Sunday, November 23, 2008

Titanic Waste of Time

I really, really ought to be grading sophomore ear-training final projects. But, it's almost 8:00 on a Sunday night (which translates to "almost movie time"), and I'm deep into my 2nd glass of wine, and so fuck the papers. It's a short week anyway, right? What with Thanksgiving and all. What am I thankful for? For not grading papers right now, a-thank yew verrah musch!

So, instead I'll wax philosophic about Titanic. Both the ship, and the movie. Feral Mom got me thinkin' about it when, in the depths of "What the fuck do I post about today for NaBloPoMo?!?" despair, she chose to list a bunch of culturally significant movies she'd never seen, with the percent likelihood that she'd watch the film in question. James Cameron's 1997 epic Titanic was on her list, and, well, I'll let you go there and read it. It's no big deal, really, but just seeing it on there got my wheels turnin' again.

See, I'm a longtime Titanic buff. I acquired an old, old book about the disaster way back when I was a kid, and since then I've read just about every book - both fiction and nonfiction - about the doomed steamer that I could get my hands on (which comes pretty close to being every book about Her that's been published). I don't know what first grabbed me about the story...I suppose that, like many a young boy, I was fascinated with the whole gut-wrenching size of the story. Even a kid can appreciate "world's biggest ship, billed as unsinkable, sinks on maiden voyage." It's almost too good to be true, right? As I grew older my fascination waned; after all, the further we get from the event itself, the fewer people are alive who were actually there on the night in question. As of now, that comes down to one single woman, and she was only a couple of months old at the time. So really, no one alive now can know for sure whether Lightoller had a pistol that night, or if he did was it loaded, and if it was did he actually fire the thing into a crowd? The facts are many, but eventually you've read all the known facts and you start to slide down a very slippery slope into conspiracy theory, and that kind of thing I reserve pretty much for the Kennedy Assassination.

Anyway, it didn't take me long to work through the movies associated with Titanic, once I had a reliable disposable income. There are pretty much five key films you can still find with relative ease:

Titanic (1953): A passable drama, with what you might imagine are rather limited special effects for the time. I see that the DVD box lists this as an Academy Award winner from 1953, but I'm not sure it's all that great. Like too many of the Titanic-related docu-pics, this one tries to set a drama-within-the-drama, perhaps to make the story more "human" and not just about a sinking ship.

A Night to Remember (1958): Walter Lord wrote what many view as the definitive history of April 12th-15th 1912, and this film version of his book is pretty much the high point of pre-digital Titanic stories. I've read that lots of people became Titanic buffs after having seen this film, and I believe it. I came to it later on, once it was available on VHS, but it's actually the story of the disaster itself, without a lot of muckety-muck to get in the way.

Raise the Titanic (1980): I was a little surprised to see that this is actually hard to come by on DVD for Region 1 countries, as I remember it as being a very watchable film. It's pure fiction, by the excellent thriller-writer Clive Cussler, whose hero Dirk Pitt is set to the task of bringing the doomed ship to the surface in order to secure some radioactive matériel for the good ole U.S. of A. Full of good spy vs. spy antics and late-Cold-War Russkies, it's a shame that the whole premise - that the ship itself is relatively intact on the ocean floor, and thus raisable in the first place - was shot down with Bob Ballard's discovery of Her just a few years later. I think anything with Jason Robards looks a little dated now (witness The Day After), but trust me: if you can find a copy, I defy you to not cry when you see the derelict vessel passing by the Statue of Liberty, finally completing Her voyage 68 years late.

The Titanic (1996): Slated to be the first "modern-era" story of the luxury liner, this Hallmark made-for-TV miniseries was doomed in two ways. First, it came out way too close to the Cameron over-the-top epic, and second, it was poorly acted and kind of a bad film. It has its fans, including some fervent ones who swear up & down that it completely trashes the Cameron film. Whatever. I just found it to be too full of itself, and not full of enough talent...certainly considering the big names attached to it.

Titanic (1997): And finally, we get to the über-film of the whole story. Like its direct-namesake predecessor from 4 decades earlier, the biggest problem I have with this one is the story-within-the-story that fucks up the great drama that exists all on its own. Jack Dawson? Rose? Fuck THAT, man! There's a certain cowardice in making up people and plunking them alongside real ones, as if tackling the very real Molly Brown or J.J. Astor would risk pissing off heirs or something. So, schmaltzy musical score aside, the biggest failing of this film is its very bigness. Leo and Kate are fine, it's their story that sucks. But seriously: this is by far the best LOOK at the Titanic that most of us will ever get. Cameron didn't spend a gajillion dollars on nothing, folks. All of the basic plot points of the story are there, fleshed out by the post-Ballard discoveries (like how She came apart on the way down) and up-to-date views of the ship with giant rust-cicles hanging off every available horizontal surface. It's the recreations that really make this film for me. The way the glass beadwork on Rose's dress gently chimes against the railing as she goes for the poor-little-rich-girl suicide. The exacting detail of the Grand Staircase. Every little thing seems to be accounted for, and in that you really get the sense of Titanic as a real ship, who served real people. For me, that's why I'll come back to this film time and again; to be reminded that this ship did exist.

Like I said earlier, as I've gotten older I've moved beyond the fascination with disaster represented by the Titanic sinking. I've come to realize that, much more than the reality of the disaster itself, Titanic - and Her demise - was really about the death of a philosophy. It was a philosophy that grew out of Enlightenment thought, that Man was capable of understanding, and hence besting, Nature (Herself a vague stand-in for God). Nearly a century of Romantic thought couldn't change the fact that we thought we knew it all. We knew how to build a ship that, stood on end, was taller than any skyscraper in the world. To make Her "unsinkable" (a claim that really only came out in the press after Her sinking), She had watertight doors to prevent flooding into adjacent compartments. And so it goes. For me, this is the fascination now. Titanic represents the death of Man thinking that He could build something so good, it would render Nature/God helpless. That, and remembering that She's a gravesite. Over 1,500 people died on April 15th, 1912. Almost all of them were shitty 3rd-Class passengers, making a glorious and glaring statement about classism from the end of Edwardian England, at the dawn of the Great War.

Speaking of which: right around 2002, I had a student who showed a fondness for those goofy-ass t-shirts like you'd find in What on Earth? catalogs. This one read, surrounding a donut life-preserver: "Titanic Swim Team, 1912." I always hassled him about it, asking him once "So, do you also have a t-shirt that says 'World Trade Center Sky-Diving Team, 2001?'" He looked so shocked at the suggestion that I immediately regretted not thinking before I spoke, but at the same time, I hated to see Titanic represented as a joke to be printed on Made In Taiwan jersey cotton. She deserves more than that. Before we all forget that She existed once, as the hope of a new life for hundreds of immigrants, and as the last vestige of splendour for the world's super-rich.


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