Sunday, January 30, 2011

History Vs. Hollywood: Defending Titanic

The joke has been told so many times: Spoiler-- the ship sinks. Sometimes to get out a hardy laugh. Other times just to add to the list of complaints against this film that hold no water. Why this film holds up and why many great films based on history hold up to this day are for the fact that they stir our emotions. Regardless that we know the actual facts. The set design, the period recreation, even the scope of a picture. All contributing to 'a look back'. Despite Cameron's attention to detail, people still lambast the picture as a love story with a strong emphasis on class conflict. Too black and white in its characterizations. These criticisms still do not diminish the the integrity of the film. Titanic, for all of its perceived faults, renders a perspective on the past.

Cameron uses the characters of Jack and Rose to his advantage. Especially when it comes to his visual prose. With those two characters, he can follow them all around the ship. Dining halls, decks, engine rooms, and many other places of the grand ship. Had Cameron used actual figures from history, the geography of the scenes would have been limited. Added to this, if Cameron chose to follow two real life historical figures that were on the ship, detail-oriented historians would be breathing on every frame. Being a history major, I have seen this happen a number of times.

In a way, a straight line can be drawn from this to Gone With the Wind. & from Wind, a line can be drawn directly to D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. Massive epics such as this one have existed since Griffith, who photographed hundreds upon hundreds of extras for a single scene. Not CGI extras like they use nowadays. Around the time David Lean came in, a refinement of the epic had taken place. It's what the widescreen aspect ratio was made for. Then along came the New Hollywood & then the 80's. Somewhere in the 90's, period pieces and corsettes became an in thing to do. Shakespeare In Love, Titus, The Remains of the Day and The Age of Innocence.

Edwardian culture brewed during the majority of Titanic's running time. During the 1900's, there was a confined role of upper class women. Cameron's film offers a criticism of the close mindedness of that very culture. One scene specifically where Rose sees a mother showing her daughter how to eat properly plays a key note in the development of that character. She's fed up with it all.

Robert Brent Toplin in his book Reel History ascribes that "The simplification of first and third class is a trait that is inherent in docudrama. A truly comprehensive story would introduce us to the second class as well." As is noted in Richard Corliss's criticism of the film, when he notes that "the first class passengers are third class people and vice versa." Toplin also raises important questions: "Why did a much higher percentage of first-class passengers escape on lifeboats than did passengers from steerage?" The statistical evidence as the author put it is disturbing. 60% of the first class passengers escaped in lifeboats while only 25% of steerage passengers did. Even though the call of women and children first should be appplied, in the case of this event, only 31% of third class women escape on the boats. The emphasis of class conflict is much more heavily embedded here than a previous picture about Titanic's voyage: 1958's A Night to Remember.

When Titanic hit on a snowy day in 1997, it was inescapable. For one, the soundtrack featuring My Heart Will Go On was prominently featured on radio stations leading up to the release. Then came the Academy Awards and the self proclaimed King of the World's film ended up nabbing 11 golden men. As most of you know, the film had a non stop raking in of cash at the box office. When one thinks about, there is no reason why films like Titanic or most recently The Dark Knight should even be as successful as they are. We live in a day and age where films are released to first weekend grosses. That's all studios care about nowadays. Seldom do we see a picture that tops the charts for more than 4 weeks straight. But back in the 80's, a film like The Golden Child could still top Box Office charts for five weeks in a row. Titanic's financial success can be attributed to the repeat viewing. These numbers didn't just jump high for 3 weeks and die the fourth week. The reason was the 15 weeks in a row at the top, not dipping below the $20 million range. These are people coming back and taking their grandparents to see it. Spreading the word of mouth.

Perhaps the films most accomplished achievement is how Cameron delivers an emotional punch that one wouldn't find scrolling through books on the 1912 event. Seeing Titanic in the theatre, there were quite a few people who left in tears. The sequence most noted for cueing the waterworks in which Rose lets Jack go. It is a sad end to the character. But for my money, the sequence that propels this film into the realm of greatness is a montage set to Nearer My God to Thee. It is this type of scene that Avatar lacked & the one I steer people to check out when I hear those criticisms 'lacking in character development', 'hype' & 'plodding' aimed directly at this film like sharp pieces of ice. Because we are attached to Jack & Rose's story, the emotional investment of the other passengers is strengthened.

Throughout we are given witness to several passengers-- third class and other. Some clutching on to each other in a warm bed with cold water running underneath. One comforting her kids. One even at the Captain's chambers, watching the water rise through the glass. All accepting their fate on the doomed vessel. In many ways, it represents what the entire film is about. It laces two things together that are the backbone of it all--scope and character. For a vessel so big and once thought unsinkable, this sequences gives it a chilling air of sadness. Jack & Rose's storyline may have been the soul of the picture. This scene for me is the heart & one that never ceases to cue the waterworks.

So, what do you think?

Let me hear YOUR opinions. This is a film that divides like a massive ship breaking in half. So I expect to have some interesting conversation sparked.

1 comment:

  1. I agree whole-heartedly.
    Cameron's film, its scope & the characters: flawless.