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‘Titanic Collector’s Edition’ 4K UHD (review)

Paramount

James Cameron gave two speeches on the night that Titanic won eleven Academy Awards.

The first one for Best Director began with his declaration that he was “feeling pretty good” after making a blockbuster movie about the deaths of fifteen hundred people, then concluded with a fist-pumping whoop of his movie’s most famous line of dialogue.

A few moments later, a more subdued King of the World returned to accept the award for Best Picture and instructed the audience to observe a moment of silence for all those who died on Titanic.

The first speech is infamous—Cameron later admitted it made him look like a “fucking asshole”—but it’s actually the second speech that raised my eyebrows. Cameron was right in noting that a lot of people died that night: all the more horribly because their deaths were the result of human stupidity. Many of these people—some famous, others known only to history buffs—are represented in his movie, often with scrupulous fidelity to detail. And yet while the cast of Titanic is filled with the names of real passengers and crew, victims and survivors, it’s all thanks to Cameron that the only names most of us can remember are two people who never existed.

Jack Dawson and Rose Dewitt-Bukater gave Titanic something that it could never quite achieve in any of its previous incarnations. Without their star-crossed romance, there’s no world in which it could have won Best Picture or enjoyed a tenth of its financial success. As always, Cameron had a powerful instinct for knowing what his audience wanted: not a history lesson on a preventable human tragedy, but two brave young people to root for.

For the young, mostly female audience who kept Titanic in theatres a year after its release, doomed love was exactly what was needed. A third-class passenger who’s free in spite of his poverty; a first-class passenger who’s trapped in spite of her privilege (Cameron’s script actually has an aging Rose describe Titanic as a “slave ship, bringing me to America,” a line that was wince-making in 1997 and now lands even worse). He dares her to live a full, adventurous life and gives his life to save hers. These two young people shine (and literally perspire) with passion while the real historical figures recede into dowdy supporting roles.

It doesn’t hurt that, in 1997, Kate Winslet was the thinking man’s It Girl and Leonardo DiCaprio was just ascending the heights of non-threatening boytoy godhood. These fictional protagonists gave the movie something that its actual, real victims could not: an uplifting ending.

Cameron’s script never goes flat-out states that fifteen hundred people needed to die just so that Rose could have a free, fulfilling life, any more than Cameron flat-out stated that fifteen hundred people needed to die just so he could win an Oscar… but the subtext is hard to miss: something good came out of this.

The nineties were a big time for redemptive tragedies. The decade started with John Dunbar escaping while the Lakota were slaughtered in Dances With Wolves, and ended with Lester Burnham discovering the fragile beauty of life after nobly declining to deflower an underage girl in American Beauty. In 1993, Schindler’s List told us that who saves one life saves the world entire. The year after Titanic won Best Picture, Saving Private Ryan ended with a dying Tom Hanks telling Matt Damon, “earn this.” The overarching message of 1990s epics was that, no matter how heavy the darkness might lie, that one ray of redeeming hope was all the audience needed to leave the theatre smiling through the tears.

Which is exactly how I felt the first time I watched Titanic on its first release, and mostly how I still felt watching it again a quarter of a century later.

To deny the movie’s magic is pointless. You want Jack to live, even though you know he won’t; just like you want the mostly third-class victims to survive, even though you know they didn’t. It falls on Rose, the survivor, to be more than just someone who escaped because of her privilege. This is why Rose gives up her place on a lifeboat—not just once, but twice—to make sure Jack lives with her. It’s why you believe her when she says “I’ll never let go” (even though that’s literally what she’s doing) and struggles through icy water to signal the last remaining lifeboat: not so that she can go on being a thwarted princess, but so that she can become everything that Jack was in life.

Of course, in real life, nothing good came out of the sinking of Titanic, unless you count lifeboat drills. Not that it’s stopped people from trying to draw a moral lesson from the tragedy. In 1912, even with bodies still in the water, a xenophobia-crazed American press reported on the “savage” immigrants in steerage swamping the lifeboats while “civilized” first-class passengers displayed courage and stoic calm.

Later readings treated Titanic as a microcosm of society, with greedy capitalists like J. Bruce Ismay driving the ship into the path of the iceberg. Bluesman Blind Willie Johnson saw the hand of God smiting the hubris of sinners: “E. J. Smith, mighty man/Built him a boat that he couldn’t understand.” Even the Nazis got in on the act: their 1943 version of Titanic wasn’t subtle about blaming the sinking on decadent Western democracies and Jewish bankers.

It seems impossible to tell the story of Titanic without assigning blame, and so far everyone has: the poor quality of the steel, the ship’s lack of maneuverability, the lookouts’ missing binoculars, the inadequate watertight doors, the shortage of lifeboats, Captain Smith’s command blunders, the botched crisis response, and finally the class prejudice that led to wildly disproportionate deaths among third-class passengers. Cameron touches on most of these—but, being the blue-collar guy he always has been, he lands hardest on the last. “So you want to go to a real party?” Jack asks Rose, rescuing her from the stuffy first-class restaurant to a raucous cèilidh in steerage. In Cameron’s vision, only the poor people know how to live, and it seems only the poor have to die—the first-class passengers who drown, like designer Thomas Andrews and Benjamin Guggenheim, are mostly the ones who volunteered, while the poor are locked below decks until it’s too late.

This has enough truth behind it that Cameron doesn’t need to pile on, but he does.

In reality, the third-class passengers weren’t deliberately locked away as the movie shows us. The stewards actually distributed lifebelts to steerage and gave instructions to come on deck, but many of them refused, fearing that their few belongings would be stolen during their absence. This is just one of many historical sins the movie commits—surprising when you consider how meticulous Cameron was in his attention to detail, down to the White Star logos on every china plate. They range from the unimportant (Unsinkable “Molly” Brown was actually called Margaret) to the consequential (First Officer Murdoch did not shoot passengers or himself, and actually died saving lives) to the frankly silly (apparently, the lookouts didn’t see the iceberg because they were too busy watching Jack and Rose make out).

Of course, movies are not documentaries, and facts don’t matter if your job is to tell a good story… unless, of course, the emotional impact of that story depends on our knowing that it actually happened. Mostly, Cameron is respectful of his responsibilities to history, and some of the movie’s most wrenching scenes are taken directly from life. Eva Hart’s last memories of her father inspired the man saying, “There’ll be another boat for the daddies. This boat’s for the mummies and the children.” The scene of Ida and Isidor Strauss drowning in each others’ arms is an indelible image. Even the ship’s inebriated baker, Charles Joughin, gets a cameo. You see him swigging from a hip flask on the stern of the boat. Reportedly the liquor lowered his body temperature enough to prevent death by shock in the freezing waters. Almost everyone we’ve heard about from Titanic lore shows up eventually.

And then there’s the guy who hits the propeller. Watching Titanic again in this flawless Blu-ray release, I realize that it’s not hard to forgive the historical glitches, and it doesn’t matter a bit to me if that hunk of wood was big enough to save both Jack and Rose (a sore point for James Cameron, who actually made a documentary to prove he didn’t kill Jack just so that Rose could sprawl out). I can give him a pass on the gaping plot holes—like how we’re not supposed to know that Rose still has the Heart of the Ocean, even though it’s presumably within her recollection that we hear Calladan Hockley say that he put the diamond in the coat that Rose is wearing. It’s even possible to forgive a movie that uses real human tragedy as a backdrop for romance: nobody faults Dr. Zhivago for exploiting the Russian Civil War. But I’m not going to excuse James Cameron for making sure that one of his nameless passengers starts spinning like a top after his head hits the propeller.

Both times I saw Titanic in theatres, the audience laughed at that moment: not the kind of laughter you feel good about. It’s an odd note of callous silliness in a grim moment. Let’s not even pretend this is about money. If the director was willing to fix the positions of the constellations just because Neil DeGrasse Tyson asked him to, he could have done something about poor Propeller Guy.

It’s an especially jarring note because Cameron, more than many directors working today, is a sincere moralist. He doesn’t usually punch down. The good guys in his movies are the ones who show some humility in the face of things they don’t know, and the bad guys are the ones who try to exploit what they can’t understand (here, White Star director J. Bruce Ismay stands in for the evil corporations of Aliens, The Abyss, and The Terminator). It’s hard to make a completely socialist read on a movie that ends with Rose throwing away a priceless jewel that could have fed countless poor people, but for the most part Cameron is on the side of people who work for a living.

To my knowledge, his Titanic is the only one that really shows us how the ship moves. Captain Smith issues the order for full speed ahead, First Officer Murdoch passes it down to engineering, and then we get to see the coal shovelers straining to keep the boilers fueled. Later, we turn away from the passengers in the boats to show the electricians who gave their own lives to keep the lights burning. This aspect of the movie shines brighter in our post-Covid age: we now know, if we didn’t before that it’s the guys below decks who keep the economy going, not the rich dudes in evening clothes puffing cigars in first class.

Packaged in a slipcase featuring a hardcover book and a folder featuring several pieces of reprinted  historical ephemera, the extras content on the two discs is exhaustive and includes multiple commentaries, documentaries, deleted scenes, featurettes, videomatics, music video, trailer presentation, and galleries.

And this could be the most remarkable thing about Titanic a generation on: it’s set in the past, but it doesn’t feel nostalgic; it was made under the sensibilities of a different time, but it doesn’t feel dated. You could imagine a more accurate or nuanced Titanic being made, but not a bolder or more fearless one. Like the engine room, it’s a movie that churns ahead on raw power. It doesn’t apologize for being what it is, even in its goofier moments: try quoting Billy Zane’s “I have a child!” with a completely straight face.

Meanwhile, sex therapists could go mad trying to find a position that explains the way Rose’s hand goes thwat! on the car’s rear window. It doesn’t matter. That thwat hits us exactly the way we want to feel in that moment.

Like so much in Titanic, I wish they’d handled it differently; but I’m not gonna pretend I didn’t feel something.

 

 

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