This movie to me is epic poetry in cinematic form. No, not ‘epic’ in the Lawrence of Arabia definition, nor the Scott Pilgrim definition. It’s ‘epic’ in a way that it has a heroine and that it portrays an action that changes both the heroine and the nation she belongs to. Director James Cameron’s last films, Titanic and Avatar, shows main events both real and fictional. A ship sinks. A tree is toppled. Yet Cameron chooses a daunting historical event and can extract so much human drama and detail from those deceivingly simplest of plots. It’s what Milton would have done with a camera.
Even the voices screaming out of the ocean and the icicles building in the hair of the dead floating haunts by every viewing of the film. As with the epic and the poem, Titanic captivates its viewer its images. The pre-Raphaelite references when we see both women floating inside the ship, of our heroine Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) waiting for rescue, of the red-headed Winslet’s casting itself, of Jack sinking down or when we see the elder Rose (Gloria Stuart) walking in the end of the film. Or images reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch when the remaning working class passengers try to hold on to the ship as it sinks. Or Fritz Laing’s flood scenes in Metropolis. There are also images that Cameron can call his own, as the ship becomes a soulless leviathan china float on the water, luxury deemed insignificant while facing harsh nature.
I suppose arguments against Titanic‘s epic style can be derived from the romance in the main plot, shrinking the thousands of stories into one or two. That Rose and Jack Dawson (Leonardo di Caprio) are conveniently there when the iceberg strikes. Or that, on a Tolstoyan tradition, supporting characters either die or disappear in order of importance. But I watched this every three months or so for the past two years, at a time of my life when I view mortality seriously. The film’s third act is its strongest, when my attention goes to the priest saying prayers, or the people who speak different languages stuck in the third class levels who are unable to get out to safety, or anyone else falling to their deaths. Cameron dedicates a lot of time to distract us from the main romance and does his best to allow us to contemplate each person’s death without making them inhumanly excessive.
Another problem with this film belonging to the epic genre is that is doesn’t allow gray areas for the characters. Rose Dewitt-Bukater (Kate Winslet), this film’s Scarlett O’Hara, always hates her gilded cage, is always decided on who she likes and dislikes. The film then strikes a clear line, the people she likes are always good like Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) or Mr. Andrews (Victor Garber) and the ones she dislikes always treat her terribly, like her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) and her fiancée Cal (the underrated Billy Zane). The ship’s sinking also delineates those lines, the characters acting consistently to which side they’re on and making mostly new heroes and some villains out of the bit players. With the exception of Jack, but her love-hate feelings towards him are really feelings of love repressed because of class differences.
Repeated viewings also make me honour diCaprio’s performance. When I saw it in its original theatrical release, I saw him as an annoyingly boisterous boy. But now I can see how altruistic his character is. His career is full of characters who would go places no one would dare to, often acting as our tour guide. It makes sense that the same actor who would climb a water tower in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and the actor mentoring the audience through the dream worlds of Inception is the same actor who can make a safer thrill ride out of a sinking ship. Jack assuring Rose everything’s all right, even making jokes while he’s freezing on the ocean. The elder Rose tells a younger generation that she doesn’t even have a picture of Jack, because it was unnecessary, at the time thinking that their future was for them to live together.
What also, to my opinion, makes the film more poignant than Avatar is that this is about the small victories that characters try to claim in times of defeat, that the survivors will still dwarf compared to the mankind’s failed infrastructure. Despite the little love story, the film doesn’t try to lie to us, not trying to convince us that they’ll fully regain their romance. That in reality, a lover’s sacrifice is a bit painful for both parties.
This movie won Best Picture between 1995 and 2001, arguably the Academy’s most misguided era. Nonetheless, the horde of mostly girls and some boys who will watch this movie, can quote it, will drop whatever they’re doing to rewatch the movie, and can even remember the names of Jack’s friends. There are also other, slightly more ‘observant’ minds who see the humanity in this film will say that it still holds up.