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…
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