Why James Cameron is no Cecil B. DeMille.

Why James Cameron is no Cecil B. DeMille. (photo)

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We’re approaching the awards season home stretch — the Golden Globes are done, the Oscar announcements are in two weeks.

Some previously surefire contenders have fallen by the wayside since critics’ associations started putting out their lists in December. “Precious” — which I wasn’t alone in thinking a “Slumdog Millionaire”-esque Best Picture contender — has topped off at just under $45 million at the box office, and no one but Mo’Nique seems to be still gunning for Oscar glory (though a friend of mine enmeshed in graduate school academia assures me black studies will be grappling with the film for years, so there’s that).

The biggest Globes news (beside the fact that host Ricky Gervais was funny but inexplicably poorly reviewed) was that “Avatar” appears on track for Best Picture, though its Golden Globe victory hardly makes that a certainty. As Xan Brooks at the Guardian points out, in the last five years only “Slumdog” got Best Picture both at the Globes and Oscars.

But you can sense the buzz around “Avatar” as an indicator of a major shift in awardsland, thought what it means depends on where you’re standing. For the cranky Brooks, the win “tarnishes” the Globes (um, they can be tarnished? I thought we just tuned in to watch the drinks manifest themselves onstage) because it’s a Hollywood circle-jerk. You really can’t win sometimes. Complain about the awards being out-of-touch with ordinary filmgoers, get awarded a populist victory and what happens? People start complaining about the self-congratulatory speeches.

Closer to home, people are thrilled — none more so than Betsy Sharkey in the Los Angeles Times, whose victory lap pretty gave me hives. Using the fact that Scorsese got the Cecil B. DeMille award as a starting point, Sharkey concludes that the awards exemplified the spirit of DeMille: “forever the populist, never the auteur.” Which is a good thing: unlike those huffy snots “De Sica, Welles, Hitchcock and the like” (the like? Would you like to try to group together three less similar filmmakers?), DeMille didn’t “push the artistic and intellectual boundaries of film.” Instead, he “never lost sight of his audience, mostly hardworking folks.”

Sometimes you have to wonder if it isn’t a good thing that the newspapers are dying; Sharkey’s language here is inadvertently pretty close to the worst kind of demagoguery. But what’s more interesting is the way the comparison becomes weirder and more instructive if you follow it. DeMille was so intensely conservative that while on the Screen Directors Guild in 1950, he tried to push through a bylaw requiring all members to sign a loyalty oath. Reflecting the climate of the ’50s, he conceived of “The Ten Commandments” as a political statement (Judeo-Christian values vs. the Communist threat) and had Ten Commandments monuments spread all over the land, as promotion and a proclamation of principles.

Cameron is the biggest showman of our time, and nothing if not an unapologetic populist. But he’s as liberal as DeMille was conservative — if you want to push that comparison to its logical conclusion, that would mean that Hollywood is every bit as liberal now as it was conservative 50 years ago. (Which, well, duh.)

Even more, DeMille’s early work (particularly the silents) has been enthusiastically reclaimed by avant-garde enthusiasts as pure, unfettered insanity, inadvertently deranged in its gonzo scale. As spectacle films decay with technological advances and the cracks start to show, excess starts to look downright surreal. So keep that in mind before blathering about populism — yesterday’s spectacle is tomorrow’s novelty.

[Photos: “Avatar,” 20th Century Fox, 2009; “The Ten Commandments,” Paramount, 1956]

Carol Cate Blanchett

Spirit Guide

Check Out the Spirit Awards Nominees for Best Male and Female Leads

Catch the 2016 Spirit Awards live Feb. 27th at 5P ET/2P PT on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/©Weinstein Company/Courtesy Everett Collection

From Jason Segel’s somber character study of author David Foster Wallace, to Brie Larson’s devastating portrayal of a mother in captivity, the 2016 Spirit Awards nominees for Best Male and Female Leads represent the finest in the year of film acting. Take a look at the Best Male and Female Leads in action, presented by Jaguar.

Best Male Lead 

Christopher Abbott, James White
Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation
Ben Mendelsohn, Mississippi Grind
Jason Segel, The End of the Tour
Koudous Seihon, Mediterranea

Watch more Male Lead nominee videos here.

Best Female Lead 

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Rooney Mara, Carol
Bel Powley, The Diary of A Teenage Girl
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Tangerine

Watch more Female Lead nominee videos here.

Morphing, “Avatar” and how cutting-edge effects eventually become everyday.

Morphing, “Avatar” and how cutting-edge effects eventually become everyday. (photo)

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We’ve now moved past the first stage of “Avatar” — doubt — and on to the box office record breaking, the hysteria, the reverence and every kind of mass-cultural reaction. So, naturally, we’d also like to know what’s next.

In the New York Times, Michael Cieply roots around for this very thing. “I can’t, offhand, see another half-billion-dollar production,” Sony sales and marketing VP Alec Shapiro shrugs. He suggests the movie will be profitable but one-of-a-kind for the time being. It’s just too expensive to try to replicate an immersive, photo-realistic 3D environment without Cameron’s action savvy to back up the gamble, even behind his very own camera.

Cameron’s a brand name, which seems to be what drove the initial rush to the theaters rather than the much-vaunted technological breakthroughs themselves. But it’s safe to say that since Cameron invented and test-drove the technology, it’ll only go down in price in the future. It’ll take a while for Cameron’s effects to become cheap(er) and ubiquitous, but it’ll happen.

For a comparable example of Cameron’s tech innovations (on a much smaller scale), look at morphing. It had been around in various forms before 1989’s “The Abyss” (like when George Lucas conjured up Patricia Hayes out of a succession of animals), when Cameron’s team became the first in the movies to graft a real human face onto a soft surface.

For “Terminator 2,” Cameron took morphing further, turning Robert Patrick into liquid steel, or whoever he was impersonating, or a mixture of both. But eventually the effect became cheap enough to harness for TV commercials, and went from a stunner into banality. Take this Schick commercial from 1993, a self-consciously race-balanced spot with a morphing twist:

And in this highly enjoyable Miller Lite ad from 1991, they recap the last 30 years of popular culture and clothing — tie-dyes to bell-bottoms to punk to The Future — through the magic of what was once cutting-edge cinematic technology:

[Photo: “The Abyss,” 20th Century Fox, 1989]

“Avatar”‘s first step toward cable rerun purgatory.

“Avatar”‘s first step toward cable rerun purgatory. (photo)

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First, there was “Avatar,” the unmissable cinematic spectacle audiences are actually willing to wait to see in 3D-enabled cinemas.

Then there were the jokes about bootlegging it.

Then there were actual bootlegs and, finally, the negotiations for cable rights.

“‘Avatar’ has amazing FX — and it soon could be aring [sic] on FX. The cable network, that is,” writes a breathless Josef Adalian at The Wrap. Well, sure — FX will have a leg up on the bid price since it’s also under the Fox corporate umbrella, the cost will probably be a hefty $30 million, it could very well be aired on TV in 3D, and on, and on.

Even the movie that’s changing cinema forever or whatever must, sooner or later, make its way to its eternal basic cable resting place. The action movie still doesn’t get to be called “art” by most, though these days it’s taken more seriously than, say, in the ’70s, when taut genre exercises everyone swoons over now were just written off as violent B-movie trash.

01072010_avatar88.jpgThere are all kinds of late-night movies that gain ubiquity and some kind of cultural power through sheer repetition: bad ’80s films bought cheap, long-forgotten romcoms, sci-fi non-staples. But by far the saddest is the event-y action film that was once blasted large and loud over 10 out of the 12 screens at your local multiplex, licensed at great expense, “premiered” in edited-for-content-and-to-fit-the-screen form and then slowly slinking into mundaneness. Suddenly it’s 3am and you’re watching Dolph Lundgren fight anonymous Slavic people.

Right now “Avatar” is king of the world. But in five or seven years, its gleam will be gone, and it’ll be just another insomniac staple, airtime filler, running in inescapable loops through the night, bracketed by shabby local advertising. And to think of that’s a little sad, because the best action movies are as valuable as anything else, but eventually TV airings turn everything into explosions punctuated with dialogue made for channel-surfing.

[Photos: “Avatar,” 20th Century Fox, 2009]

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