Paying My Respects to the Ship of Dreams: 15 Years Later
Last week marked the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. I attended a screening of James Cameron’s re-released Titanic in 3-D, and wanted to write something about the anniversary of the disaster, and my thoughts on revisiting the film again on the big screen.
Having walked the faithfully built movie set for many weeks, I would turn a corner in the wreck and already know, before the bot’s camera even revealed it, what would be there. It was an eerie feeling but somehow also strangely comforting, as if I were somehow home. - James Cameron, “Ghostwalking in Titanic”
April 4, 2012. Today, James Cameron’s epic blockbuster Titanic was re-released in an updated 3-D format. I had been looking forward to this day for over a year, ever since word first got out that Cameron planned to re-release the film in time to honor the April 15 centennial of the great ocean liner’s sinking in 1912.
For those of you who don’t know me, I guess you could call me a Titanic fanatic. I’ve been intrigued by this ship for well over twenty years, ever since my mother bought me a copy of Robert Ballard’s book, Exploring the Titanic. I remember her sitting down with me and opening the book to its first page, which showed a tiny white submarine shining a weak ray of yellow light onto the ghostly shell of a ship on the ocean floor. The submarine was completely dwarfed by the enormity of the ship’s corpse, and everything except the submarine was cast in an eerie blue-tinge. It was as if Ballard and his team had just come upon a sleeping giant and were pausing before their discovery, unsure about whether or not they wanted to awaken it.
I poured over that book, fascinated by the dichotomies expressed in its pictures: on one page, a group of men, filthy and sweaty, stood next to the newly forged links of the the ship’s anchor chains; on the next, women in sparkling evening gowns walked down the wrought-iron Grand Staircase in first-class. Then there was an image of the ship steaming west from Queenstown, Ireland, with nothing in its path but the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, there were the chilling photographs captured from onboard the Carpathia, as the ship raced to rescue the Titanic passengers waiting for help in lifeboats. Could this have happened? I wondered.
Since then, I’ve becoming a bit of a Titanic geek. I’ve read countless books, watched every adaptation of the story on film, seen the Titanic play on Broadway, attending a Titanic walking tour in Manhattan, purchased a Titanic memorabilia set, and, most recently, visited the Titanic Artifact Exhibit.
James Cameron’s film, however, holds a special place in my heart. I was thirteen when this movie was released – thirteen and completely drowning in my love for Leonardo DiCaprio. I know, I know, wasn’t everyone? I remember going home after I found out that he was cast as Jack Dawson and actually praying a silent “thank you” to…whoever I thought was listening. I truly believed, in my thirteen-year-old heart, that this casting was done with me in mind. I couldn’t believe that the two great loves of my life were colliding in this film. Since then, I still feel a certain protectiveness about this film. It’s like that when something like this happens when you’re at an impressionable age. I still feel, on a certain level, that this is my movie. I still listen to the soundtrack, I have read every fanfiction story available online. I’ll never be ready to completely say goodbye to Jack and Rose, and I know I’m not alone. I think the personal investment that so many people have in this film and this story is the reason why its re-release is being embraced so intensely.
So, today, I decided that rather than fight the rush hour crowds in Manhattan to see the movie in the only IMAX 3D theater within a 75-mile radius, and rather than take time off of work to attend the fan sneak preview last night, that I would instead go to my tried and true local and slightly dingy theater and settle for a viewing of Titanic in Real 3D. Why, you might ask? Because said theater is the same one at which I saw the movie for the first time fifteen years ago.
The theater was empty at first. I was slightly embarrassed that I arrived a good 30 minutes before showtime, after rushing home from work and inhaling my dinner. I thought that maybe there would be a gaggle of teenagers vying for the best seat in the house, so I would be better safe than sorry.
As 7:00 grew closer, a few more people saunter into the theater – three middle aged women sit in front of me, a couple maybe in their mid-40s behind me, a few other young couples were scattered around. I have to admit that part of me was looking forward to seeing the movie in a full house – a theater packed to the brim by people simmering in excitement, like an opening night of a Broadway show. I suppose that’s what you get when a film opens in the middle of a week.
Finally, the lights dim and the music starts. I have to stop for a moment here and credit James Cameron, for as epic a blockbuster as Titanic undoubtedly is, I don’t think I have ever seen such an impressively poignant and subtle opening sequence. I had forgotten just how beautifully haunting and simple James Horner’s score is, one whose motifs and phrases embody the ship itself, introducing her to us as the principal character of this story. This is coupled with grainy, sepia-toned footage of the ship, in all her glory, departing Southhampton amidst a crowd buzzing with excitement and blissfully unaware of the peril awaiting them. The camera then fades into a shot of dark, slow-moving ocean waves which slowly illuminate the movie’s title by moonlight. No other credits are shown. Fifteen years ago, this was enough to take my breath away, and it still is. It’s as if Cameron genuflects to the memory of the ship, silently asking permission to tell her story.
Rather than rehash every scene of this 3+ hour epic — which I would gladly do, if prompted — I will instead pinpoint a few scenes where I think the 3-D technology is most effective. To be honest, Titanic on the big screen, even without 3-D, is breathtaking. Cameron really is a master at visual storytelling, and the proof of this is that despite being 15 years old, Titanic doesn’t look at all dated. I applaud Cameron’s use of the 3-D technique, for it is neither distracting nor overdone. Instead, he has used it to add depth and structure to his already aesthetically pleasing scenes. First are the underwater scenes of the wreckage, when Brock Lovett and his team submerge through the cloudy water to land on the wreck. As they navigate through its maze and pause over individual artifacts, – a leather boot, a porcelain doll’s face, an intact wooden mantlepiece – you feel as though you are actually alone at the bottom of the ocean, swimming through that mammoth gravesite yourself.
Next is the footage of Old Rose’s house. Cameron must have remastered the coloring and lighting during the transfer of this film to 3-D, because everything in this scene seems bolder and more visceral. All the textures and colors in Rose’s house just pop off the screen — I feel like I am noticing things for the first time, like her oriental statutes, all the framed pictures on her wall, her hanging plants. It’s a house reflective of a full, well-lived life. And speaking of Old Rose, Gloria Stuart’s performance still bring me to my knees. Her crystal blue eyes are simultaneously poised and playful – you can tell that behind those eyes lie decades worth of secrets, exactly what you’d expect of Old Rose. I love the fact that this movie gave Stuart a little career renaissance.
It’s at this point in the movie, watching Old Rose, that I start getting a little bit emotional. When my friend and I first saw the movie fifteen years ago, she mentioned to me that Rose reminded her of my grandmother. I didn’t see the connection very much back then, but watching Gloria Stuart now, I can definitely see bits of my grandmother in her, particularly as she’s gotten older. As a matter of fact, I took my grandmother to see Titanic at this very same theater fifteen years ago. Now, she is almost 90 and, like Old Rose, is basically homebound and a bit more frail. Gloria Stuart has since passed away. The sudden realization of how much time has passed gave me a little pit in my stomach. When did I get old? And when will I have to say goodbye to my Old Rose?
I would be remiss not to mention the simple pleasure of watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in 3-D. The experience of re-watching Titanic in the movie theater is like traveling back in time – before Kate was an Oscar-winning actress and before Leo was a superstar. It is truly a gift. All I could think as each character came on screen was, “my God, they are babies.” At twenty and twenty-one years old, these two actors — who used to intimidate me with their maturity – were actually younger than I am now. Kate is as flawless as a porcelain doll, her Rose a Victorian picture bride laced so tightly that she can scarcely breathe. There is a sense of quiet terror in her.
It’s interesting to me that Kate has seemed almost offended of late by the resurfacing of Titanic in 3-D – the actress claims she’s been “haunted” by Titanic jokes, embarrassed by her nude scene and her American accent, and sick of hearing the Celine Dion song. She also made a somewhat boorish comment about her and Leo’s changed appearance, saying “he’s fatter now, I’m thinner.” Why all the armor, Kate? Well, I have a theory. I think that the vulnerability that Kate expressed in Rose and the guard she’s donned about Titanic since were both fueled by the personal tragedy she was contending with off-camera. The love of Kate’s life, Stephen Tredre, was dying of bone cancer at the time Titanic was filming. In fact, she missed the movie premiere to attend his funeral.
Watching Kate, I recognize the look of a young woman on the verge of unraveling, a characteristic that she was able to channel into her Rose to fuel the young woman’s fire. Although Kate has never been afraid to explore this type of desperation, even prior to Titanic (see, Heavenly Creatures, Jude), it is somehow more potent here, lying smoldering just beneath the surface. For me, sitting and watching Kate on screen, knowing now the depth of which she was suffering off-camera, literally takes my breath away. I see why she is, quite literally, not ready to go back to Titanic, and the realization takes my breath away. All this, and she is still able to convey the way in which a 16 year-old Rose Dewitt-Bukater lets her iron guard down and falls hard for Jack Dawson.
And then there’s Leo. I liken watching his Jack Dawson now, 15 years after the fact, to watching Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. For both actors there is an openness, a humility, a naiveté — it’s that intangible force that cannot be predicted or duplicated. I almost want to reach out through the screen and say to both of them “stay here, stay here!” Like Jack Dawson himself, DiCaprio is completely unclouded in Titanic — perhaps the only role in which we see him as such. He is even a little bit vulnerable.
Peter Travers writes in his review of the film in Rolling Stone that “DiCaprio, in the full vibrancy of youth and acting vigor, is the spirit of the film. And that spirit soars.” Owen Gleiberman writes in his review of the film on CNN that “Dicaprio seemed so much lighter then — not because he was ganglier and less filled out, but because he didn’t have the weight of superstardom hanging on him.” His twenty-one year old face is completely free of the scowl that characterizes so much of his recent work. It’s as if he decided to shut the door to that part of himself since this movie.
Actually, I suspect Leo is still a little bit embarrassed by Titanic. It’s as if this film is his high school prom photo – the one his grandmother pulls out and shows his prospective supermodel girlfriends, saying, “look at how beautiful and sweet you were back then!” I understand his reluctance to revisit what was probably an overwhelming, yet pivotal point in his career. Still, I can’t help but be a little bit nostalgic watching twenty-one year old Leo inhabiting this wholesome role with such earnest. His Jack is so honest and guileless, the free and open spirit that lifts Rose from the depths of her terror and depression.
I will say that it’s worth the price of admission just to see Leo, in his prime, in 3D. Even Richard Corliss, the reviewer for Time Magazine, who isn’t a fan of the movie as a whole, admits that Leo’s “Jack is the perfect man-boy…pure golden charm for…a moviegoer of any period to fall in love with.” When his blue eyes fill up the screen for the first time, I swear I hear a collective inhale from every other woman in the movie theater. His beauty actually hurts me – he embodies that timeless allure that causes generations of women to melt simultaneously.
I find myself getting more emotional as I watch Leo and Kate interact on screen as Jack and Rose. As Jack and Rose boarded the ship of dreams, so did Leo and Kate. I almost feel like what I’m assuming a parent feels when they watch their children grow up, make mistaking and learning – from Kate’s American accent to Leo’s “aw shucks” mannerisms. It’s this dance that they do, as if they are saying “well, let’s try this out and see how it works… What do you think about this?” I also feel, for the first time, how my mother must feel when she talks about how she loves admiring youth. I never understood what she meant until tonight, but now that I’m almost 30 (oh my God), I feel myself just watching Kate and Leo and basking in their beauty – it’s almost a visible, potent force on screen. When Kate takes off her robe for the infamous portrait scene – despite the moron girls giggling uncontrollably in front of me – I literally just sit there in awe. She is so beautiful, and the 3D effect just magnifies it tenfold – like one of Rose’s coveted Degas paintings coming to life.
The big, well-known scenes that I expected to be wonderful in 3-D are wonderful. I am particularly impressed by the two departure scenes, both in Southhampton and tin Queenstown: Titanic’s eleven-o’clock numbers, if you will. These scenes function not only by introducing us to the main characters of the film, but also by introducing us to the ship from the inside out. They are a testament to the painstaking reproduction of the ship by Cameron and his team of art directors and set designers. There is such a duality here – first we are shown this stately, pristine ship being boarded by affluent passengers giddy with excitement, and next we are shown its hundreds of coal workers, feverishly shoveling hot coal into massive iron burners. We also see the ship’s massive reciprocating engines separated by steel catwalks, like the inside of a giant, futuristic spaceship. Cameron has managed to produce a sort of twenty-first century commercial for the Titanic — watching it, particularly in 3-D, you completely understand why the passengers were so ecstatic to be a part of its maiden voyage.
The scene I actually looked forward to most was the scene right after Jack delivers his famous “I’m the King of the world!” and the camera pans down the entire length of the ship. It is stunning, weakened only by the fact that the computer generated people walking around the ship – groundbreaking by 1997 standards – now look a bit dated. I couldn’t help but think that if this were done in native 3-D, it would have been even more breathtaking.
It is so surreal to me, someone who has loved Titanic most of her life, and the movie for half her life – to feel like they are finally being given the chance to walk on the ship. Every fault in Cameron’s script — its cheesy and sometimes cliched dialogue — is compensated for in the film’s visual potency. For all the large-scale sequences in this film that are enhanced by 3-D, there are also quite a few subtler moments that have now become magnified as well. For example, during the scene when Jack sneaks up to first class to see Rose, we see 6-year old Robert Douglass Spedden playing with a top on the deck. This famous image taken by Father Frank Browne that has been published in nearly every Titanic book, the image I’ve been looking at for twenty years, has literally come to life before my eyes.
Similarly, the scene where we find Jack laying down on the bench before Rose’s suicide attempt, it is as though we are laying next to him staring at the North Atlantic sky, sharing his artist’s thoughts. And when Jack and Rose make love for the first time, safely hidden in the back of a Renault motorcar in the ship’s cargo hold — momentarily sheltered from the impending storm that awaits them – we seem to feel their trembling and hear the beating of their hearts.
My emotional break comes during the scene when Rose jumps back onto the boat to be with Jack. That just sends the emotional train careening out of the station for me every time. To feel so much intense love for someone that you’re willing to jump on a sinking ship to be with them, if only for a short time, is incredible. I charge any woman to watch Jack’s face as Rose is being taken away from him and not think that if they were sixteen, they would have jumped back on that ship, too.
The sinking scenes are still hard to watch, even so long after the fact. It’s these scenes that prevented me from watching the whole film through as many times as I would have liked over the last fifteen years. It never gets easier to see the Captain resign himself to going down with the ship, or to see the Irish mother in steerage tuck her kids into bed because she knows they can’t be saved.
It’s also impossible to watch this now, in a post-911 world, and not think of the terrorist attacks of September 11th: I sit and listen to the awful sound of passengers screaming in horror, crawling over each other, vying for a seat in the lifeboats. Then later, those passengers in lifeboats drawing in their breath in horror as they watch the unsinkable ship snap down the middle and begin her descent towards the freezing water.
It sounds so much like the terror that we all heard from those people in lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11th as they watched the highjacked planes obliterate the twin towers — the bewilderment, the shock, the sudden hysteria. And as sixteen-year-old Rose charges, ax in hand, through the labyrinth of corridors filling up with icy ocean water to find Jack, I can’t help but think of all the emergency rescue workers and firefighters– many probably not much older than she is– bounding up those endless flights of stairs in the towers – knowing, on some level, that they were surrendering themselves to certain death.
I don’t think its a coincidence that James Cameron made the decision to have third-class passenger Jack die while Rose survives. I’m sure he did that intentionally to represent the fact that a staggering amount of the third class perished that night. Every time I watch the movie, I still hold out hope that Jack will be okay, and every time I’m disappointed. Seeing the look on his face when he realizes there’s no room for him on the piece of driftwood still kills me. And the subsequent speech he gives Rose? Forget it. By this point I am full out sobbing, by myself, curled up in my seat in the movie theater. It was the kind of crying where you’re trying to hold back choking sobs and trying to catch your breath. I have such a hard time with his dying in this movie. I just want to reach out and say, “No, no! Don’t leave us, Jack! Don’t leave Rose to navigate the scary world by herself!” More tears.
The last five or ten minutes of the movie are actually my favorite. I think that Cameron flawlessly synthesizes the frame story with Rose’s personal one. I love the fact that despite everything, we see that Rose was able to lead a full, happy life. When I watch the camera pan over all her pictures, all the experiences she set out to have in life, I think to myself “Do it! Whatever it is you want to do, do it!” When I was in Jamaica last year – on a boat, ironically, I met this couple who was probably in their late 70s or early 80s. I asked the man how long they had been together, and he said something like 45 years. Then he looked over at his wife, looked at me and said, “We’ve had a beautiful life together.” When I’m that age, looking back on my life, I want to say the same thing. I don’t want to regret not at least trying to go for what I really want. It’s no secret that I want to work in the film business, so every time I’m reminded of how important it is to seize the moment, I immediately think of this. I need to believe that it’s possible.
The very last scene, the curtain call, if you will, ranks as probably one of my top 5 favorite movie endings, and it’s absolutely breathtaking in 3-D. I love the fact that after all is said and done, when Rose has taken what she can from this world, she goes back to Jack. And Jack waited for her. The scene is somehow even more powerful in 3-D, as you feel like Rose herself for a moment, freeing herself from the constraints of her age, turning back the clock and being welcomed back onto the ship of dreams, with everything beautiful and new once again. The last moment of the film, when Jack and Rose embrace on the grand staircase restored in all its glory, now in a place of eternal safety and love, just makes me weep.
I’m not sure what it is exactly about Titanic that intrigues us, that piques our macabre interest. Is our acute interest in this ship, now more than a century later, simply historical curiosity? I really don’t think so. Personally, I think that as a country, we have yet to collectively mourn the events of September 11. Yes, we erected a beautiful memorial at Ground Zero in Manhattan, we found and executed Bin Laden, we have, in the words Time magazine, “met adversity and overcome it.” But have we, really? In a way, I think the recent re-examination of the Titanic disaster awakens a desire in us to talk through our still fairly recent trauma. We can’t help but see ourselves in those passengers, boarding a fated ship, blissfully ignorant as we were in a pre-911 world.
In retrospect, it is tempting to look at the Titanic disaster through an almost absurdist lens — “of course the ship was doomed, why tempt fate and coin it ‘unsinkable?’ Why on earth wouldn’t they bring enough lifeboats onboard? How could they lock third-class passengers below decks on a sinking ship?” Let’s take a look in the mirror: how far have we really come since then? We are drowning in debt exceeding 3.7 trillion dollars for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we brutally torture prisoners of war while denying their US Constitutional rights, we are destroying a staggering amount of the earth’s natural resources, and we are in a complete global economic crisis. We just can’t stop. As Caledon Hockley sips expensive champagne and dismisses his minions with the flip of a hand, we now can’t help but see him as a member of the 1% — the vilified class of our own time.
It is easy to see how citizens of the Titanic era were just as captivated as we are by technological progress, the illusion of infinite possibilities and the comfort of structure in an uncertain world. I think that we recognize something in the eyes of those doomed passengers, thinking they were on a zipline towards the new world –before the first World War, before the collapse of the stock market, before the cold dangers of modernity penetrated the collective psyche. Like Rose, we know that we are standing at the edge of a precipice all the time, and, as Hampton Sides mentions, it can only take something as simple, archaic and primal as ice to topple us overboard.