AFInity: Titanic
By Kim Hollis
December 15, 2009

The pose that launched a billion dollars.

We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.

Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.

In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.

#83: Titanic

With the release of Avatar just around the corner, the past several weeks have been marked by a variety of people crawling out of the woodwork to bash James Cameron, a director who hasn't had a non-documentary movie in theaters in 12 years. The majority of this backlash seems to come from people critical of Titanic, the biggest money making film of all-time as well as the one that still holds the record for most Academy Awards received (yes, The Return of the King has the record, too. I know). Since Titanic does appear on the 2007 edition of the AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies, I thought this would be a fine time to examine the film with new eyes, and as objective a point of view as possible.

When Titanic was initially released in December of 1997, I resisted the hype. I had no desire whatsoever to sit through a butt-numbing three-hour film with an obvious ending that could be nothing but a downer. I had nothing against Cameron himself (in fact, Terminator is still one of my favorite films to this day). I just wasn't interested.

My feelings changed a bit during the summer of 1998. While staying at a Jamaica resort, I ran out of beach reading material, and one of the only books in the gift shop that looked interesting was A Night to Remember, a true history of the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. I powered through the book and found it tragic but fascinating, and my interest in Cameron's depiction of the sad tale was piqued.

Thus, when Titanic finally made it to the $1 theater, I saw the movie on the big screen. I recall being impressed with the film's technical prowess but generally blah otherwise. I felt that there were so many real stories that could have been highlighted as opposed to the fictional love story at the movie's center. Titanic wasn't disappointing, exactly, but eight or nine months worth of hype had elevated my expectations to a degree.

Time has softened me toward the movie, though. Titanic is one of those films that I can watch any time it pops up on the HD movie channels. Whenever it does, I find myself thinking, "This is so much better than I remembered." It doesn't hurt that it still looks fantastic, but there are a lot of really nice little touches that occur throughout the movie that make it something special.

Still, I hadn't actually sat and watched the movie from beginning to end since that first day at the dollar theater. So, in advance of seeing Avatar in the theater this weekend (and I will be there; you can count on it), I sat through all three hours and 15 minutes of Titanic. And you know, I have to say I'm pretty fond of the movie overall.

There are many things worth admiring about the film. Much has been made over the years of the technical wizardry, and it is true that the sinking of the Titanic is a spectacle beyond compare. The movie immerses the viewer in the event, as we experience the ship's disaster right along with the characters in the film, from the instant the ship hits the iceberg to the moment the Carpathia arrives to assist the survivors.

To that point, I also think that Cameron's movie does a stellar job of showing the way that humans behave when beset with disaster. It's compellingly honest to see the very best and worst of behavior on display, and that bad behavior isn't limited just to the wealthy patrons of first class - nor are the steerage customers the only heroes (and it would have been all too easy to make it all about class warfare). Given how completely dire the situation is, I like that we're given snapshots of people who are disappointing as well as those who rise above their fears to help their fellow man.

Part of the reason that these qualities come across so clearly is thanks to some really fine acting (with an exception or two that I'll get to later). Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are at the center of the story as Jack and Rose, and both of them are extremely appealing in their roles. In the case of Jack Dawson, we're drawn to his roguish qualities, but there's some depth to his character that shows a young man constantly striving to find adventure and the very best in life. Even when he's looking death in the eye, he feels like he's experienced things to the fullest he can, and for that reason, he has no regrets. Rose, on the other hand, is stuck in an impossible situation, but does all she can to change her own circumstances - and in the end, she succeeds. Though a different actress might not have had the talent to play this role as anything better than a spoiled brat, in Kate's eyes we see a longing and desire that is undeniable.

Along with the two leads, there are a number of actors who should be recognized. Foremost among them is Victor Garber, who has limited screen time in a crucial role as Thomas Andrews, the designer of the Titanic. I remember when I saw the film back in 1998 that above everything else in the movie, his performance stuck with me. I always think of the moment where he checks his watch and sets the clock in the first-class smoking room as a defining one in my movie-viewing lifetime. He's been one of my favorite actors from that day, and I'll watch him in anything.

Also terrific is Kathy Bates as the Unsinkable Molly Brown, a first-class passenger who is disdained by others because she is "new" money rather than a long-time member of society. She's buoyant and upbeat, and propelled forward by a moral code that is admirable. Bernard Hill portrays Captain Edward John Smith, the man at the helm of the ship, and his fall from grace is exceedingly sad. I was also surprised to see Ioan Gruffudd in a tiny role as Fifth Officer Harold Lowe. Perhaps it's because he's able to use his natural Welsh accent here, but he's surprisingly excellent in the limited screen time he has (of course, this could be because his character is one of the best, most heroic people in the film).

The story is framed in such a way that we're told the history from Rose's point of view, and I think this is a successful device for imparting the emotion and themes Cameron is aiming for. At the beginning of the movie, treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his crew are hell-bent on finding the priceless Heart of the Ocean, and they're even a little crass when describing the Titanic's sinking in front of her. By the end of the film, as she closes out the tale, we see that they view the story differently. No longer do they think of the Titanic as something to profit by. Instead, it's a sunken ship steeped in a sad history that meant the end of life for more than 1,500 people.

Additionally, I like that Titanic does show us some of the neglect that contributed to the tragedy. It's not limited to one man - instead, any number of people can be faulted for the actions they did or did not take with regard to their role in the construction of the ship or the voyage itself. With a little more care and a lot less pride, the sinking of the Titanic is an event that might have been avoided.

Of course, even with the all the good in the film, there are a few things that must be criticized. The first, of course, is the bloated run time. People often make the joke that the boat actually sank more quickly than the film's three hour and 15 minutes, but the thing is, it's the truth. I do think there are elements of the film that could be cut, though I recognize that to do so would likely eliminate some of our connection to the characters.

Also, and this has become more troublesome for me in the years since the events of 9/11, I get a little squeamish about watching this real-life tragedy unfold on the screen in front of me. Cameron is quite detailed in the film, and we see people falling to their deaths, getting crushed by pieces of the ship, or freezing in the ocean. Sometimes, it feels like Cameron has crafted the movie as a big roller coaster ride, and that just doesn't feel appropriate. I understand that he wishes to immerse us in the experience, but it just feels wrong somehow.

The biggest problem of Titanic for me, though, is the fictional character of Caledon Nathan "Cal" Hockley, portrayed by Billy Zane. It's simply impossible for me to believe that a person could be so unreservedly badly behaved. There's not a single thing that this character does that is worthy of redemption. We're teased for a moment that Cal might save a terrified child, but in the end, it's all just a means for his own survival - one that is tossed aside as soon as new peril presents itself. While I have no problem with Zane himself, the character is extremely limited and almost presents as no better than Snidely Whiplash. If there were train tracks on the boat, I'd expect him to be tying Rose to them and laughing iniquitously.

For some people, that could be enough to be a big knock on the film. For me, it's mostly a mild distraction. It's a situation where Cameron almost gets it perfectly right, and the high notes are so high that I'm willing to forgive Titanic its faults and go with it. There's a reason I'm drawn to the film whenever I'm flipping through the movie channels. It's partly for the epic scope of the story, but ultimately, I have an odd affinity for the doomed romance between Jack and Rose. Some might claim that such a whirlwind romance is unrealistic, but I don't think that's the case, myself. I believe that Rose and Jack would find each other in this small environment, and be drawn together for both their differences and similarities in personality. And I think that everything Rose does from the day she steps onto the dock in New York City honors that love she has for Jack, from her various adventures to finding new love to starting a family. Cameron drew me into their story, and I expect him to do the same when I see Avatar in all its 3-D IMAX glory this weekend. Even as he's changing the rules of film-making, he's still encouraging us to connect with the characters who populate his movies.

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