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My Thoughts On James Cameron's "Titanic"

James Cameron's "Titanic" is the highest grossing movie of all time, and with good reason IMHO. My daughter loved the film the first time she saw it at age three. My wife's grandmother loved it when we took her to see it at age 88 (the first time she had been in a theater in over two decades).

Why does it have such appeal to such a wide-ranging audience? The answer is simple but rather philosophical. "Titanic" is a metaphorical representation of human experience in space through time.

Here's my original analysis of the film. This review (and a couple of others listed below) can also be seen at a much more attractive and creatively developed web site at ....

Titanic: A Modern Masterpiece

PLEASE NOTE: All movie stills used throughout my "Titanic" reviews are taken from some of the links mentioned at the end of this page. This web site is not affliated with any of these other sites and no copyright infringement is intended. In using them I do not seek any material gain whatsoever. (I just happen to like the movie and wanted to "dress-up" the reviews, OK?)

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A Brief Study of "Titanic"

PART ONE: The Surprise

"Titanic" is true to its name. The film is big in every way a film can be big. Big ship, huge sets featuring the interworkings of hundreds of actors, turbo-big budget, and a big historical disaster. But its big-named director, James Cameron, has never impressed me. "The Abyss," "Terminator" and all his other films have come off as too flashy, melodramatic, predictable, and shallow. But in "Titanic", he has shown himself to be something far more talented than in any of his previous efforts.

Cameron shoots out like a meteor. Suddenly, he has crafted not just a good film but a genuine work of art. There is not a single wasted frame in the picture. I've read the screenplay a couple of times. Several changes were made for the film's final cut. Most of them strengthened that cut and indicate the workings of a mind that realized something special was happening. Something different from his other films. Something that demanded him to summon (and reveal) all his talent.

The film was certainly hyped like all hell. It had to be, just to break even. I tend to stay away from movies like that, watch them later on VCR or something. So, 12 weeks after release I went. It was far more than I was expecting. After subsequent viewings and scanning the script, I feel comfortable that there are three primary levels to this film and it is with the combination of all three that "Titanic" deserves ranking with the likes of "Casablanca", "Lawrence Of Arabia" or "Gone With The Wind."

PART TWO: Human Tones

The base level is obviously the love story. It is an old-fashion epic adventure, full of life and death action set against a big backdrop. Its even got the obligatory sex scene. Nothing special in any of that. All that drama is the usual formula for $$$ success, which is certainly why the film was ever made from the corporate level's perspective anyway. But making this formula into a big blockbuster should in no way diminish its artistic qualities. There are those who say serious art can't be "popular". As for me, its about damn time some one made it so. Cameron has.

Interwoven and inseparable from this love story are several dramatic qualities. Rose, trapped and alone amidst a vast cultural society that she can't stand. "Titanic" itself, shot magnificently from a mile high, also alone, its size rendered tiny relative to the cold darkness of the North Atlantic. There's the examination of the different classes of people aboard. Unbridled wealth with splendid trimmings, fine dining to music followed by cigars and brandy. Common folk, with their hard drinking of dark beer, their brash and carousing dance music, in a haze of cigarette smoke and sweat. Such division is reinforced throughout the picture. Jack feigns leaving Rose after the dinner scene and declares the he is sorry he has to go "row with the rest of the slaves."

As the gentlemen engage in subdued political small talk, the action cuts directly to boisterous arm wrestling below decks. Later, after the berg rips along the Titanic's side, there is mass confusion below. Water pouring in, people shouting, rushing to safety, coming out of their bunk rooms in confusion and fright. Above, however, all we see and hear is the shutter of Mr. Andrews' brandy glass, the tinkling of his chandelier overhead. Stewards calmly tell everyone that "there's no emergency."

The vast gulf between the danger of the lower class and the subtle suspicion of the upper is reinforced when, upon leaving her room, Ruth requests that her maids be sure her suite is heated and that she would like a cup of hot tea when she returns. Mr. Ismay climbs the summit of this sort of absurdity by asking, in bathrobe and slippers, "When can we get underway, dammit?"

This works both ways, of course. There IS genuine grace, intelligence and sophistication among the upper classes. There is Rose's natural elegance and beauty as she prepares to be drawn by Jack, who has rugged drawing tools that need sharpening, the drawing itself being accomplished by a hand with dirty finger nails. We see Rose again, astounding Jack and those around her at the dance party with a splendid ballet move she learned year's ago during dancing lessons.

Some critics have argued that Cameron's screenplay has no three-dimensional characters, that it is difficult if not impossible to empathize with them.

Let's start with Cal. The greatest oversight in this film is not that Leonardo DiCaprio didn't get nominated for Best Actor. It's that Billy Zane wasn't nominated for Best Supporting Actor. His portrayal of Cal's passions, greed, selfishness, and yet his genuine desire and concern for Rose is exquisite.

A difficult character to empathize with, Cal nevertheless shares his pains, his schemes and his few joys with us subtly in facial expressions and tangled movements juxtaposed with refinement and ease. Twice, he shields Rose with his coat when she is being exposed to the North Atlantic chill. Perhaps he's just being a gentleman, but it is to HIS lady. If not passionate love, he at least has real consideration for his fiancee: "I know you've been melancholy. I don't pretend to know why." Perhaps it is a purely possessive form of love, but Cal genuinely WANTS an emotional intimacy with Rose: "There's nothing I couldn't give you. There's nothing I'd deny you if you would not deny me. (Pleading) Open your heart to me, Rose."

Stay with that same scene. Rose stares blankly in her dressing mirror, a small music box tinkles away some childish melody. Enter Cal with the Heart of the Ocean. Placing it upon her neck, he sits on the dresser, where he closes the box, oblivious of its presence in the moment. Oh, there's plenty to empathize with there. The most unique and expensive piece of jewelry in man's creation, offered in love, begging for devotion, as that same love and devotion silences the sounds of Rose's dreams.

This well represents the character of Rose. A young woman of stature, beauty, and learning. Yet, she sits silently, staring, unresponsive to the cultural splendor around her just as it allows her loneliness to go unnoticed amidst its rituals and expectations. Screaming inside, Rose is yearning for something else. But what? There's nothing. That's why she attempts suicide.

Her encounter with Jack is an unlikely one. Jack is clearly not "her type" of man, but he is free, unimaginably free. That freedom, more so than Jack himself, is what attracts Rose to him. Only later does the fire emerge, as she discovers that he is not only free, but consumed with passion for her as well.

Rose is difficult to understand for all these reasons. She has, basically nothing in her life to inspire her. She is, therefore, a "flat" character with confused flashes of intensity and reason. Critics mistake all this for lack of depth. But, the secret to understanding the full character of Rose is to use all that Cameron gives us. There are two Roses on the screen. The drowning, lifeless one burning with a fire deep within, and the old Rose, whose fire has blazed brilliantly through her life, as revealed by her style in telling the story and her feistiness as an elderly person still full of vigor and life. Cameron shows us the bookends of Rose's adult life. We are left with myth and memory to fill in the space between for ourselves.

Now, Jack. Jack is a stereotypical happy-go-lucky artist type. He is also a shady character. He steals another man's coat and hat to steal a moment alone with Rose. He wins his passage in a game of poker. He prides himself in spitting. Yet, he has a depth of understanding into the human heart that amazes Rose. He sees through the facades of things, lives "on God's good humor", not wasting a moment with anything he encounters.

For this reason, he pulls off the dinner scene "almost like a gentleman" as Cal puts it. Not just dressing the part, he reveals much of his cunning nature by arriving early to dinner so he can observe as much of the mannerisms and style he knows he'll need not to make a complete fool of himself. The gentle strokes of his drawings, his sometimes inappropriate sense of humor, and his downright joy of freedom from all responsibility (the exact opposite of Rose's culture) make him a multi-faceted individual.

Cameron's dialogue is sometimes quirky. Some have said you can read it in any grocery store romance novel. First, remember this is the Late Romantic period, with Edwardian expressiveness that seems trite today. That accounts for some of it. Lines like "Winning that ticket was the best thing that ever happened to me, Rose. It brought me to you," are genuine and believable for the characters and the time in which they lived. That they have been done over and over again, might show some tendencies toward clichés, but it could just as easily reveal a sense of innocence that is vital to the naiveté that Cameron has to create in order for the cocky world of unsinkable ships to come alive on the screen. It was a Romantic and naive time. Much of the dialogue reflects this.

A great deal of Cameron's original script is discarded or changed completely in the making of the picture. For example, in the end, during the final plunge of the ship into the water, the script calls for Jack to glance over at Joughin, who nods in greeting and says "Helluva night." This is a totally inappropriate attempt at humor for the actual scene, so Cameron (the director) takes out what Cameron (the writer) had put in.

By contrast, Cameron sprinkles a bit more humor in the film than is called for by his screenplay when he has a baffled Mr. Ismay, following Rose's unseemly remark about Freud's analysis of the male fascination with size, respond: "Who is this Freud chap? Is he a passenger?"

The interaction between Rose and Jack on the deck the next morning after her suicide attempt is terribly written in the original screenplay. Cameron saves the scene by having Jack ask flat out if Rose loves Cal. Rose, taken aback by such impolite forwardness, crawls back into the security of her world by accusing Jack of being "rude". He immediately agrees with her whereupon she proclaims that she is leaving.

Humor that was totally absent in the original scene is prominent in the final version with an absurdly extended handshake, followed by Rose realizing that SHE didn't have to leave the area. HE did. It was her part of the ship. In frustration, she jerks Jack's portfolio from under his arm, discovering that "These are good. These are quite good actually." Then out of her shell she comes, appreciative of Jack's artistic skill and depth. We now realize she is becoming attracted to him because he is "so annoying." Its all been done before, but never better.

Admittedly though, "Titanic" is not a faultless film. There's no such thing. Its primary flaws lie not in how the story is told, but in small words and actions that would have better been left unseen or unsaid. Still, Cameron's screenplay is better than his critics will admit, his best effort to date, and creates a genuine sense of human drama that grabs you.

PART THREE: Capturing the Moment

Cameron knows the technical side of filmmaking very well. The timing of everything in "Titanic" is right on, which is why most people don't feel as if they've been watching it for three hours. The film's sound and cinematography work together, creating beautiful moments of peace and intense episodes of chaos.

We see the Titanic and marvel at her gigantic size as she leaves Southhampton dwarfing a crowd of over 900 extras on the largest movie set ever built. We see her again set against the orange glow of a brilliant sunset, creating a sense of wonder and emotional resonance that connects the audience with the "Ship of Dreams" as a character in and of herself.

Two particular shots deserve mentioning. They represent some of filmmaking's greatest cinematic achievements. The first is just after the ship reaches 21 knots ("stretching her legs"). Jack and Fabrizio are on the bow, shouting excitedly at the sensation of moving so fast with nothing but a strong wind in their faces and sea within their fields of view. The camera arcs around them, then back, back, back over the bridge. We soar past each of the ship's huge exhaust funnels, first on starboard, then zigzagging to port, as if floating stationary as the massive ship moves ever further away until it is viewed in all its glory, churning up the sea, with people moving about like ants.

The second great cinematic moment is an extended dolly shot in the closing of the picture. We see the wreck of the Titanic on the seabed coming at us. We gather speed until we are moving through an opening faster and faster along Deck A which morphs in a terrific match cut with the brightness of the newly built deck. Moving on, we come to a doorway and enter the grand staircase filled with the characters who lost their lives on the Titanic.

It is a great communion of all classes, all together, looking at the camera which continues to sweep forward still without an edit as Rose holds out her hand and Jack receives her. They kiss, everyone applauds, we pan around them. All in the same shot, smoothly, unbroken and brilliantly executed. Magnificent!

Cameron's editing is the best I've seen from anyone in years. In the sequence where the ship breaks apart, for example, there is much action to cover. There is Lovejoy clinging as the ship swallows him. There's the ship's gigantic stern itself falling back. People on the ship screaming, falling. People in the water being crushed with the mighty splash that results. Jack and Rose struggling to hang on, fully aware of all the horrified faces around them. All this is edited seamlessly together to capture the drama in full at all its possible levels. Outstanding.

Left on the cutting room floor are inferences, bits, and pieces of historical information pertaining to the disaster that added only unnecessary foreboding to the film. Cameron made several major decisions that differed from the written script and truly strengthened the film. What we are left with is largely a lean and focused effort. For example, an entire subplot of a man filming his bride throughout the picture (as a kind of home movie within a film) was, rightfully, cut out.

The actual suspense of the encounter between the immense ship and the gigantic iceberg that destroyed her is greatly enhanced, in spite of this lessened attention to historical detail (primarily omission of the certain activities of the wireless operators) by leaving the viewer with virtually no more information than the crew actually had at the time. It focuses fully on the closing distance between the berg and the ship and the sudden urgency to avoid collision.

There's the desperation of the men in the engine room, the intense stares of Mr. Murdock and others as it comes closer, closer, giving tremendous weight to Crewman Fleet's cry (added from the original script) "Why aren't they turning?!" We don't quite understand it either. Then, slowly the ship shifts toward port, far too slowly.

Cameron sparkles at the technical level of any of his films. Up to "Titanic", this is the only aspect of filmmaking where he has really shined. The costumes and set designs are, well, appropriate for the Titanic, historically accurate in obsessive detail. They are fittingly grand, but not pretentious.

James Horner's musical score is simply brilliant. The best effort of his long and very talented career. The music floats, it haunts us, it whispers, it pulsates and drives, compelling the viewer into the action, the desperation, while conveying a sense of timelessness. It is well-mixed with the sound of all that water rushing in.

Cameron has no problem making "Titanic" work at the technical level. The special effects are naturally superb. This would have been his greatest technical achievement thus far even if the rest of the film had bombed.

PART FOUR: Making It Count

Beyond all this, far, far beyond, there is something else. There's genuine currents underneath the commercial and cinematic aspects of the film. Human currents that are rarely touched with such grace today, without the aid of comedy or sex or violence. Here, here is where the uniqueness emerges. Here is where the rest of the art finds its foundation. The film reaches a depth, almost mythic and extremely subtle. How strange to discover such subtlety amongst one of the grandest of human disasters.

This deeper level, I will argue, is the mythical manifestation of the film and few of its critics ever get this far. Specifically, it is about how Cameron uses Time throughout the film and what he tells us about the Value of Time itself.

There are clocks all through the picture. You hear the ticking of a clock in Rose's suite as Jack preps the room for the drawing. You hear it again as Jack first enters the Grand Staircase and passes that clock on his way down. There are many references to Time.

Mr. Ismay wants to get "Titanic" across a day ahead of schedule (thereby, effectively, creating the whole disaster). Jack discovers the Titanic leaves in 5 minutes. Characters glance at the clocks and their watches throughout. The Upper Class are bugled as it's time to prep for dinner. Mr. Murdoch orders that the time be noted in the ship's log when the iceberg was hit. Mr. Andrews precisely adjusts the time on the First Class Smoking Room mantel's clock, awaiting his own death. It will take 1-2 hours for the ship to sink. The nearest ship is 4 hours away. There is, of course, the 84 years that separates the experiences of the old and young Rose. Finally, Cal's parting words to Jack and Rose as he runs out of bullets with which to shoot at them: "I hope you enjoy your time together!"

Now, hang with me here. Clocks have hands. There are references to hands throughout. Jack draws hands and Rose appreciates them in his sketchbook. The old Rose is introduced to us by her hands at the pottery wheel. There is a close-up of Rose placing her old hand firmly on the railing and holding the Heart of the Ocean in the final scene. Jack commands Rose not to "let go" of his hand as "Titanic" goes under. He refuses to let go of her hand as she slips in the "suicide" scene. The camera is tight on their intertwined fingers as Jack assists Rose's outstretched arms during the "flying" scene.

In the love scene, Rose tells Jack to "Put your hands on me." She then gently takes one of them and begins to kiss and caress his fingers with her wet lips. Then we see the hand of Rose in passion as it slams against the fogged up window of the Renault during the sex scene. Hands throughout, touching, holding, and letting go.
These aspects of the film help establish its mythic and human quality in relation to Time. Ultimately, while clutching each other's freezing hands in the North Atlantic, Jack makes Rose promise to never "let go" of her commitment to go on and live life like they talked about together, to the fullest.

Then, of course, there is the obvious Time experience of Rose herself. After she first experiences the freedom of "flying" with Jack on "Titanic"'s bow, we are transformed at precisely the same pan angle and speed in one of several match dissolves with which Cameron dazzles us to the bow of the dead "Titanic" and, then, a close-up of the old Rose with eyes closed, remembering through Time, grasping it. As she poses for Jack's drawing, we zoom into her eye, only to pull back from it revealing the old Rose telling of it all.

Somehow, we are always "touching" the past in "Titanic". There's the idea that it has been 84 years since Rose last saw "Titanic", but "I can still smell the fresh paint." She touches her old hand mirror and the same hairpin she removed from her hair just before Jack drew her. The past and present become intermingled in this way and in the aforementioned occurrences. Back and forth and from within "Titanic" plays with Time. Tennessee Williams wrote: "Time is the longest distance between two places." Cameron brilliantly achieves this both on the screen and in our hearts and minds.

So what?

The key scene in the film is the dinner scene where Jack joins the upper class for a brief time. To their credit, everyone, except for Cal and Ruth, accept his presence and interact with him graciously. Jack then dazzles them with his philosophy of life in response to Ruth's aggressive questioning. "...take life as it comes at you. To make each day count."

There is a toast proposed and all at the table join in by proclaiming "To make each day count." Soon after this, Jack gives Rose a secret note as he kisses her gloved hand. It reads: "Make it count. Meet me at the clock." What is IT? It is Time itself to which Jack refers, the symbolism reinforced by the location of the request....the Grand Staircase clock.

In addition to the 84 years distance, we have all sorts of blocks of time being explored. Jack steals a few minutes with Rose only to hear her say with little conviction that "I'll be fine" with Cal and all the rest. The couple have two days only. And yet such love for 48 hours! Enough to stretch 84 years perhaps? Hum?

It doesn't matter what block of time one considers. Characters are making it count. As the ship is sinking fast a mother gently and mercifully comforts her children to sleep with a short whispered tale, making even seconds count. The band plays "Nearer My God To Thee" in the final moments, doing all it can, refusing to break-up. The Priest grasps the HANDS of several souls about to die, offering the only thing he has to give them.

"Titanic" is about doing your best within Time, that's the Value of it, the cherishing of it, touching it. Remember the scene where the old Rose is in bed surrounded with all the pictures of the things she did through her Time (life), flying a plane, horseback riding like a man.

Notice the blurred rollercoaster in the background? Jack told her just before the humorous spitting lesson scene that they'll ride it until they throw-up. Rose makes it count. For me, at least, this seems to be the very core of the film. And what makes it not just drama, not just art, but an inspiration.

As to the film's final scene, I think you might benefit from keeping this mythical level in mind to fully understand and appreciate it, regardless of whether it's a dream or something else.....

Copyright © W. Keith Beason, 1998
Version 2.0

Read my other "Titanic" Essays:

Why People HATE "Titanic"
Beyond Time: Other Themes In "Titanic"
A Short Review of the
"Back to Titanic" CD

Check out these other great Titanic sites:

The Official Movie Site:
Lots of neat facts, photos, etc.
about the film and the historical disaster.

American Cinematographer's Titanic Coverage:
Read about some of the fantastic technical challenges
and achievements of this remarkable film.

Bernie's Titanic Links:
The Most Comprehensive Titanic Web Resource.

The famous site devoted to all aspects
of the Titanic Film Phenomenon
{Includes a nice messageboard}

Christa's Titanic Gallery
A fairly complete pictorial record of both
the film and the real Titanic. Has many
unique and hard to find pics.

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