Thursday, April 24, 2014

Watch This: Titanic

A bi-weekly series featuring a recommendation of a movie available in the Reeves Memorial Library DVD collection

Titanic (1997)
Written and directed by James Cameron

I almost feel like this week's post should be titled "Rewatch This."  Although this is an academic library blog, and most current undergraduates were only preschool age when Titanic was released in theaters, it seems hard to fathom that anyone reading this post has not seen it.  After all, Titanic is one of the most popular films ever made, the highest-grossing film of all time upon its initial release, and its enduring popularity has led to a subsequent 3-D theatrical re-release and huge sales on home video.  Despite this widespread adoration and overwhelmingly positive reviews from critics, the film's reputation has suffered somewhat in the intervening years (it does not even rank among the top 250 highest-rated films on the Internet Movie Database), and I have heard stories of people being ridiculed for professing their love of the film.

Of course, most popular entertainments have their detractors, and Titanic is certainly not without its flaws.  Sadly, though, there are many who have dismissed Titanic derogatorily as a "chick flick," failing to realize that the melodrama is a genre with a long and esteemed history in Hollywood, particularly in the "golden age" that lasted from the 1930s through the 1950s, when the "women's film" was a hugely popular genre that attracted A-list directors like George Cukor and Douglas Sirk.  This is important to remember because, despite its epic scale, extensive special effects, and gripping action, Titanic is an old-fashioned melodrama first and foremost.  It is to writer/director James Cameron's credit that he was able to make a "women's film" with such broad appeal.

For those readers who may be unfamiliar with the film, its story centers on young aristocrat Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) and artist/drifter Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), who fall in love after meeting aboard the ship Titanic during its ill-fated maiden voyage in April of 1912 (spoiler alert: the ship sinks).  Rose is betrothed to the wealthy Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), whose marriage to Rose would save her family from financial ruin.  Rose does not love him, and, much to the chagrin of Cal and her mother, Rose repeatedly demonstrates an irksome tendency to think for herself, and clearly yearns for a life of independence.  Fate leads to an encounter with the charming Jack, and their love quickly blossoms.  However, forces outside their control (an iceberg, most notably, but also the prejudices of Rose's wealthy upper crust peers) conspire to keep them apart.  Can Jack and Rose overcome the human and natural elements that seem destined to keep them apart?

We know that Rose survives the ship's sinking because the film's story is told in flashback, as a 101-year-old Rose relates her experience of the voyage to her granddaughter and the crew of a salvage ship looking to recover a priceless blue diamond from the deep-sea wreckage of the Titanic.  This frame story, which includes somber, haunting images of the real Titanic in its eternal resting place on the ocean floor, is a brilliant narrative stroke on the part of the filmmakers, serving as a powerful reminder of the ship's tragic fate, and lending an air of inexorable doom to the events that follow.

Cameron uses broad strokes in telling the story (subtlety and nuance have never been hallmarks of his filmmaking style), and while he sometimes reveals a tin ear for dialogue, it is difficult not to get swept up in the grandeur and sweep of the narrative.  The film is swooningly romantic, and there are some truly awesome effects sequences as the ship sinks.  Cameron even manages to work in some pointed commentary on social class.  Some critics have derided Cameron for making a film with such unabashedly popular appeal, but his ceaseless innovation and commercial aspirations have resulted in some of the best blockbuster films of the past few decades (The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and the sorely underrated True Lies (1994), not to mention the game-changing Avatar (2009)).

For those who are already fans of Titanic, this post will hopefully be a reminder of all the reasons you liked the film to begin with.  For those who are not fans, or who have not seen the film in many years, it's worth another look.  Perhaps you will have become less jaded or cynical in your general outlook on life, and an epic love story might appeal to you more than it once did.  In other words, take a page out of the aged Rose's book, and go back ... to Titanic.

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