On Titanic

I actually have quite liked the James Cameron film, Titanic, for the same reason that I have liked Latter Days and Sweet Home Alabama (minus all the drama that comes with the latter): Romance. Although, I like enjoy the film, there are reasons to be contentious of culture around it that I don’t personally find palatable. According to whitevalkyrie‘s post, “Why Titanic Is Considered a “Women’s” Film“:

Titanic is a grand-scale epic by James Cameron about the sinking of the ship and about a young woman, Rose DeWitt Bucater (Kate Winslet) who falls for a poor artist, Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) while on board, rejecting her family and her evil fiancé, Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane). After the ship sinks, the two lovers escape together but Jack dies, leaving Rose to abandon her past life and live as he suggested, by following her heart. It is one of my all time favorite movies.

Rose is attractive but doesn’t have the typical model figure. She is not large, but is a healthy weight, and has a lovely face, unlike the popular actresses and “fuckable” models of today. Her costumes are lovely and colorful, and though they are often uncomfortable looking, they are enjoyable to look at, unlike the chrome colored crap the “heroines” of mainstream action films wear. The costumes, colors, and music in the film are vivid and romantic, a rejection of the “masculine” norm of being unemotional and uncultured.

Technology symbolizes masculinity in the film, and often in real life. Technology is something you use to conquer nature, and something you associate with our world’s idea of masculinity. The Titanic is all about SIZE and the male preoccupation with it, as Rose says.

The film lampoons the sexist behavior of the men by portraying them as knowing what they’re doing is wrong. It doesn’t try to go all existentialist and avante garde and say that there are two sides to every story, you have to look at things from a different point of view, no one’s really evil, it was a different time and place blah blah blah.

Titanic portrays very strong women, like Kathy Bates’ Unsinkable Molly Brown and Rose, and portrays only the upper class men as disrespectful towards women but not poor men, since the lower class is synonymous with femininity, and therefore is the butt of the male establishment’s hatred.  (I don’t see it as a case of masking the fact that masculinity is the problem by presenting lower class men as “better” or making it an economic issue rather than a male hatred issue).

One night, Rose tries to commit suicide by jumping off the back of the ship, and Jack talks her out of it. As she comes back over the railings, she slips and almost goes overboard. She screams and the ship authorities come running, just as Rose falls on the ground, her dress hiked up and Jack standing over her. Of course, they assume it’s a rape scene, because underneath, they all know many, if not most men are emotionally capable of it. Rose says she slipped trying to see the propellers and they mock her for being womanly and such.

Jack isn’t afraid of the female body, and draws pictures of prostitutes and other women, including an elderly woman who waits for her lost lover. He doesn’t have love affairs with the women he draws-only with some of their hands. He’s more of a personality guy.

By falling in love with Jack, Rose makes a romantic and sexual choice of her own volition, and she chooses an acceptable, enlightened, unbigoted man, who is fun to boot. Jack is protective, but not because he’s a man; rather, because he’s been more exposed to the world and knows the ropes. It also speaks volumes that she chooses a man below her power level, a man who supposedly isn’t as “biologically attractive” (strong, domineering) as a rich man. It means she chooses out of love, not out of the wish to replicate an irrational fetishized power structure.

One night, Jack invites Rose down to a third class party with wild Irish music and beer, where she shows off her toughness by standing on her toes like a ballerina (showing that the harshness of female standards is just as harsh as the toughness standards for men, even more so sometimes). The next morning, Cal, having found out about her escapades, tells her he’s disappointed she didn’t come to bed with him that night and honor him the way a wife is required to. She tells him he cannot command her like a foreman in his mills, so he flips over a table and storms off, leaving her upset as the maid rushes in and tries to help Rose clean up. She tells the maid it was an accident, as many women do, since they are afraid to blame males even when speaking to other women. This movie does something important in that it shows what really happens behind the scenes when a woman appears to be confused or upset for “no” reason. (of course, no one should assume there is no reason, and all people have the capacity to understand there may be a reason for the emotions, so there’s no excuse- but scenes like this help us tell the truth about those causes to those who would deny it).

Jack sees Rose naked without initiating sex with her. He is very professional when he paints her. He is sensitive and artistic without being odd and jarring and nihilistic, as some artists are. Jack’s different without being repulsive; he retains his innocence, which is the proper way to be different and creative.
There was a quote on Wikipedia (a male controlled site) that said a newspaper or film review claimed men liked Titanic because Jack got Rose to take her clothes off by offering to draw her. Watch the movie. Nowhere in that film does this happen.  She is the one who offers to do a naked drawing. And Jack isn’t the sort of man who allows bad men to define his existence, which is why he is demeaned and abused by Rose’s misogynistic fiancé, Cal.

Cal, Rose’s fiancé, calls her a little slut when she decides to let Jack draw her naked, and later accuses her of preferring to be a whore than to be his wife, and she says she’d rather be Jack’s whore than Cal’s wife, and spits in his face.

Rose is portrayed as equal or maybe dominant in the relationship with Jack. She initiated the sex. She saves him from danger. She calls all the shots because she’s rich.  Her sexual experience is happy and purpose-driven. She has sex with Jack because she WANTS to, not because she has to. He is not drawn to her weakness, but her strength, and also to her happiness.

The Nature Trumps Technology theme is present in the sinking. Any oppressed group, which internally realizes God or Nature or Fate is on their side, and that the established order including technology, is not, rejoices at disasters that destroy the established icons to some extent.  Therefore, when Nature trumps Technology/Civilization by sinking the Titanic, the oppressed persons immediately sense an aura of divine justice. Many women watching the movie internally snicker at this phallic obstacle being one-upped by Mother Nature.

As they try to balance on a door in the water, Jack keeps falling off, so he lets Rose stay on. He dies in the freezing water, and Rose temporarily thinks about dying there with him, but remembers what he taught her about living her own life, lets him sink to the bottom of the ocean, and swims away to contact the rescue boat.  This is unheard of in most movies- a man being the agent of a woman’s happiness, and (as a plot device, at least) dying so she can be happy and live.

Rose willingly leaves behind a world of wealth and safety in order to escape the patriarchy of that world, and to follow her heart. She takes up horseback riding, acting, and has a life of her own after the accident.

Her final rejection of the masculine world, the throwing of the diamond jewelry into the ocean, into Nature, is the last thing she does before she can die peacefully. She rejects materialism and the male view of “logic”, which would mean not “sorting through causes and effects in order to come to a factual truth” (the PROPER definition of logic), but would mean “taking actions or making choices that lead you to an arbitrary goal [like the possession and valuing of a certain mineral] that patriarchy has deemed good”. (there is no objective reason to assume that having a diamond, or any other particular mineral, or the money that it can be traded for, is “good”).

The movie is dedicated to emotion as well as reason.  A healthy person needs both, but part of being masculine means rejecting part of your nature. Some men reject reason, and some reject emotion. Some reject both. Titanic enshrines both reason and emotion, which makes it a good film, and spits in the face of masculine ideal of dropping half your nature.

True, it is a film from the perspective of a rich white woman, but this doesn’t mean the main message doesn’t apply to all women, including women of color or Asians. It doesn’t seem to exclude other ethnic groups’ experiences but rather seems to address a universal, that women’s lives are hard and that we must escape from them by any means necessary.

The sea is often associated with women and the feminine- it is warm and large and “unpredictable” (at least to those who want to control and therefore predict it, even though it is no more “unpredictable” than anything you cannot mindread!).  It swallows ships and gives life.  Like the mother, it was our first home, having evolved from it, the way we evolved from woman-dominated societies. “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets…”

Addtionally, according to Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster by Kevin S. Sandler and Gaylyn Studlar, pages 145 and 146:

In Titanic, Winslet’s high-spirited, loogey-hocking wannabe heiress (or, more tio the point, don’t-wannabe heiress) is an independent, smart, idiosyncratically beautiful, sexy, powerful, (fill in another complimentary adjective here, like an espically flattering Mad Lib), as Cameron’s previous leading women. And yet again, Rose, a powerful but pleasing figure of the feminine, ultimately serves both patriarchy and the owning classes she appears to spurn in favor of Jack and all he represents. All Cameron films have a kind of bait-and-switch when it comes to their heroines, and in Titanic the change-up comes in the form of the necklace, the famous Heart of the Ocean, and the jewel’s ultimate fate.

In the end, Rose the adventuress has lead a life both like Jack’s and like the one that he wanted her to lead. But it is the rich version of that life. By leaving us with the image of an anonymous postrescue Rose at the potter’s wheel, Cameron urges to believe that Rose has really renounced her class. But she has not rejected her class at all, only its more obvious repugnant values. These values (boorishness, materialism, a tendency to treat people, especially women, like objects) are no less prevalent in the nonfilthy rich, though you would never guess it  from Cameron’s depiction of folks in steerage. As the pictures she has brought to her stateroom on the present-day ship narrate – Rose the Hollywood starlet, Rose the Jane Bowles-esque desert explorer, Rose the avaitrix avoiding the Bermuda Triangle a la Amelia Earhart – Rose has lead an adventurous but expensive life. Paralleling the Picasos, Degases, and Monets she brought into her stateroom earlier in the film, these are pictures of a life only slightly less privileged than the one she gave up.

And it is at the end of this idiosyncratically but never the less lush life that Rose throws away the Heart of the Ocean. Tossing away the necklace is, it seems to me, a slap in the face to Jack’s memory and yet, oddly enough, an aspect of the film’s popularity. Sure, sure, the necklace is contraband, the insurance company would be on her in a minute, and legal hijinks would ensue. But in her final impish gesture, she is not acting like Rose or even like Jack. She is acting like Cameron. Rose’s ultimately wasteful gesture of throwing away the diamond (and luxury is nothing if not about waste) may be very expensive ideologically, but to the audience it only costs the price of a movie ticket. Pretty economical. Given how much Cameron has spent on the film (a fact which virtually every audience member would have known), and given that the final act of narrative closure is one in which Rose performs an act of waste that is only prerogative of the very, very rich, the audience is, for a very small fee, made mandatory shareholders in this upper-class ethos, while still being allowed the moral high ground of those in steerage.

According to The Telegraph UK‘s review:

When the great ship nears its end, in the extraordinary final scenes of James Cameron‘s Titanic, the dining-room string quartet, out on the deck in their grey overcoats, strike up a tune called Orpheus. It is one of a number of poignant details, historically verified and dramatically vivid – the captain caressing the wheel as waters engulf him, the ship’s designer also allowing himself to be washed away with his dream, the body of a girl in evening dress floating through the state rooms like a drowned Ophelia. The music’s title is fitting too for a movie that is, in a sense, about the underworld: about a buried ship and buried history, and feelings that lie fathoms deep.

Cameron’s Titanic is the most expensive movie ever made. On an epic scale, and three hours and 14 minutes long, it is as large and lavish as its doomed subject. (US distributors printed the running time as “two hours and 74 minutes”, to kid cinemas into not thinking that they had a three-hour movie to sell.) After a journey that had often been accompanied by a flotilla of ugly rumours, the film finally docked in London on Tuesday, at a Royal Film Performance in front of Prince Charles, and received a deservedly rapturous reception. For Cameron, cheered out of the cinema, it was a personal triumph: he wrote, directed, co-produced and co-edited the film. (There was even talk of him writing an accompanying novel and documentary, but he dropped those – slacker.)

Cameron’s script is what will most startle cinema-goers used to his hits such as the Terminator films and Aliens, where the dialogue usually consists of lines like “Nuke the site from orbit!”. Titanic is, at heart, a tender love story, wound round the tragedy of the sinking ship. Through the memories of an ancient survivor, which book-end the film, Cameron takes us into the romance between Rose (Kate Winslet), an American girl travelling to America to marry her hateful but loaded fiance (Billy Zane), and a young man, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has slipped on to the boat in steerage.

In Winslet and DiCaprio, Cameron has the two most captivating young performers around. And they deliver knockout performances, giving the film a magical momentum. With her haughty, troubled look, Winslet’s Rose chafes against the restrictions of her class and sex from the start, while DiCaprio’s Jack is the embodiment of impish freedom. The scene where the two dance jigs at a lower-deck party is close to pure joy. Cameron’s portrayal of the rich as selfish and venal is crude, but in the grace of his two lead characters he endorses an aristocracy of the spirit.

Oddly, despite its blockbuster livery, Titanic is most successful as a comedy of manners. When the ship goes down it is almost a disappointment. And you could argue that Cameron, determined to record the full agonising duration of the demise, overextends these sequences. But that would be harsh on scenes of a graphic force rarely matched. From the outset, Cameron shows the ship in all its finery and vastness, yet also vulnerability. There are heart-rending sights – an old couple clinging together on their bed, a mother comforting her children with a final story. But it is a sound that lingers most: the cries of the drowning, the sort of wail you imagine rising off the Styx.

It is too early to judge Titanic fully (it won’t be released here until January). But what impresses most at first sight is its melding of old-fashioned, rollicking adventure and romance with more serious concerns. The movie is a ride, and not without the odd moment of corniness. But it’s also about freedom and flight, bondage and stagnation. And most fittingly, as a memorial itself, it’s about memory and the act of remembering.

When Titanic was finally played to the top brass of Twentieth Century Fox, the company which largely financed the film, many of the senior executives openly wept. The film is, indeed, moving, but the feeling is that the tears were mainly of relief. The most expensive film in movie history had become a nightmare of overrun budgets, frayed tempers and lurid headlines. In the public’s eyes – thanks to a wholly ignorant media – the movie was close to being written off as a disaster, as another Waterworld. Before that private screening on October 31, Fox didn’t know what, if anything, it would get for its investment – whether Cameron would be bringing it a trick or a treat.

To get an idea of the scale of the production it’s necessary to play the numbers game. The budget is estimated at anything from $200 million upwards (some say $280 million, and counting). Interest on overruns alone, after the US release date was postponed from July to December, is said to have amounted to $10 million. All this paid for, among other things, a tank containing 17 million gallons of water, in which to float a 775 ft, 90 per cent scale replica ship. In addition to this, the film’s 400 special-effects shots cost $110 million. The film needs to earn $400 million worldwide to make a profit.

Even these frightening figures do not tell the full story of the gruelling Titanic shoot. There were accidents (though no more serious than to be expected on a project of this magnitude, we’re assured), tales of extras coming close to hypothermia from staying in the water, reports of rifts. And then there was the strange affair of the spiked lobster chowder, in which the cast and crew’s grub was said to have been laced with a hallucinogenic called PCP, leaving many of them reeling with psychedelic visions.

Some say, though, that working for Jim Cameron has that insanity-simulating effect anyway. It was his obsessive vision that drove the project from the start. “Film-making is war . . . a battle between business and aesthetics,” Cameron, who sometimes seems to have missed his destiny as a field marshall, has said. And he fought every inch of the way for his film. When a senior Fox executive flew to the set in Mexico to seek cutbacks on the project, Cameron told him: “If you want to cut my film, you’ll have to fire me.” And he added, showing that his flair for melodrama doesn’t confine itself to film, “To fire me, you’ll have to kill me.”

It may be an irony that a film about a sombre symbol of human complacency was made by a man not renowned for humility. But if genius, as Samuel Butler suggested, is a supreme capacity for taking trouble, Cameron is some kind of genius. Titanic is a monument to taking pains, perhaps unparalleled in movies. Moved by a fealty to the dead, awakened he says by trips to the buried wreck, Cameron pledged to get the movie as accurate as humanly possible. The replica of the ship was built from the blueprints of the original, released for the first time by Harland & Wolff, Belfast.

Cameron’s greatest gift as a film-maker is his talent for welding and reworking traditional genres: his Aliens (1986), for instance, with its mixture of intimate details of a grunt’s life with sci-fi, was like a marriage between Sam Fuller and Howard Hawks in monster mode; True Lies (1994) reinvented the spy genre for the Nineties. Now he has fused adventure with romance, avoiding the failings of past Titanic movies. Before, the ship itself had always loomed over the human drama, creating a stolid genre of its own.

This succession of sinking ventures started with Atlantic, in 1929, and included a 1940 German anti-British propaganda picture, a couple of recent television films, and Lew Grade’s 1980 flop thriller Raise the Titanic!. By a long way the best of the earlier efforts was A Night to Remember (1955), but its account is strangely piano, as if the film itself was following the “don’t panic” orders which were the undemonstrative ideal of the ship’s officers. And, being composed in the old, square-shaped screen format, it can’t match Cameron’s visual scope.

The story of the Titanic will no doubt continue to fascinate film-makers and writers for generations to come. When the ship went down, a great symbol for artists of every stripe arose: of human pride and arrogance, of the limits of technology, of the ending Edwardian age and the dawning century, of death. Last year Beryl Bainbridge’s novel Every Man for Himself seemed to see the disaster as a symptom of capitalism. Bainbridge also touched on the sense of dishonour among the survivors, the feeling described by Rose in the film, now an old woman (and movingly played by Gloria Stuart, a star of the Thirties and Forties), as a wait “for an absolution that would never come”.

For Cameron, forgiveness may be nearer at hand. As an 11-year-old in Canada, he was moved by David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, and always hoped to make something of similar sweep. With its gargantuan budget and ambition, Titanic took him into territory where few other film-makers – maybe only Cecil B DeMille, DW Griffith, David O Selznick and Lean – have ventured. It was one of the great gambles in movie history.

Amazingly, it seems to have come off.



6 thoughts on “On Titanic

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