(Which in this case may be better than getting him)
The Titanic did not sink; it only seemed that way at the time. She has proven as unsinkable as one of her more famous passengers. The movies, and now television, have done for her what her builders were unable to do. Her most recent overhaul promises to become a perennial favorite, not quite rivaling the popularity of The Wizard of Oz, but close enough. The film’s popularity has prompted no end of explanations. Some Hollywood producers found it to be “female-driven”; others lauded its special effects. But that many reputable film critics were smitten (like Janet Maslin of The New York Times and Anthony Lane of The New Yorker) still comes as a bit of a shock. What is not surprising was the adverse reaction of reviewers in England. Villains abound in this film and most of them are English. (Perhaps the worst is the valet played by David Warner right out of a penny dreadful. The last time he played this character it was as Jack the Ripper in Time After Time.) The heroes include the ship’s designer, an Irishman, who fought – with good reason, given his design – for extra lifeboats. But if it is any consolation to the English, Titanic reveals other prejudices as well. One is obvious, and consistent with many Hollywood epics; the other is not so obvious, but every bit as consistent.
Should there be any doubt as to the filmmaker’s bias, consider the performance of the Titanic’s crew. These Brits are either bunglers, incompetent, mean-spirited, or they have no minds of their own. They simply take orders. The bunglers include the captain, wandering aimlessly about the stricken ship, and the steward who cannot find the right key (and then when he does, he drops it). They are abetted by incompetent seamen like the two in the crow’s nest who neglect to replace the missing binoculars and are too busy ogling the lovers below to see what lies ahead. Then there is the nasty sailor who refuses to row Molly Brown back to the ship. And finally there is the crew who insist that the people in steerage wait their turn (even if this means their turn will never come) or the officer who, in obeying orders, shoots one of the passengers, and then takes his own life. (He at least had the good grace to remove himself from the debacle before doing any more harm.) The one exception is the officer who orders his men to pick up survivors (however, judging from the actor’s accent, he is Welsh, which presumably distances him from the other officers).
Of course, the real villains in this film are the people who travel first class. Any sympathy we may have for them, knowing as we do what lies ahead, is quickly squashed by their treatment of their “inferiors,” who, predictably, are the film’s real heroes. As depicted in Titanic, these people are the salt of the earth (albeit, sugarcoated), plain speaking (accents are not a problem), slow to anger, but when roused, watch out. There is the stock Thelma Ritter character (the unsinkable one) and all the people below deck (third class, preferably), bursting with energy, a bit cheeky, always ready to help each other out, tucking their little nippers into bed and telling them a bedtime story even as the icy waters of the North Atlantic lap at their feet. But no need to feel sorry for them, for whenever these people confront their betters, they best them. And in case anyone has missed the filmmaker’s point (which would be hard to do), the lower class is the true upper class. They reign even if they do not yet rule. As for the upper class, they haven’t got any class at all, even if they happen to come from Philadelphia. (The two exceptions are the unsinkable one, but she comes from west of the Mississippi, so that’s o.k., and the heroine, but she is about to mutate, so that’s all right too.) I must admit that I do find it somewhat puzzling that a country whose elected leaders have often engaged in union bashing should find so much to love in the very people who once gave the unions their strength. In the movies, the newly arrived immigrants are always welcome; in the real world, they’re almost always suspect. Immigrant bashing, like union bashing, is almost as American as apple pie. (As a matter of fact, in California, no “almost” about it. Just ask Kathleen Brown. In her gubernatorial race, the polls showed her far ahead until her opponent played the immigrant card. She came in a distant second.)
There is, however, more villainy afoot in this film than the English or the class that they and their American cousins represent. Titanic symbolizes the Old World, oblivious to any other world, and rigid to the point of immobility even when confronting danger, or an insurrection. No doubt, there are people aboard her who are intent on leaving the old ways behind, but the ship itself perpetuates them. As long as Titanic rules the waves, the nearly forgotten words of that old Victorian hymn, “All things bright and beautiful/All creatures great and small,” still apply: “The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them, high and lowly/And ordered their estate.” Granted she is carrying passengers from port to port; in between, however, Titanic‘s purpose is to give pleasure to those who can afford it and pain, should it become necessary, to those who cannot. The contrast with the vessel that is hovering over the ship at the beginning of the film is striking. It is definitely on a mission; its purpose is utilitarian. Its crew is out to find Titanic, and make a few bucks along the way. There is no class on board, either above deck or below. Each man dresses down, not up, and the captain is virtually indistinguishable from his men. Whether or not by design, Titanic’s filmmaker is about to turn a great tragedy into an even greater triumph.
Recall the object that brings these two worlds together: a priceless diamond. Its pedigree, we learn, dates back to the court of Louis XVI. It is now owned by the heroine’s fiancé, a thoroughly despicable character, who, expecting his investment will reap a pretty dividend, drapes it around her neck. Perhaps he is not, she thinks, such a bad fellow after all, and anyway it is imperative that she marry him in order to restore her family’s fortunes. But when she decides, after he punches her, to leave him for good, he uses the diamond to entrap the young man with whom she has fallen in love. (This fellow deserves to be spat upon.) Then, in the film’s penultimate scene, she drops the diamond into the sea, thereby returning it to the dead ship, a romantic gesture to be sure, but also something else. It confirms that she has made it on her own without the wealth of kings or their mistresses. Not that the issue was ever in doubt. To embrace the new she had to abandon the old. What was it that America’s favorite guru said? “As long as the old are around me, I know that I am not in any true sense living a new or better life.” The words are Henry David Thoreau’s but the sentiment is hers. No longer dependent, she is free, “free at last.”
Or is she? What is perhaps most puzzling about this film is what we are to make of her, this “new woman.” Obviously the filmmaker wants us to be impressed, and why not? His heroine is about to fly, which Rose does, symbolically that is, while perched on the bow of the Titanic, and literally when, at the film’s conclusion, we spot a photograph of her decked out in a pilot’s garb. First impressions, however, can be deceiving. She may be about to fly but only, it seems, if there is a man around to flap her wings. Notice how every time she and her lover are together Jack is either admonishing her for not being her own woman (his woman might be more apt) or praising her for letting her hair down or clearing her throat. When she is trying to find him aboard the ship (after the villains had him cuffed for a crime he did not commit), she momentarily takes control, but as soon as they are back together, he is back in charge. To free him she must cut through the handcuffs that restrain him with an ax that she somehow managed to locate all by herself. But this is as far as her initiative goes. Feats of daring are his to do, not hers, unless they are necessary for her to get to him or to carry out his instructions. She wields the ax but he must tell her where to chop as well as fill her with the confidence she needs to do it. It is as if she is caught in a dance; he leads, she follows. Although she has just searched the ship for him (running down many a corridor rapidly filling with water, lights flickering overhead, punching out a member of the crew along the way), only he can find the way back. Previously she had climbed out over the rails of the ship presumably intending to jump – her life had no meaning; she hadn’t met him yet – and he had talked her out of it. Now with the stern of the Titanic shooting skyward he has to remind her to climb back over those same rails in order to avoid leaving the doomed ship prematurely. He even instructs her, as the ship plummets into the sea, to remember to hold her breath because …. she may be underwater for a long time. (It is a wonder he didn’t add, “and don’t forget your galoshes.”) Such a thoughtful lad. No wonder she is smitten. Did I mention that she may have been the one survivor who leaves the Titanic as it is sinking, only to return to it before it sinks? To be with him, of course. The captain may go down with his ship; a lady, if we are to believe what we see, will do the same, but only for her man. (I guess this is what in the movies is meant by consciousness-raising.)
Earlier in the film, our heroine, propped up by her fella, rides astride the Titanic – as she will one day a horse, also at his prompting. No more sidesaddle for her. Go for it, he whispers into her ear, or something to that effect. Perhaps this explains why she has become so popular with American teenage girls who admire her, according to a psychologist on CNN, because of her “rebelliousness.” The girls have even issued their own declaration of independence by letting the boys know that they can spit too – something else Jack taught her – which, I am told, is the latest craze on campus. It is true that she does pose en-pointe without his help. It’s also true that when it comes to sex, she is all guile and initiative, while he is the shy one, who accepts what our new/old Eve has to offer, but only after he has put aside the painting he is working on. For him, work comes before play, something, I suppose, she will have to get used to if they are to have a “meaningful relationship.” But my favorite scene comes after the Titanic has gone down when our hero, dying from exposure, still manages to tell our heroine what she must do with her life. She must live and (would you believe) have babies, lots of them. (She apparently did what she was told, although we are left in the dark as to how many was a lot.) On being rescued, she will take her late lover’s surname, and why not? Nothing even faintly elitist about “Dawson.” Her transformation is now complete: the haughty young woman whose mother and fiancé tried to mold into an even haughtier English lady has become a California gal.
The sinking of the Titanic is supposed to be a metaphor for man’s hubris – a message we ignore at our peril – but the film leaves us wondering if the message was ever received, especially when, near the end, we get a long shot of the technological marvel, the vessel, whose purpose is not so much to plumb Titanic’s secrets as to gut her carcass. But not to worry. This movie contains a more comforting message, at least for those who value their comfort. It assures us that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.