April 22, 2012

“Are You Ready to Go Back to Titanic?”

Filed under: Movies — DB @ 5:01 pm

It’s been 100 years and one week since the RMS Titanic sank (I’d hoped to post this last weekend, but best laid plans and all…), and near, far, wherever you are, you can’t escape the centennial commemoration. Even though roughly 1,500 people lost their lives, enough time has passed that the event is now known more for its influence on pop culture than for being a tragedy of human loss. This month, nonfiction specials have aired on TV, a new miniseries from the writer of Downton Abbey played on network television, and James Cameron’s Oscar winning epic is back in theaters sporting a 3D conversion overseen by the director himself.

Of the millions who’ve seen Cameron’s Titanic, few regard it with indifference. Everyone has an opinion. It is beloved, it is derided. It’s a masterpiece, it’s a turkey. It’s enthralling, it’s boring. It’s moving, it’s corny. It’s cinematic poetry, it’s linguistic tripe. It deserved its 11 Oscars, it’s the worst Best Picture winner ever.

Knives were out when it arrived in theaters in December 1997, overshadowed by months of negative press about production problems and budget overruns. It had originally been scheduled for release in July of that year (see teaser poster below, indicating a summer release), but wasn’t ready in time. Everyone was expecting a flop. But when it was finally unveiled, the reviews were largely positive. In fact, many were glowing. The New York Times, Siskel & Ebert, Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly were among those delivering high praise. There were certainly detractors too, most notably Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times.

As this was pre-texting and pre-Twitter – meaning that word of mouth actually was word of mouth – the movie’s commercial viability wasn’t immediately clear. According to Box Office Mojo, it brought in $28 million its opening weekend – a respectable number, but not so encouraging given the budget. Then something highly unusual happened: the movie shot up to $35 million in its second weekend. For the next eight weeks, Titanic continued to earn steadily, grossing above $20 million each weekend. It was the number one movie in the country for a staggering 15 weeks. As has been well documented, it eventually became the highest grossing film of all time, both domestically and internationally, and a movie doesn’t make that kind of bank just from repeated viewings by squealing teenage girls worshiping at the altar of Leo. All demographics embraced Titanic. During those first few months of record-breaking box office, Turan continued attacking the movie, as well as the audiences supporting it in record numbers. Cameron finally responded with his own piece in The Los Angeles Times, published five days after Titanic steamrolled the Oscars, essentially telling Turan, “You’ve had your say, now shut the fuck up. The people have spoken.” (Cameron’s editorial was specifically in response to a Turan piece called, “You Try to Stop It,” which ran in the paper two days before the Academy Awards. Unfortunately I couldn’t find that article online, even in the Times archives, but here is Turan’s original review of the movie.)

I love Titanic. Love it. And I will go to my grave defending it against any and all haters. I have a friend who is one such hater, and my appreciation of the movie is often brought up as a point of good-natured ridicule. When I learned that Cameron was planning to re-release the movie around the 100th anniversary of the sinking, I made this friend promise that he would see it again and give it another chance. He agreed. Then he went and got his wife pregnant, timing it perfectly so that their kid would be just a few months old and he would have the unimpeachable excuse of being too sleep-deprived and too protective about how a rare block of free time should be spent. Though he was willing to be a man of his word, how could I guilt him and the Mrs. into spending a night out watching a movie they didn’t really care for in the first place? Well played, Sir. Well played indeed.

Despite my unwavering affinity for Titanic, I don’t have a distinct memory of first seeing it and being blown away. Usually when I see a movie that becomes an instant favorite, the experience of watching it is memorable. Not so much in this case. I know it was my junior year of college, I was home on winter break, I saw it with some friends, I obviously enjoyed it, and I remember choking up a little, but beyond that I can’t recall much. My second viewing was a different story. It was late January 1998, and I was spending a semester of school in Los Angeles, taking classes and doing an internship. It just so happened that immediately prior to meeting up with a group of friends to see the movie, I was interviewing to intern at Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. I had been to several companies and hadn’t yet secured a position, but I knew when I left Lightstorm that that was the one I wanted (and ended up getting). I liked the office, liked the people, liked the whole vibe of the place, and was of course a huge Cameron fan. So I left in high spirits. My friend picked me up, we grabbed some drive-thru fast food and we managed to make it from Santa Monica back to Hollywood in time to meet our group at Grauman’s Chinese, the famous theater I was now visiting for the first time.

I remember being stunned by the size of the auditorium and the screen, and amazed at how pristine the print was. And though I’d already seen the movie, it might as well have been the first time, cause I’ll lay it out for you: I wept. I wept like a little girl. It was a scene, man. It began when Rose jumps off the descending lifeboat to rejoin Jack on the ship, then subsided for a while, then started up again when she wakes up in the water and realizes Jack is dead. From that point on, the tears barely stopped. They were thick, pearly and plentiful. By the end, I was literally shaking all over. Silent looks of concern were cast amongst my friends. As I made my way out of the aisle after the credits rolled, my legs ached and I was lightheaded. I had to grip the seat-tops to steady myself because I couldn’t walk straight. I didn’t speak on the car ride home.

None of this is exaggerated. The movie fucking ravaged me.

My visceral reaction can probably be equated, in part, to the fact that I was in the throes of my own tragic love story at the time. (Tragic to me; not tragic to the girl in question, nor to anyone else. Ahh, the bitter pangs of unrequited love.) But I also saw something in the movie that I missed the first time. The love story resonated with me on a whole other level, whatever the reason. I realized that the key to the movie was the modern-day bookending sequence featuring 101 year-old Rose. Lots of movies, before and since, have opened with an elderly character recounting a tale from their youth. Edward Scissorhands, The Green Mile, Saving Private Ryan and Young Guns II are a few that leap to my mind. (That’s right – Young Guns II. Billy the Kid lives!) But the framing device is not as essential to any of them as it is to Titanic. I’ll assume that if you’re reading this, you’ve seen the movie, so you know that at the end, old Rose walks out to the deck of Brock Lovett’s ship and reveals to the audience that she has the diamond which Lovett has been seeking from the Titanic wreckage far below them. She tosses the jewel into the water, and the next thing we see is her asleep in bed, followed by a final descent to the sunken ship.

Except she’s not asleep. What we’re seeing, I believe, is the moment of her death. For 84 years, she has lived with the secret of her romance with Jack Dawson, and when she sees Lovett on TV, broadcasting from the ocean above Titanic’s final resting place, she realizes her opportunity. She uses Lovett to get her back out there, and then she tells her story for the first time. Once absolved – of both her secret and the diamond and all it represented – she’s at peace to take her place with the souls of the departed she left behind that night. She was on a lifeboat, remember, being lowered to safety, but she jumped back onto the ship, too concerned that Jack wouldn’t make it off and determined to remain with him. She was willing to die with him that night. But she lived, and kept her promise to him not to give up hope of rescue, and to live the full life she talked about and dreamed of. She couldn’t be with Jack in life, but she sees a way to be with him in death. And so when the camera glides over her in extreme close-up, as she seems to sleep, she is in fact passing on. The camera sinks into blackness, then re-emerges in a tracking shot descending toward the ghost ship, over it, and then gliding along the deck, the ship coming back to life before our eyes until the door to the grand staircase opens, and there waiting for her are all the people who died the night of the crash. I don’t know if I noted the first time I saw it that surviving characters like Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown and Jonathan Hyde’s Bruce Ismay aren’t present. Only the dead are there, waiting for her to join them, waiting for her to be reunited with Jack, applauding their kiss. It’s Rose’s final dream as she leaves this world, and it’s an unabashedly romantic moment, a textbook example of “only in the movies.”

Cameron takes his time with the framing device, making it organic to the story instead of just an arbitrary way to access the past. Aside from the way it ends up elevating the love story, it lends an additional element of sadness to the movie. When elderly Rose sees her drawing on TV, or when she arrives on the ship and holds her old belongings that were recovered, I get chills down my spine. The present day sequence provides a narrative hook, but also an emotional one, by establishing that the young woman we’re about to spend the next two-and-a-half hours with will survive and thrive, but at a profound personal cost.

I did watch the re-released Titanic on the big screen, and it remains as good as ever. (No gushing tears this time, though I still well up at a few points.) What I always try to explain to Titanic‘s detractors who take it to task for wooden dialogue or certain one-dimensional characters is that the movie is intended to be a throwback to a bygone era of movies, in every sense. It’s supposed to be an old-fashioned, occasionally hokey melodrama, but created with all the tools modern filmmaking had to offer. Like all epic films, it tells a personal story on a grand canvas, and it’s bigger than any individual lines of dialogue that might be a little cheesy or characters that might not be the most developed. Cameron successfully created an aesthetic to which the entire movie stays true. Rose’s sneering fiancée Cal Hockley is one character often leveled with criticism of one-dimensionality, and Cameron even acknowledges it in the DVD commentary for one of Cal’s deleted scenes. But when people comment about the inanity of Cal chasing Rose and Jack through the sinking ship and firing a gun at them after Rose’s ultimate rejection of him, I say that it’s true to character. Even as the boat fills with water and lives are in jeopardy, the indignity of being abandoned in favor of this “gutter rat” is such that yes, he would absolutely try to kill his rival himself.

Haters can hate, but Titanic totally works. Cameron has a gift for telling stories on film, and the movie – as a whole, and within sequences and individual scenes – unfolds in assured rhythms. Winslet and DiCaprio are terrific together, and the movie allots enough time to their budding romance to make it believable that they would fall in love so quickly. We see it happen, and so it never feels rushed, false or impossible. (Contrast that with Star Wars Episode II, when Amidala tells Anakin that she “truly, deeply” loves him, and we’re left thinking, “Really? When did that happen?”) In his Titanic review, Turan wrote, “Cameron has regularly come up with his own scripts in the past, but in a better world someone would have had the nerve to tell him or he would have realized himself that creating a moving and creditable love story is a different order of business from coming up with wisecracks for Arnold Schwarzenegger.” But he’s dead wrong, and misses the theme running through Cameron’s earlier work. All of the director’s movies have been love stories at heart, though not necessarily romantic love. In The Terminator, it was Sarah and Reese. In Aliens, it was Ripley and Newt. In The Abyss, Bud and Lindsey. In Terminator 2, John and the Terminator. In True Lies, Harry and Helen. Titanic was a natural progression for Cameron. For the first time, he had the love story and spectacle existing in balance, and contrary to Turan’s claims, the former was depicted beautifully. The scene when Jack and Rose stand together at the bow, Rose’s arms spread wide against the sunset, sharing their first kiss, is iconic for a reason. It’s every inch a classic movie moment, and while some may snicker as they watch the scene, I smile. It doesn’t just represent the characters’ romance, but the romance of movies at their most indelible. The scene ends with a dissolve from the full-steam-ahead-ship to its decrepit, stationary carcass on the ocean floor, as Jack and Rose slowly become transparent and fade away. It’s a sad, powerful image that sets us up for what’s to come.

The movie is full of such stirring moments and imagery. A third class woman, knowing she will not escape the ship, lulls her two young children to sleep with a bedtime story before the inevitable flood engulfs them. An elderly couple lie on their bed, holding each other as their room fills with water. Jack and Rose run through the steaming boiler room after taking a wrong turn. The one returning rescue boat rows gently through a sea littered with frozen corpses. After using a deceased officer’s whistle to attract the rescue boat’s attention, Rose continues to fiercely blow even as the crew’s flashlights shine on her, each trill an expression of her determination to live. And of course, there are the scenes showing the actual ruins of the ship, which early on in the opening sequence provide a haunting authenticity; an advance reminder that while the story about to play out is a fictional one, the backdrop is real. This happened. We’re looking at the actual ship.

I’ve seen the 1958 film A Night to Remember, which depicts the sinking in docudrama fashion, and I also watched the new four-hour miniseries Titanic that aired on ABC. Neither of them place the viewer on the ship as palpably as Cameron does, nor depict the sinking in more detail. A Night to Remember is largely procedural, but even that film doesn’t show as much as Cameron does around the actual collision with the iceberg and how it affects the ship’s lower compartments. (Though one interesting thing it does pay attention to, which Cameron’s film omits entirely, is the fact that another ship – the Californian –  was sitting several miles away, just within sight of Titanic, but did not have anyone on duty to receive the morse code distress call, and did not bother to investigate the flares that crew members could see exploding in the distant sky.) One thing I will admit that bothers me whenever I watch the movie is the absence of waves in the ocean during the sinking. We know this part of the movie was filmed in a big tank, but does it have to look like that? Was there no way to simulate waves? People are floundering in the water as the ship slides lower and lower, but the water is smooth and still. I can’t imagine that it didn’t occur to anyone, so I have to assume it was a technical challenge that couldn’t be overcome and that Cameron had to live with.

So there: one thing about Titanic that bothers me. But that’s the most you’ll get from me. I’m on the side of enthralling, moving, cinematic poetry, worthy of its 11 Oscars. (Actually, make that 10 out of 11. Best Cinematography should have gone to Kundun or L.A. Confidential.) To those who still reject the movie, well…one great thing it yielded was the opening sketch of the following year’s MTV Movie Awards. Surely we can agree on that.


  1. I can’t say I’m a hater of the movie – if I stumble across the movie around the time the boat is about to sink, you bet your ass I’m gonna keep watching – but neither can I say I’m quite as in love with it as you. Two things I’m sure bothered a lot of people – that blasted Celine Dion song and Cameron’s ungracious “I’m king of the world!” moment at the Oscars…that’s a little tarnish there for you.

    I’m curious as to your thoughts on some of the other acclaimed movies from that year and how they compare(d) to Titanic – LA Confidential, Good Will Hunting, Jackie Brown (underrated IMO), Boogie Nights, and, of course, Starship Troopers.

    Comment by David Z. — April 22, 2012 @ 11:30 pm | Reply

    • Well, 1997 is one of my favorite movie years of my lifetime. For all the titles you mentioned (sans Starship Troopers, sorry), as well as Donnie Brasco, Chasing Amy, The Sweet Hereafter, The Ice Storm, Kundun, Grosse Point Blank, The Full Monty, Lost Highway, In & Out, Men in Black, Austin Powers…amazing year. And the ones you mentioned would round out my Top 5 for the year, after Titanic.

      As for the Celine Dion song, I believe it would be less derided if it had been sung by someone other than Celine Dion. Not that it’s a great song (though I’ll admit it’s a guilty pleasure for me, mainly because of its association with the movie), but I think the hatred toward it is about the fact that it was overplayed and that so many people dislike Celine Dion. I’ll bet if a more widely respected singer had done it – Whitney Houston comes to mind, just because she had the pipes for it – it wouldn’t have such a bad reputation.

      Finally, Cameron’s Oscar speech. People jump all over him for that, but no one ever remembers the context or the rest of the speech. He was actually very gracious in his acceptance, and made the “king of the world” statement (a reference to one of the movie’s better known lines, as I’m sure you know) as a jokey way to express how excited he felt. I never understood what the big deal was. I think people were just gunning for him by that point, and so they latched on to that moment, which has endured in the annals of Oscardom. Check out the full speech here: http://www.oscars.org/awards/academyawards/legacy/ceremony/70th.html

      Comment by DB — April 23, 2012 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

  2. At least we know the stars are properly done in the re-release, thanks to Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
    I would say that a movie makes that kind of dough MOSTLY by young teen girls imagining sex for the first time with Leo (it’s a powerful demo; witness Bieber-fever).
    Also, I would say: Jack! Rose! Jack! Rose! Jack! Jack! Jack! Rose! Rose! Jack! Rose! Rose! Jack! Rose!
    Also too, 3D is stupid, doesn’t enhance the storytelling, doesn’t make the film better, and definitely doesn’t merit a higher ticket price.

    Comment by Frants — April 23, 2012 @ 9:22 am | Reply

    • I won’t deny the spending power of the horny teenage girl. But even that power doesn’t propel a movie to $1 billion. If it did, the Twilight movies would all be making the same kind of money.

      Jack! Rose! Jack! Rose! Yeah yeah, I know. Really not a big deal though.

      I completely agree with you about 3D. To my surprise, this probably WAS the best 3D I’ve seen (even more so than Hugo), but ultimately it just doesn’t add anything to the experience except for that higher ticket price. I think Christopher Nolan is right: the most immersive and dynamic “added-value” format available these days is not 3D; it’s IMAX.

      Comment by DB — April 23, 2012 @ 1:43 pm | Reply

  3. I may the last person in the world to have not seen Titanic, and no I am not going to go and change that. Nice post, I kept reading even after you stated that you loved the film 😉

    Say did you see that post going around about the raft having plenty of room for Rose and Jack?

    enjoyed checking out your blog 🙂

    Comment by sanclementejedi — April 26, 2012 @ 12:05 pm | Reply

    • Impressive that you’ve managed not to see such an inescapable movie. Any reason you’re still avoiding it? I guess since you read the full post, I’ve spoiled the ending for you. Beyond the fact that the ship sinks.

      I did see the post about Jack and Rose staying afloat. It fails to mention that Jack does try to climb onto the door with Rose, but it flips over. It can’t support their combined weight, so Jack insists that Rose stay on it while he clings to the edge. So not so much a matter of space as it is of weight, I think.

      Thanks for giving the blog a look. Come again!

      Comment by DB — April 26, 2012 @ 12:52 pm | Reply

  4. Thought this was funny – note that Titanic is NOT one of the movies listed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-XSgg493QxY&feature=fvwrel

    Comment by David Z. — June 9, 2012 @ 2:17 am | Reply

    • This is suspect. That list neglects the universally acknowledged Ultimate Male Weepie of All Time: Field of Dreams (though strangely, it has a little Field of Dreams thing at the end where you’re supposed to click if you want to subscribe to their videos).

      Comment by DB — June 9, 2012 @ 1:28 pm | Reply

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