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A Classic, After All

by Ross Douthat

Titanic revisited

Where the rerelease (in 3-D) of James Cameron’s Titanic is concerned, moviegoers will divide into three major camps. The first group, and by far the largest, consists of people who loved the blockbuster unreservedly when it was first released — who swooned for the romance, marveled at the special effects, sobbed at the sinking — and who will happily line up to swoon and goggle and grieve all over again. The second group is the smallest: These are the haters, the snobs, the anti–Celine Dion vigilantes, for whom Titanic the pop-cultural phenomenon is as much a monument to excess and folly and vulgarianism as the doomed liner itself.

I am writing for the third group. These are people who saw the movie once (or twice at most) in theaters, and enjoyed it a great deal without becoming besotted, but have since internalized parts of Group 2’s anti-Titanic critique. They remember liking the film, in other words, but they feel a bit guilty about doing so, and they’ve taught themselves to roll their eyes a little when they encounter it on cable, to grimace at the dialogue and distance themselves from the spectacle, and to generally behave the way adults do when confronted with slightly painful reminders of their wilder adolescent enthusiasms.

This is the group that should go see the movie again — in 3-D, 2-D, or any D that their local cineplex will show it in. Because to see Titanic on the big screen is to be reminded of what made it such a phenomenon in the first place. James Cameron’s epic is one of the movie-est movies ever made: It does many things badly, but everything that film does better than literature it does better than 99 out of 100 films. Much of what’s been written, sarcastic or scathing, about the movie’s many flaws is completely accurate. It’s also completely beside the point.

Start with the dialogue — wooden, clichéd, anachronistic, and at times eminently mockable. (“P-p-p-promise me you’ll go on, Rose. P-p-p-p-promise me . . .”) If you catch 25 minutes or so of Titanic on TNT, where it’s intercut with commercials and shrunk down to television size, it’s easy to get annoyed at Cameron’s hackneyed script. If you give yourself to the movie in full, though, what you hear coming out of the characters’ mouths will be overwhelmed and effectively rewritten by what you see on-screen. This isn’t just true once the sinking starts (though at that point the dialogue really does become irrelevant), and it doesn’t just reflect the movie’s combination of sumptuousness and sweep.

It’s also a testament to Cameron’s casting choices, from Winslet and DiCaprio, radiant at the top of the playbill, down through Billy Zane’s criminally underrated turn as the villainous Caledon Hockley (wait for the perfectly played moment when he decides not to get in the lifeboat because he can’t bear to lose his fiancée to Leo), all the way to minor players like Jonny Phillips (as taut, agonized Second Officer Lightoller). In cinema the right faces matter more than the perfect words. In Titanic all the faces are the perfect ones.

The same goes for the movie’s themes — class conflict, female empowerment, the pre–World War I West’s rendezvous with catastrophe. There are plenty of scenes where Cameron lays these themes on with a trowel. (Of course Winslet’s Rose likes Picasso, while her fiancé holds him in contempt. Of course the WASPs are uptight snobs and the Irish immigrants are big-hearted and mistreated. Of course the ship’s patrons keep talking about how unsinkable it is.) But the reality he’s working with was no less melodramatic: The ship really was supposed to be unsinkable, they really did have only enough lifeboats for the toffs in first class, the band really did play all the way to the end — and the whole catastrophe really did prefigure, in a fashion at once literal and mythological, the doom that would come upon European civilization as a whole just two years later.

What’s more, unlike in Cameron’s similarly lavish Avatar, where the anti-American polemic overwhelmed the drama, in Titanic the controlling themes balance one another out: We’re invited to hiss at the snobbery and sexism of the old order, but then also to mourn the passing of its grace and beauty. “For the former world has passed away,” we hear a priest say as the ship splits and sinks and the sea rushes in.

And oh, that sinking. The first time I saw the movie I remember experiencing two jolts. The first came midway through, when the iceberg loomed up and I suddenly was recalled to the fact that the shipborne world Cameron had conjured up so comprehensively was fated to extinction. The second came when the ship was swallowed by the ocean, and it took a moment to adjust myself to the fact that it was really gone — that what had felt for more than two hours like a universe entire was gone beneath the waves.

Neither of these turns was technically surprising, of course, since when a movie is called Titanic you know how it’s going to end. But they jolted me nonetheless. And they’ll have the power to jolt you too, if you put aside your doubts and accept that where Cameron’s masterpiece is concerned, the skeptics are wrong and the millions of sobbing teenage girls were absolutely right.

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