Monday, April 23, 2012


Movie Review: Titanic

Director: James Cameron

Reviewed: 22 April 2012

jamesintexas rating--**** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

"Are you ready to go back to Titanic?" an earring-wearing, pirate-evoking, James Cameron stand-in Bill Paxton as undersea explorer Brock Lovett asks Gloria Stuart's centenarian Rose Dawson about thirty minutes into this carefully constructed, emotional eponymous masterpiece from 1997.

In retrospect, I saw Titanic three times that winter in the theater, went from one screening immediately to a local Circuit City to buy the soundtrack, and it became part of our pop lexicon with its box office and Oscars.  What got lost, for me, in the story of the success of the film (its propulsion of Leonardo DiCaprio into superstardom for playing another doomed teen hero post-Romeo; its coming-out-party for a young Kate Winslet who had already wowed us in Heavenly Creatures and been nominated for Sense and Sensibility; Cameron's maniacal intensity on the Mexico set) was the undeniable power of a great story told well.  James Cameron tapped into the well of our collective curiosity surrounding the tragic events of that April, and he did in a way that is a coming of age story for a young woman, a populist class war on a sinking ship, a critique of hubris at a turning point in our collective history (World War One looms with its ships and gas and destruction), and an investigation of memory.

As it turns out, I was ready to go back.

Wow.  The film has undeniable power.  Emotionally, Cameron's use of slow-motion, drowning out of sound, James Horner's intense but not overpowering soundtrack, and carefully constructed lighting and angles always put the audience in a sublime position.  We are perched over the deck of the ship, half the frame the terrifying churning water below, half on the ship; we are with the undersea ships scouring the bottom of the ocean for a look at the hulk of the ship.  There are so many terrific shots in this film, and the effects give way to a more human, elemental use of water, lighting, real people who are really wet and really acting with each other the entire time.  Winslet at times has to submerge herself completely into near green pools of icy water filling up floors of the ship, hanging off of the ceiling like a post-Victorian Ellen Ripley with her axe running to save her man who is curiously locked up around a pipe in the sinking galley.  Let's be clear, although DiCaprio became the superstar based on his deservedly winning (and unjustly un-nominated performance as Jack Dawson), the movie rests solely on Kate Winslet's shoulders.  She captures Rose's brittle brilliance, her rebelliousness and her pluck, as well as her whirlwind romance with a boy who saved her.  It is a dynamite performance, a taste of things to come from one of the finest actresses of our current generation.  Cameron holds on Winslet's face time after time in tight close ups, and her expressive eyes, her weakened voice, her steely determination set the foundation for this film.

Cameron's hand at casting is a masterful one here.  Winslet is perfect; DiCaprio is divine as Jack.  He's charming, charismatic, and magnetic.  The rest of the ship seems ably cast, though I wish Frances Fisher was less a caricature of a mother desperate to save the family through an arranged marriage as Ruth Dewitt Bukater, Fabrizio was more fleshed out (the stereotypical Italian friend of Jack's who just spouts cliche and nonsense played by Danny Nucci as ridiculously as Jar-Jar Binks but dies well); I wish Billy Zane's Cal Hockley existed in reality more than on paper (but Zane has at least one great scene as Rose is lowered into a lifeboat and he stares at her, flares overhead, resigned a bit, shoulder-to-shoulder with DiCaprio), and I finally wish that David Warner's psychopathic man-servant Spicer Lovejoy (!) who rolls bullets on a table antagonizing Jack while the ship sinks would do something other than lurk around the ship, showing no sense of self-preservation, and in general, seem out-of-place, except for a great death scene.

If his ouevre has taught me anything, James Cameron knows how to kill off characters in movies.

Yet, Gaelic Storm (my parents' favorite Irish band!) brings grace and pathos to small scenes where they play violins as the ship sinks (including a song from Orpheus this time, which I caught and heard strains of Moulin Rouge's song Spectacular!  Spectacular!) as well as Captain Edward James Smith (Bernard Hill) consumed by the power of the destruction drawn to the wheel to go down with the ship, a haunted Mr. Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber) who stares at the clock realizing his time has run out, to countless passengers who make impressions and return for their death scenes.  Mr. Guggenheim seems to have embraced the nihilism of the moment: "We will go down with the ship as scheduled!  But, we would like some brandy!" as he sits in a chair, lip curling, eyes a fright at the approaching water and his impending doom.

And the water.  The water is the Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Visual Effect, Best Sound, and Best Art Direction of this film.  The water moves through scenes in a variety of ways, and Cameron imbues the sound of the water to the soundtrack add to the terror. I found it more effective in quieter, lethal moments like when Jack Dawson sees the water pour into the room where he is handcuffed, even though the water rushing down the hallways has the imminent power matched only by Kubrick's slow-motion elevator of blood in The Shining.  Doors fly off of their hinges, children and parents are swept away in the chaos.  Water rises, logically, quickly, and efficiently, and perhaps that's what I think struck me the most in 1997.

That year, I loved this film, undeniably, shamelessly, and I loved the destruction and the depiction of entropy.  The ship went down and the reality of all shatters.  In the late nineties, I loved the physics of the ship sinking and Cameron's brilliance in showing the great ship sink on a computer screen with some clumsy and flippant narration with the older Rose revisiting the site and offering, "To be on the ship was quite different."  However, by showing the audience the science and animation of the ship's sinking, Cameron foregrounds the action so that it is inevitable and that we know what is coming from a more logical, cool perspective two hours later in the film.  We are both surprised and not surprised when the propellers stick out of the water, when the ship tears in half, when the lights go out.  His brilliance in showing that to us first pays off in the climactic ninety minute sequence of pure, uninterrupted exhilaration from Jack and Rose observing the iceberg's chunks smash onto the deck before their very eyes until the camera zooms in on Rose whistling for the rescuers to grab her from the wreckage, bringing the frame story front and center for the conclusion.

Now, in 2012, I love the first thirty minutes of the film.  I loved it in a way that it reminded me of The Usual Suspects where once you know what happens, you can appreciate the ten seconds Bryan Singer includes of Verbal Kint studying the room and desk before the interview begins.  In Titanic, his first shot of a live human (besides a grainy, sepia-toned recreation of the launching of the ship) is of Paxton's eye, child-like and curious, searching through a porthole in the submersible to see the Titanic up close.  Paxton is Cameron's surrogate but ours as well; we want to see the ship itself without delay.  We have that morbid curiosity or just the curiosity to see the ocean floor, to see our collective human history, to see a symbol of an age past and gone.  It is the same impulse and idea that ensnares many children who learn about the ships sunk off the Bermuda Triangle or the number of Spanish doubloons that might be hidden off the Florida Keys or the Viking ships that may be preserved off the coast of Norway or the discovery of a Neolithic man frozen in a crevasse somewhere.  Cameron offers a window to the past through technology, and among the reasons that I go to see films are the desires to see new images, to see the past and the future, to travel into a director's mind.  Cameron accomplishes these with aplomb.

Werner Herzog says, "We must see new images or die," and not to psychoanalyze James Cameron, but his commitment to innovation, stretching the limits of what film can do, and his desire to plant his flag in uncharted territory as a film maker is unprecedented.  Cameron is the director who brought us (and specifically, me) a ferocious and feral human cyborg in The Terminator films, a ruthless and relentless western set in outer space with the scariest aliens ever put on film in Aliens, the underwater ethereal wonder of The Abyss, the over-the-top action entertainment of True Lies with its Harrier Jet, the sublime and the beauty of Titanic, as well as the highest grossing film ever, his post-Titanic triumph Avatar, a Star Wars-level universe and use of technology in service of a politically relevant story.  James Cameron has consistently, above all living directors including the great George Lucas, provided me with new images that captivate, haunt, terrify, and awe me.  No director has reached as far, stretched his grasp beyond what technology is capable of doing at that moment, shown such intense hubris (Peter Jackson comes to mind, but he has more to prove).

In a film that I know extremely well, I still cried twice in the last hour.  I still resent the manipulation at the ending of the film and think that he could have done something even more powerful.  I still cringe at more lines that needed work but Cameron stubbornly refused to take them out.  I still consider it a 4 star film of great emotional power.

Thank you for taking me back to Titanic.  (And, I'm not sure the 3D added much at all, but who cares?)

A few random thoughts: 
-What happens to the dogs?  Apparently, Cameron shot scenes of the pups in the water but did not use them because they were more emotionally devastating than the people drowning.
-The outstanding actress from Aliens Jenette Goldstein who plays the gung-ho female marine Vasquez returns to recite to her sleepy Irish children the legend of The land of Tir-na-nOg before the water floods their compartment killing them all.
-The older couple on the bed, spooning and gripping each other as water runs through their cabin.  Chilling and raw.
-The sublime power and darkness of the way Cameron shoots the iceberg.  The iceberg is like Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.  It simply doesn't care.
-Columnist Leonard Pitts points out, excellently, one shot of a flare overhead during the evacuation.  To those on the ship, the flare displays everything and seems intensely bright.  To Cameron's camera, which wisely pulls back into an extreme long shot, the light seems puny and insignificant in the context of the dark water, the star-filled sky.  The message being humanity's insignificance to nature and the cosmos, especially when seen in contrast to the reverential, almost pornographic look at the bowels of the ship, the driving pistons, the mechanics of the technology.  For all of our abilities and technological brilliance as Paxton's pirate points out in the first five minutes, the tons of pressure of the water could cave in his submersible in two microseconds.  Insert something brilliant here about our insignificance on this planet, the passage of time, the idea of the earth having a memory, and us not even being a significant part of it!
-The singing of the song of Josephine by Rose, near-death.
-The pictures Rose has with her at the end lying a biplane like Amelia Earhart, portraying her riding the horse, like a man, set against the backdrop of the roller coaster on a beach next to the water.  (*Thank you to the reader who pointed out that it is on the Santa Monica Pier, a place that Jack tells Rose about, and the photographs are clearly evoking Rose's commitment to living the kind of life that she wanted, to embodying Jack's spirit and gumption for a kid from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin.)
-James Horner: On my iTunes, he's credited with the following soundtracks: Aliens, Avatar, Braveheart, and Glory.  Just those alone, plus this film, make him an immortal.

1 comment:

  1. The picture of her on "a" beach with a roller coaster in the background I assume is intended to have been taken on a very specific beach. Santa Monica's pier (which appears in so many films set in Los Angeles) is mentioned by Jack to Rose on their first daytime stroll. He mentions it as an one of the many examples of places she could experience if she broke free from her prison. The picture makes clear that the life Rose went on to lead after the sinking was heavily informed by her brief encounter with Jack. For a self-confessed poor boy from Cedar Rapids he sure got around during his short life.
    Great review James, beautifully written