A Clash of History and Fiction in Titanic
There was never a ship like the Titanic a bold and glorious ocean liner which shuttled the rich across the Atlantic Ocean as if they were angels riding in an unsinkable clam. Then we have the film, Titanic, directed by James Cameron. It, too, was bold and glorious with a firm yet supple grip, capable of satisfying the director’s Quixotic ego. Unfortunately, these are both myths: a socialist iceberg struck the Titanic in the mid-Atlantic on April 15, 1912 and 1,517 people died in the vast emptiness of the ocean. When it came to the film, even a $1.8 billion worldwide box office gross was not enough to keep its director from ceasing to shut up about the damn ship. It’s common for historical events to give way to myth; media was no less unreliable then. On the night of the sinking, the wireless ended abruptly and the papers the next morning were a fury of speculation. On dry land, people were kept in a suspended state of panic for days. The film Titanic is a mess of poor narrative and overdone special effects that hardly do anything to make compelling historical and fictional characters. The interest lies more in artifacts and technology than the stories of the historical figures.
The film fumbles shortly after the opening when Cameron decides to film the actual wreckage of the ship. A group of explorers are searching the monstrous sepulchre of that ship which lies deteriorating on the floor of the Atlantic on the premise that there is a precious diamond somewhere inside the ship. History is doctored to serve the fictional narrative, a common problem with the film. Everything within the image of these early scenes is real. The vessel which provided Cameron with the submarines he uses to explore the wreckage is a Russian scientific research vessel that goes by the name of Akademik Mstislav Keldysh. It looks ominous in the film, hovering over the site where the Titanic went down, resembling something akin to a grave robber. In fact, the fictional explorers are disturbing real remains to search for prop jewellery. In the film, the piece of jewellery is a rare diamond worn by Rose DeWitt, and it was thought to be lost in the sinking. Fiction begins to chip away at reality. The disappointing lack of prop jewellery on the Titanic is featured on a news report about the naked woman (that happens to be Rose) with the necklace in the drawing. In this moment, fiction has officially severed all connection with reality. The ship, the iceberg, 1,500+ dead bodies, are all brought under the control of the fictional narrative. The moment that old Rose boards the Akademik Mstislav Keldysh and tells her story, Titanic is no longer a part of history — instead, it is a mere product of the director’s imagination. After all, with the focus on the memories of a fictional Titanic survivor and her love story set on the site of the disaster, Cameron dares to turn historical tragedy into a mere Hollywood spectacle. Nothing brings back a torrent of memories about Titanic like the relationship between Rose and her plucky, globe-trotting tramp, Jack Dawson. Their love left wet spots in the theatre seats. Titanic does not defy archaic stereotypes of class: practically every scene with Jack exemplifies the shallow characterizations of both rich and poor. Jack is an artist with rather romantic notions about his poverty. As a guest of Rose during dinner in the wealthy dining hall he remarks, “Just last night I was sleeping under a bridge, and now I’m here dining with you fine folks.” It was a tiresome scene to watch. In the surrounding scenes in the wealthy dining hall, we are treated to the various name drops of the various historical wealthy passengers of the Titanic, such as John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim; I do not recall seeing Major Butt. Much like the later scene of a celebration down in steerage, the aesthetic of both rich and poor are there to serve as scenery for the blooming relationship of Jack and Rose. Cameron is drawing from middle-class myths about the rich/poor dichotomy; he never even pretends to acknowledge the existence of second-class passengers on the ship. When disaster strikes, the narrative opens up the world to more cannon fodder. Sure, there must of been some pandemonium when people learned they would all die, but there was a love story to put on and as long as someone stopped to whinge about lifeboats and hulls the debt to historical accuracy would be paid. Cameron did a great job making the effects appear flawless. You cannot argue against their majesty when the Titanic broke in half, but is it enough that it simply looks good?
It must not be forgotten that Titanic is primarily a blend of period piece and disaster film genres. No one dies in disaster films so the audience can start weeping about in their popcorn. That’s not to say directors are immune from sanctimonious displays of tearjerking in disaster films. Who can forget Tea Leoni and her father embracing each other as they encounter a colossal tidal wave in Deep Impact? When you turn a historical event into a disaster film, doesn’t everything you do seem a little cheap and exploitative?
In Cameron’s defence he has admitted to being more interested in shipwrecks than the film itself. The film was used to finance further expeditions to famous wrecks. Taking that in mind, I still say Titanic would have made the same amount of money had Cameron not shown footage of the wreck. The way he presents the results of the disaster in present day footage seems cheap and unnecessary. The use of a fictional survivor to bridge the gap between reality and fiction is horrible. In order for him to be successful he has to use old Rose; she is the only remaining link to the Titanic. She, like every non-fictional Titanic survivor, passed into legend when their numbers began to decline in the 90’s along with the discovery of the wreck in the 80’s. Old Rose as a fictional survivor is used in the present day reality to retell her story of love and disaster on the ship. By presenting the events through the fictional Rose the obvious happens and almost all emotion is reserved for the tragic Jack Dawson. Hundreds of people are stuck in the freezing water with Jack and Rose after the ship sinks. The scene is a cacophony of violent splashing and desperate screams. The mayhem of that moment is produced with an expert touch, serving as an example of Cameron’s clunky method of mixing fictional characters with real people. However, when the focus is regained the narrative goes straight back to the Jack and Rose story. The camera is absolutely fixated on them during Jack’s heroic bout with hypothermia where he encourages Rose to continue on living until he is blue in the face. Jack dies, but the orchestral love score lives to suck another day.
Titanic only fails by making historical connections to the event an afterthought of the fantasy and grand display of technological efforts that went into making the film. The efforts made to shoot on the floor of the Atlantic went well beyond the ambitions of most artists who invoke historical images for their projects. Cameron then goes and spoils it all by using the footage for a silly motif to launch the true narrative. I’m sure there were a plethora of real people with interesting stories that could have made a film that drew emotion from real life, rather than fictional characters. Instead we’re treated to the flimsy motivations from a villain in dire need of a Dick Dastardly moustache. The types of characterizations in Titanic do not bring the emotional weight needed to convey a disaster of this magnitude. The film fuses romance and disaster genres, but representations of real people are nothing but extras, bit part players, and a few character actors. Basically, if you’re not one of the lucky (fictional) few who gets more than a line of dialogue your onscreen appearance will be met with a gruesome fate. Cameron’s touch on the film is evident in the way he masters special effects to create a feeling of history coming alive; it does not extend to his approach to characters, who seem to need overwrought musical scores and destruction to evoke sympathy.
Continue reading the fallout of this article here: Adam W’s Titanic: Now an Internet Disaster
Edited by Matt Schneider.