothing for the protagonists?)

I’ve just watched Jessica Chastain discussing her work and was impressed, and interested to hear her discuss the cost of revenge, how Maya became ‘erased’ in the process and Kathryn Bigelow’s skill at portraying moral ambiguity. Was I so distracted by her beauty that I missed the subtleties of her portrayal? Or was it impossible to care about a ‘hero’ who participates in torture? That unquestioning participation was far more shocking than her use of ‘mother fucker’ during a meeting, which she also discussed, at length.

I suspect that the script and genre worked against my engagement, not Jessica Chastain’s capacity as a storyteller. In such a ‘talky’ film that isn’t a documentary, and where depiction of the use of torture may have been used to add interest to an investigative process which I understand was mostly done from a desk, surely there was a place for someone to question the use of torture, or to show remorse? All it would have taken is a few lines. But the closest it came to that was when Dan, the primary torturer, decides he needs a break (I’d have liked a thoughtful film about him, played by Jason Clarke).

As well, the script didn’t attempt to explore the many conflicts Maya and Jessica might have had as women, in relation to their needs for friendship and intimacy as well as for work. There was just one interchange about this between Maya and Jessica and no reference to Jessica’s maintenance of her relationships with her children and those who were caring for them; we don’t learn that Jessica was a mother until after she dies. We often saw Maya eating at her desk and elsewhere and once she and Jessica shared a glass of wine, but the highly stressful environment was also portrayed as astonishingly sex, drug and alcohol-free. Why?

Whatever Kathryn Bigelow’s skill, because of the script and the choice of a woman protagonist who is also ‘eye candy’, is Zero Dark Thirty simply a war movie to delight male soldiers – like Captain Harry Wales and his mates – when they’re not playing video games or competing to decide who’ll be today’s ‘brew bitch’? Would Maya’s and Jessica’s stories have been better served in a novel (in the tradition of Suzanne Brockmann’s series about Navy SEALS)? As an HBO series? Or a graphic novel or animation, like Waltz With Bashir or Persepolis? Or some new kind of e-novel, with each chapter accompanied by the appropriate film chapter and some documentary extras?  Is it time that films like these, which attempt complex stories, took on some of the multi-platform options that media convergence offers to convey the complexities more fully?


Women artists as backing singers

I became interested in backing singers last year, when I interviewed Sheila Jackson Hardy about her Nice & Rough, a multi-platform project that ‘celebrates the unknown history and present-day community of black women in rock’. Later, I watched Patti Smith perform as one of Neil Young’s backing singers on Helpless, and how she took over the stage, in a rare example of a woman’s resistance to the expected behaviour of a backing singer, even though Neil Young was orchestrating her participation. And then a couple of weeks ago, when I read the new Leonard Cohen biography, Sylvie Simmons’ I’m Your Man, I watched the available YouTube videos of his performances as I read about them and concentrated on watching the backing singers. (The ones who affected me most were Perla Battalla and Julie Christensen, who accompanied him on his 1988 and 1993 tours.) And I began to wonder whether it’s useful to use ‘backing singer’ as a metaphor for women’s work across all the arts.

There are many contexts other than onstage where women become backing singers for stories by and about men and for individual men. Women writers for page or screen can easily become seduced into working as a backing singer to male traditions, consciously or unconsciously. Even when we write about women. Because that’s where the rewards are. So can women editors – as I believe happened in New Zealand’s latest substantial literary anthology (am waiting for someone else to do the numbers and to critique its gender conceptual framework, not holding my breath though); and women in powerful positions in art galleries. As Virginia Woolf (yes, I’m on a VW roll today!) wrote–

Across the broad continent of a woman’s life falls the shadow of a sword. On one side all is correct, definite, orderly; the paths are straight, the trees regular, the sun shaded; escorted by gentlemen, protected by policemen, wedded and buried by clergymen, she has only to walk demurely from cradle to grave and no one will touch a hair of her head. But on the other side all is confusion. Nothing follows a regular course. The paths wind between bogs and precipices; the trees roar and rock and fall in ruin.

If we in some way fit ourselves into a backing singer role, we’ll walk more or less demurely from cradle to grave. Move to the ‘other’ side in whatever artistic context and nothing follows a regular course. And other people will attempt, often successfully, to make us become backing singers. The other day I read two stories about producers and storytellers that illustrate this.

As a producer myself I believe that a producer functions best as a backing singer, there to support the artist and the artist’s vision. This support factor is, I believe, one reason why women often find it easier to step into a producer role than they do to take a director role; and meet with less resistance when they do so. Producers are not the people who create content; we’re content creators’ facilitators, there to ensure they get the resources they need. Like backing singers we are, or should be, right behind them. But of course that’s not always the case.

There are endless stories of conflict between directors and their producers, but those about women directors and their (male or female) producers tend to have an ‘other side’ shadow that doesn’t exist when (usually white and heterosexual) men directors are involved.

The first story shows how a woman reshaped her preferred story-telling to become a ‘backing singer’ and the direct benefits she received. It comes from Laura Beck at Jezebel, in her Where Are The Girls in Children’s Media? post:

I have a friend who’s a writer working in children’s TV. She’s constantly taking meetings and pitching stories, and she told me when she first started in the business, she pitched stories with girl leads. However, after being told to change the protagonist to a male character more than a few times — and once being told to actually turn the movie into a live action rom com for adult women!? — she now pitches almost entirely male-driven stories. And guess what? She’s selling.

The second story comes from Naomi Foner, a screenwriter who’s been a creative advisor at the Sundance Labs since 1988 and whose first feature Very Good Girls has just debuted at Sundance. The story comes from a full transcript of an extraordinary roundtable interview with John Horn of the LA Times and four other women directors from Sundance – I loved the whole thing. Naomi’s story interested me because it tells in some detail how a woman’s view of a first sexual experience was ‘deeply’ offensive to her producers and she had to take some of it out. I suspect that other women have had similar experiences, but not discussed them publicly, and will continue to have them, because of our artistic roles as backing singers for male traditions, male ways of seeing the world. Women directors’ portrayals of sex from a women’s perspective are rare. The only one I can immediately think of is in Red Road from Andrea Arnold, who like Patti Smith has been bold in stepping away from the backing singer role. Naomi says:

I have in my [coming-of-age] movie a first sexual experience. And I from the beginning wanted to do this — because it’s iconic for everybody, male and female — from the point of view of the woman to whom it was happening. Which meant immediately we weren’t looking at it from here, watching two bodies over there. I wanted to do it so we were inside her head when it was happening. And I shot and edited this whole sequence. And I showed it to the producers and the people. And they were deeply offended by it. They said that it looked aggressive. You know, ’cause it was from a point of view of somebody having sex. You see this face and—

Horn: So it was her face and her body?

Foner: No, it’s her seeing—

[Hannah] Fidell [director of A Teacher]: The viewer was being penetrated.

Horn: I see. It’s her point of view.

Foner: Yes. And it looked very aggressive. They didn’t like it. And, in fact, there was a struggle about how much of it is still in the movie. There is not as much of it in, ’cause I didn’t have the control to keep it all in.

Horn: Why did you want to shoot it that way?

Foner: Because I wanted it to be real. I wanted it to feel like what it really feels like. A woman experiencing sex is literally sort of opening herself up…You know, my movie’s a first movie. It’s far from a masterpiece. It’s a beginner’s movie in many ways. But what I’m proud of is that when we screen it for people, they have a “Oh, yeah. That’s me” kind of attachment to it, which is exactly what I was hoping for.

Fidell: Across gender lines?

Foner: No. Women.

Fidell: Oh, women. I’m sorry. Yeah.

Foner: Women. And in fact, in some ways men are, as I described to you, somewhat a little bit offended by some of it. You know, there are things about it that they’re surprised by. ‘Cause they’re not used to seeing. It’s not in any way revolutionary or radical. It’s very small and very simple. But it has — if it works at all — a certain truthfulness about the experience of being a woman. Which I collaborated on with the actresses. And that touches women watching it.

One of the great things about the critical mass of women directors at Sundance this year was that multiple and diverse stories like this one could be told – not always publicly – about attempts by ‘the producers and the people’ to step out of their own roles as backing singers and keep women writers and directors in their place as the perceived backing singers.

So what does this mean in relation to Zero Dark Thirty, where Maya might be understood as a character who starts as a backing singer and gradually moves onto the centre stage? Kathryn Bigelow has said in a New York Times interview “I just followed Mark’s brilliant screenplay”, which implies that she saw herself as a director-for-hire, the person who realised his vision (they are both also producers, with Megan Ellison). And there’s other evidence of her position being that of a backing singer.

One of my first exposures to Zero Dark Thirty was the extended Charlie Rose interview with Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal where it seemed to me that Charlie Rose and Mark Boal treated Kathryn Bigelow someone whose primary role was to make Mark Boal (and Charlie Rose) look good. Mostly, I love Charlie Rose’s interviews. But his interview about Zero Dark Thirty not so much. Charlie Rose is such a political animal that it’s perhaps understandable that he appears much more interested in Mark Boal’s investigative journalism than in Kathryn Bigelow’s work. But it was sad to hear Mark Boal interrupt Kathryn Bigelow and to see her being gracious to and generous about him and not to see him reciprocate. This Hollywood Reporter image later reinforced this ‘backing singer’ perception.

Mark Boal, posed like a patriarch, is focused on the audience. Kathryn Bigelow, one hand on her breast/heart, one hand on his shoulder, is focused on him. And leaning on him a little? Or is she reinforcing their connection, which appears to be of no concern to him, or something he takes for granted?

One of Kathryn Bigelow’s statements, as reported in an Indiewire interview, shocked me and I now question whether she works much more ‘demurely’ and follows a far more ‘regular course’ than I had understood, focusing on rewarding adventures with visual imagery. Mark Boal said “It’s a movie that you can dissect however you want, which is fair enough…but I can tell you as the author that there was no agenda here other than telling a good story and being faithful to the research.” (Did the research show that no-one at all who was involved in detainee torture questioned its use? I hope not.*) And the reporter wrote, choosing the word ‘echo’, which reinforces Kathryn Bigelow’s position as backing singer–

Bigelow echoed that stance. “It’s not a filmmaker’s position to judge,” she said. “I would never do that.”

This is what shocked me. In any work, especially in a hybrid film that uses historical events to create fiction, making judgments is an essential part of the process. It is the filmmaker’s responsibility to judge how she constructs the overall framework of the story and then to judge, again and again, what should go in each frame. What did Kathryn Bigelow mean here?

I haven’t seen all of her films, but of those I have, I’ve always thought that she considered context and structure very carefully, made considered judgments about what to show and what to leave out. I’ve enjoyed the complexity of her layering of ideas. Was she saying that, this time, she did not make judgments about a script that included no questions about the use of torture from any of its many characters? Or she did not make judgments about the use of torture? Or did she believe that the subtleties of her art historical references and the arc of Maya’s story, as understood by Jessica Chastain, somehow compensate for the script’s failure to express any explicit concern about the use of torture and her hero’s complicity in its use? Did she judge that Jessica Chastain’s tears might convey remorse (they certainly didn’t to me)? That would perhaps explain her subsequent letter to the LA Times, which argues for her right as an artist to depict whatever she chooses–

First of all: I support every American’s 1st Amendment right to create works of art and speak their conscience without government interference or harassment. As a lifelong pacifist, I support all protests against the use of torture, and, quite simply, inhumane treatment of any kind…Those of us who work in the arts know that depiction is not endorsement. If it was, no artist would be able to paint inhumane practices, no author could write about them, and no filmmaker could delve into the thorny subjects of our time…This is an important principle to stand up for, and it bears repeating. For confusing depiction with endorsement is the first step toward chilling any American artist’s ability and right to shine a light on dark deeds, especially when those deeds are cloaked in layers of secrecy and government obfuscation.

I’m Kathryn Bigelow’s backing singer on this one. Mostly. I just wish that she’d made a judgment call to step forward from behind Mark Boal’s script to use her genius with visual imagery to show us that one of the Zero Dark Thirty characters acknowledged that the use of torture is wrong.

*8 February
Lovely Melissa Dopp sent me a link to Zillah Eisenstein’s Dark, Zero-Feminism, a great read. It links to Jane Mayer’s Zero Conscience in Zero Dark Thirty, where she writes

…when the C.I.A. first subjected a detainee to incarceration in a coffin-size “confinement box,” as is shown in the movie, an F.B.I. agent present at the scene threw a fit, warned the C.I.A. contractor proposing the plan that it was illegal, counterproductive, and reprehensible.


Those women in the LA Times transcript are my hope for the future. Tracking down more about them.

I had a frustrating search for clips of Naomi Foner who wrote Running on Empty for Sidney Lumet but even though she participated in a panel about him and was named on the relevant YouTube clip, she isn’t in the clip! And I couldn’t find a trailer for Very Good Girls. But this little clip has a lovely, serendipitous, statement from Naomi Foner at the end.

And here’s Hannah Fidell and A Teacher

PS It hasn’t been a happy time, writing this. I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t also thinking through Throat of These Hours, a play I’m writing about poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) who in no way followed ‘a regular course’.

So imagine my delight when I opened some mail and found this t-shirt (crumpled because that’s how I feel at the mo) from Anne Flournoy, a ‘recovering Sundance filmmaker’ and creator of The Louise Log, a remarkable and long-running webseries. This what that Eve Ensler says about it: “The Louise Log is brave, funny, real, deep, clever, poetic and original. But mainly it is New York. Interior New York. Smart assed, paralyzing self analytical neurotic New York. Watch it.”

What a wonderful gift! Many thanks to you Anne!

Do I write these difficult posts because feeling anxious and tense is ‘the way I like it’? Putting the t-shirt on right now, to make myself think about that! And off to stake the sunflowers!

And then, @pacificraft tweeted “Chances are that you have never imagined what it would be like had Lena Dunham auditioned for Zero Dark Thirty“, and the link to Madeleine Davies’ Jezebel post This is the best Lena Dunham impersonation you will ever see, with the clip below.

Published in Wellywood Woman 5 February 2013 and updated here 5 March


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