by Brett Parker
It feels pretty safe to say that living in America during the late 90s was a time of breezy complacency. We had cleaned house in the Gulf War and the economy was booming thanks to the rise of the Dot-Com era. The tragedy of 9/11 was still years away from happening and any notions of such unspeakable horrors materializing for real were arrogantly dismissed by the average citizen as paranoia. It was this very paranoia, and perhaps jitters over the end of the millennium, that lead to a prominent rise in the Hollywood disaster film around this time. For a great while, we had tornadoes, volcanoes, asteroids, and aliens blowing up the White House real good at the multiplex to shake up our comfortable states and work up our anxieties over what a freakish tragedy would actually feel like. Since real life catastrophe was still a distance away from happening, none of these disaster shows were weighed down by haunted significance. This allowed a certain innocence to be prominent in their membrane, the tell-tale sign being that most of these dances of destruction had happy endings. Our city is in ruins, but we can rebuild, damnit!
Of course, the most successful disaster film during this time, and of all time, turned out to be James Cameron’s Titanic, the romantic epic that painstakingly details the doomed ocean liner that struck an iceberg and sunk to the bottom of the ocean in April 1912. Cameron’s re-staging of dignified richies and hopeful working-class stiffs being ushered to death’s door under the same swoop perfectly articulated the mid-90s phobia of a sustainable, structured way of life being uprooted and dented beyond all repair. The irresistible kick here is the gallant way in which most of the passengers met their deadly fate (historically speaking, this is one of the real life allures of the well-discussed tragedy). Benjamin Guggenheim, one of the more wealthier passengers, went down with the ship while delivering the film’s best line (allegedly spoken in real life): “We are dressed in our best and are prepared to go down as gentlemen. But, we would like a brandy!”
Perhaps one of the reasons for the movie’s success is the idea of the individual triumphing in the face of catastrophic circumstances. As the film follows the star-crossed romance of poor-little-rich girl Rose (Kate Winslet) and happy-go-lucky poor boy Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), we find ourselves witnessing a love story of plucky resiliency. It is this liberation between the couple that allows them to dodge various hazards from the ship’s sinking and in the end, Rose has come out of the tragedy a strong-willed woman, one who apparently weathered the storms of the 20th century with astonishing success. If the idea of our independence allowing us to overcome mayhem and come out the other side a stronger person is indeed an infectious American fantasy, then its one that Titanic holds in aces.
Very few people would deny that Titanic didn’t come out all aces when it was released in theaters back in December of 1997. Titanic-Mania gripped the nation with an iron hold and took pop culture hostage for an astonishingly prolonged period of time. Not only did the film rack up 11 Academy Award wins but also went on to become the highest-grossing movie of all time, a title that would later be claimed by Cameron’s own Avatar. Yet while Avatar was certainly a phenomenon, it didn’t soak into the national membrane as intoxicatingly as Titanic did. For all its grosses, Avatar didn’t have people constantly sprouting its lines of dialogue or making Billboard hits out of the film’s score (James Horner’s “Southampton” got significant radio play and the soundtrack album itself went on to become the highest-selling primarily orchestral soundtrack ever), two things that were certainly the case with Titanic. The movie was that rare pop event that could cater to a wide swath of tastes while retaining a sense of dignity. Young boys and adult males alike were primarily marveled by the state-of-the-art evocation of the ship’s sinking, a painfully-detailed visualization of one of the world’s largest ships splitting into two and plunging to the bottom of the ocean. Of course, what made Titanic unique was that it was an adventurous disaster spectacle that women got more out of than men ever could. The film has one of the most appealing wish-fulfillment romances ever produced by a Hollywood film, one in which a dreamy hunk liberates a trapped woman towards her true independent, feminist self. And since the hunk doing the liberating was a young Leonardo DiCaprio in full mega-wattage star mode, it helped make a classical romances’ ascension towards the ultimate feminist ideal damn near irresistible. American women were drunk on Titanic, and they were shelling out big bucks to keep tasting that hooch.
Like most drunken binges, however, the sobering-up period tends to make one awful resentful of the thing that got them drunk in the first place. When all the talk of grosses, Oscars, Leo, icebergs, and romance began to calm down, a considerable backlash occurred amongst a considerable amount of moviegoers. After being suffocated by “king of the world” jokes and hearing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” one time too many, people just snapped. The film incongruently became a target board for pop of the broadest tastes. To admit that Titanic is one of your favorite movies had unfairly become the equivalent of saying that you prefer Britney Spears over Bob Dylan or The Clash. Some people came down with a serious case of cinematic diabetes from the love story’s sweetness. Some people never forgave Cameron for his sneaky leftist agenda, giving the jolly blokes in steerage the more sympathetic slant over the stuffy caricatures up in first class. I think on an elemental level, some people rejected the idea of a horrific disaster being sold as a pop event. Somehow, a tragedy in which over a thousand people died had become Star Wars for women.
With his eagerness to prove that 3-D is to modern cinema what sound was to the silent era, Cameron has re-released Titanic around the tragedy’s 100th anniversary with an extra dimension added for our viewing pleasure (i.e. extra dollars). The announcement of the film’s re-release struck me with the realization that I hadn’t watched the mega-hit from start-to-finish since high school. In my younger years, I was spellbound by the ship’s profound sinking and struck with the revelation that “sketching Kate Winslet” urgently belonged on my bucket list. But these were opinions first formed at the age of 13, a time when I thought The Mask was the Greatest Movie Ever Made and that Citizen Kane suffered the great disadvantage of not having Jim Carrey as its lead. I’ve grown up a lot since then (hopefully), learning much more about cinema and developing a far superior intellect than that junior high-schooler who put Space Jam in the same category as Lawrence of Arabia. Considering how I once felt about the spectacle, and all the skepticism hurled at it since then, I was very curious to see what my adult self made of the flick.
The first thing that struck me was the sheer beauty of the visuals. Art Director Peter Lamont and Set Decorator Michael Ford went to painstaking lengths to accurately recreate the interior of the ship, yet its the evocation of the vessel at sea, amazingly re-created by Cameron’s visual effects team at Digital Domain, that is most striking upon revisitation. The mid-90s saw a period in which traditional special effects were rapidly giving in to advancements in computer-generated technology. Movies like Cameron’s own Terminator 2 and Spielberg’s Jurassic Park were impressively making leaps in visuals while old-fashioned effects were keeping up where they could. To watch Titanic is to watch a film that bridges the gap between those two sensibilities, for the ship is obviously a computer creation, but its texture certainly evokes cinematic techniques of yesteryear. The ship and its surroundings have a “painted-on” quality that evokes the beauty of brush strokes, making a lot of the scenes give off the vibe of a moving painting. This feeling proves especially sublime in the famous scene where Jack and Rose share their first kiss at the front of the ship. With a hyperbolic vanilla sky and a sweeping view of the sunset-tinged ship, the scene transcends real life and resembles a timeless work of art. Since the film is told in flashback from an elderly Rose’s point-of-view (wonderfully played by Gloria Stuart) and she’s an admitted lover of art (she collects “cheap” Monet works that go down with the ship), these colorful visuals don’t diminish the ship’s realism but superbly finds the beauty amidst an unfortunate ordeal.
Another big thing I noticed about the film was its surprising innocence. The central love story wears a big, old fashioned heart on its sleeve so unapologetically that its rather disarming in its dewey-eyed sincerity. There’s probably an inherent dopiness at work here, but people forget that Cameron is harking back to a classical tradition of cinema in which dopiness could be vibrant. Most sweeping romantic epics have to rely on heightened elemental emotions to accommodate its grand nature, leaving little room for subtlety of heart. Not to mention that a film with such a massive budget needed a broad range of appealing emotions to snag a grand audience. With a budget that soared over $200 million (a record at the time), you weren’t exactly getting Downtown Abbey on a boat (that TV show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, did, in fact, end up making for a Titanic miniseries for television). I’ll admit, falling head-over-heels for someone you’ve only known for two days on a boat is something of a stretch, but Cameron’s lefty masterstroke is making Jack’s working class zest for life an ideal that would make even the corpse of a rich woman go gaga. And since Jack is played by Leonardo DiCaprio in his ultra-movie star mode, its terribly hard to feel like any of this is a bad idea.
Of course if the two two leads didn’t have the star magnetism and expert lyricism they hold in aces, the movie wouldn’t have been nearly as alluring as it is. What first grabs you about the young Kate Winslet is her unique beauty. In an industry where skinny blondes thrive (Gwenyth Paltrow was up to play Rose at one point), Winslet was striking in her full red hair and porcelain skin. Even at a young age, she had expert nuance in teleporting a woman’s inner-vulnerability and awakening independence. Of course, her lead co-star became famous for reminding us that expert nuance can translate to matinee idol dynamite. It is jokingly believed that Titanic was such a massive success because pre-teen girls would pay to see it over and over and over (and over) just to see Leo do his thing. There’s certainly truth to that and its not hard to believe, for DiCaprio as as romantic screen idol was the real thing and then some. Even in his youth, he could teleport charm and charisma with the effortless ease of Roger Maris cranking out home runs. Before he would move on to playing riled-up outsiders and wily eccentrics in his grown-up years, the young DiCaprio packed golden-Americana looks and a commanding calm that teleported a more exuberant and resourceful Robert Redford. Together with Winslet, these two talents proved that old school romantic melodrama handled with expert thespian skill can equal electric moviegoing. And since the film shattered box office records, you wonder why studio heads don’t pick up more on this golden ideal.
Once you get past the sparkle of the leads, you also notice that the supporting cast is just as dramatically compelling. This time around, I found myself impressed with the men in charge of the ship as they go from glowing confidence to crushing defeat. Victor Garber is especially heartbreaking as Thomas Andrews, the naval architect of the ship who overflows with pride in his creation until that fateful collision with an iceberg shatters his sprits, leading him to go down with his labor of love. One performance I was curious to revisit was Billy Zane’s as Rose’s slimy rich fiance, Cal Hockley. Film history does not remember Zane’s performance too kindly, for Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly cited it as “one of the worst performances in one of the best movies.” For having been summoned to play nothing more or less than a snarling upper-class nasty, I found Zane to be rather superb. With his handsome, silent-screen star looks and his prestigious thespian demeanor, Zane was pretty much born to play old world, melodramatic finks. In a less confused world, Zane could play Orson Welles-style villains until the cows come home.
Even by today’s standards, the epic sinking of the ship that marks the film’s third act is still a stunner. Too many disaster films tire us with their clunky stagings and quick-cut editing, holding no bigger interest then to hurry along to a cheap special effects money shot. What’s impressive about Cameron’s work here is his sense of patience and pacing, as he slowly allows the viewer to feel the claustrophobic dread of impending doom and the deadly architectural domino effects that caused a ship’s massive destruction. The special effects team flooded their lavish set to create a painfully accurate depiction of a ship’s sinking just damn near short of sinking an actual ship for real. Yet this fantastical sinking isn’t hocked to us in an Irwin Allen-popcorn kind of way, for Cameron paints a poignant poetry in the heartbreaking ways different passengers faced their own demises. Images of an elderly couple cuddling in bed while ocean waters fill their room and Captain Smith (Bernard Hill) going down with the ship are deeply unsettling. Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is the sight of the ship’s band playing “Nearer My God To Thee” as the chaos of the sinking flourishes all around them. I’ve never actually cried any of the times in my life I watched Titanic, but upon this recent viewing, I found myself letting tears flow as this band played their final serenade.
Since there are those that pick apart Titanic’s flaws, there’s one big one I’d like to address. The film’s final scene depicts Rose’s spirit being whisked away to the Titanic’s main ball room, which has been resurrected into a haven where all of the disaster’s victims have gathered. Of course, waiting atop the room’s stair case is Jack, who pulls Rose in for a kiss that leads everyone to applause. The popular theory is that the elderly Rose died in her sleep and her soul was whisked away to a “Titanic heaven” where she can happily live on in the afterlife with Jack. Ok, let’s assume point blank that an afterlife exists. And lets remind ourselves that after the tragedy at sea, Rose went on to America to get married and start her own family (as evidenced by he presence of her granddaughter, Lizzy, played by Cameron’s real-life spouse, Suzy Amis). So if Rose indeed went off to “Titanic heaven,” then that means she abandoned her (presumably) deceased husband at another place in the after life to shack up with a guy she once romanced for only 2 days when she was younger. Sorry to be the grouch here, but Rose’s better half pacing frantically in front of the pearly gates, constantly looking at his watch and complaining to St. Nick about his wife not showing up, doesn’t sit well with me. It makes way more sense to understand that the film’s final scene is a dream sequence.
In the end, however, I have little patience for the skeptics, cynics, and killjoys who berate this film. After all these years, I still find the film to be marvelous. I couldn’t help but be seduced by the film’s purity, romanticism, danger, and yes, music (that Celine Dion song may have been overplayed in real life to the point of lunacy, but that shouldn’t diminish James Horner’s masterful score, with its celtic flavorings and piercing emotion)! By the film’s closing, Rose was able to find a hope and closure amidst the heartbreak of disaster and thats certainly the astounding achievement Cameron accomplishes here. If finding resiliency and optimism among crushing calamity ranks amongst the best of humanist values, then that makes Titanic a masterpiece of humanism.