Picked Flick #46: Titanic
Both the initial embrace of Titanic and its harsh disavowal, at least in the crowds where I hang out, betray a degree of emotionalism uncommon in the giddy world of moviestestament not only to how the film distinguishes itself from other epic-scale blockbusters by stoking emotion instead of cultivating detachment (it is, in this regard, the anti-Matrix) but to how the sinking of the Titanic itself, with all due respect to the people who died, resonates more in the history of affect than in any real chronicle of worldly consequence. Of course the event was triggered and conditioned by much vaster and more complicated forcesindustrialism, social stratification, a booming market in luxuries, a new impetus behind global travelbut it's hard to feel as though any of these concepts operate in any truly complex way within the story of the Titanic, which unfolds as cleanly and simply as a parable. The poor paid for the luxuries of the rich, but death leveled them all. Idealism and ambition ran afoul of a major shoal of hubris. Many, many people died at once, and the foregoing circus of media jubilation around the ship's maiden voyage (as damp a phrase as anyone ever coined) made the deaths somehow more awful by making them so publica bleak irony, too, since part of the horror of this story is the dark, freezing, lonely privacy in which the ship met its fate, so chillingly captured by that one extreme long shot of the distress flare, a pathetic white comma on the blank black sheet of the oceanic night. Titanic has an ideally sized plot for a movie, and for eliciting mass enthusiasm and identification, because despite the size of the ship and the scale of its infamy, the story's contours remain so manageable. In absolute contrast to something like the JFK assassination, the essential gist and ramification of the story can be quickly known, and since popular imagination has kept it afloat within an envelope of gently precautionary pathos, the tale offers a perfect porthole into broad fields and brushstrokes of feeling: romance, awe, sublimity, sentimentality, gravity, fear, manmade inequities as well as cosmic ones. Cameron's script isn't nearly as ambitious as those he wrote for the Terminator films or for the exemplary Aliens. Nonetheless, his extraordinary visual acumen and his keen regard for the audience's investments even in kinetic and logistic-heavy scenes prepares him perfectly as the director to animate Jack's doomed resourcefulness, Rose's coltish but galvanized resolve, the shipbuilder's avuncular regret, and all those "minor" moments of couples laid together in bed to their final rest, strangers gripping to handrails, waitstaff bolting through the corridors, deckhands crumbling in the face of the panicking crowd, "survivors" condemned to watch what they have just escaped. And he keeps all this in balance while presiding over a gargantuan, exacting, and detailed set, a mythic vision to hold alongside Griffith's Babylon.
Shame about the dialogue, and the high school lit-mag deployment of suicide as a plot device. I know, I know: that song. Many of the performances could stand some tweaking (more than that, in Billy Zane's case), even allowing that they've been evacuated of nuance so as to approximate the idioms of shipboard fictions, and also to purvey the script's distilled emotional states in as unobtrusive a way as possible. Too bad that, for all the justified finger-wagging at class oppression onboard, the world below decks is still something of a fratboy revue of gambols and beer steins, and the story still ends with a crafty and hardworking prole giving his life so that an aristocrat might live. If Titanic were truly building to an intellectual or editorial point, it would have a hard time persuading anybody that Jack's death offered the gorgeous, necessary precondition for Rose's rich, full life of riding ponies and turning pots. But palpably, these aren't the waters in which Titanic means to sail, at least not essentially. Every shot, every terrifically paced and judged cross-cut and interludeincreasingly so, in the film's formally heroic second halfsquares the viewer right inside a romantic imagination of beauty and danger that movies almost never attempt anymore. The range of sentiments and the visual lucidity through which Titanic presents itself are tangible and recognizable to almost anyone of any age, and maybe that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I mean it as an endorsement of the film's refusal to be cynical, or to be simply and flatly procedural like The Poseidon Adventure or Airport, or to wave the flag of its own virtuosity in as shrill and off-putting a way as James Cameron does in his public appearances. The movie knows when to stop showing us smashed hutches and looming rudders against the sky and to contract instead around moments like the one that always, always gets me: Rose, secured on a lowering lifeboat, realizing as Jack recedes in an extreme low-angle shot that the life she is saving for herself is not one she wants to save, and so she clambers back onto the dying animal of the Titanic and runs right back toward Jack. The most sophisticated dramaturgy in the world? Nobut at least for me, it reverberates just as much as watching Dorothy walk outdoors into Technicolor or Luke discover that his archenemy is his father or a treasured, long-buried childhood toy melt away in a furnace. Call me crazy, but I'll go down with this ship every time. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)
Image © 1997 Paramount Pictures/20th Century Fox.