Adam W’s Titanic: Now an Internet Disaster
As Playtime guest contributor Adam W. workshopped his article “A Clash of History and Fiction in Titanic” in the Playtime contributor forums, his early draft touched off a heady exchange concerning the role of historical accuracy in James Cameron’s Titanic in particular and in fiction in general.
The Titanic and Historical Accuracy
Daniel Swensen: It seems a trifle odd to me to pick on Cameron for “capitalizing on a disaster still easy to recall for its survivors” when movies like The Longest Day were reliving the battles of WWII in 1962 (or Sands of Iwo Jima in 1949), and movies like United 93 and World Trade Center both came out five years from their eponymous disasters, not eighty-five years like Titanic. If someone was ten years old when the Titanic sank, they were ninety-five when the movie came out. Is it really fair to imply that it’s too soon?
Rob Prentes: I don’t think disastrous events like war or terrorist attacks or a hurricane are above filming. Documentaries are never questioned (I don’t think anyone got after Spike for his Katrina piece), I think it can be objectionable when people are profiting off those things, like a 9/11 movie. When “United 93″ came out, I immediately thought “too soon” because it was too soon. All of us still remember the events of that day, the news of it all happening, so to rehash it all when it was still so fresh in memory seemed moot at best.
Swensen: Are you saying that movies with historical settings should be held to documentary standards, or are you saying that all history should be off-limits altogether when producing a work of fiction?
Adam W: I was leaning towards historical accuracy when producing a work of historical fiction. When I was doing research into the real Titanic I found that Cameron’s version is more about the mythical Titanic, instead of being historically accurate. My problem is with the present day material with the footage of the shipwreck, it’s only there to serve the fictional elements of the story. When the fiction is based more in myth it makes the present-day material look superfluous. Maybe the ‘too soon’ comment is absurd, but my point was that historical films should be held up to a higher standard or a different one altogether. I still wouldn’t discount the fact that there still were survivors left at the time the film released.
Swensen: Should Cameron have instead interviewed a survivor and made a biopic based on their eighty-five-year-old recollections of what happened?
Adam W: I suppose I would turn it into Grand Hotel on a ship.
Swensen: It would be interesting to me to see where you think the importance of “historical accuracy” lies. Is it permissible to make up fictional dialogue for historical characters?
Adam W: When the film decides to bring in real footage like Titanic the creators should have some integrity regarding historical accuracy. The number of extras increases by hundreds when the ship hits the iceberg, although they are only there to help enhance the spectacle of the disaster. Certain genre’s can get away with using real footage for their storytelling, in the case of a disaster film I find it is closer to exploitation than tribute. Hollywood has no responsibility to historical accuracy, that in no way means they are beyond reproach, although they can be an easy target. I can buy and even enjoy Titanic as being the film about the myth, but Cameron wants to have everything.
Swensen: Certainly I wouldn’t argue that Cameron doesn’t want everything. Oh my, does he ever. But I think it might be worth noting in your piece that Cameron also produced and / or directed multiple documentaries about Titanic (Ghosts of the Abyss, Titanic Adventure, Last Mysteries of the Titanic), and by his own admission wrote the movie because he wanted to go shoot some Titanic footage, not the other way around:
James Cameron was fascinated by shipwrecks, especially the RMS Titanic, and wrote a treatment for the film. He said he made Titanic “because [he] wanted to dive to the shipwreck, not because [he] particularly wanted to make the movie”. He said that the Titanic was “the Mount Everest of shipwrecks” and he, as a diver, wanted to tell the story right. “When I learned some other guys had dived to the Titanic to make an IMAX movie, I said, ‘I’ll make a Hollywood movie to pay for an expedition and do the same thing.’ I loved that first taste, and I wanted more,” stated Cameron. “Titanic was about ‘fuck you’ money. It came along at a point in my life when I said, ‘I can make movies until I’m 80, but I can’t do expedition stuff when I’m 80.’”
Ghosts of the Abyss, in particular, had made footage of the Titanic available that never existed before and developed new technology for deep-sea exploration.
Don’t get me wrong — I dislike Titanic intensely, and I agree with you 100% on it being pretty much exploitation — all disaster movies are exploitation, as far as I’m concerned; audiences watch because they want to see people die and touchstones of civilization crumble and be destroyed. I guess what I’m saying is that it might be unfair to chastise Cameron for the cheek of including Titanic footage when he’s done more documentary work on Titanic than anyone, well, ever.
Adam W: A lot of what you said has helped to make up more ideas for the argument. I can use something about historical accuracy and artistic license along with Cameron’s incentive to film Titanic. I still have to say that the new 3D Titanic film muddles the argument that Cameron was more interested in the shipwreck than money.
Swensen: I think Cameron loves developing and using cutting-edge technology more than anything else in this world. I think money’s just a means to that end for him. Not just the fact that he funds the development of new submersibles and CG technology; his rampant technophilia is all over his movies as well.
Musing on Historical Accuracy in General
Swensen: There’s always this interesting tension that goes on with historical films that I find fascinating. There are some who seem to feel that historical fiction should be completely rigorous and held, as you say, to “high standards” — which are often, to my mind, impossible and disingenuous ones. Take, for example, any number of sword-and-sandal epics. Whenever these things come out I read a lot of amateur critics complaining about Australians or Brits or Americans playing Greeks — instead, they should all be Greek actors speaking Greek! Which, of course, ignores a number of stark movie-making realities; namely that 1) giant-budget historical epics need big stars to sell them, 2) most audience members, for good or ill, hate subtitles, and 3) the Greek that these characters would be speaking isn’t the Greek that was spoken during the historical period anyway, so what’s the point? Is Hollywood really obligated to forego storytelling and economic realities in order to satisfy notions of historical accuracy? Is it really Hollywood’s place to try to present the “truth” of history? And is it really wise at all to look to Hollywood for an accurate portrayal of the past?
There are any other number of examples. Ridley Scott’s historical films are particularly interesting in this regard. Kingdom of Heaven, for example, has tons of tiny historical details, but plenty of its facts are just flat-out wrong in favor of the story. But Scott was really using the setting and the conflict as a framing device to comment on contemporary politics in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Was his alteration of historical fact useful or merely irresponsible? Does trying to say something about our world now take a back seat to trying to accurately portray how the world was then? And where exactly does that importance lie — in the clothes, the heraldry, the politics, the language? All of the above? Should everyone have spoken Middle English? Where do we draw these lines?
Tracy McCusker: I agree with Dan. I think that we need to consider where the importance lies in historical representation. If one considers historical alternation a “lie,” the question becomes: when is the lie harmful versus when is it harmless? Is it harmful to portray a single man causing the Fall of Rome, when it actually happened by way of barbarian invasions and weak emperors? Does altering the History of Rome actually constitute a lie that will impact and hurt people today? The answer usually will be “no.”
I support this kind of fictionalization to the utmost degree. I also support the right of people to decry this kind of fictionalization, and to present the historical version of events in their fiction. Though if you go far back enough in history, the question of realibility comes into play. How accurate are past historical records before 1000 CE? What do we consider reliable if our ideas about what constitutes “objective” history have radically changed within only the past sixty years? What happens when the historical tradition itself is unstable? If you think that our historical understanding of even well-documented, well-studied historical people remains stable, you would be wrong.
To argue against myself for a moment: an example where a lie, even a past lie would be harmful: a Fall-of-Rome story done where the antagonist is a Jew, and the entire Empire crumbles because of Jewish conspirators. American society understands Rome as a symbol for one of the best, most enlightened empires. By casting the antagonists of Rome in racial profiles, even though we’re talking about an empire that fell thousands of years ago, the obvious fictionalization of the story is done to motivate racial hatred. That, I would see as a harmful lie–but mainly because the “lie” or fictionalization is based on a desire to misrepresent for no other purpose than to stir up hatred for a particular people.
On the other hand, if you look back at some of the great works of the English language, they themselves played with history. For example, Shakespeare’s MacBeth grew out of a work that “played with history” in order to glorify the Stewart monarchy. The History of the Kings of Britain grew out of the same impulse for Geoffrey of Monmouth seeking patronage in Norman-conquered Britain. At the time, these works were accepted as depicitions of “true” history.
And what exactly constitutes “playing with history?” Is Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” playing with history because it may not be a completely factual representation of his father’s historical experience in the Holocaust? Or is perhaps his father’s memories of some of the details of the Holocaust incorrect? Or modified for purposes of tone? Or does it not matter, because “playing with history” only apply to important historical personages like Kings, Queens, Presidents, wars?
Saying that entertainment doesn’t give one the right to play with history basically shuts down an entire avenue of creative human expression.
Rob: I think there’s degrees of [representation], though. It’s perfectly fine for anyone to be put-off or upset by a film/series presenting itself as the facts, like “Generation Kill” or “The Pacific.” [These films] could called disingenious and dishonest, because they appear to be non-fiction documentary as opposed to what they are: docudramas, where their objectives are closer to a fictional film as opposed to a non-fictional one.
Just recently TIME magazine was calling Tom Hanks “America’s historian,” which adds to the idea that he’s in the historical business as opposed to the entertainment one. And of course, for me it was disheartening seeing some thinking GK was all facts and that’s how the Marines really are. Palm-on-forehead moment for me. If a series or movie deceives or confused its audience with its accuracy, I think it deserves criticism, and to have whatever inaccuracies talked about in order to clear things up/bring awareness to the people of its reality.
Swensen: I think infotainment is a plague that’s brought almost all documentary filmmaking to new lows (the Discovery channel is a shameful mess these days), but people need to exercise some goddamn critical thinking. And if people are too stupid to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, it’s not art’s responsibility to make sure they’re comfortable in their ignorance.
David Nguyen-Tri: Deviations from history or character don’t usually bother me unless the film so long as it’s established that the film is a historical fantasy and that the film doesn’t seek to vilify or sanctify a person. In particular, the presence of anachronisms doesn’t bother me that much unless it’s integral to the story. That being said, there would be something just… wrong with scoring a historical epic with loud rock music.
Swensen: I thought the same thing about A Knight’s Tale until I read an interview with the director, who pointed out that grand, sweeping orchestral scores were every bit as anachronistic, because those didn’t exist in the given time period either, and that popular music was probably closer in spirit to the kind of things that would have been played at jousts and tourneys. Authentic medieval lays and madrigals generally come off pretty drab to most modern audiences and don’t lend themselves well to hitting the kind of emotional highs and lows we’re accustomed to hearing in film soundtracks. Either way, a big orchestral score “feels” right because our cultural notions of the period have been shaped to associate those things — but it’s really just rather arbitrary.
I think A Knight’s Tale is actually a very neat little show in the way it fits modern sensibilities into a historical setting without violating the spirit of the time in which it’s set — if you can get past the fact that they’re using modern parlance and music, and accept that jousting tourneys really were the popular sporting events of the age, it doesn’t seem like such a blasphemy.
Tracy: The biggest problem with films representing history seems to be people’s willingness to believe “that’s what happened”–perhaps due to the immersive aspect of the medium. Perhaps its just a human tendency not to be critical of received notions.
Rob: I agree. I think the culture itself has placed so much emphasis on the need to entertain, because they think that’s where the money is.
Edited by Tracy McCusker.