James Cameron and the Economy of Style

by criticalhit009

The blog Digital Didascalia by binarybastard started a small blog series on James Cameron’s Terminator, exploring the expediency and impact of his visual style. I’ve been thinking of writing a bit on Cameron myself, so I thought I’d add to the discussion now.

binarybastard’s main word he uses to describe Cameron’s masterful work is “concision.” I agree. It’s Cameron’s concise use of both form and function that makes his film making so effective. To illustrate this, I’ll use one example that was taught in my own film education from that ever so popular blockbuster, Titanic.

Please permit the text on the image, it was the best I could find on short notice. Pictures from left to right: Cal, Ruth, Rose, and a family servant.

Here we can see Cameron’s precision film making at work. Aside from the spectacle of the visuals (set and costume design, etc), we can gather a lot of information just purely based on Cameron’s style. We can interpret all the major relationships from this image, and indeed the blocking of the shot is structured to function in such a fashion. Just from this image, we see that the aristocratic Cal and Ruth convene only within their social class, talking to only themselves. Rose does not, literally and figuratively separating herself from the rest of the aristocracy by communing with her servant and thus the lower classes.

Where the attention of each character in this shot says a lot about what they are primarily focused on. Cal, a businessman at heart, is focused on looking at his paperwork. Concerned about the family’s financial future, Ruth seeks to marry her daughter Rose off to Cal, thus explaining her attentive gaze upon Cal’s face. However, Rose’s attention lies elsewhere, particularly in stimulating conversation with her servant. (In fact, her intellectual curiosity is an important character trait, as Cracked explains.)

Aside from personal goals and relationship dynamics, the composition of the shot also transmits the importance of the characters to the audience. Just from this shot, we can tell that Rose is a main character: she is near the center of the frame, with her body turned for the largest physical impact. With her outward turned hand and umbrella, she dominates the space in relation to the other characters. Through all this, we see Rose’s physical posture towards her servant in conversation is an efficient and effective method of conveying information: it not only illustrates her importance as a main character, but also her stance towards class difference.

This brief snippet of the boarding scene sets up the character dynamics of the whole film, all packed into a few wonderful frames. This serves as an illustrative example of the beautiful synthesis of form and function Cameron has mastered in his films, proving his strength as a visionary film director.