Sight and Sound - February 1998

 

 

Massive attack

James Cameronīs Titanic, currently the most expensive movie ever, relies on old Hollywood methods as much as special effects, argues José Arroyo

 

The sinking of the S.S. Titanic on the night of 14 April 1912 is one of the best-known disasters of the twentieth century; even people who donīt know much history have heard of it. Movies have been made of it ever since 1912īs remarkable instant German reconstruction In Nacht und Eis (Mime Misu): the all-star (Barbara Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, Brian Aherne) 1953 Titanic directed by Jean Negulesco still crops up on television occasionally, as does the British A Night to Remember (Roy Ward Baker, 1958), highly regarded for the way it builds a quiet power through a collage of vignettes. The sinking has also been a minor plot point in countless other films, including mucicals: in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (Charles Walters, 1964) Debbie Reynolds plays the same Molly that Katie Bates plays in James Cameronīs new Titanic. The event has been interpreted as a allegory for capitalism, as divine punishment of human arrogance, as a symbol of the destruction of a priveleged way of life and as a portent of the changes World War One was to bring.

It is understandable why Cameron would be attracted to the subject: a historical event loaded with significance, it offers huge canvas, with potential for great action. And his film does try to bring on these traditional interpretations of the event: we do see class warfare erupting when the icebergs hit, with the lower classes getting locked up in the lower decks. We see the cosmopolitanism of the times, the radical breakthroughs in the arts and the incipient feminism that were to transform the Twentieth Century; the bloody dialectic of enlightenment in which science and progress lead to destruction is illustrated for the umpteenth time. One can hardly blame Cameron for wanting to tackle so weighty a subject - but one canīt help noting that he wrung more meaning, significance, seriousness and fun from his science-fiction work than he does here, from History.

And it would be surprising if audiences cared much about the meaning of Titanic. This is a film that would probably be just as popular (if twice as bad) at half the length, provided the last of its three-and-a quarter hours, the one with all the action and the special effects, remained as it is here. For what we all want to see is how the ship sinks - and what we get to see here is not simply visually awesome but also great film-making. Indeed, there are amazing shots throughout the film. For example, one shot near the start moves from Leonardo DiCaprio as hero Jack Dawson standing on the banister of the shipīs prow, arms outstretched - revelling in the air, the speed of the boat and the fredom of the ocean - through the whole length of the ship and beyond as we see people walking on deck and every detail. The shot is show-offy in its expensiveness and skill, and a sheer pleasure.

Wisely, most of the best is left for the latter part of the film, which thus seems to build and build. It gains speed from the moment Billy Zane as Cal Hockley hears Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack declaring their love for one another, and it doesnīt stop moving until Jack dies. We see the massive ship break, thousands of extras sliding to their death, and gushing water destroying everything in its path. The way this is filmed turns these scenes into something more than merely spectacle: They are rendered so immediate that the destruction takes on a life of its own. Only with death imminent does everything come to life. Characters shake loose, scenes finally begin to play and drama happens as the chaos commences. Itīs as if the icebergs that sink the boat had unshackled Kate and Leo from their keylight and Cameron from his yen to portentous significance. It is in movement that the actors become moving and funny. And it is in and through action that Cameron finally communicates anything worth saying. Cal frantically grabbing a loose baby in order to qualify for a lifeboat says more about his character, his class and the contrasted cultures of that time and ours than does the entire necklace subplot.

In the tradition of High Concept Cinema, the plot is easily reducible to stars, title and ad-line: īLeonardo DiCaprio - Kate Winslet - Titanic - Nothing on Eaarth Could Come Between Themī pretty much tells us the story. Jack Dawson, an artist, talented but poor, who won his fare at cards, meets upperclass Rose DeWitt Bukater when he charms her away from jumping overboard (reasons: boyfriend trouble plus general sexual-cultural oppression), saving her life. By the end, when both are in the icy waters, heīs still trying to charm her into living even as heīs dying. Itīs true love, you see. Befitting her practical nature, she pushes his frozen corps into the Atlantic at the very moment she never promises never to let him go, remaining true to her word because (donīt gag), she "will always carry him deep in (her) heart." For this is after all one of those romances where a lady with three names falls in love with an artist used to sketching one-legged prostitutes in Paris. And true to type, Everything on Earth tries to come betwen them, her selfish mother (Frances Fisher) is eager to imprison Rose in a loveless marriage, to maintain social status and increase her own standard of living (the father is dead; the family in debt); the intended husband is the sadistic Cal, who beats Rose for being belligerent - and even in more tender moments he treats her merely as an expensive object and is willing to kill her rather than allow her into the arms of another man. The icebergs donīt help. Nature fosters Roseīs and Jackīs union only to demand an earthly seperation which simultaneously guarantees the transcendental status of their love. Yes, Titanic is as trashy as it sounds, and so sometimes itīs imposible to keep a straight face, but it is also a lot of fun.

īRomeo and Julietī aboard the Titanic is not the most promising pitch for a film - not is it improved by the decision to let Rose live to be a hundred years old, in order to tell us the story. For the story actually begins in the present, with Brock Lovett (a ruddy Bill Paxton) leading an expedition down to the wreck to find a necklace with a rare blue diamond, īThe Heart of the Oceanī. The safe where the necklace supposedly resides is located and opened - but all Lovett finds is a drawing of a young and topless Rose wearing it. The elderly Rose (Gloria Stuart) sees this picture on television, recognizes herself, contacts Lovett and gets helicoptered onto his ship in order to tell him her story. The exploration of the wreck of the Titanic and the interaction between Lovett and the old Rose takes up a fair amount of running time at beginning and end of the film, and as a narrative device is not without its uses: the audience can be given contextual information on the history of the ship and its passengers, moving betwen past and present, while several questions can be set in motion. What happened to the necklace? What happened to Rose?

But such benefits do not make up for the deviceīs shortcomings. The good things one rememers in the framing-device sections are few: an abstract shot of submarines resembling spaceships descending towards the final frontier, a cute robot manoevring its way through the silt-covered remains of the wreck; computer graphics vividly illustrating what happened to the ship when it hit the iceberg. This section is still not worth the screen-time it occupies. More story-telling imagination could have structured the central narrative so as to accommodate exposition and set the central quests in motion.

Moreover, the director should have trusted the audience to make the link between the past and the present. That he doesnīt is clearly exemplified in the two instances when the film cuts to the present. Each present-day section is introduced by Roseīs voice-over. Each time there is a cut to the faces of Lovett and his crew listening to her. In other words they are the narrativeīs stand-ins for the audience. The crew is as visibly moved as the audience of the film is expected to be. But in effect what Cameron has done - probably the worst directing in his career - is to pre-empt and dictate audience response. So hackneyed is this shameless bit of manipulation that itīs all too easy to resist.

Clearly the Titanic is ideal subject matter for a disaster movie, for an intimate epic and for a commentary on a mythic historical event and long-gone way of life. And Cameron essays all three, with varying degress of success. The film doesnīt quite fit into the disaster genre as we reall it from its 70s peak. Such films as The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and The Towering Inferno (1974) began (like Titanic) by telling us of a situation that couldnīt possibly happen, and introducing us to those it couldnīt happen to. Then - on as wide a screen as possible and preferably in sensurround - they showed it happening: the eruption of a disaster and how different people coped. Unlike Titanic, however, the classic disaster movie introduced a wide array of characters, requiring star casting, in order to facilitate characterisation. And always part of the fun was anticipating which stars would live and how the others met their grisly fates (doing Shelley Winters in The Poseidon Adventure is still apopular party piece). We need to care - or rather, to judge how well or badly these stars behaved in the crisis - in order that affect be generated.

Titanic doesnīt quite work this way. First, DiCaprio and Bates are the closest the movie gets to stars. Second, we simply never know enough about the many characters to mind about their fate. The unsinkable Bates, Fisher and David Warner are all memorable, but their roles have no character arc - while the evil Zane is all but pure cartoon. Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) is Jackīs closest friend in the story, but when the shipīs funnel falls on him, weīre much more taken up in the aesthetics of the shot than the fate of the man.

By focusing on a single relationship, in the context of some earth-shattering event, itīs clear that Cameron and crew strove o make this movie an intimate epic, not unlike his Terminator films or Aliens. The relationship is the one between Jack and Rose, with Rose the protagonist (and Cal as the third point of the triangle). Rose - who narrates - begins the film so enslaved by her class and her loveles relationship with Cal that sheīs contemplating suicide and ends the film as a strong independent woman renouncing her class and willing to fight both for love and life. Jack, sensitive, handsome, charming and in love with her, remains this way throughout the film.

But if the film doesnīt quite succeed as intimate epic, itīs because it tries to work as myth. Rose not only carries the burden of character but also a significant part of the action. Jack may save her life emotionally (with his charm and encouragement), but she saves his physically (by socking people in the jaw and bringing out the axe). This is familiar Cameron territory. Rose is an intelligent action woman similar to Sarah Connor and Ripley, two of the most powerful feminist icons in contemporary cinema. In Rose, Cameron is obviously striving for an equally mythic character - but this is seemingly easier when dealing with the future than the past. And it is the past that defeats the directorīs efforts.

Kate Winslet gives a lovely performance. Sheīs given an old-fashioned movie-star entrance at the beginning - as she gets out of her carriage we see her legs and her hat before her face is finally revealed. Sheīs elegantly dressed, perfectly made up and looks beautiful. As the story develops and her character loosens up, she becomes more and more dishevelled and looks more and more ordinary, albeit attractively so. Yet neither presence nor skill can protect her - nor Leo for that matter - from Cameronīs choices with regard to how their characters are written or filmed. Unfortunately most of these choices seem to be informed by old movies.

How Jack looks and acts in the gambling scene immediately recalls one of the Dead End Kids in a typical Warner Brothers movie such as Angels With Dirty Faces, where a young kid might grow up to be James Cagney and end up on the wrong side of the law. Cal is strikingly similar to Ballin in Gilda: both treat their women as expensive things to be spoilt, abused and controlled. The dialogue is straight out of a pretentious 40s melodrama: a certain painting is apparently by one "Picasso. He wonīt amount too much". "Freud?" someone asks, "Who is he? A passenger?" And when Rose tells Jack his drawings are "rather good; very good actually", the line could just as easily (and perhaps more acceptable) have been something Joan Crawford said to John Garfield (though even in the 40s such a line was already stilted and phoney: īmovie dialogueī).

The film also looks to have bem filmed in accordance with old studio practices, particularly MGMīs. The first two hours look gorgeously glamerous - as if everything were lit as elegantly to gash a precipitous cheekbone with the shadow of an eyelash. This brings out the linerīs sumptuousness, and the finery of its passengers - table-settings shine, fireplaces glow, art nouveau hairclips glitter - which also serves a narrative function: for īrichnessī is an important story element. But applying the same approach to people becomes stultifying. Leo and Kate try to bring some sass and energy to their performances, but the director seems to be paying more attention to the actors stepping on their mark so that their hair is haloed in proper movie-star manner than bringing life (in rhythm and timing) to the acting.

One assumes the type of dialogue and the mode of filming have been chosen deliberately. In its portentousness and historical allusion, this type of dialogue - which was already mythologised in the movies it originally appeared in - is also an attempt of mythmaking. And the filming is the kind that means to turn people into icons. Itīs almost as is the film-makers had sought an approach significant and grandiose enough to match the sinking of the Titanic. But these diverse efforts at mythmaking operating on so many levels, combine with an already mythic subject matter to ossify everything: the film ends up with an īimportanceī and īsignificanceī it really doesnīt need.

The verdict on the film is in, at least from America: a smash. We know the answer to the question the entertainment press has recently been speculating on so insistently: wether or not it makes a vaste profit, the most expensive US film to date is at least not sinking ruinously into a sea of red ink.

But is it any good? It is hard to judge wether the budget is on the screen - whoīs seen a $200 million movie before? But it looks First Class and its luxurious expensiveness is a pleasure to watch. Its daunting length is painless. Unlike so many contemporary spectacles, it does not resort to cheap and frenzy of visual jolts: it dares to linger on objects, faces and events and to trust plot, pacing and production values to retain audience attention.

Cameron has succeeded in making a disaster movie in which people and relationships are as important as the excellent effects, if not always as succussfully realised. Arguably one of the best big-budget films of the past year, Titanic is certainly enjoyable. But itīs impressive and depressing in about equal measure: itīs of a quality Irwin Allen always aspired to and fell short of, for example, yet to be praising one of Hollywoodīs most imaginative and proficient film-makers for having made a film better than The Poseidon Adventure or The Towering Inferno is to have lowered expectations into the realm of the tawdry and the absurd. In this sense Titanic is emblematic of the state of contemporary Hollywood film-making. This is particularly apparent in scenes Titanic shares with A Night to Remember, such as the encounters with the shipīs guilt-ridden designer, who waits resigned to his fate, or the attempts by crowds to swamp the remaining lifeboats as the end nears. Cameronīs film tries for the same sense of stark terror as the older film, an internalised, gradual awareness of imminent doom, but its scale too great for such an intimate effect, built on restraint, and subtle turns from character actors sit ill beside the flamboyant ravings of Billy Zane in full cry.

In the twentieth century, speed, movement and action are synonymous with America itself: certainly they were what people all over the world loved US movies for. But US cinema was never just about action: it also had people whose freedom and energy were internationally emulated and stories that enchanted the world. Contemporary US film-making no longer runs to this. Character and stories are now most often the domain of lower-budget films, whatever their quality. Generally (and only generally) the only thing big-budget Hollywood curently does well is action and effects - that is, only through action and effects does big-budget Hollywood have anything to say. It is because of its lack of story-telling skills and its execrable character delineation that Titanic is emblematic of contemporary Hollywood action/spectacle - it is also because of this that it is not a good film. But it is because of Cameron is so peerless a director of action/spectacle that Titanic is among the best big-budget films of the past year. If the filmīs lacks seem to be those of contemporary Hollywood in general, its attributes are uniquely its own.

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