Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Ballad of Jack and Rose

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Is it possible to watch Titanic again with fresh eyes? Was it ever possible? When I saw Titanic 3D this weekend in Schaumburg, Illinois, I hadn’t seen it in almost fifteen years, the week after it was first released. At the time, I liked it a great deal, although I wouldn’t have called it the best movie of a year that gave us L.A. Confidential, and since then, I’d caught it in bits and pieces on television, but had never gone back and watched the whole thing. All the same, my memories of it remained positive, if somewhat muted, so I was curious to see what my reaction would be now. And what I found is that this is a really good, sometimes even great movie that looks even better with time. Once we set aside our preconceived notions, we’re left with a spectacularly well-made film that takes a lot of risks and seems motivated by a genuine, if somewhat adolescent, fascination with the past, an unlikely labor of love from a prodigiously talented director who willed himself into a genre that no one would have expected him to understand—the romantic epic—and emerged with both his own best work and a model of large-scale popular storytelling.

So why is this so hard for us to admit? The trouble, I think, is that the elements that worked so strongly in the film’s favor—its cinematography, special effects, and art direction; its beautifully choreographed action; its incredible scale—are radically diminished on television, which is the only way we’ve seen it for well over a decade. On the small screen, we lose all sense of scope, leaving us mostly with elements—dialogue, human drama—that James Cameron has never quite been able to master. Seeing it on in theaters again reminds us of why we liked this movie in the first place. It’s also easier to appreciate that Titanic was made at precisely the right moment in movie history, allowing it to take full advantage of digital technology while deriving much of its power from stunts, full-scale sets, and practical effects. If Titanic were made again today, even by Cameron himself, it’s likely that much of this spectacle would be rendered with CGI, which would be a major loss. A huge amount of the film’s appeal lies in its physicality, in those real crowds and flooded stages, all of which can only be appreciated in theaters. Titanic is still big; it’s the screens that got small.

It’s also time to retire the notion that James Cameron is a terrible screenwriter. It’s true that he doesn’t have any ear for dialogue, and that he tends to freeze up when it comes to showing two people simply talking—I’m morbidly curious to see what he’d do with a conventional drama, but I’m not sure I want to see the result. Yet when it comes to structuring exciting stories on the largest possible scale, and to setting up and delivering climactic set pieces and payoffs, he has few, if any, equals. I’m an enormous fan of Christopher Nolan, for instance—I think he’s the most interesting mainstream filmmaker alive—but his films can seem fussy and needlessly intricate compared to the clean, powerful narrative lines that Cameron sets up here. (The decision, for instance, to show us a simulation of the Titanic’s sinking before the disaster itself is a masterstroke: it keeps us oriented throughout an hour of complex action that otherwise would be hard to understand.) Once the movie gets going, it never lets up, and it moves toward its conclusion with an efficiency, confidence, and clarity that Peter Jackson, or even Spielberg, would have reason to envy.

Despite James Cameron’s reputation as a terror on the set, I met him once, and he was very nice to me. In 1998, as an overachieving high school senior, I was a delegate at the American Academy of Achievement’s annual Banquet of the Golden Plate in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, an extraordinarily surreal event that I hope to discuss in more detail one of these days. The high point of the weekend was the banquet itself, a black-tie affair in a lavish indoor auditorium with the night’s honorees—a range of luminaries from science, politics, and the arts—seated in alphabetical order at the periphery of the room. One of them was James Cameron, who had swept the Oscars just a few months earlier. At one point in the evening, leaving my own seat, I went up to his table to say hello, only to find him surrounded by a flock of teenage girls anxious to know what it was like to work with Leonardo DiCaprio. Seeing that there was no way of approaching him yet, I chatted for a bit with a man seated nearby, who had not attracted much, if any, attention. We made small talk for a minute or two, but when I saw an opening with Cameron, I quickly said goodbye, leaving the other guest on his own. It was Dick Cheney.

Written by nevalalee

April 16, 2012 at 10:22 am

One Response

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  1. 8-o That AAA story is hilarious.

    My lasting memory from seeing Titanic was when Kate Winslet exclaims to Billy Zane, “I’d rather be his whore than your wife!” and that guy sitting down in front yelled, “Daaayuuum!!!” at the screen and the whole theater cracked up.


    April 17, 2012 at 9:44 pm

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