Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Ship of Dreams and All That

One of the nicer things about having the cable included in the rent is that we're now getting all of our old HD channels for free (and after they were originally taken away from us, too). So, having had this HD television for a few years, every once in a while I'll see there's a movie on an HD channel and I'll TiVo it just to check out how it looks.

Recently, I decided to record James Cameron's Titanic. I hadn't seen that movie in over a decade, definitely not since we moved into the apartment in 2001, and I thought it might be a fun time to revisit it. I always enjoyed it; so much so that, back when that kind of thing was possible for me, I went back and back and back to the theater to see it. I think I must've seen it about five times, though that's nothing compared to how many times my mom and sister went to see it, together and separately, and then watched it repeatedly on video.

Titanic was immediately a polarizing movie; the whole thing was like a preview for the heated animosity generated by The Phantom Menace only two years later. There were people who just loved this movie above any other cinematic achievement, and there were people who reviled it with all of their passion. What I'm finding now, having just watched it nearly 15 years after its original release, is that a lot of my feelings about the movie were skewed by this idiot fan squabbling over what the film was and what it deserved and a lot of other stupid, negative bullshit. Back in 1997 and 1998 it was impossible to tell people you liked Titanic without immediately having to defend yourself in a ridiculous conversation about the merits of this and the dialogue of that and "You know the ship just sinks at the end, right, har har har" stupidity. The usual dullness that comes with an immediately successful pop culture artifact, as though what anyone thinks of a movie is character-defining or, honestly, remotely important.

Yes, I think my feelings towards Titanic were largely a result of the noise. Because when I went to see it, and I loved it, and I cried during it, I was convinced it was one of the greatest movies of its day and that the people who hated it so vociferously either didn't get it, were joining the crowd in piling on, or were just pissed off that James Cameron had made a movie that wasn't an action movie.

Seeing the movie again now, my feelings towards it have changed considerably. And, honestly, it came as a complete surprise.

Seriously, Titanic isn't very good.

There are things I still like about it very much. And it even still makes me cry, one moment in particular. And I think it's very well-structured and has mostly good special effects. But for the first two hours or so, I mostly just sat there thinking "Wait, what happened? Where's the great movie I remember? Why is it suddenly...this?"

It was like taking a movie you loved as a kid and then watching it when you're a young adult. You realize that only 7 year-old you could have loved it, and that now, with a decade or so of growth under you and a bit more discerning eye, you see all of the flaws. Watching Titanic now, most of what I could see were the flaws, and the flaws were so noticeable that they subsumed much of the movie for me.

I want to stress that I'm being very fair here. I didn't watch Titanic again as some sort of challenge. I wasn't sitting in my chair, twiddling my mustache and sneering, "Heh, we'll see if this movie deserved its success!" I just thought it would look nice in HD and I wanted to sit with an old movie that I had loved. Turns out, I didn't love it so much anymore.

What are my biggest problems with this movie? Well, the acting is a big one. A lot of the acting is pitched at a level that I guess is supposed to be deliberately old-fashioned, but just comes off as very arch. Most of the actors in the scenes that take place in 1912 don't really pull it off, except possibly Kathy Bates, who is always good, and Bernard Hill, who gets the tone. Oh, and Victor Garber, who also understands the arch disaster/tragedy he's acting in. They're all pitched at the right level. But there are too many scenes where you watch the film and, instead of getting lost in the characters or the story, you're hung up on the performances. I kept watching Leonardo DiCaprio as Jack Dawson, practically able to see him thinking "Don't overplay this" and becoming, as a result, rather plain...but theatrically plain. Kate Winslet as Rose DeWitt-Bukater does the best she can with some truly painful dialogue, and an idiot scene (as there always seems to be in romances) where she gets very angry with Leo after he basically insults her, then stands there fuming, obviously looking for any excuse to keep talking to him because he's so special and fascinating. Ugh.

The worst offender, as has been said many times, is Billy Zane; he's somehow more over-the-top than anyone else. Also, James Cameron seems to have given him a bizarre succession of wigs, each one more wig-like than the previous, so you can tell he's going further and further insane with cartoonish villainy as his hair gets bigger and more mussed. He also has the worst direlogue (to me) in the movie when he scoffs at Rose's art collection and says "Something Picasso? He'll never amount to anything." Har, har. I guess that's how we're supposed to know he's a sneer-worthy villain: he doesn't appreciate art! By the way, correct me if I'm wrong, but hadn't Picasso already amounted to something by 1912?

Gloria Stuart has the other worst piece of direlogue in the movie, and I think now that she got her token Oscar nomination simply for being able to say "A woman's heart is a deep ocean of secrets" without collapsing into a fit of cackling laughter. Only James Cameron would write that dialogue. No one understands a woman less than James Cameron, which is why he usually turns them into men with breasts.

Actually, wait. The worst acting offender in Titanic isn't Billy Zane, it's Danny Nucci as Jack's needlessly ethnic best friend, Fabrizio. The way people hate Jar Jar Binks? That's the way I despise Fabrizio and his rideekulously stereoteepicall-a carrrrrrtoon ak-a cent-a. I know it's probably wrong to cheer for a character's death in a movie about a tragedy, but when Balki gets crushed by that falling smokestack, I rolled my eyes and thanked no one in particular.

And yes, most of the dialogue is painful. At least I found it so. Most of the actors don't know how to deal with lines that are either imprecations or put there to make Cameron's usual ham-fisted points about the disparity between the rich and the poor (which ring hollow now coming from one of the richest filmmakers in history). He certainly plays with the big, floating metaphor about the way death equalizes the just and unjust alike and man's technological overreach like a kid with a sandcastle. One of the reasons I never accepted (and still don't) the petulant fan criticism that James Cameron had somehow sold out for Oscar gold is that this film fit right into his usual themes: strong women, an indictment of corporate shadiness, and the misuse of technological breakthroughs. It fits right into his oeuvre.

If the dialogue is bad, though, James Cameron is a master of structure. The one thing everyone singles out is singled out for a reason: it's genius that Cameron shows us a computer model of exactly what happened to make Titanic sink. That way, when Jack and Rose are running through the bowels of the ship and clambering desperately up its stern, we know exactly what's going to happen and it ups the suspense considerably. I've also always enjoyed how Cameron has Rose go down to rescue Jack, so we can see exactly what's happening to the ship as it sinks, then follows them to the deck, and then has Rose jump off the lifeboat and find Jack again, only to have Billy Zane chase them back into the ship, just so that we can have another trip through the action movie destruction and back up to the deck. It's pretty naked, but why the hell not? When you're spending that much money for detail, you want to show it off, and it works.

The 45 minutes or so that it takes for the ship to sink... that's the good stuff. That's where James Cameron slows down his preachy metaphor and his bad attempts to make a movie from the 40s and gets into comfortable territory, and those 45 minutes or so are among the best I've ever seen. There are touches of real humanity in here, along with the grand spectacle that Cameron is so damn good at. It's genuinely exciting, and I wonder now if this sequence is why I ended up seeing the film again and again. Every trick, every edit, every emotion is James Cameron at his most masterful.

Incidentally, it's during this sequence that I find myself in tears. Not for the grand metaphor or the epic destruction, but for one simple, sad moment when an elderly couple, having accepted that this is the end, simply lays in bed, weeping, holding one another, while the water fills the room around them, waiting for their final breaths.

Everything afterward is just emotional porn. Isn't that just creepy the way Rose dies and is back on Titanic with all of the other ghosts, kissing Jack, the ghost of her actual husband apparently never to be reunited with his wife because it was more poetic for her to spend eternity with a guy she knew for a couple of days back when she was a teenager? The things that come into my mind during scenes like that...

Incidentally, I've never had a problem with her dropping the diamond into the ocean at the end. (And by the way, that diamond looks amazing in high definition, as though it really were so deep that you couldn't see to the bottom of it.) I mean, when you think about it, Bill Paxton and his crew will probably find the damn thing before long, and who wants a romantic tragedy to end with scenes of claims adjusters meeting to discuss an insurance payout? That's not the story James Cameron is telling; nor is he even telling the story of the Titanic. He's using it as a backdrop for a story of romance cut short by a man-made disaster, which is a very James Cameron kind of story to tell.

Other things I liked about the movie? I still like James Horner's score, limited though it is by being composed by James Horner, who really likes to go back to the well and pull in bits from his other scores (particularly Aliens). I may not like "My Heart Will Go On," but I think the melody is pretty throughout the score. (I have something on CD called "Rose's Theme," which I got on a promo that came free with a magazine and which doesn't appear on either of the soundtrack albums; it's simply the same music played by a string quartet, and it's one of the most beautiful pieces I own--and has actually been on my iPod now for 6 straight years.) The special effects are mostly excellent, although there are some scenes, like the scene where Rose attempts to kill herself (and she and Jack first meet), where the lines are a bit obvious and the effects just don't match up. And, not that this matters to everyone, but we're catching Kate Winslet here at the height of her beauty, and she has all of those pretty costumes to wear.

As I said, Titanic is a very well-made movie. It's also poorly written and poorly acted. Well-structured, but the dialogue is atrocious and the tone is edging towards panto. It's weird to find that the film doesn't hold up, but the experience of that masterful 45 minutes does. For those 45 minutes, this film was almost worth having to sit through everything around it, which are disappointing.

That's 45 more minutes than Avatar ever gave me to enjoy, at least.


Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

Talk about coincidence. I was just watching the newest 4 part Titanic mostly because I can't resist any version of this story. I was always someone who proudly could say I never saw Titanic because I know what a hack James Cameron is. His enormous ego will not allow any critique of his precious words. There is nothing particularly interesting about his storytelling. I think that most all of his movies fall apart after some dust is allowed to accumulate on them. I have seen the movie recently because it was on HD and I agree with everything you said. Technically it's brilliant but I HATE rewritting a movie in my head.

Tallulah Morehead said...

"That way, when Jack and Rose are running through the bowels of the ship and clambering desperately up its stern, we know exactly what's going to happen and it ups the suspense considerably."

That's so counter-intuitive. The dull would ask: "But if you know what's going to happen, how is there any suspense?"

But Hitchcock often said that for suspense, you HAVE to give the audience information.

All his life my father was fascinated by the Titanic tragedy, which occurred only 6 years before he was born. I have never seen the flim without my dad's ghost sitting beside me, as I always see it thinking: "Dad would have LOVED this movie.

Anyway, it's a hell of lot better than the 1953 20th Century Fox Titanic, in which we are asked to believe that not only has Barbara Stanwyck married Clifotn Webb, but that they made children together. Who knew thy had artificial insemination in 1912? (And that film "borrows" all it's special effects from Roy Ward Baker's British A Night to Remember, which was one of my dad's favorite films.)

Off-topic but, have you been watching Revenge? A friend had been raving to me all season that it is wonderful and his new guilty pleasure. I recently started watching it from the beginning (Like Lost, you can not just jump in anywhere. It's far too complicated) on the ABC website (which has every episode up right now) and my friend is right. The show is a lot of dishy, nasty, evil fun. It's like an updated Dynasty where ALL the characters are Joan Collins, even the men.

Autumn said...

Man, I still love Titanic. Even though I agree with 90% of your criticism. Part of it is the score, which I really do love, and Mr. Andrews fixing that clock as they run by him, and the one chick falling off the ship that makes a really loud ping noise as her body connects with a propeller...

Don't hate on Fabrizio, he'sa going to America to maka spaghetti! If I had a friend that annoying I would sell his ticket and go alone, for sure. And yes, no one can remember Cal's lines because you can just edit "Mwaha, I'm a tool murmurmur, I'm a tool" over every one of them and not miss anything. But I still love it all. I don't even mind that nothing about the two main characters gives you a reason to believe that they have this epic love, because at that age, every thing feels epic so I can sort of buy it.

What I can't get over is the senseless murder of Tommy the random irish man....

I'm going to have to go find that song you mentioned, I'm very intrigued.

SamuraiFrog said...

Cal: Cameron's something of a ripoff artist, too, but I do tend to like 85% of his work. I love the Terminator movies, Aliens, True Lies, even the Director's Cut version of The Abyss. Even his documentaries are pretty interesting. I think with Titanic he really started getting in his own way, leaving entertainment behind and practically leaping out of the camera to tell you what the message you're supposed to take away is. Pretty movie, but ugh, that story.

Tallulah: I've not seen the 1953 Titanic, but I HAVE seen A Night to Remember, which I thought was excellent. Cameron borrows heavily from that.

I have seen the 1943 version of Titanic that was made as a Nazi propaganda film (in which the Titanic may or may not have been purposely sunk by greedy English bankers looking to make money off a stock scam).

Funny you mention Revenge; I haven't seen it, but I have been thinking about watching it lately. Same reason: a few people have told me they really love it. Good to know it's all on the ABC website right now, I'll have to check it out before it disappears.

Autumn: I get what you mean; I have movies like that, too, where I can't help but agree with any criticism, but the overall effect is just so enjoyable. Like I said, I was very surprised to find that, except for the sequence of the actual sinking, the movie just didn't have that effect on me anymore. (Or my wife; she's still kind of sad about it.)

Tallulah Morehead said...

I have both A Night to Remember and the 1953 Titanic on VHS, so the idential effects shots in both jumped out at me. A Night to Remember is excellent.

I have also seen the German version. Oddly enough, in a novel I've written which is coming out for Halloween this year (My Gruesome Life), I establish how homicidal the villainess is in chapter one by having her responsible for sinking the Titanic, in order to remove a romantic rival from her persuit of the protagonist's wealthy father. (She is the protagonist's mother, and the Titanic sinking is presented as backstory, and he's comically clueless enough to miss the detail the readers won't miss, that Mom intentionally sank the Titanic, and killed 1200 people, in her fortune hunting. I lost count of how many she kills over the course of the book. It's a VERY black comedy. Think I, Claudius set in Hollywood in the 20th Century done as a Vincent price comedy of murders.)

Autmn said...
Don't hate on Fabrizio, he'sa going to America to maka spaghetti! If I had a friend that annoying I would sell his ticket and go alone,"

I don't hate on Fabrizio myself. If I had a friend that HOT, I wouldn't give a rat's ass that he talked like Chico Marx. I'd just like having him around, and would suggest taking showers together. Since Fabrizio was roughly a thousand times sexier than DeCaprio (DeCaprio has always been, for me, one of those leading men who leave me saying: "Keep the shirt on please!") I was glad to have him to look at. And I know from friends that I am not alone in this,

Bob Rutledge said...

On my way back from Nicaragua yesterday (my quarterly visa run to stay legal here in CR), one of the movies on the bus was "War Horse". Luckily -- I guess -- it was in English with Spanish subs, so I could actually follow it all. It was incredibly over the top Spielbergian and completely unbelievable (but I repeat myself, don't I?) and yet at one point (no spoilers), amidst laughing at the sheer ridiculousness of it all, I felt myself tearing up a little bit.

Which is all to say that even a bad movie can have moments.

Johnny Yen said...

I think Titanic is about expectations-- it was overhyped to the point where it couldn't ever really match the expectations.

I met Billy Zane, who's a Chicago native, a few years ago, when he was my customer at a restaurant I worked at. I didn't realize who he was until another server, who was an actor, pointed it out. Funny, because for a guy who has played mostly over-the-top characters, he's very quiet, almost to the point of shyness.