Titanic (1997, James Cameron)
The typical Titanic detractor’s roll call of criticisms are hard to dispute. The dialogue really is awful, which was by this point a trademark of writer-director James Cameron, whose commercial home court advantage was handed to him thanks to a string of spectacularly stupid action and sci-fi films in the ’80s and early ’90s. The villain, a jilted lover played by former Biff Tannen sidekick Billy Zane, is among the most one-dimensional in movie history; he speaks with such on-the-nose pride of his class superiority you almost expect him to be holding a Mitt Romney campaign sign. And sure, tell me all about how the love story’s shoehorned in for commercial purposes and everyone’s a cipher and the whole paring down of a real human experience into a hackneyed Hollywood sea opera is distasteful. I can’t tell you that you’re wrong in thinking this is stupid or above it because who am I to judge that? But what I can tell you is that if you are out there praising the most massive populist Hollywood epics of the ’40s through the ’60s and you can’t see their clear relationship to this, can’t at least acknowledge it, I am, well, a bit suspicious of your intentions. For me, at least, this is like Ben-Hur or Orphans of the Storm or something: Hollywood bullshit at its finest.
My sole experience with Titanic previously was just about the earliest available to a fourteen year-old: I saw it opening night with my parents in 1997, at which point there was considerable speculation that Cameron’s big vanity project was destined to flop, having already been delayed from a summer release. Hand on heart, the experience was pretty magic that night, and you could get a sense of how undeniable a force and phenomenon this was going to be, but mostly it was just an enormously joyous moment of unabashedly commercial pure cinema. The burst of bravura energy that evening was something I had to assume could never be duplicated, not after the hype and the Oscars and the acquisition for over a decade of the title of all-time top grossing film in America and finally the world. So I never watched the film again, unlike my mom and much of the population of this planet, and even nodded noncommittally at the dismissals of others — but for this blog’s Oscars project, I had to bite the bullet and commence a formal revisit. To my surprise, the movie holds up in nearly every way.
The touchstone here is not A Night to Remember or Jean Negulesco’s Titanic or any other Hollywood disaster film but the hundreds of Biograph shorts D.W. Griffith made in the teens and twenties. Indeed, it’s melodrama in the Griffith tradition to such an extent that DiCaprio and Winslet’s characters may as well be called “the Boy” and “the Girl,” not least for the way they coincidentally-intentionally run into the lion’s share of important figures in Titanic lore, something that can occasionally become downright annoying, less so when it points up the insular self-involvement of the ship’s upper crust than when it prompts something as arbitrary and condescendingly smug as Zane’s character turning his nose up at the Picasso paintings Winslet’s Rose has for some reason brought aboard the ship. But melodrama’s tricky, then as now, and Cameron in fact does well to match his story’s simplicity to its grandness, both for maximum possible appeal and for a sense of deliberate insurmountable hugeness that both relates to and seems distant from all of us. It’s Thalbergian, almost, and even if it’s absent of personal detail or any sense of idiosyncrasy, it plays out in big solid-color emotions that never felt so massive and weighty as they do with this mythologically loaded ship on top of them.
The casting, surprisingly, is hit and miss; few of the male parts are inspiringly filled out, with Leonard DiCaprio a nearly fatal mistake, being far more of a sheepish twerp than a grandiose epic movie hero role warrants — “Jack,” as he’s known, demands a confidence and sensuality that DiCaprio is too youthful and wiry here to generate. If we’re crafting a pure melodrama, why not go all the way with the tall dark handsome, witty, erudite artist who’d actually be capable of altering the course of someone’s life as opposed to someone who consistently seems like a college freshman on his first trip to get a parking sticker? Zane is disastrous, but it’s not his fault; his role is so woefully underwritten as to essentially fail to make any sense at all — even melodramas had fun with their villains instead of making them this goddamned tiresome to be around. As a result, the normally delectable David Warner is just bland by comparison. By making his hero’s charm so elusive and his villain so black and white, Cameron shoots himself in the foot, and it’s these choices that damn near wreck his production, not the outlandish budget decisions and dictatorial craziness.
Redemption comes, inevitably, with the use of not just Kathy Bates as prototypical new-money hipster Molly Brown, but more than anything else — sinking ship, CGI, opulent romantics — Kate Winslet as Rose, her presence and sense of longing a jolt in the arm of the adolescent heart lurking not so deep-down in all of us. Her continually obsessed-over eyes are as expressive and haunting as Lillian Gish’s or Clara Bow’s, her lush physicality as silently seductive as either, yet the modernist wizened spunk, youthful brattiness even, she brings to the role is hers alone and elevates her work here to magical. With DiCaprio’s spirit largely absent even during his most devoted tries for soulfulness, it’s Winslet who must sell us the eroticism and chemical charge of the foregrounded love story. She plays such an enormous role in what makes this film work that it’s nearly criminal her vindication as a truly great actress was still some years ahead.
The best place, inevitably, to see Winslet’s performance is in the first half of the picture, otherwise a surprisingly low-key and ordinary comedy-of-manners class commentary — but one considerably more perceptive about young love than I really want a douche like Cameron to be able to say he is. If there’s a key reason why this is so vividly his best film, it’s the almost ethereal nature of its narrative, how it concentrates not upon the smallness of a sudden and giggly love affair in the context of an event so huge as the Titanic sinking, coyly boxed in with the horrific images of marriages separated and families estranged, but upon how massive and inevitable the falling in love itself turns out to feel, the rest of the world faint in its shadow: when Jack announces himself as king of the world at the stern of early on, that’s one thing, but with faithful Rose under his arm and multiple rescues achieved as they crouch pensively atop the upturned boat, we know he is truly now the invincible power, the doomed romantic who can do anything.
Speaking of which, the second half of Titanic is of course the bit wherein the boat you just paid to watch sinking finally sinks. It’s as perversely intense and thrilling and creeping-toward-tasteless as any fact-based disaster picture must inevitably be. What right, after all, do we have to appropriate these experiences as our own? To reform real life into cleverly structured suspense sequences, a roller-coaster ride? Be that as it may, for pure storytelling mastery Cameron’s work in destroying his opulent creation features some of the most remarkable filmmaking ever achieved within the modern blockbuster framework; to be very clear-headed and mild about it all, it’s a rather impressive piece of work, and the pieces fall together tantalizingly well, and play on the human nature that flocks us into our seats to start with. Say what you want about Aliens and The Abyss but the one commendable thread running through every Cameron film from The Terminator onward is that somewhere within his cynical eye is a stark understanding of human nature. Titanic is bred on our need to know, to crane our necks, to understand how and why things go horribly wrong, and to revel in them from our comfortable distance when they do. Say this much: you feel alive after Titanic, alive and safe. And he knows it. He deserves credit for just how expertly he plays our keys: the pacing is perfect, the rhythm beyond criticism, and the set of utterly improbable images frankly breathtaking even on a small screen.
We’re not here to question the possibility of morally crafting entertainment from tragedy, but let’s say Cameron does it as close to tactfully as one can without minimizing the human cost. I can’t really say the same for converting the film to 3D for the “100th anniversary,” but whatever; marketing is what it is. We can also admire his refusal to sidestep the class inequity inherent to the Titanic narrative, which he does by actually making it his rather incendiary thesis — West Side Story on a boat with no songs except that Celine Dion swill, let’s say — but there’s always a “but” in a Cameron film. In this case, handcuffs around DiCaprio’s hands and daring rescues from his heroine in the night, fine; sweaty sex in a car, fine; CGI people falling to their deaths in imitation of an event that actually occurred, yes, okay; imagined suicides and melodramatic interludes, well, sure; flashbacks and “art” and the Heart of the Sea, well, threadbare, but it all works. But Billy Zane’s gun-wielding tomfoolery? Its complete lack of necessity is so blatant that even Cameron seems to forget about it after a while, and the audience certainly does. Perhaps that’s why the final effect of shedding everything except the bare fact of one lover essentially sacrificing his life for another is so obliquely satisfying — it seems like something we’ve earned, like we’ve taken buckets aboard ourselves and lifted a small microcosm of humanity back to safety.
But does the heart go on? When I was 14 and had never been in love (though who knows, maybe I would then have said otherwise; I did have a pretty big crush on a girl named Megan back then), I thought absurd the whole premise that Rose would carry a torch for some weirdo she met barely out of her teens, regardless of big-boat context. Maybe I’m more sentimental now, or more easily swept up, or maybe I’ve just been in a few serious relationships and had a few romantic disappointments, but against my better judgment I felt I got it this time — I don’t think Cameron’s use of gigantic emotions, joy of connection and agony of loss both, is manipulative except maybe in the way a Shangri-Las record is manipulative. In fact, I think it’s profoundly humanistic — these things feel large because they are, and that’s what renders this not a cynical gawk at distant death or a clinical period piece but a lively and sort of glorious bit of across-the-board empathy. No, it isn’t A Night to Remember, which didn’t need (among other things) the sideline presence of Bill Paxton as an inexplicable stand-in for its hyperactive director, but it’s better and crazier than you probably remember, and it’ll make you cry even though it’s Eeevil Studio Product and That Is Okay.