Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Why I root for James Cameron

Avatar shattered the $400 million threshold at the U.S. box office this past weekend, having already become the all-time second-biggest international grosser at well over $1 billion.

At first I didn't think it would be such a box office force. When it made "only" $77 million in its domestic opening weekend -- a pittance compared to Twilight: New Moon's $142 million -- I thought it might end up being the kind of flop everyone thought Titanic would be.

And surprisingly, this filled me with disappointment. I actually felt bad for James Cameron, albeit very prematurely.

I should feel the need to deny that reality publicly -- or, at least, not write a blog post specifically calling attention to it. But I try to be as honest as I can with you, so I'm telling you: I had a moment's feeling of melancholy about the prospective box office failure of Avatar.

Of course, we all know what happened. Like Titanic, Avatar had legs. Where Titanic settled in and started making $25 million per weekend for ten weekends in a row, and then dropped to a still-healthy $10-$15 million for a few more weekends, Avatar has not made less than $48 million in any of its four weekends. It could actually challenge Titanic's $600 million domestic record, albeit with the help of 12 years of inflation, plus the higher cost of IMAX and 3-D tickets. (Whereas New Moon dropped off significantly after opening weekend and eventually topped off around $280 million).

I'll ask my international readers to forgive me for discussing box office in domestic terms only -- they're the terms I'm more comfortable with.

So now I've got a different problem: I have to worry about this inferior film toppling my beloved Titanic, the reason I root for Cameron in the first place.

And in order to contextualize that even more controversial statement, I suppose I should tell you about the first time I saw Titanic, which helped me embrace that movie as my own.

It was Thursday, December 18, 1997. Titanic was set to open the next day, and I was the reporter for a weekly newspaper in Rhode Island. I would later wear a second hat as their film critic, but that was a few months off, so it was in my capacity as a reporter that I was invited to the grand opening of a glistening new multiplex in nearby Seekonk, Massachusetts. Truth be told, this story would never be covered in the pages of The Barrington Times, where I worked -- we only covered issues directly related to the town. But an invitation to this gala event had fallen into my hands, so not only did I attend, I also invited a friend, who drove down from Boston for the occasion.

When we showed up at the theater, we knew it would be a big deal. There were people walking around in tuxedos, and the lobby was lined with tables full of champagne and shrimp cocktail. There were masses of important people gathering, many of them better dressed than we were. But we weren't concerned with any impression we might or might not be making. We were like kids in a candy store -- literally, more on that in a minute -- and felt kind of like we'd won Wonka's golden ticket. After my press credentials were verified, no one else would be checking in on us for the rest of the night. In fact, conveniently, I didn't know another soul there.

The dozen screens were all playing one of two movies, both scheduled for release the next day: Titanic and Tomorrow Never Dies, Pierce Brosnan's second turn as James Bond. Ordinarily we would have both been jazzed for the Bond movie, and as it turned out, that's my favorite Bond movie of the last 20 years. But Titanic at least figured to be a spectacle, and we didn't have anywhere else we needed to be for the next three hours and 14 minutes, so there was never any question which one we'd select.

But there was still plenty more consumption of free stuff before we got to that point. In addition to the flutes of champagne and endless supply of shrimp, there were various other crudities and hors d'oeuvres, some of which were actually being delivered around by those men in tuxedos. My friend and I would look at each other and laugh, like we were getting away with something. This feeling only intensified -- as did the laughter -- when it came time to stock up on concessions. And I don't choose the words "stock up" casually. The guys standing at the concession counters encouraged us to take multiple boxes of Goobers, Raisinets and Snow Caps. One wasn't enough. Two wasn't enough. They knew these were all going to the same customer, and yet they kept offering them. Still only a couple years out of our teens, my friend and I made the most of this, filling our pockets with candy and then returning to my car to empty them, to make room for more. We each came away with at least ten boxes of movie theater candy, and stomachs that hurt from laughing so hard. Popcorn and drinks had considerably less shelf life/portability, so with those, we took only what we could carry into the theater.

The capper to this gala evening was when some local politician -- a state senator, a congressman, someone like that -- gave a short speech and cut the ribbon on the new state-of-the-art complex. The room filled with applause, and with balloons, which fell from the ceiling right on cue.

Of course, the real capper was Titanic. Picture me 12 years less jaded than I am today, and you will understand why the movie hit me as hard as it did. I teared up several times and left the theater proclaiming that it was one of the best movies I'd ever seen. In fact, I emailed several friends upon arriving home, telling them to drop what they were doing and go RIGHT NOW to see it.

And because I had this highly special screening of Titanic, one night before the rest of the world had a chance to see it, I felt like Titanic was my movie -- a movie where I helped create the hype, rather than just responding to it, even if my role in the hype machine was limited to my friends and acquaintances. Because of that special night, I will always cherish my first screening of Titanic, even long after its flaws have been amply documented by people who were as jaded then as I probably am now. I like remembering that version of me, the version that was swept off his feet by James Cameron's epic. I prefer that memory to whatever hollow credibility I might gain by making snide remarks about Titanic today. And I do consider it hollow when a person goes for credibility by selling out what they honestly think and feel about a movie. I say it to people all the time: I will never throw Titanic under the bus, will never disown the memory of December 18, 1997, when I felt like I was walking on air.

As I was following Titanic's bravura box office performance from then until Oscar night and beyond, I cheered James Cameron, as I felt like his crowning achievement was being appreciated by others just as I had appreciated it. Even when he declared himself "king of the world" at the Oscars, I found it charming rather than smug.

Somehow, that feeling toward Cameron -- that desire to see him succeed beyond any shadow of a doubt -- has stuck with me. Not only did I want Avatar to be good for its own sake, but I wanted it to provide validation to James Cameron, a man who needs no validation from me or anyone else. In part because it's just one more endorsement of my enthralling experience of a little film called Titanic.

Unfortunately, I don't like Avatar as much as Titanic -- not nearly. My take on the film isn't much different from the standard one: Breathtaking visuals, totally unoriginal story. Cameron wrote both movies, so my conclusion is that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet sold that one to us better by being better actors than those in Avatar. They had something magical that grabbed the zeitgeist in just such a way. Avatar is impressive, a film I would certainly describe as "very good" -- it just didn't have that certain spark.

So given what I've told you, am I still rooting for James Cameron? Or am I rooting against a new version of James Cameron in favor of an older model? Or would Avatar outgrossing Titanic still be an endorsement of Titanic in some strange way?

Well, one thing that's always easy to do is root for quality. And even though the 24-year-old Vance may have been more naive and idealistic than the 36-year-old Vance, I think either version would have liked Titanic better. With or without being hopped up on Goobers and Raisinets.

What can I say, I've got a soft spot for sweaty palms slapped against car windows.

1 comment:

Don Handsome said...

That was a great night. Probably the best man-date I've ever been on.

I remember driving back up to Boston in the middle of the night, after the movie all jittery from sugar, thinking that I had just tasted the good life. I rushed out and saw Titanic again a few days later at a regular theater and while I brought in candy from Seekonk, I was shocked when I had to pay for a soda ('do you know who I am?? I hob-knob with people who wear tuxes to the movies...I don't PAY for concessions').

But as much as I loved Titanic that night in Seekonk, and as much as I also still refuse to throw it under the bus, I associate my love for it with the experience of that movie-going experience and not with James Cameron. I am incapable of being objective about Titanic. I've seen it several times since 12/18/1997, but each time I'm transported back to that night. I can smell the free popcorn and feel myself surrounded by a sprite, a coke, AND a cherry coke. I'm like that guy's dogs...I start to drool the minute the camera shows us the boat for the first time.

But many people have told me how much I shouldn't like Titanic. Many of them have given me good reasons for not liking it. Unlike you, Vance, I think that Cameron himself gave me reason for not liking it with his Oscar Night antics. But I persist in seeing beyond the boat-sized ego, the silly stereotyped shell characters that populate the film, as well as the infuriating score/soundtrack simply because of how I first saw the film. To paraphrase Chinatown, sometimes a man has to come to terms with the fact that given the right viewing circumstances, he is capable of loving film.

Avatar surely isn't Titanic. It doesn't have Winslet or DiCaprio. It doesn't have an iconic boat. It exchanges a classic love story for a confused evil corporation plot. But outside of these little differences its just as ambitious as Titanic (probably even more ambitious). They both inhabit flawlessly rendered fantasy worlds and they both seem bigger than every other movie around them. In reality the two films are probably equally problematic if you start to pick away at them...but still, I love Titanic, and I'm luke-warm at best about Avatar. So I don't really know that I root for James Cameron...I guess I just root for the movies, and hope that someday I'll have the pleasure of experiencing another film the same way that I experienced Titanic...until then I'll have to judge all films (including Cameron's) on a different scale.