Wednesday, April 11, 2012

From the Archive: Titanic (1997)


As you know from my blog's posts this week, April 14, 2012 marks the century point since the Titanic disaster.  That incident on the seas -- on that long-ago April night -- has been the inspiration for film and television for decades, but it was the 1997 film from director James Cameron that remains, perhaps, the definitive version of that tale.  

As you may recall, Titanic was far-and-away the biggest movie event of the 1990s.  It was the highest grossing film of all time until beaten out by Cameron's Avatar in 2009, and it remained at the number one slot at the American box office for a whopping fifteen weeks. 

In the end, Titanic grossed nearly two billion dollars on a budget of two-hundred million. The film also earned Best Director and Best Picture Academy Awards for Cameron, plus ten more Oscars (including for composer James Horner).   The film currently ranks on AFI's top 100 movies of all-time list as well.  Impressively, Titanic elevated leads Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet to the ranks of super-stardom, and even gave singer Celine Dion a career renaissance.

In terms of Cameron's films, we've seen time and time again how this director adroitly crafts these giant, technically-accomplished, extremely emotional films, and Titanic is no exception.  In fact, Titanic may be Cameron's most "naked" film in terms of its effective and manipulative plucking of the heart strings.  

Specifically, he depicts a tale of first love between two enormously likable, star-crossed lovers, and then tears that young duo asunder so that viewers will connect meaningfully with the tragic events of April 15, 1912, the tragic sinking of the RMS Titanic

One character in the film, considering the Titanic disaster from the vantage point of the 1990s, observes that he never before really let "it in," and that's a big clue about Cameron's modus operandi here. 

He wants us to let it in, to let it wash over us in visceral, heart-pounding terms.  In this way, viewers can recognize and reckon with the human aspects of the disaster.

Titanic certainly took the world by storm in December of 1997, but as always when a film proves this big and popular some people find it fashionable to participate in a "backlash" against it.  Once more, it's the Woody Allen critique I delineated in regards to Avatar.  Some people simply won't be part of any club that has them for a member; and believe they can distinguish themselves by mocking/protesting/boycotting a popular film.   Again, this approach is different from disliking a film on artistic grounds. This is merely contrariness for the sake of it.

And yet the pull of James Cameron's Titanic -- like the ocean itself -- remains utterly irresistible.  The film immerses you in a very specific time period and a very specific place, and in the details of Rose and Jack's love story.  And then the movie puts you through the torments of Hell itself as the Titanic struggles to take its final breath before going under.  You'd have to be a stone to remain unmoved after the climax of this thrilling, heart-breaking film.

Before this week, I had not seen Titanic in over ten years.  I'd forgotten how powerfully it tugs at the audience's emotions.  There are some moments here as absolutely throat-tightening and uncomfortable as the drowning scene in Cameron's The Abyss (1989), and some moments that -- despite the girding of your heart against such sentimental manipulation -- prove absolutely affecting.

This is one of those big, entertaining Hollywood blockbusters where you can either play curmudgeon and stubbornly attempt to resist the tide, or let yourself be swept along into a compelling story, beautifully rendered. 

I recommend the latter approach.

A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets

When 101 year old Titanic survivor Rose (Gloria Stuart) learns that scavenger Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) has uncovered an eighty-four year old sketch from a safe aboard the sunken Titanic, she travels with her grand-daughter to sea, to the site of the sinking,  to learn more about the find. 

Meanwhile, Brock wishes to question Rose about the final disposition of a large diamond believed to be on the Titanic: the Heart of the Ocean.

As Rose soon reveals, she is the (nude) woman drawn in that sketch; the woman wearing the Heart of the Ocean. 

She then recounts the tale of Titanic's maiden voyage: Rose (Winslet) and her mother traveled aboard "the ship of dreams" with Rose's fiancee, the rich but cruel Cal Hockley (Billy Zane).   Rose felt trapped in her relationship with Cal and attempted suicide, but was saved from jumping into the sea by a third-class passenger and "tumbleweed blowing in the wind," Jack Dawson (Leonardo Di Caprio).

Jack and Rose fell deeply in love, even as Cal presented his betrothed with the diamond as an engagement gift. 

But Cal did not like to lose, and set his manservant, Lovejoy (David Warner) to frame Jack for larceny. 

But then everything changed when the speeding Titanic struck an iceberg at night, and the ship -- short on life boats -- began to sink.

Jack and Rose remained together through those harrowing final hours, rescuing and supporting one another, until the grand ship went down.  Because of Jack's final sacrifice, Rose survived.  And at his explicit urging, she went on to experience life fully in his absence.

Now, unbeknownst to Lovett, old Rose returns the Heart of the Ocean to the sea...a final gift to Jack, the man who helped set the course of her life.

It is unsinkable. God himself could not sink this ship.


The key to James Cameron's humanistic approach to the film's material can best be detected by comparing two vastly different "versions" of Titanic's sinking featured in the film.

The first such scene involves a computer-generated "simulation" of the disaster. Animated simply, and without much flourish beyond the technical requirements, this diagram reveals the "hows" and "whys" of the unsinkable passenger ship's final, terrible moments. The characters in the book-end sections of the film watch the simulation, and it only lasts for a matter of seconds. The simulation preps the audience for what is to come later in the film, but in no way expresses the human dimension -- the utter terror -- of the disaster.

The second sinking in Titanic occurs through the auspices of older Rose's still vivid memories, and is messy, emotional, unpredictable, and horrifying...and it lasts for approximately an hour. Watching the entire process from start to finish, it's as though the audience is actually aboard the "unsinkable" vessel as it goes under the surface, inch-by-agonizing-inch, moment-by-agonizing-moment, and there's nothing clean, orderly, or technical about it. The rote, mechanical of the computer simulation has been replaced by an unbearably tense depiction.

In the gulf between these two presentations of the sinking, Cameron asks the viewer to consider the human toll of the tragedy, not just the horrendous details of how it occurred. It's one thing to know that one thousand, five hundred and thirteen people perished in the sea that cold night in April in 1912; it's another thing to register visually what those numbers actually mean.

Because this is Cameron we're talking about, he's absolutely thorough in depicting the horror. The final hour of Titanic is thus harrowing, and deeply upsetting. An older married couple waits to drown in their bed, clutching one another tightly as the water spills into their cabin. A working class mother (Jenette Goldetein) puts her two young children to bed in their bunks on Titanic, knowing they will never awaken. A guilt-ridden captain maintains his post on the bridge while all around him, the sea rises.

In all these moments, there's the feeling underneath the action of (alarming) destiny fulfilled; of the inexorable flow of the water throughout the Titanic.  Indeed, the sea is a real "villain" in the film.  The makers of the Titanic show great pride and even arrogance about their creation, but ultimately they are humbled before the powers of the sea.  Technological barriers and safeguards gives way to water again and again in the film, and all the talk of Titanic being unsinkable is revealed as simply talk. 

One incredible shot reflects this truth best.  In the midst of the sinking, Cameron cuts back -- high into the sky -- to view the Titanic from a great distance and tremendous height.  The ship looks absolutely tiny and inconsequential against the surrounding, ubiquitous ocean, and in the dark, impenetrable night time.  This expressive shot represents a direct inversion of Cameron's early approach, which focused on low-angle shots enhancing the size and grandeur of the vessel.  Truth has supplanted human fiction.

In much more gory terms, Titanic makes us see the sea's (unfortunate) impact on human beings.  Desperate men and women fall from great heights (onto colossal propeller blades...), and bodies are crushed beneath the weight of voluminous steam pipes. At the time (and remember, this was before 9/11), modern movie audiences had not witnessed such destruction like this, at least not on such a personal, human scale.

To wit, many disaster films trade on an epic scope, and over-sized threats to human civilization (floods, asteroids, earthquakes, fires, etc.) but few such films seem so damn intimate about it. As is the case in all his films, Cameron has pinpointed the emotional key for his viewers to respond viscerally to the story matter and characters. He puts his characters into a situation from which there is no escape, and there is no sanctuary, even, to look away.  We've all booked passage on the ship of the damned.

Indeed, everybody knows how the story of Titanic ends, and yet Cameron wrings maximum suspense from the film's last hour, as Rose and Jack struggle -- seemingly endlessly - to survive a very, very bad day on the sea. There's great tension here between what the audience wants to see happen, and what the audience knows will happen.  Cameron exploits this gulf brilliantly, causing the audience to meditate about the ways human beings face (or deny to face...) death. 

Consider the Titanic's band, for instance, remaining together to perform on deck, despite the fact that the end is nigh.   By showcasing such odd, uniquely human moments, Cameron forces the audience to confront its own mortality.  What would you do with your last minutes of life?  How would you, as Jack might say, "make every moment count?"

Beyond this meditation on facing imminent death, Titanic is a love story about two people from vastly different worlds.  As we have seen in several Cameron films, the director appears to boast an affinity for blue collar characters, and here he dramatically showcases the differences between Jack's third class world and Rose and Cal's first class one.

The largest steam passenger ship in the world, Titanic is where these two worlds collide.  To the rich, Titanic is a "ship of dreams" and a world of complete luxury, down the presence of a private gym and private observation decks.  To the crew and third class passengers, however, Titanic is a veritable "slave ship," as workers toil "beneath decks" in an inhumanly-proportioned, bronze-hued engine room.  One population aboard Titanic  is thus dedicated to its own leisure; and one is dedicated to serving the rich.

Clearly, this dynamic rankles, and again, it's a way of generating passionate emotions in the audience.  No one like to see a system that is so patently unfair (though we should probably get used to it, given the direction of our country these days...).

Cameron does a fine, affecting job of delineating the differences between these two worlds and how, literally, these differences represent the difference between life and death.  One thousand and two-hundred and twenty-one of the approximately fifteen hundred deaths from Titanic came from the ranks of either third class passengers or the crew.  Less than three hundred came from the first class.  That figure tells a story, and Cameron aptly makes note of the inequity.  Clearly, some lives were cherished above others, and sadly that's often the story of America, even today, isn't it?  The rich few own most of the nation's treasure at this point, and also get the good seats on the life boat if there's a national crisis. 

Cal Hockley himself carries this view, noting of his first class brethren that "we are royalty."   And as Rose notes of this class of men: "they love money."  Yep.  A dozen years ago this moustache-twirling depiction of the uber-rich might have looked exaggerated or even two-dimensional.  Given the debate today about asking the rich to give up their Bush Tax cuts while we're involved in two wars and a Great Recession...not so much.  Cal is entirely believable.

In Titanic, Jack is afforded the opportunity to visit the first class dining room after rescuing Rose from danger, and he is warned "you're about to go into the snake pit."   That seems about right.

He is not readily accepted there, especially by Cal, and the others treat him as a source of entertainment or amusement -- the dinner guest flavor of the day

Then, after dinner, Jack invites Rose below decks for a "real" party, and she visits the third class world.  It is a place of emotions, laughter, dance, music and community.  Cameron reveals this distinction by cutting to an immediacy-provoking point-of-view perspective during Jack and Rose's dance.  This less formal shot; one that puts us literally inside "the eyes" of a character in the play, broadcasts the approachability of this class of people.  The staid dinner is usurped by a raucous party.  A world of sedentary manners and protocol superseded by one of constant movement and life.

As she is all too aware of, Rose lives in a gilded cage until Jack breaks her out of it.  But -- interestingly -- it is the third class Jack who ultimately gives his life for first-class Rose, when only one of them can survive.  This is not a comment on Rose's superiority as a fist class person, finally, but of Jack's. 

He is chivalrous and honorable and decent, and dies to save the woman he loves.  "Royalty," in the personage of Cal, tricks his way onto a lifeboat by grabbing an abandoned child and claiming to be his father, "all that he has left" in the world. 

The message is: when push comes to shove, you can't trust the first classers, whereas, by and large, you can rely on men like Jack.  They have already made some accommodation, it seems, with their fate and their destiny.  Therefore, Cal joins the ranks of Cameron villains such as Carter Burke: a man who puts himself above all other considerations, right up until the end.

Last week in the Cameron Curriculum, one of my wonderful readers and commenters here, DLR, noted the paternalistic quality of many Cameron films.  In other words, "virtually all of his female central characters are mostly passive or retiring until males affect their reality."  This is an interesting spin on the strong women characters in Cameron's work, and it strongly applies to Rose in Titanic

As Rose readily acknowledges of Jack, "he saved me... in every way that a person can be saved."  In other words, it was Rose's experience with Jack -- and her promise to Jack -- that shaped Rose into the strong person she became following the disaster at sea.    She is a woman trapped between two worlds, two men, and two paths, and her personal strength arises, I think, from her capacity to choose wisely.  So she is strong, yes, but her strength is also colored by her experience with Jack and his ability to "see her."  This very strongly echoes the Sarah Connor/Kyle Reese relationship in the original Terminator (1984).  In both situations, a man inspires a woman to fight-- and to change her life.  And in both cases, the man doesn't survive to see her do it.

Jack also fulfills Cameron's often-utilized "outsider" role, bursting into high society and puncturing the haughty atmosphere there. Old Rose, herself, is something of an outsider, alone among those on Lovett's ship to have been aboard Titanic, and to have seen the object of their quest: the Heart of the Ocean.  She also rejects the materialism of Lovett's quest (the search for the diamond) and gives up the jewelry as a gift to Jack, who she sees, quite rightly, as the Heart of the Sea.

We're just a few short months from the 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, and a re-release of Cameron's film in 3-D.   This re-release will be a chance for a new generation to engage with a pop culture phenomenon from the 1990s, and I'll be curious to see how that generation thinks it stacks up to Avatar.  

And as I've indicated above, some of the class differences that we wrote off as being from a different time period in the 1990s have re-asserted themselves powerfully in this decade. It's very possible that Titanic will speak to a more welcoming audience now, even, than it did in 1997.   

In many ways, Titanic certainly represents a big leap for Cameron.  It is his first film outside of the sci-fi/horror groove he had established up to that point in his career, and Titanic doesn't feature much by way of his normal color or texture palette (usually hard, blue, steels and metals.) 

But by adhering to his own thematic obsessions (strong women, class warfare, outsiders, etc.) he crafted a film that appealed to his biggest audience yet, despite the requisite backlash I wrote of above.

Because Titanic was so popular, so big, some people loved it, and some people couldn't stand it.  Place me in the former camp, even all these years later, after having seen it twice. 

Basically, you can splash around about the manipulative, emotional, big-hearted  nature of Titanic all you want, but if you watch it again with an open mind and an innocent heart, the movie will surely pull you into its wake. 

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