The Loveless

Kathryn Bigelow’s elegant biker film that revealed Willem Dafoe.

Products of their authors’ lifelong hunger for cinema and brimming with artistic influences, first films can sometimes feel overwhelming. But from this radical desire, true emotion is often created. From experimentation – by choice or necessity – and beginners’ naivete spring stylistic and narrative inventions, that are the vitality of cinema itself.

If The Loveless bears the scars of a first film, it also shelters some of the thematic and stylistic elements that will feed American cinema from the 80’s until today .

In the late seventies, after studying painting in San Francisco and New York, Kathryn Bigelow directs a few short films and earns her film degree from Columbia University. Monty Montgomery is a young producer / director, with, in his address book, the numbers of some of the most exciting musicians of the time. In 1978, he produces Wings Of Ash, an “elaborate screen test” in his own words, for a biopic about Antonin Artaud played by Mick Jagger.

Kathryn and Monty meet on the set of Union City (Marcus Reichert), with Debbie Harry in the leading role. Kathryn Bigelow is the script girl and Monty Montgomery one of the producers. They buddy up, and decide to write their first feature together.

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Union City, Marcus Reichert (1980)

The script is first titled US17, in reference to the superhighway leading to Maine that became obsolete in the late sixties. Ghosts motels, deserted diners, gas stations gnawed by rust and dust… The disused territory, frozen in time, captures the imagination of the two authors. TheLoveless03__1426361163_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless08__1426361401_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless31__1426365433_90.221.104.129Eventually renamed The Loveless, the film tells the story of Vance (Willem Dafoe) and his gang, stranded in a small countryside town in Southern America. The young bikers escape boredom and summer heat tinkering with their bikes, downing beers and listening to rock n ‘roll. The local population becomes quickly exasperated by their presence, and the episode turns to tragedy.

TheLoveless09__1426361418_90.221.104.129TheLoveless16__1426365176_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless17__1426365205_90.221.104.129 The story, truly, is secondary. It is only the pretext for an exploration of the biker’s iconography, its flamboyance of chrome and leather, somewhere between Scorpio Rising and The Wild One. The attention to details is maniacal, from Vance’s riding boots to Sportster Debbie’s (Tina Lhotsky) platinum hairdo. Doyle Smith’s cinematography – he was assistant camera on Union City – recreates the end of the fifties with bluffing elegance.TheLoveless28__1426365364_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless30__1426365407_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless36__1426365541_90.221.104.129Contemporary film buffs sail in familiar waters: blinking neon lights in the night, close-ups of lit cigarettes… Visual fetishes found later in David Lynch’s films produced by Montgomery (Wild At Heart, Twin Peaks, Industrial Symphony …).

TheLoveless04__1426361313_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless06__1426361353_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless33__1426365487_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless41__1426366993_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless45__1426367009_90.221.104.129The silhouettes of Vance’s gang against the dusky sky, or Telena’s pixie cut and apparent fragility, resonate with Kathryn Bigelow’s work in Near Dark.TheLoveless24__1426365325_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless32__1426365464_90.221.104.129Monty Montgomery finds and buys all the bikes that appear in the film. For secondary roles: two Harley Duo Glide with a Panhead engine, and a Harley Sportster 1000 with a suicide clutch. For Vance, the gang leader, Monty finds an impeccable Harley Hydra Glide: “I think it was a 55, it was the most original motorcycle I had ever seen in my entire life. It was just completely original, there had been nothing done to it, it had very low mileage and Robert Gordon ended up buying it at the end of the movie (…) he even told me he put it in his apartment, in his living room”.*

TheLoveless_02__1426361291_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless11__1426362236_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless10__1426361437_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless19__1426365224_90.221.104.129 TheLoveless23__1426365296_90.221.104.129Willem Dafoe embodies perfectly the ambiguous eroticism of the leather biker, despite Vance being his first leading role – he was an extra on Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate for a few weeks prior to the shoot. Monty Montgomery recalls: “I called him and knew this was the guy, just from the message and his voice on the telephone“.* Ironically, the film is not verbose, and often, the young actor has only his body and his stare to fill the space.TheLoveless07b__1426361384_90.221.104.129

Tom Neal in Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer 1945. An inspiration for the diner's scenes.
Tom Neal in Detour, Edgar G. Ulmer 1945. An inspiration for the diner’s scenes.

From the strip of asphalt at the beginning of the film to the garage where Vance and his gang hang out, The Loveless portrays a fossilized world, where time goes by in slow motion. Bigelow and Montgomery said they were inspired by Once Upon A Time In The West, for the misleading languor leading to the final explosion of violence.

Monty Montgomery (left) appears briefly in the film.
Monty Montgomery (left) appears briefly in the film.

This economy of action and dialogues reinforce the importance of music, which becomes an essential component of the identity of the characters. Robert Gordon, famous rockabilly musician, is hired to play Davis, a secondary role; the directors ask him to compose the music of the film. Finally, John Lurie from The Lounge Lizards and Eddie Dixon also contribute to the soundtrack.

Tina L'Hotsky and Robert Gordon
Tina L’Hotsky and Robert Gordon
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Eddy Dixon
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John Lurie

Marked by the customary nihilism of bikers films, and completed with a discrete portrayal of America struggling to get out of racial segregation, The Loveless offers no happy ending. At the end of the movie, Vance, Davis and rest, are left with their youth to consume in the roars of engines, the heat of a flame, or the friction between the skin and leather.

TheLoveless12__1426362518_90.221.104.129TheLoveless38__1426367028_90.221.104.129TheLoveless39__1426366979_90.221.104.129

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Robert Gordon, Tina L’Hotsky and Lawrence Materese

If the film was not a financial success, The Loveless certainly allowed Kathryn Bigelow, Monty Montgomery and Willem Dafoe to start their brilliant careers. Curiously, the film was screened in double bill with Mad Max for a year in a theatre in London. For a brief moment, Vance’s dead end road crossed Max’s open road.

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Soundtrack cover
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Soundtrack Cover 2
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Robert Gordon’s “Greetings From New York City”, compilation recorded in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, released in 1992
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Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987)
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David Lynch’s Wild At Heart (1990), produced by Monty Montgomery
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Willem Dafoe as Bobby Peru in Wild At Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

*Quotes from the audio commentary on the excellent Blue Underground DVD edition of The Loveless.

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