Sunday, November 29, 2009

Titanic (1997)

Can I show my face in polite company if I admit to liking Titanic? I have no guilty pleasures with music - if it gives me pleasure I feel no guilt. I'm less sure of my taste in film, however.

But I do like this.

I liked it the first time I saw it, in the theater in 1997. Then I wasn't a very sophisticated moviegoer: I liked it simply. The spectacle wowed me and the love story moved me.

I've watched it a number of times since, most recently this evening with Mrs. Sgt. T, and I have to say I still like it. Not for exactly the same reasons. I have to admit now that the dialogue is pretty clunky, and the story is mechanical.

But it still works: it's a machine that does what it's supposed to do. And while you'd think being aware of that would keep me from being wowed and moved, instead I find myself wowed and moved (maybe in spite of myself) and, in addition, impressed by the efficiency of the machine.

It's going to sound odd to say this about a three-hour $200 million movie, but Titanic is incredibly economical. The love story exists entirely to show us the various parts of the ship, both before and during the sinking. You could turn this around and also say that the ship is the only thing that gives this love story any interest at all. But the fact is we have both, and they work together perfectly. We do see the whole ship, before and during the sinking, in a way that feels almost incidental to the story. And we do find ourselves caring about Jack and Rose, in a way that almost doesn't entirely depend on the borrowed urgency of the sinking.

Economical in other ways, too. The salvage-mission frame story not only works as a frame, adding/breaking up tension as needed, guiding modern-day viewers into the old world of the story, etc. It also works to draw the stereotypical male viewer into the movie, just as the love story draws the stereotypical female viewer in. The science guys on the salvage ship explain how the ship actually sank, so the guys in the audience can follow the thing as it happens in the background; and notice how we cut back to the frame story, and the science-y stuff, just after Rose and Jack first get intimate? "Enough mushy stuff - let's talk about how stuff breaks!"

And both the science stuff and the melodrama work together to create a sense of the event, a sense that this is what happened to the ship, and this is what happened to the people on it. And all of this is told through perfectly efficient visuals: always striking, always effective, and frequently poetic, in the broadest of senses. If the eerie beauty of the motionless ship half-submerged in a still sea, lights reflecting off the dark ocean, stars and flares overhead, lifeboats tiny all around, doesn't get you, maybe you can't be got.

There's a place in my personal film festival for this kind of movie.

1 comment:

george said...

My twin brother has seen this movie at least 50 times, maybe more. At the theatre alone he saw it 33 times. Once was enough for old g dog, though, even being a big fan of Billy Zane.
It's funny, perhaps, but it was precisely the 'efficiency of the machine' that killed it for me. To say nothing of the cringe-worthy script, the one-dimensional characters, the predictablilty of the whole thing...
Different horses, different courses, I guess.