TITANIC (1997)

titanicWord to the wise: watching the movie Titanic with a woman post-partum may in fact up the waterworks more than you were bargaining for. This is the first film that Mouse and I watched as part of our blog series since the birth of our son, David Ian Dascher. As parents of a newborn, we ended up watching the film in chunks – pretty much during nursing sessions, of which there are plenty. We seem to also have been the last two people in the world to see this film, and we were both pretty excited to finally check it out. I am an avowed Leo fan, so any film that showcases him front and center is going to do well with me. His character, Jack Dawson, is a penniless artist with a heart of gold, courageous spirit and quick wit. He easily wins over Kate Winslet’s character Rose, a young woman of the upper crust who is betrothed to Billy Zane’s character Cal, a self-serving and conniving man of stature with whom she has nothing in common past social status. Billy Zane is dastardly on screen, the kind of guy against whom the underdog never feels he will have a chance. But what the underdog and the alpha male both need to remember is that the leading lady has some agency, smarts and independence of her own.

The score of the film is perfect, emphasizing moods and shifts in theme without overtaking. We both knew the basic premise of the story, but it was definitely powerful to see the mindblowing cinematography. Mouse told me that this film cost a tremendous amount, and that it was known that it regularly went over budget. I have to say having witnessed its grandiosity firsthand now, I think it was worth it. The film was nominated for fourteen Oscars and won eleven, achieving not only critical success but also commercial success. It was a box office chart-topper. Celine Dion’s theme song for the film has always held significance for me, too, since I remember my former bandmate and dear friend Andrea singing it along with a few other Celine songs at karaoke. Of course, the film has its critics. Many have written that they thought the visuals were spectacular but that the storyline and dialogue were weak. It definitely is an over-the-top romance, and I can see why it might not be for everyone. But I guess in this regard I am truly my mother’s daughter – I appreciated a love story like this for the ages, and it may not be surprising to hear that by the end I was sobbing uncontrollably. Again, though, I am sure the fact that I just had a baby and have been a new mom for only three weeks (with the very little sleep that goes along with that) might have been a contributing factor. Still, I am sure I’d have wept either way.

I really thought I was the only person in America never to have seen this movie. You see, when I was but a lad, many years before I met the woman who would become my wife, mother to my son and blog collaborator, I had a brief entanglement with a young lady.  We made tentative plans to see the popular romantic film playing at the time, Titanic. And when we abruptly parted ways before carrying out that plan, I decided I’d be damned before I watched that movie. But time moves on, doesn’t it, and things become more important than youthful sentimentality. Like this blog for instance.

Titanic is definitely a “movie of the year” type of Best Picture. Before its release, I remember news reports on its outrageous production costs, Waterworld being a stingingly fresh memory at the time. The financial gamble paid off when upon its release it became wildly popular, with a huge take at the box office and a hit theme song. It was the movie everyone went to see that year, the one that inspired parodies and tributes.

The central love story is perhaps a bit OTT, but…I get it. It’s not so much about romantic love as romanticized love, the madness of infatuation you feel when you are young and falling for someone. Had Jack survived, would we have cut to a scene five years later where Rose is berating him to stop drawing and get a job so they can actually pay their bills? It doesn’t matter because the memory of those first fleeting hours of their relationship is preserved by an act of self-sacrifice. And who wouldn’t, in some way, want to have their first love preserved if not necessarily in their life, but in their memory as the enchanting person you thought of them as at the time?

I hadn’t heard Mouse tell the story about how he was originally supposed to see Titanic. I understand not wanting to see it under such circumstances! I am glad we could watch it together. I love gargantuan love stories. My favorite of all is probably The Princess Bride, and parts of this movie had a similar feel (though nothing can ever trump Robin Wright’s cries of “oh my sweet Wesley”). Self-sacrifice is indeed a critical component to such love stories, as is adversity and competition with a less worthy suitor. Check! The backdrop of epic tragedy (I don’t think I will spoil much when I mention that here I am referring to the sinking of an enormous ship and the subsequent deaths of hundreds of people) only adds to the fervor. It’s as if everything on earth including the elements is conspiring against our fair couple.

Some of the most gut-wrenching scenes for me, though, don’t center around Rose and Jack – but rather in seeing the suffering of those who are left to perish on the ship. It seemed true to reality that many lives were lost needlessly because the vessel had fewer lifeboat accommodations than could fit all on board the ship. There is palpable panic and terror among the masses sent to their doom when the lower class passengers become aware of their plight. Even those able to float upon leaving the boat must face freezing water, and it is impossible to survive for long under those conditions. When one of the lifeboats in the film does make the attempt to see if more people can come on board to be rescued, they are sadly already too late – for the most part. This boat makes its way through a sea of dead bodies. Seeing a mother with a frozen baby in her arms really was the pinnacle of devastation for me as concerns this film. There is a small glimmer of hope, though – since Rose has somehow been able to float on a piece of door frame, she doesn’t freeze to death as the others do. Jack had made her promise to live a full life and save herself no matter what happens, and she has to remember this when she rouses to see the boat. She realizes that he is gone, lost to the freezing waters, but she finds it in herself to call out for help from the rescue team with the whistle another passenger had around his neck. Her love of Jack and his for her is shown in large part to be a force that causes her to fight for her life. That’s a love story for the ages, as far as I am concerned – cheesy or not.

It’s important to remember when watching this film that these were also different times, and for Rose to exert the independence and free spirit she did was truly something given the social condition for women. Surely, we would prefer to see her leave an unhappy engagement of her own accord before finding another man, but that simply wasn’t the way things worked in those days. Her mother also places a lot of pressure on her to marry Cal not only for her own social stature, but for hers as Rose’s father is no longer in the picture and has left them with a good name but immeasurable debt. Rose carries the burden of knowing her mother’s continued social rank depends on her forthcoming marriage. Ultimately, though, she realizes she must live for herself and follow what she knows in her heart to be true. I think this is a large part of why so many people flocked to this movie. We all want to believe this kind of pure love exists. We appreciate stories and legends that tell us that it can and does. We want that mythology.

Friends of mine know that I enjoy old timey things. Nate DiMeo, host of The Memory Palace voiced a similar fascination, perhaps more articulately, when he talked about having a particular interest in the period approximately between the Civil War and the 1920s, because this was the period when we “invented modernity.” Other eras are certainly interesting in their own right, but this is the time that is just out of reach of memory. My great-grandmother could have told me about life and events during this time…if only I hadn’t been too young to think to ask her when I knew her. Unlike earlier eras, it is a time in many ways very like our world, but yet very different in others. And I think it is this tantalizing closeness that grabs my interest. I particularly like films that depict these eras, especially ones that due so authentically.

The story of the RMS Titanic is a subject of interest for more than just oddballs fixated on the minutia of bygone times. Unlike, say, the largely forgotten Bryn Athyn Train Wreck of 1921 (which I’d love to talk about) or the Johnstown Flood, the average modern American could probably at least tell you the Titanic was a boat that sank. Interest in the sinking is by no means new. Of course it was big news at the time. Of the various Titanic-themed films Wikipedia lists, the earliest was shot less than a month after the actual thing went down. I have a compilation of old recordings from the period 1913-1938 that includes no less than five songs about the Titanic.

As there was an appalling loss of life, unsurprisingly it drew a great deal of attention, or morbid gawking, depending on how you look at it. But there is also the allegorical element to the story, as the modern Tower of Babel. At the height of the industrial age, Man creates a floating monument to his greatness and declares it UNSINKABLE. The first time they take it out for a spin, God, or fate, or nature, or whatever you believe in puts an iceberg in its way. The event has been pointed at as the symbolic end to the Old World, the age of inevitable progress. In two years, the Great War would be a more practical end to the Old World. In fact, the first season of Downton Abbey was bookended by these two great tragedies of the late Edwardian Age (more on that in a bit).

I think part of the lasting appeal of the Titanic legend, what makes it not just another sad disaster, is that it is all still out there, sitting on the floor of the ocean. There was no accessible wreckage to sift through, nor was it reduced to ash and smoke. For decades people could only imagine this ghost ship sitting somewhere beneath the North Atlantic. And imagine the excitement when undersea explorers like the ones depicted in the film actually found and made contact with the site of the wreck, bringing back pictures and actual items from the voyage. I once attended a museum exhibit with some of these artifacts, and it was something to consider that these objects had gone through the disaster, sat on the ocean floor for 70+ years and were now in front of me at the Franklin Institute. Right now, as you are reading this blog, the broken hull of the RMS Titanic is sitting there under a mile of seawater, filled with the personal belongings of the people that sailed on it from England.

Most retellings – modern ones at least – of the Titanic story have some focus on class. The different death rates for the first class and steerage passengers is the inherent brutality of a class society writ large. Of course penniless Jack is a gallant soul. And wealthy Cal is a craven bully, and smug, so smug. The only first class passenger who seemingly possesses a human heart is nouveau riche interloper Molly Brown. I understand that’s how these stories work, but I think the whole subject is approached in an overly blunt way. Compare this to the aforementioned Downton Abbey, which takes place at the same time, and does present the rigid class divisions of the time as archaic and perverse, but has enough of a light touch so as to not depict the upper class as uniformly imperious and loathsome.

Kathy Bates does a fantastic job playing Molly Brown. She is likeable and a woman of the people, despite her elevated social status. I really appreciated her presence in the film. She implored other passengers in the lifeboats to go back to try to save more people, and was genuinely disgusted when they didn’t. Her character does offer some nuance to the representations of the upper class – and it strikes the viewer as a breath of fresh air. Mouse mentioned to me that she was a real person on the ship – I wonder how closely her character matches the real-life woman.

This film gave me a new appreciation for Kate Winslet. She really was a joy to watch in the film, and it made me understand why people enjoy her so much. I can’t imagine a better Rose. While there are definitely aspects of this film worthy of critique, I think it hit the spot just right for me. I really enjoyed watching a movie about epic love with my dear love and life partner immediately following the birth of our child. It felt good to me to spend time with him watching this film at this particular time, even though it was a grade A tear-jerker. Or maybe because it was!

This movie was unquestionably made to invoke tears. Which brings me to the closing scene. I nearly hate myself for liking it as much as I do. It almost feels like emotional manipulation. Almost, but not quite. Somehow it works. What the hell, I guess not every movie has to be Taxi Driver. One thing I didn’t buy was Bill Paxton’s character’s epiphany at the end. It seemed unnecessary, primarily because I don’t think carrying out a salvage operation on a three quarters of a century-old shipwreck made him such a bad guy in the first place.

In a sad twist, the night we finished watching this, the news broke that James Horner, the composer who wrote Titanic’s famous music, had been killed in an airplane crash.

As of this writing, 1997 holds the distinction for me of being the only year I’ve seen all the Best Picture nominees. The nominees list reads like a “usual suspects” of award winning movies: the actor-driven journey of self discovery, the foreign movie that caught on with American audiences, the Cinderella story, the classic genre reworked for modern times, and of course the super-ambitious, super-successful blockbuster. I’ve seen them all and liked them all. Damn, it was a good time to be young. I’d better wrap this up before I start getting nostalgic again and besides, I think the baby needs to be changed, anyway.

In closing, I’d like to add one more thought. However unlikely, I want to make this plea to anyone who may have spent their life holding onto an object of near-incalculable monetary value. Before you go making some romantic gesture like dropping it into the ocean, please talk to a pragmatist like old Mouse, here. Perhaps you could sell it and use the money to immunize every child in a poor country or repair our nation’s crumbling infrastructure. Jack would have wanted it that way.

Also nominated in 1997:
As Good as It Gets
The Full Monty
Good Will Hunting
L.A. Confidential

Next film: OUT OF AFRICA (1985)

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