Flickhead
DVD Review
By Richard Armstrong

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They Live By Night:

Near Dark

Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Screenplay by Eric Red and Ms. Bigelow. Cinematography by Adam Greenberg. With Adrian Pasdar, Jenny Wright, Lance Henriksen, Bill Paxton, Jenette Goldstein and Joshua Miller. 95 minutes. Available on DVD from Optimum OPTD0648/A/B (2 discs; region 2). Extras: Living in Darkness documentary, director’s commentary, poster/stills gallery, Behind the Scenes stills gallery.

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    There is a scene in the ‘horror western’ Near Dark in which a cowboy suckles blood from the wrist of a young blonde in a Texas field as oil pumps suck crude from the dusty earth around them. Since meeting this woman, this man needs blood like a baby needs milk. Bringing with her love the gift of everlasting life, Mae is his link to a world of darkness and hunger.
    Appearing in 1987, Near Dark was director Kathryn Bigelow’s breakthrough film, an atmospheric genre hybrid with a visceral punkish sensibility shot on the dirt plains outside Coolidge, Arizona and earning Bigelow a retrospective season at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. It has now appeared on DVD and the transfer is a treat. Bigelow’s rise was as startling as her decline: The Weight of Water (2000), K19: The Widowmaker (2002). Compared with the indie-friendly ‘90s, the ‘80s was an era of corporate caution in Hollywood, making Bigelow’s success all the more striking. Managing to impress Oliver Stone with her and Eric Red’s screenplay—Stone was riding high with Platoon (1986) and Wall Street (1987)—Bigelow secured a deal in which script approval came with carte blanche to direct the film herself. “This show had a lot of pizzazz to it” recalls Executive Producer Ed Feldman in this DVD’s accompanying documentary.
    One of the few women ever to direct in Hollywood, Bigelow’s has been a unique trajectory. Works like the post-feminist cop flick Blue Steel (1989) and the surfing thriller Point Break (1991), along with Bigelow’s debut, The Loveless (1981), a biker movie tribute emphasizing all the leatherwear and carnality that ‘50s movies couldn’t show, suggested a mistress of ‘low’ genres, a grindhouse sensibility usually the province of boy ‘auteurs.’ Strange Days (1995) was a millennial sci-fi drama, a big-budget project with a B-movie premise but starring A-list player Ralph Fiennes. Like Blue Steel and Near Dark, Strange Days also featured a strong heroine in Angela Bassett’s feisty black chauffeur Mace.

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Kathryn Bigelow

    In Jenny Wright’s elfin vampire Mae, Bigelow created another woman living on the edge of two worlds. But whereas Mace and Jamie Leigh Curtis’ woman cop in Blue Steel are career women negotiating the contradictions of family life, Mae falls for the cowhand Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), as if preternaturally drawn to a sweet and settled life after centuries of roaming. Meanwhile, the sounds of the night—“ennui” Bigelow calls it—and Mae’s ancient feral family haunt her. For Bigelow, the “beautiful complication” of these lives is that Caleb wants what every man wants when he loves a woman, while Mae aches to tell him about herself. On the night in which they meet on the boardwalk outside a prairie bar, her in slow motion licking an ice cream, they live out the impossibility of this liaison as over the skyline night meets day.
    Near Dark lives in this liminal space, cinematographer Adam Greenberg using those ten or so minutes at dawn and dusk that cinematographers call the ‘magic hour’ to get the effects of dying light and spreading darkness that permeate this transfer. In her commentary Bigelow relates how the actors lived in nocturnal conditions for significant parts of the shoot, blacking out their environment as Mae’s renegade family do when they flee to a holiday cabin. Bigelow is full of praise for her actors: Lance Henriksen’s ancient patriarch Jesse, cocking his head like some animal as he listens to the night. Like a Texas good ‘ol boy on amphetamines, Bill Paxton’s Severen is a diabolical fiend living on blood and viscera: “finger-lickin’ good!” Joshua Miller’s little big man Homer is an old soul in a young body, and Jenette Goldstein’s Diamondback, with her white trash peroxide hair and chorus girl corsage, resemble unearthly survivors from American frontier history. (Listen to Jesse’s Civil War backstory, rehearsed by Henriksen in the documentary!). The sense of being beyond the pale seems reinforced by Henriksen, Paxton and Goldstein’s appearance in James Cameron’s Aliens (1986), an “intact family” uniquely straddling both films.
    Although Caleb’s ‘family’ seems well-adjusted, after seeing Near Dark for the second or third time, you begin to wonder what happened to his mother. Then it dawns on you that, offering her fluid to the helpless suckling, Mae—the name seems down home, picket-fence—is the lover and the missing mother, in Freudian terms both the source of nourishment and the Oedipal love object for the young roustabout. Then you realize that Near Dark has another boundary to cross, that between boyhood and manhood. As Caleb enters the stable in which Mae awakens from deep sleep, her ‘bad blood’ drained and replaced by his father according to ancient lore, you are reminded how in dreams begin responsibilities.

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Near Dark

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