Next Wednesday is the 86th anniversary of the sinking of the British passenger liner R.M.S. Titanic. This year, the nation’s attention will be more intensely focused on this grim remembrance than it has for the last 84 years or so because of the runaway success of James Cameron‘s Titanic, a 3 1/2 hour fictionalization of the disaster. For the last four months the world has been gripped by Titanic fever: in March the film won 11 Academy Awards, tying the record set by Ben-Hur (1959) for most awards to a single movie. Earlier this week I heard a news report that an Australian woman has seen the film 100 times, and plans to keep returning to her neighborhood cinema until she reaches 150 showings. Purportedly the most expensive film ever made, Titanic is also the biggest money-maker ever: by the time the totals from foreign markets and video sales are all in, the film is projected to earn more than $1.2 billion.
Every year has its movie megablockbusters, of course, but the reaction Titanic has met with is of a different magnitude than the hoopla stirred by the big films of the past few years such as Jurassic Park and Independence Day. The moviegoing public’s immediate and overwhelming response to Titanic leads one to suspect that the film somehow touches on the originary themes that these columns seek to explicate. Does GA have something to tell us about the origins of Titanic hysteria? What roles do love and resentment play in this film, now touted as the Gone with the Wind of the second half of the twentieth century?
If pressed to account for it, film-industry insiders would probably attribute the success of Titanic to Cameron’s having infused a traditional Hollywood “epic” with a 1990s sensibility–no easy task, since ours is an era in which epic grandeur is inevitably viewed with suspicion. There is some truth to this assessment, but as I hope to show, it only hints–if you’ll pardon the pun–at the film’s deeper, originary dimensions. By cinematic standards, the film can be called an epic by virtue primarily of its length–194 minutes. Cameron also amplifies the event’s Odyssean echoes by setting the story of the sinking within a frame, in which a Titanic survivor named Rose recounts the disaster for a group of modern-day treasure hunters attempting to salvage a priceless necklace from the wreck. Rose’s is a classic love story–classic in the sense that she’s at the center of a love triangle. The competition for Rose is not, however, between equals; and in this respect Cameron updates the classic triangular configuration by infusing it with what contemporary academics like to call “issues of gender and class.” Rose defiantly smokes cigarettes and amuses herself by spitting off the side of the ship, thereby announcing herself a proto-feminist. At one corner of the love triangle stands her fiancé Cal, who embodies all the evils of patriarchy: when a waiter asks for Rose’s dinner order, Cal orders for her. At the other corner is Jack, an egalitarian bohemian, whose human authenticity is evinced by his confusion at the plethora of silverware with which he is confronted in the first-class dining salon.
The point of this and many of the film’s stark juxtapositions of the ship’s two worlds–the stilted, sterile confines of first-class staterooms and promenades and the warm, violent confines of steerage–is to guarantee that the story has a certain kind of relevance for today’s moviegoer. In previous cinematic depictions of the Titanic disaster, the story’s relevance for its audience lay in its unquestionable capability to stir the tragic emotions of pity and fear. Perhaps spooked by reports of young people laughing at Schindler’s List, Cameron seems less confident of his audience’s ability to forge a mimetic identification with women in Victorian gowns and men in evening clothes than was the director of A Night to Remember (1953). Cameron’s solution to this problem is to evoke love for the protagonists via negativa: we are asked to love and pity Rose and Jack because everything around them, including the ship itself, is hateful. Its hatefulness, however, is not solely derived from the technological hubris that Titanic‘s builders manifested in calling the ship “unsinkable.” Cameron’s Titanic shows its hubris primarily in the human realm: consistent with the venerable literary trope of ship as microcosm of society, on this Titanic manners, refinement, and technological and architectural ostentation are the signs of what our culture views as unforgivable sins, classist and sexist oppression. For Cameron, the great ship sinks not because it symbolizes man’s overreaching, but because it is a floating anti-egalitarian institution. In interviews, Cameron has called Titanic “a cautionary tale.” To a much greater extent than in previous films based on the disaster, however, Cameron portrays the ship as itself a kind of villain, a wrongdoer who must be sacrificed in the name of progress and the common good.
As readers of this column know, however, lurking in even the most outwardly justifiable sacrifice is always some pity for the victim; originary analysis sees this pity as a source of at least one of the varieties of love. At the film’s climax, Cameron’s Titanic pathetically groans and writhes like a wounded animal in its death throes; and, unlike other film treatments of the disaster, this one does not avert its gaze from horrible scope of the disaster. After the ship slips beneath the surface, the camera slowly pulls back to a panoramic view of the thousand or so life-jacketed people who will shortly die of exposure in the near-freezing water. Seemingly despite Cameron’s intentions, Titanic embodies the ambivalence that inevitably clings to all sacrifices, in which the demands of justice collide with the tragic emotions of pity and fear, emotions which are only a step away from love.
But there is yet another way in which love enters into Cameron’s retelling of the sinking of Titanic, one in which mimesis also plays a crucial part and in which lies the real source of the film’s appeal. By making Titanic–again, supposedly the most expensive movie in history–Cameron realized the dream of every American boy who, introduced via the movies to the high drama and cosmic ironies of the great ship’s construction and demise, saved his weekly allowance, bought Revell’s 1/350th scale model of the RMS Titanic, built it, and sank it in the bathtub. Given the amount of pre-release publicity surrounding the making of this film, the success of a tie-in book chronicling Titanic‘s production, and the flimsiness of the love plot, one suspects that all Cameron really wanted from this film was to do again, but on a titanic scale, what he had done as a boy: build the largest and most detailed model of the Titanic ever, and then sink it. And this is, in fact, precisely what he did. Its extraordinarily high budget notwithstanding, there is comparatively little special-effects magic in Titanic: though the film employs its share of computer animation and other, more established tricks of the trade, its astonishing verisimilitude is almost entirely created by its set, a floating 9/10ths scale model of the ship itself that Cameron built next to a sleepy Mexican beach town. When Rose and Jack amble along the promenade deck, the background that recedes into the distance isn’t an illusion created by blue-screen projection, matte photography, or mirrors. The ship looks big because it is big. Having built it, Cameron then destroyed this “set” during the filming of the sinking sequences, as the lovingly faithful reproductions of the ship’s interiors were flooded one by one. The Revell model, which when I bought it cost $4.95, clearly wasn’t enough for James Cameron. He has earned this one-time model kit builder’s admiration–an admiration not unmixed with envy–for persuading others to finance the most elaborate and expensive modeling project the world has ever seen.
I have commented several times on some of the differences between Cameron’s Titanic and previous representations of this memorable story. Finally, though, the difference between Cameron’s film and the others lies in the degree to which this director has followed what we might call the originary imperative to minimize representational deferral, to transcend the sign and become the thing itself. In Poetics Aristotle wrote that “the habit of imitating is congenital to human beings from childhood (actually man differs from the other animals in that he is the most imitative and learns his first lessons through imitation).” The other kind of love that Titanic expresses is the love of imitation itself, the source of the child’s seemingly boundless fascination with the miniaturized world of dolls and toy trucks. From the standpoint of GA, the sexiness of its stars–the teenage heartthrob appeal of Leonardo Di Caprio, for instance–alone cannot explain Titanic‘s appeal and staying power.
My point is not to denigrate Titanic or those who, perhaps for the first time, have been touched by what happened on that cold April night 86 years ago. As Cameron reminded the viewers of the Academy Awards ceremony, behind his film and its phenomenal success is an actuality of unfathomable horror–more than 1500 people lost their lives. The pathos alone of that actuality is insufficient, however, to account for the film’s success; the secret of its appeal lies in the potent mix of love and resentment–the titanic forces that emerge in the event of human origin–that Titanic manages to evoke.