Sunday, April 08, 2012

Titanic Raised

Maybe I was too harsh back in 1997, teed off at James Cameron's ferocious ego and the success of the picture. Maybe the new 3D -- and IMAX, in which I saw it -- has added a layer of depth that's actually psychological in nature. Maybe it's just that no one has spent that kind of money successfully making a huge epic Hollywood movie that isn't a science fiction or superhero movie since then.

No matter what it is, I found Titanic to be a revelation in re-release when viewing it yesterday.

It's long and towards the end it may seem to drag a little, but the movie is the full meal, something so rare these days. It has touches of David Lean in scale, John Ford in Irish spirit and Stanley Kubrick in technical audacity. It not only holds up very, very well, but it puts current movies to shame. When you look at Academy Award Best Picture winners of the past several years -- The Artist, The King's Speech, The Hurt Locker -- good as they may be, none is in the same category of majesty. Cameron may have made the last great Hollywood epic the way they used to make 'em. Except bigger.

Here's the joys:
  • The Actors: Not only are Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio completely believable together in the movie, but both have used their fame wisely since, moving on to artistically significant careers. DiCaprio has become Martin Scorsese's first new muse since Robert De Niro, and Kate Winslet has won an Oscar and an Emmy, notably for her fine turn as Mildred Pierce.

  • The Historical Detail: Cameron did a fine job of weaving history and fiction, from the knowing touches regarding John Jacob Astor to a simple scene with a young boy playing with an old-fashioned wooden top on the deck. Like the best historical fiction, fidelity to these real-like details make the made-up story palatable, and Cameron was no slouch, particularly with regard to how each of the two men responsible for building the ship made different choices when their masterpiece was going down.

  • The Shooting Style: My greatest pet peeve is the over-cut movie (i.e. Michael Bay), made more egregious when combined with handheld camerawork (from what I have heard, The Hunger Games). Both are generally for the lazy director who can't visualize in advance, just wants endless "choices" in the cutting room and hence shoots coverage rather than masterful shots, or tries to create energy from shaking the camera like an episode of NYPD Blue. Sometimes this is justified as "documentary style." But if I want to see a documentary, I'll see one; when I go to see a big budget feature, I expect artfulness.

  • The Present-Day Wraparound Story: By this is should say, The Sense of Time's Passage. While the teenage girls who enjoyed repeat viewings may have pined most for Rose and Jack in the past, it's the moment when the aged Rose, played so well by Gloria Stuart, sees the drawing of herself on television and ignites the plot that choked me up. Maybe it's being a decade and a half older than when I first saw the picture, but it is rather glorious in how it captures the painful shades of history as we each live it, the massive tragic scope of human existence, defined for every one of us by birth and death, and for those of us who live long enough to experience it, those lost times gone by. And how about that footage of the real-life decayed Titanic itself? Amazing.

  • The Class Consciousness: Like the best novels and, yes, movies, Titanic, shows all walks of life, from First Class to Steerage, and is clearly conscious in depicting the caging of the lower class by those working for the upper class as the lower decks fill with water and the lifeboats fill with the wealthy. The sense of class is felt in the engine rooms as well, where strong men toil in the furnace-like heat -- and are the first to drown after the iceberg is hit.

  • The Sinking: It's spectacular. I can't think of another movie that has done such a great job devoting such massive resources to recreating a true-life, real-time disaster. In a sense, the sinking of the Titanic was made for the cinema. With the brilliant juxtaposition of the tender lover story comes the almost unbearably ominous and terrifying sinking of the luxury liner. I had forgotten how intense it is -- my nine-year-old had to leave the theater for a few minutes. What freaked him out the most was when Jack was handcuffed to the pipe as the lower deck around him vacated and the water rose. My favorite shots are when the stern goes perpendicular to the ocean and people start to fall, but what's so striking now after 9/11 is watching some passengers choose to jump from the insane heights, so many dropping to their deaths, one we see hitting the water and not coming up.

  • The 3D: I've seen less than half-a-dozen movies in 3D that were at all memorable for that reason, including Kiss Me Kate, Avatar and, best to date, Hugo. Creating 3D effects after a movie is shot with 2D cameras is a much maligned process, by Cameron himself, usually creating a "cut-out" effect that doesn't happen when you shoot with 3D cameras. Well, Cameron must have supervised every frame, because this 3D transformation is gorgeous. It's not overdone but draws you it, less clearly important in the action scenes than in the dramatic ones, and (in our screening) without any obvious loss of luminosity. The worst thing about 3D is how it darkens the image, but this one seemed just as bright and vibrant as you'd want from a movie. Maybe the IMAX projection helps. It just feels very justified, and gives a good reason to return to the theater to see the movie.

Ultimately, it's a successful marrying of scale and human story, for all the reasons listed above. The spectacle never overwhelms the actors. In fact, like the best old Hollywood movies, each of the two leads gets a brilliant reveal for their entrance -- Winslet under her grand chapeau, DiCaprio from the back in his fateful poker game, both with the camera moving just so to give them power within the frame. And when they look into each others eyes, when they talk to each other, unlike so many failed big-budget pairings, they seem to actually be listening and reacting to each other.

I'm sure in a more picky mood I'd find the flaws. But to me the scene that will always endear me to the movie is when DiCaprio, having saved Winslet's life when they met, is invited to dine with her party in First Class, handles the dinner with aplomb. As I always tell me kids, learn your manners and you can dine with kings and queens. My favorite line maybe sums up how I feel about life at it's best: "Just the other night I was sleeping under a bridge and now here I am on the grandest ship in the world having champagne with you fine people."

Consider Titanic raised by this 3D release and, for some of us, rehabilitated.

1 comment:

Mark Moran said...

I haven't seen the 3D release yet, but loved it when it in theaters 15 years ago. I've always been a staunch defender of Titanic, no matter how un-cool it became to like it, especially among film school kids in the late 90s.

Glad you've finally come around! :)