Film: Zero Dark Thirty
When: Saturday, January 12, 6:30pm (opening weekend)
Where: The Rave, University City
I saw this movie at the The Rave, formerly called the Bridge. Despite its proximity to where I live, I’ve gone to this theater only a handful of times since freshman year because it focuses almost exclusively on high-budget Hollywood films that I’m not dying to see. When I go, I’m always quite surprised that I have found myself outside of the Penn bubble, even though geographically the theater seems like a natural extension of campus. Apart from the identifiably Penn people, the audience is usually on the younger side (teenagers), often in families, and often black. Based on the theater’s movie selections—lots of kid flicks, 3D, and action movies— it seems like The Rave is geared more towards appealing to the residents of West Philly neighborhoods than to Penn students. However, at this screening, I felt that the audience was decidedly Penn-affiliated. I’m around Penn undergraduates and graduate students enough to feel confident in categorizing the spectators as mostly white and Asian Penn students. Many of them were in packs of five to eight people, which pointed to the sense of excitement about the release of this film: it was an outing, a field trip that people planned in advance with many of their friends, not just an everyday screening. There were some middle to elderly white bourgeois-looking people. There were two groups of Muslims—women dressed in head scarves. I wondered about their interest in the film, and wished I could hear their perspectives when this super American movie was over. There were almost no black or Latino people in the audience, and no one under college-age or much older than fifty.
The mood was bustling and buzzing. My friend and I bought our ten-dollar tickets online, so we bypassed the lobby scene and claimed our seats in the already half-full theater. We arrived thirty minutes prior to screening, which I consider extra early, so I was pleased when our embarrassing eagerness to get good seats was rewarded. They really pushed the food there. There was not only a stand of popcorn and other popular consumables at the front of the theater, but attendants were taking orders and serving food to people in their seats. They made an announcement telling hungry audience members to raise their hands so attendants could come take their orders. I’ve never seen that service offered before, and I was impressed by the efficiency with which the couple next to us ordered and got their Styrofoam boxes full of chicken tenders and fries delivered. I was definitely a little pissed at the prospect of smelling fried food and sweet ketchup while watching my movie, but I knew that my olfactory nerves would stop signaling shortly, and the festive feeling of the screening soothed my usual extreme annoyance at people eating in theaters. I mean seriously though. Do you absolutely have to have a full meal in the theater? Isn’t it complete sensory overload to be blasted by light, color, sound, movement, and saltiness, sugariness, and crunchiness. It’s just excessive.
The audience interacted quite palpably with the film. People were engaged. They jumped when they were supposed to—the Marriott explosion that happens when Maya is mid-sentence got an especially strong response—and created few in-movie disruptions, probably because it was such a gripping experience. Even the not-that-late-comers who were relegated to the breakneck seats in this packed screening stayed for the whole duration. If even a single person left the theater early, I didn’t notice. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable with the reactions of people around me to what was happening on screen. For example, some people nearby giggled when one of the SEALs calls out, “Osama…Osama,” just moments before bin Laden cracks his bedroom door open and is shot dead. It was inappropriate in my mind, especially after everything leading up to that point—torture, suicide bombs, heartbreak. I really couldn’t understand how that scene could be perceived as funny.
Maya is a mystery. In some ways, she reminded me of the topic of knowability that we discussed at the beginning of this semester in relation to the femme fatale and Bound. It’s interesting to consider what Maya, a figure who bears little relation to the femme fatale, has in common with that Hollywood archetype. Maya’s background remains almost completely hidden. From dialogue we gather that she was scouted at a young age for the C.I.A., but Maya’s brilliance is on display the entire film, which makes that an unnecessary detail about her past. In terms of her social life, we know nothing of her family, her non-work friends, or her romantic involvements. We don’t know where she grew up, what her hobbies are (does she have any?), or what her long-term goals are. Perhaps most interesting is that the film withholds a psychological explanation for her intense drive and interest in the very field in which she is a master. Certainly we see her ruthlessness and sense of commitment to finding Bin Laden increase after the deaths of her colleagues—before that, she acts on the values of someone who hasn’t been personally wronged, and is even somewhat repelled by torture—but apart from that propelling even more intensity in the second part of the film, Maya’s motives and interiority remains fairly unknowable. She is a straightforward person, but her emotional landscape and deepest desires remain off-limits, even as viewers come to identify with and admire her.
Chris Straayer argues that the classic Hollywood femme fatale is an enigma who is intended to elude both diegetic characters and spectators (156). She is greedy, crazy, duplicitous, untrustworthy, and, most importantly, unexplainable (158). Maya does not exhibit very much in common with the femme fatale. She dresses in an aggressively modest and business appropriate way that conceals her body, works for one very public (though covert) cause, and does not use her sexuality for advancement. But her desires beyond finding and killing Osama bin Laden remain concealed. What is she trying to do with her life? And why? Where the unknowability of the femme fatale made her dangerous and suspect, Maya’s unknowability seems only to enhance her image as one of pure strength and intelligence. Without access to her vulnerabilities and such, viewers only see her in a working context, and her unknowability seems like a natural trait because good investigators and agents are anonymous.
I wonder what this shift in the meanings of knowabillity and unknowability says about Hollywood ideology. As Susan Hayward notes, “while ideology is dominant (and despite its ‘naturalness’) it is also contradictory, therefore fragmented, inconsistent and incoherent. Moreover it is constantly being challenged by resistances from those it purports to govern…” (216). What does the unknowability of the main female character and hero of Zero Dark Thirty say about our moment? Bigelow, like Maya, is difficult to puzzle out, especially because she evades questions about feminism in her work. Of course art always exceeds the artist’s intentions and cannot account for everything, but I am very curious to know more about Bigelow’s politics and views on depictions of mysterious women throughout film history.
Hayward, Susan. Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2006.
Straayer, Chris. “Femme Fatale or Lesbian Femme: Bound in Sexual Difference.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. Ann Kaplan. 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 1998. 153-61.