The new issue of the New Yorker – the best magazine in the world, hands down – has a fascinating profile of James Cameron. It’s a lengthy piece, and one that follows him on the set of Avatar as well as going over his entire career and life. Writer Dana Goodyear seems to have had a lot of access to Cameron and his people, and she doesn’t appear to have been able to figure out much more about Cameron than what we’ve seen before, but she does crystalize it all in an intriguing way.

What I took away from the piece is how deeply unlikeable Cameron is. A pompous asshole, Cameron comes across like a blowhard and a phony throughout, one of those Hollywood tough guys whose only life experience comes from buying his way into the world of adventure. The movie character who kept coming to mind, especially with Cameron’s landlubber fascination with the sea, was Francis Buxton from PeeWee’s Big Adventure. The fact that Cameron signs his notes ‘Jim out’ is the sort of thing that makes you wonder what level of self-awareness he maintains. Cameron often seems like a parody of a blowhard director, and Goodyear can’t help but end the story with an anecdote that makes the guy come across like something of a joke.

Goodyear gets inside the guy (and I think she discovers there’s not much in there) but I wish she had gotten inside the process. When it comes to art I don’t care about the artist unless I’m doing analysis; it’s intriguing to see the things I don’t like about Cameron’s films echoed in him in this profile, but it doesn’t tell me much about how he works. There is one amazing moment where Goodyear sits in on a meeting with WETA and listens in on Cameron talking about the render of a banshee, the pterodactyls that the Na’vi ride:

“Look at the gill-like membrane on the side of the mouth, its transmission of light, all the secondary color saturation on the tongue, and that maxilla bone. I love what you did with the translucence on the teeth, and the way the quadrate bone racks the teeth forward.”

You have to wonder if God Himself had meetings that detailed about elements of His creation. When Avatar comes out it’s going to be this obsessive attention to detail that makes the film or sinks it; with Titanic the verisimilitude added layers which buoyed the hackneyed romance, but where does verisimilitude fit into a film like Avatar? It’s hard to imagine George Lucas (who appears in the profile) worrying over the tooth structure of the aliens in the Mos Eisley Cantina. There’s a certain point in the creation of a new world where detail has to make way for the larger sweep of story and magic. I’m convinced that Cameron has the detail. What about the rest of it?