Tribute to a Guy Named Jim

Today’s the birthday of a filmmaker I am immensely fond of, however much we’ve been on the way to devalue his more recent works. And I wanted to write something in tribute of him short of jumping idiotically into another lengthy retrospective like I’m doing for Lynch and halfway leaning towards doing for Malick because I’m fucking stupid like that. I don’t know what boosted this need to write a tribute for him (I still haven’t wrote a review for They Live that I wanted to do in honor of the late Roddy Piper and nor my eulogy for titan Christopher Lee), so don’t expect this from me all the time. But I just got a jolt in me saying “say something”.

James Cameron was born this day, August 16, in 1954 in Kapuskasing, Ontorio, Canada and has had a life going from a truck driver who had a hell of an affinity for science fiction models to a filmmaker who today considers the artform his personal playground, mixing finding new technologies to mess around with and parade like “Hey-oh, check out this 3-D shit” or “this robot? I call it a Leonardo DiCaprio, a Skynet cyborg developed to be a heartthrob” (of course, he didn’t discover Leo, but let me tell you something: Back in Algeria, nobody knew who the hell he was until Titanic came out and then EVERYBODY in the country adored him. EVERYBODY. IN AL-FUCKING-GERIA. So I hope you don’t find it out of place to think the same phenomenon was going on in the whole world. And like the T-800 turned from villain, he turned from being just a pretty face), and still an affinity for stuff that looks cool as fuck, especially underwater.

His story is one of the filmmaking stories I’d love to imagine applying to me as a fantasy: Goes under a legend’s wing (that legend being Roger Corman, so he had a big-ass wing, but you get my point) when he knows he wants to work in film, rises his way to the top, by chance gets a seat in directing a picture (however ghastly his first movie is), makes his sophomore feature count and suddenly he’s writing for a bunch of franchises, and getting away with having final cut. It’s like Orson Welles all over again and this time the guy in Welles’ shoes isn’t being tossed out even after one of his movies hasn’t made as much money theatrically as they wanted to (Good thing, The Abyss picked up on home video).

It’s not just the fact that I’ve seen all the films he’s directed, it’s that most people in America at least have seen more than half of them and have at least heard of the rest. Titanic was the highest-grossing worldwide picture unadjusted for inflation of all time until Cameron’s own Avatar shut it down. The Abyss‘ Special Edition Cut heralded in the coming of the DVD age with its sales. The Terminator made a household name out of Arnold Schwarzenegger (while unfortunately ushering in the cliche ideal that action stars are robotic) while Terminator 2: Judgement Day reminded bitches that R-rated movies could destroy blockbuster records and won its weight in technical Oscars. The guy sells. He sells.

And it’s not an unjust reward, he’s proven to be not only an efficient action director – with an ability to not only stage and frame scenarios to feel big and frenetic and in one’s face – but one of my favorite things of his that I rarely see other filmmakers, whether action or sci-fi, do as well is utilize the inherent momentum of the action genre to inform the storytelling aspect. To give characters and plot a sense of absolute urgency so moments as small as Kyle Reese informing Sarah Connor of her son’s destiny or Harry Tasker humorously informing his wife about the even possibility of the two of them being tortured or killed, don’t feel like just breathers… we’re still in motion, we’re still going, we’re still in the middle of a battle or a chase or any other moment of depair. I know that doesn’t sound too impressive in the same year where Mad Max: Fury Road came out and used that exact same mode of rushed dimension to its content, but back then and even today we often get so many picture (even good ones like the last two Mission: Impossible entries) that are willing to drop plotting at the first shot, that getting to know actual emotional reasons for us to be attached to our heroes and fear the villains is still impressive enough to me.

And there’s another thing I have to hand to Cameron more than anything, he knows how to craft badass action heroines. Like dynamic full female presences in the film that don’t eschew their gender while allowing them to have a masculinity to themselves, as well as refusing to say that “Oh they’re heroes IN SPITE of being women” but making it damn well define them. Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor are two of the most iconic characters in sci-fi cinema (the former earning Sigourney Weaver her first Oscar nomination). Connor’s is easy to explain, we’ve seen her go from the naive yet intelligent waitress in the first film to the hardened survivalist of the second film and Linda Hamilton’s been holding that characters’ hand so tight that when Emilia Clarke took over the character for Terminator: Genysis, it felt like she was doing cosplay on camera to me. Ripley… heh, I’ll tell ya, I prefer Alien but anybody would be kind of thick to think she felt like a character in that movie. As opposed to Aliens, where now she has not only a thrust-at-her hero’s role from the star (Alien itself being more “Ten Little Indians” who gonn’ die next picture), all of her heroic actions in protecting the wily and cunning yet still small child Newt (Carrie Henn) is informed by maternal instincts and it gives her actions a more mythic quality when she’s staring down the Alien Queen in the famous dramatic climax shouting “GET AWAY FROM HER, YOU BITCH!” Even side characters like Pvt. Velasquez, Dr. Augustine (another Weaver character), and Pvt. Chacon are more than just “token girls” in the picture.

That latter factor is most impressive when you consider that not only is there nothing that Cameron has said that has implied that he is remotely a feminist, but his own personal life implies he’s not an entirely progressive towards women in cinema. That, and the fact that he still has some share of problematic roles written for women: Titanic and True Lies make damn sure of that. But he’s still proven at the beginning half of his career to have an especially keen sense of making front-row center women in action cinema more human than their macho oil-glistened muscle counterparts and yet just as able to take a punch and dish one right back.

Even his unrealized projects like Spider-Man and Battle Angel interest me immensely in what he seemed to offer and state he was going to bring to the table. I mean, God bless Sam Raimi, because his Spider-Man is exactly my idea of what the hell comic book movies are supposed to look like (well, that and Richard Donner’s Superman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy) but hell yeah, if James Cameron says he’ll make me believe an ordinary man can save the day by swinging through the air and climbing up walls I’ll say yes.

It may, of course, help that I have never seen a James Cameron film I don’t like to have that sentiment (I will admit to have that immediate reaction to Titanic but in retrospect it’s more to the hype inherent with Titanic‘s legacy by now… it’s still miles away from my least favorite Best Picture winner). But hell, let me, put my money where my mouth is and go ahead and rank his features in order, naming just what I love and what I don’t about this guy who just doesn’t care about breaking banks when he’s playing with the coolest new toy – only to break those banks anyway.

  1. The Terminator (1984)

I think I’ve already said all I’ve meant to say about The Terminator in my previous review last year, but let me give the gist of it: The Terminator is a perfect film. I don’t throw that around often. I wouldn’t call Blade Runner a perfect film. I wouldn’t even call The Terminator flawless, since it has its problems in logic, but it gets its objectives done and cleared and some more and in that it’s very perfect. Not only in invisible world-building (something we barely know about), not only in impressive genre bending between slasher film and sci-fi and noir and action scene, not only in playing gleefully at our expectations of heroes and villains for the entirety of the run, but by doing all of those things without registering to us immediately as more than just a chase scene. Because it is still essentially a landmark of cyberpunk grounded in our real-world L.A. and a star vehicle deftly accommodating to all three leads (although Schwarzenegger clearly got the best end of the deal), but the T-800 is so close behind us, we’re too busy registering this as a simple thriller until credits roll.

2. Aliens (1986)

I know public opinion is usually on the matter that Aliens is superior to Alien (even if that’s not what EVERYONE thinks, it’s very clearly the majority of people who have seen both movies) and I’m not going to be the guy to agree with that. Not only because I’m a bigger horror movie fan (which Alien clearly is) than I am an action picture fan (which Aliens clearly is), but because of Paul Reiser and James Horner’s work for the film (RIP to Horner, he will be missed and he did have his share of masterpieces – one of which he blatantly ripped off for this film’s score – but I was not a huge fan. In any case, Horner wasn’t a fan of the score for Aliens either and knew he was recycling his work for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan). But I wasn’t just bullshitting for this movie’s work in making Ripley a fully fleshed character where Alien didn’t and letting it define Aliens. And I especially am not bullshitting when I say this has all the adrenaline of a usual Cameron blockbuster while at the same time providing just a sci-fi skin to the concept of a war movie, the camaraderie between soldiers in the shit, the desperation inherent in being faced with the certainty of a mission’s failure. Oh, and it’s still pretty scary. I mean, the Xenomorphs always look frightening, I wouldn’t want to be in a room with it whether I had a gun or not.

3. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The last of Cameron’s true display of his action sensibilities – top to bottom we got asylum breakouts, computer lab breakins, mall shootouts, highway chases, highways chases with copters. The movie is definitely a sequel to its predecessor even if it wants to play with our expectations of hero and villain once more and even if it will lack the momentum the first Terminator had. And the effects work in this movie is still unprecedented and wholly impressive, still standing up today because Stan Winston was the fucking man. And it is yet another movie that it’s obvious we love it and most people think it better than the original. But the original didn’t have Edward Furlong. And I have never not hated Edward Furlong. And while this is his best performance of his career, like ever, it’s also still shitty so that should tell you a lot about him. Though Cameron’s script doesn’t do him any favors with that whole “Oh I need a poppa” relation they give between John Connor and the T-800 (which only reminds me of how the franchise recycled it with “Pops” and Sarah Connor in Genysis).

4. Avatar (2008)

Look. I get it. We think the story is sloppy. We think it’s just a pretty turd. It’s just Dances with Wolves in space. Ok, I get it. But please understand even if Avatar is by no means a masterpiece (and we should establish that it very much isn’t), we need to recognize that it never really meant itself to be one. It is entirely dismissive to its story, not to a degree that we don’t care about Sully et al. (though it’s clear some audiences don’t) but to the point that we know we’re supposed to spend two hours living in this lush detailed world. And it is a pretty lush and eye-popping creation full of color and life and atmosphere and I’m down with just sitting down like that. I’m quite the 3-D enthusiast to begin with and so I can happily say I absolutely think I haven’t had a more immersive theatrical 3-D experience like Avatar until Gravity came out. And even then, there were things Avatar did that Gravity couldn’t.

5. The Abyss (1989)

Ahhhh, now this one’s a tricky bit due to the differentiation between the two cuts which are wholly different beasts telling two separate stories, but we’ll go with the ’93 version since that’s what I prefer. So, what goes wrong? Well, to begin – without spoiling the picture – the primary conflict abruptly ends well before the movie does (or at least, it feels like the primary conflict is part of the problem) and the movie has a whole third of it left to linger around before it can get to its climax and both cuts really have trouble being on the edge of chaos (since making the movie was apparently the fucking worst for everyone), but it’s also still standing proudly alongside its early 90s CGI brethren to showcase Cameron’s effects and Cameron’s minutiae for character moments – especially between Bud and Lindsey – as well as his for real-world aquatic tech make this enough of a enjoyable spectacle for me to be wiling to sit through that last third, since what happens at the climax is a brilliant Cameron canon moment. Also… Cameron shoots in anamorphic with this picture and doesn’t fuck around with it, no negative space where it shouldn’t be, no crowding, nothing to suggest he hard time thinking up compositions for the frame.

6. True Lies (1994)

I regrettably state this is maybe the only time Cameron made a film that felt ordinary by his standards. It’s not anywhere near as ambitious a blockbuster as one would expect from him. It is overbloated. But not in its action setpieces (which are still the movie’s saving grace) but in its script, juggling two stories about a Schwarzenegger being an American spy stopping a terrorist cell and one about his domestic life with his wife portrayed by Jamie Lee Curtis. And I’ll say this, Cameron can’t do comedy really well. Curtis and Schwarzenegger sell what they can but the majority of their screwball dialogue is cringey at best. Almost as cringey as its sexual politics that were close to undoing how I felt for Cameron’s work in eschewing Ripley and Sarah Connor into the world. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think Curtis is an attractive woman and that striptease scene was arousing… but… I can’t be alone in thinking the context behind it is very very creepy. And that’s the main example of the film’s ideas about what a man and a woman should put in for their marriage to work, which I respond immediately to with “fuck that”. And there’s also the obvious part of True Lies being blatantly racist towards Middle Easterners and Islamophobic. Which, speaking as a Middle Easterner, I can honestly say doesn’t affect me half as much as I thought it would (maybe I’m just used to it, hell, I enjoyed Zero Dark Thirty), but it’s still right there in one’s face and if any other person were to see it and get offended by it – Middle Eastern or not – I’d have to agree with their sensibility. But that’s a lot of ripping on a movie that I do love once it gets its footing back on its big airplane chases and climactic construction site raid and the fact that a guy gets shot on a damn missile fired from a helicopter to another helicopter. Like hot damn, Cameron, you problematic visionary!

7. Titanic (1997)

Yep, still just a soap opera like the last time I saw it. But, much like Avatar, I’m able to recognize that the whole point of the movie was never to be a compelling romantic drama as it is just a surrogate for the audience being involved in the climactic disaster that occurred to the RMS Titanic. And with attention to detail and an understanding that when we hit that iceberg, we’re gonna need to be thrown into that scenario like any other scrambling passenger makes enough bombast to balance this movie’s experience for me and keep it from sinking in my image. That and for some reason, even through (or perhaps because of) all its most blatantly and sloppy melodramatic elements – from the writing to the acting to the music (dammit, Horner) – there is a very clear “they don’t make movies like this no more” old timey feel that you always get by accident when its as genuine as Titanic‘s presentation is. Still didn’t deserve half its awards. Or 3/4 its awards. Or all of them. But there we are.

8. Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

Ok, I technically lied when I said I haven’t seen a single Cameron film I don’t like, but fuck if anyone considers this a Cameron film. He barely did anything in it, it was just a movie he got a title in and got to move the camera a lot for. It’s not fair. We shouldn’t blame him for this. He wasn’t half as involved in this Jaws rip-off that most of us would expect. As far as I’m concerned, The Terminator is his debut and Piranha II is just some movie he was hired to facilitate. And yes, it is pretty bad. I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you really wanted to see the beginning of his career like I did. It ain’t pretty, but I really doubt many filmmaking careers’ origins look pretty. Which makes me feel pretty much better about my own.

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