Imitation of Life and Death
Amongst the many appalling statistics about the Titanic disaster, the loss of life amongst fictional passengers stands out; the second highest tally after steerage. It’s a figure that’s steadily increased since 1912 due to the disaster’s ghoulish afterlife on film and TV.
In fact, starting with real life survivor Dorothy Gibson’s Saved from the Titanic (1912), the ship has gone on to sink some 20 times: surely the worst ongoing maritime disaster on record. Many a period archetype has perished in the century that’s intervened between that first plunge and this brazen, allegedly commemorative re-release.
In the wake of James Cameron’s film, as many horrific details surfaced as followed the real incident – enough to fill a second Walter Lord volume: idiots visiting the victims’ graveyard at Halifax, looking for Leonardo DiCaprio’s mortal remains, teenage does snivelling as the baby-faced fictus succumbed to hypothermia, a Wakefield woman with no internal monologue asking her boyfriend about the ship’s fate. “It fucking sinks!” he’s said to have replied. That’s not a bad review either.
There’s no arguing with Cameron’s assertion that his soggy account of the tragedy touched audiences. You don’t pull in $1.8b at the global box office without repeat business and cross-gender appeal. Nor is there any doubting the Canadian’s commercial antennae; his story was calibrated to hit as many demographic enclaves as possible, as real tragedy never can be – a so-called four quadrant movie. It’s an old fashioned epic for older patrons with handsome twentysomething stars for their kids. It has romance for the fems and destructive spectacle for the boys. It is, in that respect, a fairly typical Hollywood picture. What it’s not, is a great Titanic movie.
Cameron’s meticulous research and attention to detail – lifeboats built by the Belfast Company that didn’t make quite enough of the originals, ship blueprints from Harland and Wolff – was employed in adding historic weight to the showman’s wan romance. So enamoured was he with his own characters, stick figures, that the real victims were recast as props. In Cameron’s allegedly definitive and, as he’d modestly have it, “timeless” treatment, the likes of Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews have the same status as the White Star Line plates.
Notorious for demanding dominion over all things, it’s little wonder that Cameron chose to appropriate history for his own ends. This is, it should be noted, an admission of defeat from the outset; a tacit acknowledgment that the man who would scribe his own entertainments doesn’t do characterisation to the level required in giving life to real human beings. Perhaps Cameron was incapable of empathising with the deceased. The machine-like restaging explains why a reprise of 1,500 deaths leaves you as cold as the bodies.
Cameron is a technocentric director: he understands the ship, the mechanics of the sinking; he gets pacing, staging setpieces and visual effects, but his attempt to impose a human story onto events is laboured and thin. Where dramatisation demands sobriety, Cameron can offer only melodrama. Where naturalism would have made humans of these historic characters, giving them the immediacy faked using a creaky framing device and a couple of Technicolor leads, the great auteur can offer only an approximation of feeling.
Titanic is laden with mannered theatricality, placeholder dialogue, and a deadening subservience to a plot that intrudes on the historic record like an on-set heckler. We’re beholden to this irrelevant sideshow while the real story unfolds in the background. Human tragedy is reduced to ambient noise. Forget women and children, what about truth and realism first?
These are just Titanic’s design flaws; its moral difficulties are more pronounced. From the moment he carelessly desecrated a grave site with his submersible, collapsing the wall to Captain Smith’s quarters on his first dive to the wreck; an incident that must have aged the oceanographer Robert Ballard who’d discovered it in tact ten years earlier, Cameron was already in deep water. But it was his decision to defame the dead that made his movie reprehensible.
His treatment of Bruce Ismay, the White Star Line’s managing director, here branded a coward for saving his own life, dotted the I and crossed the T of a monster Titanic myth. William Murdoch, the ship’s unlucky first officer, is made a murderer in his dying minutes, going on to blow his brains out (a portrayal for which Fox vice-president Scott Neeson was forced to apologise). This raises serious questions about a filmmaker’s responsibility to the dead; questions Cameron defensively dodged in later years with fatuous talk of “reflecting our basic emotional fabric” and “universals of human experience”. It didn’t occur to the maestro that history demanded more of him than wringing crocodile tears from pliable audience members; that you don’t need universals when you have specifics.
A $18m conversion to 3D does nothing to address these defects but it’s a highly useful reminder of another incident that vividly illustrates Cameron’s lack of trust in real feeling, and his propensity to fake it; the myth maker who never stops working, even when events demand it.
In his 2003 documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss, in which stereoscopic shots of the Titanic’s wreck were overlaid with intrusive and unnecessary dramatised vignettes, one scene has a troubled Bill Paxton meekly approach the director as he emerges from a dive on what we’re told is September 11th 2001. “It’s the worst terrorist attack in history, Jim” says Paxton, sounding like an auditionee for a bleak remake of Star Trek. It’s a line that sounds suspiciously retrospective. No doubt Cameron would argue that it represented the truth of the moment, which is different from the requirement for it to be true, but this is his problem; he doesn’t know the difference and Titanic documents that failing, not the reality of that awful night on the Atlantic.