Kathryn Bigelow has been putting art into action films — or is it action into art films? — since she made her first student short, "The Set-Up" (1978). Although this one doesn't screen in "Kathryn Bigelow — Filmmaking at the Dark Edge of Exhilaration," the current retrospective of her work at the Harvard Film Archive, a verbal description will give you the general idea. Two guys beat the crap out of each other while voiceover narrators read texts on critical theory.
POINT BREAK: Most will remember her biggest commercial hit for its surfing, its skydiving, and its shoot-outs.
Bigelow's first feature, The Loveless (1982), combined art and action with a bit more subtlety. Co-directed by Monty Montgomery, it featured Willem Dafoe in his first film role as a mopy biker passing through a '50s hick town. With its lingering close-ups of Harleys and leather and its meandering narrative, it plays like The Wild One directed by Kenneth Anger.
Neither film could have prepared you for the originality and genius of NEAR DARK (1987; July 10 at 7 pm), which, until The Hurt Locker, was Bigelow's best film. With limpid grace she fuses at least three genres — the vampire movie, the Western, and the teenage melodrama — into a haunting, visually sublime and brutally shocking poem about America. A teenage cowpoke gets friendly with a sad blonde stranger; next morning, he's stumbling through a field, his skin on fire. He's been "turned," and the girl's "family" of revenants — who ride by night in a blacked-out Winnebago and who last changed their clothes around the time of Jesse James — reluctantly adopt him. Can he abandon his human family for eternal life with his beloved? A grotesque but exhilarating massacre in a roadhouse shows what's in store for him if he does.
The fetishism celebrated in The Loveless turns up again in BLUE STEEL (1989; July 10 at 9 pm) with the opening credits, a montage of the camera stroking a .44 magnum in extreme close-up. Instead of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry, we have Jamie Lee Curtis as rookie officer Megan Hunt, who on her first day with the NYPD blows away an armed robber. A stock trader (Ron Silver) who witnesses the shooting swipes the perp's handgun and, obsessed by Hunt and delighted with his new-found phallic symbol, goes off on a killing spree. Ridiculous, but no matter — Bigelow and Curtis created a feminist action hero clad in blue, strapped into leather, and packing heat. Oh, and wearing Keds high-tops.
Neither is narrative credibility an issue in POINT BREAK (1991; July 11 at 7 pm), Bigelow's biggest commercial hit, in which she further explores her theme of the bad and the good in the macho nature. For neophyte FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves), that would be Bodhi, the leader of a Zen-like bank-robbing crew, and Pappas (Gary Busey), Johnny's mentor in the agency. Most, though, will remember the film for its surfing, its skydiving, and its shoot-outs.
After her biggest hit came her biggest bomb, the unfairly maligned STRANGE DAYS (1995; July 12 at 7 pm). Hugely ambitious with its elements of Apocalypse (remember Y2K?) and racial strife (remember the Rodney King riots?), it had as its most lasting inspiration a system of recording and replaying individual experience called SQUID (Superconducting Quantum Interference Device). In Strange Days, these ultimate slices of life tap into a murderous narcissism reminiscent of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) — which also was received with general disdain. But unlike Powell, Bigelow has come back.
Editor's Note: In a previous version of this article, the co-director of The Loveless was incorrectly identified as Eric Red, instead of Monty Montgomery. The correction has been made above.