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.
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. Eventually 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.
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. Contemporary 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 …).
The 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. Monty 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”.*
Willem 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*Quotes from the audio commentary on the excellent Blue Underground DVD edition of The Loveless.