Sunday, February 19, 2012

Favorite Films: "Titanic"

The only thing Hollywood likes more than success is failure, and almost exactly 15 years ago, tongues were wagging about the bloated $200 million budget and epic catastrophe James Cameron's Titanic was turning out to be.

The only film anyone could compare it to was the mega-flop Cleopatra, which had almost ruined Twentieth Century Fox in the 1960s, and now Fox was one of the studios behind Titanic.  Worse, the movie's groundbreaking digital effects couldn't be complete in time, and in April 1997, 85 years after the ship Titanic sank, the movie's release date was moved back eight months.

This was going to be cinematic failure of a gargantuan, unprecedented level.  It needed to be seen.

There was a palpable sense of perverse excitement in the audience that night at the AMC Theater on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica -- Dec. 19, 1997.  Long before the Internet had taken hold, before word could be spread instantaneously, this audience wanted to see just how bad Titanic really was.

Some three and a half hours later, James Cameron had proven the impossible could still be done, that the cynical smirks could be wiped away the old-fashioned way, with pure spectacle.

Titanic will be released in 3-D later this spring, a week before the 100th anniversary of the disaster.  I'm not a fan of 3-D, which apart from being dark and dim is, in every case I've ever seen but two (Avatar and Hugo) adds absolutely nothing to the experience of going to the movies.  Converting films to 3-D ignores the basic fact of why movies work: Because we immerse ourselves in them.

Titanic doesn't need 3-D, but at this point only a fool would bet against James Cameron.  In two dimensions, the only way I've ever experienced it, Titanic envelops its viewers in spectacle and drama. Naysayers will argue, rightly, that the dialogue is at times clunky; to watch the scene in which Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) dismisses the work of a hack artist while Rose Dewitt-Bukater (Kate Winslet) says the paintings are by "somebody Picasso" is as eye-roll-inducing as ever.  As the ship sinks with spectacular authenticity, Cal's crony shoots at Jack Dawson (Leonardo di Caprio) in a ridiculous subplot.

Titanic doesn't get everything right -- but it gets so much right so consistently that to watch it in a movie theater is to experience that most rare of cinematic pleasures: to discover the thrill of going to the movies all over again.

Everything about Titanic is larger than life, from the ship itself to its love story.  The emotions here are big, the passion with which they're conveyed palpable.  It is a grand film, an epic, one that revels in its scale.  And yet, it succeeds on the most intimate level, too: Jack's death scene, with Rose barely able to speak, whispering a desperate plea -- then forcing his frozen hand from his so she can save herself is made all the more moving by James Horner's haunting score.

Cameron's framing device of Old Rose (Gloria Stuart) and the deep dives to Titanic may begin poorly -- I've never cared for Bill Paxton's performance -- but add immeasurably to the story.  About an hour and a half into the film comes the justifiably famous shot of Jack and Rose on the prow of the ship, embracing against a deep orange sunset ... and Cameron dissolves to the prow as it was 85 years later, 2 1/2 miles under the ocean.  "That was the last time Titanic ever saw daylight," Old Rose says.

Later, she will take the Heart of the Ocean diamond, the prize Paxton's salvager character seeks, and throw it back to the sea.  She has had it all this time, she has never let it go.  And now she does.  It can mean nothing to anyone except those who are forever beneath the sea.

Like the ship itself, Titanic was designed to be grand in every possible way, including this gesture.  Grand it is -- magnificently so.


  1. I didn't have any problems with 'Titanic' and I tend to be a very cranky critic. It seems like people criticize it for copying scenes from the original or they think it is cheesy. Those aren't issues for me in rating it. People fail to remember it was a technical marvel, nobody had ever seen anything onscreen like it before and the whole world was blown away.

  2. Genuine spectacle is all too rare. "Titanic" brought us the fabled "cast of thousands" with CG that may not have been perfect (it was 15 years ago, after all) but opened up the canvas. More and more, films show us impossible things, but do so without conviction or plausibility. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

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  4. Well put, John. Hollywood was built and thrives on spectacle. My own two cents: I thought 'Coraline' was impressive and mandatory in 3-D.