Pander 4 (Winter 1998)
Titanic, directed and written by James Cameron – with Leonardo di Caprio, Kate Winslett, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates – (USA, 1997).
James Cameron, dir.: Titanic (1997)
Third thoughts on Titanic … No, I haven’t been to see it three times – I leave that to moony girls in Language Schools. Twice, though, that seems not excessive. After all, it has ceased to be a film and become a cultural phenomenon.
I went to see it first in the middle of December last year, and this is what I find written in my diary under that date:
“So is it a colossal, floating turkey? It’s tempting simply to reply ‘yes’ and leave it at that, but it’s perhaps too facile a response. The love-triangle is mawkish and silly, with Billy Zane posturing like any Dion Boucicault Sir Jasper (“So, my proud beauty!”), and the principals doing a strange reprise of Cruise and Kidman in Home and Away. Yet there are moments of undoubted awe and grandeur in it – not so much the special effects as the little scenes like the father putting his child in a boat: “There’ll be another boat for daddies later on,” which have a kind of grave sentimental majesty about them. And then there’s poor Jack freezing in the water – for a moment his pale face and blackened lips take us back to the days of the silent screen: Way Down East – that scene with the ice-floes and the waterfall. When it’s good, it’s in that silent movie way. But those who are describing James Cameron as Cecil B. DeMille redivivus have a point. There’s more of DeMille than of D. W. Griffiths in it, unfortunately. Nor does it really end there. The Titanic was an unlucky ship. It remains to be seen if this is an unlucky film, but the sheer scale of the production certainly echoes the hubris of those shipbuilders of long ago. As Hardy put it at the time:
What does this vaingloriousness down here?”
Well, don’t I have egg on my face! As the film slowly bumbled its way from box-office phenomenon to critical acclaim, from Golden Globes to Oscars, I began to think that maybe I wasn’t such hot shit as a prophet after all. So I went back to see it again.
Undeniably, it has charm. Nobody does any acting to speak of, but then they don’t really have to. In a sense, the less you expect of it, the more it delivers. Unless he’s forgotten how recently, diCaprio can act (Gilbert Grape, This Boy’s Life), and Kate Winslet is of course a genius, but here they’re basically used as props (I do love that scene with her sloshing through the corridor with axe held high – she looks so intrepid and absurd at the same time).
Of course, we’ve seen these big films before: Dances with Wolves, The Last Emperor. They clean up, then they go away. It was Billy Wilder who reminded us that nobody ever said: “Hey, let’s go and see that movie. I hear it came in under budget!”
Is there any more to it than that? More to it than that mawkish moment at the Oscars when Cameron claimed a milli-second’s silence for the victims of the catastrophe? For a moment it grasps at dignity – it gestures towards Orphans of the Storm. It contents itself, finally, with The Ten Commandments, but maybe that’s not altogether a bad thing.