Kathryn Bigelow, Near Dark

Various Venues

Kathryn Bigelow, who worked in the ’70s with Art & Language and collaborated with Lawrence Weiner on films and videos, was co-author and codirector of the cult biker movie The Loveless, 1982. Bigelow has reappeared as the director of a beautifully crafted feature film, Near Dark, 1987, that explores some unsettled shadows in the American consciousness. It is an astute blend of genres: a vampire horror film that condenses the nature/culture conflict of the western with the problem of the rootless body expressed in the road movie. It is bound by an atmospheric soundtrack by Tangerine Dream.

While out drinking in a bar one night, cowboy and farmer’s son Caleb (Adrian Pasdar), picks up a pale waif, Mae (Jenny Wright). Reluctantly succumbing to his amorous advances, she gives him a fatal love bite that precipitates his disorientation and his subsequent abduction by her itinerant vampire “family.” The vampiric resting place is no longer the earth-filled coffin but a series of anonymous stolen vehicles, wasteland sheds, or motel rooms. Part fascinated, part horrified by the group’s chilling violence, Caleb cannot kill, and must be sustained by the girl’s own blood as if she were a surrogate mother. He remains in this infantilized state of inaction until the encounter between vampires and his biological family (father and young sister), when he relinquishes his desire for Mae and returns to his pastoral home. He is rejoined to the land and the living by a blood transfusion from his father. The pyrotechnic showdown finally takes place after the gang kidnaps the sister to satisfy the ghoulish demands of its youngest member, whereupon Caleb rides out his horse to rescue both sister and Mae.

Its persistence in narrative over the past 150 years suggests that the vampire, as a model of the human subject, realizes a collective anxiety about life under capitalism that centers on the problems of identity and freedom. A Hegelian view might posit that the vampire represents an unresolved post-Enlightenment conflict between rationalism’s utilitarian state, which broke down traditional structures of identity and reordered society according to the spiritually vacuous demands of production and consumption, and Romanticism’s demand for individual freedom. The vampire drifts in the spatiotemporal desolation of an autonomous self whose absolute freedom, having no locus of identity or responsibility to life, can exist only in the negativity of violence.

Bigelow correctly perceives this conflict as central to the American consciousness. American utlitarinaism’s thrust toward homogeneity breeds alienation, which in turn throws up quasi-religious communities to compensate for spiritual loss. In terms of contemporary myth, Near Dark appropriately places its argument in the anonymous landscape of the Midwest and the hippie culture of the late ’60s, when the renewed demand for freedom found its destructive expression in the Charles Manson Family. Moreover, the film’s vampire leader is a veteran of the Civil War, and hence a product of America’s historically divided and alienated self. Caleb’s awakened responsibility to his endangered sister is recognition of the emptiness of freedom without the light of reason, and he finally chooses the constraints of inherited family ties.

The flaw of Near Dark’s analysis is that, like American puritanism, it locates evil in man’s nature without considering its political dimension: the possibility, as Brian De Palma’s 1983 film Body Double proposed, that evil may be an effect of capitalist institutions that claim to satisfy the desire for a whole self and yet cynically manipulate it through the illusions of a mediated reality. Near Dark, like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, can only resolve the problem of identity through identification by returning desire to the insular values of the Oedipal nuclear family, itself a construct of bourgeois capitalism and at the core of its supply and demand—the cycle of reproduction and production that feeds consumerism. Caleb’s solution is 19th-century pastoral utopianism, which is no solution at all for those of us hypnotized by the timeless vacuity of the consumer image.

Jean Fisher