Look Again…with David Frames: James Cameron’s Titanic (1997)

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David Frames takes another look at James Cameron’s blockbuster and considers why, in taste terms, it never made it to New York.

A publicity still from the 1997 press notes, prepared by 20th Century Fox, makes Cameron's intent clear.

The news that Tony Scott is to dramatise the events leading up to the premiere of James Cameron’s Titanic was greeted with shock by industry insiders. Is it too soon? With so many of the victims still alive and with the disaster of that initial release still fresh in our cultural memory, Scott’s move is, I think, being rightly condemned as a lapse of taste.  Before he urinates into our memory pool (the script is rumoured to feature people crying during the performance and clapping at the end), perhaps it’s time to revisit the 1997 film and take a jagged piece of dirty ice to its slag infused rivets.

Although 9/11 is arguably the most significant moment of the century so far – if you ignore the  scandal of Ruth Padel’s appointment as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Hollywood has been timid in its response. For those of you who don’t remember what happened, a small cabal of Islamic fascists destroyed a pair of New York skyscrapers. New York was, coincidentally, the destination of the Titanic but we’ll come to that if you can be patient. In part this omission is due to cultural sensitivity, in part the toxicity of the subject at the box office, but regardless it gives us pause for thought, particularly when considering how filmmakers have treated real world tragedy in the past.

Go ahead, take a moment.

In the context of engaging with a real world catastrophe, and with a significant event of its type firmly established in recent living memory, perhaps now is the ideal opportunity to look again at Titanic, James Cameron’s late nineties blockbuster and still the 6th highest grossing film of all time, adjusting for inflation but not necessarily for other factors such as overall cinema attendance, the anti-trust legislation of the 1950’s and domestic factors such as home entertainment, the stunting effect of pornography on the development of the optic nerves and the explosion of recreational drug use in the home.

I want to preface this retrospective with a one thought and I invite you to consider it as the article sinks into your own psychical North Atlantic. In real terms the only dividing line between the loss of life on the Titanic from that which occurred in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and that Pennsylvanian field, is time – that’s right, Mr Tick Tock and the hour chime band.

The Titanic disaster wasn’t an act of mass murder of course, not legally, though you might consider that both the White Star Line’s lifeboat policy and the actions of senior officers was criminally negligent, but it was a sudden and unimaginably terrifying ordeal for those that endured it. Like the events of 89 years later, the victims of the Titanic disaster had a horrifically long time to contemplate their fate as the implications of their predicament became clear. James Cameron sought to replicate that terror when he revised these events to suit the conventions of an action movie. In something encroaching upon real time, he took us where only the movie camera can go – mincing reality en route. This was history retouched with sentimental cliché; death as maudlin melodrama.

What Billy Zane knew: The cloying couple.

Had the Titanic disaster occurred in modern times, filmmakers attempting to engage with the material would find themselves carefully negotiating a series of critical elephant traps, lest they appeared to sensationalise or worse, trivialise the suffering of the deceased. What tone to strike? How much of a liberty could and should be taken with the historical facts? Which story to tell: the personal or the epic? Whose? Does the filmmaker impress their own agenda upon the narrative or be content to be an objective observer? These are the questions that any writer and director working in Hollywood has considered when thinking about their 9/11 project and for most of them, the most expedient route has been the easiest: do nothing, at least not yet. I was recently sitting in a café on Hollywood Boulevard and heard it said that the problem had finally been cracked. The guy had a script for a 9/11 movie set in space. Entitled “Cane and Abel” it was, said the exec who slurped his milkshake like a pervert, “the best script” he’d ever read – the title referring to the twin population towers of an orbiting space city, attacked by kamikaze alien parasites.

The Titanic however, a disaster that’s been mythologized both in the popular imagination and in film from the outset, has received no similar cultural consideration. The subject matter, although rooted in fact, continues to have an abstract quality that has allowed it to be treated like a filmmaker’s train set, the precise configuration dependant upon the whims of those that played on it. My brother Fabian once stamped on my train set and permanently destroyed the switch over from Mammary Signals to Horgenfuer Temple Meads but I don’t suppose you care about that tragedy, do you?

Cameron’s film is remarkable not for its technical virtuosity, the only facet of the production that can be considered successful, but for the way his fictional story, ostensibly a device to draw the audience into the disaster’s chronology and introduce them to the ship itself, in fact undermines the historical detail by pushing it to the background. Titanic is a history lesson from someone who isn’t really interested in history. Instead, Cameron has a naked agenda to colonise the event and make it his own. It’s an egregious ego trip. When you watch this film you’re stimulating James’ genitals by proxy.

Phallic extension: Cameron's Oscar.

The story that makes it to the foreground is auteurship at its most self-indulgent; a story and set of characters that exist because the writer/director didn’t have the maturity, nor the courage to tell it as it was. You could also argue he had no interest. What we do get is an infantile link with the past that is both demographically aware and drowning in syrup.

Inevitably as we become more distanced from an event our deference to it decreases, such is the propensity for popular culture to cannibalise history for its own ends. Our perspective changes but should it? What separates 9/11 from the Titanic isn’t merely time but human connectivity. There are now no living witnesses to the tragedy (though there were on release), yet the historical detail of it remains unchanged. The fact that it’s passed out of living memory makes it no less horrific and in making that point I’m inverting the thinking that pollutes Cameron’s film. You bring history alive not by adding layers of whimsy and melodrama but by reaching for the truth of what occurred. If you cannot find the truth you invent it, dothing your cap to what is known.

As production rolled, Cameron announced his intention to make “the definitive” Titanic movie. If he meant definitive in terms of scope, he had a claim. If he meant authoritative, he was deluding himself. In Cameron’s Titanic the dead are dramatised as supporting characters in service to Dicaprio and Winslet’s hormonal hankering. The common defence of the movie is that’s just entertainment and to draw attention to the romantic fiction is to miss the point. The point has been missed certainly, just not the one commonly laboured. A September 11th movie which eschewed any one of the thousands of gripping and potentially heart rending human stories for an imaginary romance – longing stares across the open plan office for example, would be destroyed by critics as a flippant take on the event. What, you may ask, is so different about Titanic?

In Cameron’s film the facts are deployed as plot points and you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between myth and documented detail. Ignoring the obvious inventions, some moments – Murdoch’s shooting of an unruly third class passenger and subsequent suicide for example, represent distortions unmanageable in the dramatisation of a contemporary event. Murdoch, a real individual once upon a time, was thus retrospectively immortalised on film as a coward. Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line employee who boarded a lifeboat and was consequently branded a dastard for the rest of his life, is written as one. At no point does the film challenge this legend, painting over the moral complexities of the situation with broad strokes.

Should Ismay have been content to stand on ceremony and not board a lifeboat because of maritime convention, though there was room, and condemn himself to death? Having been painted as an officious and self-interested White Star Line representative for most of the movie, the audience’s sympathy isn’t with the man, just as the public’s wasn’t following the disaster. If you could legally defame the dead, lawyers acting for Cameron would still be tied up in litigation today. As for you, well, you’d be indicted for criminal solicitation after the fact.

What hope for the couple that chose to begin their lives together like this?

You could argue that the culture of filmmaking has changed since 1997. Just as The Second World War changed the psychological landscape, producing movies with greater moral ambiguity and darker preoccupations than their 30’s predecessors, the Noughties were turned over by the 9/11 attacks. Thrillers have shifted toward greater realism with even traditionally fantastical heroes like James Bond not smirking anymore. A documentary aesthetic has permeated people’s entertainment. Cloverfield and most recently District 9 stand as products of their age, the filmmakers conscious that imagery evocative of news, or hastily shot amateur footage – essentially the 9/11 aesthetic – lends legitimacy to the fantastical and gives their films real world immediacy. Whether this is morally desirable is a discussion for another article.

Titanic predates all of this of course but to rationalise its failings as cultural lets its writer/director off the hook. Cameron’s most successful film, adjusted for inflation, is his worst. Were it centred on a fictional event it might have been remembered as well made, effectively paced and an impressive spectacle, fractionally let down by a twee screenplay. As it stands however, Titanic is a vanity project for its director, punctuated by his own self-regard. The ending, in which the drowned passengers and crew of the ship are resurrected to applaud Cameron’s showmanship and his soggy leads, is evocative of the entire enterprise. It’s tasteless, mawkish and misjudged, not to mention jaw-droppingly disrespectful to the long dead.

And good riddance...

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