Friday, May 28, 2010

Titanic (1997)

Spoiler Alert: The ship sinks in the end. (...that one never gets old, does it?)

this is where we first met

I love Titanic unconditionally. I hear a lot of people talk a lot of shit about it and I can see where they're coming from and I just don't care.

In eighth grade I went to see it a record seven times1. That reel-'em-in formula mixture of romance and adventure worked on me back in middle school in a way no film since has come close to matching. It probably never will be topped, either2; I will never again (we can only hope) live with the same bleeding-hearted, adolescent, martyr-syndrome, romantic hopelessness that I wore around like a badge of honor in middle school. When you're the kind of twerp that daydreams about melodramatic heroism but you're too weird, bespectacled and chubby for any of the girls at school to take notice and you watch Star Wars all the time, an epic story like Titanic is your bread and butter.

Titanic and me? We go back a long way.

you want to go to a real party?

My age-old stance is that when something in Titanic rings untrue, 99 percent of the time it's the script. I remember when everybody agreed Leonardo DiCaprio was terrible here — he was so mediocre that in a massive Academy Awards sweep he couldn't even get a nomination.

At the same time, though, he certainly struck a chord with the young ladies of the era. Looks alone a great performance do not make, but given his time-and-again proven ability to ugly up and disappear into a role (even a ham-fisted one like the Dooley Ahppointed Feduhruhl Mahshall in Shutter Island), I have to take the side that he knew exactly what he was doing here. It's not that he's been maturing as an actor in his latter years; he's always been mature, even when playing somebody patently not.

Jack Dawson is a myth — or at least, he's mythological. There's no record of him onboard the ship (he won his ticket in a "lucky" hand at poker) or anywhere else in the world and (presumably all of) his drawings went down with the rest of the steerage. Titanic is the ship of dreams to everyone but Rose DeWitt Bukater, and Jack Dawson fills that void. Everything she's not and the polar opposite of everything she hates about her life, the love story works through Jack's casual one-dimensional charm.

Billy Zane's Caledon Hockley is that which Rose hates, which means that when people accuse Zane of overacting, he's actually just countering Leo's androgynous perfection (not an easy task), matching him charisma for charisma. I hem and haw occasionally in polite company when people ask me if I really think Titanic is one of the great movies of all time, but I never hesitate to sing Zane's praises. He's sniveling and dastardly, but he's also certainly a more layered character than Jack. When he opens his safe to discover the drawing of Rose, I really dig that Zane inflects Cal's reaction with a hint of actual heartbreak. He's only ever been the man society made him and he loses out to a resilient gutter rat who society tried its best to cast away. I dig every succeeding beat as Cal spends the rest of the movie vainly trying to buy, shoot and deceive his way off the sinking ship, finally stooping to pretending to be a little girl's father to earn passage onto a lifeboat.

Leo is unfortunately saddled with a good percentage of the film's bad dialogue (he runs neck and neck with Bill Paxton3 for a while, but surpasses him in screentime) as a result of being the paper-thin dream-boy his character has to be. Easily the worst scene in the film is the one set in the Titanic's gymnasium, in which Jack must talk Rose into reversing her (mother's) decision to never see him again.
ROSE: No, Jack, no. I'm engaged. I'm marrying Cal. I love Cal.
JACK: Rose, you're no picnic. All right, you're a spoiled little brat, even ... but under all that you're the most amazing, astounding, wonderful girl — woman — that I've ever known and-
ROSE: Jack, I-
JACK: No, no, let me try and get this out- you're- you're amaz- ...I'm not an idiot. I know how the world works, I've got ten bucks in my pocket, I have nothing to offer you, and I know that. I understand. But I'm too involved now. You jump, I jump, remember? I can't turn away without knowing you'll be all right. That's all that I want.
ROSE: Well I'm fine. I'll be fine. Really.
JACK: Really? I don't think so. They've got you trapped, Rose. And you're gonna die if you don't break free, maybe not right away because you're strong, but sooner or later, that fire that I love about you, Rose? That fire's gonna burn out.
ROSE: It's not up to you to save me, Jack.
JACK: No, it's not. You've got to do that yourself.
This stuff would be impossible to defend if Leonardo DiCaprio didn't sell it so hard. And the greatest defense of his performance is, finally, the fact that it worked on so many legions of teenage girls - exactly the demo Jack is delivering it to in the film.

never let go

Speaking of Jack being perfect for Rose, she's perfect for him as well. See, in a way, they're both psychopaths. Rose hangs off the edge of a boat not because she wants to jump but because she wants somebody to 'save' her (which is exactly what Jack is talking about in the gym). If Rose was actually going to jump, Jack says to her: "You woulda done it already." She needs a specific kind of attention she doesn't get from Cal and along comes this boy with a serious savior complex. Many have dismissed Jack and Rose's relationship as being too heavy on him telling her what to do and how to live her life, but that's exactly what she's asking for. He teaches her to save herself (and she saves him right back a couple times along the way) — leave it to Cameron to write a scene as poorly as "They've got you trapped!" and still make it be a turning point in the central relationship's arc.

Anybody who's ever dealt with people like this can tell you that relationships like these burn out fast. In fact, there's a lot more to the Romeo and Juliet comparison than you might think. Though not as well written, here is a pair of teenagers who put romance at a premium, even (maybe especially) at the expense of logic, personal well-being and the opinions of their respective communities. They aren't in love with each other so much as they're in love with the idea of each other and so they plunge into it with wild abandon.

That the ship sinks the night they consummate becomes, actually, thematically cross-stitched with their doomed romance. What happens to Rose and Jack, after all, when the ship docks at New York? She's gonna go with him, claims Rose - but given Cal's violent temper, his former-policeman right-hand man and her mother's dependence on their marriage for her social status, it's difficult to imagine her flight not impeded by crewmen, the master-at-arms or the New York City cops.

Jack and Rose would each get the most out of each other if they went separate ways after they leave the ship - Rose by living a full life and not riding side-saddle, Jack by having successfully convinced Rose that life is worth living.

And this is, to me, a beautiful, profound breed of love. It's something that only exists in the vacuum of adolescence and, when you experience it, it sticks with you for the rest of your life, even if the effect it has is one that must be denied or bottled up. You hear people talking about their relationships in high school or middle school and they say, "That doesn't count." We were foolish and naïve and innocent and now, red-faced and taciturn, we pretend to be different, better people. Likely, Rose and Jack would've done the same if they didn't meet the same fate as their Shakespearean predecessors.

This, by the way, is also why my generation has turned against Titanic, a film they went out for in droves at the time. It's an adolescent zeitgeist of which we are now ashamed, as though it were merely a fad like Pogs or the Macarena.

my heart will go on

I saw this movie seven times in middle school and even then I knew about the power of the audience: each of seven times they loved it. I still remember the gasps, laughter and tears elicited by this film across hundreds upon hundreds of movie-goers in three different Western Massachusetts theaters. I can feel the nervous, erotic tension during Kate's nude scene and I can hear the gentle sobbing of every teenage girl as Leo fails to wake up when the boats come back. This wasn't the kind of audience that hoots and hollers at cheap racism and fast action of the Michael Bay variety.

No, Cameron connects with his audience through a visceral mixture of raw emotion and peerless action. Titanic features one the great setup-and-payoffs in the history of action cinema: Bodine's computer reenactment of the sinking during the prologue. For the uninitiated, Cameron sets up every detail of the Titanic's demise in one hot minute so we know exactly what is going to happen. We just don't know when. This is why little moments like the smokestack's collapse on poor Fabrizio or the infamous "propeller guy" are so dramatically satisfying. Cameron takes a historical event, lays out the beats and then shows it happening to human beings (of arguable dimension).

There was a time when everybody loved this movie. I was there. I can admit I was deluded by the cloudy situations of middle school, but I swear I was not alone.

We all loved it then. But now, for some reason, we're embarrassed. Is it because the film absorbed us and made us vulnerable in a way we weren't quite comfortable with from our mainstream entertainment? It's not a challenging piece of art. Were we all shocked that it moved us with its simplicity? What's happened to Titanic is the quintessential backlash — it is the nature of a thing so massively popular.

Ever since middle school I've been living with this scenario wherein somebody cooler than I gasps, "Whoa, you like Titanic?" and compares me to a teenage girl. I tuck my tail in and stare at the floor, wondering how can I be the only person who loved a 1.8 billion dollar movie that made everyone cry and swept the major awards. Well, you know what, oh you masses of strong-hearted, stable-minded cool kids? Even if it is through something as simple as a connection to my lost youth and innocence, I love this movie with all of my heart and I'm not ashamed to admit it. To be ashamed requires too much effort. The heart will go on and on.

1.) The record was later broken by Monsters, Inc., which still holds it at nine. I had all the showtimes memorized; I would get out of high school Senior year and go catch the three o'clock. [back]

2.) Unless they figure out a way to sell over-priced IMAX tickets to my heart. [back]

3.) Paxton gives the only truly bad performance in the film. In the opening minutes, Brock Lovett (which really sounds like a porn name) delivers an (ostensibly intentional) melodramatic speech into his camcorder about the Titanic's "long journey down from the world above" only to get mocked by portly sub-mate Bodine. His reaction is to put the camera down and continue speaking slowly and melodramatically. Paxton is like a singer without a sense of pitch. [back]


  1. Hi Todd (it's Alexis) - I haven't commented yet but this blog is fantastic and I love this one since I knew your "bleeding-hearted, adolescent, martyr-syndrome, romantic hopelessnes" phase first hand.
    I also wanted to let you know that Jess unashamedly tells everyone that she loves Titanic and that seeing it (4 times) was a monumental, pivotal moment in her life.

  2. Oh, Alexis. I'm not entirely alone, after all, am I? Thanks for the kind words.

  3. You forgot that it was Pg-13 and you got to see tits. Real ones. Live! For a long time!


  4. Todd!! As Alexis said- I LOVE TITANIC. And I love this piece you wrote! I too remember the audiences gasps and cries and now am faced with nothing but Titanic haters and people laughing at me whenever it comes up and I declare my undying love. I didn't know you had a blog- this is great! Hope you are well :)


    PS Let's get together on the 200 block of Audubon Rd sometime soon- ok?

  5. I don't want to quibble, because I think this piece is very well-written and, as much as I like belittling you, I don't want you to be ashamed of your passion for the movie.

    But you're wrong when you say everyone liked it in 1997. I didn't particularly. I went to see it, once, on my first ever real date. Everyone I went with cried, including the boy. Except me, sitting there dry eyed while Leo sank into the icy depth. I felt so ashamed that I snuck into the bathroom afterward and wet my eyes so no one would know I hadn't been moved. I state this merely to correct the factual record. And also because it's a great story.

    But people who love It Could Happen to You with Bridget Fonda and Nicolas Cage can't throw stones, you know? And any movie that brought Kate Winslet to eternal fame can't truly be bad. So let your heart go on, Todd.

  6. Ben - I think I did mention the tits, although I chose to refer to them indirectly by invoking the "nervous, erotic tension" of them. But you're absolutely right: they were super exciting. And in a PG-13 movie, no less.

    Jess - You're on!

    Cassandra - I heard a similar story from a co-worker today, who got dumped for the girl with whom her boyfriend had gone to see TITANIC -- they'd "fallen in love" during the movie. Both hers and yours are great anecdotes, and I think they're telling of how seismic this movie was for our generation. And even as you say not everyone liked it, a sentence later you say that everyone did ... or at least, that "everyone" was crying.

    The passion for TITANIC existed on a mass level; we were a mob, a crowd working in commune. I almost feel more sorry for you, on the outside at the time (I've been there, too, and it's no fun) than those of us who now cling to the memory of when we were all united. We've been fractured apart and it sucks, but Jess and I are going to keep it going strong.

    Everyone - Thank you for the comments!