It kills me to say it, but give the devil his due: James Cameron is the king of the world.
Of course box office doesn’t prove anything about a movie, but this film’s performance was so far beyond anything else that one can’t help feeling it has to prove something. Titanic didn’t just make more money than any other film in history — it made money on a scale that movies just don’t make, and likely will never make againObviously Avatar proved me wrong. Titanic made over $600 million domestically; until Avatar, no other film even came close to $500 million, and only a few have broken $400. On the global charts, Titanic one of only two films to break into ten digits, outgrossing the other, The Return of the King, by over 60 percent..
What catapulted Titanic into the stratosphere wasn’t just lots of people going to see it once or twice, but rapturous devotees going back to see it half a dozen, twenty or even more times, a phenomenon unlikely ever to be duplicated in the DVD/TiVo world in which we now live. Titanic isn’t just a movie, it’s a singular phenomenon.
As easy, and valid, as it is to rip Titanic for its many faults, dramatic, historical, sociological, moral, structural, expository, and so on, one can’t entirely avoid the nagging sense that this is all in some way beside the point. It’s like complaining about the pulp dialogue in Star Wars: It just goes to show you don’t get it. In the words of Neil Andersen in one of the few adequate discussions of the film I have ever read, “To be this popular, a story must be touching a mythic nerve, speaking to collective fears and desires.”
Clearly, whatever else Titanic may do badly, there’s something that it does for a lot of people that it does very well indeed. What is it? What does this film offer that other films before and after haven’t?
Part of the film’s appeal, certainly, is the mystique of the Titanic disaster itself, the unsinkable ship that sank on her maiden voyage, realized here by Cameron in awesome spectacle. And partly it’s the charisma of its two young stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, as the star-crossed lovers Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt Bukater.
The lion’s share of the credit, though, must go to writer-director Cameron, a master manipulator with a flair for crafting engrossing mass entertainment with an aura of significance and truth. Like the Terminator films, Titanic somehow feels more meaningful than it seems to be. But why? What does it mean, and why does it connect so powerfully with viewers as a myth for our time?
Andersen’s article, validly enough, focuses principally (though not solely) on the film as a coming-of-age story for young women. Yet Titanic’s smitten fans come in all ages, and are not as one-sidedly female as this classification might suggest.
Titanic can be viewed from many angles — as romance, as tragedy, as spectacle, as celebration of youthful rebellion, as heavy-handed social commentary — but I think the film is most usefully seen as a myth of salvation. “He saved me,” old Rose (Frances Fisher) says emphatically at the denouement, “in every way that a person can be saved.” At the same time, while Jack saves Rose, Rose also saves herself. When Rose tells Jack, “It’s not up to you to save me,” his answer is, “You’re right — only you can do that.”
Every other aspect of the plot, from the framing story with old Rose, to the sneering chauvinism of Rose’s odious fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), to Jack’s romantic credentials as a poor artist, to the terrible scenes of third-class passengers kept behind chained gates while first-class passengers were lowered to safety, serves to heighten the drama of Rose’s salvation.
Even the love story is subordinate to the theme of salvation. A love story per se that ends with the death of one of the lovers is essentially a tragedy. But Titanic is not essentially a tragedy, for Jack’s death is not the end. The shrewd framing story gives us perspective on Jack’s death, and allows us to see his sacrifice from the vantage of the old lady that Rose becomes — an old lady who has led a full life, and who in the very end, perhaps, dies in a warm bed, as Jack insisted she should.
But Rose is not saved only physically, and this is critical to the film’s success. Any story of salvation is only as effective as the audience’s willingness to accept the universe it portrays, particularly with respect to the badness of what one is saved from as well as the goodness of what one is saved to. Even the Gospel itself, the “good news,” depends on awareness of the “bad news,” man’s wretched state apart from grace; the more cognizant men are of their unworthiness, the more readily they accept their need of a Savior.
In a corresponding way, the power of Titanic as a story of salvation is rooted in part in its canny evocation of the greatest offenses against the sensibilities of our own age: chauvinism, privilege, social constraints, artificiality, and patriarchy. More successfully than any other popular film I can think of, Titanic taps into culturally ubiquitous attitudes regarding categories of oppression and freedom, class and gender, social institutions and personal autonomy — attitudes so pervasive that, like the air we breathe, it’s easy not to notice them at all.
Perhaps Cameron’s shrewdest choice was to cast the ship itself as the scapegoat — to set up the Titanic as a ship that is not only not unsinkable, but a ship that must sink. Titanic in the film is associated with and becomes a symbol of all that is reviled in our culture under the rubric of the evils of Western civilization, or of Dead White European Men: arrogance, greed, ruthlessness, oppression, entitlement, thirst for power and control. Cameron makes the case that this ship must go down, as oppression itself must go down.
The scapegoating of the Titanic begins in the very first scene of the historical story, in which we see the ship through Rose’s eyes as a “a slave ship taking me back to America in chains,” i.e., to the bondage of married life with Cal. Rose refuses to be impressed by the ship, but Cal enthuses about its size and luxury. In typical male fashion, he knows the number of feet by which it exceeds the length of the Mauretania, and what all the amenities are. Cameron even goes so far as to attribute to Cal the notorious boast, “Not even God could sink this ship.”
In a different cinematic mythology, Cal’s line might forebode the Titanic’s doom on the grounds that Cal has dared to defy God himself. Here, it has a somewhat different resonance: The Titanic is doomed because Cal admires it. Not incidentally, Cal is much less impressed with paintings by Monet and Picasso (“He’ll never amount to a thing, trust me”); every word out of his mouth is wrong, and undermines his whole way of looking at the world.
In a word, Titanic must be sunk, not to vindicate God, but to refute male hubris. (“Do you know of Dr. Freud?” Rose asks White Star Line managing director Bruce Ismay [Jonathan Hyde], who says he gave the ship her name. “His ideas about the male preoccupation with size might be of particular interest to you.”)
For Titanic skeptics, Cal is a ridiculous caricature, a buffoonish cardboard villain saved from moustache-twirling only by his facial grooming. More accurately, though, Cal is no more a character per se than the Wicked Witch of the West, or Darth Vader. Rather, he is an archetype, a quasi-mythic embodiment of all the evils of his class, nationality, gender, and era.
If Cal is the embodiment of Western sins, he doesn’t bear them alone. His values are those of all the privileged, whom the film depicts as pompous and ridiculous or worse; the poor and oppressed, by contrast, are wholesome and genuine. Men of the upper classes are chauvanists and buffoons, while upper-class women, like Rose and her mother, are victims of the system. (Privilege generally correlates with both wealth and class, but it’s ultimately class, not money, that matters. Thus the nouveau-riche Molly Brown is a decent human being, while Rose’s impoverished upper-class mother is pathetic and contemptible.)
Not incidentally, the contemptible privileged are also all British — a nationality that, with its imperial legacy, bears the full burden of Western guilt in Hollywood reckoning. Even non-privileged Brits, while they may not be contemptible, are not allowed to be admirable; admiration in Titanic is reserved for non-British characters. (The great exception, of course, is Rose herself, who is admirable precisely for breaking from the shackles of her Edwardian upbringing, pointedly if unremarkably symbolized by shots of Rose’s mother forcefully lacing up Rose’s corset.)
Told by Rose that over half the ship’s passengers must be doomed, Cal sneers, “Not the better half.” This, of course, is not meant to suggest what actually overwhelmingly happened, that the women were saved and the men perished. For Cal, the rule is not “Women and children first,” but “First class first.”The facts are otherwise. Women or children of every class, even steerage, survived at a greater rate than even first-class men. It’s true that a higher-class ticket tended to correlate with improved chances of survival — in part due to physical proximity to the lifeboats. But that correlation is much weaker than the correlation of sex and age with survival. Nor is it absolute; third-class men, for instance, survived at twice the rate of second-class men.
“First class first” is also, however, the overwhelming impression that Titanic conveys about what actually happened. Repeated shots of passengers in steerage at multiple junctures held back from lifeboats by chained gates and armed stewards imply that privilege, not gender and age, was the overarching principle of who lived or died. Here again the ship itself is implicated in the evils Cal represents.
One of the film’s seemingly oddest creative choices is the connection Cameron makes, not just poetically but literally, between Rose and Jack’s love affair and the sinking of the ship. Dramatically, of course, it’s no accident that the ship hits the iceberg just after Rose and Jack have consummated their love in the car in the cargo hold. But there’s also the plain literal sense in which Rose and Jack, snuggling and kissing afterwards up on deck, inadvertently distract the two lookouts in the crow’s nest during those fateful moments in which the iceberg might have been spotted sooner and the disaster averted.
Historically, in a disaster movie (or a horror movie), such a connection would invariably suggest that the lovers had transgressed a moral line, and the catastrophe is the punishment. What Cameron has done is to reverse the traditional symbolism: Rose’s back-seat experience with Jack (which, significantly, she initiates, as she initiated posing for the nude portrait) is the decisive moment of her liberation, and the “slave ship” can no longer hold her. So complete is her liberation that their subsequent public display of affection literally sinks the ship.
As Andersen notes, Jack and Rose’s sex takes place in the midst of “an elaborate escape from authoritarian men, mythically labyrinthian.” The sinking of the ship functions as the final stage of Rose’s escape, as the sinking of the galley ship in Ben‑Hur enables Judah Ben‑Hur to escape from the slavery of the galley.
If Cal represents oppression and slavery, Jack, of course, represents freedom, and freedom of a particular sort. Young, poor, American, an artist — everything about him bespeaks the credo of authenticity, of being true to oneself, of giving free expression to one’s individuality, of valuing creativity, personal integrity, and passion above all. Enlightenment romanticism, filtered through decades of Hollywood sentimentalism and American anti-establishment rebellion, is Titanic’s gospel answer to the repressive patriarchal world represented by Cal and the doomed ship he admires so much.
Needless to say, it’s no contest. “I’d rather be his whore than your wife!” Rose flings at Cal. The audience cheers because this is Rose’s emancipation proclamation; it means that she chooses self-determination over subservience. That said, neither of these alternatives would make a satisfactory end to Rose’s story. Marriage to Cal is unthinkable, but mass audiences aren’t necessarily entirely ready for a romantic period piece ending with Kate as Leo’s whore (or mistress), either.
More subtly, Cameron also intuits the dramatic problem inherent in allowing Rose to become even Jack’s wife. Obviously this would be a far better ending than marrying her to Cal, but even a happily-ever-after ending with Jack and Rose would undermine Titanic’s story of salvation by making Jack and Rose’s love the end rather than the means. If Jack saves Rose by marrying her, the film runs afoul of feminist dissatisfaction with seeing the woman made complete by a man. The genius of the film is that Jack saves Rose not by completing her, but by valuing and respecting her, helping her to find the courage to break from her repressive world.
Perhaps the most melancholy thing about Titanic is its celebration of romantic ideals to the exclusion of such self-denying virtues as honor, duty, and heroism. Jack may sacrifice himself to save his beloved — but is anyone seen nobly risking or sacrificing his life for a stranger? Is anyone lauded for devotion to duty or selfless courage under duress? On the contrary, despair, resignation, guilt, self-interest, or at best concern for one’s loved ones consume nearly everyone.As seen here, Capt. Smith (Bernard Hill) retreats into paralysis and confusion as the crisis mounts. First Officer William Murdoch (Ewan Stewart) takes a bribe, shoots passengers, and eventually shoots himself in despairThere is apparently no evidence that Officer Murdoch actually committed any of these acts. The studio has apologized for the film’s portrayal and funded a memorial honoring Murdoch’s efforts to save passengers. I am also informed by a reader that in the special-edition commentary track Cameron himself apologizes for the inaccuracy and refers to Murdoch as a hero.. Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), designer of the Titanic, helplessly apologizes to Rose for failing to “build you a stronger ship.” The musicians, instead of nobly playing throughout the crisis to maintain calm, are depicted concluding that no one is listening to them anyway, but deciding that they would like to keep playing anyway. They might as well be (as the expression goes) rearranging deck chairs.
Cameron even denies the laurel of heroism to upper-class men who willingly went to their deaths while third-class women and children were saved, making them seem ridiculous rather than noble. Thus we have jolly-good what‑ho Benjamin Guggenheim (Michael Ensign) retiring complacently to the saloon to await the worst, airly brushing aside suggestions that he don a lifejacket with a cheery request for brandy instead. When the rising flood waters actually reach the room, Cameron zooms for a closeup on Guggenheim’s wide-eyed face, as if suggest that the silly old fool had no idea what his grandiose notions of heroism would actually mean when it came to the point.
As crises often do, the Titanic disaster exemplifies both the best and the worst in human nature. Alas, Cameron’s film revels in exposing cowardice and hypocrisy — certainly part of the story — while robbing heroism of its nobility. Titanic has in effect robbed generations to come of an opportunity to admire and respect selflessness and courage under fire. It also deprives them of one of the most tragic and ironic aspects of the Titanic disaster: the story of the other ship in those waters that night, the Californian, which could have rescued everyone if only its captain and crew had put the pieces together.
It even fumbles the basic facts of why the Titanic sank, why the bulkheads weren’t high enough. Cameron clumsily introduces us to the mechanics of the ship’s sinking with a present-day computerized demonstration awkwardly imposed on the narrative, but the explanation about the bulkheads is relegated to a later, rushed line of dialogue. (For a film that does all of these things better than Titanic, see A Night to Remember.)
In place of all this, Cameron gives us the ballad of Jack and Rose, the story of a man named Jack Dawson who saved a woman named Rose Dewitt Bukater from artificiality and oppression by introducing her to the world of spitting and Irish dancing, by letting her pose in the nude for him and choose when and where to lose her virginity, and most of all by helping her escape the fate of marriage to an insufferable boor.
For what it’s worth, it’s a story that Cameron sells supremely well, and for its fans that may be more than enough. Titanic may not be the director’s best film, but it’s the ideal showcase for his formidable powers of populist manipulation, the virtuosity with which he plays his audience like Yo Yo Ma playing the cello. Even detractors have only to watch a failed attempt at the same sort of thing — say, Pearl Harbor — to realize how really skillful and effective Cameron’s film actually is.
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First off I’d like to say that I’ve been reading your reviews for years, and, as a Catholic convert and avid film lover, I usually enjoy them. Your reviews of Superman Returns and Crash are favorites of mine.
That said, I disagree entirely with your giving Titanic a C-. Wow. To a lesser extent, I think you really didn’t get The Exorcist and Million Dollar Baby (as well as a few others) either, but I think you really missed the point with Titanic.
Anyway, in his commentary as found on the 3-Disc Special Edition version of the film, James Cameron does indeed apologize for his characterization of Murdoch, and refers to him as a hero several times. So, maybe an update of your review should be made.
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You’re just an idiot. Titanic was great then, and it’s great now — and your review is wayyy too long. You’re overthinking it. It’s a great movie with a great story.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.