Monday, November 21, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Titanic (1997)

Directed by James Cameron
Leonardo DiCaprio
Kate Winslet
Billy Zane
Kathy Bates
Frances Fisher
Gloria Stuart
Bill Paxton
Bernard Hill
David Warner
Victor Garber
Jonathan Hyde
Suzy Amis
Lewis Abernathy
Nicholas Cascone

(Clyde’s Note:  This is a slightly edited and updated review of the original that I posted on my former movie blog)

On April 10, 1912, the RMS Titanic set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage to New York. At that time, she was the largest and most luxurious ship ever built. At 11:40 PM on April 14, 1912, she struck an iceberg about 400 miles off Newfoundland, Canada. Although the crew had been warned about icebergs several times that evening by other ships navigating through that region, she was traveling at near top speed of about 20.5 knots when one grazed her side.

Less than three hours later, the
Titanic plunged to the bottom of the sea, taking more than 1500 people with her. Only a fraction of her passengers were saved.

From the time Titanic was first conceived by James Cameron it has had an up and down history. While Cameron was filming, rumors began to surface that this was going to be the biggest box office bomb of all time, ranking right up there with and possibly surpassing such notables as Waterworld, Heaven's Gate, and Cutthroat Island. The fact that Titanic was not ready for release by the summer of 1997 and had to be delayed till December did not help to quiet the bad publicity. Finally, in order to finish the film and to enable him to realize his vision, James Cameron was willing to give up his financial stake in the movie. It seemed everyone was waiting to pounce, critics and audiences alike.

Its first sneak preview showing was in Japan and from that moment on things slowly began to change as the critics in Japan raved. When it finally opened in the States, critics and audiences alike realized that the film was not Cameron's Boondoggle but epic spectacular motion picture making on a grand scale. As word of mouth spread and people of all ages went to the theaters to view the film it stayed on top of the box office for an astounding fifteen consecutive weeks. After the struggles he went through to make this film and the criticism he endured about the budget can anyone really blame James Cameron for becoming just a little bit cocky at the Academy Awards?

Yet as popular as the film was, it then began to suffer from the kind of backlash reserved for those things that people regard as becoming too successful. They just get tired of hearing about it or they came to view Cameron as becoming too big for his britches. It's comparable to the repercussions facing an artist that has an enormous top 40 hit that is heard over and over again until people get tired of hearing it and suddenly proclaim their total hatred of it.

Celine Dion's song from the film is a perfect example. There was a time when many couldn't see the video often enough or tire of his heavy rotation on every top forty station in the county. Dare to mention My Heart Will Go On now and you'll get a lot of noses being turned up in the air.

Another backlash Titanic has faced is from those who now attribute its success to the phenomenon known at that time as Leomania. Titanic haters one and all will now tell you that its success was due solely to the multiple viewings (10 – 1,000,000 depending on whatever number they want to throw at you) by teenage girls (13 – 15 or whatever age they decide to use). Having tired of seeing these astronomical numbers lobbied about I took it upon me to research the subject some time ago. What I found was that despite the publicity surrounding Leonardo DiCaprio, only 35 percent of Titanic's gross can be attributed to ALL girls from age 12 – 22. Not a very large percentage when one considers the fact that the audience of a film like Freaky Friday consisted of 70  percent teenage girls. 

And since then not even the millions of female
Twilight Fans of all ages have been able to push any of those films into the rarified air inhabited now by both Titanic, and the only film to surpass it, Avatar.  So how could they possibly have achieved it with Titanic for a film with less showing and cheaper admissions?  And just as Titanic’s success had haters one and all coming out of the woodwork like a mass of cockroaches, Avatar has fallen to the same weak criticisms that befell Titanic.  Sometimes, success breeds contempt.

The main reasons  Titanic  grossed as much as it did had a whole lot more to do with the fact that so many people who seldom go to a movie theater left the comfort of their Lazy Boy Recliner to head down to the local Cineplex then the fact that it may have been an outlet for a few fanatical teenagers on the weekend.

Yes, the teenagers got a lot of publicity as some entertainment shows tried to latch onto a good side show, but there aren't that many teenage females with money enough to account for Titanic's 600 million U.S. gross and ability to stay at the top of the box office for fifteen
consecutive weeks. I won't even mention the fact that the film has grossed over a billion dollars in video sales and rentals as well. I guess every teenage girl in the world bought a copy.

Still, the teenage girl myth continues to this day, even though simple mathematics should have put that story to rest years ago. And worst yet, a great many males still see this film as some kind of affront to their masculinity and will still do everything in their power to downgrade it, hate it, piss on it, or whatever they can to keep it from being recognized for it's cinematic achievements. It's as if they somehow they still find it difficult to deal with the fact t
hat a film they consider to be nothing more than an overblown $200 million dollar chick flick and won so many awards could have been produced by the same guy who brought them the Terminator movies. It’s as if they have been betrayed by one of their own kind.  But if you watch Titanic and all you see is a chick flick, brother you need glasses.

Make no mistake about it. Titanic, love it or hate it, is movie-making on a grand scale. From the first frame to the last, I was totally captivated, from the present day scenes with Bill Paxton, Suzy Amis, and Gloria Stuart, to the majestic past with Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet and Billy Zane. I never tire of watching Titanic and with each viewing I find some new detail previously missed. As I watched once again before writing this updated review, there were several small details I had never noticed before, and there will probably be something new for me the next time that I watch it.

In the present day Gloria Stuart portrays the elderly Rose Dawson Calvert. As the elderly Rose it was necessary for Stuart to develop certain personality traits of the young Rose who was played by the remarkable Kate Winslet and she does it marvelously. She's just as feisty as a 104 year old as she was when she sailed on the Titanic at fifteen. At one point Cameron does one of his many dissolves where he zooms in on young Rose's eyes which then dissolve into the elder Rose's profile as if to tell us that Rose had indeed become the person she really wanted to be.

Often DiCaprio's performance as Jack Dawson is derided as being too boyish. Maybe that was because he still hadn't quite hit the ripe old age of 22 when the movie was being filmed so I never really understood that criticism. He was supposed to be young, charming, boyish, and especially handsome. He is a vagabond, but Jack is a very contented world traveler also. He sees life not as something to sleep walk through, but something of a challenge. Jack knows his place in life and he makes the best of it. He doesn't look at the aristocrats as something to be envied. He sees them for what they really are-captive prisoners of their own making in which for them today will be the same as yesterday, and tomorrow the same as the day before.  And as history has shown us since, there is no disputing the excellence of DiCaprio’s acting credentials.

Jack was a young spirit, free to do and live as he pleased whenever and wherever it suited him. He was everything the aristocratic Rose yearned to be as she strived to shed the chains of her stilted upbringing and to escape an impending marriage to a man she absolutely loathed.

Kate Winslet had a tough balancing act as well in her role as the young Rose DeWitt Bukater. But like DiCaprio she pulls it off to perfection. She had to be loyal to her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) enough that she is willing to marry Cal Hockley (Billy Bates) while at the same time she must submerge her true wants and desires within herself until she begins contemplating suicide as a means of escape.

But through all of that she still somehow manages to convey her sense of disdain for what her mother wants her to do, and even worse the fact that she will have to spend the rest of her life playing housewife with the despicable Hockley. It's a testament to Winslet's performance that she is able to let us see through the facade that she puts up to placate both her mother and Cal. Nor does it escape the attention of Molly Brown either (
Kathy Bates) who sees an unhappy future for young Rose.

Although her father is deceased we are given many hints that Rose has inherited more of a zest for living from him than any of the iron clad traditions her mother has instilled in her. The transition from that Rose, to the Rose who decides that the price of a lifetime of security at the cost of her soul is way too high, could have been a messy transition which if not done right could have sunk the entire movie (no pun intended). But Winslet manages to pull it off impeccably.

The rest of the supporting cast is equally impressive. Billy Zane as Cal Hockley gives us a villainous snob that we despise but it's the kind of over the top performance that makes hating a pompous ass such as Cal both satisfying and frustrating. We hope and we wait for him to get his comeuppance, but sometimes evil does win out. Or does it?

Frances Fisher is the cold and calculating Ruth DeWitt Bukater whom through much of the film demonstrates no concern for anyone but herself and her own well being. She is a manipulator and an emotionless iceberg whose only goal in life seems to be to live in the finest style possible while looking down on those beneath her station as if they are nothing more than a pile of maggots to be dealt with and dispensed with in the quickest way possible.   Sort of like the way most of today’s Republicans feel about the working class.

Yet later in the film as she is sitting in the lifeboat looking back at the ship and the realization envelops her that she has possibly lost her daughter for eternity, we see a woman who recognizes too late the high price she has paid for being such a cold self-centered bitch.

Kathy Bates plays Molly Brown just as one would expect Molly Brown to have been. Her scenes are few but they are certainly memorable and her gut wrenching pleas for the lifeboat to go back to the ship will stay with you for a long long time.

Bernard Hill plays the Captain as a clueless dolt when faced with disaster for the first time in his life. One can argue all day about the interpretation as opposed to what Smith may or may not have been like in real life, but all you really need is to look at the evidence of the aftermath to know that Hill's portrayal and Cameron script may come pretty close to the mark.

Of the crew, it is Victor Garber's performance that I admire the most. He may be one of the elite, but he shows himself to be a man of conscious. He is more concerned with the well being of the passengers then for his own safety. We see in his eyes that he knows most of them will die, and we sense the burden of responsibility that he has accepted.

James Horner's beautiful score captures every mood of the film to perfection and despite much of the ridicule it now receives, My Heart Will Go On which is only sang over the end credits, is the perfect finishing touch for Titanic. From the quiet moments of the early part of the film, to the musical celebration of the party in third class, to the urgency of Titanic trying to steer around the iceberg, Horner hits every note flawlessly and he justifiably won the Academy Award for best score.

My Heart Will Go On

Despite the beating he took in the press about his $200 million dollar budget (dwarfed by many film since including Cameron’s Avatar which hit $300 million), Cameron made excellent use of every cent. Every dollar spent shows up on the screen and the detail is amazing. From the opening haunting scenes of Titanic rusting in it's underwater grave to the first scene of Rose looking up to view the Titanic as she steps out on to the dock, Cameron imposes on us the belief that his ship is truly the Titanic.

When Titanic sets sail across the North Atlantic with Jack stretching his arms outward to fly like the wind and as Dolphins are seen racing out ahead of it, it is simply breathtaking. As Titanic heads out to open sea, Cameron lets his camera glide over the ship so that for the first time we get a true sense of how mammoth a vessel it really was, making us feel that we are a passenger aboard the Titanic instead of just distant observers.

Add to all of this Cameron's meticulous attention to detail inside the ship where the difference between the opulent luxury of first class and the stark quarters of steerage becomes even more striking.

Cameron also uses frequent dissolves in Titanic, more than in any film in my memory. When the scenes where the rusted hull and decks of the Titanic dissolve into the beauty of the ship on its maiden voyage or even the reverse effect is comparable to watching a cinematography ballet. Each cut between Titanic past and Titanic present day is timed perfectly and aided in no small part by the fine narration of Gloria Stuart. And it's not just the ship that Cameron uses his dissolves for.

As we watch Jack paint the nude Rose, he zooms in on her eyes and we see the sparkle in them along with the love and passion she has for the young man who is drawing her. When the frame dissolves into the elderly Rose, the face is wrinkled but we see the same spark in her eyes that she had so many years ago, letting us know that Jack still held a special place in her heart.

From the moment the lookouts first spot impending doom in the form of an iceberg to the flooding of the ship to the breaking in half of Titanic to the actual sinking, Cameron keeps us in the thick of what is happening for every frame never once succumbing to the temptation to leave his story and go off on a tangent of one subplot after another.

We had seen Titanic movies before, and there is always a certain amount of tenseness when that moment comes. But it was never done quite like this as we see the total panic that ensues all the way down into the engine room as the engineers struggle to reverse the engines and to turn the ship. And as the ship approaches the iceberg, we not only see the perspiration dripping down Lightoller, we can almost feel the shudder of the ship beneath us.

The use of a fictional romance set against the backdrop of a historical event has been with us for a long time. Gone with the Wind's basic story is one of a romance that takes place surrounded by the civil war and its aftermath. In A Farewell to Arms a love affair between an American ambulance driver and English nurse is set against the backdrop of World War I. The year before the release of Titanic, The English Patient story was told against the backdrop of World War II. Some may quibble that those films were based on works of literature whereas Titanic was not, but that’s a silly straw man argument. Though many find Cameron's use of a love story between the rich aristocratic Rose and the poor but talented Jack as contrived and unbelievable, it is in fact the perfect plot device for this film and for what Cameron needed to accomplish. And it has never been done better.

In 1953 Titanic received the Hollywood treatment in a film directed by Jean Negulesco. That film used the fictional story of the Sturges family to tell its story and did in fact include a sub plot of the daughter of the Sturges’s of high society becoming involved with a middle class passenger. The story took place almost entirely in opulent first class section of the ship rarely venturing to the lower decks briefly so that we witness the tragedy awaiting those in the steerage compartments.

In the 1958 film
A Night to Remember directed by Roy Ward Baker and based on the great book of the same name by Walter Lord, we do indeed see all aspects of the ship including all passengers, the crew, and all the significant details of the sinking that were known at the time the film was made. Though the film is excellent in its retelling of the events by the mere fact that it offers so many details, we are never drawn into it in a purely emotional way and viewing A Night to Remember is tantamount to watching a fine documentary film - excellent in details but still a bit soulless.

By using his much derided rich girl/poor boy fantasy Cameron is able to draw us not only into the lives of Jack and Rose, but enables us for the first time to become part of the lives of all the passengers. When Jack attends a first class dinner with Rose and her other companions from high society we're treated to all the snobbish and stuffy details that it entails.

When the dinner is over, the men go to the smoking room for cigars, brandy and conversations of high finance and politics while the women are left behind to gossip among themselves. It doesn't take us long to discern the fact that  most of them are of the same ilk as Cal and they do indeed view themselves as the better class with everybody else put on this earth to serve their needs as they see fit and to clean up after them.

Shortly after the dinner, Rose joins Jack in the lower decks for a party among the steerage passengers where there is dancing, music, boisterousness, and uninhibited drinking by both men and women. There is no doubt that Cameron sees these passengers as being free and uninhibited much as many of us would prefer to be while those in first class are bound by a strict and rigid code of conduct which governs every moment of their existence. It is the people in steerage that we truly identify with and because Cameron allows us to witness and become a part of their lives, the tragic fate that awaits many of them is ten times more devastating than it would be had we not been allowed to do so. When Jack tells little Cora that she is still his best girl, little do we realize how much we will be haunted by what happens not only to her, but the children of other passengers as well.

At the beginning of the film we are as Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) is. I would go so far as to say that Lovett does indeed represent those of us seeing the film for the first time or even having just read Titanic articles and books.

Just as he and his crew view the shipwreck of the Titanic as a curiosity piece to be used only for the treasures they can salvage from within and just as we know of all the events surrounding the history of Titanic, the long ago events have scant emotional impact. As elderly Rose Calvert weaves the tale of her days on the ship leading up to the sinking, Brock learns just as we do that the story of the Titanic is much more than just the tale of a luxury liner that sank on its maiden voyage. It is the story of man at his best and at his worst. It is the story of the rich and the poor. It is the story of man's arrogance and his belief in his own infallibility. It is the story of love found, and love lost. It is the story of courage and of cowardice. It is the story of life, and of death.

How can we forget the mother trying to explain to her children why they have to wait to escape the ship and then later telling them a story for comfort as the ocean floods the ship? How can we forget the look exchanged between Rose and the Chamber Maid just before she falls to her doom? How can we forget our horror as a child apparently rescued by Jack and Rose are taken from their grasp only to meet certain death in a moment of panic by his father? How can we forget our frustration as the stewards refuse to unlock the gates to allow the third class and steerage passengers to escape? How can we forget the look on the faces of the people in the lifeboats who have left their loved ones behind, yet do nothing to try and save any survivors? How can we forget when a lifeboat does return and overturns the now frozen body of a mother holding her infant child? There are thousands of moments like this in Titanic and like I said before, if your only criticism is it's just a silly chick flick, then you have never truly watched the film in the way that it should be watched and shame on you and your silly critique.

If you have seen Titanic in its theatrical release, it is obviously the best way to have viewed the film. If you have only seen the film in its horrid pan and scan version on video tape or the more horrid commercial presentation on network television, than you still haven't viewed the film as it should be seen. The original DVD release was bare but Titanic was re-released in October of 2005 in a three disc special edition that includes commentary, tons of deleted scenes, an alternate ending and many other extras. And better yet, by spreading the film over two discs and increasing the bit rate, the picture quality is pristine and I guarantee you that the whole experience comes alive in a whole new way.

And there is a treasure trove of special features on the set including the not so alternate ending. I say that because it is all how you look at it. The ending in the movie is in itself an alternate ending. The original ending that was filmed was the first scene yanked  because it didn't work. On the DVD, Cameron explained the reasoning quite well and he’ll get no argument from me or anybody else who has seen it.  The downside: this edition is now out of print so you’ll either be looking for a used bargain or an expensive new one.  (Currently over $80 dollars for a new copy, much less for a used copy depending on condition.  Be sure to check outside seller ratings.)

The three disc special edition was unfortunately substituted with a two disc 10th anniversary edition. Go figure.   And it too has gone out of print.  Prices for new start at about $42 on Amazon.  The original bare bones edition on DVD can be had for just over $20 bucks as I write this, but again check outside seller ratings. 

All that being said with the new 3D remastered and Imax 3D versions being released next April, you can probably look for a boxed set 100th anniversary of the sinking blu-ray edition sometime next year.  The new remastered clips in the trailer looks simply stunning.  And yes, the Titanic Movie web site is up and running once again for that event.  I myself am counting the days.  Scoff at the 3D if you must, but this is James Cameron we’re talking about here and he hasn’t failed me yet.   Here is the new trailer, beneath that is the original trailer.

Remastered and being released in Real 3D and Imax3D, the Titanic trailer looks stunning.

The original trailer for the 1997 release
There is no doubt that Titanic has become a victim of its own success. You are allowed to become successful, but only up to a point. I am not naïve enough to think that this review will change the mind of many who often use this film as their favorite whipping boy. Many of those who criticized this film were beating up on Avatar before it hit the first cinema.

I do hope that it will encourage a few of the more thoughtful viewers to watch the film again and perhaps see it in a new and different light. As far as I'm concerned, Titanic was worthy of every bit of the praise it received just over ten years ago and does not deserve much of the ridicule and scorn many now hold for it. And you know if I find a film worthy of that much praise I have no choice but to give it my grade which for Titanic is a a very big A+ 

Other James Cameron Films on Blu-ray and DVD:


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