Consider two directors, James Cameron and Richard Kelly: two careers going in different directions, the line between them thinner than one might think. Each has a singularly distinct vision; each dabbles in sci-fi-fantasy; each thumbs his nose at the studio system by following obsessions that go right over the edge to worlds beyond. Yet Cameron has made a habit out of transforming certain folly into unfathomable success, while Kelly lately is seen as squandering his talent into quantum stinkers. Where does one go right where the other goes wrong -- and how are we defining right and wrong anyway?
Avatar is being called many things, yet what's being overlooked is how fascinatingly it fits into Cameron's body of work as well as being (for him) something completely new. I don't mean only the technological advances, which are truly eye-popping. (Avatar is my first ever "IMAX experience," and first time I've worn the special glasses in twenty-five years; suffice to say things have improved slightly since Jaws 3-D.) Cameron still knows how to craft a story that engages an audience -- one that's sneakily subversive at that. Aliens was a gung-ho Reagan-Era war movie that undercut its own machismo by having all the male characters get their asses kicked, to where Ripley and the alien mother were left standing. Avatar features more chest-thumping love of weaponry and stuff that blows up real good; yet its main character, the paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, who provides a low-key, emotionally direct center), gradually comes to join forces with the Na'vi tribe he's supposed to be working against. If audiences are noticing the implications of the thinly-veiled Iraq War metaphors -- with American soldiers getting knocked off by the dozens at the climax -- they don't seem to mind.
Conversely, Richard Kelly's Southland Tales, which came out in 2006 about a year after a hostile reception at Cannes, wears its politics on its sleeve. Set in a "future" (2008) that is in some ways more outlandish than Avatar's (where there are still wheelchairs and cigarettes and a white majority), Southland Tales begins with a nuclear attack on American soil and ends with what may be the Second Coming. Yet it's not an unsettling experience like Michael Tolkin's The Rapture. The tone is joshing, buoyant, satirical, which may have worked had Kelly bothered with any kind of narrative coherence. Instead, he sets up clearly defined sides in a conflict -- reactionary Republicans vs. neo-Marxists -- only to muddy the waters by showing many of his characters working both sides of the fence. Similar to the original Manchurian Candidate, Southland Tales suggests that the extremist factions of the left and right have more in common with each other than anyone else. Problem is, he has nobody remotely "normal" for the audience to identify with.
In Avatar, Sully's disability -- and his refusal to let the loss of his legs get the better of him -- puts us on his side immediately; he's an unremarkable but wholly sympathetic protagonist. Additionally, by writing a strong character for Sigourney Weaver (scientist Grace Augustine, who creates the "avatar program" -- native alter-egos -- in order to get better acquainted with the Na'vi), Cameron proves once again that he's one of the few male filmmakers who know how to write women. His casting has become almost Tarantino-esque, offering meaty parts to non-A-list actors like Worthington, Weaver, the problematic Michelle Rodriguez (as a soldier who comes to question her mission), and best of all Stephen Lang as Col. Quaritch, the military commander of the invasion of the planet Pandora, where the Na'vi reside. Lang managed to create a fleshed-out character in Public Enemies despite Michael Mann's best efforts to keep him trapped in the amber of the frame with about eight lines of dialogue (seven of which he utters at the end). He does better by Cameron, who makes Quaritch a sadist, yes, but also a man who is true to his word.
In general, Avatar demonstrates that James Cameron is an underrated screenwriter. Yes, his dialogue is as lousy as ever (his favorite line still being "Oh, shit!"); but he's surprisingly deft with structure and characterization. Unlike Southland Tales, which goes in about fifteen directions in the first thirty minutes, Avatar has a clear thoroughfare from start to finish, and its characters manage to have easily understood exteriors with suggestions of depths beneath. If Giovanni Ribisi's capitalist opportunist in Avatar is less subtle than Paul Reiser's progenitor in Aliens, he nonetheless reveals serious misgivings, more shadings than you normally see from this kind of character in this kind of movie.
James Cameron hasn't an ironic bone in his body; how could he to make a movie that employs cutting-edge technology to trumpet the simple virtues of people of the land? His tall, blue, long-tailed Na'vi, who looked ridiculous in the previews, win you over out of the director's sheer conviction: Sully comes to love them, and so we love them too. Richard Kelly, on the other hand, almost seems to want to alienate his audience. His famous debut, Donnie Darko, picked up a large cult following, I suspect, because its convoluted time-warp plot was attached to an interesting and engaging central character. (I haven't seen his latest effort, The Box.) Southland Tales multiples the ensemble along with the narrative contortions: it's a cheeky joke that Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Seann William Scott, Mandy Moore, Nora Dunn, Justin Timberlake, Christopher Lambert, Jon Lovitz, and just about every other B- and C-lister figure in a film that begins with "Chapter IV" and leaves out vital pieces of information until the end. But the cherry on top was casting Sarah Michelle Gellar as a porn star -- which, as Robin Williams might say, is like Gandhi on catering. (Gellar, as with that other thrice-named Sarah, Ms. Jessica Parker, always wants to give the impression that she's naughtier than she's actually willing to be.) Southland Tales managed the unlikely feat of pissing off both French and Americans because it indicts all sides of its argument under a thick layer of irony.
Yet a funny thing happened last week, when Southland Tales finally crept to the top of my Netflix queue: I adored it. The movie is long and ungainly, with more than a few awful scenes and various off-putting grotesqueries. Yet beneath the ironic gaze, Kelly shows real affection for his characters and gives his performers a lot of line to take risks, some of which come off beautifully. Johnson is charmingly neurotic as Boxer Santoros, a movie star with a case of amnesia and family ties to the Republican Party. Scott is a revelation as doppelganger police officers Roland and Ronald Taverner. Miranda Richardson displays wicked cunning as Boxer's mother, the head of a Patriot Act extension called USIdent. Former SNL regulars Cheri Oteri and Nora Dunn dig into their roles as neo-Marxist nutballs, while Jon Lovitz has a startling cameo as a trigger-happy cop. And as it turns out, Gellar's overstudied, anti-sensual acting style proves a perfect fit for Krysta Now, who dreams of leaving the pornography industry for the holy land of talk shows and energy drinks.
What is more, Kelly knows how to stage big payoff scenes -- whether they be Timberlake's shellshocked Iraq War veteran lip-synching to the Killers' "All These Things That I've Done," or Rebekah Del Rio's spine-tingling interpretation of "The Star-Spangled Banner." (Both sequences suggest he could make one hell of a great musical.) And for all his wayward digressions, Kelly shares Cameron's gift for bringing various strands together for a rousing climax. Avatar ends with a climactic battle on Pandora between the heavy artillery under Quaritch's command and the Native-American-style of combat of the Na'vi. It's unabashedly exhilarating spectacle. Yet the final hour of Southland Tales -- involving urban warfare on the ground and a mega-zeppelin and floating ice-cream truck in the air (trust me, it makes sense) -- has such a poetic lyricism I hope Kelly learns it as a lesson that narrative clarity need not be the enemy, no matter what David Lynch tells him.
The over-the-top vitriol toward Southland Tales -- a movie not even grade-inflater Roger Ebert could love -- confirms two things: the French have lost their sense of adventure; and thanks to PR wizards who know how to manipulate the hype machine, actual cinematic disasters are so rare these days that on the rare occasion critics get a whiff of blood they circle like sharks for the kill. Richard Kelly hasn't yet earned the props of James Cameron, whose dynamic with film critics largely depends on him snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. (When the occasional Kenneth Turan attempts to take him down a peg, it plays into the director's me-against-the-world persona even after he tries to use his power to get them canned.)
That's the narrative the self-crowned "King of the World" has crafted for himself in recent years, one that's become so iconic it's easy to forget that Cameron's only bona fide flop -- The Abyss -- remains one of his most interesting works to date. That movie, beneath all its special effects wizardry, remains a rather poignant examination of marriage, a pet theme that Cameron returned to again in True Lies and hasn't looked back since. Like Titanic, Avatar revolves instead around young romance -- love fills the seats when it's burgeoning instead of dissolving. I don't begrudge Cameron the shift in focus; for being such a blowhard off-camera, with a fair share of troubled marriages to strong women with whom he shared professional partnerships (Kathryn Bigelow, Gale Anne Hurd, Linda Hamilton), he's sincerely devoted to his characters, never cynical or contemptuous, patient enough with their stories that occasionally -- as with a scene late in Avatar, when he eroticizes the sixty-and-still-got-it Weaver -- he surprises us with an indelible image.
Visually, Avatar moves into uncharted terrain for its director, veering from his patented blacks and grays to bursts of gorgeous reds, purples and greens. Yet the switch from shiny-cool surfaces -- dazzling though it is -- doesn't take away the sense that something vital remains lacking from Cameron's palette, that he's repressing things that matter to him in order to connect to a larger audience. I got a big kick out of Avatar; it's a captivating entertainment. Yet had I seen it in 2-D, as a regular movie than an "experience," I doubt I'd have been as wowed.
Groundbreaking though James Cameron's films are, they don't age well. (The exception being the original Terminator, which creates a potent mythic universe with a buck-fifty budget in under two hours of screen time.) His movies are very much of their moment, and almost quaintly exist for the big screen. Whereas the qualities of Lawrence of Arabia still hold up on TV (whatever it lacks otherwise), Titanic's flaws magnify as its visual-emotional impact shrinks. I'm betting the same fate is in store for Avatar; after a few years, I can't see even its most ardent fans gathering around at midnight to watch it the way Donnie Darko's do. Easily distracted, by then they'll likely have moved on to the Next Big Thing.
Will Southland Tales eventually garner its share of devotees? Ed Howard reported that the teenagers in his audience "seemed surprisingly appreciative of Kelly's weirdo opus, suggesting that suburban America is ready for this film, if only they'd heard about it." My hunch, though, is Richard Kelly's satirical/political/theological/ philosophical/sociological/comic-book pastiche appeals to a very limited niche; that for all his flaky brilliance, he could use a dash of James Cameron's populism if he hopes to remain relevant (i.e., employed) as a filmmaker. I don't begrudge Kelly's artistic choices any more than I do Cameron's. This comparison isn't about creating a false dichotomy in which one is preferable over the other. But clearly the future of cinema is preferring one style as it leaves the other behind. And I think it is in cinema's best interests for all species of film to have a fighting chance to survive.