March 6, 2010

#83: Titanic

The basic question I think we all need to ask is: is Titanic as good as we remember it being when we all saw it in the theater in middle school? It's so completely 100% a part of our modern movie sensibility AND it's been parodied, mocked and ridiculed to death, so it's hard I think to see it from the outside and judge it based solely on cinematic merit. But I'm sure as hell gonna try, Rose.

Company: Tonight was most excellent. My good friend Jen and I were dating in eighth grade when she took me to see this film in the theater for the first time (not the first time for her ... I think she'd seen it four or five times by then) so she came down to participate in the diablogue. We dined, we took pictures, we dressed up like we were going down with the ship. Also along for the ride: Katie, moped owner, leaver of cute notes; Sheena, busy attractress; and later on, Kecia, foodie do-goodie.

Cuisine: extra dry Cooks champagne and vanilla Pirouettes (we're fancy!) and Leinenkugel's (from Chippewa Falls, Iowa, Jack Dawson's hometown)

When you think about it, framing the story of the Titanic in a modern context (in this case, connecting a surviving passenger and her possible possession of a priceless artifact with cool scientists looking for said artifact) is kind of genius. It gives the story an extra reason to be told (as if it needed one), justifying our trip to the past to see this:

Meet an unhappily bethrothed socialite in an amazing hat who naughtily quotes Freud to the ship's architect. Minutes later, meet a charming artist chancing his future on a poker game who wins his third-class ticket. Obviously they're star-crossed, and clearly they'll end up together. Herein lies the primary magic of this movie: we all know how it will end. We may not know who lives and who dies, but we all know the ship sinks, and yet every time I see it I still think, dammit, the ship's gotta stay afloat this time! There are clues throughout, no doubt, that the lovers are doomed, but we still believe in them.

Cupid's got his arrow squarely aimed... maybe even too squarely.

This is in no small part due to our leading performances. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't really get enough credit for this movie, it's true, but what I saw this time more than ever before was that this was Kate Winslet's movie from the first moment. In order for the film to work, we have to love Leo, but we have to love, trust and maybe even believe we are Kate. Jack Dawson is impossibly charming and irresistible as a character, loosening both the physical and emotional corset on Rose Dewitt Bukater (and the audience). This seems to me an infinitely easier task than portraying the entire emotional journey of the bohemian-posing-as-uppercrust princess in a film where everyone knows she survives. Plus: she has to share many scenes with a completely one-note Billy Zane (as her odious fiance) and escape unscathed. And all this responsibility was heaped on the shoulders of a 21-year-old with only five film credits to her name (two or three of which anyone in this country had ever even seen). Well done, Ms. Winslet.

I could go on about Kate Winslet for a whole blog. But I'll try to move on.

Shortly after the doomed souls aboard Titanic bid farewell to dry land for the last time, the captain claims "the press knows the size of Titanic; now they must marvel at her speed." This ends up being his fatal mistake, of course, since without that extra speed the Titanic might have missed the iceberg, but it also seems to be a metaphor for the film. By the time Titanic was finally released in December of 1997, the film's extraordinary record-setting budget was older news than the stories about its post-production snafus and delays. Audiences expected big, and they got what they expected in every respect. If it weren't for the occasionally pitiful dialogue ("You unimaginable bastard.") it would be a near-perfect movie.

A big part of that is pace. We know it's doomed, we know it's doomed ... but then Leo and Kate get together and they're so great together and everything's happening and that dorky shot of them spinning during that dance in third-class and then he draws her and then they're making nasty in a car ... and oh wait! We've actually as good as forgotten the ship's fate!

Do. not. stop. running. you guys.

That scene where Rose looks for someone to help her free Jack from his shackles is so disorienting and horrifying, and in a way it seems like her defining scene. (Oops, said I would stray from Kate. Sorry.) It's the scene when everything changes. She has to man up. And she does. From that moment on, Jack and Rose are no longer distinguished by class, but equals in their fight for survival. They're intimately involved in the politics of who gets on a lifeboat and who doesn't, and just in time: once we're involved with their struggle, we care by extension for everyone on the boat, regardless of class. Thus, the genius of it all: just when the class barriers between Jack and Rose (and everyone else) are broken down, we are faced with thousands of people of all classes fighting for their survival, and we care.

Oops the berg.

Say what you will: Titanic still floats. Forget the effects that in the Na'vi shadow of Avatar look at times positively plastic, or that preposterous Italian accent on that guy (is "bastardo" a real Italian word?), or the sappiest song of all time that still manages to be catchy despite Celine Dion's throaty bleating. The film remains and will remain a rare cinematic and cultural phenomenon.

Whew. If you'll excuse me, I need to go dip my head in a cold bucket of Atlantic-in-April water to get over it all. Next up is 1927's Sunrise, another movie that pushes past three hours -- this time, without sound! Get ready.

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