The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron, Rebecca Keegan

Crown, 2009, 273 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-46031-8

Admitting that James Cameron is one of my favourite directors is endangering my movie-reviewing license and exposing myself to endless mocking.  Somehow, the more successful his films become, the most acceptable it is to dismiss his achievements.  But as someone whose mind was blown away by Aliens and Terminator 2, someone who still likes Titanic and Avatar despite the faux-chic scorn they attracted, it was hard to pass up Cameron’s latest biography, one that picks up twelve years after Christopher Heard’s poorly-sourced Dreaming Aloud.

Rebecca Keegan has one big advantage over Heard, and it’s that she wasn’t limited to newspaper clippings and a few meagre interviews: she reportedly had full access to Cameron, his family and his long list of friends and acquaintances in Hollywood.  As a result, The Futurist is a rich and well-researched book, one that remains interesting throughout and not just when its subject hits the big time.

Of course, the notion of “big time” for Cameron starts early, as he’s been helming his own celluloid visions since 1984’s The Terminator.  Every subsequent Cameron film after that is a study in increasingly complex endeavours, with making-of stories that rival the film itself.  “Just another day on a Cameron set” may include everything from hanging off a plane suspended by a crane over the Miami skyline, nearly drowning in an abandoned nuclear reactor cooling tower, building a near-full-scale model of the Titanic with period detail, or inventing new technology to get unprecedented visuals.  From its very title, The Futurist aims to show how much of a visionary Cameron truly is; how he has the mind of an engineer, the hands of an artist and the eye of a filmmaker.  Tales after tale show Cameron doing things no one else has ever done before, winning large bets against those who said it just couldn’t be done.

The flip-side of this incredible forward drive is Cameron’s abrasive personality, one that has annoyed a number of award-watchers, left film crews rebellious and broken four of his own marriages.  Cameron delivers fantastic movies, but he’s a demanding master in making them.  But then again, he has paid his dues: One of the best-known stories about him involve feverish sickness in Rome while fruitlessly re-editing his first film (an episode that would lead, as fans know, to the genesis of the Terminator films), but Keegan also reports on a lesser-known story about his first shoot that involved Cameron literally mopping up blood on the set and trying to keep the rest of the lunching crew from finding out what happens when you shoot in a real morgue.  Keegan doesn’t shy away from describing Cameron at his worst or identifying who has said they would never want to work with him again, but she does her best to show how the same facets of his personality can lead to good and bad.

The rest of the book is just as skilful.  With deft and clear narration, Keegan moves from project to project, weaving industry facts with recollections from Cameron acquaintances.  For moviegoers, The Futurist is a lot of fun to read.  I don’t follow gossip much, and so there were a number of new anecdotes to me here and there, including one in which Cameron helped arrange for the safe release of Guillermo del Toro’s father after a kidnapping.  Perhaps the most revelatory section of the book follows Cameron in the twelve years between the release of Titanic and Avatar.  Flush with cash and acclaim, Cameron chose to step away from Hollywood and spend a decade indulging in his passions, from deep-sea diving to space exploration and setting up the new technology that we would need to deliver Avatar.

Given all of this, the flaws of The Futurist are slight, obvious and inevitable.  Released to coincide with Avatar’s release, it hopes for another Cameron success but really has no idea how big the movie would become, and how warmly it would be greeted by audiences.  Then again, updated material is what paperback editions are meant to feature.  (One wishes, though, that some of Keegan’s most ridiculous claims about Cameron’s predictive powers would be toned down: Using Arab terrorists in 1995’s True Lies doesn’t make him anticipate Al Quaida any more than did contemporary thrillers such as Executive Decision and Air Force One.)

It’s not quite the ultimate Cameron biography (one hope that he still has a few great movies in him), but it’s a very good one.  It’s certainly the best and most complete book about Cameron’s life so far (even though Paula Parisi’s Titanic and the Making of James Cameron remains a resource for Titanic minutiae) and a pretty good compendium of arguments for those willing to argue that Cameron is among the most important directors of the past quarter-century.

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