Full disclosure: I am not, nor have I ever been, a thirteen year old girl.
At this point in time most people, at least those I know, have written off Titanic as an in-the-moment phenomenon filled with cheesy dialogue and one dimensional characters. When you step back and take a look at what this film and mostly James Cameron accomplished, it is quite remarkable- and I’m not talking about box office receipts.
Cameron took an event that the entire civilized world has known of for 85 years and made audiences care about it once again. While the fictional love story and the romanticized & corny dialogue may have cost the film some of it’s shimmer as the years go by, I argue that those so-called, shallow one-note characters were merely backdrop for the larger story. The movie wasn’t specifically about Jack & Rose, it was about all of those who were witness and victims to the tragedy. To focus intricately on complicated character arcs and motivation would have caused the true narrative to suffer. James Cameron elected to give us clear cookie-cutter characters: The independent forward thinking woman ahead of her time (a Cameron specialty), the poor scrappy artist boy with nothing to lose, the deliciously handsome but evil rich bastard that audiences hate immediately and so on.
These are the general characters that writers so often begin with and then layer upon layer more intricacies so that audiences are conflicted on whether or not to feel certain empathy for. That kind of process and those kind of characters are necessary for character driven films. Having that kind of development in Titanic would have been disastrous. The film works so much better and crosses over to so many demographics and cultures because of the generic construct of the characters. The forbidden love story is timeless and all the action and reaction that come with it are universal. If I am wrong, then why is one of the most memorable and tear inducing moments, the moment when we see an elderly couple (Isidor and Ida Straus), who have had little screen time prior, lie spooning together on a small bed as the sea comes rushing in drowning them together? That image was universal and conjures up in us the same feelings as when we see the ancient unearthed graves of two skeletons huddled together, unsuccessfully shielding themselves from the blast of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii.
While I could go into lengths, on the achievements at the time in CGI, the score, the attention to detail in production and art design, I still must go back to the screenplay and something I read in an article at the time by screenwriter WIlliam Goldman. In the piece, Goldman pointed out how confident and ultimately brilliant James Cameron was in how he crafted the early portion of the script.
Goldman writes… And then about eighteen minutes in comes this sequence that I will never forget. One of [Bill] Paxton’s underwater nerds shows [Gloria] Stuart, on a monitor, a digital recreation of the ship sinking. It’s all very cold and accurate and unemotional. And when it’s over, Stuart looks at him and says, “Of course, the experience of it was somewhat different” And Paxton says, “Will you share it with us?”
James Cameron gave away the ending of his film in such a rude and generic fashion because we already knew what happened in history. Yet, we still had no idea what was really in store for us. His job was to bring us there and he did so using the timeless, predictable and yet reliable, love triangle vehicle. And when that finale begins, it’s relentless, it’s unforgiving and it’s phenomenal. You marvel at the mechanics of the effects, you find yourself gasping for air as the water rises, and you listen intently as the band plays on. You knew this was going to happen, but those on that ship did not. For the first two hours you are forced to hang out with characters we all have encountered in our lives or have seen brought to life countless times in books, tv and film – and then James Cameron does a sneak attack and rips from you empathy for ALL those on that ship. A cross section of human life as we know it all succumbing to the same fate.
It might take another 85 years but Titanic is a film that will find itself where it rightly belongs. Spoken in the same breath as Gone With The Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, and The Wizard of Oz. There, I said it.