The cultural significance of Titanic are colossal and difficult to miss. Its fourteen Oscar nominations and eleven wins are unsurpassed. Up until Avatar it was the cinema’s biggest money maker. It marked a deep reworking of technology in films. It reworked and essentially launched the careers of Oscar nominees at the time Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio to super stardom and it spawned a number of spoofs about jewels in the water. It subsequently became one of the most, if not the most reviled Best Picture winner that few were willing to express affinity for. Luckily, I’m not a proud person because I feel no sense of embarrassment in citing Titanic as on of my favourite films.
Titanic is not my favourite film, but I marvel at the sheer scope of the piece. The film spans over three hours and yet persons who’d bemoan the cumbersome nature of other excellent pieces (like The English Patient, Gosford Park even The Lord of the Rings) would be willing to take an uninterrupted gander at it. Call it what you will, but few films of such length can keep the audiences interested for so long. As a narrative Titanic is split, evenly more or less, into two parts – the romantic half (pre-iceberg) and the action half (post-iceberg). Of course, like any film with a split narrative there are moments where the two overlap, and both “parts” are mediated by the words of our narrator in question Gloria Stuart. If forced, I’d probably single out the first half as my favourite even though each has things going for it. It’s the in the first part where the ensemble nature of Titanic is most evident. I’ll admit, Cameron is no E. M. Forster with his writing but I’m always wary of his critics who seem to officious. I’m not sure if it’s his skill for the inane, or the actors skill for the camp but it all works gloriously – like Fisher’s bedroom confession to her daughter, “Do you want to see me working as a seamstress?”; or Winslet’s much-too-verbose Rose’s soliloquies of sorts “Look, I know what you must be thinking! Poor little rich girl. What does she know about misery?”. The words are not the beacon of the film, but there’s some sort of sadistic thrill as I watch hearing Billy Zane tear through lines like, “Yes, you are, and my wife. My wife in practice if not yet by law, so you will honor me. You will honor me the way a wife is required to honor a husband. Because I will not be made a fool, Rose."
The thing is, even though it’s the first half that sets Kate and Leo up as dramatic actors it’s the second half that solidifies their skill. Certainly, they’re nowhere near the top of their game but the work they do as the ship begins to sink should not be ignored. It’s the difficulty that countless actors today cannot overcome. Winslet and DiCaprio need to effectively act against the already overwhelming backdrop of the special effects and they emerge doing credibly good jobs. The sinking of the ship is a thoroughly amazing visual spectacle, and yet we rarely forget the ill-fated lovers, for each actor carves a true character against the almost impossible. For Winslet it’s the film’s most deliciously ridiculous moment – as Rose is lowered into the lifeboats only to subsequently jump off, Kate has no lines and it’s up to her to sell a plot device that’s borders on fanatical; and she does. It’s an indicator of the brilliant actress to come. For Leo it’s later, and shorter. The moments just before his “death” are poignant, even if in its deliberateness. “you're going to make babies and watch them grow and you're going to die an old lady, warm in your bed."
Of course, the crux of my argument for the film should lie in its consummate technicalities, but I won’t bother. The costumes, the art direction, the visual effects and even Horner’s score which manages to remain poignant despite the recitative nature. What makes a film good? I don’t know, but I do know I’m willing to sit down and look at Cameron’s film whenever it’s on. I know the narrative like the back of my hand, I can recite the “inane” lines as if I wrote them and when anyone is moved to lambast it for its faults I’m often moved to imitate Rose and Jack; when the infuriating footman tries to warn them about the folly of their ways the turn around to him in unison and say “Shut Up!”