Friday, July 29, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Titanic (1997)

We briefly interrupt the ongoing Ape-a-thon to return to our summer project, the Cameron Curriculum, and in particular, James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, Titanic

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. 

Next Friday: True Lies (1994)


  1. John, another incredible take on a Cameron juggernaut.

    As you pointed out, this is without a doubt one of the most remarkable filmic achievements in balancing spectacle with human storytelling.

    This is also the film where people started getting hyper critical about Cameron, which no doubt comes with the territory of multiple Oscar nods and staggeringly huge financial success.

  2. Hi Chris,

    Thank you for the kind words bout my Titanic review.

    I think you re correct on both of your points.

    1. The film is astonishing for the way it balances spectacle and human interest.


    2. People have leveled some really absurd criticism at Titanic, because of the success it achieved. Cameron went from being a guy making great movies, to a guy from the ESTABLISHMENT. It's kind of silly, really...

    Thank you for your comment!


  3. Anonymous6:28 PM


    I enjoyed this very much. I remember the exact moment this movie sucked me in, the full shot of Titanic sailing toward the sunset with Jack and Rose at the bow. Not before or since have I ever felt so much like putty in a movie theater.

    A few additional points:

    First - I'm really glad you mentioned Cameron's sense of scale. It's one of the best ways to provide perspective; in this case we see images throughout the 1st half of the film touting Ismay's vision "size, stability, luxury, and strength." When Cameron cuts to the long shot of Titanic alone in the expanse of of the Atlantic, it's the most unsettling moment in the movie. It also underscores the folly of the privileged elites who view themselves as "masters of the universe," using Rose's words.

    Second - I always thought is was a clever plot device for Cameron to have Rose fall in love with a steerage passenger, as it gives him the perfect excuse to show off the entire ship, and therefore bring the tragedy of the lower-class passengers into focus. It also plays into Cameron's "controversial" decision to personalize the tragedy, which I think was absolutely the correct decision. As Spock once said to McCoy: "I've noticed that about your people, doctor; you find it easier to understand the death of one than the death of a million."

    I love how Cameron "re-uses" the blob of liquid slowly crawling up the decks, it's a nice echo of the T-1000.

    For those who mocked Billy Zane's performance (or character), I can't think of a scene of domestic violence much scarier than his blow-up over breakfast, underscoring how he views everything in terms of material value.

    Last, it's an amusing irony that the lookouts - like the audience - are distracted long enough by Jack and Rose that we completely forget to look for the iceberg until it's too late.

    Thanks. Great work again.

    Jeffrey Siniard

  4. Hi Jeffrey,

    Thank you for your wonderful comment on Titanic and excellent points about the film.

    First -- I love how you put it -- "Not before or since have I ever felt so much like putty in a movie theater."

    Exactly. You can attempt to resist Titanic, but it really breaks through tht resistance. I know it's fashionable (especially for movie buffs and fan boys) to kind of deride and laugh at the film; but I think they're really just trying to deflect the things the movie made them feel.

    Point 1: The sense of scale you mentioned is so important to the film. We spend the first half of the movie hearing about these masters of the universe and the unsinkability of the ship. And then comes disaster, and all this talk is revealed as man's folly. Man proposes; God disposes. Cameron's selection of shots throughout the film reflect this shift from one point of view to the other. And the shift itself is alarming, as that shot of a lonely ship at sea (at night) reveals.

    Point 2: I love that you brought in that quote from Star Trek and "The Immunity Syndrome." It makes the point very nicely, I think, that because of the love story between Jack and Rose, we are better able to understand the human aspect of the Titanic disaster. A computer simulation can reveal precisely what happened to the ship; but not what it felt like to be trapped aboard her in those moments of terror and loss. Cameron really gets the humn equation right here; as he does almost all the time.

    I always wondered about that scene with the look-outs myself. Would they have seen the ice berg sooner if not for Jack and Rose's cavorting on deck? A very interesting thought...

    A wonderful comment, and I appreciate your insights about Titanic very much.


  5. Hi JKM;

    I was looking forward to your thoughts on this movie and you didn't disappoint (though quoting that sketchy commentor does damage your credibility, I fear). Titanic is the sort of movie that you show to an alien who asks "What is a movie?" It's everything we love about movies, and, honestly, a lot of things we hate in movies in general (manipulativeness, clunky dialogue, on-the-nose story beats) but which are difficult to hate in this context - really, they're part of the ride and this movie serves everything up in an almost archetypal fashion. Its almost (or even not-so-almost) a Platonic ideal of a Hollywood movie. Sure, if an alien approached me with the above question I'd be tempted to either give them something that shows how hip I am or that just messes with their minds ("This is called 'Independence Day' and you're gonna love it!") but really if I want to be honest, Titanic is the answer.

  6. Hi DLR:

    You wrote: "...though quoting that sketchy commentor does damage your credibility, I fear."

    Not at all, my friend. Your comment last week regarding the paternalism in Cameron's films really opened my eyes to a perspective I hadn't considered. It consequently shifted my feelings rather dramatically on women in Cameron's films.

    I also think you are right on the money regarding Titanic's value:

    "It's everything we love about movies, and, honestly, a lot of things we hate in movies in general (manipulativeness, clunky dialogue, on-the-nose story beats) but which are difficult to hate in this context - really, they're part of the ride and this movie serves everything up in an almost archetypal fashion. Its almost (or even not-so-almost) a Platonic ideal of a Hollywood movie."

    A brilliant insight, and I couldn't agree more. Cameron knows how to use the tools of the trade to make us feel things very deeply.

    ...Even if we hate ourselves for it the next morning.

    I hope he never stops making movies as big, emotional and manipulative as Titanic.

    This is what Hollywood moviemaking is all about. I wish more filmmakers would get the equation right.

    All my best,

  7. I dunno, this film never did it for me. While I do admire its technical accomplishments, the dialogue and characterization leaves a helluva lot to be desired, IMO. In contrast to how well drawn the characters are in THE ABYSS, or memorably sketched in ALIENS, all we have in TITANIC are cardboard cut-outs - facsimiles of three-dimensional characters, which is a shame because we know Cameron is capable of better. I think that Billy Zane's baddie is the worst example of this shallow, cliched characterization as he plays the mustache-twirling baddie for the cheap seats. He chews up the scenery and if it was logistically possible for his character to tie a damsel in distress to railway tracks I'm sure Cameron would've found a way.

    What saves the two leads is their undeniable chemistry and their performances manage to transcend the hackneyed dialogue, which is a tribute to their skills as actors.

    I understand that Cameron is making a crowd-pleasing popcorn movie but it just felt like he was dumbing himself down on this one and I felt that he started doing this with TRUE LIES, which is definitely his worst film to date. Fortunately, he took a lot of time off from narrative filmmaking and came back roaring with a vengeance with AVATAR, which I found to be a much better return to form.

  8. While always an admirer of Cameron's films prior to Titanic I refused to see the movie for 7 months. Finally I surrendered and to my shock I recall sitting through the end credits in a
    nearly empty theater. Stunned by the emotional aftermath, fully aware that this was an instant classic. Years later the Bluray was no less effective.

    For the record I just found this site while as part of my recent "Dark Skies" Screening. God I love the net, JKM Reflections is bookmarked and I look forward to catching up on your analysis.

  9. Part I

    Twister was a fairly dumb movie for a number of reasons, the biggest one being the part played by Carey Elwes, the fact that such a character was even written. I always imagined a room full of studio execs powwowing during the scripting phase and, after check-listing what were mostly reasonable ‘natural disaster movie’ tropes, decided upon themselves: “Hey, ya’ know what this movie needs? An evil tornado chaser!” – add to that ridiculous concept an over-the-top death scene where said ETC is sucked up into the killer super tornado, screaming, and then exploding. Aah, Hollywood.

    Which brings us to Titanic.

    I guess Cameron figured that on top of all the drama and suspense directly concerning and/or most appropriate to the actual real life events of the 1912 sea voyage disaster, what we also needed was a shootout chase sequence instigated by a dastardly villain. From that point on I was half expecting a scene where Jack and Rose would have to diffuse a bomb or battle a giant snake that escapes from the cargo room... or a giant snake with a bomb strapped to it, being controlled by Billy Zane’s maniacal gypsy hypnotism. Okay, maybe that’s pushing it a bit, but still... Zane’s character was even complete with his own evil henchman played by David Warner, who, filling the quota, got his bad guy comeuppance death scene when the ship literally explodes in half. All of this would be akin to someone making a film about the 9/11 World Trade Center attack, but with an added subplot involving a serial killer or jewel thieves.

    As thorough as Cameron is depicting the horrors the Titanic sinking, he’s a bit exploitive as well. We see some poor chump plummet hundreds of feet from a vertical ship’s end, spinning all the way down and bouncing off railings, in a way that feels more like a showcase for cutting edge digital FX technology than it does a tragic loss of life. I also couldn’t help but laugh a little at the scene where Jack’s caricatured Italian buddy (“I go to Ama-lika!”) gets crushed by a collapsing steam pipe. These aspects of the film remind me of the spectacle-driven disaster movies of the 1970s like The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno.

  10. Part II

    However, these are all minor, minor criticisms in my book; in truth, tidbits I find more amusing than harmful or defecting. I really have no issues with Titanic. I never did. But I was never all that caught up in the film either. It’s big, old-fashioned, sweeping entertainment. I like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, the latter on whom I was definitely crushing when I first saw this movie in theaters. I remember thinking she was quite dreamy. I’m still somewhat smitten with her, in fact. The two definitely had the right chemistry and there is no doubt that the lasting success of the film rests on the relationship of thier characters. Aside from Casablanca, Titanic is perhaps the most accomplished cinematic play on the ever-appealing ‘ill-fated love’ storyline.

    Furthermore, the way film links through Rose’s character the romantic historical era of the dawning 20th century with our contemporary world makes for a surefire sense of escapism. It’s almost like a Disneyland attraction in that respect – this elaborate theme park ride of the highest order, the utmost authenticity, that takes full advantage of our emotional, nostalgic yearning for “olden times” adventure. We take delight in watching these characters as we would real life actors performing at a Renaissance Fair or a Civil War reenactment; not merely a stage play but, again, an interactive theme park attraction that we can almost reach out and touch, be a part of.

    Even though the scale of Billy Zane’s character is a bit exaggerated and silly, his juxtaposition with Jack is rather thematically poignant. Jack is a drifter who gives himself happily to the tides of destiny, going wherever life takes him. He meets interesting people, draws their portraits, tells their stories and soaks in the wondering experiences of the world over as they come his way. He’s a humble figure, subject to luck. But upon expressing this philosophy at the fancy dinner banquet, Cal responds with a haughty dismissal of luck and speaks of Man controlling his own destiny, and further proves so by cowardly cheating his way onto a life boat. And yet we learn by film’s end that, when up against the larger, destined forces of the stock market crash, Cal puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. Meanwhile, Jack frets not over the forces of fate but instead concerns himself only with kindness, compassion and the morally righteous actions of helping others without question and, ultimately, self-sacrifice. So there’s a nice little thematic through-line as far as that goes.

    I suppose my favorite scene in Titanic is when a frosted Rose is floating along the sea amidst dead bodies (including Jack), singing quietly while staring off into the starry night sky. In the wake of all the chaos and tragedy, it is this scene in the film that takes the audience into the farthest reaches of nowhere – a kind of transcending moment where the accentuated poetic imagery centers Rose beneath the cosmic kismet above, in turn almost making her a “Moira” figure.

    That’s really it for me. I haven’t all that much to say about this one. I much prefer it over The Abyss and Avatar, and consider it equal to Terminator 2

  11. Great, great examination of this one, John. It was a wonderful, in-depth look at Cameron's first juggernaut. Surely, in the years since it was released, I think my two favorite assessments on this film came in the last seven months: our friend Will's post from his old blog and your's here. I think some of what I commented back in Dec 2010 still applies here:

    "A modern epic that defined (and ended) an era. Personally, I’ve been like the tide regarding this film. I loved it when it came out (and saw the damn thing multiple times while the thing was in theaters). And like many, pulled away from it later. Ask me how many times I’ve seen it on disc? The answer is zero. Now years later, ask me what film I what I’m itching see on Blu-ray Disc? Exactly. Reflection is a funny thing.

    Perhaps, all of this is influenced by Cameron’s Avatar (which, as J.D. mentioned, may be the better film). The parallels are there for me as evidenced by my repeat theater screenings for both. Damn that bloody egotistical genius that is Cameron! I have to agree with all the things both of you and J.D. wrote in connection with the big (thrills, tension, jar-dropping scenes) as well as the small moments (those quiet scenes that draw the emotions of the viewer) that highlight this picture. BTW, that scene you briefly mentioned of the mother (Jenette Goldstein of Aliens and T2) comforting her children as the water rises absolutely chokes me up every time...

    Of course, because TITANIC was part of the curriculum, I've just finished watching this one for the first time on disc. And I've got to say it still moved me.

    (to be continued)

  12. Part II:

    I think the filmmaker's use of foreshadowing, cinematograpjy and imagery played wonderfully in this modern classic. As you mentioned, the summary scenes of the how and why early in the movie regarding the ship's demise (along with the audience's foreknowledge of how it's all going to end) should blunt it all. But, somehow it doesn't. In fact, it is exactly how JC layers and parses out the story and raises the tension on Titanic's last night that makes it so extraordinary. He accomplished this without being heavy-handed, I believe (some would argue otherwise). Hell, I should have been bored silly watching this at home today, but wasn't.

    The other thing I think the filmmaker (along with James Horner) did remarkably well was the use of music throughout the work. In my mind what came to the front in this viewing was the evocation of classical and folk themes in the telling of the story (which also help distinguish the classes on board). The melodic energy was emotive and very John Ford-like in its depiction, in my opinion. One last thought, as part of my recent review of Richard Matheson's noteworthy and passionate story, Bid Time Return and its cult film adapatation Somewhere in Time, I believe its highly romantic tale had influence upon James Cameron and his characters of Jack and Rose in this 1997 feature years later. I think especially so in each of their culminating and beautifully ethereal reunion finales.

    What an outstanding thing you have going with this series, John. Kudos, my friend. I can't wait to see what you'll cover with TRUE LIES and what your readers will have to say about that exciting but problematic effort. Looking forward to it all. Thanks.

  13. More great comments on Titanic, here, from everyone.

    J.D. I must admit, Billy Zane really didn't bother me. We expect big movies to have big villains...and he certainly fit the bill. I'm not certain his Cal Hockley is any more two-dimensional than villains we've seen in other blockbusters, frankly. It's just that the Titanic sinking provides him an opportunity to be both venal and despicable, perhaps...

    I do agree with you that Di Caprio and Winslet work beautifully together and overcome some of the clunkier dialogue. The film occasionally wanders into schmaltz, but in honesty so does Abyss with Lindsey's "two candles in the dark" speech.

    I absolutely agree with you that True Lies is Cameron's weakest film. The people who have the biggest problems with Titanic: everything they complain about here is more true of True Lies, frankly. I watched it the other night, and found it didn't hold up very well...

    Hi Rio Blue: I loved your comment, and your absolute honesty. I remember at the time, I didn't expect to like Titanic either...and was blown away by it. I think a lot of people felt exactly the same way. I'm glad you enjoyed the review, and stick around!


    (more to come...)

  14. Cannon:

    I love your analysis, and I am going to repeat two of your paragraphs here, because they are perfect:

    "...the way film links through Rose’s character the romantic historical era of the dawning 20th century with our contemporary world makes for a surefire sense of escapism. It’s almost like a Disneyland attraction in that respect – this elaborate theme park ride of the highest order, the utmost authenticity, that takes full advantage of our emotional, nostalgic yearning for “olden times” adventure. We take delight in watching these characters as we would real life actors performing at a Renaissance Fair or a Civil War reenactment; not merely a stage play but, again, an interactive theme park attraction that we can almost reach out and touch, be a part of.

    Even though the scale of Billy Zane’s character is a bit exaggerated and silly, his juxtaposition with Jack is rather thematically poignant. Jack is a drifter who gives himself happily to the tides of destiny, going wherever life takes him. He meets interesting people, draws their portraits, tells their stories and soaks in the wondering experiences of the world over as they come his way. He’s a humble figure, subject to luck. But upon expressing this philosophy at the fancy dinner banquet, Cal responds with a haughty dismissal of luck and speaks of Man controlling his own destiny, and further proves so by cowardly cheating his way onto a life boat. And yet we learn by film’s end that, when up against the larger, destined forces of the stock market crash, Cal puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger. Meanwhile, Jack frets not over the forces of fate but instead concerns himself only with kindness, compassion and the morally righteous actions of helping others without question and, ultimately, self-sacrifice. So there’s a nice little thematic through-line as far as that goes."

    Wow! Those are two excellent paragraphs, and the second one explains, at least somewhat, the nature of Billy Zane's character, and why he is valid in terms of theme. Like I said, this is perfect anlysis. I loved your comparison of Jack to Cal.

    On the issue of whether or not the destruction/death associated with Titanic is exploittive, I'm on the fence. As much as I hate to admit it, the disaster genre exists, in part, to exploit the terror of destruction, right? I think you make a fine point drawing attention to the two particular deaths you mention, and connecting them to the subgenre (and 1970s efforts). I can't really disagree, except to say that by tht point in Titanic, Cameron has us where he wants us...

    Excellent comment!


    (more to come...)

  15. Hi Le0pard13:

    Sometimes, I think we were separated at birth, Michael! I love how you wrote about your affection being like the tide; how you liked Titanic, and then withdrew from it. That's exactly my experience.

    I enjoyed it tremendously when I saw it in the theater back in 1997, but never saw it on home video/DVD. I scoffed a little at the Celine Dion hit, and watched the "phenomenon" of Titanic with a jaundiced eye. I thought it was a good film, but the country really went nuts for it (and this is where some people "backlashed," to create new verb...) Then I saw it again in preparation for this review, and remembered all the reasons I loved and admired the film. It's a weird, weird process, to be certain. But one we both went through. In my review, I said you could attempt to resist the film's pull -- because I know I did, from personal experience!

    I'm glad you also made mention of James Horner's great score, and the scene with Goldstein. On the latter front, gets to me too. To me, that single scene of quite dignity, resignation and horror captures the whole upper deck/lower deck dynamic of the film perfectly. It is deeply, horribly moving (especially if you're a parent, I guess). I kept thinking about what it would be like, as a father, to try to put my child to bed peacefully and calmly -- for his sake -- while chaos abounds everywhere, and the water rises. It's absolutely gut-wrenching.

    Thank you for a wonderful comment on Titanic. I watched True Lies a few days ago, and felt it was problematic. I wanted to like it (I loved it when I saw it in the theaters in 1994), but I didn't feel it held up as well as I wanted it to.

    Can't wait for Friday to delve into it!


  16. Titanic... To coin a phrase: A Titanic film needs a Titanic review. And, as usual, you've done it justice, John.

    I enjoy disaster films. I loved this film...until the ending. Then, I HATED it. I've spent two hours becoming emotionally invested in Jack, and his fabulous chemistry with Rose. And then...

    The movie was powerful. Cameron did the correct thing by making the ship larger-than-life, the huge set piece...because the ship, and all the hype about her, and the horror of the disaster, are all real and larger-than-life.

    The film was a romantic drama, with lots of humor. It was a thriller. It was a disaster film. It was a science fiction film.

    What? How, you ask? Well, remember the ship was supposed to be state-of-the-art technology. This was much like Lindbergh's trip across the Atlantic, or the voyage of Apollo 11, except for not being a voyage of exploration but a voyage triumph. Man does the big thing, let's celebrate. But instead of the triumph of Apollo 11, we got the explosions of Apollo 1 and Apollo 13 and Challenger and Columbia.

    Ismay's folly was to believe all the hype, to ignore commonsense over his big triumph. I thought the guy who played him, who'd been an um shallow butthead villain in First Wives Club, was a deeper character here, but still subject to vanity and hubris.

    And speaking of hubris... What does God want with a starship? There's a strong parallel to Star Trek V: Final Frontier here. Man challenged God with the incredible Titanic. And, like Icarus, paid the price by falling back to Earth. But Jack, who is in touch with himself, dares to think for himself, knows himself, and lives far better than Ismay and Billy Zane's character. Cal, in his blind arrogance, functions much like Sybok here. And when the spit hits the fan, he loses. Everything. Sybok discovers God is not what he thought, and pays the price. Cal loses all his money, and pays his own price.

    Interestingly, Rose's life would have been much, much worse had she married Cal---both during the marriage, and then after he shot himself. Her time with Jack showed her how to live, with no regrets. And she didn't.

    I don't think Cal is all that one-dimensional. Sure, he is shallow. He wants power and control. But he is also sure of himself, his beliefs, his methods. In contrast, Jack happily enjoys life; he's very Bohemian. Jack himself not so sure of himself and his beliefs and his methods, and he isn't afraid to push his boundaries to find out. He decided to try to go to America, to change his life (which he did), and he wasn't afraid to see how the other half lived when he fell in love with Rose. Cal, however, was never willing to explore other options. As an example of his desire for control, he wanted Rose to be his perfect trophy wife, and treated her like a child, and to give himself the best chance to live after the sinking, he pretty much kidnapped a child, treating it as though it was his own property. Cal isn't a hero, but he's not all that one-dimensional.

    I can't say enough about the chemistry of Rose and Jack; Leonardo and Kate were wonderful. I hated the hype over their relationship; it feels like all the fawning over the Twilight books and films. All those fangirls, gushing over Leo... While the fanboys complained about the emotional state of the film.

    Well, tough noogies. It was a damned excellent film. Technically and emotionally superior.

    Thanks for the excellent review, John!

    Gordon Long

  17. John,

    Thank you as always for your insight. I remember very well all of the anticipation of the film when it was being made. I would roll my eyes and highly doubted it would be successful. I went into the theater with very low expectations, but the second I saw the ship above water in the film, the goosebumps appeared and I thought to myself "My God, he actually did it!" Seeing the ship underwater was amazing enough, but to see it recreated in its full glory, I was speechless.


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