Meditations on Movies: James Cameron and ‘Titanic’

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Release Date: December 19, 1997
Runtime: 194 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox / Paramount Pictures
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio; Kate Winslet; Billy Zane; Kathy Bates; Frances Fisher; Victor Garber; Gloria Stuart

In the spirit of Oscar season, I thought I would revisit some previous Academy Award winners in the days leading up to the 85th Annual Academy Awards ceremony. This won’t be so much of a “review,” since this particular film has ingrained itself so thoroughly in the public consciousness, but more of a treatise on the merits of James Cameron’s 1997 disaster epic-cum-love story.

I won’t go into the story o much since we all know what happens. The year is 1912 and the “unsinkable” R.M.S. Titanic, the largest and most luxurious cruise liner ever built, is embarking on its maiden voyage. All classes of English society are on board, from the filthy rich first class (represented by Kate Winslet’s Rose DeWitt) all the way down to the steerage class poor (represented by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack Dawson). Everything is going along swimmingly, Jack and Rose meet cute and everyone has hope in their hearts that a new, better life in America awaits. Then the ship hits the iceberg and all hell breaks loose. You know the rest.

Say what you will about James Cameron, but the man can make a movie! From “The Abyss” to “Terminator 2” to “True Lies,” the man knows how to make a mass-market piece of entertainment that is both intelligent and exciting. He doesn’t solely rely on blowing shit up real good, a la Michael Bay, but cares about his story and creating engaging, relatable characters. Granted, there’s only so much you can relate to in “Terminator 2,” but I related to that movie a lot more than “Transformers 2.” His movies tend to have an ounce of subtext to them, be it the yearning to live one’s own life despite the rigors of classist society in turn of the century England (“Titanic”), or a discourse on the pillaging and destruction of Earth’s resources (“Avatar”). His films are, for the majority, carefully thought out and meticulously rendered pieces of social commentary disguised as mass entertainment.

That’s not to say he doesn’t give the audience what they want when it comes to movie screen–sized mayhem. In “Titanic,” for example, the final descent of the ship into the ocean is an awe-inspiring spectacle to behold, providing the experience of wonderment (even though we know most of the people on board are going to perish) that only watching a big movie on the big screen can provide. If you take yourself out of the story for a moment, think about being an extra, or Kate or Leo for that matter, in that scene. Can you imagine the production surrounding you? The cameras all set up, the lights, the hundreds of crewmembers all buzzing about, everyone working to create a one-of-a-kind piece of cinema. It’s times like that when you truly feel the power of the movies as escapist entertainment.

Movies made on this scale are becoming more and more commonplace these days, but in 1997, “Titanic” was an extraordinary undertaking. With a budget of $200 million, this was the most expensive movie made in the 20th century*. Good thing the film had a worldwide gross of $1.8 billion*. Specially made tanks for the water scenes, model work, hundreds of extras, intricate digital effects work, a spiraling budget (the movie was originally budgeted at $135 million*)…this thing must have been a nightmare from a producer’s perspective. I remember before this movie was released reading all about the negative buzz and hearing that this movie was going to “sink.” Cameron proved everyone wrong, in a big way! It’s interesting to note that I seem to recall some similar buzz surrounding his “Avatar” years later, which turned out to be another record-breaker.

Kudos must be given to the actors in “Titanic,” as well. Kate and Leo became bona fide movie stars due to their participation in this film. And they were great! They imbued their characters with hearts and souls and the audience completely bought their doomed romance. You can sense the easy chemistry that these two had with each other and the “we’re in this together” bond that they must have shared during production. By the time the movie came to its conclusion, the audience was emotionally involved in their story and were devastated when Jack gave up his life so that Rose could live. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. (I recall sobbing like a little girl whose doll had just lost its head!) The secondary characters, including Frances Fisher as Rose’s mother, Billy Zane, smoking hot as Rose’s evil fiancé, and Oscar-nominee Gloria Stuart, as older Rose, are perfectly cast and are in complete sync with Cameron’s vision. Of course, the main actors get all the attention, and they were definitely put through the ringer on this one. But the background actors endured as well, submitting to being soaking wet day after day while filming the water scenes (which must have been yet another nightmare, this time for the continuity person).

But aside from the spectacle of the movie, the legendary lines (“I’m the king of the wooooooooorld!”), and the innate fascination with the history of the Titanic, this is really a love story…and a beautifully realized one. Jack and Rose are soul mates, whose deep love might never have been realized if not for their fateful voyage on the Titanic. The fact that their romance is a tragic one almost makes it more profound. I dare anyone not to well up with tears when Jack lets go of that floating door upon which Rose is freezing, or when, during the breathtaking final scene, Rose tosses The Heart of the Ocean into the water and the camera swoops down and tracks along the Titanic wreckage as it comes back to colorful life and Rose and Jack dance once again at the top of the Grand Staircase. It is, quite simply, the perfect close to a pretty much perfect movie.

*courtesy Internet Movie Database

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