Remembering 'Titanic,' the blockbuster we love to hate and hate to love
What do you think of "Titanic"? Leave a comment and / or vote in the poll at the end of this post.
And with this release, polarizing opinions about the tragic boat wreck/love story film rise to the surface again—often within the same person; because for many of us, “Titanic” is a movie that we love to hate, and hate to love; a flick that glues our eyes to the television late at night while also making us roll them repeatedly.
So here’s a short list of things both awesome and horrible about Cameron’s landmark disaster pic.
1. Earnestness: “Titanic” unabashedly flies in the face of our current age of irony, with melodramatic dialogue like, “Jack!” “Rose!” “Jack!” “Rose!” “Jack!” “Rose!”; and “Why can’t I be like you, Jack, and just head out for the horizon whenever I fee like it?”; and “They’ve got you trapped, Rose, and if you don’t break free, you’re going to die!” (In regard to the latter, you can’t help but think, “No, you won’t, actually. But climbing back onto a sinking ship - now we’re cooking with gas.”) And Jack’s “I’m king of the world!” line seemed built, even on first viewing, for a “Saturday Night Live” parody.
Even so, let’s face it: It’s a relief, and a lot of fun, to let go of our ironic, jaded sensibilities now and then and give ourselves permission to get swept up in an unapologetically earnest, sweeping tale like “Titanic.” It’s old-fashioned Hollywood movie magic with the advantages of modern technology. So if you can let go of your constant insistence on shades of gray—bad guy Cal (Billy Zane) might as well be twirling a moustache throughout the film—there’s clearly a good time to be had.2. Casting: Kate Winslet seemed more woman than girl, and Leo DeCaprio seemed more boy than man, so the pairing always felt a little off-kilter to me. Still, Winslet elevates every movie she’s in by virtue of her fierce, feminine strength and intelligence, and DiCaprio’s a good actor; I'm just not sure he was the right man for “Titanic.” But the casting folks knew what would sell tickets, obviously, since pre-teen and teen girls flocked to the theaters for repeat viewings of “Titanic,” largely fueled by a demographic-wide crush on Leo.
3. Music: James Horner’s score, particularly in the dancing scene below decks, appeals to my Irish soul, while Celine Dion’s ready-for-radio-overkill ballad “My Heart Will Go On,” drives me batty.
4. Eye candy factor: Even “Titanic”’s harshest critics have to give props to the movie’s achievements in regard to costumes, scenic design, cinematography, etc. The underwater shots of the Titanic wreck, and the crazy attention to detail in bringing the ship (and its passengers) back to life are nothing short of gorgeous. It’s a lush, nearly irresistible invitation into the past that emphasizes how much careful historical research went into the project.
5. Backdrop stories: The central Jack/Rose love story can feel insipid and annoying, but kudos to Cameron for elegantly weaving in backdrop moments that are often far more affecting. For me, one of the best few minutes of the movie happen when four musicians join together for one more song: “Nearer My God to Thee.” While hearing the tune, we see an older couple choosing to meet their death while curled up next to each other in bed; an Irish mother—trapped with her children in third class—quietly, peacefully putting her young son and daughter to bed with a bedtime story; and the musicians themselves, who know that whether they play or run around in a panic like everyone else, they will likely face the same end. These are small moments of human dignity and beauty in the face of terrifying circumstances, and the results are profoundly moving.
6. The sinking, and the panic: Cameron has the subtlety of a flying hammer at times—see the “hand flung upon the steamed-up car window” sex scene - but let’s give him credit for what he did well in “Titanic”: namely, the crucial scenes of the ship’s sinking, and perhaps even more importantly, the awful, stomach-turning sense of panic that followed among the life-jacket wearing survivors. Bobbing around in the freezing water, screaming and flailing with “every man for himself” vigor, the moment feels uncomfortable and terrifyingly real at the same time. Jack’s happening upon a large piece of debris nearby that others aren’t scrabbling to climb on to - a questionable stroke of luck. But as mentioned before, you either buy in, or you don’t, and your enjoyment will vary accordingly.
7. Cheesy promise, exciting life: Oscar winner Gloria Stuart’s lines also often make me wince, but at the same time, the film’s penultimate shot, which pans across photos of Rose catching a giant fish, flying a plane, riding on horseback, etc., is an expected but nonetheless satisfying coda, visually telling us about the life Rose lived after her dramatic experience on board Titanic. As a proto-feminist, Rose’s inspiring, empowering choices makes you feel like, even if her pledge to Jack ("I won't let go!") was more than a bit on the hokey side, at the very least, it led to a remarkable, admirable life.