Titanic Centenary

My interest in the ship began in the mid 1990s and has come to the forecastle this week. I’ve watched several films about it and done other research, including the mixed offering starring Catherine Zeta Jones, currently in discount shops. I am also delving into Violet Jessup’s memoirs, needlessly interfered with and Americanised, and am searching out Morgan Robertson’s prophetic Wreck of the Titan/Futility novel. Having seen it in 3D this week, I focus on my revisit to the Cameron movie.

I’ve enjoyed a love hate relationship with the Cameron film over the past 10 years. When I first saw it in February 1998 shortly after the British release, I was so angered that I went home and wrote three sides of paper on why I disliked it. It was that the Hollywood success formula seemed to have been applied too literally to an inappropriate subject, and I still see how it would have grated so much on that first viewing. One of its better points is having a single central love story, unlike the ensemble dramas of SOS Titanic and the new TV drama. I  find old Rose more interesting than the young, though the ‘Woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets’ comment sounds like a desperate pulling line than really flattering or understanding women.

I felt the framing device of the modern treasure hunt with Brock to be irrelevant and made the very human drama of the world’s greatest ship to be one about money. Yet I had partly missed the point, because the story is how a man obsessed with a materialistic object and the excitement of its recovery learns to see the Titanic disaster as a moving story of human loss and bravery. Perhaps my struggle with that was because I could not imagine how anyone could see the Titanic in any other light.

Having studied the film on two occasions and prepared to teach on it, I now see many things in it which I had missed. The butterfly motif – the decoration on Rose’s hair combs – is vital to the story. It’s about how a young, unfettered man, Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) assists a passionate but curtailed young woman Rose (Kate Winslet) escape her unwanted marriage into a dull life. Academics have amused themselves discussing the sexuality of Jack, mostly making ridiculous comments which belong more in the tabloids than in scholarly journals. My own masters essay responded to these and looked instead at that angle in Kate Winslet’s character. Jack is not a forceful man (my objection initially being that he looked far too young to be called a man at all). He lets Rose come on to him and make her own choices. French and Saunders laughed at the fact that Jack says ‘Never let go’ as he and Rose grasps onto wreckage, and then she does. But he meant, metaphorically. He knew that only one of them could live (though the F&S observation about the ‘single’ piece of wood is valid). Jack bravely chose to end his life which had already been full so that his love, Rose, could begin hers. In 1998, I felt Jack too young and the romance to rushed to have worked out. Whether it would have is not the point. It is one of those times when a person comes into your life for a short time and has a profound effect. Through Jack, Rose lived to be over 100 and accomplished all the things that they talked about but which, before Jack, Rose felt were impossible for her in her stifling existence.

I still feel that feigning one’s death to one’s family is rather cruel and wondered if Rose ever regretted that. I never will accept Jack being locked up as the ship sinks, although this did lead to one of the best action sequences by a female lead – and done in a frock. The valet, Lovejoy, was too caricatured. And the theme song went on, but not in way intended!

I’ve come to really admire the leads and Kate Winslet came to be among my favourite actresses, and my interest in the ship (which proceeded the film) prevails. Although I’ve come to see the amount of vision, thought and emotion in the film, I still feel that much of this is not appreciated by many viewers. Many, I think, saw Titanic once and didn’t have any wish to analyse the story – it felt as if it wasn’t the kind of find that repaid deeper thought or second viewing. There’s a perceived puffed up arrogance from Cameron, and I have mixed views about his anniversary relaunch – and my seeing it again. And he didn’t tell the only or most powerful story about that disaster –  it will come as no surprise that I have written my own.

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