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Kathryn Bigelow: The Art of Darkness (Time Cover Feature)

To understand the controversy around Kathryn Bigelow’s hit film Zero Dark Thirty, it helps to understand Kathryn Bigelow’s kind of movie.

In the late 1970s, the young artist Kathryn Bigelow had a thought-provoking conversation with a friend of a friend by the name of Andy Warhol. “Andy was saying that film is way more populist than art — that art’s very elitist, so you exclude a large audience,” she recalls. Around the same time, she visited the Museum of Modern Art, paying special attention to Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition: White on White and Piet Mondrian’s color-block grids. “I remember thinking, The audience for this is very specific,” Bigelow says over lunch in her hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton Central Park, not far from the museum. “A Malevich or a Mondrian requires that you come to it with a certain amount of information, a context. And you don’t necessarily need that with film. A movie is accessible, available. That was exciting to me from a political standpoint.”

She emphasizes the word political, lingering over it for a moment. Bigelow’s film The Hurt Locker (2009), which logs 38 days with a bomb-disposal unit in Baghdad, was widely perceived as taking a neutral or apolitical stance on its subject matter — if such a stance is possible when the subject matter is the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It won nearly universal praise as well as the Academy Award for Best Picture. Bigelow’s follow-up, her second collaboration with screenwriter and journalist Mark Boal, was originally planned as a feature about special forces hunting Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2001. Boal was deep into his screenplay when news broke of the SEAL Team 6 operation that killed bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Almost immediately, he and Bigelow switched gears, instead mounting a chronicle of the 10-year hunt for the al-Qaeda leader.

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