Unsinkable! She Alive, Dammit! (It’s a Miracle!)

20 December, 2022 at 3:47 pm (film, muppets)

As of yesterday, it’s been 25 years since the countrywide opening of James Cameron’s Titanic, and it’s been seven months and three days since I finally watched it for the first time. We all have films that we’ve foresworn against, not because of having actually watched them, but because of the way they were sold to us. I remember my stepbrother going from hot to cold on Batman in 1989 as the hype amassed. As more and more people told him how great it had to be based on the budgets and the promotional photos and merchandizing, the more his fundamental contrarianism marshaled arguments based on similar — if not the same! — snapshotted details. As a young person who’d been swept away the achievements of Terminator 2: Judgement Day, who’d been wowed by the relentless pulp of True Lies, and who — having read and re-read Orson Scott Card’s expansion of The Abyss — hoped that one day the eventual video release of the extended director’s cut of Cameron’s full-budget vision would salvage the deus ex profunda ending, I should have been in the proverbial fifteen million-gallon tank for Cameron’s disaster romance. But I wasn’t. I found the whole existence of the exercise crass, and all the details that emerged about the manic attention to accuracy and the whirlwind glamour of the central story served only to bolster my recalcitrant position. I was the Titanic “truther” of 1997.

And why was this? At its heart, it was because in elementary school I’d read and re-read the Walter Lord’s step-by-step retelling of the sinking, A Night to Remember (a title I always think of when high school proms inevitably use that as the motto for their coming-of-age event). That slim volume — which only breaks two hundred pages by including the passenger list at the end — captured my imagination in a way that few other non-fiction books did. Despite being, notionally, a boy, I don’t have any memory of going through the traditional concrete operational period of falling in love with mechanics and statistics. While many, manymany boys process a desire for and attraction to functional and measurable aspects of reality, becoming obsessed with fire trucks or train sets, or starting to memorize baseball statistics, the closest I got to this sort of world was loving Lego and instinctively memorizing all the members of the X-Men. But, for me, that was about storytelling and characters, and the Dorling-Kindersley approach to the world — pictorial categorization of concrete phenomena — wasn’t interesting unless there was something especially aesthetic or connected to media where I’d become invested in the ‘verse.

So A Night to Remember was an interesting combination of those two worlds — a minute-by-minute accounting of events, decisions, and individuals involved in the collision, evacuation, and sinking, but told in a way that I could envision it as a narrative — but also with enough tension between the two techniques that I returned to it again and again… potentially looking for color, personality, and something beyond the blank, absurdist tragedy of the event to hang my hat on. And, weirdly, I did read and re-read — sometimes dutifully, sometimes skimming — that list of names, looking for something or someone to connect to that would make it real in a personal sense instead of in the larger, abstract sense of Having Actually Happened.

From that perspective, Titanic, as James Cameron executed it, should have been exactly what I wanted: the ability to distill it down to an emotional adventure story so that it existed both on the micro and macro scopes, historical and personal, massive and individual. But it didn’t strike me that way. Somewhere between ages ten and twenty-one, I’d embraced an adolescent ’90s nihilism that made me content with the stark, appalling meaninglessness of the true events. I suspect that this happened after the National Geographic footage of the rediscovery of the ship in its resting place, majestic in size, but otherwise smeared by decades of the uncaring sludge of Nature. Much like having hubristically declared the ship as “unsinkable”, any glory or status it might have had was now diminished beneath the weight of organic inevitability, making Titanic look like a the flagship in a cruise line designed by Antoni Gaudi.

So the decision to make a spectacle of the glory of the boat, of recreating it as exactly as possible, and lavishing Titanic‘s extraordinary budget on facsimiles to be deliberately destroyed felt weirdly tone-deaf to me. If there was anything the underwater cameras showed us, it was that glitz and glory will crumble to the inevitability of rot and ruin. So to spend so, so much money to recreate the folly, and to spend so, so much money recording its deliberate destruction felt asininely wasteful. And to do it in service of a romance between two fictional people, created deliberately to represent the simplistic Harlequin Romance transgression of attraction across classes (!!!) felt disrespectful to the people who’d actually suffered and died, and whose names I’d read over and over.

Celine Dion, with an anonymizing black bar placed over her eyes by the blogger, stands in a peach colored blazer with three muppets from Sesame Street: Big Bird, Elmo, and Harry Monster.

When the film came out, I did my small, one-man boycott, and while a couple people were surprised that I, as a budding cineaste, wasn’t going to see it just to appreciate the technical filmmaking of it all, most people didn’t really care. In my college-aged peer group, the film — despite going on to clean house with eleven Oscars, therefore indicating respect by adults and professionals — was largely dismissed as a dippy romance for teens young enough not to have experienced real relationships. It was only as time marched on and those young people got older, that I found myself increasingly marooned on a tiny hill, surrounded by people who liked it emotionally, who liked it technically, and by a legacy that was overwhelmingly linked with success on all fronts. A friend of mine even bought me a biography of Celine Dion as a gag gift to point out that my “principled” position might not hold up to scrutiny.

I was not totally alone. A quick perusal of the “Titanic” tag on The Grauniad reveals that the film topped a worst films vote in 2003, and that upon the release of Cameron’s documentary Ghosts of the Titanic a survivor went on record as saying she was against what is referred to as “the Titanic industry”, and was unable to watch the film adaptation of A Night to Remember in 1958.

And it really was an industry for a hot minute after the massive financial success in 1997. A friend of mine working at an entry-level position at a NYC publishing house was tasked with finding as many public domain photographs and records as possible to slap together into a glossy hardcover gift book to clutter up the tables that people walked past while queuing for the check-out registers in bookstores. Looky-loo impulse gift buying and low costs made it a cheap profit for companies glomming on to massive, sudden public interest. And that certainly doesn’t include Shopping Channel knock-off “Heart of the Sea” necklaces and other romantic tat that were manufactured and discarded once the wave broke. And such naked cynical commercialism certainly made me feel like I’d made the right decision by continuing to stay at arm’s-length from what I thought was crass spectacle made in spite of taste and history.

But then in 2018, Griffin Newman was a guest on a holiday-tastic “Twelve Guests of Christmas” episode of Doug Loves Movies, a real nail-biter of a show. where Griffin’s insane head for movie trivia made him the ultimate victor of the evening (and able to return, worried about his crown, a year later). I was secretly rooting for him, despite going up against future undead Alex Brightman, the immortal Josh Gondelman, and the indefatigable Jesse Pasternak, due to his presence on Amazon’s The Tick, where he ably helped sell Ben Edlund’s fourth iteration of the character, this one amplifying a wry awareness of the potential trauma of living in superheroic world. I was a fan. Known to some in my social circle as “my close personal friend Griffin” because of having hosted Talking TCGS for all the chat-rats, I’d still somehow missed his launch of the now-infamous Blank Check podcast. When Griffin hyped it as part of his chatty introduction on DLM, they were just starting their investigation of Tim Burton’s directoral career, a perfect jumping on point for muggins, here. As I learned their voices and tastes and got sucked into the parasocial “Blankies” community, I looked at their back catalogue and saw the looming hull of Titanic in their James Cameron retrospective, an episode so massive that it had two credited guests, and was split into two parts, much like the classic two cassette video boxed-set. A scant five months later, faced with the choice of being a Blank Check completist or sticking with the non-Titanic-watching identity that was now almost old enough to drink on its own, I chose to skip the episode.

It wasn’t until April of this year, upon the 110th anniversary of the sinking, that I read the New Yorker‘s 2012 article from the 100th anniversary, and I learned how wrongfooted my resistance had been all this time. I had earlier claimed that:

  • It was disrespectful to fabricate a romance to sell the story. That’s as may be, but it’s part of a longstanding “early and often” tradition. In the third paragraph of Daniel Mendelsohn’s article, he informs me that within a month of the disaster, Hollywood concocted a “one-reel movie called ‘Saved from the Titanic’… featuring Dorothy Gibson, an actress who had been a passenger in first class. It established a formula—a love story wrapped around the real-life catastrophe—that has resurfaced again and again”.
  • Lord’s factual, well-sourced account doesn’t need whatever cheap of-the-moment subtext Cameron is bringing to it. Mendelson flatly points out that, “The impulse to reappraise is not new”, and cites Steven Biel’s Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster. It seems to be, from his description, an historical catalogue of “how the Titanic’s story has been made to serve the purposes of everyone from anti-suffragettes to the labor movement to Republicans”. If I support the cultural reappraisal of Shakespeare and of Jason Reitman’s reinvestigation of film scripts, then if, as Mendelsohn claims, “the realm to which the Titanic and its story properly belong: myth”, then I also need to allow it to be retold in the tenor and idiom of the moment.

And so, chastened, I found a copy of the film in my local public library and carved out several hours to both watch it and listen to Blank Check‘s commentary. And there I found myself upended, propellers in the air, on one further point. I had thought the film was a romance set in the middle of a tragedy. The film is actually much more preoccupied with the deaths of the rest of the occupants of the boat than the hype and public’s focus on the central romance would have you believe. Rose, as narrator and point-of-view character, carefully clocks the populations of the ship, above- and below-stairs. This is, plot-wise, because of her willful resistance to think of herself as goods to be sold to Billy Zane, and looking for humanity and connection where her family and class aren’t providing it. But it also means that we see lots of cross sections of the ship, and Cameron has us start to recognize faces and see just how big and how populated the boat is. Not for nothing is John Welshman’s book of the sinking called subtitled The Last Night of a Small Town. Cameron and the hype may have gone with spectacle and romance as the sales pitch to get people into the theatres, but the man who people characterize as more blue-steel technician than humanist was very much interested in establishing a growing sense of dread that most of these people were people, and they were going to die. The romance is a vehicle for showing us as many of the passengers as possible while keeping the narrative from being a collage.

It is too easy to buy into dismissal of Cameron. I have, as of this writing, just seen Avatar: the Way of Water, and I found myself waving away the more complicated aspects of his public persona again, despite having just learned these lessons about Titanic. I found Way of Water to be an impressive technical exercise, a gorgeous, immersive fictional aquarium, but clunky in its execution of its musings on family and environmentalism. I immediately spun this into an invented narrative about a man who was telling stories that he thought were marketable, but who was lost in the details of executing it to his legendary technical precision. Aided by Vulture‘s regularly-updated timeline of how long it had taken for the film to come to fruition and having seen how the film contained frequently thematic and photographic homages to Cameron’s own body of work, it “felt” like he was taking the chance to fix those films to his current technical standard, much like why he apparently has been dragging his heels on releasing The Abyss on Blu-Ray. Blank Check reminded me that Cameron, while a technician, is also a practitioner of heartfelt, earnest narratives —what the kids call “wholesome” expressions of feelings — by bringing up a story from the Hollywood Reporter about how he was learning to downplay his regimented and disciplined taskmaster way of communicating with crews and families after being confronted with his shortcomings through the “radical honesty” protocols established by him in his household.

The Abyss: Special Edition topped my personal list of favorite films for many years, in large part because of the heartfelt nature of the “many waters cannot quench love; neither can the floods drown it” aspect of the narrative. In reading interviews with Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ed Harris in the intervening decades, particularly about how hard the process had been and how they remained reluctant to really talk about it thereafter, my respect for Cameron and my ardor for the story he’d told cooled. I fully bought into the relentless engineer aspect of his character, and the marketing for and reporting on Titanic seemed to confirm it. I’m glad that, as of Way of Water, he seems to be in a better place with his relationship with exactness and with his actors. And I’m glad that I finally gave the film a chance, if only to have my own pre-judgements of its contents proved to be both wrong in the execution of the film, but also as a piece of the larger quilt of Titanic narratives within which the film exists.

Related Links:
+ Vulture, as part of their 25th anniversary coverage, convenes their excellent “Answers All The Questions” feature with both Billy Zane and Frances Fisher.
+ While the New York Times chooses to channel the sort of coverage Vulture would normally have, and goes for coverage of the memes the film has generated.
+ Oh, and I couldn’t help thinking of this little beauty after digging up the above photo from Celine’s biography…

Grover from Sesame Street does his classic "teaching children the difference between 'near' and 'far'" sketch by running back and forth away from the camera, but he appears to be reciting the lyrics to Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On".

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