Academic Writing

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Titanic Revisited

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As a movie fan, film reviewer and general cinema snob I often get asked what my favorite movie is.  I answer the same way every time – “Do you want my film geek answer or my real answer?”  The film geek answer is On the Waterfront and my real answer is Titanic.   This is generally met with smirks and nods of agreement that Titanic, while yes a huge blockbuster hit and created a generation of Leonardo DiCaprio fans, it couldn’t be taken seriously as a real piece of cinematic art.  Well, why not?  With the rerelease of the film on April 4th in 3D for the 100th anniversary of the tragedy I thought I’d take a stab at writing a meaningful review of the cultural relevance of the film and try to understand just why it was such a humongous phenomenon.  

I’m generally not a huge believer in “star theory” as being the main reason people go to the theater, it definitely has validity and especially when it came to Titanic Leo was the star responsible for most of the tickets being sold.  Up until that point his stardom was on a steady incline.  With notable performances in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries, and Romeo +Juliette among others, DiCaprio was establishing himself as an actor both with a pretty face and with major acting chops who wasn’t afraid to take on important and risky roles.  However, oddly enough, his acting was among some of the harshest critiques of the film.  Of course I, as a 15-year-old girl wholly and totally obsessed with him, shuddered at the thought of Leo being less than perfect and scoffed at the criticism.   He was a big part of what drew me to the theater 5 times (yes, you read that correctly), and I’m not ashamed to say it.   

Another interesting change this movie brought to the landscape was that it highlighted the buying power of not just women, but teenage girls as well.  Teenage girls came to the theaters in droves.  At the time Titanic was the most expensive movie ever made, it also made the most money in the history of the movies.  Anecdotally I can report that it was not boys driving the dollar amounts sky high for Titanic, rather it was young girls going in packs and going again and again.  I wanted to BE Kate Winslet in those days.  I wanted her wardrobe, her looks and, of course, just like her, I wanted Leo.  Leo was a teenage phenomenon in the 1990s and no doubt brought a huge legion of fans into the theaters fantasizing about what it would be like to be Rose and have Leo stare at you dreamily with those big blue eyes.  These days movies like Sex and the City and Bridesmaids have made headlines being touted as proof that women have marketplace influence, but its movies like Titanic which also appeal to teenagers with a lesser sense of fiscal responsibility prove there is another demographic that are willing to pour more and more money into the movie.
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At the time of its release Titanic was a spectacle film that broke out from the clutter of other films.  It was huge, epic, a sight for the eyes!  It didn’t rely on a 3D gimmick or the promise of impressive CGI special effects to get audiences.  Today it seems that all major studio films are just that.  In the media landscape today where there are so many platforms vying for attention from the coveted audiences more movies have to make more noise than they used to.  Titanic, for the most part, relied on actual props and backgrounds – while there was definitely an element of computer enhancement, Director James Cameron wanted as much to be authentic as possible and he actually built a scale model of the ship to accomplish that.  Something that today would be unheard of.  Why make what you can digitally fabricate?  As Janet Maslin wrote in her review of the film for the NY Times on December 19, 1997: “Memos, include Cameron's having persuaded the original carpet manufacturer to make an 18,000-square-foot reproduction of its "Titanic" weave and his having insisted that every sign, uniform and logo for the Southampton sailing sequence also be created in mirror image, so that the camera could reverse the apparent direction of the nearly life-size model ship.  Sets match old photographs right down to the sculpture and woodwork; costumes incorporate fragments of vintage clothing; even the silver White Star Line ashtrays had to be right.”  The movie wasn’t without its faults, of course.  I mean, the list of goofs on the IMDB page is about as long as I’ve ever seen for a movie, but given the scope of the film it’s not particularly surprising that he missed as much as he got right.  But as a viewer it is exciting getting a glimpse into a bygone world.   

That nostalgia for the pomp and circumstance of the past is just as alive today as it was then, and while impossible to attach a cause and effect relationship, it seems likely that Cameron’s movie sparked an interest in that bygone era with legacies including Downton Abbey (whose pilot opens with the news of the Titanic sinking, not to mention the much of the plot is precipitated by effects of the disaster).  While it’s easy to bemoan the way people lived back then, with the class warfare, seemingly unnecessary strict adherence to frivolous ceremony and unmitigated proscribed gender roles, there is clearly an interest in exploring those rituals and Titanic let us peer into that world on a grand scale.  Today we live in a world completely foreign to that one so there is a romanticism placed on these formalities, which in those days, I’m sure, was despised by many, especially the youths.  

Additionally, what was no doubt one of the biggest draws of the film is the timeless love story.  It’s Romeo and Juliette retold on a boat with beautiful actors in beautiful clothing.  Cameron knew that no matter what sets, costumes, technology or even stars you have at your disposal, if the story isn’t up to par the audiences won’t show up.  In Titanic we have star crossed lovers from opposite ends of the social spectrum who fall in love and insist on being together despite all external forces pulling them apart.  Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is the 17-year-old daughter of a struggling socialite widow who has been betrothed to a much older man to secure her mother’s financial future.  She is unhappy with her lot and one night, when she had had enough, almost throws herself off the back of the ship.  Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) spots her and talks her out of ending her life.  At this point the pair begins their fated love affair.  Just as the ship has so much promise, so does their love, yet as audiences know even before they walk into the theater, they are doomed for disaster.  The way the story was structured gave another dimensionality to the story – the ship became another character.  Just as much as you want the characters to be able to survive, even though you know what happens, you want that boat to make it as well. 
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Maslin also astutely notes that “Beyond its romance, "Titanic" offers an indelibly wrenching story of blind arrogance and its terrible consequences.”  The story is about what people considered to be an unsinkable ship.  They didn’t even bother putting on enough life boats, lest the sight of them hinder the beauty of the luxury liner.  This hubris has caused the downfall of men since the dawn of time until today.  Wasn’t much of the banking crisis caused when the seemingly “unpopable” bubble, popped? This story is so universal and so relatable that it’s no wonder it struck a chord with so many.  I believe that these two themes, romance and hubris, are what make Titanic so timeless and so universal.  These are issues which people face no matter what their circumstances and what era in which they live.

Finally, one last word about the music.  The theme song, sung by Celine Dion, no doubt became a phenomenon of itself.  It went on to become an Oscar winning song, played over and over again on the radio, in malls, elevators, weddings, etc, etc, etc.  But what I want to mention now is the overall score of the film, which was also an Oscar winner.  The score imbedded into the film that hearing just a few notes elicits the same emotional response that the visuals do.  It’s nearly impossible to hear the music without thinking of the narrative of the film, and that’s what makes for a great score.  It doesn’t live independently from the rest of the movie and it greatly enhanced all the elements within the narrative that so many years later it remains an iconic and essential element of the film.  

Obviously the film isn’t perfect, and over the last 15 years it hasn’t been immune to scrutiny – why didn’t Rose just stay on the life boat?  Why didn’t they switch off on the raft?  They both could have lived!  Why did Old Rose throw the diamond to the bottom of the ocean?!  And so on.  I’m not denying those frustrating questions, and I’m not claiming it’s the perfect film.  But there are obvious reasons as to why and how this film went on to make close to 2 billion dollars internationally and hopefully this essay had been able to shed some light onto that.

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