Thursday, June 22, 2006

Picked Flick #46: Titanic

When I first started teaching film, Titanic was invaluable to me, because every single student in my course had seen it, often more than once. As a result, for shared, shorthanded examples of camera angles, color filters, process shots, the comparative scope of a scene vs. a sequence, etc., and just as living proof that movies can unite people and endow us with common language and experience, Titanic was—in the treasure-hunting lingo of Brock Lovett & Co.—a trove, a jackpot. These days, it's hardly worth the trouble of invoking Titanic, because cracking the thick crust of derision or, at best, embarrassed affection is too arduous and digressive a task. Talk about hitting an iceberg: I recognize that even in 1997 and 1998, plenty of people were roundly unseduced by James Cameron's ballad of Jack and Rose. By now, though, Titanic seems to have sunk from a global preoccupation to an abashed recollection or a blacklisted memory.

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 movies—testament 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 forces—industrialism, social stratification, a booming market in luxuries, a new impetus behind global travel—but 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 public—a 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 interlude—increasingly so, in the film's formally heroic second half—squares 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? No—but 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.

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6 Comments:

Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Fabulous reverie of a review.
For a movie I pretty much loathed on first sight ("roundly unseduced" becomes something of an understatement here).

But your comments resonate very helpfully for me in your appreciation of the film's sincerity, its investment in "stoking emotion instead of cultivating detachment." So few EPIC romances get made, and most romances get stuck in the ratatat snarkiness of the contemporary romcom. Having screened English Patient recently, as well as the PBS version of Light in the Piazza, I was reminded of how quickly The Notebook disappeared from critical consciousness. It's as if there's something unseemly about epic emotion...

(An aside: I'm astonished at this rapidly accreting compendium. Zowie, dude.)

8:37 AM, June 22, 2006  
Blogger ModFab said...

Maybe because I started my artistic life as a playwright, I've never been able to forgive the dialogue of TITANIC...excruciating stuff, that. I think it's got a majesty in its last hour that eludes most action blockbusters, and the whiff of history (true or no) gives it a grounding. But every time they say "you jump, I jump, right?", I just want to drown them with a POSEIDON-like rogue wave.

To your larger point, though...I think it remains one of the few near-universal artistic experiences in our global audience. SPIDER-MAN and the LORD OF THE RINGS are the only two that probably come close. It does make it easy to discuss elements of filmmaking when we're all on the same page, or screen. ;-)

11:01 AM, June 22, 2006  
Blogger Nick Davis said...

@Stinky & ModFab: Extremely generous comments. Thanks, and who says the art of chivalry is dead?

9:42 PM, June 22, 2006  
Blogger Cal said...

I officially love you. There has been such a backlash to this film that I feel is really unfair.

I think the reason I can forgive the cheesy dialogue and so-so acting (which isn't horrendous) is probably because it achieves so much in other aspects. Along with The English Patient I think it's at the height of epic romance. It's just such a grand, sweeping, breathtaking love story that you can't take your eyes off. Love it.

11:04 AM, June 23, 2006  
Blogger ANN said...

You're a man after my mom's heart, ND.

"Well, I'll be goddamned. Jack! Rose! Jack! Rose! Jack! Rose! I'm flying Jack! Rose! Rose! Aaaaarrghhh! I'll never let go." [fade to Celine Dion]

5:20 PM, June 23, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You tell us what makes a great screenplay, what makes great dialogue... certainly you don't think the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain wasn't worth the ink it was printed on. I have grown so sick of the Titanic bashing. It's so easy for people to get jealous of a movie that made so much money and earned so many awards. But, when I sat there... in a packed movie house, everyone felt the same way at the end. Because it was so powerful... almost so perfect in the visceral sense at least, they started picking and picking. They found flaws where there weren't any. And, it's become popular to do that same thing over and over within the last 10 years. Gone With the Wind is seen as a very racist film, but at the time that film meant the world to many people who were coming out of the Depression. Star Wars is far from perfect. Even Citizen Kane has its frustrating flaws. Give me a break. Titanic does not deserve the extent of all this backlash.

3:56 AM, March 21, 2007  

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