The Ship of Dreams and All That

One of the nicer things about having the cable included in the rent is that we're now getting all of our old HD channels for free (and after they were originally taken away from us, too). So, having had this HD television for a few years, every once in a while I'll see there's a movie on an HD channel and I'll TiVo it just to check out how it looks.

Recently, I decided to record James Cameron's Titanic. I hadn't seen that movie in over a decade, definitely not since we moved into the apartment in 2001, and I thought it might be a fun time to revisit it. I always enjoyed it; so much so that, back when that kind of thing was possible for me, I went back and back and back to the theater to see it. I think I must've seen it about five times, though that's nothing compared to how many times my mom and sister went to see it, together and separately, and then watched it repeatedly on video.

Titanic was immediately a polarizing movie; the whole thing was like a preview for the heated animosity generated by The Phantom Menace only two years later. There were people who just loved this movie above any other cinematic achievement, and there were people who reviled it with all of their passion. What I'm finding now, having just watched it nearly 15 years after its original release, is that a lot of my feelings about the movie were skewed by this idiot fan squabbling over what the film was and what it deserved and a lot of other stupid, negative bullshit. Back in 1997 and 1998 it was impossible to tell people you liked Titanic without immediately having to defend yourself in a ridiculous conversation about the merits of this and the dialogue of that and "You know the ship just sinks at the end, right, har har har" stupidity. The usual dullness that comes with an immediately successful pop culture artifact, as though what anyone thinks of a movie is character-defining or, honestly, remotely important.

Yes, I think my feelings towards Titanic were largely a result of the noise. Because when I went to see it, and I loved it, and I cried during it, I was convinced it was one of the greatest movies of its day and that the people who hated it so vociferously either didn't get it, were joining the crowd in piling on, or were just pissed off that James Cameron had made a movie that wasn't an action movie.

Seeing the movie again now, my feelings towards it have changed considerably. And, honestly, it came as a complete surprise.

Seriously, Titanic isn't very good.

There are things I still like about it very much. And it even still makes me cry, one moment in particular. And I think it's very well-structured and has mostly good special effects. But for the first two hours or so, I mostly just sat there thinking "Wait, what happened? Where's the great movie I remember? Why is it suddenly...this?"

It was like taking a movie you loved as a kid and then watching it when you're a young adult. You realize that only 7 year-old you could have loved it, and that now, with a decade or so of growth under you and a bit more discerning eye, you see all of the flaws. Watching Titanic now, most of what I could see were the flaws, and the flaws were so noticeable that they subsumed much of the movie for me.

I want to stress that I'm being very fair here. I didn't watch Titanic again as some sort of challenge. I wasn't sitting in my chair, twiddling my mustache and sneering, "Heh, we'll see if this movie deserved its success!" I just thought it would look nice in HD and I wanted to sit with an old movie that I had loved. Turns out, I didn't love it so much anymore.

What are my biggest problems with this movie? Well, the acting is a big one. A lot of the acting is pitched at a level that I guess is supposed to be deliberately old-fashioned, but just comes off as very arch. Most of the actors in the scenes that take place in 1912 don't really pull it off, except possibly Kathy Bates, who is always good, and Bernard Hill, who gets the tone. Oh, and Victor Garber, who also understands the arch disaster/tragedy he's acting in. They're all pitched at the right level. But there are too many scenes where you watch the film and, instead of getting lost in the characters or the story, you're hung up on the performances. I kept watching Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson, practically able to see him thinking "Don't overplay this" and becoming, as a result, rather plain...but theatrically plain. Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt-Bukater does the best she can with some truly painful dialogue, and an idiot scene (as there always seems to be in romances) where she gets very angry with Leo after he basically insults her, then stands there fuming, obviously looking for any excuse to keep talking to him because he's so special and fascinating. Ugh.

The worst offender, as has been said many times, is Billy Zane; he's somehow more over-the-top than anyone else. Also, James Cameron seems to have given him a bizarre succession of wigs, each one more wig-like than the previous, so you can tell he's going further and further insane with cartoonish villainy as his hair gets bigger and more mussed. He also has the worst direlogue (to me) in the movie when he scoffs at Rose's art collection and says "Something Picasso? He'll never amount to anything." Har, har. I guess that's how we're supposed to know he's a sneer-worthy villain: he doesn't appreciate art! By the way, correct me if I'm wrong, but hadn't Picasso already amounted to something by 1912?

Gloria Stuart has the other worst piece of direlogue in the movie, and I think now that she got her token Oscar nomination simply for being able to say "A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets" without collapsing into a fit of cackling laughter. Only James Cameron would write that dialogue. No one understands a woman less than James Cameron, which is why he usually turns them into men with breasts.

Actually, wait. The worst acting offender in Titanic isn't Billy Zane, it's Danny Nucci as Jack's needlessly ethnic best friend, Fabrizio. The way people hate Jar Jar Binks? That's the way I despise Fabrizio and his rideekulously stereoteepicall-a carrrrrrtoon ak-a cent-a. I know it's probably wrong to cheer for a character's death in a movie about a tragedy, but when Balki gets crushed by that falling smokestack, I rolled my eyes and thanked no one in particular.

And yes, most of the dialogue is painful. At least I found it so. Most of the actors don't know how to deal with lines that are either imprecations or put there to make Cameron's usual ham-fisted points about the disparity between the rich and the poor (which ring hollow now coming from one of the richest filmmakers in history). He certainly plays with the big, floating metaphor about the way death equalizes the just and unjust alike and man's technological overreach like a kid with a sandcastle. One of the reasons I never accepted (and still don't) the petulant fan criticism that James Cameron had somehow sold out for Oscar gold is that this film fit right into his usual themes: strong women, an indictment of corporate shadiness, and the misuse of technological breakthroughs. It fits right into his oeuvre.

If the dialogue is bad, though, James Cameron is a master of structure. The one thing everyone singles out is singled out for a reason: it's genius that Cameron shows us a computer model of exactly what happened to make Titanic sink. That way, when Jack and Rose are running through the bowels of the ship and clambering desperately up its stern, we know exactly what's going to happen and it ups the suspense considerably. I've also always enjoyed how Cameron has Rose go down to rescue Jack, so we can see exactly what's happening to the ship as it sinks, then follows them to the deck, and then has Rose jump off the lifeboat and find Jack again, only to have Billy Zane chase them back into the ship, just so that we can have another trip through the action movie destruction and back up to the deck. It's pretty naked, but why the hell not? When you're spending that much money for detail, you want to show it off, and it works.

The 45 minutes or so that it takes for the ship to sink... that's the good stuff. That's where James Cameron slows down his preachy metaphor and his bad attempts to make a movie from the 40s and gets into comfortable territory, and those 45 minutes or so are among the best I've ever seen. There are touches of real humanity in here, along with the grand spectacle that Cameron is so damn good at. It's genuinely exciting, and I wonder now if this sequence is why I ended up seeing the film again and again. Every trick, every edit, every emotion is James Cameron at his most masterful.

Incidentally, it's during this sequence that I find myself in tears. Not for the grand metaphor or the epic destruction, but for one simple, sad moment when an elderly couple, having accepted that this is the end, simply lays in bed, weeping, holding one another, while the water fills the room around them, waiting for their final breaths.

Everything afterward is just emotional porn. Isn't that just creepy the way Rose dies and is back on Titanic with all of the other ghosts, kissing Jack, the ghost of her actual husband apparently never to be reunited with his wife because it was more poetic for her to spend eternity with a guy she knew for a couple of days back when she was a teenager? The things that come into my mind during scenes like that...

Incidentally, I've never had a problem with her dropping the diamond into the ocean at the end. (And by the way, that diamond looks amazing in high definition, as though it really were so deep that you couldn't see to the bottom of it.) I mean, when you think about it, Bill Paxton and his crew will probably find the damn thing before long, and who wants a romantic tragedy to end with scenes of claims adjusters meeting to discuss an insurance payout? That's not the story James Cameron is telling; nor is he even telling the story of the Titanic. He's using it as a backdrop for a story of romance cut short by a man-made disaster, which is a very James Cameron kind of story to tell.

Other things I liked about the movie? I still like James Horner's score, limited though it is by being composed by James Horner, who really likes to go back to the well and pull in bits from his other scores (particularly Aliens). I may not like "My Heart Will Go On," but I think the melody is pretty throughout the score. (I have something on CD called "Rose's Theme," which I got on a promo that came free with a magazine and which doesn't appear on either of the soundtrack albums; it's simply the same music played by a string quartet, and it's one of the most beautiful pieces I own--and has actually been on my iPod now for 6 straight years.) The special effects are mostly excellent, although there are some scenes, like the scene where Rose attempts to kill herself (and she and Jack first meet), where the lines are a bit obvious and the effects just don't match up. And, not that this matters to everyone, but we're catching Kate Winslet here at the height of her beauty, and she has all of those pretty costumes to wear.

As I said, Titanic is a very well-made movie. It's also poorly written and poorly acted. Well-structured, but the dialogue is atrocious and the tone is edging towards panto. It's weird to find that the film doesn't hold up, but the experience of that masterful 45 minutes does. For those 45 minutes, this film was almost worth having to sit through everything around it, which are disappointing.

That's 45 more minutes than Avatar ever gave me to enjoy, at least.