Friday, July 22, 2016

The Abyss

The Abyss
Sundance Channel viewing

I always thought Ed Harris should have been a bigger star. Like Harrison Ford, he's got the rugged good looks, he can do action or drama and sell you on him with a fierce intensity, and he's worked with some great directors: Cameron, Stone, Howard, Eastwood, and Weir, to name a few. Plus, he's a great yeller. I usually expect him to do some quality yelling whenever I see him in a movie. He's just really good at it. If you saw enough of his movies, you'd understand.

1989-2002 was probably Harris' peak period. He alternated between Best Picture contenders (Nixon, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The Hours) and quality popcorn fare (The Firm, Absolute Power, The Truman Show, and yes, even The Rock, a movie I love unironically because of him specifically). He even found time to direct himself in a wonderful biopic of painter Jackson Pollock (fun fact: the art coach who helped Harris learn how to paint like Pollock is a former employer of mine).

He holds your attention even when he's just sitting in a room talking. A lot of it is in his eyes, where much of the best acting comes from. Yes, he yells, but it's not an Al Pacino swagger or a Tom Cruise petulance. When Harris yells, you feel like it's coming from his very soul. I do, anyway.

Harris doesn't like talking about The Abyss. By a number of accounts, it was a stressful and highly demanding shoot for a film that didn't do well at the box office. Time has been kind to it, though, especially since the longer, restored edition was released on home video. That's the version I usually see on TV now, and it was the version Sundance showed.

I think Harris is terrific in the film, but knowing how James Cameron got that performance out of him - apparently Harris almost drowned at one point - gives me the shivers. For a director, it's a hell of a conundrum: how far do you push an actor to get the best possible performance out of him or her? Filmmaking should be a collaborative process, but Cameron is notorious for his dictatorial ways on the set. He got a great performance from Harris. But Harris was practically traumatized by the experience. I wish I could say the ends justified the means, but I don't know if that's true here.

Whenever I think of Cameron's films, sooner or later I'm reminded of my friend James. I met him in college. At the time, he was an aspiring filmmaker, and Cameron was his idol. James would tell me all kinds of geeky details about The Abyss, the first two Terminator movies, Aliens and True Lies - the kinds of things the average person can learn on Wikipedia today. He knew all of it long before the Internet. The early 90s were roughly the time that laser discs were popular, and he was deep into those, so that's where he must have gotten much of his information.

He may have been the first movie geek I ever knew. I remember thinking how amazing it was that he knew so much about movies. These days, he's into self-publishing comics - another interest he's had for as long as I've known him. I don't know if he still wants to make movies, but as relatively easy as it is to do these days, I wouldn't be surprised if that's what he's done too.

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