James Flint on Wed, 18 Feb 1998 07:48:09 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Titanic

There are several jaw-dropping sequences in the first half-hour of James
Cameron's 'Titantic', but the most impressive comes just after we meet the
recreated boat for the first time. Cameron gives us a whirlwind tour,
starting with the upperclasses in the upper decks as they settle into their
luxurious apartments and descending through steerage where the lower
classes (read sanitised Italian and Irish proletarians) are packed four to
a cabins, then into the engine room where the most impressive visual
recreation in the movie takes place - the giant oiled engine pistons
leaping up and down in their cylinders, tended to by boilersuit-clad men.
After that of course we descend to the stoking room, where grimy peons tend
the giant boilers in scenes reminiscent of Turner's paintings of the dark
satanic mills of the industrial revolution. 

Thus Cameron presents us, straight away, with a snapshot of British society
on the eve of the First World War - simplified, perhaps, but effective and
firmly situated in the grand tradition of filmic social criticism, as
exemplified in works as varied as Lang's 'Metropolis' and Chaplin's 'Modern
Times'. We see at once the stratifications of class and the hypocrisy of
the system, and how blithely the rituals and graces of the monied classes
float, like the Titanic itself, on a sea of misery and fear. 

This is not just an idle parallel. For the structure of society is
continually remarked throughout Cameron's film, and is used as a motor for
the plot on several occasions as well as being blamed for the sinking
itself and the awful extent of the disaster. Indeed, the central metaphor
of the film is of the sinking as an image of the imminent implosion of that
very society, and as such a kind of harbinger of the greater calamity that
would scupper it for good, that of the 1914-1918 war.

And this is where 'Titanic' becomes interesting. For what do we have here
but a film about the collapse of the Imperial Britain by its true heir,
Imperial America. This is nothing new: in its pitting of down-home American
go-gettedness and verve (Leonardo DiCaprio) against the amoral brutalities
of the 'gentleman' (Billy Zane) 'Titanic' merely reruns a script played out
a thousand times before. DiCaprio is excellent as Robert Redford, Winslet
as Vivien Leigh, and if they win Oscars for their performances - as they
almost certainly will - it will be because these recreations were every bit
as pixel-perfect as shimmering decks of the film's cruise ship as its sets
out across the Atlantic on its one and only voyage. Hollywood loves
Hollywood best of all.

But the real tragedy of this movie is not the breath-taking shipwreck, but
rather the fact that Cameron does not take the opportunity to use his
analysis of (post-) Edwardian society as an opportunity to criticise his
own imperialist milieu. After all, he sets it up that way: 'Titanic' has a
nice meta-narrative structure reminiscent of much greater works such as
Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness', to take a book that has itself inspired many
movies, and the director could easily have used the prism of Victorian
society he creates to cast some meaningful light on the aims of the society
of which he is a part, and which is on the verge of scuppering itself with
Gulf War II (for which the film 'Titanic' may well prove a harbinger, in a
'first time as tragedy, second time as farce' kind of a way) in a manner
very reminiscent of the follies of its precursor. But no, all we get is the
wrecker captain shedding a crocodile tear at the survivor's story and
getting angsty about the fact that he's spent three years planning his
salvage operation without ever thinking of the Titanic's 'human angle';
that, and the replacement of the class idealogy with the ideology of the
American individualism.

Not that I want to criticise Cameron for focusing in on three individuals
and making them bear the weight of the movie. In many ways this was a
brave, almost transgressive decision - after all, the tried and tested
method for scripting a disaster movie is to run five or six human interest
stories in parallel, like a soap opera, maybe just edging one (the lovers,
of course) into a position of precedence. Cameron doesn't do this - apart
from one or two cameos, there are no minor characters to speak of (for all
the chat about the evils of the class structure we don't really get to meet
anyone whose in steerage, and all of the scenes below decks have all the
faux-authenticity of a Caffrey's ad). What we actually get is the
Jack-Rose-Cal love triangle and, well, sometimes it works and sometimes it

But whether or not these actors and their characters are strong enough to
bear the metaphorical weight of the movie (which clearly they aren't),
without any kind of reflexive criticism Cameron ends up committing the
exact same crime as he accuses the upper classes of in the movie: that of
ignoring the victims of the disaster. '1500 went into the sea and only 6
came out' bemoans the heroine, in her incarnation as an old woman (at 101
years old a figure of the century itself). It's pretty much the ratio of
extras to stars on the movie itself. What Cameron has done is to hijack the
story of the 2200 passengers and turn it to his own ends, just like the
salvage captain before he gets morality. (It all fits horribly well with
the conspiracy theory of the Californian ideology, to the extent that the
director was featured on the cover of Wired this February and returns the
favour by incuding a sub-head from the magazine in 'Titanic': 'Everything
he knew was wrong.') All our buttons are pressed and we all shed a tear,
but really at the end when the lifeboat makes its way through a sea of
corpses we can't feel anything because we don't know who any of these
people are. 

In the end, the best way of seeing Cameron is in terms of the actions of
the man he's set up as the incarnation of evil: Cal. Just as Cameron has
claimed this story (and in the process prevented it from speaking with its
own voice), in order to get a place in the lifeboats Billy Zane's character
grabs a child and pretends she's his own. 'Let me on - I'm all she's got in
the world.' It's a long shot, and could be expensive, but it works, just
like 'Titanic' which I'm told is now the biggest grossing film of all time
(whatever that means), as well the most expensive. It's such a shame,
because it could so nearly have been a really great film too. 

Jim Flint

"The art of a speaker consists in compressing all his aims into slogans. By
hammering them home he then engenders a crowd and helps to keep it in
existence. He creates the crowd and keeps it alive by a comprehensive
command from above. Once he has achieved this it scarcely matters what he
demands. A speaker can insult and threaten an assemblage of people in the
most terrible way, and they will still love him if, by doing so, he
succeeds in forming them into a crowd." Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power

Blah: +44 (0) 171 837 7479
Blither: 01523 106401
Blather: flint@bigfoot.com
Blurb: www.metamute.com/jimf

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