A self-actualizing, self-arousing, and ultimately self-validating Herzogian feat (without the psychosis) that is only occasionally self-enervating, Titanic ultimately stands as not only a chronicler but an embodiment of the spirit, and the hubris, of its subject matter. A three hour aphrodisiac engorged with cinema, you might say, if you were inclined to peruse the halls of the Freudian catalog that heroine Rose so clearly mobilizes when remarking on the prodigious self-congratulatory caliber of the ship that the industrial revolution and its classist girders would almost drown in.
Of course, James Cameron’s film isn’t up to the task of meaningfully tackling the perils of labor and immigration in early 1900s Western society, and any leeway is paved over with the film’s eventual conclusion where a working class lad dies for the life of an aristocrat. Then there’s the drippy dialogue we all know about nearly twenty years on, the devilishly bad performances (and in Billy Zane’s case, an afterimage of his animatedly homoerotic Twin Peaks character). And the inexcusably flaccid (to continue the metaphor) wraparound segment set in 1998 that serves only to stroke Cameron’s cavernous ego for having dared to plunge the depths of the waters that originally felled the Titanic to begin with.
The momentary shock of the world in full submission to the film in 1997 now feels like a partially-envisioned fugue state caused by saccharine overdose. But retorts to Titanic’s once statue-esque grasp on a nation, when they arise, do inspire passion and negative proclamation. Which is all the better: critique of the film ought to be delivered in the hyperbolic, histrionic, hysterical tableside manner the film takes as its first and last word on the subject of American drama. Phlegmatic qualms aren’t in the spirit of the film, nor should they be in the writing about it. It is with this in mind that a defense of Titanic can never be mounted in full; its flaws are too musty, too overabundant, too apparent to be accepted without at least a twitch of embarrassment, a flicker of chagrin.
If anything is clear about the film, though, it’s that Cameron does not endorse your or anyone’s doubt or equivocation. With Titanic, he barrels fully into the orgiastic resplendence of cinematic imagery, playing a gilded necromancer raising from the grave a byzantine image of early Twentieth Century hubris embodied less in the Titanic itself than in his memories of films from the era like DW Griffith’s Babylon in Intolerance. Although it’s not a one-to-one comparison, the most striking buttress of Titanic’s value is its reconstruction of a time and space’s cinematic luster, rather than its realist social conscious. Titanic is a vision of an earnest, sincere time in cinematic history when a film’s sheer girth of heart wasn’t curdled or distended by a need for real-world dramatic scale. For all its flaws, the film is a striking, brazen, legitimately provocative disruption of the rancid cynicism that so gallantly drives modern pop culture fantasia.
Yet, it’s also intrinsically self-critical. Just as the film’s diegetic characters are so hubristic and egotistical to not notice their own fragility, we, the audience, watch Rose and Jack rather than perusing the waters beneath them for potential hazard. Thus, in cruxing his film around a romance more fit for the 1910s than the 1990s, the film exposes the pleasures and perils of our gaze on such a cinema, crystallizing a vision of grandiloquent 1910s cinema as an ultimately self-destructive beast. He proposes an escape from the niceties of naturalism in everyday life, but an escape that tempts the fates, potentially destroying everyday life via its vision of a more romantic, less realist, life anew in the cinema. Titanic becomes both embodiment of and critique of the voluptuous cinema of its diegetic time period, as well as a curious exploration of the act of voyeurism more readily. Titanic is, in essence, a self-aware metaphor for the titanic itself.
But, arguably, that is window-dressing; mostly, there are no calls for timidity or commentary in any of Titanic’s facets, least of all its monolithic finale of death doled out in surprisingly unceremonious, brashly blunt chunks in a film-length montage of pure cinema. The final reels of the film a demented, perfect smorgasbord of cross-cutting pandemonium, gurgling and howling metal lashing back at the people who relied on it for safety, with white-hot destruction and fire-red emotional turmoil sandwiched by a sharded blue limbo underneath and a desecrated, desolate storm above signaling an unspeakable loneliness underpinning the tumult of the busy-bodied activity. All the death is surprisingly human, the golden visage propping up the early portions of the film now lacerated by the cruelty of the natural forces that, despite humanity’s best efforts to codify death, display no class-conscious or favoritism.
This primordial, unleavened quality to the finale severs the film like a jagged, unthinking wall of ice splitting classist luxury. But even the earlier portions have their pleasures. Perhaps it’s merely Cameron’s boyish fantasia talking (or his salivating mouth), but the virility of the decadence is, if not meaty, not grotesquely corpulent either. I say virility, and yet one of Titanic‘s baldest, brashest gestures as a riposte to modern blockbuster filmmaking is to mount its titular, steel-galvanized totem with a sparkling femininity. What does it say that audiences who adore Cameron’s more boyish blockbusters run from Titanic and its interest not in dismembering bodies but caressing them? Even so, as if mocking those boyish viewers, the film concludes in an air of lurid emasculation; Cameron figuratively severs his own ego by destroying the girthy monument to his own domineering, dictatorial, director-ly manliness he built for the film.
Nothing, excepting Zane, quite fits the “camp” bill, but there’s a genuine construction of not only another world – tactile and physical – but another worldview – innocent, winsome, curlicued – in Titanic that galvanizes the film in air of genuine romanticism and melodrama as pointed aesthetic rather than as indifferent after-effect. Cameron’s jejune love affair with the film very much mirrors the no-holds-barred lustiness of Jack and Roses’ love in the film: defiant in its rococo spirit and habit of screwing propriety or probity for passion, fanaticism, and crazed vacillation between love and death in their most untamed, adolescent forms.
So, if Titanic is nothing more than Cameron’s own cinematic Titanic, it’s also nothing less, not just a metaphor for the ship but an embodiment of it as a overzealous, uncontained cinematic object. A boasting, bellicose proclamation of his value as a filmmaker, Titanic is a taunt to an audience weened on the self-serious rigidity of modern filmmaking, calling instead for cinema as a dream, as a vision, as a pantomime rather than a distraught reality. Just as the phallic ship dared play in nature’s domain, Cameron’s film is a jousting act with the snappish waters of public good will. As with any such deep plunge, here there be monsters. Cameron paid those monsters off with the largest budget ever for a film, and although it seems entirely verboten to admit it today, anyone in the film’s targets would do well to take the bribe and head the other way in the path of this careening, fascinating, implacable force of a film.