My Mood Piece on ‘Titanic’

One of the many pleasures of rewatching movies is that you discover somethng new every time. And I don’t mean just what’s on screen. Repeated exposure to what you thought was a familiar narrative will reveal things you hadn’t noticed before, or, when you’ve seen it enough times, make you concentrate on aspects, whether technical, narrative or otherwise, that you were initially too engaged in the story arc to ponder deeply. (For an example of this, see my examination of how my almost compulsive rewatching of David Fincher’s The Social Network changed and expanded my experience of the movie.)

I’m also talking about how the experiences we bring into a movie from the outset will change our perception of it over time. I tried to illustrate this by going back to the Swedish movie Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998) a couple of years ago. When I rewatched it after more than ten years, with the mass hysteria long since past, and with my own experiences of what it means to be a questioning young gay person, I felt like I was finally able to understand some of the deeper meanings of the love story between its protagonists, Agnes and Elin. With what I now brought to the viewing, I could perceive it as a gay love story, whereas as a young teenager, I had been more or less oblivious to how both of them were actually questioning their sexuality.

To regular readers of this blog, both of these observations will seem like old news, and neither are exactly revolutionary new insights. But this month’s theatrical re-release of Titanic, James Cameron’s bombastic 1997 melodrama, made the value of rewatching clearer to me than perhaps ever before. What follows, therefore, is not a traditional review of the movie, so much as it an attempt to understand how and why my views on the movie have changed over time. (For a proper review we would have had to delve into Billy Zane’s amusing caricature of a British aristocrat; or the cinematographic gorgeousness of the sun deck strolls that anchor Rose’s and Jack’s relationship; or how Kate Winslet’s intense performance crosses paths with the strong female heroine conventions of a certain subset of sci-fi horror movies in a memorable scene involving an axe, vaguely reminiscent of another Cameron movie, Aliens; so yeah, that’ll have to wait for another day)

I have written about my long-held infatuation with the movie from a variety of angles already, be it my deeply-rooted Early Gay Crush on Leonardo DiCaprio, or how I completely bought into the marketing hype surrounding The Biggest and Most Expensive Movie Ever Made (for a sarcastic look at the marketing of the film, I recommend British movie critic Mark Kermode’s rant in his book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex, 2011) to how its signature music number (Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On) illustrates why I often need music to release whatever emotional reaction a movie  has given me, and thus, I’ll try not to repeat all of it here. But all of these factors of course played a role when I went to see it in a movie theater for the first time in fourteen years (it didn’t premiere in Norway until February 1998). In a way, I felt like I was reconnecting with my twelve-and-a-half year old self, except this time it was through the dusty lens of nostalgia. The sensation rippling through my body as I took in the fact that I would get to marvel over Leo’s beauty for three hours was no longer that of a confused but secretly grateful pre-gay, and in contrast to the last time I waited for the lights to go down, I knew what to expect. I went in knowing about the strengths and weaknesses of the movie, and how its seminal moments and lines (“I’m the king of the world!”; “You have to promise me you’ll never let go”; Rose answering “Dawson” when asked about her last name) had made its historical reception almost immune to the categories of good or bad.

Or at least I thought I knew what awaited me. I knew that I would still be irked by the slow set-up, Cameron’s fetishistic hang-up on the architecture of the ship, and the (at least initially) somewhat clunky way the story is framed through the memories of the old Rose (played by Gloria Stuart) retelling her story. And, to some extent, I recognized all of that. I was initially satisfied that my mind hadn’t completely changed over the four years since I had last caught the movie on television. It was only later, towards the very end of a movie that I until this point and going forward will take for granted that every reader has seen and does remember, that I understood that my perception of the movie’s greater themes had changed. Changed  even to an extent that I had to revise my deep skepticism toward Titanic‘s narrative framework.

I had settled to the fact that I would always be somewhat annoyed that the movie didn’t do more to disguise how it was so obviously out to manipulate my feelings; that it felt no shame in spelling out not only exactly what I was supposed to feel at any given moment, but also what every line in the script, every frame, was supposed to mean. To understand how what I had always considered weaknesses of the movie was now suddenly turned into deeply emotional moments and cinematic strengths, I have to return to the previous point about how our changing life experiences will invariably affect our perception of a movie. Over the last nine months or so, I think I have developed a greater patience with and respect for movies that try to deal with the concepts of loss, remembrance and all-encompassing love, pretty much regardless of how elegantly it is executed. I haven’t abandoned my urge for movies to push the envelope, only supplemented it with a higher tolerance for humanist pretentions.

I think I noticed it for the first time with Mike Mills’ Beginners (2011) last fall, how that movie’s struggle with a life cut short at the exact moment when it felt most honest and truthful – Christopher Plummer’s dying gay father had recently made a life-altering realization that liberated him, in much the same way Rose’s admission that she loved Jack allowed her to act in accordance with that realization, tragic consequences be damned – spoke to me on an emotional level, no doubt influenced by a sense of loss I had myself experienced. Which brings me to the final few scenes of Titanic, the ones that are supposed to justify the use of old Rose as a framing device for the love story; the very aspect of the movie I had been most skeptical of just a few years earlier. I still didn’t care about the search for the diamond, but suddenly I was deeply moved by what the value of retelling her story had to Rose. At one point, the crew tells her that the official records show no signs of a Jack Dawson, which, she tells them, is only natural, since he wasn’t supposed to be on the ship in the first place. But then old Rose says, “He exists now only in my memory.” What I once wrote off as a banal and over-written line from the infamously banal over-writer extraordinaire James Cameron (Avatar!), now struck me as elevating Titanic to a new level of artistic merit.

By the utterance of that simple line, Titanic came alive to me as a sincere meditation on remembrance; about how Cameron, by telling the story of the sinking ship through the eyes of a fictional couple had managed to make us care about the victims and the survivors as individuals, not just as numbers in a statistic, or as historical artefacts in a spectacular setting. Rose’s words are ones I think we can all relate to; how we all feel, and in some sense have the responsibility to, keep the memory of people lost and loved alive. And if no one will do it, these people will either be forgotten entirely, or what remains of their memory will be so simplified as to be unrepresentative. If not us, who? Thus, when Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), the leader of the expedition and an obvious stand-in for Cameron himself, says                                                                                                                         that, “[For] three years, I’ve thought of nothing except Titanic; but I never got it… I never let it in”, I’m right there with him. The way I “let Titanic in” had just changed, too.

Is there a moral to this story? I don’t know. Maybe that I’ve come to appreciate movies more on a gut level. Maybe that the old saying about how “the movie is created in the meeting with the audience” is true. But most of all, I would say this: Dear filmmakers, by all means, I encourage you to take chances, to push the envelope, to challenge the limits of the medium of cinema in order to push it forward. But at the same time, if you think you’ve got a piece of classic, melodramatic storytelling in your hands, don’t hold back; don’t be afraid to be banal or sentimental. If you thread carefully, it might come off as profound. You just might create something that not only resonates broadly, but which in the end transcends good and bad. If that’s what Michael Curtiz did with Casablanca, then I’d say that’s also what James Cameron did with Titanic.

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6 Responses to My Mood Piece on ‘Titanic’

  1. boyslikeme says:

    Wow. Excellently written – made me take a second look at a film I wrote off long ago, but also brought back strong memories of Leo-arousal. I remember seeing him as a pre-gay in Romeo and Juliet, there was no turning back after that!

    Anyway, an incredible read – thanks!

    • queerlefty says:

      Thank you so much for those kind words.

      Titanic is certainly worth a second look – if you can look past all the obvious corniness, it hides a surprisingly heartfelt love and life story, and an expertly executed disaster movie. We of course agree on Leo’s dreaminess. I had discovered him in R&J as well, but it was Titanic that really cemented my crush on him. He was one of my truly influential early gay crushes.

  2. I liked how you connected “Titanic” with “Beginners,” highlighting the relationships cut short by circumstances, then connecting that to your personal loss. Thanks for the insight, I never thought of it that way.

    “Titanic” was released when I hadn’t yet moved to the U.S. I only heard about it because of the infamous nude scene from schoolmates. After finally sneaking into a theater with a friend and watching it, I remember I felt so… naughty, for the lack of a better word, afterwards. Granted, I was able to only understand a few words of English but the sense of accomplishment felt too clear. 1) The fact that the movie wasn’t intended for people my age and 2) Seeing Rose naked! As for #2, in retrospect, I don’t see why it was such a big deal. I mean, I saw breasts prior to that, but I guess it was more about finally knowing what everyone was on about. Of course, my attention was more on Leo anyway! It made me more excited to move to America because I thought all guys looked like him. (Much to my disappointment…)

    • queerlefty says:

      Franz,

      I loved your story! I know you deal almost exclusively in review, which you do with a remarkable skill and a keen eye for both technical aspects, the impact of narrative choices and a clever way to pepper the dreary plot summary with analytical observations, but I think you should write a short, personal essay on that particular part of your history with Titanic. Your readers would love it, I’m sure, and it also tells something about how our love of movies 1) can be shaped and hardened (no pun intended) at a young age and 2) often transcends the spectacle of the movie itself. Thanks for sharing.

      As for your quips about the nude scenes, If I’m not mistaken, I’m a few years older than you (?), but even in my Norwegian schoolyard (I was 12 at the time), there were whispers about the nudity. And, like you, when I got to see the movie, I realized that I was much more attracted to Leo.

      That said, Kate Winslet! Wow, is she beautiful. And probably the best actress of her generation.

      • You know, I have been thinking about writing a little something, not necessarily an essay (gosh, I can barely focus my thought into one paragraph), over summer. The topic would be somewhere along the lines of 5 to 10 movies that I saw as a child that had great impact on me, without a doubt, “Titanic” being one of them.

        I guess I’m more comfortable writing a review and putting something personal in there once in a while. But I just might make an exception. Thanks for the kind words.

        Lately, I’ve been wanting to see movies of Kate Winslet before “Titanic.” I think I might start with “Heavenly Creatures” before diving into plays and period dramas.

      • queerlefty says:

        Franz, here’s to hoping you follow through on the thought of writing about movies that had an impact on you growing up. Personally, I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a series of posts about the movies that shaped my current views on cinema, and what made me love it so much and expend so much time on it. I’ve written about several of the most important movies in my formative canon already (Stand By Me, Mysterious Skin, Almost Famous, Fight Club, and I mentioned the Mighty Ducks movies in my Joshua Jackson EGC), but there’s also The Godfather, Magnolia (I don’t think you liked it?), Men in Black, etc.

        As far as Winslet goes, I’d start with Heavenly Creatures. It’s the best and to my mind, the most influential of her early work. I can see traces of the mood of HC in movies even today.

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