As Avatar-fever begins to grip the nation and the world, writer/director/deep-sea-diver James Cameron is once again back in the spotlight. Any time an ambitious and successful figure takes such a long layoff (Axl Rose), it is important to take note – has it really been 12 years since Titanic?! How our hearts have gone on…

In case it wasn’t abundantly clear before, Cameron’s layoff has everything to do with an almost astronomical need to prove himself. To be the best and the biggest. His identity is so completely wrapped up in his achievements, in his works if you will, that each project needs to exceed the one before it, and vastly so. A new movie is only worth filming if it pushes every boundary and redefines the cinematic experience. Just read about the lengths to which he’s gone to get Avatar on the screen (3-D cameras, CGI, etc) – it defies the imagination. Not surprisingly, it sounds like he is a complete nightmare to work for/with, and even worse to be married to.

Avatar is already being called “the future of movies,” a term I would be surprised if Cameron hadn’t planted in the press. On this blog, we enjoy tracing the human impulse for self-justification, and I don’t think we’ve come across such a potent example since, well, Axl Rose. Or Michael Jackson. A few quotes from a revealing interview he did with The Daily Mail tell the whole story (ht DB):

‘What people call obsession or passion, for me it’s just a work ethic. I think it comes from an insecurity that I’m not good enough.’

Born in Kapuskasing near Niagara Falls in Canada, his father was an electrical engineer and his mother an artist. He did not get on with his father and became engrossed in science fiction from an early age.

His epiphany came when he saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. He saw the film ten times and became obsessed with the accompanying ‘behind the scenes’ book, and painstakingly recreated the story with rockets and planets that he had made.

Although he had a natural aptitude and love of engineering, he turned his back on it – mainly, it seems, to annoy his father. He says of his early career: ‘I would say that my father was completely unsupportive in any way, shape or form and was sharpening his knives waiting for me to fail, so he could say: “Ah-ha, I was right. You should have gone into engineering.”

‘Because there was zero support there, it made me angry enough that I had to succeed. It made me mad and I had to prove that I was right, and it made me mad enough to get good and to survive.’

Once you’ve made the highest-grossing film of all time, or recorded Appetite For Destruction or Thriller for that matter, what next? We have seen time and again that the internal and external expectations/pressures associated with that kind of success crush people, and that the emotional need driving said person has to be incredibly deep-seeded to withstand it. This may be the “law of the world” but it is the Law nonetheless, and it is a dead-end street. In Axl’s case, it led to 14 years of recrimination and creative stalemate. In Michael’s case, it birthed a bizarre self-deification process that took him pretty much as far out as you can go. Most people crack up or give up; Cameron, despite four divorces(!), has yet to reach his breaking point, and the hope here is that we all get to enjoy the fruits of his super-sized super-ego once more (hopefully in an Aliens- and not in a Titanic-kind-of-way).

I hope Avatar is everything people are saying it is. Lord knows we could use some top-flight entertainment this Christmas. But our word to Cameron would be about identity as a gift, something that is bestowed rather than earned. The good news of a crucified savior who does for us what we could never do for ourselves, who lived and died and rose again in the place of broken and, yes, paralyzed (wheelchair-bound) people.

I suppose what I really want to ask is, with tongue only partially in cheek, was Jesus Christ the first and ultimate avatar?!