When I saw Titanic in the theaters with my charming and civilized wife (a lovely counterpoint to my sociopathic savagery), it was all that we could do to avoid being lynched by an emotionally spent mob of 14-year-old girls. It is the closest as I have ever come to knowing what it is to be a Hansen brother: I have seen the abyss, and all I can say is "go back."
Being winter, I had a charismatic green mitten that I turned into a puppet for our viewing pleasure about one hour into our ordeal. Greenie the green whale nearly managed to completely distract us from this shipwreck of a film (that ironically is, itself, about a shipwreck). A movie that is so unrelentingly banal at its heart that it threatened to corrupt us completely with a saccharine-sweet substance identifiable only as pure, unfiltered, badger-filling. Needless to say, the insult-comic-stylings of Greenie were not met well by our audience-mates (the unkind impression portion of the presentation was most reviled).
In retrospect, I should have heeded rule #3 of my "Indications that it's time to leave the theater" list - if a non-animated film, at any time, has a dolphin in it, it is time to leave the theater (incidentally, rule #23 is if a film, at any time, inspires the creation of an insult comic mitten puppet, it is time to leave the theater).
I have noticed that since that fateful evening, I use Titanic a great deal when I need an example of a particularly poor and manipulative film - feeling as though I needed to have stronger justification for my abuse of this sacred cow than the occasional throw-away comment, I rented the film on DVD this week for my first full length review of the monstrosity.
For the uninitiated (good Lord what I would not give to have your virgin eyes and ears) - Titanic is mostly about the forbidden love affair between a rich girl (Kate Winslett) and a dashing but impoverished artist (Leonardo DiCaprio). There is an Austenesque mother intent on class and inheritance (the entire love story structure is, in fact, a poor robbery of Austen's Sense and Sensibility) and, predictably, a cad of a fiancee (Billy Zane who was much better in Dead Calm and Tales from the Crypt: Demon Knight). Inexplicably, there is also an evil henchman manservant and an insufferably bawdy semi-major character in nouveau-riche passenger, Molly Brown (Kathy Bates).
On a second screening of the top-grossing film of all time, I have found only three things that are truly inept about Titanic: the framing story, the love story, and the characters/acting/script/specialeffects.
the framing story
The first major misstep of Titanic is the bizarre belief that a framing story would be useful or welcome. The first twenty-plus minutes are devoted to the amazingly inept Bill Paxton (Boxing Helena) as the head of a crew of treasure-hunting Titanic scholars in 1997 and the shockingly poor Gloria Stewart as a comically decrepit Titanic survivor.
Periodically, the film will return to this framing story through a voice-over that reminds one unfavorably of Wonder Years or Doogie Howser (I knew he was nervous, but he never wavered. . . That was the last daylight that that ship would ever see. . .)
James Cameron's screenplay is a marvel of impossibly wooden dialogue - it is a testament to his monumental ego that he has given the longest monologues of the film to the two actors most incapable of a true reading of them. Paxton asks "Old Rose" (Stewart) if she knows who might have filed the claim on a giant diamond that he is seeking - after Rose acknowledges that she does indeed have this information, Paxton goes on for the next five minutes to explain in exhausting detail who has filed a claim on a giant diamond that he is seeking. The prologue is filled with instances such as this in which poor actors explain in stultifying detail things that everyone in the film already knows.
The explanations, of course, are meant for the idiots in the audience. I among them, for having now seen this film twice, I personally know no greater idiot.
Argue that this film won the best picture Oscar, and I will note that How Green Was My Valley won best picture over Citizen Kane, Rocky won over Taxi Driver, and Ordinary People won over Raging Bull.
When we leave the framing story to return to that fateful 1912 in which Titanic set off on the most ironic journey in history, we get an introduction to Kate Winslett's "Young Rose" who says in the first of several ironic lines given to Rose to say, "So this is the ship that they say is unsinkable." I presume that Rose is given the lion's share of irony in a futile attempt to make this mawkish and insulting character seem intelligent (Compare to noble captain Smith who only gets one ironic line "I've never seen such a flat calm.") She loves the unknown Picasso when, predictably, Cal the fiancee does not - she makes a crude Freud joke at the ship promoter's expense when no one else seems to have read Freud, and she notices, of course, that there aren't enough lifeboats. This, in itself, is perhaps not as egregious as actually having Rose say (as the film actually has her say) "according to my arithmetic, and based upon the figures that you have given me, it does not seem as though there are enough boats."
Predictably again, Cal the cad scorns the idea that there even be life boats at all on, say it together this time: "a ship that's unsinkable." Isn't this fun? It is gallows humor on a level of a film about Hiroshima in which the pre-bomb citizens are given lines like "we're a city that's un-obliteratable by an experimental U.S. weapon!" Hardy har har!
We are introduced to Leonardo DiCaprio's Jack as a drawling, yee-hawing, Yankee cowpuncher from the great plains of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin (he will lose his accent periodically when the words get hard to remember). He and his Italian caricature of a pal, Fabritzio no less, are playing two Swedes (would you believe, Sven and Ola?) in a game of high stakes poker. When they win tickets for the Titanic's maiden voyage, Jack proclaims ironically, "we're the luckiest sons a'bitches in the world" - to which Fabritzio responds lucidly, "Ima' gone nevuh f'gech'a you."
It may be germane at this point to suggest that you turn on the subtitles whenever an ethnic character has a line. The Irish hero, boxer-hat wearin', shillelagh swinging, whiskey drinking, Tommy Ryan and the doomed Italian sidekick Fabritzio are nightmare sketches of ethnic stereotypes that recall Marlon Brando's turn as an Asian man in Teahouse of the August Moon. I was waiting for the comic possibilities of tragic cultural misunderstanding to erupt when Mario brother Fabritzio says to Lucky the Leprechaun Tommy, "de sheep - it eese nice, no?"
This is without even mentioning English sailors fond of shouting "Blimey" and "Cheerio," a bombastic Roseanne-like Kathy Bates as all-American Molly Brown (who says in a shocking moment of poor taste as the mighty ship is lost, "well, that's something you don't see every day"), a bizarre moment in which a small Jewish family spins a dreidel on deck, a second where a small Arab family flips through a translation dictionary trying to decipher the ship's signage, and Jeanette Goldstein (tough Latina marine Vasquez in Cameron's Aliens), as an Irish lullaby singing wee Irish mommy. A casting choice that can only be attributed to the critical lack of Irish people in Hollywood.
the love story
Rose the super advantaged but unhappy girl is engaged to a ruthless business type with no poetry in his heart and falls for the young sketch artist Jack, angering her snooty upper-society family and friends.
If this plot sketch does not seem familiar to you, then this film is the only film that you have ever seen. Don't misunderstand me, there is no crime in being without imagination - the greatest crime that this film commits is in assuming that its audience not only shares the filmmaker's imagination deficiency, but that this is actually the only film that the audience has ever seen. Cameron is at great pains to repeatedly remind us that Rose is unhappy - that Cal is a mean guy - that no one understands Rose except for her journal (unmentioned, but inevitable) and of course wild, Bohemian Jack. After about an hour and a half, I stopped jotting down lines to the effect of "all I need is air in my lungs and a few blank sheets of paper. . . I figger you gotta' make every day count!" - "There's a fire in your eyes, Rose" - "You see people, Jack - I see you Rose." It seemed, after a while, you see, that I was becoming a great deal stupider in the transcribing.
the special effects
The much-lauded special effects employed in bringing Titanic to the screen are, in fact, rather uneven and, at times, poor. If you own this film on DVD, or, for some reason, have cause to rent it again - go to the legendary scene in which Jack & Rose are "flying" Peter Pan-like on the rail. Note that the multiple perspective shifts show the couple to be goliaths. They are, in relation to the ship, about fifteen-feet tall.
Now go to the scene towards the end when a door bursts open in a lower corridor, releasing a wave that engulfs a belligerent Italian man and his screeching child - as Jack & Rose run towards the camera pay close attention to the CGI that has, unsuccessfully, pasted Rose's face on the stunt double.
Now go to the scene where Jack & Rose are at the tail-end of the railing, just prior to going into the drink - note how their heads (and the heads of the other passengers) appear against the night sky . I've seen better blue screen on weather reports.
This is disregarding the fact that Cameron seems to have scrimped on the distance-fading techniques that his Lightstorm company is credited with developing. Very quickly, when the human eye sees something at a distance, it blurs the edges of it. The great disadvantage of most digital special effects is that there is no blurring of the image, making objects created by a computer appear to be impossibly crisp and "inserted." - Note that, throughout, the ship looks a bit like a very sophisticated program from Tron.
The sinking itself is fairly entertaining if only for the shot of the guy that falls off the boat, hits a propeller, and pinwheels wildly to his death. The noise of the impact against the propeller, a very satisfying BONG, manages to salvage the wildly over-rated effects in this film to a small extent.
all right already, but what's worse about this film than any other?
Imagine if Pretty in Pink were set in Hiroshima in the days before the bomb dropped; if You've Got Mail were a tragicomedy involving two star-crossed astronauts in the hours before the Challenger explosion. Now imagine that the heroes of these misbegotten abortions were somehow responsible for the actual historical tragedies that they have been inserted into.
That's right - the lookouts in Titanic's crow's nest are so distracted by the sight of the young lovebirds smooching on deck that they lose valuable seconds in which they could have been sounding an alarm.
That creepy wet noise that you hear is my eyeballs rolling up into my head.
It is reprehensible to insert a banal, conventional, excruciatingly manipulative and dim-witted cliché in the middle of true human suffering and the most infamous maritime disaster in history. I spent most of the last hour of Titanic trying to look around the main characters to try to get a sense of the disaster. The quick VH1 montage of an elderly couple resigning themselves to death, the father who tries to reassure his daughter that there's a "boat for daddies - this one is for mommies and daughters," the band that plays on - all of these stories are infinitely more compelling than Jack & Rose's teen rebellion.
Even the sub-plot involving the uber-diamond is a confused mess - first it's a symbol of what Rose does not want - then it's the symbol of the eternal love bond between Rose and Jack. It is an ignorant and poorly utilized emblem - only the music is clear on what it means and when.
If you're going to have a romance as the foreground of a tragic historical event - look to Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms as a goal to aspire towards. It is a novel of unfailing subtlety, respect and intelligence; its characters are understated and human, and you leave it having learned about WWI, about the world, and about the nature of love and relationships.
What you leave Titanic with, besides a crushing disappointment that this is what the public wants, and a rash from maniacally animating Greenie the Green Mitten Whale for two hours, is just this:
"A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets."
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