Saturday, April 14, 2012

Titanic: Travelling Into the Dark Side

A scene from the recent Titanic miniseries.

Watching the new Titanic mini-series, just in time for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the great ship, made me marvel anew at why this tragedy, out of so many in our history, is one that lingers on in popular culture and in our memories. After all, we’ve experienced more recent disasters, such as the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle explosion, wherein seven astronauts perished when it blew up just after launch. But astronauts are something of a rarefied species among humankind – expert scientists and athletes – in a way, with skills that most of us don’t possess. The Titanic passengers were you and I, and, whether rich or poor, also ordinary folk undone by hubris on the part of the ship’s builders and those charged with steering it safely from Southampton, England to New York City. But the RMS Titanic was also testament to mankind’s reaching for the sky, and achieving what had been deemed impossible by so-called experts. But as with President John F. Kennedy, who could envision man landing on the moon and even predict which decade it would occur in, the folks who constructed the RMS Titanic could also dream big.

The ship was outfitted with state-of-the-art luxuries from wireless telegraphs available for personal use to on-board gyms, swimming pools, libraries and restaurants, not that different from cruise ships today. (Speaking of which, the recent Costa Concordia Italian cruise ship imbroglio carried plenty of echoes from the Titanic sinking. Unlike the captain of the Costa Concordia who snuck off the ship as it sunk, Captain Smith did the right thing and went down with the Titanic. However, it is believed his incompetence may have led to the ship hitting the iceberg, just as the Costa Concordia captain’s incompetence may have led to the wrecking of his ship. (Sound familiar?) Yet, due to outdated maritime regulations, the Titanic only had lifeboats for about 1200 passengers and crew, estimated to be a third of its total capacity. And due to human prejudices, while most women and children in First and Second Class were considered worth saving, and were rescued, most of the Third Class passengers in that contingent were not. Even among the men who were expected to be last off the ship, a higher percentage of First Class passengers (about 33%) survived versus 10-15% of the Second and Third Class group. Those class biases, prevalent among many of the rich passengers and directed against the poor immigrants, from various countries, stuck below decks, reflect man’s worst tendencies, but the venue where this all took place also symbolized the best of man’s inventiveness and genius. A contradiction reflected and acknowledged, I think, in much of the popular cultural adaptations centering on the tragedy, including even at times, in some scenes of James Cameron’s otherwise vapid 1997 Titanic film.

The recent Titanic four-part series, penned by Julian Fellowes, the creator of the excellent Downton Abbey, is more upfront about the class discrepancies and negligence than almost anything that has come before. Each of its four episodes unfolds from different points of view and with varying emphases, with the last episode revealing which of its many depicted characters live or die. (Fellowes does seem somewhat fixated on the subject, as it was the sinking of the Titanic, and the death aboard it of the putative heir to Downton Abbey, which set that whole show’s plot in motion.) That’s because he’s interested in doing more with the tale than simply crafting a Romeo and Juliet-like love story from its skein, which is the best that James Cameron could or chose to muster. And while the first episode of the series was nothing dramatically special, especially in the wake of Downton Abbey, it was testament to how the event remains one to savour and try to understand. (My DVD recorder screwed up and denied me the second episode of the show, while the third and fourth episodes broadcast after my deadline).

The Titanic leaving Belfast Harbour, April 1912
I once interviewed one of the survivors of the sinking, whose name unfortunately escapes me, on the occasion of a story I was writing on the release of Titanica, the 1995 feature length IMAX 3-D movie about the search for the Titanic’s wreckage. I didn’t have much to ask – she remarked on that – because all she could remember, as a little girl, was her father putting her into one of the lifeboats, along with her mother, and promising that ‘Daddy’ would be along shortly. Sadly, he wasn’t one of the survivors. But I remember thinking going into the interview that this would be an occasion for me to finally begin to understand what being on the Titanic was like and, perhaps, glean some new information on why its maiden voyage unfolded as it did. In some ways, that was an unrealistic expectation – the people aboard didn’t have time for that sort of contemplation or to do anything but try to survive, and the young girl would not have recollected much of what she saw on deck anyway – but it spoke, again, to man’s need to understand the incomprehensible. How could such a magnificent ship ever sink – after hitting an iceberg, of all things (!) – and how, if it did sink, could two-thirds of its passengers, more than 1500 souls, be allowed to perish in the aftermath?

That trace memory pops up in so many disaster movies, of course, where some survive and some do not. The year the Titanic sunk saw a silent movie called Saved from the Titanic rushed into release. That’s how quickly it cemented itself in the public consciousness. Not surprisingly, the cheesy but entertaining The Poseidon Adventure (1972), the most entertaining and best made disaster movie of the ‘70s (when that sub-genre was most prevalent), about a cruise ship upended by a tidal wave, was the most Titanic-like in its storyline even though its coterie of characters mostly pulled together in their attempts to climb to safety. No class differences here, just religious and gender ones to be surmounted during the film. Titanica, by contrast, promised indirectly to provide answers when the wreckage, long sought after by maritime explorers, was finally unearthed. But, if memory serves me, what was finally realized was the poignancy of artifacts (a child’s toy, dishes from a meal, etc.), reminiscent of the flesh and blood human beings who set out innocently on a great adventure that went horribly, tragically wrong.

Yet the Titanic continues to fascinate, even when you think everything that could be said or examined about it has been done. A new science fiction novel, David J. Kowalski’s The Company of the Dead, which I have not yet read, raises Titanic to mythological status, suggesting that its fate could actually alter history. When the ship is saved by a time traveller, the world is changed dramatically. The United States stays out of World War I, and subsequent historical events unfold differently. For example, circa 2012, the U.S. is an occupied country, on its east coast by the Germans, and on the west by the Japanese. Only one man, Joseph Kennedy, grand-nephew of JFK, is aware that history was altered and can put things right. Thus, an American tragedy – any evocation of a Kennedy evokes the assassination of John and Robert – meets and intersects with an English one.

I’m sure that even after this centenary year passes, the Titanic will remain a fascinating subject for filmmakers, writers and other artists, to delve into. After all, we’re still trying to figure who Jack the Ripper actually was, and his bloody exploits took place nearly a generation before the sinking of the Titanic. His murders, of course, were acts of pure evil, which isn’t quite the same as what happened on the Titanic, but both testify to our interest in the negative and frightening, as if we still can’t comprehend how bad things happen to good people (the prostitutes the Ripper killed were never cast in a positive light, until our more enlightened times when graphic novels and movies like From Hell did just that), or how bad people can get away with crimes like serial murder. And after all, should we even be concentrating on the Titanic to the degree that we do when we have so many positive technological developments, from the moon landing, to the Internet (at its best) to celebrate? But it’s human nature to go to the dark side – as actors do in essaying a juicy villain to play – and in many ways, Titanic could be seen as a harbinger of the world wars, genocides and mass murders to follow. What thus happened on April 14, 1912, can be seen as the precursor to many, bigger, bloodier, tragedies to follow. The 20th century was just beginning, and the Titanic was in many ways its blood-stained calling card.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and will be teaching a course on American cinema of the 70s, beginning on May 4, 2012.

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