An exploration of how 1991’s Point Break and Terminator 2 are linked not only by their respective filmmakers, Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron, but also seemingly by the canals, creeks & channels of the connecting Los Angeles River. This is a transcript of a video originally uploaded to YouTube on 13th July 2021 which can be found below:
Flowing southwards from the rocky Simi Hills and the Santa Susana Mountains, the LA River cuts through the city of Los Angeles for almost 50 miles before leaving land at Long Beach. Here is where it meets the Pacific Ocean. Smaller aqueducts, creeks and channels flow into the larger LA River, with many being built around the same time with the same material. It’s that distinctly coloured concrete that seems to be an unremarkable mix of beige, white and grey all at the same time. The river has become a memorable, if momentary setting for countless Hollywood movies. When the sun shines on its concrete banks, you can almost feel the heat reflected through the screen and hear vague echoes of old celluloid ghosts underneath the late Sixth Street Bridge. These waterways have become synonymous with LA and the films set here, and in the Autumn of 1990, two big budget productions would begin their principal photography here, both gearing up for a summer ’91 release. Two films, each one directed by one half of a married couple, who’s movies would release within 10 days of each other and go on to have an impact on action-movie cinema for years to come. It’s their complicated personal and professional relationship, alongside each individual’s own films where this story begins. A story about the city and its river, about its directors and its stars.
WARNING: The following contains SPOILERS for the movie.
It’s 1990 and Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron have been married for a year. Bigelow is coming off of Near Dark and Blue Steel, both films favourable with critics but underperforming at the box office. Cameron’s last release was the financially successful The Abyss, which had broken new ground with its computer generated imagery. In the Autumn, principal photography would start on both their own respective films. Bigelow is set to direct Point Break, an action crime film staring Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze and Cameron will shoot Terminator 2, the sequel to his 1984 sci-fi horror The Terminator.
Both productions will shoot in Los Angeles, the backdrop of the city playing a significant part of each film’s overall mood. Now LA is a kinda weird place. It’s a place that is both like nowhere else in the US and like everywhere else in the US. It contains nearly all America’s associated geographies — teeming motorways, beautiful beaches, a downtown urban metropolis spiked with skyscrapers and mundane middle-class suburbia. Its absence of a notable or definitive aesthetic, has over time, become its aesthetic. Watching a motion picture set in the city feels both a once familiar and alien. Through its appearances in movies, television and video games, LA makes itself feel as if there is nowhere else in the world quite like it. “Los Angeles is the place where the relation between reality and representation gets muddled” says Thom Andersen. His seminal near 3-hour documentary, “Los Angeles Plays Itself” goes into much greater detail about the city, its growth parallel to the film industry, also known as Hollywood, and its presentation therein. This video will not investigate the city itself, for that I strongly encourage you to check out Andersons film, but will we continue to explore ideas orbiting representation. Sarah Morris’s intricately crafted 2004 video piece “Los Angeles” plays on this praxis. A beautifully composed piece, set to a score by Liam Gillick, it explores both the exterior of the city; locations, cars, people — and its interiors; the movie making slash money making business, specifically the Academy Awards ceremony. A chance for us normal folk to see our favourite actors “play themselves”.
For me, the very idea of a city like Los Angeles feels strange. The city has no real centre and was constructed primarily around the idea of the automobile, which is what makes it such a great setting for car chases. Scenes can go from downtown, to the river, to the suburbs, to the beachfront in no time. In somewhere like New York City for instance, it can take an entire movie just to get out of the city, as it does for The Warriors. So this quick shifting of geographies in LA feels infinitely weird to someone like myself coming from a city like London. Los Angeles has on many instances doubled for other cities, London much less so. The British capital has on rare occasions stood in for New York (Eyes Wide Shut), Berlin (Spiderman), Moscow (Goldeneye), Shanghai (Skyfall), Madrid (Muppets most wanted) and even fictional locales like Batman’s Gotham, the distant planet Xander (Guardians of the Galaxy) and a rebel base (Star Wars) — but I can’t find an example of London doubling for LA. That particular quality of America’s second largest city, is seemingly hard to recreate. The closest location that captures not just the flat south-facing sprawl of LA but also its aura, would be Old Kent Road in South London. Part of the A2 which runs from Borough to Dover, the Old Kent Road possesses a feel like no other major thoroughfare in the city. A busy dual-carriageway lined with enormous versions of regular sized stores, drive-throughs, a 24 hour supermarket, car parks and a flyover, the breadth and flatness of it all emotes something extremely “LA”. You could imagine a car chase similar to those in Terminator 2 and Point Break taking place here. The road is also home to some great places of interests, such as the North Peckham Civic Centre, a municipal development built in 1966 that hosted pantomimes, comedy, music and also functioned as a social centre. The building wrapped in a Grade-2 listed mural by Polish artist Adam Kossowski which illustrates the history of Old Kent Road from Roman Britain to the Pearly Kings and Queens of the 1960s. Further down the road lives the Hellraiser bus stop, a rumoured portal to hell due to the multiple VHS copies of the 1987 movie Hellraiser mysteriously appearing upon its roof. But these stories can wait for another time, in another video, back to Point Break.
By 1990 Keanu Reeves was establishing himself as popular comedy actor and was widely known for playing Ted Logan in the hugely successful Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Patrick Swayze was already a household name due to his roles in the romantic dramas Ghost and Dirty Dancing and was trying to break into action movies. W. Peter Ilife wrote a screenplay based on an original story idea by Rick King about an FBI agent working undercover as a surfer, and then sold the script to Colombia pictures in 1986. Colombia had originally proposed Ridley Scott to direct, but plans fell through and the production was put on hold. 4 years later, Kathryn Bigelow was attached to the project. She had married James Cameron in 1989, and the two undertook extensive rewrites of Point Break together. Cameron done such a considerable amount of work on the screenplay that he received an executive producer credit. Keanu and Swayze, who had already worked alongside one another in the 1986 sports drama Youngblood, joined the project as Johnny Utah and Bodhi respectively and production started under 20th Century Fox with a scheduled summer 1991 release date. “Bigelow’s casting and direction of Reeves and Swayze prompts a degree of meta cinematic reflection that her cinematography encourages further.” says Caetlin Benson-Allott in her essay Undoing Violence: Politics, Genre, and Duration in Kathryn Bigelow’s Cinema. This is in reference to the two male leads whom at the time could’ve possibly seemed “soft”, especially in comparison to their action hero contemporaries like Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. “Point Break slows down and speeds through the usual action set pieces to invite viewers to think about genre conventions and their typical masculine focus on the individual”. Slowing down time is something the film repeatedly plays with, giving us time to absorb some of the awful beauty of violence, and also to focus upon the male physique.
When we first see Tyler, played by the excellently cast Lori Petty, she’s diving under the waves saving Utah from drowning. Backlit from the afternoon sun at its zenith reflecting off the water, it’s hard to even tell her silhouette apart from his. Her wetsuit gives nothing away making it hard for us to initially determine if she’s a woman or a man. From Utahs point of view, and in turn ours, we witness how good a surfer she actually is. We’re also invited to voyeuristically watch Tyler change out of her wetsuit, an acknowledgment towards the stereotypical male gaze we so often watch action movies through, a balance that I feel Bigelow was trying to upset with the movie.
Now this isn’t a review of Point Break, there’re plenty of other videos online doing a really good job covering that, so I’m going to assume that you’ve seen the movie or roughly know that Utah is an undercover agent infiltrating a group of bank robbing surfers of whom Bodhi is the leader. Utah, an FBI agent who represents and aligns himself with more rigid conservative values, is being lured into a weird, new hedonistic world through Bodhi, a humanistic surfer who’s spiritualism, for Utah, represents danger, radicalism and to an extent — excitement. Benson-Allott goes on to say that “Utah and Bodhi find themselves drawn into a violent homoerotic flirtation that raises questions about sexual normatively and the social order Utah represents.” Utah’s never met dudes quite like this, and most certainly not at the FBI academy.
Ronald Reagan, who’s presidential term had finished just two years previously, is the mask of choice for Bodhi, his own personal politics possibly the furthest from Reagans ironically. There’s a great chase scene about halfway into the movie where with this mask on, Bodhi is chased by Utah through what feels like a tour of typical Los Angeles. We start at a busy intersection before a car chase ensues through a shopping mall parking lot and into a gas station. Then on foot, we go from the busy city streets into small alleyways and what appears to be residential back gardens. Only in LA could we jump from a built up urban area to the suburbs in seconds. Reaganism literally running amok in peoples homes. The lack of any topological verticality here feels distinctly LA, very different to how chase scenes are presented other big US cities like New York or San Fransisco. Of note here is that Patrick Swayze was actually not available to shoot this scene, he was away in Europe doing promotional work for Ghost which had just been released there. His stunt double was used for the entire sequence, Johnny Utah chasing a “ghost”.
Their chase ends in one of LA’s most famous locales, the LA river. In actuality this was Ballona Creek which flows into the Santa Monica Bay, but to an outsider, the many aqueducts of LA are frequently misinterpreted as the LA River, the largest and most well known of all waterways in Los Angeles. The river has featured in over 30 movies, most prominently appearing in Grease, Repo Man, Drive, Last Action Hero, To Live and Die in LA, and as the focal storyline in Chinatown. Versions of it appear in video games such as GTA V and San Andreas, Cyberpunk, Split Second and possibly its best representation in the skateboarding game Thrasher. And in this creek is where we find Terminator 2, because as Bigelow was shooting her movie here, her husband was starting production on his own film just uptown a few miles north. And it’s here that both individuals in this marriage start to run into trouble, their respective shoots going smoothly, their relationship not so much…
After working with James Cameron on the original 1984 Terminator movie and Kathryn Bigelow on her 1987 vampire film Near Dark, cinematographer Adam Greenberg was back working on T2 after coming off of Ghost a year prior. His dramatic shades of blue which were used to convey any faint element of illumination at night, were pushed to their extremes in the colour palette of Terminator 2. A cold chrome blue overflows into every scene, so boundless that even interiors can’t escape. Even on the poster Arnie is highlighted in a blue moonlit glow. Almost the entire first hour of the film is blue, even scenes set during the day are heavy on the hues. Though the new 4k remaster does slightly edge towards teal at some points, it seems that no matter what version of the film you watch, the blue is always there, omnipresent, leaking from the screen right into the world, into your room. I’ve aways wondered if Greenberg was ever privy to any insider knowledge on set in regards to Cameron and Bigelow’s relationship. At this point you see, rumours were flying of an on-set romance between Cameron and his main lead in the movie, Linda Hamilton. Things would come to a head just weeks after the release of Terminator 2 and Point Break, which launched within 9 days of each other in the summer of 1991, both halves of the couple’s productions fighting for the top spot at the box office.
It’s Wednesday July 3rd and Terminator 2, at that point the most expensive film ever made, has just been released. It immediately opens at number 1 at the box office drawing big money. The following week Point Break is released on Friday July 12th. It opens at number 4, T2 still holding the top spot. Cameron and Bigelow’s films are competing with one another whilst rumours of turmoil within their marriage are ongoing. Just a week after Point Break’s release, Keanu’s other big summer movie, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey opened at number 2, pushing Point Break down to 7th place. By August 4th, Bigelow’s film had dropped out of the top 10 whilst her husband’s was still raking it in at number 2. Cameron’s film stays in the top 10 all the way until end of August, eventually taking over half a billion dollars internationally. Point Break, whilst still financially successful, takes a much less impressive 83 million. The battle for the big summer blockbuster hit, fought by two filmmakers whom were romantically involved, ended with Terminator 2 taking the lead for the majority of the summer, effectively keeping Point Break off the top spot.
Then just weeks later, Cameron and Bigelow amicably divorced. They agreed to stay silent on the matter and have not publicly spoken about the end of their marriage since.
In his book What Do Pictures Want?, professor W. J. T. Mitchell argues that Terminator 2 is the first in series of 90s releases that inhabit the space between the old world; the bio-mechanical, and the new; the cybernetic. The T100 is a traditional robot made of cogs, gears and pistons driven by a computer brain. The T1000 on the other hand is something new, a living metal shapeshifting chimera that is a universal mimic. It’s much harder for us to determine what the T1000 actually is and how it works. The two lead Terminators feel like articulations of the shift from an analog world to a digital one, just like how the film itself is famous for its use of pioneering “digital effects” instead of a reliance on older, more conventional special effects. And it was these effects that help propel the film to being the biggest hit of summer 1991.
In the early 90s, the action movie genre as a whole was morphing into something new. In the last video, we spoke about how American action cinema of this period was having a bit of an identity issue, Last Action Hero unsuccessfully tried to tackle this dilemma via post-modern self-reflection, producing a film that wavers between parody and pastiche, ultimately becoming the very thing it was trying to satirise. T2 and Point Break are signifiers of where the action genre was heading. T2 illustrated and cemented the use of computer generated imagery in action movies whilst Point Break showed us that our male heroes needn’t be muscled up no-nonsense violent meatheads but can be vulnerable, compassionate and possibly even queer. It feels as if these two movies both mark the end of older conventions in Hollywood cinema, and the beginning of something new.
Both films also share the Los Angeles setting but with a focus on different districts and venues. Point Break’s LA features sunny ocean bays, an FBI academy, parking lots and endless suburban corridors, whilst T2’s LA is full of busy quadruple-carriageways, bland municipal properties, shopping malls and inner city industry, all bathed in that crisp night time blue. One place they do share however, is the LA River.
To anyone not living in LA, the river and it’s aqueducts seem to behold an almost dreamlike quality. A network of identical looking channels that in movies are almost always dry and desolate, ready for a high speed car chase. Originally a free flowing natural river, the man-made elements and it’s associated waterways were constructed after a series of floods and were completed in the late 1930s. The myriad of different canals and creeks flowing in and out of the larger LA river seem almost endless and repeating in their bland uniformity, I feel that this is what gives them the feeling of belonging to a reverie as opposed to reality. This is what also makes the river feel more akin to a fantasy setting, like a video game [GTA walking], as opposed to an actual real life location. It’s seemingly forever iterative nature, a distinct lack of idiosyncrasy which is home to a strictly limited amount of assets, seems to allow one to apparently loop forever and ever.
Both films’ chase sequence come to abrupt end here, Johnny Utah re-injuring his leg as he stumbles to the floor, looking over water at his target, whilst on his bike, the T100 looks through fire at his. Whilst both locations look similar, T2 was actually shot about 20 miles north in Bull Creek. The entire chase scene was shot over 10 miles of the creek, itself flowing into the LA River at the Sepulveda Basin. The famous jump sequence was a totally different location in Sun Valley, shot at the meeting of the Hansen Heights Channel and LA Tuna Canyon Lateral, coming together to form the Burbank Western Channel. This is exemplary of how the different sections of the network can be conveyed to an outsider and read as one instead of many different rivers.
The concrete estuary, which snakes through the city, has always looked like some kind of post apocalyptic wasteland, created by a distant civilisation and subsequently forgotten about. Everything seems so oversized and dead, like a gutter for a long extinct society of giants. With the way the canal is captured in T2, littered with burnt out relics from a lost past, it would not feel out of sync in the post-Judgment Day opening setting of 2029. A little research into the history of the river reveals that since the city took control, years after the filming of T2, the canals have been well-maintained and preserved. Clean and devoid of character. The perfect environment for a filmmaker to project their hopes and fears, their ambitions and anxieties.
In 1997, James Cameron married Terminator lead Linda Hamilton. Their marriage lasted just two short years and produced a daughter. Kathryn Bigelow has gone on to have a great career compiled of contradictions. Her movies following Point Break, Strange Days and K-19: The Widowmaker were both big budget productions distributed by 20th Century Fox and Paramount, yet both totally flopped at the box office, whist her 2008 film The Hurt Locker, a modest independent production, was a huge critical and financial success, winning her Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director.
When asked about the rumours that surrounded Cameron and Hamilton during the production of Terminator 2 and if they started dating then, essentially initiating an affair, Cameron has said: “Oh no, obviously not. We got involved right after, but, you know, dating an actor during filming is a rule I will never break — well, I’m happily married now and I’m going to be for the rest of my life. But that’s a rule you can’t break as a director…”
The lasting effect of filming down in the hard concrete bed of the river, in the early evening just before the sun sets, the sky turning pink, red and purple, when you can still feel the last warmth of summer cruising on the wind and a choir of cicadas chirp into the hot air, there was certainly some romance there. Maybe Cameron just fell in love with a character he created 7 years prior, some who’s life was strictly limited to the pages of script, to the grain of celluloid, to the pixels of a screen, someone who just wasn’t there.
I like to think there’s an alternate movie universe where in October of 1990, John Conner and the Terminator manage to catch up to Johnny Utah who’s still writhing in pain, unable to walk. They help him up and continue through the creek, all the way down to the Pacific ocean. Much like a marriage, the LA River provides an assurance from the forces of the untameable world, a space were something wild can be controlled, the river still following its centuries old route yet now tempered by human engineering. It’s also a place where something magical can happen, a blank in which to cast upon. A car chase, a shoot out, a fight scene, a shuttle landing, or even a roller skate jump. A site that is at once familiar yet alien, adhering to nature’s chaotic map whilst simultaneously stuck in a formal rigidity. Dull yet compelling. Indistinctly monotonous, and extraordinarily dreamlike.
The full video version of this text can be found here.
Undoing Violence: Politics, Genre and Duration in Kathryn Bigelow’s Cinema — Caetlin Benson-Allott, Film Quarterly, Vol. 64, №2 (2010)
James Cameron: ‘The Downside of Being Attracted to Independent Women is That They Don’t Need You’ — Hadley Freeman, The Guardian (2017)
What Do Pictures Want? — W. J. T. Mitchell (2005)
Ballona Creek — Film Oblivion (2019)
Location, Location, Location? #9 — Beyond the Marquee (2013)