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Unexpected Item in Reaction Area I – Rushing to Director
As may be apparent to regular readers of this blog (nice to see you both), I am something of an auteurist. I am drawn to films by directors whose work I have previously enjoyed, and tend to credit the positives and negatives to the film director. One director whose work I have consistently enjoyed is Ron Howard, including Apollo 13 (1995), Ransom (1996), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Cinderella Man (2005), The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels and Demons (2009) (yes, I like Dan Brown’s work, deal with it). When Howard’s latest film, Rush, came out this year, I was interested on the basis of his involvement. Positive reviews from Total Film, Empire and the BBC strengthened my interest, and when I saw Rush I absolutely loved it. It was gripping, funny, compelling, at times horrifying and immensely visceral, which is one of the chief pleasures of cinema for me.
In terms of the subject matter, I should have had no interest at all, because Rush is about motor racers and I have zero interest in sport. But the interesting thing about sports films is they generally are not really about the sport at all. Is Raging Bull (Martin Scorsese, 1980) about boxing, or the descent of a man plagued by self-loathing? Is Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood, 2004) about boxing, or the relationships between damaged people? Is Ali (Michael Mann, 2001) about boxing, or resistance against prejudice? Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003) is more about rising above the misery of the Great Depression than horse racing, The Mighty Ducks (1992, Stephen Herek) and Cool Runnings (Jon Turteltaub, 1993) are about camaraderie rather than ice hockey or bobsledding, and Run, Fatboy, Run (David Schwimmer, 2007) is far more interested in personal redemption than it is in running. In keeping with this tradition, Rush is about the obsession that drives its central characters, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Nicki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), and the relationship between them.
I’ve seen all these sports films, and enjoyed them despite the prominence of sport in their narratives. The main reason I don’t enjoy sport is that the spectator, whether in attendance at an event or watching a telecast, is at a distance from the action, and I like to be close. I do enjoy professional wrestling, but that is scripted and individual matches are part of ongoing storylines, therefore more a drama series than a sport. I have enjoyed the odd boxing match, such as Lennox Lewis VS Frank Bruno in 1993 and Bruno VS Tyson in 1996, but even these are at a distance, unlike the boxing matches of Ali, Raging Bull and Ron Howard’s own boxing biopic, Cinderella Man, which bring the viewer into the ring, on both the delivery and receiving end of the blows.
A similar technique is used in Rush, as director Howard, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle and editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill create an intimate sense of involvement in the races. This is achieved through extreme close-ups of the pit stops, in which we see the replacement tyres and machinery used on the cars, as well as very rapid editing during the actual racing. Cameras mounted on the cars hurtling along at breakneck speed place the viewer in the position of the driver, aided by the extraordinary sound design. This is Rush’s greatest strength, allowing us to experience the thrill of high octane racing and emphasising the danger, much as a battle scene or a chase also throws the viewer into the action.
Like Cinderella Man, Ali and Raging Bull, but unlike the other films mentioned above, Rush is a true story (as far as any film can be). As a result, the events portrayed in the film are public knowledge, especially the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda, well known to fans of F1. I saw Rush with a friend who is a big fan of F1, so he knew the results of the various races and the twists and turns in the rivalry, while I did not. Despite our different levels of knowledge, we both enjoyed the film immensely, as an engaging, thrilling character drama. This was itself surprising to me. I’ve written before that character isn’t a major source of pleasure for me in cinema – I am interested in the plot and the events – what will happen next is usually the paramount question for me when watching a film. Interestingly, the one point in Rush when I lost interest was during the final race in Japan, when Lauda abandons the race because the weather conditions make it ‘too dangerous’. Hunt has been behind up until this point and Lauda’s withdrawal enables Hunt to win. I lost interest because I didn’t care who won – the drama of the film was always the rivalry between the two, and Lauda neutralised that rivalry. None of the other racers were identifiable as characters, so it was really Hunt just competing against the odds. Without the rivalry, there was less tension and therefore less drama.
Prior to the final race, however, Rush offers plenty of tension both between Lauda and Hunt and within the men themselves. The different approaches used by each man to build their racing profiles are gripping in their contrast – Hunt the playboy, indulging in alcohol, drugs and sex as much as racing, with his support team essentially stroking and maintaining his ego; Lauda the calculating professional with no regard for others and a machine-like commitment to racing. When Hunt loses his sponsorship and is unable to race, his psychological disintegration is apparent, crumpled into a heap with toy cars and a whisky bottle, and his unforgivable treatment of his wife Suzy Miller (Olivia Wilde), telling her to ‘Fuck off to New York, darling. I’m sure there’s an eyeliner or a face moisturiser that needs your vapid mush to flog it’. Yet Lauda is more interesting because of the humanisation that his association with others enables. Lauda tells Hunt at one point that Hunt is both responsible for injuries Lauda suffers, and for inspiring him to recover and get back into the race. Furthermore, the relationship Lauda forms with Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara), whom he eventually marries, creates further tension between his calculating ambition and his emotions. Who does Lauda has the closest relationship with – Marlene, Hunt, or racing?
All of these relationships are fractious, both in terms of Lauda and Hunt’s intense yet respectful rivalry, and the dangers of racing. This was the most impressive aspect of Rush for me, the vicarious experience of living through these intense lives, given extraordinary edge by the incredibly dangerous races. It would not be unreasonable to conclude from Rush that F1 racers are mad, as the film does not flinch from showing the mangled bodies and lost limbs that result from crash. Most compelling though, is the horrific crash in which Lauda’s car catches fire, leaving him hideously scarred and with scorched lungs. The scene in which Lauda’s lungs are vacuumed by the insertion of a metal tube down his throat (while he is conscious) is extremely uncomfortable to watch and helps convey the extraordinary commitment of these men.
The fact that these men are racers is somewhat beside the point, as both are motivated by something not necessarily tangible. Hunt does mention the appeal of living on the edge, the emotional high of risking everything for the sake of an electrifying win. Lauda is less explicit – the most we get is a sense of differentiating himself from his family. Both Lauda and Hunt mention the other careers they rejected in favour of racing, and the film explores the consequences of their mutual choice. Howard’s film therefore conveys both the adrenalin rush of F1 racing, and its devastating price.
Halloween and the Frightful Five
In keeping with the trend at Halloween, the next five days shall feature a series of posts detailing my top five scariest movies, why, how I understand horror and fear in films in general, and what makes these films scary for me. I am sure many will read these and say “That’s not scary!” and “What about film X or Y?” Please tell me how wrong I am, I love debate.
Horror is one of the hardest “genres” to classify, and I doubt I will offer anything definitive here. I think the reason it is so hard to define is that what frightens us varies hugely. The Exorcist is often described as the scariest movie of all time (Entertainment Weekly, Movies.com), and by at least one reknowned critic, the greatest film of all time; it could also been described as over the top and rather silly. A friend of mine is a huge horror fan and a respected horror expert, and he jumped repeatedly at The Cabin in the Woods; I laughed (that is not a criticism). I am very specifically discussing what films scare me the most, in terms of what I consider to be horror tropes and features (so such “real world” scares as Children of Men, United 93 or The Dark Knight will not be discussed here).
I was a very sensitive child so avoided horror like the plague until I was nearly twenty – reading the Penguin version of Dracula freaked me out for weeks, and when the Grand High Witch appeared in the film adaptation of The Witches I left the room. As a child of the 80s, I was the demographic the Daily Mail was “concerned” about being vulnerable to Video Nasties such as The Evil Dead and Driller Killer, but I was too much of a coward to even consider watching such things. I knew kids at school who jabbered about Freddy Krueger being much scarier than Dracula because he had knives for fingers (obviously), and I thought they were too young to see such things. Later on, I learned that there is a certain kind of pleasure in being frightened, in the safe way that horror movies provide. I think many would agree that the appeal of a horror movie is that we can be scared, but not actually hurt or placed in danger. There are of course exceptions – heart attacks at screenings of Jaws, vomiting at Alien and running out of The Exorcist and into a church.
Over the years, I’ve had scary experiences in cinemas and also from TV and video/DVD, and this fear has been due to various elements. I am susceptible to the quiet, quiet, quiet, BANG! approach to scares, provided sufficient suspense has been built up. Unlike some, I found the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street quite effective, because it built up the suspense before cutting (literally) to the chase. I find tension and suspense crucial to engaging me in dramatic scenes, be it horror, thriller, action or even melodrama. It sounds trite, but suspense needs to be built up in order for there to be interest in what happens next. I mentioned in a previous post that the criticism “I don’t care about the characters” is not one I tend to use, because what hooks me is the desire to know what the subsequent event will be or how the current event will play out. For this engagement, suspense is essential.
The limitation to the suspense-followed-by-jump approach in horror is that these shocks are very transitory, as the immediate reaction after the jump is often a laugh of relief or a quasi-angry “DON’T do that to me!” The result of this reaction is that the fear is quickly released and is followed by relief. Truly terrifying movies, like those I list here, operate on a far deeper level and the fear remains long after. In a word, the scariest movies, for me, combine suspense, shocks and are disturbing. Psychological horror, what you don’t see is far more frightening that what you do, striking deep chords, all these terms come down to something that is disturbing, and a truly terrifying movie for me is one that stays with me and leaves me feeling uncomfortable for a long time.
To wit, I shall offer my five top films that, in a series of ways, scared the bee-jesus out of me. Some honourable mentions go to those that give me the creeps, but did not quite make the Fearful Five. In no particular order, they are:
Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978)
Having seen parodies and read pieces about Halloween, it is perhaps not surprising that when I saw it the overall scare factor had been diluted. Nonetheless, it is still an affective chiller, mainly by virtue of Carpenter’s maintenance of suspense (there’s that word again), especially as Michael tends to watch his victims before attacking.
The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
Another obvious one, and one that did not scare me until I saw it on the big screen at a university showing. The scale, particularly with the sound booming around me, drew me in more than a TV viewing had, and while Jack Nicholson crowing and swinging an axe is certainly aggressive, what troubled me more was the sense of being drawn into a world that is not to be trusted. Perhaps like the character of Jack himself.
Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
In space, no one can hear you scream. In the cinema, everyone can. Alien, perhaps ironically, creates a thoroughly creepy atmosphere, with the effect that it’s almost a surprise the Nostromo needed to pick up a monstrous passenger. Shouldn’t it have been there all the time? Thoroughly unsettling.
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez, 1999)
When it first came out, this was a surprise to many people, myself included. Oddly, it isn’t until the final frames that the true fear actually gripped me, but on reflection I realised that it had been creeping up on me the whole time. I’ve only seen this film once, over ten years ago, but I still remember the absolutely chilling final image of one a character standing in the corner, waiting to die. Haunting.
The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002)
Yes, I know, sacrilege to rate the remake over the original! I don’t care, Verbinski’s film creeped me out and had me curling into my armchair. The slow-burn approach is very effective as, again, it builds up the suspense and left me waiting for something horrible to happen. And it wasn’t disappointing when it did.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974)
Remarkably bloodless, considering its title, but the sheer random brutality of this film makes it both frightening and bewildering. The moments of Leatherface running around and waving that chainsaw are comparable to a wounded animal, but the worst moment comes earlier, when he grabs one of the girls and carries her into his lair. Her screams are heartrending and make me both want to go and help her, and run away as fast as possible. Empathy can be an effective tool in horror – if someone’s fear is well expressed then it can be shared.
Wolf Creek (Gregg Mclean, 2005)
This Australian shudder-fest is a very recent addition, which I saw for the first time earlier this year. The tale of three young people and the lunatic they meet in the Outback could have been lurid and gruesome, and it is, but it is also disturbing and thoroughly creepy. There are various points when it appears to be following conventions of the slasher genre, but then takes an unexpected turn. Wolf Creek features as menacing a screen psychopath as you are ever likely to have the misfortune of running into, and the merciless sun throws the plight of the young victims into sharp contrast against the baked Australian wilderness. For it to be based on a true story is even more chilling, and I genuinely had trouble sleeping after seeing this one. No road trips across Australia for me!
“Prometheus” the Expressive Text
A little late in the day, I offer my reaction to Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s return to science fiction. It is perhaps interesting that Scott’s re-entry into the genre has been marked by a 30 year absence, filled with films from such diverse genres as crime thriller (Black Rain, American Gangster), military drama (G.I. Jane, Black Hawk Down), historical epic (1492: Conquest of Paradise, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven) and conman tragi-comedy (Matchstick Men). Yet Alien and Blade Runner cast long shadows over the director’s career, creating an initial level of anticipation for the viewer. The film’s marketing increased this anticipation, with viral marketing giving details of the Weyland-Yutani Company and snippets of the characters. The stage was set for something special, spectacular and superb.
The reaction to the film, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been mixed, but if there is a consensus, it is that Prometheus failed to live up to its hype. Plenty of online comments have lambasted the film, with such comments as: “Prometheus is a train wreck”; “Prometheus is a vacuous experience. Just well-directed nonsense with magnificent production values. Plenty of it makes little sense and one can only hope that a Blu Ray ‘Director’s Cut’ will prove more satisfying. Why did you create us? Because we could. Why do you believe? Because I choose to. These one-liners are metaphors for all of Prometheus’ secrets”; “Prometheus – Not an alien film!!!! And not good. One has to worry when the only interesting character is a freaking robot. Far too long. Nothing explained”; “Ridley Scott is a hero of mine, but Prometheus is not the intelligent, emotionally satisfying prequel that Alien deserves. It’s a derisory, empty experience – and anyone who loved Alien is surely too old and too smart to be fobbed off with something this bad just because it’s shiny”; “Alien worked because it focused on believable characters stuck in a terrible situation, without that believability the film would be greatly lessened. Prometheus, lacking that, is uninteresting”; “With a little more thought, Prometheus could have addressed the plot holes I and others have noted, and as a result been a tighter film with more tension and surprises”; “The CGI is good and the acting would be fine if the actors had been given something worthwhile to do. But every other aspect of the film was a disappointing waste of time”. Other responses go into more detail – “My God, We Were So Wrong”, “Prometheus Rising” and others. Critical response has also varied, with critics such Mark Kermode and Roger Ebert being impressed with the film, while publications such as Empire, Variety and the Guardian have been critical but not damning. The only aspect of the film to attract universal acclaim, it seems, is Michael Fassbender’s performance as the android David.
What is interesting about these responses is that they have been largely comparative, a common complaint being that Prometheus is not Alien, nor like Alien. This is fair: Prometheus does lack the slow, drip-feed menace of the earlier film, and when the scares come, they are thrills and spills rather than tension and suspense, and its action compares poorly to that of Aliens. When compared to Alien and Aliens, Prometheus does come up short. Compared to Alien 3, Alien Resurrection and (whisper it) Alien VS Predator and Alien VS Predator: Requiem, it excels.
If the rest of the franchise is left aside, however, how does Prometheus stand on its own? Many criticisms have been directed at the script, rather than the style, to which I return later, but to consider the script first, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof’s screenplay does lack characterisation, or character detail and distinctiveness. The simple reason for this is that there are too many characters – 17 in total, but many are disposable and could have been amalgamated, providing less cannon fodder (or should that be alien food?), which would have increased the tension as the major characters have less to hide behind.
In terms of the major characters though, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and Captain Janek (Idris Elba) are fine, and Fassbender’s David is a great character, superbly played, and a useful expression of the film’s major themes, to which I shall return later. As Peter Weyland, Guy Pearce (under a tonne of prosthetic make-up) is somewhat wasted. Indeed, considering David’s interest in Lawrence of Arabia, it is a missed opportunity that the role of Weyland is not played by Peter O’Toole (who recently announced his retirement from acting).
These responses highlighted a common issue for me in film analysis. Characterisation is not a major concern for me, a position that I find interesting as it appears to be unusual. For years, I have been irritated by the complaint: “I didn’t care about any of the characters”, because this concern, to me, is given disproportionate weight. Why is it necessary to care about the characters when there are events going on? What is going to happen next has always been more important to me than to whom it happens. For example, in relation to The Dark Knight Rises, I want to know what will happen to Batman (Will he live or die? Will he retire from crime fighting? Will it end with him going back on the job?), but am less concerned about what character development there may be. Similarly, with Prometheus my interest and enjoyment of the film are related to what will they find on the planet and how will they deal with it.
I may be demonstrating the accuracy of a stereotypical male response, simplified as “men like plot, women like character” and oversimplified as “Men like action, women like story”. I cannot speak for men in general, but for me, plot and story are more significant than character. This is not to say I have no interest in character – I find many characters fascinating especially those in the films of Michael Mann that I have analysed in great detail. Character is one pleasure within texts, but I do not regard it as essential – the progression of events is just as rich a pleasure for me.
One comment that my position invites is “If you don’t care about the people you’re watching then why spend your time watching them?” It’s a good question – if I am not overly concerned about the people onscreen, what am I getting out of the experience? My enjoyment for events over people is not as straightforward as plot point A to plot point B to plot point C, they need to be presented in an engaging fashion, and it is this presentation that is crucial to the specific enjoyment of cinema, at least for me. The medium of film employs a multitude of techniques, features and elements, and it is the combination of these elements that makes film work.
Furthermore, I think there is a certain responsibility on both sides – films and viewers work together to create meaning, theory, analysis and audience studies have demonstrated that film viewers are not simply passive receptacles. Characters can indeed be under-developed by screenwriters, unsympathetically or unconvincingly played by actors and edited out of films – perhaps more of Charlize Theron’s Meredith Vickers was left on the cutting room floor, for example. But if you do not care about a character, might this not be down to your own reaction, taste or personality as much as the film text itself? It seems unfair to blame the film for not presenting a character that you will care about, because how could the filmmakers possibly know what every possible viewer will need from a character to care about them? A response to this is that “good writing always means good characters, so when I don’t care about the characters it’s because the writing is bad.” To me this is too easy, simplistic and a little arrogant – good and bad writing are not determined by objective standards, however much we like to believe they are. Good writing is good writing? Character is character? According to what? To whom? Who decides these things? Critics? Academics? Audiences? None of these groups collectively agree, so is there not space in textual, cultural, aesthetic, artistic appreciation for all views, responses and positions?
For me, all elements of a filmic text, including the plot, character, mise-en-scene, editing, sound and cinematography, are tools for the presentation of the film’s meaning. What matters to me, what makes a film (or any text) engaging, is the meaning within it, i.e. the sub-text and themes. One of the first academic essays I ever wrote on film was concerned with the power of sub-text, and I didn’t do very well because I discussed sub-plot as much as sub-text. Perhaps this early career trauma (ha ha) made me more sensitive to sub-text and it has become a major source of pleasure for me in film – what is this film actually about. It may be deep and complex issues like those in Prometheus, and they may be explored in greater depth as in 2001: A Space Odyssey, or it can be a simpler notion of learning about one’s own courage or how do two people get together, as a great many films are. How that central question plays out, for me, is what I want to see on screen.
To return to Prometheus, criticisms have identified the plot holes, but perhaps these holes are strengths – the narrative involves a quest for ultimate knowledge, answers to the ultimate questions, but instead grand narrative proves unreliable, leaving only incomplete interpretations and speculation. This may be too generous – the plot holes are there and the script is patchy at best. But visually and stylistically, the film is stunning – as expansive and looming a use of an alien planet’s environment as Star Wars or Avatar, and Scott makes great use of 3D in his signature world-building. More importantly, these are not empty visuals or style for style’s sake – they serve the film’s central premise (according to my interpretation) of people getting out of their depth, largely due to their own hubris, scientific and otherwise. This thematic conceit is expressed visually through the location filming (Iceland), the grand sets, and the deep focus potential of 3D. My impression when viewing the film was one of being overwhelmed, on a regular cinema screen but in 3D. 3D is a tricky cinematic device, vastly overused and often for no good reason, but in the case of certain cinematic worlds, such as those of Avatar, Hugo and Prometheus, it does add something.
Indeed, this sense of being overwhelmed and engulfed is a common visual and thematic trope of Ridley Scott’s oeuvre. From the expanses of the South-West USA in Thelma & Louise to the grandeur of Rome in Gladiator, as well as Jerusalem in Kingdom of Heaven and the rain-soaked cityscape of Blade Runner, the horrific urban war zone of Black Hawk Down and of course the claustrophobic interior of the Nostromo in Alien, time and again Scott depicts people in environments that threaten to subsume them, both mentally and physically. Fear, courage, resolve, determination, panic and eventual defeat or triumph are juxtaposed against these odds, and Prometheus develops this idea further when the Engineers prove to be anything by benevolent. Prometheus therefore continues the director’s interest in environments that are both beautiful and terrifying, overwhelming the people within them, landscape manifesting the overpowering forces that the characters encounter. Rarely has this been more apparent than in Prometheus, which perhaps might have been better named “Icarus”, as the explorers indeed fly too near the sun and are severely scorched – indeed two spacecraft rise and subsequently fall. This is one of the main ideas in the film, which for me is its ultimate and considerable strength. It is a film of ideas, as the most interesting science fiction films frequently are: where, what and who do we come from? Why do we exist? How do we regard and react to our creators/parents? And that old favourite, what does it mean to be human?
Through its exploration of these ideas, largely through visual devices and techniques, utilising the expressive potential of cinema, I suggest that Prometheus will make a very useful study text for film studies courses. When asking students the initial questions about what makes film work, it makes sense to present them with something that depends on its filmic expression for meaning. At the other end of the scale is another 2012 release, Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg), which is largely dialogue-based and has a very restrained visual palette. Prometheus utilises cinematography, mise-en-scene, sound and editing for the major exploration of its thematic material, so I would certainly show it to students with the directive to look, see and interpret, rather than focus on the (admittedly apparent) shortcomings of the writing.
With its combination of big questions and horrific answers, I would class Prometheus as the offspring of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Alien, perhaps midwifed by Blade Runner. Doubtless many fans of these classics would lambast me for comparing Prometheus to them favourably. I doubt Prometheus will become a classic of the genre as these have, it is unlikely to join the ranks occupied by The Terminator and Aliens, Star Wars and The Day The Earth Stood Still, but it is a science fiction film willing to ask big questions, and leave us pondering the answers. That, for me, is reason to applaud it, and to teach it.
“Titanic” – 3D or IMAX/Positive or Negative?
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…