On April 15, 1912, The Titanic sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. In those fateful hours, and amidst the fifteen-hundred casualties, the ship sparked a century’s worth of intrigue and became one of the most versatile metaphors in history. In and of itself, the ship was a small island, containing twenty-two hundred people, all separated by class in a hierarchical pyramid that holds the fewer at the top (A Deck) as the less affluent and dirt poor occupy the descending classes (B through E). This is what the Titanic is most notoriously known for: sacrificing the poor and the underclass in steerage for the fraction of wealthy on the Promenade deck. Sound bites from history still perforate our interpretation of this event: the band played on until the end, marked in James Cameron’s film by a sarcastically quipped “Music do die to; now I know I’m in first class”; Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line of steamships, cowardly abandoned his own ship as it sank while three-quarters of its passengers awaited death; men swaddled in women’s shawls disguised themselves as the fairer sex to seek safety on the raft; some used abandoned children to do the same.
As a British ship built primarily by Irish workers, the Titanic is also a grand symbol of colonialism and the inaccuracy of the term, “post-colonialism.” The dynamic between workers and owners and affluent and poor defy the prefix “post” and suggest that the wait for equality will span at least a few more generations. In the same vein, it’s a symbol of men’s social control over women. The tale of woman as fungible furniture has been told hundreds of times, and it’s a part of history that we cannot – and should not – elide. There is a two-fold connection here that is not merely coincidental. In a social context, the ship, like the woman, served as a mooring to different existences. The ship is a literal vehicle to transport passengers to and from countries, offering the premise of new lives and new fates. Through the beginning of the twentieth century, the woman was a figurative vehicle of social mobility, mooring her less affluent family to a wealthier one – which is precisely the function of Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet)’s engagement to Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Upon her unseen father’s death, Rose and her mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher), are left with nothing and are about to lose their “fine things” and “memories.”
At the same time, the ship is also symbolizes the results of this oppression. Just as Rose – and other women – are being forced into uncomfortable marriages of familial convenience in order to obtain prestige and wealth, the RMS Titanic was – reportedly – pushed beyond a comfortable speed and forced to slalom through various icebergs all for the sake of “grabbing headlines” by “arriving on Tuesday evening” as opposed to Wednesday. The result of both is an eventual fracture, figuratively of the self, and literally of the ship. The connection here is evident in history and present in socio-linguistics, most notably the common practice of referring to ships, boats, and other vessels of transport as “she.” Such gendering is notably present with Cameron’s film when the captain decides to “take her to sea” and “stretch her legs out.” Cameron’s convergent narrative here should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his other films that fashion strong female characters. Notice the shift in Ripley from Scott’s Alien to Cameron’s Aliens, or Sarah Connor in the first two Terminator installments. The female protagonists – like Rose in Titanic – are manifestations of oppression who defy the patriarchal order of survival.
As the hundred-year anniversary of the Titanic came around, so did a re-release of Cameron’s film, now shot in 3D. I’d like to castigate this move as a pure money grab and perhaps a subconscious competition with George Lucas, but it’s hard to knock what Cameron does visually with a film. The 3D is used well and certainly adds to the peril carried by the anthropomorphic surges of water as the ship goes down.
And, as I sat through the film, I realized why is disliked it so much fifteen years ago, but also why it won eleven Oscars, including Best Picture. First, the screenplay is absolutely silly. Much like Avatar, it feels as if Cameron invested more in the visuals than the story. To his credit, the social and historical connections are there, but they are forced and obvious: “we’re women,” Ruth DeWitt Bukater laments while she fastens Rose’s corset as tight as she can – just in case you didn’t see Rose get slapped, threatened, and virtually sold off to the richest bidder. The script also foreshadows the obviously impending. The girth of the ship itself is sign of abject pride and hubris. So is the name: Titanic, taken from Titan, those folk who were ultimately defeated by the Gods. If that in and of itself doesn’t foreshadow an end, I’m not sure what will. It hardly seems necessary to frequently pepper the dialog with incarnations of “They say she’s unsinkable,” or “God himself couldn’t sink this ship.” Clearly he did, and clearly he will, and clearly we know this. Pride is evoked by visuals, we don’t need updates.
As the writer, Cameron also forgets his narrator. Within the first fifteen minutes of the film – which hastily establish a forgotten argument over the difference between piracy and discovery – the centenarian Rose Dawson is introduced, and she becomes the first-person narrator of the film, relaying the events of April 15 to the audience that stand agape about her and the audience who watches dryly from the theater. However, the first-person narration often slips to third-person omniscient narration, recalling moments between Bruce Ismay and Captain Edward James Smith (Bernard Hill), which she would have never been privy to. She also recalls moments from steerage as the ship sinks and conversations in the life boats that drift a few hundred yards away. Cameron’s assumptions here about indifference, sympathy, and mortality might be accurate, but they’re established by an absent narrator.
Compounding the sloppy script is the rather poor acting – with the exception of Kate Winslet, who happens to turn every role into something special, even ones in mediocre movies. No offense is meant here to the hyper-villainous Billy Zane, whose character is more a cartoon than anything out of real life, or the young Leonardo DiCaprio, but neither of their performances is very good. Now, DiCaprio has galvanized himself as a fine actor; in 1997, he was still fresh and needed to be groomed. Plus, there’s Bill Paxton and the rest of the uber-melodramatic, emoting cast (perhaps with the second exception of Kathy Bates, whose turn as Molly Brown is quite believable).
On the other hand, the most memorable part of this film is the best: the ship wreck. It’s not just about spectacle. Cameron captures panic, fright, fear, compassion, sympathy, honor, and devotion. This is where the most touching moments of the film reside: the older couple curling up on their cot in steerage as the water crashes around them. The mother reading a story to her two children. Both have succumbed to their fate as human luggage and sacrificial offerings, but their possessions are the safety of their loved ones, not the various fur coats and handbags trying to be smuggled onto the already-cramped life boats. For the last hour and a half of Titanic, Cameron weaves a Romantic tale, not one of love, but one of human versus nature, with nature coming out on top. It is both fascinating and humbling how our egos, narcissism, and bank accounts can’t hold up to the all-encompassing, all enveloping power of water. That which comprises most of our human body can also snuff our lives in a few minutes if we’re Olympians, and a few seconds if we breathe deep. It’s a villain that acts, not of malice, but because it is. As the boat sinks, the water remains calm. It merely occupies its space, and surrounds whoever happens to be in it.
Most of this is done without dialog.
If nothing else, the genius part of Titanic is Cameron’s illumination and mockery of our sense of Schadenfraude. For one-hundred years, we have been intrigued by this tragedy and all of its symbolism. We watch movies; we read books; we follow National Geographic. Through computer animation, we know how the ship goes down, but we can’t empathize. Our fascination might even trump our sympathy and chalk the whole event up to “hubris,” something illustrated as the older Rose Dawson boards the modern-day ship to tell her story. As Paxton’s crewmate relays the steps of the ship sinking, using animation on a monitor, the event looks scientific, simple, almost videogamish. He marks each hull that is breached, and the computerized ship submerges. His entire narration is told with excitement, up to and including the splitting of the ship, when the back ends “bobs up and down for a while” like a tennis ball thrown out too far on a pond or the hook on a child’s fishing rod being pecked at by a hungry guppy. The event is meaningless and we’re fascinated by its descent. The alacrity and efficiency with which he tells his tale is sharply contrasted by the prolonged hour and a half that Cameron uses at the end to illustrate the deaths of fifteen hundred passengers. Here, Titanic questions our fascination and turns the accusations of pride and class on their head, forcing the audience to wonder where they would reside. Who we they be most like? What room would they be in, and to what lengths would they go to survive? There’s no pleasure in this tragedy. The explosions are not immediately extinguished. Those who fall from heights ricochet like pinballs before plummeting into the freezing water. In the end, silence is not calm; silence is death. To scream and clatter like hundreds of hungry locusts is to give hope; to be tacit is to perish.
And if there are people who dismiss the notion of Shadenfreude, then explain why so many millions of people would sit for three and a half hours through a movie of which they know the ending: the boat sinks.