Directed by James Cameron
20th Century Fox
Nearly two hours into James Cameron's Titanic, two lovers (Kate Winslet, Leonardo DiCaprio) embrace passionately on the deck under the stars, while, high above, two of the ship's lookouts regard them with amusement and envy: young, beautiful, smitten, their whole lives ahead of them. You can practically hear the boatmen sigh: Ah, well. That's their lot in life. Ours is to stand up here and shiver and scan the North Atlantic for iceb--AHHH!!! ICEBERG!!! DEAD AHEAD!!! REVERSE ENGINES!!!
Now it can be told: The Titanic went down because of two distracting smoochers on the poop deck.
Actually, the movie's posters, which feature Winslet and DiCaprio superimposed over a relatively diminutive ocean liner, have the proportions about right. This $200-million-plus "epic" (the product of two major studios) is nothing so much as an Edwardian soap opera to which one of the world's most glamorous catastrophes has been appended--mostly, it seems, to demonstrate the force of the beleaguered couple's ardor.
Disaster flicks are forever being pilloried for their profusion of stereotypical supporting players and lack of a dramatic center. There will be no such attacks on Titanic. You can count on your fingers the characters with more than five lines. The familiar portents of the 1912 ship's doom--the failure to provide enough lifeboats, the reckless decision to go full speed ahead to get to New York early, the captain's blasé disregard of iceberg warnings, the lack of even one pair of binoculars to scan the horizon ("We had them in Southampton!")--are dramatized perfunctorily. It's as if Cameron (who also wrote the script) assumed we all knew the legend already. He doesn't want to divert our minds from Rose (Winslet), the upper-crust but secretly debt-ridden beauty reluctantly affianced to the swinishly rich Cal (Billy Zane), and her wooing by the poor-but-imperturbable artist Jack (DiCaprio).
The plot is out of turn-of-the-century melodrama. Toasty-voiced Cal (pegged early on when he predicts that Picasso will "never amount to anything") sneers at Jack for his poverty while Cal's hulking manservant (David Warner) chases the lovers into steerage, catching them drinking whiskey and doing Irish jigs and arm-wrestling with ruddy immigrants with names like Paddy. Some will find the narrative's obviousness pleasingly old-fashioned. The director has smartly framed it as the reminiscences of a handsome, 101-year-old Rose (looking not a day over 80), who tells her story to a rapt assortment of treasure hunters, led by Bill Paxton. These parasites have been prowling the wreckage (13,000 feet below the sea) in a high-tech submersible, and they think they "know" the Titanic. But it isn't until they hear Rose's tale--about the greed of the ship's owners, the locking of the lower classes below decks so that the rich could have first crack at the lifeboats, the gallantry of Jack, the needless deaths--that they finally "let it in" to their hearts and are thereby ennobled.
A s someone fiercely cynical about commercial American cinema, I'm less bothered than most by the exploitation of real-life disasters for an audience's delectation. But at times the slickness of Titanic turned my stomach. It's one thing for Cameron to have Rose stand at the ship's prow and threaten to throw herself into the water so that Jack can haul her back--this is meet-cute movie corn, ludicrous but benign. It's another for him to have the pair, at the climax, cling to same railing--now the highest point on the ship--and, while scores of people plummet to their deaths, have Rose point out: "Jack, this is where we first met." I expected her, amid the shrieks, to add, "And they're playing our song." Despite its three-and-a-half-hour length, Cameron omits some of the more striking acts of heroism that actually happened, such as the telegraph operators who were still sending distress calls when the water was inching up to their waists.
Cameron has never been known for his dialogue, but Titanic carries some stinkers that wouldn't make the final draft of a Days of Our Lives script:
"No, Jack, no. Jack, I'm engaged. I'm marrying Cal. I ... love Cal."
"Rose, you're no picnic."
When they come upon a Monet in Cal's stateroom, Jack is suitably impressed:
"Look at his use of color here. Isn't he great?"
In another scene with all the subtlety of a root canal, Rose's mother (the starchy, pinched-faced Frances Fisher) forbids the girl to have anything to do with the handsome pauper, while tightening her daughter's corset, "We're women--our choices are never easy. Grunt."
H ow good is Titanic as filmmaking? Sometimes awesomely good. The director's gliding camera is elegant in spots: Cameron has finally fused his heavy-metal macho side with his lyrical impulses--in contrast to, say, his work on The Abyss (1989), in which an extraterrestrial orb darting around a hulking submarine resembled Tinkerbell paying a call on Das Boot. The sinking in Titanic is meticulously, even fetishistically detailed: Cameron lovingly pans along the horizontal length of the cruising ship; then, later, along the diagonal length of the flooding ship; and, finally, along the vertical length of the sinking ship, which has tilted up into the air like a great skyscraper. The effects are beyond believable--they're beautiful.
You get your $8.50's worth in the last hour, with hundreds of extras slip-sliding into the sea. Where other filmmakers have averted their eyes from the 1,500 lifeboatless souls who perished in the icy North Atlantic, Cameron stays to gawk. Do you want to see people slowly freeze to death and then bob up and down in their life-preservers like ashen buoys? Climb aboard!
I t isn't my business to comment on the allegations that Cameron put his cast and crew through grueling 18-hour days, but it is fascinating that such a taskmaster would make movies so drenched in romanticism. "Why shouldn't my crew sacrifice themselves?" he must ask. "My characters sacrifice themselves!" Cameron is obsessed with mutual self-sacrifice--"You go, I'll stay and die," "No, you go, you must live," "No, you," "No, you," and so on. The couple at the center of The Abyss take turns sacrificing themselves for each other and they're divorced. Imagine how Rose and Jack behave in the first flood of infatuation.
Actually, it's easy to believe that a fella would sacrifice himself for this woman. Pardon my gush, but Winslet is one of the screen's true beauties. Her porcelain skin can flush with feeling, so that she seems translucent, and she's more graceful for the trace of clunkiness that attends her movements--her tremulousness is unforced. In Titanic, under a mane of red hair, she has a period plushness, and she helps to anchor the slender, boyish DiCaprio--who is spring-heeled and suave, light without ever being lightweight. Even the bangs that fall into his eyes seem not the work of a hairdresser, but the extension of his cheerfully mussed personality. It's hard to imagine another pair of ingénues who could hold us in our seats for two hours while we wait for that iceberg to show up, justify the movie's budget, and put an end to all that terrible dialogue.