Friday, 6 November 2009

Man of Extremes

The New Yorker had a great, meaty profile of James Cameron that I have been waiting for a week or two to dig into. Luckily the train journey to Manchester gave me the opportunity.

I love Cameron's work. Along with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, I consider him the best mainstream Hollywood director working. I would get excited if any of these guys filmed the phone book - and even their misfires have moments of genius in them (though I admit, with Hook, you may have to look hard for that).

Cameron makes action movies for 13 year old boys that manage to speak to a vastly bigger audience. No other action director, apart perhaps from Howard Hawks (and lumping them together as action directors would probably have cineastes burning me in effigy) has become so singularly identified with the vision of an active heroine. His women aren't all first act bluster only to fall by the way side narratively in the third act. If anything, he works in reverse, allowing his female heroes to grow in stature as the film progresses until they become truly awesome icons. Sarah Connor, Ellen Ripley and Rose DuWitt-Bukater (and yes I did know how to spell that without looking it up so STFU) are grand, romantic, maternal visions of power, so much more vital and interesting then the penises that surround them.

Of course he isn't perfect. He seemed to go through a period in the late eighties/early nineties where his own difficult personal life bled across into misogyny on the screen. But even his most problematic character (the squirm inducing first half humiliation of Jamie Lee Curtis' Helen Tasker in True Lies) is somewhat redeemed, both in the performance of Curtis who is sublimely funny and sexy, but also in the understanding that her husband is a prick who has neglected his wife's strength and is reaping the rewards.

I will even mount a spirited defense of Titanic if you get enough alcohol in me. And not just in the milquetoast way of "I like it when the boat starts sinking". As a Titanic buff growing up, the film had me at hello. I even enjoy all the shipboard romance stuff, as cornpoke as it is. I think the actors are all fine and the dialogue isn't half as bad as what is commonly believed. You could remove or re-write three or four scenes and most of the wost and least defensible stuff would be gone (that fucking painting scene... even I won''t defend "He'll never amount to a thing!"). But think of what Cameron gets right in that film which could have gone wrong - especially his treatment of Gloria Stuart as Old Rose and Kate Winslet as Young Rose.

I found the New Yorker profile to be brilliantly written and endlessly fascinating. I knew Cameron was a shit, famously arrogant and confrontational even for a Hollywood director, but who knew he was such a ginormously epic arrogant shit? I get the sense from Dana Goodyear that she doesn't think much of Cameron's films, but that's fine as I don't think she uses that as an excuse to turn in a hatchet job on the director. Better this harsher tone that gets at something fundamental and honest about the guy than the normal slavish tongue bath that something like Empire magazine would give him.

There is nothing anonymous about Cameron. He hasn't done many films, but each film feels distinct from the other, and they form a unique oeuvre in their own right. An obsession, near fetishisation of military hardware. Apocalyptic visions. Female empowerment. A sentimental streak a mile wide but also a love of vicarious destruction. I have watched all his films multiple times (and have become strangely entranced by The Abyss which ranks close to my favourite of his films - Aliens) and can almost forgive him his attitude to others because of the results

I said almost...

What the article makes clear, and which is already well known, is that working for Cameron is a hellish experience. It is such a commonly held notion that actors and technicians are probably given some form of hazard pay for signing on with him. As one of the designers says in the article, when the director knows how to do everything, you better not bullshit him or he'll go ape. I can't help feeling that success only made this worse. I mean when Titanic swept the world in 1998 (and swept it did - despite their hype and popularity, The Dark Knight and Return of the King made just over half of what Titanic did worldwide) after being written off pre-release as Cameron's grand folly, it was obviously going to reaffirm his own self-belief. Add that to a personality prone to high levels of arrogance and it was never going to be pretty.

I do find this annoying however. I don't actually think Cameron ultimately gets better work from people by screaming and acting like a big child. He may believe so, but you take a look at the hellish pressure of Peter Jackson's team across all 3 Lord of the Rings films and then King Kong and you get a sense of how an actual human being can manage relationships to still achieve astonishing results. It may be because Jackson has figured out a way to work with his wife, the amazing Fran Walsh which keeps him grounded and the two of them share the burden, both physically and artistically of putting a film together. Cameron, who has worked in various capacities with several wives, never had a strong enough counterpoint for more than a few years. At the end of the day, he doesn't have to act like a shit and I like the way that the profile doesn't shrug it off, as so many do, by explaining it as a quirk of the successful.

I think of the analogy to how chef's work. I have heard and read in several places that the best run kitchen's are not those with a titanically bad behaved muppet as its centre, screaming abuse at a cowed staff (a la Gordon Ramsey), but through quiet team work wedded to steel eyed vision. Cameron seems to have the vision but no idea how to actually engage with a team.

Having said all that, I can't wait or Avatar. I don;t care what the naysayers think, I thought the new trailer was stunning. I do have issues with the plot as outlined (a 'foreigner' teaches the natives how to win is really old hat at the moment) but I think you have to be pretty jaded not to be excited by the imagery and kineticism of the trailers so far.