I recently had the pleasure of seeing one of my favourite films again – Titanic. I have seen it many times and own the Deluxe Collector’s Edition DVD, but took the opportunity to see it again on the big screen, in 3D and in IMAX. So, what did I think of the film this time around? Firstly, it did not need 3D. In Avatar and Hugo, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, 3D is impressive, because those were shot in 3D. Therefore, I look forward to Prometheus and The Amazing Spider-Man, a trailer for which I saw before Titanic, and in 3D that looks very impressive.
Furthermore, despite the size and scale of Titanic, much of the film’s action takes place inside, within the maze of cabins and corridors, creating a claustrophobic effect that becomes even more so when the (already limited) space is rapidly filling with water. 3D aids a sense of scale, great for landscapes like Pandora or cavernous environments like Hugo‘s train station, but less so in Titanic. The moments when the 3D did add something were few and far between. Also, there were points at which the 3D looked rather fake, which is a problem when the overall diegesis is aiming for mimesis. Mimesis isn’t the only way to go but it is Titanic‘s course, aiming to give the viewer a sense of what it would like to be there. If the viewer can see the different planes of the three dimensions, it has an alienating effect that is unhelpful.
The IMAX however did make a difference, because the image was larger, yet crisper, and added to the immersive effect. Oddly, the enlarged scope did help the claustrophobic confines of the ship, because it served to make the ship more imposing, more threatening, and the engulfing water all the more so. More importantly the sound is phenomenal. When the iceberg hits, when the water rushes in, when the ship splits in two – I felt the shock of these running through me. Bigger in the case of IMAX is better for expressing overwhelming environments, regardless of the third dimension.
BBC film critic Mark Kermode has said that the future is not 3D, the future is IMAX. I find 3D OK in some cases, but I think it needs to be filmed in 3D to really work. IMAX however adds something special, creates a more engulfing aesthetic, so expect to be overwhelmed when The Dark Knight Rises…
More broadly, Titanic is a film that inspires a great deal of passionate debate, with lovers and haters equally committed to their positions. The criticisms take different forms. For some, the central problem is the script, in particular the dialogue and lack of characterisation. This would be an aesthetic criticism. For others, it’s the spirit/meaning/theme of the film. A political or even moral objection, that there is something deeply wrong and offensive with a love story about an actual historical tragedy.
Oliver Gleiberman gives an insightful analysis of the reaction to Titanic, in particular presenting an alternative understanding of Titanic’s script, in his article “Titanic is a great film. It’s also the movie that gave rise to hater culture” (Entertainment Weekly, 9 April 2012). Gleiberman points out that the dialogue is “courtly yet very alive”, and the script has an “ingeniously organic structure”. I don’t tend to notice written elements that much, but upon having them pointed out, I concur that Jack’s description of diving into icy water creates a chilling foreshadowing of what is to come, and that Rose has parallels with Jane Austen heroines (this is surely a slap-in-the-face for Austen enthusiasts who will lambast the temerity of comparing James Cameron to Jane Austen).
Any discussion of Titanic (or Avatar) inevitably involves its director. A consistent message across his work is fear of global annihilation and technological hubris, something the man himself seems able to steer clear of. I interpret much of the vitriol poured upon Cameron as indicative of resentment and jealousy. Here is someone who actually manages to make his dreams become reality, keeps developing technological wonders and (surely) will one day come a cropper, victim of his own technological hubris. This is yet to happen, and I think Cameron’s professional and commercial success angers some. Many would like to be in his position, and doesn’t it make you mad that you aren’t? Gleiberman goes on to link the vitriol directed at Cameron with the rise of the Internet and the clash between Internet hipness and “romantic innocence”. I fully recognize my own adoration of Titanic as romantic wish-fulfillment, that the film is an unashamedly heartfelt love letter to epic romance. Do I want to believe in that kind of love? Absolutely. Do I think it is realistic or practical. Not really. Where better for it then, than at the movies?
Furthermore, there is a patriarchal element to the criticisms that broadside the film. Mathilda Gregory explains in her piece “Why I can’t wait to take another trip on James Cameron’s Titanic” (guardian.co.uk, Monday 9 April 2012), that much of the derision can be related to the assumption that anything teen girls go mad over cannot be worth serious attention, because teen girls don’t have any serious thoughts. Does that not say more about the attitude of those condemning the positive reaction to Titanic than it does about the film itself? This is quite beside the point that Titanic can work for audiences of multiple demographics: teenage girls do indeed get lovely and romantic wish-fulfillment, and lads can enjoy Kate in the nude. Serious film buffs and academics can admire the technical skill on display – aside from the painstaking recreation of the ship and the advances in special effects, there is also fine action filmmaking in the actual sinking, which also provides something for the more (assumedly) masculine crowd. Older audiences can also enjoy a film that echoes Hollywood’s Golden Age, recalling the scope and majesty of Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. In short, there is something for everyone here.
To answer the moral condemnation, that there is something morally reprehensible about turning a historical disaster into a romance, your position on this depends on how you react to the romance motif. One can be dismissive and simply treat the presence of romance as inappropriate, which ties back to the 90s and post-90s “hipness” that regards itself as too cool for romance. But what if you feel for the protagonists and, in weeping for them (as many have and continue to, including this writer), weep for those who actually perished? Having seen Titanic many times, I can attest that there are multiple instances of the event’s victims, their deaths needless and tragic, creating a cumulative affect upon those open to the experience.
If one objects to the artistic licence taken over a historical event, placing fictional characters at the centre rather than giving a more balanced overview, remember that history is constantly written and re-written, and there are always conflicting accounts. It is often a function of fiction to highlight the emotional content of historical events, which is not the province of “accurate” documentation. The emotional function of Titanic is to honour those who died as a reminder of the event, and recent surveys on Twitter have indicated that some viewers did not even know Titanic was an actual vessel. Therefore, could the film not serve a useful social purpose in highlighting that such a tragic event took place, and that the need for proper safety and remembering our fragility before nature is ever-present? Next instructive film: Schindler’s List…
The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) has proved very successful with critics and audiences, including fans of the books by Suzanne Collins as well as those unfamiliar with the material. I have not read the book, and my original intention was to see the film cold with very little knowledge. But this didn’t work out as I heard both a radio review and an interview with the film’s star, Jennifer Lawrence, so I read further reviews and went into fairly well informed, which is the normal way I see a film.
Not that there’s anything wrong with knowing what to expect, it doesn’t stop me having a good time, and I was very impressed with The Hunger Games. It was a compelling story, convincingly performed, well-handled by Gary Ross, and struck just the right thematic balance. A major portion of the film’s action is an extended set piece consisting of the eponymous games themselves, and this is thrilling and gripping and, in places, suitably nasty. Yet to watch these sequences is to be ambivalent, as on the one hand there is gripping action with its attendant visceral thrill, but on the other it is very disturbing to watch children kill each other for the purposes of entertainment. This tension is maintained throughout the Hunger Games section of the narrative. In an early scene, characters discuss the perversity of watching actual people die, or perhaps watching people at all. It is to the film’s credit that it does not labour this point, leaving the viewer to ponder the ethics.
Overall, the film succeeds as a chilling vision of the future, although this vision could be improved by changing the one area that I thought did not work. Much of the film is shot with hand-held cameras, commonly known as “shaky cam”, which for some has the effect of inducing nausea and motion sickness. I wasn’t queasy, but the shaky cam aesthetic was irritating and jarred me out of the film in places. This was not always the case – once the Hunger Games are underway, the unsteady cinematography was effective in conveying the unpredictability of the hostile environment, the sudden outbursts of violence and the constant threat of death to our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence). But in the opening sequences that establish the world of the film and the circumstances in which the Hunger Games take place, a more composed aesthetic would have been more effective. The reason for this is that wide angled, static shots can convey oppression visually, capturing the subjugated inhabitants of District 12 within the shot composition. Show the oppressed proletariat within the vision of the panopticon, and the sense of oppression can be made all the stronger. Aside from these cinematographic infelicities though, this is an impressive and enjoyable piece of work.
Furthermore, The Hunger Games is especially interesting in terms of the tropes and themes it brings together. Reality TV and its cinematic incarnations, such as The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998) and EdTV (Ron Howard, 1999), form a lineage that feeds into The Hunger Games, as well as more violent treatments such as Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) and The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987). To me, however, a more interesting lineage is a couple of sub-genres that I’ve recently researched. One is Rural America, on which I wrote an essay for the Directory of World Cinema: American Independent Cinema. The subject of such films as Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001), Frozen River (Courtney Hunt, 2008) and Undertow (David Gordon Green, 2004) is poor, (mostly) white, broken families, plagued by inertia. A film that creates an obvious link between this sub-genre and The Hunger Games is Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), which stars Jennifer Lawrence as a teenager who has to take charge of her family (sound familiar?). While The Hunger Games has a bigger budget, wider distribution and far higher exposure than these “indie” offerings, the concerns of family responsibility and entrapment are just as apparent. The rural environment emphasises self-sufficiency, through Katniss’ bow-hunting, as well as community since all district inhabitants seem to know each other.
As a contrast with the rural districts, the Capitol that governs them is a city, filled with prosperous people who express their wealth through flamboyant attire. The state of “Panem”, where the story is set, declares a clear hierarchy between the urban and the rural, which demonstrates the second sub-genre that feeds into The Hunger Games, what I call “class-topia”: a dystopia that is explicity built upon class divisions. The legacy goes back to Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927), in which the proletariat workers slave for the benefit of the upper class, a trope seen again in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982) that features a replicant slave race. More recent examples include Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010) and The Island (Michael Bay, 2005), in which the underclass provide those above with organs, and Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006), in which immigrants are cast as an underclass to be abused and removed. WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008) features an artificial underclass while humans sit in permanent consumption, and In Time (Andrew Niccol, 2011) draws class boundaries between those who literally do and do not have time to live. In much the same way, The Hunger Games presents classes divided explicitly for the sake of power – those of the districts are governed and oppressed by the Capitol and forced into the maintenance of their oppression as aptly named “tributes”. Here is rural America, designated as an underclass in a dystopia that demands their death and suffering as entertainment: it’s Winter’s Bone meets In Time meets Battle Royale!
The “class-topia” sub-genre highlights the richness of class divisions for dramatization, and the ever-present opportunities of science fiction to draw attention to elements of contemporary culture. In the case of The Hunger Games, it is extremely positive that the film is disturbing, as has been noted by audiences and reviewers (the phrase “the hunger games is disturbing” yields over 4 million results on Google). It should disturb us, not only to see children fighting for the death, but for the underclass to be coerced into roles for the maintenance of an unjust system.
As a piece of entertainment, Avatar is probably the greatest cinematic thrill I have ever had. Other films that created similar experiences would be The Matrix, for much the same reasons, all three of Raimi’s Spider-Man films, and Ang Lee’s Hulk. These express the pure, raw, undiluted, visceral experiential thrill of cinema, which is one of the fundamental reasons I adore this art form over all others – when done properly, cinema can transport you. Indeed, transportation is important, particularly in science fiction in which world-building is key. In a recent poll of Greatest Science Fiction Films of All Time, I voted for Avatar because, more than any other sci-fi film, I felt it took me to another world (the poll was won, unsurprisingly, by Blade Runner). It was a world I could feel, believe in and care about, which is key to the film’s environmental ideology. To quote Carol Kaesuk Yoon of the New York Times, Avatar “has recreated what is the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing the living world” [Kaesuk Yoon, Carol (January 19, 2010). “Luminous 3-D Jungle Is a Biologist’s Dream”. The New York Times: p. D-1].
In addition to a visceral thrill, I genuinely find watching Avatar to be a spiritual experience, which is rare for me. I would identify my top five films of all time as emotional, intellectual and spiritual experiences, the others being Titanic, perhaps unsurprisingly, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, and Heat. These films touch me on multiple levels, and when I encounter disparaging responses, I am both aggrieved and saddened that others do not share the positive experience that I have: “It’s fantastic, I want you to feel fantastic as well, you don’t, you’re being mean, stop it, etc”. It’s not that I’m right and you’re wrong (although…), it is that I want more people to be happy.
I think a key reason I don’t understand the problems that some other people have with the film, and even find the criticisms offensive, is that plot, characters and dialogue are not major concerns for me. I understand that the plot is prosaic and can be seen as “baggy” or “clunky”, but that is not a problem for me. Indeed, the extended version works better for me because there is so much more of Pandora, its flora and fauna, as well as the culture of the Na’Vi to enjoy. One of the key pleasures of re-watching films for me is the accumulation of detail, and the visual detail and attention to detail is a marvelous creation that I revel in. Is Avatar‘s plot formulaic and predictable? Yes, and I have absolutely no problem with that. And as we know, familiarity is a key ingredient in popular story-telling.
I honestly do not have any problem with the supposed “bad” dialogue in this film, nor Titanic or John Carter that are also berated for their dialogue. What makes dialogue by James Cameron “bad” and that of David Mamet or Quentin Tarantino (or indeed Michael Mann) “good”? The standards to which dialogue “should” be held have never been made clear to me, it seems like some piece of cultural knowledge I never acquired.
As for the characters, they are means to an end – what matters to me is what is going on and who it is happening to is largely unimportant, especially because I feel involved. Rather than being distanced from the film by grumbling over the lack of characterisation in Jake Sully (which I do not deny), I find myself within the experience and concerned with what will happen next and, indeed, what I would do. This is immersion (in however many dimensions), which film, at its best, can accomplish. I understand and share the pleasure of in-depth characterisation, but I do not see it as a requirement for high quality – they are one method of textual pleasure, much like 3D, special effects, music, shaky cam, cuts or fades, etc. In the case of Avatar, I also think there is something very deliberate and effective in making the characters archetypes, as I believe the film creates a contemporary myth and mythic characters work best as archetypes. Indeed, the character of Jake Sully is himself an avatar for the contemporary audience that are disengaged from the world and must learn to re-connect. This is the spiritual aspect of the film that is so easily missed – the film does not preach for a return to the woods and nature, it is entirely metaphorical and urging people to reconnect with our world, through a re-invigoration of cinema. There isn’t a lot of characterisation because it would be completely unnecessary and indeed a hindrance to the myth/metaphor.
Furthermore, while I can understand that many find Avatar preachy and didactic, I have no problem being lectured on an issue I absolutely agree with and believe should be expounded, the issue of conservation and anti-environmental exploitation. I also loathe cynicism, so the cynical response that somehow Avatar’s message is invalidated by it being a hugely successful commercial product raises my hackles. This position has no evidence, it appears to be no more than an assumption, and that arrogance bothers me as well. Indeed, research has shown that some reacted very positively to the film, reducing their carbon footprint and attempting a re-engagement with their environment. Good for them. And others would rather refuse to accept that a piece of wildly successful commercial entertainment could have a socially positive, therapeutic effect. What does it take for these people?
As for the accusations of racism, I find them problematic when they come exclusively from middle-class (predominantly white) academics. If indigenous people were shown the film and found it offensive, I’d credit that, but instead, people of the Amazon, Iraqis and Palestinians as well as environmentalists have spoken of their identification with the Na’Vi, which appears to contradict the critical/academic response. It’s fine to be offended on behalf of others, indeed that is a crucial aspect of social justice, but if those for whom you are offended are not, does it not make sense to support their position? The presentation of the Na’Vi is idealised, which is perhaps a stereotypical view of indigenous peoples, but when the presentation is positive, and detailed, and not simply explained away in terms of their beliefs just being their beliefs but demonstrated as something tangible and, for lack of a better term, real, that hardly seems racist: “It’s not racist to try to save humankind by targeting your efforts directly on transformation of the consciousness and practices of those currently doing most of the destroying” (Rupert Read, “Avatar: A call to save the future”, Radical Anthropology).
Academia has an unfortunate tendency towards cynicism and not accepting potentially positive suggestions, seeming instead desirous of vague criticisms about the status quo. An interesting comparison is Fight Club, that is a direct assault on consumerism through an aggressive narrative and visual style. Fight Club was a box office flop that became a cult favourite – Avatar reached a far wider audience and has sparked constructive political activism. This, surely, is something to be applauded.