thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

“Are you ready to go back to Titanic?”

In Film, gender, Melodrama, Oscars, Uncategorized on April 18, 2012 at 2:55 pm

Sarah S.

Confession: When Titanic first came out I saw it 8 times in the theater. I had a poster on my wall. I not only listened the soundtrack but I bought the album of Gaelic Storm, the band playing at the film’s third class after-party. I was 18 years old and I loooooved it. And I never fully rejected it as the years passed. When friends made fun of my affection, I noted that I had the weight of the Academy behind me. (Titanic was nominated for 14 Oscars, tying All About Eve, and won 11, tying Ben Hur and getting tied itself by LOTR: The Return of the King.) I also found Titanic-hating passé; one didn’t have to love it to acknowledged its solid acting, gorgeous sets and costumes, and stunning effects.

Age certainly tempered my enthusiasm, so I met with trepidation the news that not only was director James Cameron re-releasing the movie (15 years after its debut and right before the 100th anniversary of the ship’s sinking) but also that it was going to be coming right at you in 3-D. I tend to be as blasé about 3-D as Rose Dewitt Bukater is about the ship Titanic, so I fully expected to roll my eyes at this pointless spectacle. Well, I went, I saw, and I’m here to report back not only how Titanic holds up under 3-D technology, but also how my perspective on the underlying symbolism of the story has significantly shifted.

First off, the good: 3-D and Titanic actually work together. Cameron’s obsessive attention to set design and historical detail fit well with the layered look of 3-D cinema. 3-D often lessens lushness but in Titanic it works to emphasize the impressive look of the thing. Speaking of that obsessive attention to detail, the film’s one changed scene, courtesy of Neil deGrasse Tyson, diverges from its predecessor in its emphasis of the milky-way if nothing else. And the things you liked about the movie beyond its beauty, namely the acting and the romance between Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) hold up.

The general bad: Yes, the accent and acting of Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) is as bad and stereotyped as you remember. Cal (Billy Zane) feels like an even more contrived villain than he did when I was 18. And, yes, a sweaty hand slap on a window still feels like a really weird way to indicate orgasm. Moreover, the dialogue from the modern day characters hearing the tale of old Rose (Gloria Stuart) feels clunky and fake. Cameron used these scenes to provide needed commentary on the historical events, but at this juncture they are laughably forced. And I tried not to vomit in my mouth when old Rose tells her granddaughter, “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of buried secrets.” Ultimately, as with the good, it’s the same movie you saw the first time around.

But I am not the same viewer who saw Titanic the first time. 15 years and three college degrees later, and I am a much different media consumer than my 18-year-old self. As such, I saw a deeply problematic argument at play in Titanic: a defense of death and destruction so long as (beautiful) privileged women get to become fully-actualized individuals.

Hang with me here. I noticed before the whisper of a suggestion that Jack and Rose caused, or at least contributed to, the hitting of the iceberg because their make-out session on the deck distracts the dudes who should be looking out for ‘bergs. When the lookouts peel their eyes away from the lovers, they see the iceberg, “right ahead!” The film gives the slightest hint that without Jack and Rose, the ship might never have hit. I noticed on this viewing that this possibility finds further support in the two stewards sent after the randy pair into the ship’s cargo hold, only to be overcome by frigid seawater when the iceberg and ship collide, buckling in the walls of the hold.

Continuing on, mid-disaster, Rose declines a seat in a lifeboat—not once but twice!—to stay with Jack. On the first escape she does rescue him from a watery death handcuffed to a pipe, but on the second she robs him of the chance to pursue his own survival (and empties a boat spot that could have been used quite happily by someone else). The schmoopy pair continually uses the phrase, “You jump, I jump, remember?” to justify their remaining together throughout the sinking, but in a disaster situation when you’ve not yet given up on coming out alive, such philosophies make no sense.

(Tangential perspective break: constantly keeping Jack and Rose together is a useful plot device for Cameron because it allows him to drag his protagonists through every aspect of the sinking experience—first class, third class, lifeboat, stuck on board, ship splitting, ship inverting, and (finally) ending up with the thousands freezing or drowning in the north Atlantic when Titanic “sank from under” them. I get it. That doesn’t mean it makes a lick of sense that reflects what people would actually do.)

Which brings us, of course, to the chunk of wood (paneling? door?) that Jack finds for Rose to float upon. We already know from early in the film that Jack understands the danger the freezing water poses. Yet he and Rose give up very quickly on getting him a spot on that piece of detritus, a spot that would not only prevent him from freezing (as it does Rose) but would also be beneficial for both of them, as they could better share body heat. Instead, Jack cracks jokes about the “strongly worded letter” he’s going to write to the White Star line, and then later admonishes Rose to not say her goodbyes to him. In his pep talk, Jack emphasizes that Rose will survive, she’ll have lots of babies, and die an old woman asleep in her bed. Jack’s declaration becomes prophecy. Even though he dies from hypothermia, Rose rallies, survives, works as an actress, rides on the beach like they’d envisioned, gets married, makes babies, lives an enriching life, and dies an old woman—floating in a ship above the Titanic’s wreck. Rose’s survival represents the triumph of the film, proof of old Rose’s claim that Jack “saved me, in every way that a person can be saved.” And yet…

Rose’s biggest post-wreck contribution to the world seems to be having children (a problematic, dubious, and—also—cliché triumph as diagnosed by Lee Edelman and Judith Roof). Yet the primary sign of her success relies upon her having broken free from a stifling upper-class society so that she can become her fully-actualized self. Now, there’s nothing wrong with becoming fully actualized; I hope to do so myself someday. However, I’m not sure Rose’s self-actualization is worth Jack’s death—or, by association, the rest of those who died on the Titanic—yet the movie suggests that we should read it that way.

In my concluding piece of evidence, consider the film’s final scene. In a mingling of Titanic‘s three kinds of spectacle—destruction, effects/design, and heterosexual passion—the sunken wreck of the Titanic morphs before our eyes into its former glory as a swooping camera perspective—that we soon realize is the ghost perspective of Rose now also returned, in death, to her former, beautiful self—enters the main dining room of the ship. There she finds everyone who died on board, joyously and without regard to class or station, waiting for her, with Jack holding court at the top of the stairs. As Rose, clad in wedding-white, joins him, the two kiss while the crowd below applauds. In this bizarre and ghostly ending, it is as if all the dead of Titanic have been waiting 83 years for Rose to die and rejoin them/Jack, thus making her triumphant life of self-actualization, culminating in their long-delayed “marriage,” the triumphant rejuvenation-in-death of the ship’s entire casualty list. I mean, come on, their romance is good but it ain’t that good.

So here’s my new takeaway. It does not surprise me that the Academy would wholeheartedly embrace a film about how all sacrifices and losses justify the maintenance of a happy, fulfilling life for the central, privileged protagonist. Belief in that narrative is why people go to Hollywood. Intriguingly, though, the film also resonated (and resonates) with a ginormous popular audience. Does that fact signal that they, too, believe wholeheartedly in self-actualization above any other consideration? Or are they perhaps enamored of the triumphant love story in the midst of chaos, the heart of good melodrama? If so, what are we not achieving, helping, fixing, changing because we’re distracted from the real problems by beautiful people making beautiful love?

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  2. Excellent post, Sarah! I caught the second half of Titanic on TBS over the summer–not the same thing, I’m sure–but two things stood out to me 15 years later. First, I fell in love with the musicians, and I cared about the shipwreck way more whenever they were onscreen. Jack and Rose only care about themselves (and each other), but the musicians were playing on for everyone. The musicians: secret heroes of everything! The other thing was that I LOVED Billy Zane’s scenery-chewing. I totally agree that it’s contrived, but also isn’t it hilarious? I think he realized that he was in a ridiculous movie and decided to go full-throttle on the melodramatic villain role. Mad props, Zane.

    • Sarah, Totally. I actually had a good time watching it but then there was the whole, “huh, this is also weird and problematic” thing. But Zane very much gets into the mustache-twirling of it all and, on re-watching, I felt much more sentiment toward the musicians and the others caught up in the catastrophe.

    • I agree – excellent post. I’m glad I’m not the only one who remembers exactly when and who they were with and how many times they first saw Titanic in theaters… makes me feel a little less crazy!

      Haha I am one of those people who just love this movie to a fault. Yes, it absolutely has its problems but I can’t help myself. There’s so much good about it I can forgive the bad! Your analysis though of what’s wrong with it though is hysterical.

      Only thing I disagree with is Billy Zane. I, too, always hated Cal and thought he was way over the top UNTIL this last viewing. Maybe it’s just because since the last time I’ve seen Titanic I went through a big breakup and am now sympathetic… who knows. But I kind of felt sorry for him this time around and I found a whole new dimension to the character! Never thought I’d say that.

      • Chickflickcritic: Say more. When the movie first came out, people made a lot of cracks about how Rose totally shafted Cal, letting him foot the bill (and, let’s be honest, probably shagging him the night he gives her the necklace–anyone want to have the “is Rose a virgin” debate?), but he’s so despicable he seemed to merit whatever ill-treatment he received. So I’m honestly curious, what redeemed or deepened him for you?

        (As a related aside, I feel like this is bound to be a movie on which one’s perspective changes as one gets older.)

  3. […] in the last 12 months, it’s as if we all exist in a perpetual state of hyper-reality. Titanic sailed back into our lives on the winds of romantic nostalgia and 3-D mania; Katniss slew our […]

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