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TITANIC: The Greatest American Film since THE GODFATHER, or a totally dumb-ass piece of tripe? A specially-edited email conversation from 1997 to 2000 about James Cameron's TITANIC
Copyright © 2005 John V. Brennan, John Larrabee

TITANIC

(1997)
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, Billy Zane, Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, et. al.
Directed by James Cameron

 JL: Saw TITANIC today (woudn'tcha know?).  Had some problems with it, but my overall reaction is "wow."  Yeah, I wish they had spent a bit more time on the historical details and real-life characters, but the special effects are grand and spectacular beyond imagination, and the sets and costuming are flawless and painstakingly detailed.  It's not just that Cameron built a replica of the ship 90% to scale (the aerial shots take your breath away), it's also the interiors that are recreated with such authenticity, you really feel they rebuilt the whole damn ship. 

Many reviews have mentioned the occasional hackneyed dialogue.  This didn't bother me, as I've always felt that film is essentially a visual medium (you want hackneyed dialogue?  Look at some of Hitchcock's classics), and Cameron tells the story with images so striking, words seem superfluous.  The ship breaking in two, the passengers sliding to their deaths, the old couple huddling together in bed as the waters rise in their room, and one of the most memorable images I have ever seen on film: starting with a closeup of Kate, the heroine, as she struggles in the icy water, the camera slowly pans back to reveal the image of 1500 souls, the ones the lifeboats left behind, fighting for their lives.

I might be overreacting to things, since I've been something of a Titanic buff for so long and this is the film I always hoped someone would make.  But it's been many years since any film had such an emotional impact on me.

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JB: Okay, so I saw TITANIC tonight.  I didn't allow what you said about it a few months ago influence me in any way - I just watched it as if I knew nothing about it.  And I know you loved this movie, but be prepared for a mixed review.

FIRST HOUR: Okay, so they're setting up all the characters, but still, I was kind of bored.

JL: Hard for me to be totally objective about this movie.  My fascination with all things Titanic started with the discovery of the wreck, and the subsequent National Geographic special, about 12 years ago.  Read everything on the topic I could find, learned the detail and layout of the ship, the names of the officers and prominent passengers, etc.  So while the film may have taken a while to get into gear, it still held my attention thanks to Cameron's attention to detail and much of the new wreck footage.  For the addicted such as myself, the first hour was spent with "Wow, the engine room!  The boilers!  The grand staircase!  The promenade deck!"

JB: I kind of figured that you were fascinated by all the details (not that there's anything wrong with that, he says in his worst Jerry Seinfeld imitation) while I, not being up on my TITANIC facts, was more like "ooh, look how pretty that staircase is."

JL: I suppose I'll buy my own video copy one of these days, although I'm holding out for a Director's Cut edition in another year or so (like it needs another hour of footage).  I saw it three times in a theatre and after looking at the scenery during my first viewing, I then looked for all the computer generated effects.  Such as the flyby shot of the ship after Leo does his "King of the world" thing, in which everything, ship and people strolling the decks, was created digitally.  Makes me wish I had bought stock in Industrial Light & Magic back in '76.

Example of Cameron's research: As the Titanic had such a short life, few authentic pictures of her exist.  Most of the pictures you see in books representing the Titanic (especially those of the interiors) are actually of her twin sister ship The Olympic.  In the 1980s, photos taken aboard Titanic were discovered in a family album -- a family lucky enough to disembark the ship at her first port of call in Ireland.

You'll recall the scene in the film where a boy is seen playing with his top on the deck, just before Leo steals the coat slung over the chair.  One of the photos from that family album features a kid playing with his top at the same point on the deck, and sure enough, there's a coat draped over a nearby chair.  One of Cameron's many little treats for us obsessive types.  Looking for stuff like that held my attention for the hour.

JB: Leonardo DeCaprio I like… but throughout the whole movie I never quite believed him as a guy from the early 1900s.  Probably the dialogue he was given.  He seemed so 90s.  But, he wasn't bad.  He is a good actor, and I didn't hate him.  But they were right not to give him any Oscar.

JL: My main problem with his performance as well.  Like you, I thought he gave a good, dramatically effective performance.  But I expected him to say "Woah, dude!" at any moment.

JB: I think it was a combination of his acting technique and the dialogue he was handed, and again, I blame James Cameron, who knows how to write TERMINATOR. and ALIENS dialogue, but is probably not equipped to handle real life situations.

Kate Winslet - excellent in her part.  If there is one person at the heart of this movie, it is either DeCaprio or her.  And my vote goes to her.

As for the rest of the cast, they were good with what they were given to do and say.  Nice to see Victor Garber, David Warner and Dr. Bombay getting work too these days.

JL: If Garber had about 20 more minutes of screen time, he would have totally stolen the picture for me.

JB: Oh, he was excellent.  He was one of the few peripheral characters that came off as a real person.  And his delivery of "She's made of iron, sir, I assure you she can... and she will.  It's a mathematical certainty." were among the best delivered lines in the film.

JL: For some reason, I was under the impression that David Warner had died a few years ago; nice to see he didn't.  And in the theatre, you could hear the cries of "Dr. Bombay!" at Bernard Fox's first appearance.

Bernard Fox was also in A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (still in the opinion of many the best, most accurate Titanic movie) as one of the guys in the crow's nest.  (Don't confuse A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958) with 1953's TITANIC with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck.  The one they show on AMC is not the good one, in other words.)

JB: But that whole first hour just seemed too long.  I guess they had to establish how dreary Winslet's future really was, and they did a good job, because I was dreary just watching it.

SECOND HOUR: Just at the point where I was saying "Something better happen soon!", DeCaprio went to the Hoi Polloi dinner with all the rich folks and had me laughing.  Good thing too, because all through that first hour I was saying "What this ship could use is the Marx Brothers as stowaways."  Then came the Irish dancing scene and I finally got into the movie.

From that point on it was a very good movie, though I think it would have been better off if James Cameron had just done the outline of the story and given it to someone else to write the actual script.  I loved THE TERMINATOR and ALIENS, but I think this story needed a more subtle touch. 

JL: I'll go along with that.  Most of the script's flaws come in the first hour, where Cameron does a pretty superficial job with the characters.  Once the action dominates, Cameron is in his element.

JB: Kate Winslet's fiancée was just so evil and unlovable, he should have had a well-waxed handlebar mustache and said "Nyah-hah-hah" while he twiddled it.  There was not one Upper Class Twit who had any redeemable qualities --- they were all cookie cutter Upper Class Twits awaiting the Three Stooges to come to fix the plumbing in their house.

JL: This is exactly what bothered me about the film even before I saw it.  When I heard the general outline of the plot, I knew it would be yet another attempt to fabricate a class war during a time when none existed.  The rich were not the enemy of the poor; rather, they were respected and admired for their wealth.  Yes, the lives of those during The Gilded Age look pretty superficial to us today (take a look at the Astors' lifestyle and you'll see what I mean), but Cameron just couldn't resist beating us over the head with it -- evidenced by the cutaway shot from the 3rd class party to the stuffy banter of the men in the smoking lounge.  "Poor people good!  Rich people bad!" isn't that far removed from "Four legs good!  Two legs bad!" and I kind of felt like we were being manipulated like Boxer the horse in ANIMAL FARM.  Nothing wrong with the time honored poor-guy-loves-rich-girl story, but typically the antagonists in such stories would be the girl's family, not the entire monied class.

Ironically, it was the Titanic that played a major role in changing attitudes.  Once it was learned that the first class got preferential treatment when it came to the lifeboats, worship of the wealthy came to an end.  The first lifeboat lowered contained only 20 passengers, 60 below its limit, because some rich old fart bribed the officer in charge to lower the boat and not let any "riff-raff" aboard.  The more I read on the subject, the more I'm convinced that it's no exaggeration to say the Titanic sinking was the turning point in class relations in our culture.  Probably would have happened eventually, but Michael Corleone's statement "This hatred of money is just a trick of the wealthy to keep the poor in their place" might have been delayed a few years.

JB: The Unsinkable Kathy Bates got on my nerves after a while.

JL: She did nothing for me one way or the other, though her line "You gonna cut her meat for her too there, Cal?" gave me a chuckle.  Interesting how they cast Kathy Bates as Molly for the big-screen version, Marilu Henner in the TV flick.  One guess which one was physically closer to the real Molly.

JB: The whole love triangle was straight out of silent movies - rich guy, confused girl, lower class rogue.  Don't know if it was how the character was written or the way Kate Winslet played her, but she was the only one of the three I completely believed.

THIRD HOUR (actually, second half of the movie): All criticism went out the window when the guys in the crow's nest spotted the iceberg (and if they hadn't been ogling Kate and Leo they would have had enough time to steer the boat clear.)

JL: Oy, the outrage on the Titanic newsgroup over that last point!  The actual reasons the 'berg wasn't spotted until too late:

-The guys in the crow's nest forgot their binoculars (seriously);

JB: I hope they got docked a day's pay for that one.

JL: -A starless, moonless night, and a calm, flat ocean.  Can't see the hand in front of your face (you wouldn't get much enjoyment out of that anyway) let alone a "blue" iceberg;

-A blue iceberg (or "blueberg") is one that has broken free from a glacier and upturned.  Rather than being the typical white iceberg that you see polar bears romp on, an upturned berg is clear, thereby adding to the problem of seeing it at night.

While I'm at it, a few more comments on the accuracy of it all (just be patient, laddie):

-Overall, outstanding, guilty only of omission.

1) No mention of The Californian in the film (the ship that was seen on the horizon by just about everyone on Titanic and may have been able to come to the rescue had its captain not chosen to roll over and go to sleep after he received the first SOS call).

JB: Obviously the Californian was piloted by Captain Otis B. Driftwood.

JL: "An SOS from the Titanic?  That means women and children first!  A whole ship without women?  Gentlemen, this is an emergency!  Lower a lifeboat filled with scullery maids and tell Mrs. Claypool to man the oars immediately!  Wake me when the scullery maids return!"

2) The character of Bruce Ismay, president of the White Star Line, is glossed over.  He was branded a coward at the time and lived out his life in shame and exile when he helped himself to a seat in the lifeboat ahead of the women and children.  In the film, he gets minimal emphasis ("Freud -- is he a passenger on the ship?") before you see him get into the boat without much buildup or reason to hate him for doing so.

When the public found out that the president of the White Star Line (the company that owned and built the Titanic) saved himself while so many others were left to die, they had their villain and they blamed him for everything but the iceberg itself.

3) The band' final song that night was probably not "Nearer My God to Thee."  But it was a fine scene. 

4) Only a few survivors reported seeing an officer shoot himself that night, and it could have been any of the officers if it did indeed happen.  Legend attributes this action to Officer Murdoch, so that's what Cameron went with. 

5) Many of the real-life minor characters got short shrift in order to make way for more Kate 'n' Leo.  We get a glimpse of John Jacob Astor, Molly Brown's story is but touched upon, and you'd never know who the real life heroes (such as Officer Lightoller) and villains (Ismay) were by the passing nod Cameron gives to them.  The elderly couple you see huddled together in bed as the water rises in their room makes for a powerful 5-second image, but we don't learn that the couple in question is supposed to be Mr. and Mrs. Isador Strauss.  Strauss was the owner of Macy's Department Store, and their rather touching story is that when Mrs. S. was offered a seat in a lifeboat, she turned it down so she could die by her husband's side.  For us hard-core enthusiasts, these things were the main complaints.  There was enough compelling drama in the real story of The Titanic -- it didn't need a fictional love story to complicate things.

JB: But, you realize, it is Irving Thalberg's A NIGHT AT THE OPERA theory all over again.  I don't think this film was so amazingly popular at the box office because of the outstanding second half - it was the love story that brought hordes of women and teenagers into theaters.  A friend of mine saw this movie twice with her mother and younger sister.  They were gushing over how romantic it was.  When I tell them I saw it, I could regail them with all my criticisms of cardboard characters, hackneyed love story, Leo giving an anachronistic performance... and it wouldn't matter one iota to them.  Mr. Thalberg knew that men are indeed from Mars and women from Venus.

JL: Yup.  And my favorite Marx film is DUCK SOUP, my wife's is A NIGHT AT THE OPERA.

And my wife was weepy at many points during TITANIC, while I was my stoical self...until...okay, I'll confess, I lost it at the end first time I saw it.  When old Rose throws the diamond in the water.  Classic sentimental hokum right out of Chaplin, and I'm a sucker for it every time.

JB: Me --- I could watch this film again from the moment that the Crow's Nest Boys spot the iceberg.  In fact, I did watch it again from that point the next morning.  Tremendous.

It's Cameron in his element.  Give him a life-and-death situation, some big props and months to play with miniatures and digital effects, and he's a winner every time.  And that's not meant as a left-handed compliment -- he really is a master at using aliens, terminators and big ships as more than just big props for cheap effect.  They are usually some metaphor for human arrogance or something semi-high-falutin', and the awesomeness of his effects is central to the theme and story.  And even in films like TITANIC with wooden, 2-dimensional characters, his characters are nevertheless quirkily his own (don't know how often he writes his own screenplays, but I think the director is more responsible for what's on the screen than the writer).  From what I've seen, Cameron can be something of a mirror-kissing jerk in real life, but I do feel he's one of our better directors who has a voice of his own -- unlike what we've said in the past about Spielberg.  And THE ABYSS gets my vote for Cameron's underrated classic.

Thankfully, aside from the main characters, it is amazingly accurate, historically and visually.  Nice to have a Titanic movie that shows the ship breaking in half at the surface.  Despite some eyewitnesses who reported this happening, the official verdict at the 1912 inquiry was that the ship sunk intact (the fact that so many others reported it sunk intact is testament as to how dark it truly was that night after the ship's lights went out -- everyone assumed that the crashing sounds heard were the contents of the ship spilling towards the bow).  But when the wreck was discovered in two pieces, it confirmed the breakup rumors.

JB: I am now sorry I didn't see this film on the large screen (though I would have walked in halfway through it) just to see that whole scene where Kate and Leo are perched on the outside of the ship as it is sinking vertically into the water.  Stomach churning even on my dinky little 13 inch set.

The final hour and a half was just so intense and realistic (despite the quick shot of computer animated rats running down the hallway) that, on the whole, I would not begrudge TITANIC its Best Picture Oscar.  Steven Spielberg won the award a few years ago for making us feel what it is like to be in a Nazi Concentration Camp, and Cameron won for making us feel what it must have been like to be on the Titanic.  Because that is what I felt like.  Amazing piece of work, that last hour and a half. That poor propeller guy!

JL: Also amazing how Cameron built a replica of the ship 90% to scale and then sunk it for the final scenes.  Yes, there were many models, digital and matte effects used, but most of the shots were of the giant replica being sunk in a 70-million gallon tank.  I'd say that exhausted most of the $200 million dollar budget right there.

JB: Nice to see that plot devices Buster Keaton used in SHERLOCK JR. (the slipping of jewelry into somebody's pocket to frame him) still works in the 90s.

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JL: In the three years since it's come out, I've revised my original opinion drastically.  It's a tremendous , classic movie for a good 80 minutes (the opening scenes exploring the wreck, any scene with Victor Garber, and everything from the iceberg to the end), and a totally dumb-ass piece of tripe for another 80.

JB: That's been roughly my opinion since day one.  But I didn't want to burst your bubble at the time…

I've seen TITANIC all the way through once.  I've seen last hour and half three more times.  The last hour and a half is one of the greatest movies I've ever seen.

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