In 1997 James Cameron's Titanic tapped into a simmering undercurrent of public fascination and turned the fabled sinking into a full-fledged cultural phenomenon. Like every other theater denizen back then I quickly earmarked the film as a must-see after witnessing the arresting trailer...
Like so many others at the time, I saw the film multiple times in the theater and was initially quite impressed by the level of authenticity, the lavish production design and the sheer spectacle of it all. But with each subsequent viewing, I began to regard certain aspects of the film as the cinematic equivalent of one of those hideously tasteless inflatable Titanic play slides:
For the benefit of the four or five people on the planet who haven't already seen Titanic, it tells the story of vagabond artiste Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) who wins a dream ticket on the ill-fated ship in a high-stakes poker game. While slumming with the rest of the riff-raff, he spies lovely Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and is promptly smitten. As it turns out, Rose's ten dollar name is pretty much all that remains of her family's squandered fortunes. As such, she's been pledged to wed Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) son of a rich steel tycoon and, coincidentally, a son of a bitch.
Facing a life of quiet desperation, Rose nearly hurls herself off the back of the ship but Jack intervenes. Despite the insurmountable class divide between the two, Rose is intrigued by Jack's free-spirited and artistic ways. Naturally, Rose's family doesn't take too kindly to this budding relationship and do whatever they can to keep them apart. In the end, fate, not human intervention will have the greatest impact on their lives.
Bookending this Shakespearean romance is a present-day sub-plot involving a mercenary treasure-hunter named Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) who's attempting to recover a priceless necklace from Titanic called "The Heart of the Ocean". When Lovett discovers that Rose is still alive and the necklace belonged to her, a meeting between them is hastily arranged. Rose's recollections serve as an extended flashback and throughout the course of the film we see how all of this plays out after the "unsinkable" Titanic strikes an iceberg and begins to founder.
Despite the fact that CGI was still in its infancy in 1997 (having been pioneered four years earlier with Jurassic Park), the first few shots of the digitally reconstituted Titanic are still pretty breathtaking. Sure, some of the effects look a bit dodgy by today's standards (witness the cartoonish "crew members" walking around on deck in the wide shots) but overall the images have retained much of their impact.
Cameron's direction and Russell Carpenter's cinematography are pretty impressive. The sweeping shots of the Titanic at full steam have all the grandeur one might expect. The "real party" sequence in Third Class is alive with manic energy and culminates with a fun P.O.V. shot with Jack and Rose spinning out of control. When Rose attempts to liberate Jack from his handcuffs without freeing him from his hands, Cameron manages to wring a nearly impossible amount of suspense out of the scene.
Unfortunately, the director's fail safe bag of contemporary action movie trickery begins to bleed into the film and damage the illusion of authenticity. First there's an extended foot-chase to showcase what Cameron's construction teams have wrought by His Royal Decree. Later there's a completely pointless running gun battle that comes off like an obligatory action beat.
By the end of it, Cameron completely throws subtlety out the porthole and gives us Jack and Rose running away from a tidal wave in slow-motion. He then cheapens the tension of another scene with inexplicable strobe lighting and a clanging, percussive musical score that worked fine Aliens but really doesn't belong in what should be a reasonably sober period piece.
Cameron is notorious for his attention to detail and Titanic is no exception. Witness the impeccable wardrobe, the authentic White Star Line props, the hellish engine room, the grand staircase set and the opulent dining room. Even the most jaded viewer has to admit that Cameron spared no expense in faithfully recreating vast tracts of the fabled ship.
Unfortunately the same can't be said for the characters who populate his film. Ethnic stereotypes like Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) are about as deep as Chef Luigi in The Simpsons. Beyond the accent, we know that Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry) is Irish because he says things like "arse" and "boyo". I've also harbored a deep suspicion that "Olaf" and "Sven" are the only two Swedish names that Cameron knows.
Even prominent historical characters get a short shift. Jonathan Hyde's size-obsessed Bruce Ismay is depicted as an ignorant ("Freud? Is he a passenger?"), egotistical dandy who mindlessly drives the Titanic onward and then surreptitiously slinks into one of the lifeboats like a cat burglar. Call me crazy, but I don't buy for a second that this real-life historical figure was ever so one-dimensionally villainous.
More examples abound. The otherwise awesome David Warner plays Spicer Lovejoy, perhaps the most ironically named character in cinema history. Although Warner is an incredibly accomplished actor, here he's relegated to playing a boring, stone-faced ogre. In a performance that would be more at home in Judgment at Nuremberg, Jonathan Phillips's sweaty and twitchy Officer Lightoller apparently under fills the lifeboats just for the hell of it.
Honestly, there very little nuance or subtlety here. Characters are either beatific and cultured or unrepentantly cuntish. Not surprisingly, Cameron breaks this down according to class divide. Yes, I know that there were probably a slew of real-life examples to support this, but the way in which the first class passengers say and do things just to get viewers to hiss and boo them is insultingly puerile.
For example, Rose's bloodless (s)mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) is constantly baiting the audience with a veritable checklist of utilitarian rich bitch lines like "Charmed I'm sure", "The purpose of university is for a woman to find a husband" and "Will the lifeboats be seated according to class? I hope they're not too crowded." As a character, Ruth really has no reason to say these things except to draw the ire of an indignant audience with a superiority complex.
Billy Zane's Cal Hockley fares even worse. Even though it would be in his own best interest to feign interest in art in order to pacify Rose, he constantly says acerbic, assholish things like "Picasso? He won't amount to a thing!" As if that doesn't get the easily-manipulated masses feeling self-righteous, Cal then matter-of-factly states that the "better half" won't die on the boat and then follows this up by using an innocent child as a life preserver. Despite Zane's proficient and gung-ho interpretation of the material, it's no surprise to me to me that he became eternally typecast as the prototypical douchebag.
There are whole tracts of dialogue that are just a shade or two above something found in a George Lucas script. Lines range from wince-inducing to tin-eared to laughably anachronistic. Some of the more amusing examples include:
- "Are you ready to go back to Titanic?" Honestly, Bill Paxton deserved an Oscar for keeping a straight face while delivering that particular howler.
- "God himself could not sink this ship!" declares Cal at one point. Honestly, would a supposedly religious dude in 1912 ever say something so sacrilegious? Not to mention foreshadowy?
- "We don't have lice, we're Americans!" 'Nuff said.
- "Hey, can I bum a smoke?" I wonder if DeCaprio had to ask Cameron if he could drop Jack's reference to Lovejoy as "dude"?
- "She was a one-legged prostitute." I really wish Jack had went on to say: "See? There's the kick-stand!"
- "You unimaginable bastard" probably looked a lot better on paper then it did being uttered by what's supposed to be, in theory, a real human being.
The next thing we know she's hawking loogies over the side of the ship, flashing the middle finger, posing nekkid for an impromptu life drawing class and getting pounded below deck (in more ways then one). This last miss-step is Cameron's most egregious. Although the entire "sketch" scene is highly improbable within itself (given the downright prudish post-Victorian attitudes towards nudity back then), the sequence as it stands is super-charged with sensuality. This could have have been the perfect consummation for the pair, but then Cameron has to go and ruin it by having Jack and Rose turn a Model T into a Turkish Bathhouse. Honestly, if I didn't know any better I'd swear this was a post-screen-test pick-up.
Mercifully, the holes in Titanic are nearly patched up by a cast of incredibly talented actors. Kathy Bates is a delight as the "Unsinkable" Molly Brown. Bernard "Theoden" Hill is a study of Zen calm and constrained wisdom as Captain E.J. Smith. Finally, Victor Garber is fantastic as Thomas Andrews, the ship's engineer. Soft spoken, contrite and humble, the character becomes a supremely tragedy figure when the Titanic's fatal flaw becomes apparent.
And sorry, guys, no matter how much you like to rag on DiCaprio, he gives a strong, gregarious and charismatic performance here, even succeeding in the nigh-impossible task of selling the script's hokier lines. Kate Winslet is his more-then-perfect match. She's winsome, plucky, sympathetic and, more importantly, she can even deliver clunkers like "Put your hands on me, Jack" with gravitas.
The sinking of the ship itself brings me back to the bouncy castle photo and my final criticism of the film. The gratuitous shots of passengers luging down the full length of the deck or caroming off the propellers and capstans like human Plinko chips is pretty fucking tasteless. Cameron could easily have implied this with a few well-timed cuts but instead his camera lingers on these ghoulish sights like a hyperactive twelve year old frying bugs underneath a magnifying glass. Sadly, I can still recall the unintentional laughter in the theater, a natural by-product for such a tonally bizarre and surreal sight.
Bottom line: I really wish that Cameron had applied the same obsessive-compulsive attention to detail towards making his directorial style, characters and dialogue dovetail with the historical setting. In being so lax, Titanic became the ersatz blueprint for even more aggegious cinematic affronts to real-life historical events (such as the truly irredeemable Pearl Harbor). At least Titanic is well-acted, competently directed and functions as an expertly (de)constructed piece of entertainment.
But having said that, with each subsequent viewing of Titanic it feels more and more as if Cameron snagged a bunch of modern-day actors, dressed them up in period clothes and then set them loose on the equivalent of his own inflatable bouncy castle.