Sunday, April 15, 2012

James Cameron and Titanic: Bigger, Not Better

Leo & Kate in James Cameron's Titanic 
This year marks the 100th and 15th anniversary of Titanic – 100 for the ship’s tragic sinking, and 15 for James Cameron’s sinking tragedy. Fifteen years ago, I was one of those teenage girls screaming “Leo!” and lining up at the multiplex to see the movie for the eighth time. Now, slightly more mature and discerning (albeit still with a soft spot for Leonardo DiCaprio), I thought I’d screen the film again. Despite winning eleven Academy Awards, Titanic is still a movie most people won’t admit that they enjoy. Even I was dreading the moment when the cashier at the movie store opened the DVD case and announced “Titanic” to the rest of the queue.

I persevered and brought home the three and a half hour epic. It turns out 15 years does a lot to change perspective. At 15, I thought Rose (Kate Winslet) did the noble and courageous thing by choosing Jack and his charisma over fiancĂ© Cal and his millions. At 30, I question if choosing personal happiness over family responsibility is an act of cowardice, not courage. Although the movie is peppered with clever moments (flippant references to Picasso and Freud are chuckle-worthy), what struck me were the copious resources poured into the making of this film. Perhaps it is fitting that Cameron’s blockbuster came with a record 200-million-dollar price tag. After all, Titanic the ship cost an unprecedented $7.5 million to build back in 1912.

Much has been made of Titanic’s cinematography; its direction, musical score, and make-up (note the eleven Academy Awards). Meanwhile, the acting has been called flat and the plot, formulaic. But the characters of Titanic deserve critical thought. An artificial community totally isolated in the middle of the ocean makes an interesting study in human behaviour, specifically at the fatal moment when the community realizes their fate is doomed. As the lifeboats launch, normal rules no longer apply. The choices characters make in the moment of impending fatality is telling. Do they go down with class, complacency, or panic? Do they try to save others or save themselves?

The characters of the film exhibit a wide range of reactions, many based on the choices of real passengers and crew. The most notable is the “unsinkable” Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), who famously admonished her lifeboat companions for their refusal to return and rescue survivors. She may have been dubbed as nouveau riche by old money, but she proved to have more real class than most of her First Class contemporaries. On the other end of the spectrum is J. Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde), the White Star Line bigwig who flung himself into a lifeboat and deserted the sinking Titanic, a decision that would cost him his reputation when he got back to dry land. Meanwhile, Titanic’s captain and engineer both chose to go down with the ship, taking implicit responsibility for the disaster. The scenes of their final moments are some of the film’s most poignant: when Captain Edward John Smith (Bernard Hill) locks himself in the bridge and seawater shatters the windows; when Engineer Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), drunk on scotch, sets the hand of the clock and lowers his head in dismay.

Billy Zane as Cal Hockley
The response of the film’s purely fictional characters is equally haunting. Rich boy Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane) cowardly tries to buy his way onto a lifeboat after his perfectly mannered question, “Is there any room for a gentleman, gentlemen?” doesn’t work. Also true to form, society lady Ruth Dewitt Bukater (Frances Fisher) – Rose’s mother – whines, “Will the lifeboats be seated according to class? I do hope they’re not too crowded.” Then there’s Jack and Rose, committed to saving each other, if not the passengers at large. Rose actually gets on a lifeboat without Jack, only to jump off as it’s being lowered, evoking the now classic line, “you jump, I jump, right?” After Titanic sinks, Jack and Rose find a piece of debris large enough to keep only one of them afloat (and therefore alive) and Jack makes sure it’s Rose who gets the chance to survive. Many have made the argument that if Rose had gotten on that lifeboat then Jack could have survived too and the happily ever after plotline would have been possible (although I’m sure these same arguers would then have complained about Cameron’s reliance on a Hollywood ending). What does happen illustrates the precariousness of human choices – especially when life, death, and love are involved.

Though perhaps decadent and sometimes silly, Titanic provides a commentary on our individual and collective psychology. In the 100 years since the Titanic tragedy, have we learned what can happen when ego overshadows ingenuity? Probably not. Look around: the Titanic mentality of bigger equals better is still prevalent, evidenced by the film’s huge budget and box office success. But whatever you think of the film, there’s no denying that James Cameron's epic has made the disaster real for another generation. The screaming teenage girls at the multiplex prove it. Although I’ve stopped screaming for Leo, my heart will go on breaking when I think of what happened on April 14, 1912.

– Mari-Beth Slade is a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax. She enjoys hearing new ideas and challenging assumptions. When not hard at work, she appreciates sharing food, wine and conversations with her family and friends.

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