Deathboat '98
James Cameron, 1997
#6, 1997 Skandies

So the '00s have come and very nearly gone, and this '90s movie still sits at the top of the inflation-unadjusted list of the highest-grossing movies of all time. And #2, The Return of the King, isn't even close. Clearly Deathboat struck a chord with a lot of people, some of whom weren't even teenage girls. Why?

It's not because it's a good movie. The first half of Titanic is an archetypal example of screenwriting that is so focused on establishing its one-dimensional characters and grinding out its plot points that it has no time for such considerations as, "Do human beings actually talk like this? Does this resemble life at all? Should there really be a neon sign flashing Act II, Scene iv over Kate Winslet's head?" Then in the second half it becomes a contemporary action movie complete with wisecracks. Some reviewers have remarked approvingly about the way the movie seems to have been written in, not merely set in, 1912; Mike D'Angelo, for instance, argued that the main problem with Titanic is that the leads actually try to sell the terrible dialogue as real when they should have taken a cue from Billy Zane and "transcended naturalism." But MD'A has always been fascinated with the intersection of reality — which in this case means a modern visual style, though that '90s CGI is looking pretty frickin' dated at this point — and artifice. I'm not. Nor, I wager, did most of the people who spent over $1.8 billion on tickets to this thing spend a lot of time dwelling on Cameron's debt to D.W. Griffith and Jay Ward. I suspect that Titanic's appeal derives from two other sources.

Firstly and most importantly, Titanic draws upon that imperative that has made Evony so successful: Save Your Lover! Is Deathboat a great romance? Nah. Jack and Rose aren't nearly deep or interesting enough as characters to qualify as a great romantic couple. But where the film does succeed is in establishing them as something more primal — they're mates. What the awful script fails to accomplish through its tin-eared, poorly recited dialogue, the actors achieve simply by the way they stare at each other: the movie might as well cut to Terminator Vision and show the "MATE DETECTED" readout blinking in the middle of their visual fields. Of course, recognition only establishes them as potential mates; becoming actual mates requires, y'know, mating. Here the film plays its cards correctly. Rather than packing the two of them off for a quick fuck in the backseat of a car, it famously has Rose decide to have Jack draw her wearing only the necklace that serves as the movie's MacGuffin. This is a lot more intimate, especially in that we as well as Jack get to see one of Rose's breasts — I have to think that this line-crossing made an impression on a lot of the younger members of the audience. And this intimacy in turn makes the subsequent quick fuck in the backseat of the car more meaningful. I'm always complaining that the time compression inherent in a 105-minute running time means that movies are constantly expecting me to believe that a 45-second verbal exchange is enough to establish troo luv. The conversations in Titanic also fail miserably in this regard, but the stares and the drawing made me believe in the pair bond.

Movies tend to be experience delivery systems more than they are stories. Titanic is no exception. As a story, it's crap. But it offers some pretty compelling experiences to a number of different demographics. One segment of the audience can enjoy the $200 million recreation of the legendary ship. Another can break out the high-fives and fist pumps while watching CGI dudes ricocheting off propellers on the way to a watery grave. And a third can be transported by the pair bond: the (rather common) moments of recognition, the (significantly more effective than usual) first intimacy, and then the (pretty singular, no?) final hour in which they repeatedly save each other's lives and sacrifice their own safety to face death together and collect a few more seconds' worth of kisses. Many of the film's detractors have noted that the dialogue in the second half of the film consists primarily of Jack and Rose shouting each other's names at each other, along with such timeless lines as "I trust you!" and "You can do it!" But this is not cinema for the cerebral cortex. This is cinema for the limbic system. And when Kate Winslet throws off her wrap and wades into breast-deep, freezing water, clutching a big ol' hatchet with which to Save Her Lover, well, there's something there.

Much less important in cementing Titanic's appeal, but more interesting to me, is the way the story of the RMS Titanic functions as a socioeconomic metaphor. Before I saw Deathboat back in '98 I hadn't realized that the Titanic was known not just for its size or its supposed unsinkability but for its opulence. I didn't know anything about ships and assumed that they were like floating airplanes. In the case of vessels like the BC Ferries fleet I was basically correct, but the Titanic was a different order of creature. It was a grand five-star hotel, complete with a fancy French restaurant, a gym with a squash court, a sauna, libraries, barber shops... a tiny bubble of luxury floating on the murderous waters of the North Atlantic. But then, luxury always comes in tiny bubbles. And bubbles pop. When I saw the water come crashing through the gigantic dome over the Grand Staircase, I was reminded of nothing so much as the moment in Gangs of New York when the wealthy Schermerhorns are about to sit down for a lovely meal in the sunlit dining room of a mansion full of marble statuary, only for the New York Draft Riots to come spilling in through their windows in the form of bricks and looters. This is what I don't understand about people who support policies that exacerbate the rich/poor gap. How can you feel safe in your well-appointed stateroom knowing that it's bobbing in a vast ocean of poverty? Eventually that ocean is going to breach the hull. That might mean a mugging or it might mean the collapse of the economy. Or it might mean something worse.

The Titanic had 2223 people on board for its fateful maiden voyage. Its maximum capacity was 3547. Of course, that carrying capacity would have been much smaller had all its passengers been traveling first class. Similarly, the carrying capacity of the earth itself is a function both of the number of people alive and the standard of living those people enjoy. Right now the earth supports one billion people rather well, another billion not entirely terribly, and five billion more quite poorly.

When the iceberg hit the Titanic, its carrying capacity — i.e., the number of people it could keep alive — dropped to the capacity of the lifeboats: 1178. That was one seat for every two passengers, and one for every three potential passengers — the result of a handwavey insistence that there was no need to prepare for a calamity that was never going to happen. Similarly, the ability of the earth to support human life on earth is far from fixed. Technology improves the planet's carrying capacity; environmental degradation, in the form of deforestation, depletion of natural resources, changes to the atmosphere, and so forth, reduces it. There is a fair amount of evidence suggesting that, with rising temperatures decreasing the amount of arable land, and fossil fuels both contributing to that problem and becoming more and more difficult to obtain, the earth's already overstretched carrying capacity will drop as well. We're luckier than the passengers of the Titanic: they had less than two hours to adapt to their change of circumstances. We have a generation or two. We have the luxury of being able to deal with our future conditions, as Jared Diamond puts it, "in pleasant ways of our own choice." We could, that is, tamp down the excesses of the rich and work toward a sustainable society. But of course we're not going to. As Diamond points out in Collapse, when times get tough, people don't reduce their appetites. They eat their seed corn.

There weren't 1178 survivors of the Titanic. There were 706. The main reason for the disparity is that the first-class passengers weren't willing to evacuate. There didn't seem to be anything wrong with the ship, and the A Deck Lounge was so comfortable! It was warm, the band was playing some jaunty ragtime numbers, waiters were bringing drinks around... why not wait out the false alarm in style instead of shivering in a rickety little tub? And so the first several lifeboats were launched less than half full, the carrying capacity of the Titanic dropping all the while. Similarly, the earth's carrying capacity may dip only a small amount if humankind is willing to adjust. But if we, say, respond to the end of cheap oil by switching to tar sands and coal and continuing to live exorbitant lifestyles... that loss of capacity is going to accelerate. And everything will seem fine, and people will spend their days fulminating against "nazi communists" and gossipping about Knox Pitt's mistresses, and then one summer the crops will fail and a loaf of bread will cost fifty dollars. And most people won't patiently sit and starve to death until the numbers fall back into line. The risk of ignoring environmental issues is not that polar bears will drown. It's that food riots will spiral into global war.

And here we're not as lucky as the passengers on the Titanic. The earth is a bubble of luxury in an ocean far colder and far vaster than the Atlantic. At present there are no lifeboats. And of those still aboard the Titanic when it finally went under — of the 1523 who didn't make it onto the lifeboats — six survived the mad scramble that marked the final sinking. For the rest of us that might actually turn out to be a pretty good ratio.

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