Published December 1, 1997
This month should be called easy morality month. No sooner do we get finished watching as Steven Spielberg proves to us with incredible but not untypical supererogation and at nearly two and a half hours length that slavery is iniquitous than we step into James Cameron’s Titanic and find that it takes nearly three and a half hours to prove that the Anglo-American upper classes of 1912 were evil snobs, cowards and oppressors of women. Well that takes care of slave-traders and rich people. Now all we need is a good old-fashioned anti-Nazi picture and we’re all set. Other similarities between these two movies are that both make liberal use of wordless choruses to suggest uplift and spirituality, and both are genuinely impressive as spectacle — the Titanic is quite stunningly so. And it only cost $200 million to make! Even adjusted for inflation that is probably more than what it cost to build the original Titanic. I won’t go into any other similarities there may be between the ship and the movie named for it.
We have now come full circle. When the ship first went down in 1912, the popular lesson to be derived from the behavior of its crew and passengers was supposed by some to have been the beauty of the code of the gentleman, which led him politely to step aside while the women and children got on the lifeboats, and which kept the band playing as the ship went down. Now, out of the same materials, we use the exemplum to teach exactly the opposite lesson: that (or so Cameron would have us believe) the gentlemen are power hungry, greedy, cowardly hypocrites, since for every one who volunteered to go down with the ship there a hundred others prepared for any skullduggery or violence in order to save their own skins, and be damned to the women and children.
Who knows what the truth is? Most of us would have guessed that it was somewhere in between these two extremes, and that the hypocrites were not so many in number that it makes sense for us to throw out the whole idea of honor or virtue so that they won’t have anything to be hypocritical about. But there is something relentless about Cameron’s way of plugging his moral which makes us stop and think.
His heroine, Rose (Kate Winslet), for example, is not merely a proto-feminist on the point of committing suicide for no better reason than that she feels trapped in a life in which she is called upon to marry a rich man and live a life of ease. She has no say in what happens to her, and so she threatens to jump. But she is also an art critic who collects Picassos and other modern art which her stupid fiancé, Cal (Billy Zane) thinks will never come to anything. She also makes learned references to “Mr Freud” whom she has studied but none of her stupid rich friends has ever heard of. She likes him because she can use him against the men and their bragging about the size of the ship, speaking of “the ideas of Mr Freud about the male preoccupation with size.” She has also “done the sums” and figured out that there aren’t enough lifeboats for everybody on board while her stupid fiancé is still insisting that the ship is “unsinkable.”
In short, she is a college girl of circa 1997 rather than a credible woman of 1912, and all this wisdom and insight is just too easy. It is the cheapest way imaginable of winning sympathy for someone, for we all imagine ourselves as being smart enough to have been just like we are even if we were back in the days when no one was just like we are. “They’ve got you trapped, Rose, and if you don’t get away you will die,” says the impecunious Jack (Leonardo Di Caprio), for whom she is prepared to give up her impending life of ease. Somehow I doubt it. Similarly, Cal’s sins against the manners and mores of the 1990s — from being patronizing to Rose to expecting her to be faithful to him — are too many to catalogue. Cameron has made him far too easy to hate.
Likewise, Rose’s terrible snobby mother, Ruth (Frances Fisher), who has arranged the match with Cal, tells her that “the money is all gone” and their name is “the only card they have” with which to bargain for keeping their place among gentlefolks. Of course, to a 90s gal this means nothing, but even when momma reminds her what it means to her — “Do you want to see me working as a seamstress?” she says — we are scarcely allowed a flicker of sympathy. What’s wrong with seamstresses, you snob? Yet I wonder if Mr Cameron and those to whom he means to appeal are really so much better than their ancestors that, in their places, they would have been equally insouciant about the poverty a woman would be likely to experience in 1912.
It’s like the easy smugness of one of the bracketing scenes in which the present-day treasure hunter, Brock Lovat (Bill Paxon) is explaining to the aged, 101 year old Rose, and his crew of the salvage ship what the builders and sailors of the Titanic didn’t know: that it was “too big a ship with too small a rudder and doesn’t corner worth a damn.” This is to say that “Everything he [the captain] knows is wrong.” Well, maybe so, but we’d feel a whole lot better about acknowledging the fact if it didn’t look quite so much as if he intended the corollary that everything he knows, and probably everything Mr Cameron knows too, is right.
This is a pity because, as I have said, the film is a treat to watch. If you could persuade the projectionist to turn the sound off, I would urge you to see it. For at times it gives us what movies can give us, which is something of the thrill of the original with nothing of the danger. In this sense, the $200 million has been well spent. You will not see a better — better in the sense of visually more exciting — movie this year. Too bad the characters have to open their mouths and spoil it.