Thursday, December 15, 2005

revisiting Cameron's TITANIC

Back in 2000, very late to the game, I posted a minor rant about James Cameron's Titanic over on Epinions. My problem with the movie centered around Rose's statement, regarding Jack: He saved me, in every way a person could be saved.

Now, for reasons unfathomable to me, Titanic is in heavy rotation on HBO. Last night I had four loads of laundry to fold, and there was nothing else on, so...Titanic it was. I've watched bits and pieces of it ever since it showed up on the schedule; I've no intention of ever sitting through the entire thing ever again, but it's good to fold clothes by. I'm still trying to figure out why it was such a huge hit. There's so much good, and so much bad, it's hard to decide where I stand on this behemoth. It's fascinating to me how watchable it is, in spite of its faults.

The movie has good "bones", in that the basic story is quite simple, and the framing device of the modern-day dive to the wreck is very effective. The whole thing just looks gorgeous, even though some of the special effects work is obviously just that. The meticulous attention to detail in the sets, costumes, and props just blows me away, as does all the footage of the deep dive.

But once you get past the basic outline and the look of the thing, it starts to come apart. I will never understand some of Cameron's decisions in putting this thing together.

I contended back in 2000, and still maintain, that Rose saved herself, and by failing to even notice that, Cameron missed a huge opportunity. Now, upon re-watching, I discovered a scene I had completely forgotten, early in the movie, in which Rose flatly says, It's not up to you to save me, Jack. Jack, being the wise young man that he is, replies, You're right... Only you can do that. This is exactly right, but it goes by so quickly, and is completely contradicted by Old Rose's "he saved me" speechifying that no one ever remembers it. Why would Cameron bother to include the earlier exchange only to so thoroughly dispute it in the end? If anything, these two lines of dialog increase my frustration with the film, because they show how close Cameron came to making something transcendent instead of maudlin. (I will, however, amend my previous criticism to acknowledge that Jack did save Rose by getting her safely away from the sinking ship and onto that door; otherwise she would've died of hypothermia like the rest of the doomed passengers.)

Another sticking point for me: the deep dive is awesome in its own right, so why was its purpose to recover the fantastic diamond? Why would anyone be foolish enough to think that they would be able to recover it? The "needle in a haystack" comparison is more than apt. So the whole business with the diamond is quite silly, and it still annoys me that Rose tosses it overboard at the end -- why couldn't she just give it to Bill Paxton, and let the thing make someone happy for a change? Minor nitpick: Le Couer de la Mer translates as "the Heart of the Sea," not ocean. Ocean in French is océan!

Speaking of silly, I keep getting tripped up by the dialog. All of it, really, but there's one particularly egregious passage. Rose's famous "I'll never let go" has been quoted as a laugh-line often, usually followed by the observation, "Uh, Rose? You just let go." The dialog fails utterly here. I realize that "letting go" or "not letting go" is the recurring motif of the movie, but in every instance except this last, it is used when someone is physically holding on to someone or something else. Rose's "I won't let go" is her way of reassuring Jack that she won't forget her promise to him to never give up; here's the passage, courtesy of IMDB's quote page:
Jack:You must? you must do me this honor... you must promise me that you'll survive... that you won't give up... no matter what happens...
Jack: No matter how hopeless... Promise me now, Rose... and never let go of that promise.
Rose: I promise...
Jack: [whispers] Never let go...
Rose: I'll never let go, Jack... I'll never let go.
Who talks about "letting go" of a promise? I get what Cameron was trying to do there, but he couldn't pull it off. Thus was born one of the biggest unintentional jokes of the late 20th Century.

Over on Althouse, we were discussing Oliver Stone's upcoming 9/11 movie, and someone brought up Titanic; commenter "Joe Baby" even brought up the "I'll never let go," line, which had us all cracking up. I said comparing the two efforts would be like comparing apples and hand grenades. While both involved massive loss of life, one was accidental, the other deliberate mass-murder. But there are scenes of Titanic that took on new, chilling meaning, post-9/11. After the ship has broken in two, the stern upends and looks like nothing so much as a surreal skyscraper, bobbing in the ocean. In the wide-shot scenes, you can see a few passengers leap from the decks into the frigid water below, calling to mind those people,trapped in the upper floors of the World Trade Center, who tried to jump to safety. Titanic's jumpers fared no better than those of the WTC; the sheer brave futility of the effort remains heart-breaking.

Back in 2000, I gave this 3 stars out of 5, and that's probably about right. The dialog is stupid and the characters are tissue-thin and one dimensional, but the sheer spectacle of seeing the destruction of the Titanic overshadows all of that. Cameron's intention, I think, was to allow us to see the horrific tragedy in a way that was not voyeuristic. As annoying as Rose and Jack are, they provide the eyes through which we see these events unfolding. As devices, they're successful. As fully realized characters that we can identify with, they fail with the majority of the audience, the notable exception being pre-teen girls. As a love story or commentary on human relationships, Titanic stinks. But as a means by which we can better understand the full horror of that terrible accident, it works, and it works very well.

1 comment:

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