The humorist Fran Lebowitz once wrote that there was no point in regarding movies as an art form - nothing shown in a place that sold popcorn could be considered art. I always think of that contradiction when I go to see a screening of a popular movie (as opposed to an established classic) at a museum. Some years ago at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I watched a rather proper crowd, used to being invited to previews of Merchant Ivory adaptations and the like, wonder why on earth they had been summoned to watch bullets and bodies flying in the Chow Yun-Fat thriller The Replacement Killers. (The museum had enthusiastically programmed Hong Kong cinema.)
So when the Museum of Modern Art in New York City hosted a preview screening of The Hurt Locker last Tuesday, some of those contradictions came into play. Some. An acclaimed film about American forces in Iraq is exactly the sort of thing that the people who are museum members in New York - largely urban, educated, affluent and politically liberal - will consider that they should see. But the work of the director Kathryn Bigelow, which is typically charged, violent and macho, is not what these culture vultures think of when they think of spending a few hours in the same building that houses Monet's delicate water lilies.
When the fellow introducing The Hurt Locker made a reference to its place in Bigelow's work, I wondered how many of my fellow New Yorkers present had ventured into the pre-Disney Times Square of 1987 to see her lyrical and horrifying vampire classic - or to the multiplex to see her delirious surfing-bank-robbers favourite Point Break.The Hurt Locker, which was written by the journalist Mark Boal who spent time as an embedded journalist in Iraq, is a series of tense set pieces following a crew of US bomb specialists during the last month of their duty. Bigelow ratchets up the tension not by assaulting the audience but by drawing out the quiet concentration of the moments in which everything could blow to smithereens. She makes it so that the smallest details - a limping cat crossing the street, the wind flurrying a pile of debris which might contain a roadside bomb - make your gut tense.
Bigelow and Boal were there to address the audience afterward and made an appearance at the following reception. Bigelow, long, lean and looking nowhere near her 57 years, and Boal, in his dressy casual suit, with expertly ruffled hair, politely answered the audience's questions, both of them emphasising that they wanted the movie to have a "reportorial" look - understandable from the screenwriter's point of view, but for the director, perhaps a way to justify the now-predictable use of shaky hand-held cameras. And while it may seem strange if you haven't seen the film, they were quite right to emphasise the "non-political" nature of the work, its interest lying rather in the ordeal of the characters.
But the question-and-answer period and the reception both seemed unnatural codas, a return to the civilised world of Manhattan museum-going culture. The real show was before, in the audience - like the sweaty, shaggy guy down at the front who whooped as if he were in an old Times Square grindhouse, or the two women in front of me who cringed in their seats (and, really, when a bomb is found hidden in the corpse of a young boy, you couldn't blame them) and kept exchanging what-are-we-doing-here? glances. Culture is rarely so nerve-racking.