Sink Piece

Marathon Titanic deftly navigates familiar waters without scraping bottom

Explained Biblically, the sinking of R.M.S. Titanic 400 miles off the southern coast of Newfoundland in 1912 is an act of divine one-upmanship. The White Star Line's 46,328-ton "ship of dreams" was struck down on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, because mere mortals should not presume to blithely conquer the sea. Unsinkable? Ha!

Viewed in a Hollywood frame of mind--in other words, vengeful, envious, anxious--the James Cameron film Titanic should also be struck down, because mere mortal film directors should not presume to run up a tab of more than $200 million to make a movie that should have been called Romeo and Juliet Get Dunked.

But hubris in Hollywood comes with the territory. And sometimes the gods smile. For all its bulk and blather, Titanic is no disaster. It's closer to being a great big romantic cornball success. The film makes it safely into port courtesy of its co-stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and its sheer golly-gee monumentality.

Movie spectaculars are often anything but. Speed 2: Cruise Control, for example, cost $160 million, which was about $160 million too much. Titanic at least lets you know you're watching a movie--or, to be more exact, a movie-movie, the kind you responded to as a kid when you sat wide-eyed in the front row and couldn't even follow the plot but it didn't matter.

Director Cameron, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to have conceived Titanic in precisely those googly-eyed terms--which is both the film's triumph and limitation. As a piece of storytelling, it's almost as easy to read as a grade-school primer; even toddlers shouldn't have trouble following the action. But one doesn't necessarily look to a movie like this for complexity. Cameron's script is all splash and swoon--it serves up the pleasures of the obvious. The people aboard the Titanic are instantly pegged: They're either greedy or good-natured or craven or valiant. Ambiguity and subtlety are strangers to this film.

The Titanic disaster is one of those epochal events that allows everybody to derive from it his own meaning, his own "spin." Just recently, there's been a gargantuan Tony Award-winning Broadway musical, Titanic, and a spectral, delicate novel, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge. Close to a dozen movies have already been made about the Titanic, and the most famous of them, the 1958 British A Night to Remember, is, in its stiff-upper-lip rectitude, at the opposite end emotionally from Cameron's film.

Cameron's "spin" is a most familiar one: With its strict demarcations of first class, second class and steerage, the Titanic was a floating--or sinking--microcosm of stratified privilege. Of its approximately 2,000 passengers, the 700 or so survivors were overwhelmingly from first class. Cameron pushes the class inequities with an almost Marxist zeal: At times we could be watching a blockbuster Hollywood version of vintage Soviet realism. Almost without exception, the rich in this film are effete rotters and scoundrels, while the working class is bursting with the life force. The wealthy represent the vanishing, Edwardian order of things, while the immigrant poor are the frontier spirit of the future.

And yet the class "analysis" in this movie isn't really political at all. It exists to set up the film's star-crossed romance. Poor boy gets rich girl--it's the oldest romantic ploy in the book. Jack Dawson (DiCaprio), a footloose, tousle-haired scamp who has made his living for the last two years sketching on the streets of Paris, looks up from steerage deck at a first-class vision of loveliness--Winslet's Rose DeWitt Bukater, a society girl who is returning to Philadelphia with her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) and filthy-rich snob fiance Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Jack wins his steerage ticket in a last-minute dockside card game in Southampton, and yet he seems more at home on the great ocean liner than Rose, who walks around as if entrapped in a gilded cage.

While looking for a way out of her loveless betrothal, she comes to see Jack as her true love. He tolerates a dinner with her condescending consorts in first class, and then smuggles her into a steerage hoe-down where she boozes and stomps it up. Those poor people really know how to party! Jack even teaches her to spit.

But she's not just slumming--Jack, we discover, has the soul of an artist. When he sketches Rose nude in the privacy of her stateroom, he's making love to her. It's a thrilling scene because it's both intensely erotic and pristine; Jack and Rose are like blushing cherubim. When they actually do make love later, it's something of a letdown--they've already done it.

The romantic scenes in Titanic are extravagantly affecting, and that is a tribute both to Cameron and his co-stars. Jack and Rose tightly embracing on the roving ship's prow evokes the scene in Superman where the Man of Steel flies Lois Lane through Manhattan's night sky. The audience experiences the scene as a collective swoon. It's pure schlock raised to the level of schlock poetry.

It's popular to call Cameron an action-hardware auteur, but he's always had a ripe, almost fervid, romantic streak. In his underwater epic The Abyss, which was partly inspired by the first movies brought back from the ocean floor of the sunken Titanic, there's a sequence in which Ed Harris attempts to revive a drowned Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio that is almost frighteningly rapturous. He's trying for the same effect in Titanic; here, the rapture comes from the beauty and innocence of its lovers, and the fright comes from what we know about the huge doom awaiting them.

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