How a Hollywood blockbuster blasted a century’s worth of reactionary pieties straight out of the water
JAMES CAMERON’S TITANIC IS back in cinemas this month, now in a 3D makeover, to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the mighty ship’s sinking on April 15, 1912. The rerelease, unlike the lingering memory of the collision and the resulting 1,514 lost lives, has been something of a non-story, aside from the inevitable debate over the quality or necessity of the 3D conversion, with the only visible debate arising from a Huffington Post article that decries the Twitter generation’s alleged confusion over whether “the story is true or not.” Huffpost became typically huffy, suggesting that it is a disgrace for millennials to be unaware of the sinking as an historical fact and of the “lessons” the event contains for us all.
I have not written on the ensuing debate myself (although I did add my two cents worth to Scott Mendelson’s thoughtful blog entry a few days ago), but I would like to cut the kids some slack – not over whether or not Rose and Jack were real (there have been stranger love stories, after all, as most readers of this essay can probably attest from personal experience), but rather over the “lessons” the tragedy has supposedly bequeathed to us. In fact, young filmgoers are facing a real dilemma, for even though the film recreates the disaster with remarkable historical accuracy, it systematically trashes nearly everything the Titanic has ever stood for in popular culture. And if you ask me, Cameron is about a century overdue.
Titanic as grand cinema
What of the film itself? Let me state for the record that I adore it and have watched it at least a dozen times, including no fewer than five times in the cinema. Not for me the typical response I regularly hear in my own pseudo-intellectual milieu, namely that “it’s horrible Hollywood schlock, sickly and superficial, and I absolutely refuse to watch it!” Okay, I’ll concede that there may well be people out there who are simply too intelligent to watch Titanic, but I love it –the whole thing: Trite plot, bland dialogue, “king of the world” and all the rest of the usual complaints. I actually like the love story, driven as it is by the sheer charisma of the two youthful leads – I can even identify with them a little for my own obscure personal reasons, and who doesn’t long to be swept off his or her feet like that at a decisive moment in their lives? – and the dialogue doesn’t bother me. Instead, I have long been impressed at the film’s narrative economy, the way it squeezes a personal drama, a major maritime disaster, and a modern treasure hunt into a mere three hours and fourteen minutes. And the story is undeniably effective – at a cinema in Stockholm where I was watching it back in 1998 a teenage girl started sobbing during the raft scene, and her friends practically had to carry her out of the theater at the end of the credits. Anyway, when I’m in the mood for complex relationships and mind-blowing dialogue I’m more likely to reach for Kenneth Branagh’s production of Hamlet.
But I have never watched Titanic for the love story – I paid almost no attention to it the first couple of times around – preferring to enjoy the three-hour submarine and time machine ride Cameron delivers to us for the mere price of admission or a one-euro rental fee. And the sinking itself? It’s simply colossal, and incredibly accurate down to the smallest recorded details as the proud and supposedly unsinkable ship strikes the cold, hard iceberg of reality and goes bottom-up. If it were up to me, the movie could focus entirely on the disaster, and on the genuine fates of the historical passengers, which are even more interesting than the fictitious story of Jack and Rose. I would have been satisfied with a high tech remake of the excellent A Night to Remember from 1958, entirely sans Rose and Jack, although simple common sense tells me that Cameron was never going to get back his $200 million investment, let alone make over $2 billion in box office revenues, by selling tickets to modest moi alone.
So the criticisms bounce right off me. And yet, I take some of them seriously. Alongside the usual complaints from the movie snobs, there has been a lot of griping along the lines of this jab from Titanic historian Richard Davenport-Hines, who recently wrote in his study of the ship’s passengers that “Cameron’s film diabolized rich Americans and educated English, anathematizing their emotional restraint, good tailoring, punctilious manners and grammatical training, while it made romantic heroes of the poor Irish and the unlettered.”
Was the Titanic sinking a “historical event”?
This aspect of the film had long bothered me too, since both Walter Lord’s meticulously researched book A Night to Remember and the classic film version present an entirely different picture. Cameron subverted all that, and it was only years later, when I stumbled upon Steven Biel’s fascinating book Down With the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster, when I realized that this act of subversion is the real and historically significant point of Cameron’s film.
Published in 1996, practically on the eve of the release of Titanic (the book mentions the film as being in production), Biel’s study traces the story of how the sinking has served as both a cultural metaphor and a pundit talking point from 1912 to the present. Biel, an American studies professor now serving as director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, plausibly argues that the sinking itself hardly qualifies as an historical event in its own right and that it “changed nothing except shipping regulations… Any search for the social or political effects of the disaster is bound to yield facile generalizations and tenuous connections.”
And yet, Biel recognizes that it was “an event of deep and wide resonance in Edwardian England and Progressive Era America.” As it remains to this day. Biel shows that the soul-searching and haranguing began the moment the news hit the airwaves (modern communications technology made the Titanic disaster into one of the very first global media events). For example, professional curmudgeon Henry Adams, who held a ticket for the Titanic’s return trip to Europe, instantly linked the sinking to PresidentWilliam Howard Taft’s defeat to Teddy Roosevelt in the Pennsylvania primary. “The Titanic is wrecked,” he wrote, “so is Taft, so is the Republican Party; all in one brief hour… We all foundered and disappeared.” (The gloomy Adams promptly booked passage on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, in hopes of going down with her instead.) Adams was hardly alone in placing the event in a wider context because, as Biel notes, “[t]heTitanic went down at a cultural moment rather than in a vacuum – not an isolated moment but one full of resonances, implications, relations, and associations. It would have been impossible for Americans not to think and feel about the disaster in the vital terms of their culture. Unlike the actual ship, which collided with the iceberg on a calm night, the symbolic Titanic plunged into some very rough seas.”
The “lessons” of the Titanic
The first “lesson” to emerge from the disaster zoomed in on what we today call gender. (1) As soon as the first reports from the rescue ship Carpathia dribbled in, announcing that considerably more women had been saved than men, editorial writers immediately started extolling the myth of “male chivalry” and the innate preciousness of “white womanhood.” Editors praised “one splendid feature of the disaster which is eloquent of superb courtesy and heroic manhood – that the women and children were saved” because “the men stood back and chose to die.” This notion was intended to shore up the shifting gender roles of that unstable era of suffragettes and birth control apostles since, as Biel tells us, the fact “that chivalry prevailed in such circumstances validated the male role as protector and provider and implied that women should be grateful that this role was fulfilled so admirably.” The Baltimore Sun came straight to the point:
The action of the men on the Titanic was not exceptional. But it must be recognized as an act of supreme heroism, and as showing that women can appeal to a higher law than that of the ballot for justice, consideration, and protection.
The notion of chivalry extended not just to gender, but also to class and race. America’s richest man, John Jacob Astor, and other members of what we today call “The One Percent” graciously gave up their lives so that others– even the panicking and smelly third class foreigners who provided the bulk of the ship’s passengers– could live. From the newspapers’ point of view, this “wretched refuse of your teeming shores,” as Emma Lazarus once described immigrants, was scarcely even worthy of life itself. You see, the ship’s rich WASP passengers were made of better stuff: “Their chivalry and respect for the women and children showed that Anglo-Saxon men are made right,” one newspaper wrote. Another remarked that the disaster demonstrated “the difference between men of the Anglo-Saxon race and Latin, or any other for that matter.”
The Louisville Courier-Journal saluted all those Nordicmales who “went down with the flags of our racehood flying.” First class survivor Archibald Gracie exulted that the “coolness, courage, and sense of dignity that I… witnessed made me thankful to God and proud of my Anglo-Saxon race that gave this perfect and superb exhibition of self-control at this hour of severest trial.”
The Atlanta Constitution, the premier journal of the lynch-happy Jim Crow South, proclaimed:
Outstanding in the Titanic disaster is the heroism that gives the lie to the croak of decay in the human race. The Anglo-Saxon may yet boast that his sons are fit to rule the earth so long as men choose death with the courage they must have displayed when the great liner crashed into the mountains of ice, and the aftermath brought its final test.
And all those flea-bitten wops, micks, ragheads, and darkies,boozing and whoring down in steerage? Not so much. “Wealth apparently transformed Isidor Straus and Benjamin Guggenheim into honorary Anglo-Saxons,” Biel sniffs.
The book chronicles dozens of other topical interpretations of the event, both secular and religious, including the wildly popular, Pat Robertsonesque notion that God had somehow placed the iceberg in the ship’s path in order to murder all its passengers –plutocrats and paupers, saints and sinners alike – for their godlessness and egregious materialism. “Return to Jesus!” the pastors cried. This concept soon found its way into the popular gospel song “Down with the Old Canoe,” which includes these lines:
Your Titanic sails today
On life’s sea you’re far away
But Jesus Christ can take you safely through.
Just obey His great commands
Over there you’re safe to land
You’ll never go down with that old canoe.
A model for today?
Sentiments like these – duly updated somewhat for our more “politically correct” but, many believe, spiritually unmoored era – continue among today’s Titanic enthusiasts. To them, Titanic lore functions as a bastion of reactionary pieties, the ship itself symbolizing the dream to “take our country back.” Biel quotes from Jack Finney’s 1995 novelFrom Time to Time, which states:
The sinking of the Titanic seems to have been an event that changed the course of the world it belonged to. Even more than the loss of the people who went down with her was an attitude lost with it. A way people thought about the world and the century. After the Titanic things were never the same. It was a kind of Big Bang that changed everything. And the world veered off in another and wrong direction, the century that could have been, derailed.
The tragedy naturally suggests other possible meanings – for example, the dangers of runaway technology and the ubiquitous threat of gross public negligence, i.e. a sort of dry run for the two World Wars and everything that has happened since – but the real buffs tend to focus on the “moral” aspects. Biel quotes modern-day enthusiast and author George Behe, who believes that “one reason we need to remember the Titanic disaster is because we need certain honorable standards of behavior against which to measure our modern-day society… By comparing present-day human behavior with the behavior of those men who stood back from the Titanic’s lifeboats, we have an excellent and telling way of gauging whether modern man is as worthy of respect as were those men who faced death at sea eighty years ago – and didn’t flinch.”
Well, maybe. It’s impossible to watch or read any account of the tragedy without wondering how one would have acted if placed in that appalling situation. Which would I have been?A hero or a coward? A victim or a villain?But the vision of the Titanic described above – not unlike the similarly disempowering myth of “the Greatest Generation,” which is likewise intended to shame younger generations into conformity – comes across as a sort of reactionary utopia where men are still men and women guard their virtueby placing aspirins between their knees. It sounds as if the enthusiasts prefer blind, class-driven deference to the noblesse oblige of “natural hierarchies” over the personal freedom the twentieth century so expensively bought for us, shipwrecks and all. Tell me: Is that really a vision worth dying for?
A punch in the head and a watery grave
But that was all before James Cameron came on board. His Titanic does away with generations of such sentiments in just three hours and fourteen minutes. Just take a moment to recall the plot, which appears so shallow to many viewers.
What does the film say about male chivalry? Rose’s fiancé, the fabulously wealthy but stone-heartedCal Hockley, is a brute and a villain, who would twiddle his mustache if he had one. He is interested in saving only one woman – whom he regards as an investment rather than as a human being – and unflinchingly snatches a stray child as an entry ticket into a lifeboat. He’s shown literally bludgeoning other passengers to keep them from joining him. So much for the noblesse oblige of The One Percent!
How about the “cult of true womanhood,” for which the Titanic story regularly served as a tear-stained frame? Rose, who not only smokes cigarettes but also talks back to the menfolk at table, shamefully throws off her clothes to pose nude for prolishhobo Jack of “the Chippewa Falls Dawsons” and also (apparently) loses her virginity in a car with nary an aspirin in sight. What’s more, she herself gleefullytakes the initiative in this class-busting act of fornication.Her high-caste mother is shown as nothing more than a cold, conniving gold digger, whereas bawdy Molly Brown cuts a heroic figure. White womanhood has never been the same since.
What of the innate superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race? While not all the WASPs are shown as evil, Cameron’s film celebrates the unwashed immigrants in steerage, who drink, dance, celebrate life and heroically fight to survive. Jack’s best friends are an Irishman and an Italian, whose cruel demises make us cringe, and they are shown as deliberate victims of the class system.
The ship’s authorities, representing the power of the state, don’t exactly come across as role models either. As in A Night to Remember, White Star Line director J. Bruce Ismay is a craven opportunistwhileaffable shipbuilderAndrews, overruled by more powerful men regarding the number of lifeboats to stock, bleeds pathos. Gallant Captain Smith is a useless fuddy-duddy, literally leagues out of his depth, and the crew are a mixed lot, many of them heroic, the rest utterly overwhelmed by the ruling class’s folly. (2)
As for the redeeming power of Christianity, the only cleric in the film, a Catholic priest who bravely leads passengers in prayer, is subsequently shown trying to rescue his own skin by grabbing onto Rose and plunging her head into the icy water. All his piety gets him is a punch in the head and a watery grave.
There is indeed a great deal of self-sacrifice on display (not just Guggenheim and the Strauses, but also the touching story of the orchestra that plays to the end, and a brief glimpse of the doomed boiler room and electrical engineers), and yet most of it revolves around the strictly personal relationship between a young man and a young woman – true lovers alternately sacrificing themselves for each other. It’s hard to draw any coherent lessons for society from any of this.
Clearing the hold
Far from mourning a “Big Bang that changed everything,” when “the world veered off in another and wrong direction,”Cameron’s Titanic celebrates the cruel but creative destruction that has made our modern world both possible and livable. The couple’s antics on deck actually distract the iceberg lookout in the crow’s nest and appear to cause the accident in the first place. It practically looks as if a new, subversive centuryhas been conceived during the illicit coitus on the back seat of the car in the hold. In Cameron’s telling, the Titanic had to go down so that the rest of us could rise to our potential, just as Rose is saved by the disaster “in every way that a person can be saved” and goes on to do everything she ever dreamed of doing. What kind of world has disappeared beneath her?“Something… Picasso,” Cal says about Rose’s penchant for modern art. “He won’t amount to a thing. He won’t, trust me.” “Freud, who is he?” J. Bruce Ismay asks at the dinner table. “Is he a passenger?” I’m certain there are plenty of people alive today who long to live in a world where Picasso and Freud are mere insider, underground tips while the majority swoons over John Philipp Sousa’s marches and Teddy Roosevelt’s “Big Stick.” But would you really want to join them?
So James Cameron’s Titanic is not just “Hollywood schlock,” and the second highest grossing movie of all time (superseded only by his equally provocative Avatar). (3) It is above all else a subversive masterpiece. Love the movie or hate it, but at least recognize how effortlessly and exuberantly it clears our socio-cultural baggage hold. It does so, however, faster than our society can catch the flying valises. But don’t take my word for it: After returning home from the theater just switch on the TV,or tune in to your favorite talk radio station,and you may just find that many of our public attitudes have progressed very little since 1912.
No wonder the kids are confused.
(1) The “lessons” of 9/11 have also revolved around gender from Day One. Cf. Susan Falludi’sThe Terror Dream.
(2) Titanic’sdepiction of the breakdown of authority and orderclosely matches that of another modern disaster film, UliEdel’sDownfall, which presents Hitler’s final days in his Berlin bunker. Both films are shipwrecks in slow motion and both chronicle the gradual awareness on the part of a distinguished group of passengers/functionaries that their allegedly unsinkable ship (of state) is going straight down and there is probably no escape. You’ll find the same elements in both films: The bizarre dance of death in the elegant ballroom (the Reich Chancellery ballroom fills with shrapnel, not water), the desperate wireless messages sent out for help, the dropping of lifeboats (or, in the case of Downfall, small escape parties), a villain who systematically destroys any chance of rescue (Cal/Goebbels), collective suicides (the Straus couple in Titanic, the desperate SS doctor and his bourgeois family in Downfall, and officers in both films), and the progressive mental breakdown of the captain/Führer. Traudl and Rose act as the same character. Where’s the love interest, you might ask? Don’t bother, you already know the answer: Hitler. Everything occurs for the love of the Führer, making Downfall probably the most perverted love story of all time. Fortunately, Traudl gets rescued by a little boy at the end, and goes on to live a normal life. May we all be so lucky.
(3) I was gobsmacked by the way Cameron’s Avatar trashes America’s neo-imperial Project for a New American Century in Iraq, Afghanistan, and practically any other resource-rich region you can drop a pin onto. How does this cunning Canadian keep getting away with it? People have been waterboarded for far less.