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The Fish Bites Back: James Cameron & Piranha 3D

I kinda sorta almost want to see Piranha 3D. Not because I think it will be good, you see, but because I genuinely want some cheap, visceral 3D action. After all, what’s the point of 3D if it’s simply adding several layours to your 2D watching experience. I realise this makes me sound like an uncultured slob (which, let’s face it, if the glove fits…) but I really want to see a tacky exploitative bit of 3D cinema where things fly out of the screen at me a make me jump out of my seat. It’s not a feeling I’m particularly proud of, but it’s there. Anyway, James Cameron seems to hate me, and people like me. When asked about Piranha 3D, he offered this snippet:

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.

Okay, I can’t quite argue with that, but it still seems a little bit harsh.

From the looks of it, what James Cameron wants to do to Piranha 3D...

Yes, Piranha 3D is pure schlock. It’s cheap and probably very nasty. Cameron’s criticism would arguably be a valid one, if this were a movie that anybody was taking remotely seriously. When your publicity campaign includes a surreal Ving Rhames Oscar-acceptance spoof, I think we’re looking at a film without any delusions of grandeur. Hell, even the inevitable rebuttle from the people at Piranha 3D seems to be a concession:

Shame on you for thinking that genre movies and the real maestros like Roger Corman and his collaborators are any less auteur or impactful in the history of cinema than you. Martin Scorcese made Boxcar Bertha at the beginning of his career. And Francis Ford Coppola made Dimentia 13 back in 1963. And those are just a few examples of the talented and successful filmmakers whose roots are in genre films. Who are you to impugn any genre film or its creators?

Admittedly, Mark Canton’s response inevitably gets a bit heated, fall back on arguments like the film needs to be seen with “common movie audiences” or that Cameron has lost touch or that Piranha is a (relative) critical and commercial success. The statement does make some accusations that even I found a bit over the top (I do think Cameron is in touch with regular audiences, there’s no way you produce Avatar and get that sort of box office without that connection), but I think the core point is the one outlined above: isn’t it really rude for a director or film maker to pass a critical judgement of a film they haven’t seen?

Don’t get me wrong, I see where Cameron is coming from. Post-production 3D is dodgy. It’s not something that we should take for granted, and certainly not something we should encourage for big tentpoles and major motion pictures. It often diminishes the content of the film it is used on. That said, it isn’t as if Final Destination 3D or Piranha 3D were pretending to be “cutting edge” 3D – this is consciously gimmicky (almost retro) use of the tool, designed to call to mind the more hackneyed productions of old and it’s hard to argue that films like that don’t necessarily have a place in the market.

3D technology is still in its “Ooh, ahh” stage – it’s something that the vast majority of moviegoers haven’t properly experienced yet. At this point, they don’t want to see the subtle waft of blades of grass on an alien planet, they want to dodge out of the way as a screwdriver flies directly at them at a hundred miles an hour. They want to see globs of blood splash out of the screen as someone gets their head smacked off with a chunk of masonry. They want to see an out of control car push someone’s guts through a wire fence. And all of those things can be found in The Final Destination.

Of course, all of this belies the fact that I’m not entirely won over by the argument that we “need” 3D. 2D is just fine for me anyway, not that Hollywood is giving me a choice in the matter – and the projections indicate that 3D is just the way things are gonna be.

Still, it feels a little unfair for the most successful director in the world (who has directed the two most financially successful films of all time) to pick on this film, which everybody will have forgotten about in less than a month. It’s like David versus Goliath, if Goliath brought the fight to an abrupt end by squashing David into a tiny, messy pool of goo. Quite frankly, Cameron is out of this film’s league, and it just feels odd for him to take time out to slam it.

James Cameron's got bite...

In fairness, he was asked a question directly about it in an interview, but one would expect a polite mumbling answer or an “I haven’t seen it”, but instead we got a mindful of James Cameron. The flipside of this that I normal hate the overly diplomatic answers that celebrities frequently offer to tough questions and hate it when creators don’t speak their minds about things, so maybe I’m being a bit hypocritical (perhaps like I was being when I got a little bit ticked off by Matthew Goode’s comments on Leap Year), but perhaps James Cameron is a special case.

Indeed, Cameron is a noticeably aggressive personality, and one who has arguably made a fair share of enemies through his no-nonsense attitude:

When Cameron got on stage after winning the Best Oscar for Titanic in 1998 and shouted, “I am the King of the World” it stirred up memories of every braggart and bully the members of the Academy ever encountered. That’s why people were so thrilled to stick it to him last year by giving the Best Picture Oscar to The Hurt Locker. They got to kick dirt in the bully’s face. Take that King of the World.

I can understand the argument which suggests that the trend towards being cynical towards Cameron comes from a sense of jealousy – I mean, he is on the shortlist of the most successful people on the planet, and that sort of attention does draw more than its fair share of detractors.

However, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to suggest that this emerging dislike towards Cameron comes as a direct result of his success. After all, there are any number of other successful directors who don’t attract the same sort of divisive commentary. Peter Jackson is still – despite two box office misfires – still warmly embraced by film fans, as is Christopher Nolan, despite making superhero films and vanity projects. Just because we can’t point to a more successful director who doesn’t attract this sort of attitude doesn’t mean that the cynicism towards Cameron is directly linked to his success. Although I will concede that, were Cameron not as successful, he’d have a much harder time getting publicity for being such an ass.

I don’t know. I know it seems a bit hypocritical of me to criticise James Cameron for only really offering the truth, but I just find it a little bit irritating how he seems to be entirely dismissive of the use of 3D in anyway that doesn’t meet his own standards of artistic expression. It’s somewhat ironic for a blogger to criticise someone for airing an opinion, but it seems ridiculously unfair for the “king of the world” to slam his foot down from on high at a film he hasn’t even seen because he feels it is somehow cheapening the work that he is doing.

Maybe it’s the urge to root for the underdog shining through here – and again, Mark Canton’s defense of Piranha isn’t exactly iron-clad – but I think the real problem here is that Cameron took the time to say something rude which really didn’t need to be said. We know it’s trash. I probably won’t even get to see it, as “schlock” will always be trumped by something of merit on my cinema trips. It just seems insulting to so casually dismiss a film that really shouldn’t be on his radar.

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5 Responses

  1. Don’t know if Cameron’s actually seen Piranha 3D but I (with no bias whatsoever) would say that the 3D in it – totally retrofitted – was as good as Avatar, if not better.

    When I saw Avatar in 3D the scenes had a background and two or three thing ‘sticking out’ at different depths. Piranha – after the opening credits, which ARE tripe – generally has a good depth and the characters look like they’re interacting with the environments – and not just ‘floating’ above a background.

    In short, I noticed I was watching Avatar in 3D WAY WAY WAY more than I did Piranha.

  2. You know my writing and you know that I rarely if ever swear, but James Cameron is such a fucking jackass.

    Rewinding a bit, I’ve had a post brewing for some time about the worth of genre filmmaking, and Cameron’s words really impelled me to get cracking on it. (That said I’m not sure I want to post ANOTHER article inspired by my sheer dislike of the man…) I don’t get where he’s coming from at all– I mean, this is the guy who brought us Aliens, the two good Terminator movies, and True Lies. Genre filmmaking gave birth to him. Slamming genre filmmaking on any strata just reads as being really disingenuous from him.

    What’s really bizarre to me is his thinking that 3D today ISN’T being used just to bleed more dollars out of a given film. That’s exactly what it’s being used for. In fact, as much as I’m not an Avatar fan by any stretch of the imagination, I’d still argue that Avatar is really the only film since the 3D craze began that actually did anything special with the technology– and it wasn’t really THAT special beyond just being prettier. How is Alice In Wonderland throwing teacups at the audience not a perversion of the medium? Fuck, how is 3D post-conversion not cheapening the medium?

    Cameron must live on a totally fucking different world from you and I, which is entirely possible because he has more money than God and could probably fund construction of his own mansion on the Moon or something. The man needs a dose of reality.

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