The other day I became one of the last people on the planet to watch Titanic. Matt Schneider in Chronicle 132 (April 11, 1998) having already provided a persuasive anthropological explanation of the film’s popularity, I felt free to explore an auxiliary question: that of the tension between “high” and “popular,” cinematic and literate, within popular cinema itself. Now that I can follow en connaissance de cause the debate begun by LA Times critic Kenneth Turan‘s crack that director James Cameron should have been kept away from the word processor, that is, that this master of high-tech is not a true man of letters, I find that it nicely epitomizes this tension.
Rereading not only Turan’s review of Titanic but a good many others, amateur and professional, most favorable, some not, I was struck by a dearth of what might be called literary sensibility. In the eyes of these reviewers, the accurate depiction of smokestacks or propellers is more relevant to the value of the film than its narrative coherence. None of them bothered to make the sort of points about the film that an undergraduate English major would be expected to make about a novel, presumably because those who were able to do so found such points irrelevant to evaluating a work of popular culture. This is just as true of Turan as of the unsophisticated admirers who claimed to have seen the film 20 times. Cameron’s strongly reasoned critique of Turan as forsaking his role of movie reviewer for that of cultural prophet was in fact understated: Turan’s “literary” potshots at the film betrayed no sophisticated literary sensibility. Criticizing pseudo-poetic dialogue like “sooner or later the fire I love about you is going to burn out” in a movie love scene strikes me as churlish; attention to stylistic details is the lowest level of critical discourse.
What then are the real flaws of Titanic? Many fault its crude sociology, which opposes the stuffy rich to the lovable poor nearly without nuance. And there is a titanic abuse of “poetic license” that extends well beyond the energetic action scenes in (and under) ice-cold water. A seventeen-year-old girl from a good family, even a reader of Freud (!), who danced and drank the night away with the proles in steerage would simply have been locked in her cabin for the remainder of the trip; yet Rose escapes her family and class again and again. The film’s romance is a fairy tale. Yet to demand a more nuanced story in which (for example) Jack would sail first class but remain an unacceptable suitor because incapable of replenishing the family fortune would be to ask Cameron to become Edith Wharton.
But extrinsic criteria aside, there is a major flaw in the plot in its own terms. Our hypothetical English major would no doubt zero in on the priceless French diamond “Le Coeur de la Mer” [heart of the sea]. The recovery of the diamond is, after all, the enabling motive of the plot; it is this treasure the explorers seek in the wreckage, and that old Rose throws overboard in the final scene that precedes what we take to be her death. The jewel, somewhat like Henry James‘s “golden bowl,” is a metaphor of the story itself, the precious gift of narrative that the heroine confides to us and whose return to the sea prefigures her own return among the Titanic passengers in the–genuinely moving–final sequence.
It is with respect to this key plot element that the film commits its most unforgivable narrative error–one unmentioned in all the reviews I read. The body of the film is, we recall, constituted by Rose’s account of her adventure to the explorer Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), who is interested above all in the diamond. Just before the sinking, Cal, Rose’s fiancé, exclaims that he left the diamond necklace in the overcoat he had thrown over Rose’s shoulders. (We may ignore the fact that Rose herself could not have witnessed this particular conversation.) When in the final sequence Rose holds the necklace before dropping it into the sea, we get a flashback to her discovering it in the coat while standing on the deck of the rescue ship. But we already know it was in the coat, and Lovett must know it too. How then could he have neglected to ask Rose what happened to that coat?
This is precisely the sort of narrative detail the viewer caught up in the rush of events is likely to miss; I thought of it only after the film was over. But it is nonetheless a lacuna, and one that could easily have been not only repaired but turned to advantage by a more sophisticated screenwriter. It would have sufficed to have Rose “tell” us that she lost the coat with the diamond necklace in its pocket. Then the final shot of the necklace in her hand would be a surprise revelation of the single lie, the one element of “fiction” in Rose’s presumably truthful narrative of the shipwreck. Constructing the plot around the diamond is indeed a fine idea, a tribute to Cameron’s narrative instinct, but this instinct in Cameron the writer is not sustained by the same meticulousness of execution that Cameron the director displays in the reproduction of physical detail.
The grain of truth in Turan’s curmudgeonly remarks is that emphasis on the viewer’s visceral experience of the story has needlessly led to the neglect of the film’s narrative coherence. A moving picture’s technical details must be faithful to history because the viewer is sure to notice them. The accuracy of these details, which correspond to the descriptive passages Balzac was first to insert into novelistic narrative, is indispensable to the imaginary scene on which the story takes place; it would take but one obvious flaw for the beautifully reconstructed ship to reveal itself a mere stage set. Weaknesses in narrative structure fall into a different category. Even when they constitute overt self-contradictions, we tend to accept the human interactions we see on screen. Whereas things must be “as they are,” humans become what they do. When a character speaks, it requires considerable effort of the will to stand outside the film and pass judgment on the probability of his statement. This is all the more so in the case of a sin of omission such as Lovett’s failure to follow up on the diamond in the overcoat.
This suggests a new elucidation of the opposition between “high” and “popular” culture. The contrast between description and narration is not simply that between spatial and temporal, synchronic and diachronic. Such a metaphysical interpretation neglects the anthropological basis of metaphysics. The spatial, synchronic object of description is opposed to the temporal, diachronic object of narration as the world of things–Sartre’s en-soi–is opposed to the world of human (inter)action “pour soi,” that is, for itself. This by no means implies that popular culture is about things and high culture is about people–all culture is “about” human beings. But descriptive accuracy creates a sense of reality that need not but may serve as a spurious guarantee for the utopian resolution of resentment characteristic of popular art, whereas narrative coherence implies precisely the ironic demystification of such utopian “fictional” elements. In the heroic era of the nineteenth-century novel, the referent of “realistic” description was presented not as a thing-world in itself but as a sedimentary product of human interaction. It is in this sense that we can accept Gyorgy Lukács‘ Marxist preference for Balzac’s “dialectical” realism of over the “fetishistic” naturalism of Zola.
Cinema simplifies these categories and their opposition. The submission of Zola’s characters to the thing-world, as epitomized in his insistence on hereditary rather than mimetic determination of the objects of their desire, weakens our sense of their humanity, but does not disturb the narrative logic of Zola’s novels. The most superficial popular romance is able to maintain this logic. But when we are faced with a multi-million-dollar production that includes a 90% scale model, computerized water, and undersea shots of the original ship, this logic seems a relic of the precinematic days when the reader could turn back to a previous page to check the story-line. In the world of contemporary cinema (awaiting that of full-fledged virtual reality), the illusion of experiential truth is so strong that the details of narrative logic can be neglected with impunity. This does not mean that the story is not essential to the film. Yet, in the present example, we and our surrogate Lovett can lose sight of the jewel that is the narrative itself, provided that it be recovered and, at the very end, sacrificed by the narrator.
Unlike most reviewers, I thought Gloria Stewart‘s performance as “old Rose” did great damage to the film. (Cameron would have done far better just to put some makeup on Kate Winslet and let her play “herself.”) Stewart’s sprightliness, while admirable at 87–her real age in 1997–was altogether inappropriate in a woman of 101 years. She spoke her–often embarrassingly stilted–lines with blithe serenity and lack of emotional tone, like someone reading a novel aloud. Stewart never allowed us to imagine that she was the same woman as Kate Winslet’s character until the concluding scene when, at last “letting go” of life, she returned the diamond to the heart of the sea in exchange for a final moment of love’s fulfillment on the reconstituted Titanic. Our experience of this final apotheosis is so intense that our “intradiegetic” surrogate Lovett’s inconsistency and even Stewart’s wooden acting are simply forgotten.
It is nonetheless the duty of “literary” criticism to remind the film’s creator of narrative flaws, for however irrelevant they may be to the immediate effect, our belated consciousness of them diminishes the remembered experience to which a more coherent construction would allow us to return with greater and more subtle pleasure. This is Turan’s justification in deploring Titanic’s carelessness with the literary, however inappropriate it was for him to have given free rein to his resentment of the cinematic values that overwhelm it.