J.R.Donohue/Commentary/A short take on Titanic
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A short take on Titanic
Titanic contrasted with The English Patient
06/01/98

     I was really taken by James Cameron's film Titanic. Yes, the effects, yes the disaster, yes, Kate Winslet looking fine. But what else? What explains the gigantic success of this film?

     Naturally, I have heard the anti-industrial interpretations of this movie, including out of the mouth of Leonardo D'Caprio, who said it was "spiritual" because it showed the power of nature over man's attempts to "dominate" it. Also, Cameron himself has made a comment or two (not quite as bad) in the same vein. Obviously, these are either inaccurate or unimportant to movie-goers. I believe them to be laughable.

     I see the movie and the phenomena it has spurred differently. It is an uncynical, value-based love story in the Romantic-Realism school. The pent-up demand for such, due to the disaster of 20th Century nihilism in art, as well as the still benevolent American sense of life, has sent people back over and over. They seek, not a dose of suffering, but an infusion of the sight of two individuals celebrating mutual values and opening their hearts, even though at great risk for Rose. (Her risking involves giving up vast "security" to find and follow her own mind and genuineness.) The theme of Cameron's Titanic is thus: happiness is to be found by rejecting the values imposed by others and following the judgements of your own mind.

     Granted, the film is Byronic; I concede that the malevolent universe premise is partially in play in this movie. Hopefully the next demonstration of Romantic-Realism will not require a tragedy to carry it; I think Americans are ready for this. Note, however, that there are many, many films today with the malevolent-universe premise, and they are flops. The Titanic fan is attracted to the Romance, not the disaster, and willing to pay the price of pain at the sinking/death of Jack for the triumph of Rose's transformation. Imagine what the multi-billion-dollar response will be at the next great Romantic-Realist movie that holds the benevolent universe premise consistently!

     European intellectuals were unanimous in the anti-industrial interpretation of the film. Things are much the same in many intellectual circles here, most notably in the Los Angeles Times. But I have spoken to many Titanic fans that specifically supported my premise. And the Los Angeles Times published letters in the Calendar section in support of it. These letters were from industry professionals supporting Cameron's screenplay under an attack by the paper. They were extremely eloquent and specific about the power of the love story, and none called upon the anti-industrial premise.

     Another case in point: While Titanic's success was word of mouth driven, several years ago there was a film that was intellectual-driven, namely The English Patient. This movie was a darling of the Hollywood establishment. Like Titanic , it had a central love scene ending in tragedy. In this case, however, the two lovers were utterly without values and their actions were so purposeless and destructive that I found no viewer who thrilled to the movie. Indeed, everyone I spoke to finally admitted that the only thing they liked was the love affair between two secondary characters (Juliet Binoche and the bomb defuser) and all said: the two main characters got what they deserved, one dying alone in a cave, the other burned alive. This film won many Oscars and made respectable money, but was not a blockbuster, let alone a phenomenon. Americans gave it a try, because they were promised a Romantic-Realist story; instead they got only dust and disgust.

     I will add several more positives about Titanic

    • Jack is utterly benevolent-universe oriented.

    • Jack is obviously atheist. There is no praying during the emergency, only action for survival.

    • They end their time together in a non-mystical way; notice that Jack does not tell Rose to meet him in heaven. He urges her to live in this life, on this earth. He is faithful even at the extremity to his "this-worldly" values, and at his death he verbally claims vindication for his choices and his judgements.

    • Rose holds onto the values she earned that day. She goes on to live the life she promised herself to Jack, and this is shown in her pictures and her character in old age. This is a benevolent-premise portrayal.

    • Rose commits a supremely beautiful and utterly selfish act. She casts the "Heart of the Ocean" into the deep. She earned that gem. She, and Jack, gave it value far above its intrinsic or even its "institutional" value. She held that the meaning of the gem was wholly in the context of their love. She kept it's existence private and respected for over eighty years. She honored them both, and preserved the privacy of their lives, by the act of tossing it where no one would find it.

     Well, I have much more on this subject, including a theory called The Turandot Transfiguration, which explains the effect of a solidly healthy character on his lover who holds mixed premises. I will close with this small, delicious irony. It must be a constant irritation to the big thinkers in Hollywood that this "thing" which came into existence outside of their power, which they were champing at the bit to watch fail, which is not of their worldview, this phenomenal film is the all time box office smash. That makes me laugh inside.

John Donohue
Pasadena, CA






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