It was the spring of 2012, and I wasn’t much of a moviegoer. I was not averse to watching movies in the way that some people seem to be—the people who dart glances toward the exit twenty minutes into a film—but I was not the list-making, multiple movie per day-watching fanatic that I am today. I had really gone to the theater more as a social interaction opportunity than due to any excitement about the film itself.
The film was Titanic, rereleased in 2012 due to the 15th anniversary of its original release, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the ship, James Cameron’s newfound penchant for 3D, or a combination of all three.
I am old enough to remember when the film originally came out and caused the mammoth reaction from everyone who saw it. I was in 5th grade then, and I watched the movie at my house as soon as it was released on VHS. The few things I remember from the film were:
- having to put in a second VHS tape halfway through the film because it was too long to fit on one
- watching my mom cry and wondering if something was wrong, and
- viewing that final scene where Old Rose takes the locket and throws it into the ocean.
I was not old enough to appreciate anything else about the movie, and I probably got bored with its 3:14 runtime.
I have, however, enjoyed the pop culture detritus that has surfaced since the film, most notably Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” (a song I’m sure she absolutely loathes by now but which I can still unabashedly enjoy today—and whose music video I would even watch repeatedly by myself for fun as a painfully shy college student) and a tendency of shouting “I’m king of the world!” and wrapping my arms around a nearby person (usually someone I know) whenever we both are in a relatively prow-ish location.
Thus, I went into the movie theater that day in 2012 having a general familiarity with the movie but not necessarily being a fan of it. I know that it has had its detractors since it came out, many of them deriding it as a movie for people who hate movies. It also won eleven Oscars and earned Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart nominations (though Leonardo Dicaprio would be snubbed for the first of many times in his career). What I remembered more than any of these reviews and accolades, though, was watching my mother cry in our living room fifteen years earlier. Within 30 minutes, I, too, was an unashamed fan.
There have been entire books written about this movie, and people with much more knowledge of the film industry than I possess have already exhaustively reviewed almost every aspect of it. My goal here is not to explain why it is a great movie or defend it against those who deem it vastly overrated, but to explain exactly what I liked about it—and why it led to a certain fanaticism with movies I still have a year and a half later.
- The story has been considered kind of hokey: Kate Winslet’s character, Rose, is on her way to the United States to marry a rich man whom she has no interest in marrying. She meets Jack, who is nowhere near her social class but who saves her from (admittedly, melodramatically) jumping off the boat to her death. He then acts adorable for about 70% of the film and generally teaches her the ins and outs of authenticity—at least as he understands it in his 22-year-old mind. By the end of their 3-day affair, she has resolved to marry him and is in love enough to jump off a life raft once the Titanic starts sinking, preferring to brave it out with him (to what many have pointed out is his ultimate demise). She survives partially because of what I guess is his selfless act of letting go from the life raft they are both clinging to but which only one of them can hold onto. She claims that she’ll never let him go, and in the last scene of the movie, Rose has made pretty good on her promise: the last scene has her envisioning herself as young Rose (or entering heaven, depending on who you ask), rushing to a balcony where she is reunited with Jack to everybody’s applause. (There’s also the aforementioned part about throwing the locket into the ocean, which is a touch gesture that represents… what, exactly? We’ll talk about that later.)
The story does have some plot holes to it—if you think of it as demonstrating normal behavior. My interpretation is that we were never supposed to regard it as such, and that it is beautiful because the kind of love Rose and Jack experienced is so rare and fleeting. Had the Titanic missed the iceberg and stayed on course for the last few days of the journey, they might have even “come to their senses” and broken up. And if they had landed and gotten married, there’s a good chance that the lovebirds would have been at each other’s throats within a year. There’s just not much to do in Wisconsin, as fun as the prospect of fishing with Leo DiCaprio may seem. (I like to think of Revolutionary Road as an alternate universe in which Jack and Rose got to live with each other for ten years, their ideal delusions slowly slipping away.) In a sense, Jack dying is the perfect ending to this love story because Rose never has to deal with that inevitable next stage in their relationship.
(Some have lambasted the dream/heaven sequence at the end of the film, mostly because Rose had presumably been married for decades with somebody else by the time she died. Why didn’t she dream of that person instead of somebody she hung out with on a boat for three days? I actually think this is an honest and brilliant portrayal of love; the heart wants what it wants, even if we spend our lives denying it.)
The movie knows that Jack and Rose are doomed, even if they reach shore. There are too many factors in the way, and even if they do defy society’s expectations, they’ll only have the honeymoon stage for so long. Yet the movie argues (truthfully, in my opinion) that those exhilarating moments of love make whatever hardships come with it worth it. Thus, I think this is probably one of the best scenarios of young love out there, assisted by…
- The Titanic as a setting. A luxurious cruise ship (with plenty of room for Jack’s kind of people as well) provides a visually appealing setting for the majority of the movie—and through its climax. I also thought it was the perfect metaphor for youth: strong, beautiful, promising, seemingly invincible, and completely unsuspecting the icebergs hidden in the water, just waiting to take it down. If the theme of the love story is supposed to be that you should go for what your heart says, despite what your brain says, a secondary theme has to be that beautiful, young things don’t stay that way long. This second message was assisted by two factors:
- Gloria Stuart died only a year before the rerelease of the movie, living to be over 100 years old. I had read that in the newspaper, and watching her scenes about mortality when she actually has died made them more significant to me. I realize this will be a nonessential factor as years go on—already, she’s going to be “the lady who died two years ago” instead of “the lady who just died.”
- Leonardo Dicaprio. Can you imagine this movie with somebody else in the male lead role? Believe it or not, the only movie he was in that made any money prior to this one was Romeo + Juliet. This was the film that showed the world exactly what Leo’s talents were in terms of acting: he can pull off characters who are likeable yet tough, young and fresh yet competent, sensitive yet hardened. He was often referred to as “androgynous” for the 2-3 years after this film, though he has played numerous “manly” roles with critical and box office success, and I think he’s become more and more masculine as he has matured.
And, of course, he was probably hotter in this movie than anybody in any other movie I’ve ever seen. Almost to an absurd extent—did poor Jack Dawson spend all his hard-earned money on conditioner and daily moisturizer? I remembered girls (and older women) going practically crazy about Leo when the movie first came out, but in my naïve preadolescence I couldn’t determine why. Needless to say, I figured it out pretty quickly in the theater that night. If the movie had come out a year later, I literally might have realized certain, ahem, things about myself years earlier. However, I would argue that he doesn’t have anywhere near this physical appeal anymore. When I watched Gangs of New York, the movie itself and Leo’s performance were both good, but his looks did almost nothing for me. In movies today, there are flashes of incandescence in his performance where I can tell he’s an attractive guy, but nowhere near the full-on pulchritude (for lack of a less generic word) he exhibited for the entirety of the Titanic.
(Apparently not everybody thinks this way; some have attested to the fact that they think he and Kate Winslet are about equally attractive, and others have said they think he looks better now with his maturity and fuller face and goatee. However, Leo himself has said that he has never been as popular as he was during that time—and I think a good part of it was the way he looked then.)
Thus, Leo’s looks, which have (again, for me) devolved from a perfect 10 to an 8, represent the same theme of “nothing gold can stay” that is already presented so often in the film. James Cameron couldn’t have known that this was the pinnacle of Leo’s looks (though 22 years old is a pretty good guess for the pinnacle of anybody’s looks), and it would not have been as readily evident to the crowds watching the film in 1997 as it was for me watching it in 2012, with the “new” DiCaprio in mind.
- I’m sure everybody else in the movie was pretty good too.
Of course, nothing I said here is really provable, and I think a sign of good art is a certain degree of ambiguity. I also think another sign of good art is that people either love it or hate it, which seems to be the case here. Many of the reasons I walked out of the theater in awe that night are time-based. I wonder if I watch the movie again in 2 years, whether I will like it as much: I certainly know TONS more about the moviemaking process and the traits of novel storytelling than I did then. The point about this whole experience is that the movie elicited such a strong reaction in me that I wanted to find out more about movies.
That night, I went home and made a list of the movies I really wanted to see. From then on, I’ve seen most of the Oscar bait from the last 4-5 years, as well as a fair number of the classics: 2001: A Space Odyssey, 8 ½, Wild Strawberries, and even a few more of Cameron’s movies. I’m becoming known more and more as the guy who never shuts up about movies, and I’m also becoming the type who can enjoy movies as an art form with a unique capacity for storytelling, rather than as some brainless time-passing activity. And a showing of Titanic that I wasn’t even particularly excited to go to was what started it all.