Thursday, January 21, 2010

In Appreciation/Defense of James Cameron

So, there seems to be some sort of Avatar backlash building on the horizon, so I thought I'd take a moment to praise James Cameron, and, to an extent, defend my viewpoint on his latest offering/career in general. Cameron is an ubiquitous enough director that anyone who reads this should have at least passing familiarity with his filmography. His films are as follows:

Avatar (2009)

Titanic (1997)

True Lies (1994)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)

The Abyss (1989)

Aliens (1986)

The Terminator (1984)

Of this list, I've seen everything but The Abyss and The Terminator. I should obviously get to viewing the latter, as I've seen all of the four-film series but the first. The former, however, seems to be lesser Cameron (pretty, technically innovative, a little bit silly), so I'm fine with having not seen it for now, though it is on my rental queue.
If I'm forced to describe James Cameron as a film-maker in exactly one word, that one word is...

Gigantic, solid brass balls.
There's no two ways around it. No other film-maker working today can come close to the sheer cinematic chutzpah that Cameron possesses. Look at his filmography: he plays almost exclusively in the science fiction sandbox; the most notoriously difficult genre to make, and even more difficulty to be taken seriously. What else do his films have in common? They're big. Hell, epic. People throw that word around like confetti, but James Cameron earns it, while almost no one else working does (I say almost, because Peter Jackson earns it when he wants to, as does Zhang Yimou).
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Cameron's films are good, regardless of actual quality, because of his cinematic daring. He's had some less-than-stellar outings (True Lies being the best evidence of this). Nor am I saying that his films are masterpieces. Indeed, Cameron's writing is hopelessly mediocre.
No, what I'm asking you to consider is his unadulterated cinematic talent. Think of his films as images. Not words. And what images he creates. Cameron is renowned for pushing the ball, technologically and visually. The Terminator, though it failed to play to wide audiences in its debut, showcased the fascinating possibilities incumbent to combining computer-generated imagery with live-action models. Aliens did so too, as well as laying the foundations for animatronics in film that Jurassic Park would so memorably capitalize on. The Abyss and Terminator 2 were some of the first films to utilize completely CG renderings: the liquid terminator from the latter film is still one of the most iconic and impressive technical achievements in recent film history.
So far, Cameron's just been warming up. Playing around. Stretching his legs. Now comes Titanic, a film for which Cameron literally reconstructed the famous ocean liner in anal-retentive detail, then proceeded to flood it, tossing stuntmen at the ocean with reckless abandon. New filming techniques were invented (most notable involving crane/tracking work), and Cameron succeeded in creating some of the most harrowing and exciting footage ever to grace the silver screen. And then, his magnum opus: Avatar. A film that took eleven years to make, Cameron's latest film redefined visual effects capabilities within the confines of dramatic storytelling. Advancements in motion-capture performance, filming digital environments, and 3-D camerawork all owe their genesis to Cameron's single-minded film-making.
One can easily break down Cameron's filmography into two groups: the fantastical and the realistic. Please note that I'm not discussing subject matter here. For instance, I would label Titanic as fantastic, whereas I would label Aliens as realistic. The difference lies in the stylistic choices, coupled with contrasting themes. Cameron's fantastical films (Avatar, Titanic, T 2, The Abyss) have a painterly quality to them, almost impressionistic. The cinematographic style lends a sense of mysticism to the work, allowing Cameron to work within one of his favorite themes: finding the surreal and mystical in the everyday world. This is most obviously manifested in Avatar, in which Cameron creates a fantastic world for his events; indeed, Avatar could also be filed under his realist category, in that it takes a realist approach to a completely fantastical environment. In these films, Cameron reminds me most of a young Jean Cocteau, a French New Wave director whose films were surreal, hypnotic even (a good example of this is his 1946 masterpiece, La Belle et la Bete). Cameron's realist perspective, owes more the Italian Neo-Realism/cinema verite movement. Aliens, despite the plot involving space marines sent to do battle with carnivorous extraterrestrials, plays like documentary footage. His edits are laser-focused, and his cinematography prioritizes function over form. Though it might be cinephile heresy to suggest this, Cameron's realist works bring to mind the filmography of famed Italian Neo-realist Vittorio De Sicca, whose Ladri di Biciclete is frequently shortlisted as one of the greatest films ever made. Indeed, all of Cameron's films are thematic cousins of the Neo-Realist movement, whose goal was to record a day in the life of a man to whom nothing ever happens. De Sicca takes liberties with this: in Ladri di Biciclete, a man is forced, by poverty and the hand of fate, to become a criminal, on the same day that he himself is victimized by crime. Almost all of Cameron's characters could be described as 'every-men'; normal people thrust into extraordinary circumstance. Sarah Connor in The Terminator; a regular woman beset by androids from the future. Ellen Ripley in Aliens; a ship-worker-cum-warrior woman. Rose Duwitt-Bukater in Titanic; rich girl who finds herself bridging a socioeconomic gap whilst dying of hypothermia. Jake Sully in Avatar; a marine who becomes the champion of an alien race. Cameron embraces Neo-Realist themes while rejecting the movement's anti-cinema aesthetic.
Now, allow me a brief tangent. King Kong. 1933. Poor acting, ridiculous script, ham-handedly directed. And routinely included in film conversation as the father of cinema as we know it today. The point of King Kong wasn't its story or its acting: the point was that someone ballsy was trying something completely new. Look at Star Wars: the plot (young man takes on a journey, learns new skills, defeats the bad guys) is as old as spoken word, but Star Wars is undeniably one of the most influential films of our time. Which brings us to Avatar. Not a very original story. Not a great script. But that's the point. As Roger Ebert pointed out in his review of Titanic, "you don't take a $200 million dollar film as your opportunity to reinvent the story-telling wheel." The point of Avatar, or many of Cameron's other films, isn't the snappy dialogue. The point is that a gutsy individual is attempting to take a step into the future of film-making. That's how the medium is advanced: a director has the courage to try something entirely new.
I admit that I might be biased in this area. Both of my earliest cinematic memories involve Cameron films (the first film I remember seeing in theaters was Titanic, and the first film I remember seeing on my own was the Alien trilogy, featuring a trifecta of talented directors: Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and David Fincher. Analyzing that series, and its stylistic changes, would make a great blog post, but I digress). Still, I can't help but notice something: the worst reviews of Avatar are coming from regular film-goers, whereas pretentious cinephiles like myself are going nuts for the film. Isn't this the inverse of the norm? Aren't regular film-goers supposed to fawn over blockbusters, while pretentious cinephiles turn up their noses and hit the arthouse theaters? What's happening? Here's my best guess: When I watch Avatar, I don't just see a movie. I see 110 years of film-makers taking one giant step forward. I see film history being made. If I'm still writing about films in fifty years, I'll look back fondly on 2009 as a year, like 1939, 1967, or 1977, in which film-making took one big step forward. And hey, I realize that I shouldn't evaluate a film based on its historical significance, but I'm only human, and I love movies more than I love most people. So seeing my favorite art medium begin a new phase of evolution in the space of a three-hour film is just about one of the most exciting, worthwhile things I can imagine. It doesn't matter that the script makes me laugh, or the acting isn't exactly masterclass: I'm watching cinema advance itself. And that's a hell of a thing to watch.


  1. "He's had some less-than-stellar outings (True Lies being the best evidence of this)."

    I was going to ask what you thought of True Lies until I saw this.

    "Rose Duwitt-Bukater in Titanic; rich girl who finds herself bridging a socioeconomic gap whilst dying of hypothermia."

    I like this sentence!

    I agree with everything you said above. Cameron may not be the best writer ever nor make the best movies ever, but he is laying the foundation for future movies. Someone has to do it, otherwise some terrific writer in the future could not create a movie using 3D motion capture technology.

  2. True story. He blazes the trail, until the techniques he uses become commonplace enough to be worked into most movies. Hell, look at T 2. If that movie didn't popularize CG in a real-world environment, I don't know what did (anyone who suggests that Tron got there first can suck it. Tron isn't CG, it's an Atari game).