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Trompé Setsuled
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The Greatest and Most Expensive Bang



I've been nursing for a little while the idea of James Cameron, with Titanic and Avatar, being the twenty first century Cecil B. DeMille, creating popular movies of amazing spectacle with very little substance. When I say spectacle here, I'm not talking just in terms of expense, size, and quantity. A huge selling point for both Titanic and Avatar was that in both cases Cameron was doing something unprecedented--in Titanic it was the detail and scope of a production under the control of one man who forwent a pay check to see it through, and in Avatar it was the idea that the 3D was somehow better than 3D had ever been, and the cgi was somehow better than it had ever been. That neither of things really proved to be true may be beside the point. He got people to believe it. Selling himself and painting his films as extreme undertakings was also a big part of DeMille's career.

DeMille and Alfred Hitchcock were the best known directors of the studio era, virtually the only directors who became personalities that lasted for decades, but DeMille traded on this far more than Hitchcock through radio shows and political manoeuvrings. Cameron hasn't exactly gone so far as the latter (as far as we know), but with his recent publicised journey to the deepest part of the ocean, one can see a similarity in how the two directors made their personal lives a big part of their publicity machine. To test my idea in terms of film quality, yesterday, after seeing Titanic 3D with my mother and sister, I watched DeMille's 1952 film The Greatest Show on Earth.



Both movies won Best Picture, both possess qualities one associates with Best Picture winners--employing a number of known actors and crew, a melodramatic and shallow storyline that's also easily digestible and which generally handles large setpieces with good timing and proportion. Cameron benefits from filmmaking concepts like POV and cinematic expressionism that in DeMille's time were being pioneered by the likes of Hitchcock and Welles only to be made dogma by the 1960s' New Wave. And yet, of the two, The Greatest Show on Earth emerges as the more interesting film by far.

Both films have the virtue of including copious details from real life. One of my favourite things about Titanic are the intricately recreated set designs, props, and costumes. The Greatest Show on Earth benefited from having the actual 1950s era Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Circus and many of the best parts of the movie are essentially documentary footage, but DeMille does successfully integrate his actors into the reality of the circus on film. Titanic does this, too, but the circus performances, in addition the authenticity of their appearance, are more intrinsically interesting. In addition to the (presumably horrifically mistreated) animals and incredible acrobatics acts that were daring in ways one suspects are prohibited by modern safety regulations, the film includes rare colour footage of the famous clown Emmett Kelly.



In his brief moments onscreen, one gets some impression of his inimitable mixture of melancholy and absurdity, something portrayed a bit more literally by the clown played by James Stewart. Stewart's billed behind Charlton Heston, Betty Hutton, and Cornel Wilde despite being by far the most intriguing and frustrating character in the movie. In one of his early scenes, he quotes from Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol;

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!


It's surprising to hear Wilde quoted in a film by the deeply conservative DeMille and even moreso when this quote defines the story of Buttons, the clown Stewart portrays, as we learn that he's in fact a brilliant surgeon who's in hiding now because he murdered his wife. The film unreservedly portrays him has a sympathetic and even heroic character, which makes it frustrating that the issue of his wife's murder is never really addressed. When Hutton's character begs him to help Heston, who's injured, at the end, she says to him, "Maybe you killed someone . . . because you loved her very much . . . Now you can save someone I love." Here's an unaddressed issue bigger than the iceberg in Titanic.



The circus train wreck equals the Titanic disaster in its effective portrayal of sudden, dangerous chaos, particularly in the case of Titanic 3D, which renders the already dated cgi about as artificial as the models used in The Greatest Show on Earth.



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Tags: cecil b demille, james cameron, james stewart, movies, spectacle, the greatest show on earth, titanic
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