For a long time, I’ve been interested in watching “Titanic” again. But I didn’t want to watch it on DVD, on a small screen. I wanted to see it on a giant screen.
I saw “Titanic” in college, and I was not very impressed. I remember sneering my way through the whole thing, and marveling at a classmate who saw it a half dozen times — if my calculations are correct, this classmate devoted nearly 20 hours of her life to watching “Titanic.” But after being impressed by director James Cameron’s vision in “Avatar” and his 2003 documentary “Ghosts of the Abyss,” in which he and a team of scientists explore the interior of the Titanic using two remotely-operated underwater vehicles, I wondered whether I might be more impressed with “Titanic’s” scale and craft now that I’m older. So when I heard that Proctor’s was screening the film as part of the American Film Essentials series, I decided I had to go.
So how does “Titanic” hold up? Overall, extremely well. It is not a perfect movie (what is?), and some of its flaws are pretty cringe-inducing, but the stuff that’s good is really good. Here are some of the things that struck me, right off the bat: Cameron doesn’t mind taking his time. His prologue, involving an elderly Rose and her connection to a mysterious drawing found in a safe on the sunken ship, could be a movie in its own right. And he takes the romance, between young Rose and Jack, slow as well. The film is the work of a filmmaker with real confidence, who is not going to be rushed, because he knows he has a good story to tell.
Also, Cameron has made an unabashedly old-fashioned movie. This is probably why I sneered at it in college. But today it seems like a wonderful anachronism — a romance/historical disaster movie that has a real heart, recalls the best of classical Hollywood and doesn’t feel the need to resort to irony or hip cultural references to appeal to younger viewers. This is largely due to its leads, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett, who are both wonderful — Leo is very young and cute, and Winslett is just as beautiful, in her ageless, Botticelli painting way, as she is today. Their love story (yes, the part of the film I sneered at when I was 22), is the key to the film: The story of the Titanic is a tragic, senseless one, and knowing that Rose survived and went on to live a full and rewarding life makes the film’s final third, with its screaming and drowning and death, more bearable. Rose is actually a pretty interesting character — a smart young woman at war with her stuffy, upper-class background.
“Titanic’s” dialogue received a lot of criticism, but I don’t have a huge problem with it. I mean, big deal, so the dialogue isn’t that great. Does anyone watch “Titanic” to be swept away by its scintillating dialogue? No. In any case, the dialogue is more workmanlike than anything — its main purpose is to provide necessary information, and not distract from the acting or the images. What’s interesting is that Cameron is actually an excellent visual storyteller, and the film’s narrative momentum almost never lags. At times, the film becomes a little too cartoonish, with plot twists and villains that seem lifted out of a bad 1930s melodrama.
One of my biggest issues with the film is with the character of Cal (Billy Zane), Rose’s stuck-up and unappealing fiance. Over the course of the movie, he transforms from a poor match for the high-spirited Rose to a cartoon villain — one of the worst scenes in the film has him pursuing Jack and Rose down the stairs as the waters rise, firing a gun at them. (This scene, more than anything, reveals Cameron’s roots as the director of “Aliens” and “Terminator 2.”) Anyway, Cal might well be the most deserving cuckold in cinematic history, and his downfall is amusing, but his character arc is one of the least believable things about the film.
Where Cameron really outdid himself was with the sinking of the ship, which is reenacted in painstaking and horrifying detail. These scenes are awe-inspiring and though there’s beauty in them, it’s a terrible sort of beauty — the shots of frozen corpses floating in the water while a lone rescue boat searches for survivors are breathtaking, but also very sad. The film’s most tragic scenes — the ship’s architect stoically awaiting his death, the orchestra playing on deck as passengers are lifted into life boats — are actually very affecting.
In the end, I enjoyed “Titanic” so much that I couldn’t quite believe my earlier distaste for it. Who was that person that sneered at this movie? In fact, I’m kind of wondering whether my hatred was based primarily on the horrible Celine Dion song featured in it. That song really is awful — the worst thing about the movie. But the movie itself is an ambitious, emotional spectacle — the type of film people are talking about when they gaze wistfully into the distance and say, “They just don’t make them like that anymore.”
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