February 2015 Blindspot: Titanic

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The Blindspot Series is a series of twelve posts spread throughout the year designed to offer bloggers a chance to catch up classic films we somehow may have missed. Started by The Matinee, here is my list of Blindspot films for 2015. Next up for February is James Cameron’s Titanic.

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Ah Titanic. This movie. I would say I can’t believe I haven’t seen this movie yet, but I know exactly why I haven’t seen this movie yet, and that’s because I feared it would be exactly what I expected. It is an overblown romantic tragedy epic, with sappy music and so-so acting. I’ve never particularly liked anything else I’ve seen from James Cameron, and this film’s reputation preceded it. However, it did end up being reasonably enjoyable, and least on an unintentionally humorous level. And like with most Cameron films, you have to admire the spectacle.

Titanic is told through a frame narrative, in which the 101 year old Rose DeWitt Bukater (Gloria Stuart) sees a drawing of her younger self on a television program about the excavation of The Titanic. She contacts the team and tells them the story of the ship’s voyage and unlikely sinking. Then the film goes into extended flashback mode, and we see the younger Rose (Kate Winslet) fall in love with the fun loving but poor Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), against the wishes of her jealous fiance Cal Hockley (Billy Zane) and recently indebted mother Ruth (Frances Fisher).

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The film’s story mainly concerns itself with the divide between the rich and the poor. Though there are individual differences, mainly the rich are portrayed as stuffy, inflexible, and boring, and the poor are portrayed and fun, resourceful, and interesting. For the most part the rich people are all the same, mostly worried about themselves and upholding society’s rules rather than having a fun time. As such, Cal tries to control Rose, and ultimately fails once she gets a glimpse at how the other half lives. To her, a teenage rebel, drinking and dancing with the common folk is much better way to spend one’s time than having to sit up straight and sip one’s tea properly. It’s a very black and white distinction that Cameron is drawing here, and one that is heavily romanticized (and fits in perfectly with the tone of the film, as just about everything is romanticized).

Tied directly in with that is the romance, which was done well enough but it somewhat hampered by Rose’s stupidity. God, she’s annoying. Keeping with the film’s romanticized depiction of poverty, at the beginning of the film Rose is about to throw herself off the ship because her privileged life is closing in around her, and is only saved by Jack talking her out of it. The two are of course matched because the film needs them to be, but soon enough we’re buying into it despite Winslet’s lack of commitment in most scenes (I think she’s trying to be a bit too rich and distant, in which case it makes it seem like DiCaprio’s doing all the work). The courting only really takes up about a third of the film; the rest of it is devoted to The Titanic sinking.

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Yes, the recreation of the sinking of The Titanic (about 2 hours) takes almost as long as it took for the ship to actually sink (2 and a half). True, they do cut back to present day a few times, but nevertheless the whole thing is apparently very accurate. I wish it had been a little less accurate, watching Jack and Rose run into literally every problem the script can throw at them is exhausting. This is kind of a SPOILER, but Rose even gets a spot on the life boat and then gets back off to be with Jack. That’s typical Rose stupidity, but also adds at least another half hour onto the film. END SPOILERS. Nevertheless, there are some really chilling (pun intended) scenes; I found the visual of the life boat crew rowing through all the frozen dead bodies (of poor people) especially horrifying.

The film is not only very heavy handed with it’s message of poor= good and rich= bad, but is also with its foreshadowing of the ship’s demise. I’m not really complaining; it’s actually really funny. Cameron will cut back to the frame narrative at opportune moments to remind us all that the characters are all doomed, in case we forgot. Again in the frame narrative, the experts treat us to several History Channel-style visualizations of how the ship went down, just so we know how accurate the ending is going to be. Old Rose’s narration never fails to remind us of what’s at stake. My favorite though, is when early on the script has Rose ask the Captain or someone if there are enough lifeboats. That was hilarious. It’s just funny that the film would go to all this trouble when everyone already knows the ship sinks.

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The main visual strategy of the film is to make everything look as grand and big as possible until the very end. The whole film seems overlit, and combined with the whiteness of the most of the interiors of the ship, creates a very blinding effect. It was hard for me to take at some points to be honest, but Cameron definitely got his idea across. The ship is literally a blinding white light, symbolizing both the awesomeness of heaven and also the inevitability of death. The story is a tour all around the ship, and they especially cover a lot of ground when it’s sinking and Jack and Rose are running around trying to escape. There are several shots of the massive machinery of the ship, continuing the emphasis on the scale. As an epic, Titanic is all about the grand scale.

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Along with Ben-Hur and The Return of the King, Titanic goes down in history as winning the most Oscars overall at 11. Nominated for 14 awards, it lost out on best actress for Winslet (how did she even manage to get nominated is beyond me), supporting actress for Gloria Stuart (again, why was she even nominated?), and makeup. It won everything else, including best picture, director for Cameron, cinematography, art direction, costume design, sound, editing, sound effects editing, visual effects, original song for “My Heart will Go On,” and best score. I can’t actually argue with most of these, though I probably wouldn’t have given this best picture I definitely see why the Academy did.  I can’t really offer a viable alternative because even though I like some of 1997’s movies better (Contact, The Game, Jackie Brown) they’re not really best picture material by any stretch of the imagination. (Though I have a feeling I will like LA Confidential whenever I get around to seeing it, which was also nominated that year.)

Though I’m not personally a huge fan of Titanic, it is good to catch up with it and I can see why it’s so popular. I can’t in good conscience call it a bad movie. It has a strong point of view and depicts that effectively even if not subtly. It’s very old-timey Hollywood, romance and spectacle. I can definitely see the draw, and I enjoyed the movie for the most part (though I was starting to check out towards the end there), but it’ll never be one of my personal favorites unfortunately.

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“Rose! You’re so stupid. Why did you do that, huh? You’re so stupid, Rose. Why did you do that? Why?”

Long story short: 3/4 stars

For Further Reading:

The New York Times review
AV Club review
Telegraph review

The next Blindspot will be on Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, coming March 29th.

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13 responses to “February 2015 Blindspot: Titanic

  1. I love how, as I’m reading your review, I’m thinking you’re going to give this a 2/4 at best…and then you gave it s 3/4!!!! I shamelessly love this movie. It’s is all the things you mention…so STUPID…but so enjoyable and such a spectacle and I kind of adore it’s Oscar win.

    • Ha ha! That’s one reason why I like putting a grade at the end…. makes writing the review a bit easier. It would be harder for me to try and keep out how ridiculous the movie is at some points, and that was my main takeaway from it. (That and it was too long.) But I admire of a lot of what Cameron tried to do, and it technically works with the film he’s making, even if that film is a bit silly. You have to admire the spectacle. I was going to give it a lower grade and found I just couldn’t, because at the end of the day it is a pretty good movie. I hope that makes sense 🙂

  2. I was really pulling for L.A. Confidential to win the Oscar (or even Good Will Hunting), and you should definitely check it out soon. I haven’t watched Titanic all the way through since the theaters, and I remember finding the spectacle entertaining. I went in with really low expectations (it wasn’t expected to be such a hit because of reports of production problems), so that probably made it better. Even so, I expect it may hold up so well now so many years later.

    One random point from your review – you haven’t liked anything else from Cameron? Have you seen The Terminator and Aliens? If not, please do so as soon as possible. Nice job.

    • I’ve been meaning to see LA Confidential for years now, it’s pretty ridiculous that I still haven’t. No idea when I will actually get to it, but I’m working on it ha ha! It’s hard to find the time when there are so many great movies out there.
      I was surprised by how much I did enjoy Titanic, even though I still think it’s waaay too long. A lot of things about it bothered me, but I still managed to get all the way through and be decently entertained.
      I have not seen The Terminator but I have seen Aliens. I wasn’t a huge fan of it though, mostly because the Marines got on my nerves a lot. I’ve also seen Avatar, which was 5000 times better in the theater than seeing it the second time at home. Then I was just bored. Titanic is basically the same story in a different setting, so I’m not surprised to hear that was better in the theater too.
      Thanks for commenting!

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    • Yeah at times it was laughable, but also in a good way. It’s basically the 90s Gone with the Wind, I feel like. I don’t like it nearly as much as Gone with the Wind, but other than being too long Titanic was really entertaining in some parts

  4. Interesting that you picked Titanic for your blindspot series! I never liked it too much, but I liked how it was shot… you know, I think it was a milestone to cinema (with the highest gross, as the bonus).
    Greeting!

  5. Hey I was curious to read what you think of this Melissa. I saw this when it came out and was blown away by it. Sure the romance is cheesy (it’s not Cameron’s main strength), but it has plenty of heart & beautifully acted by both Leo & Kate. Technically the film is superb, I mean there’s few things more breathtaking than when the sinking scene, esp when it broke apart. It still gave me chills whenever I saw a clip of it. I also LOVE the soundtrack (no not the song but the theme by James Horner), there’s such majestic quality when Titanic first set sailed. It should be seen at least once even if you don’t end up loving it.

    • Yup! That’s why I picked it as a Blindspot. It was pretty unbelievable that I hadn’t seen it up until now. I actually liked Leo a lot better than Kate, but that was also because his character was better I suppose. Not one of my all time favorites, but it was good to finally catch up with it.

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