Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Borrower: The Egregious Oeuvre of James Cameron

For the sake of the blog, I finally broke down and watched James Cameron's Avatar on DVD. Let me get this out of the way right off the top: It's a better movie than Titanic. That’s not saying much since I think that 1997 disaster flick is one of the worst films to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. In Avatar, Sigourney Weaver seems to be having fun in her tough-broad scientist role, and there's a couple of scenes here and there that at least got a chuckle out of me, but that was between long bouts of boredom while I watched cartoon characters (because this film, except for the sequences at the military base, is a computer-generated cartoon) frolicking around hippie-dippie landscapes. And don't get me started on the teeth-grinding dialogue or the stupid shoot 'em up at the end.

What my real purpose is, in writing about Avatar on Critics At Large (after Shlomo expertly reviewed it back in January), was to look at the accusations of 'borrowing' that have plagued Cameron's career since The Terminator (1984). Rumours have been flying around that Avatar is nothing more than a copy of Dances With Wolves (1990), A Man Called Horse (1970 -- and its sequel The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976)), Little Big Man (1970) and Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (1992). All those pictures look at how a 'civilized' man comes to accept the wisdom of the more-primitive culture he finds himself embraced by. However, it is a charge that could be levelled at dozens of films that have used that theme. Using a well-worn theme is no crime (it just shows a limited imagination). What is egregious about Cameron is his seeming repeated appropriation of other material to create screenplays he then proclaims are completely original. And I'm not even talking about self-borrowing (i.e., the tough Latina marine in Aliens and Avatar, the giant walkers used in big bust-ups in the same two movies, the story of Jake Sully and Neytiri is identical to Jack and Rose in Titanic - right down to the repeated screaming of each other's names), no, I'm talking about his borrowing from his betters.

About The Terminator, Cameron said to writer Tracey Tormé (creator of the TV show Sliders) when Tormé asked him where he got the idea: "oh, I ripped off a couple of Harlan Ellison short stories and Outer Limits episodes." Needless to say, Ellison (a friend of Tormé's), a prolific and talented novelist, short story, essayist and teleplay writer (his original-series Star Trek episode City On the Edge of Forever won an Emmy), sued and won – twice! Since the story is long and involved, go here and Ellison will tell you the story himself. I'll wait until you come back


Hi. Interesting, no? Well, in my mind, Cameron hasn't stopped this behaviour. Titanic has scenes that do not come from the historical record, but are almost direct copies of scenes from the one great Titanic film, A Night to Remember (1957), and a now-forgotten TV movie, S.O.S. Titanic (1979). From A Night to Remember, he takes interaction and dialogue between the musicians who played as the ship sank (neither of which is known since they all died) and replays them almost exactly; another scene has an older couple holding each other as water rises up around their bed, which also appears in A Night To Remember. From S.O.S. Titanic, as the ship tilts to sink, we see a priest, holding on for dear life, while a small group of faithful hold on to him, as he says the Our Father. The same scene appears in Titanic, though Cameron's staging of the scene is better. If I'm being charitable, those scenes are perhaps homages to the previous films. However, what's happened with Avatar suggests to me that perhaps he's not so innocent.

In 1957, science fiction writer Poul Anderson (1926-2001) wrote a short story called Call Me Joe. The premise? A paraplegic, named Ed Anglesey, working on a scientific project above Jupiter, transports his consciousness into an artificially created life form, called Joe who is... Ready?...blue skinned and is essentially a tabula rasa that Ed takes over . In this way, Ed can function on the hydrogen-dominated planet without actually physically being there himself. Now, Joe's not 10 feet tall and he's a centaur-like creature, but other details sound awfully familiar, as this excerpt from the story illustrates:

"So it wasn't really Joe who emerged, who perceived. Joe has never been much more than a biological waldo [exoskeleton]. He can only suffer mental shock to the extent Ed does, because it is Ed down there"

If Avatar were a TV series, Anderson's story (at points like this) could serve as the show's bible, giving background material for the writers as they create the stories. Even though Anderson's story is set on Jupiter (as a sidebar, doesn't the huge planet in the sky over Pandora in Avatar look an awful lot like a gray Jupiter with a brownish 'eye' instead of red one?), there's this bit from Anderson's story which could be an outtake from the meeting describing how Pandora should look in the film:

"[Anglesey said] 'Imagine walking under a glowing violet sky, where great flashing clouds sweep the earth with shadow and rain strides beneath them. Imagine walking on the slopes of a mountain like polished metal, with a clean red flame exploding above you and thunder laughing in the ground. Imagine a cool wild stream, and low trees with dark coppery flowers, and a water-fall, methane-fall...whatever you like, leaping off a cliff, and the strong wind shakes its mane full of rainbows! Imagine a whole forest, dark and breathing, and here and there you glimpse a pale-red wavering will-'o-the-wisp, which is the light radiation of some fleet shy animal, and, and...'

The story continues with a bit that could be an apt description of what the paraplegic Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar must always be thinking as he watches able-bodied people move around him.

"Anglesey croaked into silence. He stared down at his clenched fists, then he closed his eyes tight and tears ran out between the lids.

'Imagine being strong!' [he said]."

Since the Poul Anderson story is out of print, you can read it through the Google Books initiative.


Now, let me be frank, there's no shoot 'em up in Anderson's story, and there's no love interest (but there's a suggestion of one to come after), but if nothing else, Anderson's story reads like a template for Avatar in exactly the same way Ellison's Outer Limits episodes, "Soldier" and "Demon With The Glass Hand," served for The Terminator.

Why would Cameron do this? Does he think nobody would notice? Was it unconscious? He claims the idea came to him as a fever dream, but I find that hard to believe. In the science fiction world – a world a geek like Cameron would have been very acquainted with growing up – Anderson's story is well known, even being included in an anthology put together by Orson Scott Card called Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century (2001). As Ellison said at the end of the Youtube piece above, and I’m paraphrasing, "If Cameron had just come to me and said, 'Look, I've got this idea that is another take on your two Outer Limits stories. Would you mind if I took my variation, and ran with it?' I [Ellison] would have said, 'with my blessings,' and I would have given them to him for free. All I would have wanted was a line in the end credits in the "thank yous" saying Harlan Ellison. All he had to do was ask, but he never did."

Sometimes ego gets in the way of good manners.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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