We need to talk about our experiences with James Cameron’s tumultuous film Titanic.
In 1997 I was only nine years old. I didn’t see the film in theatres. Having been raised in a highly conservative/religious environment, I was aware that it was considered immoral because of the display of breasts in the film (a controversy I now consider to be highly misogynistic) and proceeded to declare it a waste of time. I didn’t do so because I didn’t like that, but rather because I was afraid my parents would be unhappy if I displayed an interest in such things.
Years went by and I would catch many bits and pieces of Titanic here and there. I played “Titanic: Adventure Out of Time” on my old Dell PC, listened to the score at the homes of family friends, and heard about how wonderful it was while my parents continued to cringe over the supposed immorality of boobage and young horny behavior. One day, however, I stepped away from religious piety and looked into the real world for more. I had already begun to feel drawn to the work of James Cameron, enjoying films like The Terminator or The Abyss and absolutely adoring Aliens (yes, I know, T2: Judgement Day is supposed to be his masterpiece but I like the first one better). Most of these are action films, and they appealed to young me in a way the highly romanticized world of Titanic did not. Hell, that marine gets his face melted by xenomorph blood and that’s just awesome.
In 2016 I was lucky enough to catch a screening of Titanic at a local arthouse theatre, The Orpheum. I had a couple of friends from work excited to join me and we were away. Their excitement built while the crowd assembled, but I remained tentative in my view that the film was probably just a corny schlock-fest and sipped my red wine quietly. The lights went down as I sipped my “Heart of the Ocean” cocktail, and after a couple of promos played the film began. No more than two notes of the opening score had played before one of my compatriots shot forward in her seat, tears in her eyes, and moaned, “Oh, it’s starting!” I could hear people crying all around me while the sepia-tone photos of the old boat came up.
I get it now. I got it right then and there.
Titanic is not a film like any other. Sure, there are much better films, but something magical happened to spawn an obsession and a fandom that has never quite left the story behind. The moment my friend began crying at the mere sound of the MUSIC…I understood. Cameron’s work did something wonderful to me that day, a change in the form of cinematic understanding that allowed me to accept what he had been doing. See, this thing is a dorkfest of hammy performances and dialogue that somehow became a film worth our remembrance. There were other films about the ship and the tragedy to circle around, but no other had embraced such a visceral and fleshy feeling in the portrayal. Titanic is a disaster film as much as it is a love story, and it’s one that took me decades to understand.
I was one of those males that decided the romance wasn’t cool, but the sinking of the ship could be. A lot of people found their way into Titanic with this sequence, a series of setpieces that involved complicated water effects and brutal death stunts (that dude careening off of the deck is still badass). Titanic, however, is a film that asks you to invest in the relationship of these horny kids and experience death and destruction through the lens of two people finding a reason to survive in one another. The violence only matters outside of technical achievement if you buy these two people truly falling in desperate love over the course of a couple of days. The structure of the film is something we should STILL be studying, from the intro where old Rose (Gloria Stuart) views the sinking of the ship on a CGI graphic, and is disgusted, to the moment the ship goes down. Each moment of the romance shows you the geography of the ship and how it is laid out so that later you know exactly how absolutely screwed these people are.
Disaster films are often unsuccessful with character, and indeed at anything beyond spectacle. The world nearly ended in Armageddon (1998), a small town was wiped out by a volcano in Dante’s Peak (1997), and the less said about Avalanche (1978) the better. So many times we’re given thin characters and a ton of destruction pornography; no heart to tie us to what we’re seeing onscreen. The current COVID-19 pandemic has taught me that if we don’t have a personal connection then people can look at a high death toll as merely a number, data that doesn’t tug on the heartstrings. This brings us back to the excellent use of hacky character tropes in Titanic, a story about two horned up kids that spend time running through the ship from bow to stern and through all decks as they try to find time to have sex in a car. Not only do you care about them (Kate Winslet’s performance is particularly incredible) but their adventure teaches the audience about the way the ship is put together, where everyone of different classes belongs, and even how the engine rooms are set up. The fact that they’re being chased by David Warner (who is apparently playing a slasher named Spicer Lovejoy) is also a lot of fun. Effects and graphic moments can be cool, but if you don’t care about anyone beyond that then it’s just a stunt show and not the highest grossing film of all time.
And while the script’s physical workout comes from the romance the emotional work comes from the score. Sure, it’s got those very 90s electronic hymnal noises, but that adds to the charm of an otherworldly series of pieces that create an atmosphere. Titanic was a devastating loss and changed the world of wealth and privilege from something we cherished to something we mourned and despised. James Horner, who is absolutely awesome, took the sentimentality and made it feel personal. It’s corny and silly, with it’s bells ringing and the synth vocals clearly created from a Yamaha piano, but it works with the beats of the characters and is such a ridiculously fun listen. Few scores reach the top of album sale charts (I believe we had this one on cassette tape), but this one did. Hell, even the silly edition with dialogue from the film laid over the tracks was popular. The Celine Dion song is the LEAST impressive part of the entire affair.
I’ve gushed quite a bit here, but my turnaround on this film is something special to me. I despised it growing up, led by people afraid of sexuality and tentative of true emotional ballast in film. As an adult I was able to see it isolated from that, instead locked in a dark room full of people that weep at the opening moments of the score. That alone was enough to push my views in a different direction, but decades of discussion and the pulse running under the culture of major studio filmmaking has been enough to make me take a different view. Titanic wasn’t just one of the most successful movies of all time, but instead a watershed moment that marked maybe the last time a film without comic book heroes could score so much damn money at the box office. It’s the end of an era, but one that will sustain us through the harsh storms to come.
Fuck it, I cry every time I watch this film. Not just once, but three or four times. It’s that moment when she’s being lowered in the boat and then jumps back on the ship. That gets to me, and I’m pretty much a mess from there on to the closing credits.