A Human Story
I had just begun my career as a film critic when Titanic was first released in late 1997. Although I was 28 years old and had considered myself a serious film buff for well over a decade, I had only just begun to think about movies — about Hollywood — in a serious way. So I missed it, back then, what it was about James Cameron’s magnificent movie that was (and still is) so extraordinary.
Wait, no: backtrack. That’s not quite true. There are many things that are extraordinary about Titanic, and I found some of them then. In my final of three essays I wrote back in early 1998 — I was that overwhelmed by the movie I kept returning to it — I considered how Cameron represents the disaster as the true end of the Victorian age and the spiritual beginning of the 20th century, and how the modern framing story might lead one to consider whether we, at the other end of the 20th century, should be on the alert for our own iceberg right ahead, for another reminder of our blind spots to disaster. I called the film “an elegy for the 20th century at its end”… and though I have seen Titanic many times again, on TV and DVD, between 1997 and 2012, it took revisiting the film in a cinema for its 3D rerelease for this to strike home: there are powerful resonances of 9/11 in Titanic that prove Cameron’s prophetic intuition. It’s a philosophical and theoretical prophecy, of course — the film does not predict any particular future event, merely expresses an awareness of the turnings of history on a big scale and how deeply they can cut us on the personal scale.
There were moments, as I was overwhelmed again by Titanic in 3D on the second biggest screen in London (after the only IMAX screen in the city), as I watched people jumping or falling from the doomed ship, that cut me very deeply indeed.
(The 3D conversion? It’s entirely unobtrusive, and entirely superfluous. The reason to see Titanic 3D is not for the 3D, but for the chance to see the film on a big screen again. You won’t even notice the 3D.)
Nope, what I really missed, back in 1998, was why Titanic resonated so eloquently with the female audiences that made it — until Cameron’s own Avatar surpassed it in 2009 — the biggest moneymaking movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation). Back then, the film enjoyed a tremendous reign, holding the top spot on the North American box office ranking for an astonishing 15 weeks. Movies didn’t do that in 1998, and they don’t do that today: that’s 1930s, Golden Age, there-were-no-other-entertainment-options stuff. The analysis at the time — What the hell is so engaging about this movie?! — was befuddled and bemused. All these teen girls running back to see the movie five, ten, fifteen times! Who could have imagined? Why on earth would girls embrace a film that, all the Important Critics and Serious Industry Watchers agreed, was technically dazzling but rather ridiculous? (Never mind that no one — no one — is mystified when fanboys return repeatedly to a movie.) I mean, look: David Edelstein in Slate called it “nothing so much as an Edwardian soap opera” with a plot “out of turn-of-the-century melodrama.” Desson Howe in The Washington Post said the romance was “only passably involving.” Even the positive reviews were down on the Rose-and-Jack love story. Stephen Hunter, also in The Washington Post, said the film represented “Cameron at his best”… but then he fretted that the film fell down in ignoring all the many real-life male heroes of the disaster. He dismissed the fictional romance as something pulled from “Woman’s Home Companion” and “completely unversed in… psychological complexities.” Also too: Jack Dawson is not appropriately protagonist-y.
I wasn’t wrong, back in 1998, when I marveled at how Titanic’s romance was not the typical sort, in that it did not require that the couple change for one another, just that they be fully themselves, and so it represented, for all the relative youth of Leonardo Dicaprio’s (J. Edgar, Inception) Jack and Kate Winslet’s (Contagion, Carnage) Rose, a kind of grownup relationship the likes of which we don’t usually see in Hollywood romances. And so, I figured back then, that was appealing to girls and women, who were longing for something slightly less cartoonish in their romantic stories. But still I missed the forest for the trees, because I hadn’t been looking at movies and Hollywood as a forest, so to speak, for long enough.
Watching the film again, it suddenly struck me with the force of a pop-culture hurricane: Titanic is all about Rose. It is Rose’s personal journey. This hardly ever happens in films, which are almost invariably about men and their personal journeys. From the most idiotic action movie to the most profound drama, most movies offer us only men who grow and change over the course of a (hopefully) engaging and exciting story. Women, if they’re lucky enough to appear at all, are the noble, saintly bystanders who inspire and encourage men; if they’re unlucky, they will be sacrificed, often quite literally via rape, murder, or both, to the male protagonist’s spiritual and personal development.
I would bet the rent that most moviegoers — male and female alike — are only dimly, subconsciously aware of the gender disparity we get from Hollywood. I’m sure most of the girls and women who flocked to Titanic in 1997 and 1998 — and who will do so again with the rerelease — could not articulate why the film resonates so much with them. (Obviously, I couldn’t articulate it either!) But this is why: Titanic tells us that a woman’s growth as a person matters. Jack, as a character, is unchanged over the course of the film, as women typically are in such stories: he enters cheerful and optimistic and adventurous, and he exits exactly the same way. He is unchanged… because he is already perfect in all the ways that the story requires. Just like women usually are in The Movies. What’s more — and I suspect that this is the thing that bothers the men in the audience so much — Jack must be sacrificed for Rose to grow as a person. Rose would not have become the woman we meet at 101 years of age if Jack had survived.
What’s more, this isn’t even irrelevant to the larger story of the sinking of the Titanic. This disaster wasn’t just a harbinger of technological change, of mass death brought on by human arrogance, it was a harbinger of a sweeping social change to come that was a knock-on effect of the technology that the ship represented… including a dramatically different role for women in society. No, that’s not addressed by the film… but neither are the other taken-for-granted future reflections of the disaster, either.
This isn’t girl stuff. It’s human stuff. The appeal is mysterious only to those who are too comfortably used to the human stories being men’s stories. I suddenly find it hilariously ironic that one of the fundamental aspects of a film about, in part, the failings of blind arrogance and hubris sails right by some of its watchers for apparently similar causes.