Friday 15 February 2013

Top 100 disaster movies: Titanic

Titanic (1997)

It's difficult to believe that Titanic is nearly 16 years old and therefore legally able to have sexual intercourse in the United Kingdom. Come the big day, I suspect that Titanic will most likely choose itself as its partner. It had that way about it, parping its own funnel. But then, films did that more back then. I think it would be hard to describe to someone too young to have been there exactly the kind of feverish hype that surrounded Titanic's release. Back then, we all thought it was real and screamed when things came towards the screen, of course. But I remember that I went to see it some time in the spring of 1998 in Brighton and the cinema was standing room only, something I have never experienced before or since. By the end of the seventeen hour long film, people who had sat right down at the front were walking out of the screening in the shape of swastikas, having done irreparable damage to their spines.

At the time I was obviously rather taken up with the hype of the whole film because I thought it was wonderful. I realise now of course that I had been played by the Hollywood system to a large degree. However, it would be wrong  - an understandable backlash against corporate propagandising of my malleable 18-year old brain - to claim that Titanic is not a film without quality. It's perhaps not our generation's Citizen Kane but then again, no ocean liners sink in Citizen Kane so its probably best to declare a score-draw on that front.

It's a hard film to watch again. This is not so much due to the poignancy of the story or the strength of the memories of my fallow youth, and more to do with the fact that it's really long. I would estimate that it must be at least six hours, although having just checked on Wikipedia I have discovered that the actual running time is 3 hours 14 minutes. And Leonardo Di Caprio is only dead for about fifteen of them.

Harsh again. My distaste for Leonardo Di Caprio is again forged by those times, in the heady days of the end of the last century, when he was being sold as our generation's Valentino. Di Caprio has gone on to be a very impressive, likable and versatile film actor, a lot of whose work I have enjoyed. And yet, upon seeing his name in the credits I still get the twitch. Titanic's psychological impact on me runs deep. As DEEP AS THE ATLANTIC OCEAN? Probably not.

Kate Winslet in Titanic: standing next to a peculiarly inaccurate mirror

My problem with Titanic is that, like many movies of the disaster genre, it is basically a tired old romantic potboiler, given a gravitas it perhaps hasn't earned by the inevitability of the lovers' demise. As if someone had made a porno based on John and Jackie Kennedy's last trip to Texas (which, incidentally, would probably be a better film). Titanic, of course, also dips deep into the old upstairs-downstairs class-based shenanigans so beloved by insane British people.

Treasure hunters (oceanographic explorers? well-equipped aquatic thieves?) find a safe in the ruins of the RMS Titanic. When it is opened, they find a jewel as big as your fist and a nudey charcoal sketch of a lady. It turns out that its subject is still alive, aged 208 and living in the United States. She is flown out to the explorer's ship where she tells the story of her trip on the doomed liner. It's a story of high-society, arranged marriages and ludicrous amounts of privilege. But nevertheless, they can all be shot through by shagging an Irish ragamuffin, on the boat as a third-class passenger having won his ticket in a dockside poker game and in the right place at the right time to prevent Little Miss Snooty from jumping to her death in a fit of wealthy pique.

And there you go. There's the trouble. The story of the fateful maiden voyage of RMS Titanic will be told for as long as there are humans to tell it. It is poignant enough, and tragic enough, without having to go all macro and examine just one or two sets of relationships. As far as the film goes, it tells the nuts and bolts story well: the special effects which were at the time completely groundbreaking in terms of their scope and their cost still hold up well and it remains very much the landmark for any future films of this kind. Quite whether the films that come after it need to so slavishly follow the generic tradition of doomed love is another matter, but of course they will and another part of us will die inside.

I think a better ending would have been that they discovered that Rose's amour from that night had not perished in the Atlantic as she had thought but was later saved by a passing boat. And yes, we've found him and brought him out to the ship. He's 206 years old but he can still get a hardon, it's Jack. A round of applause and a jokey reference to the fact he's off to ride her sideways would have made the wheelbarrow-load of Academy Awards seem so much more richly deserved.

I give Titanic SIX out of ten disaster points.

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