September 13, 2009

Why I don't get James Cameron

Recently, my boyfriend took it upon himself to give me an early blockbuster education of sorts, exposing me to all the big and beloved 70s, 80s and 90s movies that were integral parts of everyone's childhood except, for some reason, mine. The primary figure of study has been James Cameron. In a short period I've seen Aliens, The Abyss, The Terminator and T2 all for the first time. And what I'm about to say might prove very controversial.
I just don't get James Cameron.

I don't get why his movies are so loved - and note my word choice here - loved as opposed to just admired or widely enjoyed. I don't know why he's acclaimed so much as a director. I don't know why his films crack lists of bests along with undisputed classics. I will attempt to explain why.

First of all, while sci-fi and action are not the primary genres I'm drawn to, I have favorites in each - from Invasion of the Body Snatchers to the Bourne movies - and I'm always open to seeing these films when they're allegedly good. So this isn't a genre bias thing.

His primary motive seems to be not "I have this great story to tell," or "I have a creative vision to share with the world," but "fuck you, yes I can make this movie." I imagine that the reason he made The Abyss was that he was in a bar one day and someone mumbled something incomprehensible, at which point Cameron jumped up and yelled "Fuck you, I can too make a whole movie underwater!" and then stormed out and spent eight kerwillion dollars. This attitude seems better suited to a scientist or inventor - when I watch Cameron's films I always kind of feel like he's trying to prove things instead of entertain or inspire.

But my main problem is the technology issue. Cameron's films often seem like character and plot are secondary annoyances that are begrudgingly included. My thoughts on the frontiers of technology and cinema - and ergo, my beef with Cameron - were beautifully summed up by Andrew Tracy at Reverse Shot in his review of Public Enemies:

"As with directors of such disparate inclinations and scale as Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher, James Cameron, and Robert Zemeckis, [Michael] Mann’s films increasingly feel like vehicles for technological test-running and problem-solving—a preoccupation which is at least partially understandable, as filmmaking is a more or less ceaseless confrontation with technical decisions and challenges. However, the corresponding critical efforts to enshrine these endeavors as the most important content of the films that surround them—to pass over Benjamin Button’s inherent Gump-ishness or Che’s dramatic lifelessness or Miami Vice’s silly solemnity— willfully ignore the fundamentally mainstream (and often hopelessly vapid) tropes on which they are built. To claim that these technological adventures are broaching bold new cinematic frontiers is to pretend that these films aren’t the hobbled, intrinsically unbalanced works that they are." (You can read the whole thing

Yes. This is it exactly. I was never in the habit of "excusing" or "overlooking" elements of films, particularly the story/script. After I saw The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, I noted how the dialogue (and the over-abundance of it) made me throw up in my mouth. This seemed to be the elephant in the room that critics didn't seem to mind because the effects were amazing, the cinematography beautiful, etc. I have two problems with this. Number one is that I always hold every element accountable, unless it was a decision that the filmmaker had no control of and even objected to (i.e. Production Code censorship and story mutilation). Number two is that if an element is so bad that it is taking me out of the movie, the movie as a whole is failing. If the dialogue is distractingly bad, I cannot just "forgive" that. The same would be true if I could see the zipper on the monster costume, or there are a glut of glaring historical inaccuracies, etc.

But this trend that Tracy is observing as a result of effects advancement and the digital revolution has, in my opinion, been the mindset that gave Cameron a career. No one talks about the ludicrous storylines, the storytelling cliches, the oft-flat characters (not all of them, don't kill me), the unironic saturation of 80s and 90s-ness that makes the movies age badly. They take the technological advancements in his films as evidence that the movie as a whole is great. That's like saying that fruit tastes good just because it was grown in space without soil or water. It's impressive, sure, but the evaluation of how it tastes is (and should be) completely separate. When I saw the making-of documentary for the The Abyss, it knocked my socks off. They had done things that seemed impossible, had worked around challenges I hadn't even considered when watching it. It made me appreciate it, but just because something is technically impressive does not make it enjoyable.

I can also appreciate that he goes all the way with his ideas, but there are plenty of other examples of filmmakers who do that to a better effect. That's because their visions are more cohesive, and I'm more willing to take a wild ride on something that's not just a self-indulgent display of technology. Additionally, sometimes directors with their wings clipped produce better results, so the "go all the way" approach shouldn't necessarily be praised as the purest form of filmmaking.

Furthermore, Cameron doesn't understand that if you don't have all the resources to do something, DON'T. For me, Aliens suffered from a visible effort to conceal that they didn't have the money to do everything they wanted to do. In many shots, there's supposed to be a lot of aliens, but they shoot it tight and shaky to hide the fact that there's not. It showed. If you don't have the money or resources to show a lot of aliens, don't create several situations where there's supposed to be. I understand that you need to up the ante from the first film, but maybe focus on one big alien that would be in your budget to construct and show, or several alien babies, or a meaner alien, or hell, wait several years until you can get more money. Similarly, in The Terminator, a lot of the effects are really good, but some, like the stripped-to-metal Terminator walking through the warehouse at the end look bad. With a mix of bad and good effects, you can't write off the bad ones as "well, they didn't have the technology then." They obviously had the technology to make some things look good, but they didn't know when to stop and overstepped their bounds. I'm not arguing for Cameron to become a minimalist - he directs action blockbusters, which are over the top in their nature. I get that. But if he learned to scale back in the right places, he could offer a tighter product that doesn't have spots which scream AND THIS IS WHERE WE RAN OUT OF MONEY AND/OR STAN WINSTON COULDN'T FIGURE IT OUT.

I think Cameron's bombastic audaciousness might have overtaken him to a point where it could be damaging. His new film, Avatar, comes out this December, and his method of creating hype is one of the most phenomenally stupid and self-defeating campaigns I've ever seen. He's spreading the word that the effects are so incredible and revolutionary that they can cure cancer and AIDS while raping your mind and changing your life. Usually, the biggest claim a blockbuster will make is "the best thrill ride of the summer" or something. That's very reasonable. It's not too outrageous to award that title to a movie. But what Cameron has created here is a situation where the movie cannot actually exceed expectations. It will either meet them, or, more likely, be lower. This very well could be a mind-blowing film, but the way Cameron has set it up will probably make it a disappointment. Already many critics and audience members at preview screenings are saying that the footage doesn't live up to this insane hype. Furthermore, it seems Cameron is under the impression that the entire world is waiting for this movie with bated breath - whereas in reality, no one outside of the film geek world knows about it. The trailer has only just debuted, and while "Avatar Day" - a worldwide screening of a 16-minute trailer - played to packed audiences, the verdict was very mixed. So to recap, virtually no one knows, and those that do know have expectations that are almost impossible to meet. What hath Cameron wrought? Is he actively trying to lose a lot of money?

If Avatar fails, that might dismantle the mighty Cameron, or at least put his ego in check and cause him to reevaluate his strategy. (Already he's dialing back the hype a bit - maybe he's catching on.) He's allegedly said before that he'd like to try his hand at an intimate drama - and I'd be interested to see what a James Cameron movie looks like without all the special effects and flash. Would there be anything left?


Scott Nye said...

Well, to be fair, Cameron's films have entertained millions of people, so I find it hard to believe that his motivations are purely scientific.

Also, he came up with the idea for The Abyss in the 70s, well before his filmmaking career was underway, which at the very least demonstrates that he was willing to write a story without the faintest idea how it could ever be done.

Same for Avatar, actually - I think he came up with it in the early-to-mid-90s but it wasn't until the last decade that he even figured out how to do it. While he may push cinematic technology beyond its breaking point (and it's true, the effects don't tend to hold up, but only as a result of him absolutely going for broke, which to me anyway is admirable in any aspect of filmmaking), he also knows when he just doesn't have the goods (see also his abandoned Spider-Man film).

I really don't think people are interested in Cameron for his effects work, though. I know I'm not. Like we both said, it ages poorly. What draws me to his work is his unparalleled skill at narrative; his ability to constantly raise the stakes, keeping his characters (and the audience) off balance, typically through indifferent, oppressive environment (Titanic, The Abyss) or unrelenting evil (the Terminator films, Aliens).

If that sounds simplistic, or not worthy of praise, think about The Dark Knight and you'll see that some cheap philosophy (something else Cameron is quite familiar with) and a propulsive narrative (driven by unrelenting evil) are all that Nolan's film relies on. Sure, he manages to get a little bit of good character work in from Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart, but give me Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio in The Abyss, one of cinema's most romantic married couples, any day. While his character work can read as cliche, in that film at least, I saw a real, brutal honesty between two characters who know everything about each other, alternately loving them for that and in spite of it. And how often does honesty, especially emotional honesty, in real life come out in cliches? Constantly, I'd argue.

DGB said...

Any guy that pushes the boundaries of technology in each and every narrative film he does is okay by me. Yeah, his stories aren't the deepest, but I would watch the Abyss over Transformers every time.

Plus I have heard, from those who have seen the 3-D footage, that it's truly astounding. It may not be astounding in the way audiences are expecting, but what he is doing with the technology I hear is impressive.