James Cameron, 1997
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
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
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
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
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,
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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