Tag Archives: james cameron

$1.84 billion

It happened! James Cameron’s Avatar has defeated James Cameron’s Titanic in the battle to be the Highest Grossing Film of All Time.

Consult The New York Times for details. But here are the numbers you need to know: Titanic stopped at $1.84 billion, and on Monday, Avatar hit $1.86 billion – and it will keep going.

Naturally, the news of Cameron beating his own record is bound to draw a little dissent. Cynics – or to use the technical term, “screenwriters” – will invariably complain that these pictures amount to little more than a string of exploding set pieces, that Cameron’s people ring hollow, and that the lines they grunt sound as if they were coming from sixteen year old boys in states of shocked-out, pre-orgasmic, video-game ecstasy. “Awesome!”

Of course, they’re right. But they’re missing the bigger picture.

For every one of Titanic’s embarrassingly false moments (i.e. “king of the world,” “I want to draw you, Rose,” “You jump, I jump, right?” and that suggestive hand throbbing against the fogged up carriage window etc.), there is an equally impressive cinematic decision, and one that had to be made in the middle of an absolute meltdown.

Think about it: you are James Cameron. You have an enormous ocean liner going down, thousands of passengers aboard, several narratives to maintain, two major studios already way over budget, special effects not yet completed, dozens of dangerous stunts happening all around you, journalists already calling the film a flop and personally insulting you, stars growing tired, Kathy Bates – and where do you put the camera?

Where do you put the camera? With the clock ticking, you only get one, or maybe two takes. Three at the absolute outside. Where do you put the camera? Too many wide shots and you’ll lose your intimacy; too many close-ups and you’ll lose the sense of annihilating disaster. So you’ll do both. But how will you intercut them? Decide now.

And be warned: After a while, those regular old wide-shots will lose their impact. How many times can we be startled by the same shot of The Titanic going down? How many people can we see flip over the port bow before we lose interest and start to think about how we’re going to try to hold the hand of Sarah Goldberg, the girl whose mom dropped us off and paid for our tickets? You’re going to have to mix it up, Mr. Cameron, and you’re going to have to do it for hours and hours of screen time, because Sarah is really cute and I heard she gave Alex Horwitz a handjob.

We know the boat is going to tank (we knew that before we got the ticket), so how are you going to surprise us? You’ll have to visualize something more frightening, and more grandly ruinous than we could have imagined. So as you’re setting up that shot, make sure that what you’re shooting is as impressive as how you shoot it. And don’t be merely descriptive. Don’t give us what we’ve read about in history books. Imagine something bigger. Imagine dozens of somethings. And then be prepared – if your crew is sick, the set is falling apart, or if the suits get words that you’re not shooting what you said – to throw that away and imagine something else. And imagine it now.

Mr. Cameron, if you did all that, I’d pay $10 to see what you came up with. Or at least Sarah’s mom would.

The Avatardation of Hollywood

First, the good news.

A thousand hours ago, before Avatar won its Golden Globes, when the picture was only a hit-to-be, people had already begun to speak in wild, sweeping terms about the revolutionary effect it was destined to have on the future of Hollywood film making. In those early weeks, we all reveled in the thrilling swell of communal enthusiasm that seemed to come from everywhere. Avatar was necessary viewing.

At first, I was one of the heretics. I didn’t want to see what looked like an action adventure starring the Las Vegas contingent of Blue Man Group. But that was then.

I see now that Avatar represents the next step in a tradition of immersion cinema that began all the way back in 1903, with Edwin S. Porter’s film, The Great Train Robbery. It’s a famous story: some who saw the movie when it first screened in cramped Nickelodeons, were so overcome by the now-famous shot of the outlaw pointing his gun directly into the camera, that they ran screaming from the theater. Despite their rationality, they believed. They were there.

Now a similar phenomenon is in effect. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, Avatar is the closest we have ever come to leaving the planet. Pandora’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear to explain to us the blooming patterns of this flora or that fauna.

Okay, so that’s out of the way. Here comes the “However.”

However magnificent, however deserving of all the accolades that have come (and will continue to come) its way, I can’t help but see the ascension of Avatar as a poignant reminder of how far populist American film has drifted from our reality. As children of the modern age, we know there are all kinds of reality, but the one I’m talking about is the kitchen sink reality, the quotidian reality.

You woke up this morning. You made coffee. You showered. You worried about your job, and about the events of last night. Did you offend him? Did you not reach for the check fast enough? You wonder about the events up ahead. Do I really want to see her tonight? Or would I enjoy a burger on my own? This is your life. It may be dull, but when it’s turned into great cinema, it can be revelatory; Avatar, regardless of its merits, will never be. There is no CGI equivalent for gravitas.

To be fair, there is room enough for both escapist and naturalist cinemas to coexist. But I fear they won’t. With Avatar‘s Golden Globe and likely Oscar wins, whatever shred of verisimilitude was left in mainstream American movies will likely be lost.

I don’t mean to suggest there was ever a time when the Hollywood machine produced a great realism in the manner of the post-war Italians. In fact, far from it: if there is anything about Hollywood that we have loved, perhaps above all else, in the hundred years since its inception, it’s the air of fantasy that has alighted upon its greatest pictures and people. Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood are in their own way Avatars — projections, that is, of our ideal selves — but as human Avatars, they addressed our human reality in direct, not allegorical terms. With an eye on style and a hand on behavior, they told the story of our lives and dreams, addressing how we live or want to live with keen analytical and behavioral insight. These actors, their directors, and the writers who gave them their material, used the world to show the world.

These Golden Globes have proven that the Na’vi and the Meryls can coexist peacefully in Hollywood, just as The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did in 1939, seventy years ago. But now that Cameron has come and changed everything, I’ve begun to worry less about the extinction of the Na’vi and more about the extinction of us.

Avatar (2009)

Wait, let’s go back.

Way back.

People don’t yet go to movie theaters, they go to Nickelodeons, chamber-sized screening rooms, where, for the price of a nickel, they can watch a variety of short subject films, ranging from vaudeville-inspired comedy sketches to documentary scenes of real-life (or “actualities” as they’re called). The shorts are shot simply, with as few takes as possible, from as few angles as possible, and the camera doesn’t move – it’s too heavy.

Then, in 1903, comes The Great Train Robbery. With this film, predating The Birth of a Nation by twelve years, director Edwin S. Porter introduces the world to the concept of film editing. Now, thanks to the advent of the cut, Porter can enhance both the narrative complexity of his movies (cross-cutting, for instance, allowed for temporal continuity between multiple storylines), as well as deepen the audience’s emotional response (through, say, a reaction shot). Suddenly, audiences aren’t merely outside of the action, they seem to be in the very midst of it.

One shot in particular, in which one of the bad guys fires his gun directly into the camera, caused a stir unprecedented in the history of motion pictures. Legend has it that audiences were so terrified by what they were seeing, that they shot up from their folding chairs and fled screaming from the theaters.

Of course, they weren’t in any kind of danger. They were in a small, boxy theater, surrounded by about a hundred other people. But somehow they believed it. Somehow, these presumably rational citizens forgot their rationality, and responded to what was happening on screen as if it were happening in reality.

Flash forward sixty years. During an early showing of Psycho in 1961, a healthy, middle-aged man, is so frightened by what he sees, he actually manages to upstage the shower scene by keeling over into the aisle, and going into cardiac arrest.

A year later, theater managers are getting complaints from ticket buyers that their cinemas are too hot. Will someone please open a window? How could they be expected to sit so uncomfortably through three and half hours of Peter O’Toole?

In 1997, like every other person, I went to see the Star Warsrerelease. In the middle of some sky battle, with spaceships zooming around overhead, the very attractive girl I took as my date, ducked. (We spoke once or twice on the phone after that.)

Well, now there’s Avatar, it’s 2009, and I’m certain we’ve been initiated into the next phase of believing the unbelievable. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, it will be the closest we’ve ever come to visiting another world. In the future, virtual reality technology will certainly outclass the technology at hand, but until then, James Cameron’s latest super-movie, will be the last word in illusion immersion.

Just take a look around you. Cameron’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear at any moment to explain to us, the believing audience, about the blooming patterns of this or that flora or fauna. (If the Avatar Encyclopedia hasn’t already been written, surely someone is hard at work, writing it right now.)

That said, when you see the picture, do yourself the favor of trying not to think too hard about it. In story, Cameron has situated us somewhere between Dances with Wolves and Blue Man Group, and if you’ve seen over six films in your life, chances are you’ll see the turns, as I did, coming miles away. It’s videogame logic; the characters are not individuals so much as targets, and the scenes aren’t so much dramatic as they are levels 1 though 10, and finally, the boss. But try not to think about it.

Try not to think about, as I did, the sad, almost poignant irony that, for all of the hundreds of millions of dollars Cameron spent on technology, trying to make Avatar the most dazzling cinematic experience possible, not three dollars of it was spent on the latte that might have helped him stay up just a little bit later to work on the rewrite.