Sunday, April 15, 2012

Titanic (Paramount/20th Century-Fox, 1997)

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic I am posting to this site my journal notes about two of the most interesting Titanic movies, James Cameron's multi-Oscar winning blockbuster from 1997 (now in theatres again in a 3-D conversion) and the 1943 German Titanic, whose elaborate effects shots of the ship sinking were recycled for the 1958 British film A Night to Remember but which is one of the most interesting Titanic movies of them all, especially for the mismatch between the propagandistic intent the Nazis had when they greenlighted it and the savage critique of a stupid dictatorial establishment and its obsessions that actually got made — and almost immediately censored, since aside from a few showings in occupied France it wasn't publicly screened until after the war and German audiences didn't get to see it until 1949.

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles called and asked if I wanted to go out with him to see the new movie Titanic. Did I ever! I’ve been curious about that film since well before its release — as soon as I heard Gloria Stuart was in it, playing the same character as Kate Winslet (Winslet plays her in 1912 and Stuart plays her in 1996, narrating the story in flashbacks) — and I found out she was in it when I read her letter to the Los Angeles Times, defending the film while it was still in production and saying James Cameron was one of the three best directors she’d ever worked with, the others being James Whale and John Ford. Both Charles and I had the same overall reaction to Titanic — namely that we liked it considerably better and better as it went on. I’m inclined to call it a near-masterpiece, despite some pretty major flaws. Basically it’s the first film about the Titanic to be made since the discovery of the actual wreckage, and in fact it incorporates that discovery into its plot. It begins in 1996, with a salvage crew working underwater in the wreck of the Titanic to recover a priceless diamond pendant that once belonged to Louis XVI and whose last known whereabouts were on the Titanic for its first and only voyage. The salvage crew (using a manned deep-sea vessel instead of the unmanned ones that have actually been used to explore the Titanic — I wondered how many weeks these poor people would have to stay underwater and how slowly they’d have had to have been brought up to avoid the “bends”) brings up a safe supposedly containing the diamond, but actually containing a charcoal drawing (which has miraculously survived the 84 years undersea intact) of a naked woman wearing it. TV crews broadcast the news worldwide — and a 101-year-old woman living in retirement in Southern California following a career as a film actress (Gloria Stuart) recognizes the girl in the drawing as herself as a 17-year-old aboard the Titanic. She is flown out to the mother ship at the site of the wreck, and while there she narrates the story to a tape recorder being used by the crew to take it down.

The film then dissolves to 1912 and the three days the Titanic was actually at sea, from its embarkation on April 12, 1912 at noon to its fatal collision with an iceberg in the North Atlantic on the morning of April 15. The dramatis personae — or rather the only ones we have to worry about — are Rose (Kate Winslet), the young woman who’s going to survive the Titanic and become Gloria Stuart; Cal Hartley (Billy Zane), her thoroughly obnoxious fiancĂ©; Rose’s mother, who is forcing her to marry this asshole because Rose’s father lost the family fortune before he died and Cal is wealthy and can replenish it; and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a struggling young artist who wins a third-class ticket to the Titanic in a poker game and gets on board, saves Rose from committing suicide and — despite the high level of armed security on board to keep the steerage passengers from mingling with anyone in first class — becomes her lover, at least for the two days he has left to live. Many of the criticisms leveled at Titanic are accurate. James Cameron obviously attempted to do a great love story as well as a great disaster picture, but his script is riddled with clunky and wince-inducing lines of dialogue and the movie would have benefited immensely from a co-writer who could have made the love scenes more literate. The film is also full of historical inaccuracies, at least one of which I would think would have been made more of than has been in the critical comment on it, especially from Titanic buffs — in the film the captain courageously and heroically goes down with his ship; in real life the captain escaped[1] (and was greatly criticized for having done so in the press at the time) and became the leading witness to the separate investigative commissions formed by the British and American governments to discover why the accident occurred.

And there’s another flaw in the movie that’s purely aesthetic: Leonardo DiCaprio, for all his intensity and magnetism (though he does little or nothing for me physically — frankly I thought Billy Zane was a lot better looking, even though he was supposed to be playing the bad guy!), never once convinced me that he was a person living in 1912. Also, the film does tend to drag a bit before the start of the action — during all those long expository scenes on the salvage vessel you’re thinking, “When are they ever going to get us to 1912?,” and during all those long expository scenes on the Titanic itself (filmed, alas, in that all-too-familiar the-past-is-brown manner which kind of takes the edge off the beautiful and expensive reproductions of the ship’s lavish interiors), you’re thinking “When are they ever going to bring on the iceberg?” That’s the bad news about Titanic. Now for the good news: for all his faults as a romantic writer, James Cameron is a sure-footed action director who, as he already showed in his woefully underrated The Abyss, has a special affinity for the sea, and in particular the starkness, loneliness and alienness of it. His script does get more literate as the movie progresses, but the best parts of his direction (not surprisingly) are the non-verbal scenes. He keeps the camera in beautiful, vivid, fluid motion, taking us around the ship and guiding us to the relevant action instead of holding still and making love to the sets to the detriment of his story. And, aside from DiCaprio (though DiCaprio’s appeal as a boy-toy has no doubt been one of the key factors in this film’s great commercial success), his cast is excellent. Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart actually look completely credible as the same person as different ages (though there’s an odd credit at the end for special makeup on Stuart — did they actually feel they had to make the 87-year-old Stuart look even older to play the 101-year-old Rose?), especially in the scene in which, right after Jack has drawn Rose’s picture, Cameron dissolves from Rose’s face as she reclines on the couch where Jack has drawn her to the old Rose’s face in a similar position in the present portion of the film. (This is particularly amazing since, judging from her 1930’s films, the young Gloria Stuart didn’t bear more than a slight physical resemblance to Kate Winslet’s appearance today.)

Kathy Bates has a marvelous minor role as Molly Brown (I’ve never seen the film The Unsinkable Molly Brown but I suspect I’d find her considerably more credible as this character — a sort of female version of the character Edward G. Robinson played in Silver Dollar — than Debbie Reynolds was), and for me Billy Zane practically steals the movie as the villain. While Cameron goes out of his way to establish Zane as a black-hearted bad guy — from his early statement, after Rose complains that there aren’t enough lifeboats for all the passengers, that if the ship sinks a lot of people will die and he says, “Not the better people,” to his action towards the end of kidnapping a child off the deck and holding it in front of him to win himself a seat on one of the lifeboats (when we last see him on the deck of the Carpathiajust after we’ve been moved to tears by the death of Leonardo DiCaprio of exposure in the near-freezing waters of the North Atlantic — we think, “He would survive!”) — Zane also manages to bring a surprising amount of charm to this character in a performance that reminded me a great deal of James Mason’s villain in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest: a man who can keep a complete front of elegance and charm in public while doing his dastardly deeds in private. To me he’s the real unsung [anti-]hero of this film! Having missed some of the best-known films about the Titanic — I’ve never seen A Night to Remember, generally considered the best one (at least up to now!) [I got to it later and thought it was the best film about the Titanic ever made, largely because it avoided inventing characters and found enough drama to sustain a two-hour movie out of the stories of the people who had actually lived and sailed on the doomed liner], though I have seen (and I have a videotape of) the 1953 Titanic (with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck as reliably great actors hurt by a tacky script and indifferent special effects that looked like someone concocted them in a bathtub) — it’s hard for me to judge where this one fits in the scheme of things, quality-wise.

But the movie this one kept reminding me of is the Frank Borzage masterpiece from 1937, History Is Made at Night, which wasn’t strictly a Titanic movie but did concern itself, among other things, with an egomaniacal ship-line owner who commissions the world’s largest, and supposedly unsinkable, ocean liner and loses it to an accident with an iceberg on its maiden voyage. Cameron seemed to be aiming at the odd fusion of romantic drama and disaster movie that Borzage achieved in History Is Made at Night, and he came damned close to doing so — certainly the final scenes of Titanic are immensely moving as well as working effectively on an action-suspense level (though I think the ending would have been even better had Cameron been able to write his script in such a way as to leave us in the dark about the ultimate fate of DiCaprio’s character until we actually see him die — as it is the edge is somewhat taken off because we know all along that he will not be one of the ones that makes it, dulling the excitement of all those vertiginous struggles and hair’s-breath escapes we see him and Stuart engage in earlier on), and the ending (Stuart, who had the diamond — as Anna Russell might have said, “Ya remember the diamond?” — all the time, all 84 years between 1912 and 1996, walks out to the deck of the salvage ship and throws the diamond away in the ocean before returning to her cabin to die peacefully in her sleep) is silly dramatically but, like the ending of the Sternberg/Dietrich Morocco, works powerfully emotionally as a climax and summation of the entire film. Though it has some flaws, I think Titanic is going to “live” commercially and artistically — certainly it has some of the values that made the older movies great and I can see why it’s already beginning to attract a cult following, with people having seen it as many as eight times in the 2 1/2 months it’s been out! — 2/16/98

[1] — I was wrong here: the captain of the Titanic did go down with his ship. I had him confused with the president of the White Star Line, who was the witness at the subsequent court hearings and whom the investigations blamed later on. (M.G.C., 11/22/05)