Sunday, April 08, 2012

Titanic (James Cameron, 1997)

(Let me put it this way: if they can recycle movies with fancier packaging (NOW IN 3D!), might as well recycle my articles talking about said movies)

The Love Boat 

No doubt about it: at a rumored budget of $250 million, with whispered stories of a long, difficult shoot; then a triumphant film opening in Japan, and huge boxoffice takings thereafter (not to mention Best Picture Oscar buzz)—Titanic has got to be, right here, right now, The Greatest Show On Earth (Last year's Greatest Show On Earth, the death & funeral of Princess Diana, has already lost its fizz). 
Director James Cameron, might be considered the circus strongman of cinema—his The Abyss had cost something like $60 million; his Terminator 2 (previous holder of the title Most Expensive Film In History) weighed in at $90 million; his last film, True Lies, cost roughly $140 million (ironically, Cameron’s earliest hit, The Terminator, was made for a mere $6 million; the film went on to earn $180 million, worldwide). Cameron flings a hundred million dollars about as if it were two hundred pound weights—his touch is careful and precise, yet done with a kind of daredevil panache. You hold your breath in fear for him; you hope he doesn’t slip and cause a multimillion hole in the ground. And you applaud when he lands (every time!) on his feet.

On the other hand, you probably wish Cameron had used more of those millions on his script. With all the vivid, perfectly true stories Cameron might have chosen—that of the ship’s captain; or of ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown; or of Ida Strauss, who stepped back from a lifeboat to die with her husband; or of the musicians who stayed playing as the boat sank—he decides to use that stale old chestnut about a threadbare Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his upper-class Juliet (Kate Winslet). Upstairs-downstairs romances are bad enough, but Cameron throws in a villainous suitor (Billy Zane), who competes for Winslet’s affections, and his sinister manservant (the immensely talented David Warner, wasted as usual).

Actually, I’m being unfair; Zane brings some badly needed irony to the proceedings. He seems to be the only one on the boat sane enough to realize just how sticky Cameron’s concept is, and tries to correct for it by injecting humor into his role: “I’m sorry; I almost mistook you for a gentleman,” he tells a dressed-up DiCaprio with near-genuine shock. And his attempts to separate the lovers seems to spring more from an aesthetic sense of disgust than from any feelings of jealousy. He might have been a perceptive film critic.

Leonardo DiCaprio has a roguish charm; he effectively shows you the held-back resentment of the downtrodden. Cameron, however, has cast him as angelic hero and DiCaprio, with his girlish prettiness, takes to the air only too readily. The young man is given so many virtues—effrontery, spirit, earthy wit, a seemingly Olympian sexual appetite all of which he saves for his one and only dreamgirl—it’s a wonder God himself doesn’t reach down from the heavens to pluck the boy from the Atlantic. 
DiCaprio’s Jack is clearly a stand-in for Cameron. Like Cameron, he’s capable, quick, and independent; he even shares Cameron’s talent for sketching, with the director’s hands standing in for DiCaprio as he sketches Winslet in the nude. What he doesn’t have that makes Cameron so vividly larger-than-life is that overriding ambition to be the biggest and best in everything, from epic filmmaking to scuba diving (Cameron dove twelve times to the site of the actual Titanic), and God help whoever’s in the way. Cameron is famous for the way he slave-drives his cast and crew. He reportedly banned anyone from urinating while he shot the high-rise climax of True Lies; his The Abyss is generally considered one of the most difficult shoots in history (lead actor Ed Harris—no shrinking violet himself—refuses to talk about the film). There’s even a T-shirt, proudly worn by Cameron production veterans: “You Don’t Scare Me—I Worked For James Cameron.

If DiCaprio comes off as an Angel from America, Kate Winslet comes off as a British Babe—the movie, not the euphemism. Winslet is a beautiful young woman; she crinkles her nose prettily and Cameron catches angles of her—especially with honeyed curls dripping down the side of her face—that remind you of Tenniel’s drawings for Alice In Wonderland. But her chunky body betrays her; the two make an odd couple strolling the ship’s decks, with Winslet’s waddle set beside DiCaprio’s almost feline grace. 
Cameron betrays her further by giving her an irredeemable role. Rose is a fantasy figure for both Jack and James Cameron—a baffling mix of unattainable object of desire and one of Cameron’s warrior women (Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, Sigourney Weaver in Aliens), so that she keeps getting her signals crossed (It doesn’t help that Billy Zane is so debauched and sophisticated you can’t help but suspect he’d be more fun to bed. It helps even less that Zane reserves his most lascivious leers for DiCaprio, not Winslet—which throws an entertaining sidelight on the story, but does nothing for narrative clarity). 
Winslet also suffers from having to deliver the most shameless dialogue, possibly the worse bit being: “Jack saved me, in every sense...” You want to finish the sentence for her: “…physically, psychologically, politically, artistically, spiritually, and sexually. He was an all-around superman, and a real stud.” Ironically, we never see any real evidence of her salvation. Rose the spoiled young brat is used to having her own way; eighty-five years later, when helicopters bring her to the wreck of the Titanic, she’s a spoiled old brat, and she’s still having her own way, her pictures and half the furniture in her house brought out to sea with her. 
Titanic is not just a cautionary tale,” says Cameron; “…it is also a story of faith, courage, sacrifice, and, above all else, love.” Actually, as a love story between two young people, Titanic is all wet. But Cameron himself has a great love—all eight hundred and eighty feet of her, the punchline being he makes a far more persuasive case for his own grand passion than for DiCaprio’s. Cameron is onto something here: the period is far from the industrial sci-fi look he’s fond of using (Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator and Terminator2), and it humanizes him—all that Victorian furniture and sunset lighting give the film an appealing warmth. 
Cameron seems inspired by the tradition of Griffith and Kurosawa: do it on camera, and for real. He uses a gigantic 780-foot set (ninety percent the size of the real thing), built to sink hydraulically into the water; he conjures yards of linen and stacks of chinaware, all stamped with the Titanic mark. He creates an elaborate wood set centered around a spectacular crystal chandelier, and floods it with water. Everything was made from scratch, and because he dunks everything into the North Atlantic (actually Mexico), you see it all for the first and last time. 
And it’s not just the money spent, or the size (well, not entirely); it’s Cameron’s obsession that makes the film so compelling (he’s been a Titanic fan for ten years, three of which was spent on making the film). Every detail, every look, is right—from the telegraph room where the captain gets his first iceberg warning (he holds the paper, but never takes it seriously); to the menus actually served on the ship (what on earth is Cockee Leekie?); to the melodies the four musicians play as the ship sinks. 
When the iceberg hits, Cameron is finally in his element; his famous blue night lighting takes over and his editing become swifter, more precise. Cameron reportedly put twice as many lights on the ship as the real Titanic, enough to get a film exposure even without spotlights; he wasn’t satisfied with the biggest camera crane available, so he put a camera on top of a tower crane (the kind used in high-rise buildings). He gets incredible shots from this crane, swooping from one end of the 780-foot set to the other, following the panicking people on the run. Cameron captures the feel of an actual disaster, so different from movie-staged disasters—the sudden collision, the deceptively still interlude (some of the passengers on deck were playfully kicking around the ice left by the collision), the gradual sinking, the cataclysmic end. He shows us how the turmoil of passengers fighting for lifeboats takes place above tranquil, mirrorlike water—the dramatic contrast is chilling to watch. 
The final product is impressive: you actually feel as if you were on the decks, going down with the ship. As the Titanic--looking like a tremendous toppled Christmas tree—sinks, all kinds of metaphors pop into your head: that could be Bill Clinton, so powerful and presidential, exposing his feet of clay; it could be the Philippine economy, once confident and proud, suddenly hitting the rock of reality; or it could stand for all mankind, ever overreaching, always falling short. 
Is it a great epic? By way of comparison, the making of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath Of God was an even more difficult and chaotic shoot than Titanic’s; at one point Herzog pulled a gun and pointed it at actor Klaus Kinski’s head (Cameron, for all his famous tantrums, has never done that). The resulting film has images like nothing you’ve seen—tiny men crawl down a Brobdinagian mountainside; a chopped-off head, eyes rolling, whispers one more word; a sailboat hangs from the branches of a huge tree. Nothing in Titanic—the huge sets, the digitally composed special effects—even comes close to the dropped-jaw wonder evoked by that hanging sailboat. If Titanic is a masterpiece of logistics and scale, Aguirre is a masterpiece of vision and imagination—taken from some source of inspiration so extreme it’s indistinguishable from insanity. Incidentally, Aguirre was made for $300,000. 
But Titanic holds up well; for sheer size, it beats anything made in the last ten years. It’s also an epic oddity, a misshapen visual spectacle—a melodrama with two randy puppy dogs frolicking before a mighty diorama. You wonder: what on earth was Cameron thinking of, building these unbelievable sets as backdrop to a pathetic little soap opera? What sustained him throughout this magnificently misguided production? The film is worth watching, for the spectacle and for a definitive version of the disaster; but I can’t wait for the documentary about the making of the film. 
First published in Businessworld, 2.6.98

(postscript: of course when it comes to definitive versions, I've come to know better...)

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