UPDATED 8/31/10 1:07 p.m.
Always one to be counted on to mistake technological achievement and advances for art, James Cameron got back on his high horse this week regarding his latest fetish, 3D, all in service of the hype surrounding Avatar’s ho-hum big-screen rerelease. The Biggest Movie of All Time has been retrofitted with more Footage of Pandora and some extended Na’vi nookie, in case you didn’t get enough during the original version’s near-three-hour running time. And Anne Thompson reports today on a conversation published online in Vanity Fair in which Cameron wants everyone to know that he shouldn’t be blamed for the pervasiveness of 3D and its relative lack of quality.
I love Anne’s lead-in: “Much like God looking down on Adam and Eve’s bad behavior and saying: ‘I created them, but I am not responsible for what they do,’ similarly, James Cameron continues to argue that he may have led the 3-D revolution but he is not responsible for what other people do.” The entirety of Cameron’s interview spiked my tolerance for blowhard movie directors and their impatience for those who don’t have $300 million to spend on a single project, or the time and/or inclination in between gigs to develop new techno-toys for use in developing said director’s newest budget-busting excesses—in other words, business as usual for Cameron. I was tempted to let Thompson’s account be my entire reference point here, but it turns out the Vanity Fair piece is classic Cameron and as such should be cautiously experienced. The director is rather generous in bestowing praise on movies like Alice in Wonderland (a 3-D conversion) and How to Train Your Dragon (originally authored for 3D), but he wants you to know that the current glut of 3D (and, presumably, the ticket-gouging that comes along with it) should not be laid at his feet. “There are a number of good movies that are being natively authored in 3-D that are coming out,” says the director, “But what you saw was sort of the gold rush. After Avatar, people tried to cash in.” To these ears and eyes, this sounds awfully close to a claim, after having developed a 3-D technology that is obviously meant to resist market pigeonholing as a trend or a novelty, that he did it best and anything that was green-lit as a 3D film in Avatar’s Academy Award-winning wake should be seen as opportunistic and unworthy.
Cameron then pats the audience on the head and offers this jewel: “The consumer needs to be aware that just because a movie is in 3-D doesn’t mean that it’s good.” This may be news to some high-priced film directors, but listen, just because a movie is on film is no guarantee that it’s going to be good. If audience reactions to the glut of trailers for 3D productions that can be seen before any given 3D feature are an indication, there may already be the smell of blood in the water. The flattening out of that market and the increased audience resistance to paying $16 to see a movie while wearing clunky glasses that they probably wouldn’t even pony up for in 2D (I’m thinking Wes Craven’s My Soul to take as an example pulled out of the clear blue) is audible in the rumblings of impatience that greet most of these new previews.
And speaking of blood in the water, one would think that there was not a horse high enough for the Oscar winner to climb upon when pontificating about a certain current 3D hit to which he has the most tangential of connections. The Vanity Fair writer asks Cameron if he experienced any sense of nostalgia upon the release of Piranha 3D, and this is the director’s typically reserved response:
“Zero. You’ve got to remember: I worked on Piranha 2 for a few days and got fired off of it; I don’t put it on my official filmography. So there’s no sort of fond connection for me whatsoever. In fact, I would go even farther and say that... I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but that is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3-D. When movies got to the bottom of the barrel of their creativity and at the last gasp of their financial lifespan, they did a 3-D version to get the last few drops of blood out of the turnip. And that’s not what’s happening now with 3-D. It is a renaissance—right now the biggest and the best films are being made in 3-D. Martin Scorsese is making a film in 3-D. Disney’s biggest film of the year—Tron: Legacy—is coming out in 3-D. So it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Hubris, anyone? First of all, Cameron would like you to know that he is one filmmaker who doesn’t treasure his experience in the Roger Corman stable and that he does not consider Piranha 2: The Spawning (full official title) “A James Cameron Film.” Of course it is perfectly within his rights to take that stand. It would be an even more powerful stand to take, however, if Cameron’s subsequent filmography wasn’t, apart from the escalating budget of each new project over the last, rooted in precisely the same kind of exploitation movie rehash philosophy as is Piranha 2: The Spawning. Cameron’s first hit picture The Terminator was dogged by convincing claims of plagiarism launched by Harlan Ellison, and more than one observer noted the clear resemblance of Avatar’s primal narrative to those of Broken Arrow, Dances With Wolves and several others. The recycling remains the same, but the argument Cameron might make, if he were to admit ever watching other movies and thus open himself up to charges that he cribbed from them, would probably be along the lines that the recycling is made more palatable because of the outrageous money spent on each new variant on the same old thing to make it gleam and glisten as if new and original.
My favorite nugget re all this is the company line when someone, in this case the VF writer, notes Avatar’s apparent parallels to other big, familiar Hollywood movies. “I’m not really influenced by other movies that much,” Cameron says in the interview. “To me, storytelling is organic to the story you’re trying to tell. Which is not to say that there weren’t movies during that time period that I liked. I’m a big movie fan, but I tend not to be overly influenced by other films.” I think those comments speak plainly enough for themselves (except for that bit about storytelling being organic to the story you’re trying to tell—- Would anyone care to take a crack at interpreting that?) I can't think of another Hollywood director who has so garishly flourished by employing this recyclable narrative philosophy; perhaps the persistent existence of Piranha 2 is too sharp a reminder even for Cameron of where his roots really lie.
But this part is really good: “I tend almost never to throw other films under the bus, but (Piranha 3D) is exactly an example of what we should not be doing in 3-D. Because it just cheapens the medium and reminds you of the bad 3-D horror films from the 70s and 80s, like Friday the 13th 3-D.” The tenor of this “we are not amused” finger-wagging couldn’t be more absurd even if it wasn’t coming from the priest of high culture responsible for True Lies and the avant-garde success d’estime also known as Titanic. What is inherently offensive about acknowledging the cheap gimmickry at the heart of a currently popular technological process whose roots in exploitation cinema were designed to counter-program the offering of a new beast—- television—- over 60 years ago? Cameron avoids such acknowledgment because it doesn’t play into his delusion that he’s reinventing or somehow refining cinema with his bag of tricks. Instead he worries aloud that these kinds of 3D sequels and horror remakes are nothing but the last refuge of the cinematic scoundrel whose only concern is trying to wring a few more drops of blood from a creatively expired turnip (a tack the creator of Terminator 2 would never take). But then he does an about face and describes the current cycle of 3D movies as representing a renaissance— a renaissance which presumably would not include Piranha 3D and the upcoming Jackass 3D. “Right now the biggest and the best films are being made in 3-D,” Cameron claims, and even in the context of mentioning Tron: Legacy and Scorsese’s upcoming 3D film of Hugo Cabret as examples, this comment is notable primarily as a variation on a central theme of his entire career, that being a specious equation of the biggest and the best. Really, it’s hard to conclude much of anything from these self-inflating comments beyond the fact that, on or off the technological cutting edge, James Cameron seems to be a bit of a 3D snob.
When I read the Vanity Fair interview, I immediately flashed on Stephanie Zacharek’s funny and sharp-eyed appreciation of Piranha 3D, a movie to which she neither condescended nor indicated that she had to engage in slumming in order to write about. And I think she offers the best rejoinder to Cameron’s 3D elitism, even if it was written a week before Cameron held court at Vanity Fair:
“And you may be wondering if the 3D effects actually make Piranha 3D any scarier or more fun than your random 2D horror cheapie. The answer is probably not — and yet the 3D effects here work because they’re a joyous exaggeration of everything we go to a movie like this hoping to see. Big boobs coming right at ya, bloody stumps waving hither and thither: Piranha 3D has it all, and it confirms my conviction that with rare exceptions (Henry Selick’s marvelous Coraline being one of them), 3D technology should be reserved for high-quality motion pictures like this one, not trumpeted as the “immersive” future of all moviegoing. Piranha 3D wasn’t 10 years in the making, and it shows. Thank God.”
A.O. Scott may have had one eyebrow arched to the hilt when he ended his review of the 3D fish feast with the exclamation, “Welcome to the future of cinema” (one reprinted sans sarcasm in the newest spate of newspaper ads). But I prefer a market for 3D that risks oversaturation if it can, even for a brief time, make room for such diverse 3D outings as How to Train Your Dragon, Despicable Me, Piranha 3D, Jackass 3D, Joe Dante’s The Hole, Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret and Tron: Legacy, all films I’m either excited about or excited to see. Cameron’s brand of lowest common denominator blockbuster-itis has little or nothing to do with the kind of individualistic visions that are getting these other 3D films realized on the big screen. He’s obsessed with propagating his own legacy of bland, derivative, mass-appeal fantasy and it’s this kind of pandering that will turn 3D into a bore, despite all the fussiness over places like Pandora, faster than any low-budget shocker which has the smarts to remember why 3D was fun in the first place. If a future of cinema populated by upcoming Avatar sequels is the director’s ideal option-- doing his best George Lucas impersonation (“It was always meant to be a trilogy!”), he warns us in the interview they are coming—well, it’s one that will have to go on without my participation. Welcome to the future of cinema, indeed. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to e-mail some friends and finalize plans to see Hollywood treasure Jerry O’Connell get his dick chewed off for the third time. Au revoir, summer!
UPDATED 8/31/10 1:07 p.m.: It's on! Earlier today Piranha 3D producer Mark Canton laid out a 1,400-word response to Cameron's Vanity Fair comments over at Movieline, and it looks to be a rip-snorting read. The tone of Canton's response is most probably summed up by a quote from the letter that Movieline uses as part of their header: “Jim, are you kidding or what?" Gee, it's just about lunch time, and here's something compelling to read over my celery sticks and peanut butter. Thanks, Movieline!