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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Box of Old Love Letters: Coming Back to "Titanic"

“Are you ready to go back to Titanic?” Bill Paxton’s fortune-and-glory present-day explorer asks the elderly Gloria Stuart early on in Titanic. Paxton’s question, now, is also for us, Titanic’s audience almost 15 years after the film’s initial release. Are we ready to go back? What’s happened to this film, and to us, in the intervening years? James Cameron has assigned us the homework of watching Titanic again, this time with the unnecessary addition of 3-D. But isn’t this spectacle, tugged so long between acclaim and infamy, indeed about memories, movies, technology, and how we change, and so invites a retrospective viewing? The thesis of the film’s bookends implies that Cameron’s spectacle has much to do with the grandiosity of our memory paralleled against the pursuit of profit. That’s fairly pat and blatant, perhaps, but the curious “meta” dimension of Titanic 15 years later, and 100 years after the actual historical tragedy, intensifies the experience.

After watching the re-release trailer, I felt like blushing. Since its March 1998 Oscar sweep, where director Cameron proclaimed that he was “the king of the world” and had the gall to consider a moment of silence for the legendary ship’s dead, it’s become pretty standard to roll one’s eyes about Titanic, to rail about its plastic CGI wanderings, its spectacle at the expense of nuanced characters or good dialogue. When I wrote about Avatar a couple years ago, noting how well Cameron once again had seduced the masses with his fail-safe formula of archetypal narrative and sweep, I felt like Cameron was the great seducer, a Cupid whose arrows rendered us blind with adoration. And when the stinging arrow’s potency wallowed, we woke up and pulled our pants back up, red with shame, shaking our heads. “What was I thinking?! Idiot...idiot!”
Upon release on December 14, 1997, Titanic’s spell slew me. Though I perhaps liked other films more in 1997 (Boogie Nights, The Ice Storm, L.A. Confidential, Jackie Brown, The Sweet Hereafter, Donnie Brasco), I was quick to defend Titanic against my friends, who complained about clunky lines, Celine Dion, and Billy Zane. We grew up, after all, in a time when the flashy and clever dialogue of Tarantino was king (my love for Tarantino and Pulp Fiction was equalled by an adoration for Michael Mann’s Heat; with Tarantino I was enraptured by speech and structure, while with Mann it was an atmosphere bleeding an unquenchable longing; consequently, I credit this as making me receptive to Cameron). Films like Pulp Fiction or the Coen brothers’ Fargo taught us the melodic rhythm of written words as compared to alternative mainstream movie schlock. But I guess I saw something more to what was going on. Like a New Order song, the lyrics were stupid, but the beat and melody were great and made me want to dance.
There was a grappling for power in the Titanic argument. I think a Sight and Sound or BFI list put Titanic on its list of best 25 films of the last 20 years (along with Blade Runner, Heat, Se7en, Pulp Fiction, GoodFellas, and so on); meanwhile, an interview with Robert Altman steered the conversation in another direction (“That was a shitty picture,” the great Altman said), and I vaguely recall reading a Film Comment analysis of 1997’s year-in-film, where the writer disparaged the look of Titanic while favoring the visual style of Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (it’s apples and oranges to me, but I barely remember the bulk of the article, so forgive me). Legendary screenwriter William Goldman (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men), however, wrote a lengthy piece in Premiere where he explained why James Cameron deserved to win a Best Screenplay Oscar more than anyone else that year (thesis being that Cameron is an unparalleled genius of structural script engineering). The grave possibility might have been that for a movie that was so successfully a populist venture, there was no way that it could be good. By grabbing a few of the glaring flaws (simplistic bad guys and hackneyed dialogue like, “Wasn’t I a dish?”), Titanic could be exposed. Pop categorizations, in movies, usually win.
The great debate had to necessarily ebb away because of Titanic’s popularity, awards, and the pop culture machine. As a cultural artifact, Titanic was equivalent to its Celine Dion theme song, “My Heart Will Go On,” something that epitomized catchy pop songs that played well on Top 40 radio. For Milan Kundera, wasn’t “kitsch” indicative of totalitarianism? Staking your ground with Titanic was embracing blind populism and shallow manipulation. And what’s up with the resolution of the love story between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio)? Sure, she gets to experience great “true” love, an alternative to Billy Zane’s ruthless tycoon to whom she’s pressured to be engaged, but...penniless artist Jack dies. Having sexually consummated their relationship, he gives his life for her, freezing to death in the cold Atlantic. Then Rose goes to America and marries a nice rich guy (so we gather) so she can have wealth, children, live comfortably to the ripe age of 100 or so…and then when she dies (or dreams), she’s not in the arms of her anonymous husband, but Jack, the one that got away. Poor nice-guy rich husband. He gets thrown overboard too, when you think about it.
Did you also blush when the Titanic 3-D trailers began? Did Cameron believe we’d actually be into seeing this again, as the picture’s legend has become something more akin to embarrassed memories? As Jack stands with Rose, holding her close while the Titanic soars into the sunset, our hands cover our faces. That’s what happens when some people grow older, thinking of the things they did, the gestures they made, the letters they wrote during an old love affair. And then…maybe they open up one of those old letters and begin reading.
Here’s the difference between James Cameron’s Titanic and the subsequent spectacles of Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon, the Bad Boys movies). We are taken in by both, and these films get our money and our time. But with Bay, we feel a little dirty, used, like we drunkenly went home with an anonymous stranger at a sleazy bar, waking up requiring a breath-mint, reality check, and an STD test (I’ve also equated the Michael Bay experience to an evening of fried gluttony, eating the entire left side of the TGI Fridays menu). But watching Titanic now, and reflecting on it the same way that elderly Rose (Gloria Stuart) looks at herself in a mirror that once belonged to her, I share the sentiment: “The reflection has changed a bit.”
Unlike a cheap one-night stand, Titanic was a brief encounter fraught with bad poems and love letters. But, silly as it may have been, the content of those letters and bad poems was real to you. And I believe it’s real for James Cameron, and his love story or interest in the fates of collateral lives in his spectacle of death is hardly cynical. Does that make it a good movie? I think that’s up to you and how you relive the experience in your head. It’s hard talking about love, just as it’s hard talking about how you guiltily like a movie so sincere and populist in a time driven by irony and shooting from the hip. Fans of Titanic may point out that the scale of the film’s destruction, the fantastic existential spectacle of that final hour as the ship goes down, is the reason for its greatness. As my friend Tommy Mischke says about the film and his admiration for it, “What love story?” I disagree. The kitschy love story ties into the symphony of true-life destruction, death, eternity, etc. It is the refrain of urgency as the chorus reminds us how close we’re coming to the end of a song. In Titanic, love and death are walking hand-in-hand.
As an older moviegoer, first off, it’s impossible for me not to look at Paxton’s explorer and realize that he is a double for Cameron. I didn’t get that as a teenager. Like the director, Paxton has dedicated three years of his life to nothing but Titanic. And his venture, seeking out a diamond that once belonged to Louix XVI called “The Heart of the Ocean,” proposes the question of any artist with access to tens – or hundreds – of millions of dollars: Am I in this for my big payday, or is there something essential in this creation, something relating to ourselves as human beings and to the mystery of myself? Movies are dreams, so it’s been said. Are dreams born of profit or memory? When we fork over $14.50 for a Titanic re-release ticket, it’s easy to be cynical about movies, especially when it’s been reformatted into goddamned 3-D. But the feelings stirring within me while watching Cameron’s opus made me young again, helpless, in awe of life, and even something once more of a hopeless romantic. Paxton narrates doggerel poetry “to the sad ruin of the great ship” as his documentary camera films the Titanic’s wreckage. His assistant chimes up, along with Kenneth Turan and a host of eye-rolling critics and moviegoers, “You are so full of shit, boss.”
Yes. Cameron knows that this romanticism might feel like shit to a large group of people. The experiences of Rose in her stifling world of privilege plays a commentary on the dramatic scenes and characters people like Turan were so quick to criticize: “The same people…the same mindless chatter.” Cameron is as conscious of his being perceived as “out of place” in making a period film (his previous films were: Pirahna II: The Spawning, The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, T2: Judgment Day, and True Lies) as starving artist Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) is, dressed in a tuxedo and assuming the manners of the ruling class. And damn, if Cameron doesn’t actually have Cupid there, in the Titanic’s aristocratic party room, his arrow pointed at Jack, who’s dressed smartly as he infiltrates the money-men, falling in love with an unattainable and engaged Rose, whom he saved from suicide the day before. The movies were his guide to performing. When he kisses Rose’s hand he says, “I saw that in a Nickelodeon once, and I always wanted to do it.”
Jack’s penchant to mimic the movies serves Cameron too, as he pays homage to his idol, Stanley Kubrick, who set the bar for technological innovation in film with 2001: A Space Odyssey, and whose pictures share Titanic’s theme of contingency, where fail-safe human innovation is penetrated by chance, and death is subsequently juxtaposed, however absurdly, against nose-in-the-air custom and dignity. Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz (famous from 2001) plays as Rose contemplates suicide; her rebellion of blowing smoke into the face of her mother (Frances Fisher) is directly borrowed from Barry Lyndon, when Ryan O’Neal does the same to Marisa Berenson (Titanic’s openness with smoking, and identifying it with the good guys, makes it seem a film older than it really is); mass catastrophe framed against absurd protocol can’t help but recall Paths of Glory and Dr. Strangelove; and most memorably, the empty hallways of the flooding Titanic, as Rose desperately searches for a way to save hand-cuffed Jack, is clearly a nod to Kubrick’s own “Death Ship” of sorts, the Overlook Hotel in The Shining. To seal the deal, Rose’s tool for freeing Jack is, oh so appropriately, an axe. Her lumbering through the knee-deep water, axe-in-hand, almost humorously calls to our collective cinematic memory Jack Nicholson wielding his own axe.
Cameron’s Titanic thus may allude to the timeless heritage in our technologies, our cinema, and finally within our Selves. I think Titanic’s power caught such a hold of me as a teenager because Cameron’s symbols (and the way his love story gave them urgency) corresponded to the writings of C.G. Jung, in which I was beginning to immerse myself in 1997. The cold black of the Atlantic is the void containing a great soup of nothingness, insignificance, and everything – the “heart of the ocean” if you will; and though it be exteriorized in that merciless literal geography, the final moments show the dwindling heart necklace dissolving into the elderly Rose’s sleeping head. The archetypal infinity is all in all in all of us, and we individually contain multitudes. And whether in confronting death or love, human beings confront the transitory fragility of life, where permanence is lacking. The irrational heroics of a single love story, where boy saves girl and girl saves boy, work tirelessly – and absurdly – to act as a counterweight to countless absurd deaths. Yes, it’s the stuff of a million naked love letters and bad poems, but when I think about it, and allow myself to feel it (as Cameron aids me in doing so), and when I hear the complaints or dismissive reactions of critics who harshly shrug off the love story in Titanic, I now have to say, “Fuck that noise.” Whatever Jack and Rose are feeling is life, and it’s acting as a defiance of death.
When I listened to Cameron’s 1998 Oscar speech again recently, my sense of it had changed: “We’re here tonight to celebrate the magic of movies, and I’m grateful every day to get to be a part of that magic and a practitioner in it, and I love it….In the midst of all this euphoria, it’s kind of hard for us to remember that this euphoria from the success is for a film that’s based on a real event that happened, where real people died, that shocked the world in 1912. So I’d just like everybody to go with me for a second on something here. I’d like to do a few seconds of silence in remembrance of the 1,500 men, women, and children who died when the great ship died…The message of Titanic, of course, is that if the great ship can sink, the unthinkable can happen, the future’s unknowable, the only thing that we truly own is today. Life is precious, so during these few seconds I’d like you to listen to the beating of your own heart, which is the most precious thing in the world.”
First listening to that speech, live, it came across as hokey, silly, and the mark of a man who took himself much too seriously; at the time, late March 1998, Titanic had raked in nearly $600 million and was something closer to a commodity than a human story. The melodrama, romance, and existential traumas of Cameron's story had been enveloped by the masscult media barrage of pop sensationalism: DiCaprio posters, making-of books, a top ten single, and so on.
But listening to the speech again, what seemed like naivete and pretentiousness is now poignant to me. Cameron realizes that awards shows and Hollywoodland is a glossy world of pop superficiality and vapid congratulatory gestures, and he's reminding everyone, along with himself, of the spark that drove him to tell these stories in the first place. Cameron is a great showman, but his shamelessness is rooted in a sincerity that most other artists, even in the independent film world, will not dare touch. Every flaw in Titanic is quelled by the urgency, human longing, and danger that the director and his team put into the whole picture, the first two hours in addition to the universally well-regarded final one. It's hard for me to argue that his use of the Titanic as a metaphor for life's uncertainty is mishandled. The human drama is not killed by the spectacle. One of the most haunting images I've seen in any film is DiCaprio's frozen body descending into the depths of the ocean as Winslet says goodbye. And I think that Cameron has used that great archetype – the ocean, the depths, from where we come and to where we go, in dreams as in life – to his advantage here, in relation to the question of where we're going with time.
Oftentimes with romantic melodrama, the cynic in me can easily win out; but with Titanic, the cynic and the closeted romantic are allowed to duke it out, and I imagine my mood at the time determines the outcome. Titanic is not a victim of aging, but this History-as-Pop artifact has rather been more affirmed by what’s happened since its release: the acceleration of technology, 9/11, and the post-2008 economic bust where several wealthy figures have proved, in their entitlements, to be no more dimensional than Billy Zane’s “I make my own luck” villain. History is the unseen character in Titanic, as the ship’s demise anticipates the momentum of the next century, a World War looming with tools of death never before imagined put to effective use. A priest says while praying with some passengers, “The former world has passed away.” Cameron’s apocalypse obsession (so central to The Terminator films as well) is the stalking angel to his role as Futurist. And in annihilation, as the world ends, we hold onto each other, desperately in love and in death, in 1912 and 2012.
Or to quote Paxton’s assistant again, “You’re so full of shit, boss.” Yeah. Whatever. I’m sure the spell will pass on.

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