Thursday, May 3, 2012

My Titanic Blog

 The makings of a much more interesting film.

[Editors Note, written immediately before posting]
I haven’t seen
Titanic since December of 1997. That’s on purpose. I’ve accidentally seen random scenes here and there on TV, but other than that, my memory of the film is ENTIRELY based on my recollection from that one, single viewing. I wrote this blog over the course of a couple of weeks, and I discussed some of my points with some known Titanic fans throughout the process. I’ve come to realize that some of the details of my arguments (specifically relating to the ins and outs of the specific plot) are possibly not entirely accurate. I’ve decided to leave the points as-is, and am planning a follow-up post where I re-watch the film in its 2D entirety, and adjust my opinions as needed. I promise to be honest with my re-assessment.

Okay, so it’s no secret that I think Titanic is just about the worst. I’ve stated it on numerous occasions. I’m not trying to hide the fact.

I guess I just always assumed that I’d established my full argument as to WHY I feel that way, and looking back through the blog, I realize I never really have.
My friend Annie, who has appeared as a guest blogger here before when talking about Disney, has thrown down the gauntlet, and essentially accused me of hating it only because it’s popular.
Being a Muchacho of honor, I have decided to finally and officially break it down. I assure you that Titanic’s popularity is only a small reason I hate it.

First off… I don’t hate Justin Bieber. I don’t hate Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry or Avatar. At most, I have no real opinion at all of Bieber. I can’t name a song of his, I didn’t see his movie. My only thought about Justin Bieber is that he makes me feel old. I always have this sneaking feeling that if I were 17 I would understand his deal, and I feel like I’m so far removed from knowing his deal that it sort of depresses me.
Avatar… If I’m being honest, I have to say I don’t get it. I mean… I liked it as much as the next guy, but I don’t get why this movie earned more than any other movie ever. Despite that disconnect, I have no real negative feelings about it. If it had beaten The Hurt Locker for Best Picture, I’m fairly sure my perspective on the movie wouldn’t change. I’d certainly yell and rant that it didn’t deserve to win Best Picture, but I do that with Chicago also, and I like Chicago just fine.
I guess the heart of this first point is that I’m not anti-populist. I am no hipster who intentionally seeks out only the most obscure and off-the-beaten-path movies to like. Shit… My favorite movie of 2012 so far was The Hunger Games, which is arguably targeting the same people that Titanic targeted 15 years ago.

Titanic’s popularity isn’t what makes me hate it, and more importantly, it’s not what makes me argue that it’s actually not good. It’s part of what makes me argue that it’s the worst movie ever made, but I’ll get to that…
I guess I have two separate arguments, really… The first is that Titanic isn’t a good movie, and the second is that Titanic is the worst movie ever made.

That sounds like varying levels of the same premise, but really they’re very different, because while there are a million terrible movies made every year, there’s rarely a movie, no matter how bad it is, to merit consideration in the “Worst of All Time” race.

Let’s start off with why I think it’s a bad movie…

1) The main characters are almost entirely unlikable.

Jack Dawson is a smug little d-bag who you’d likely want to punch if you met him in real life. He’s the guy who sings “I Gave My Love a Cherry” and says all the right things, and offers to draw her. Amazingly he’s awesome at guitar and he’s awesome at drawing, but certainly that is merely coincidental to his volunteering.

The Kate Winslett version of Rose is okay I suppose. Sure, she’s flighty, but she’s young and it’s Kate Winslett, so it’s to some degree forgivable. Although, the fact that she tolerates Billy Zane for even a half a second makes her unlikable by association alone. HOWEVER… that old lady version of Rose is the absolute WORST. Think about this for a second… That old crone dragged a whole team of scientists out into the middle of the North Atlantic to search for “The Heart of the Ocean”, when she really had it the whole time. And then, once they decided it was a lost cause, she tosses it! How many millions of dollars did that damned expedition cost? Just so she could hitch a ride to say farewell to the love of her life who she knew for two whole days. Blech… I hate that old lady. Thank god Britney Spears’ astronaut boyfriend retrieved it for her, or that priceless artifact would still be at the bottom of the ocean.

Oh… and maybe it’s a personal objection, but I feel like the relationship between Jack and Rose could have existed just as easily without the existence of Billy Zane at all. They could have given her some other hoity-toity rich girl issue that Jack breaks down, but instead they just make her a girl who cheats on her fiancé (odious as he may be), and that seems unnecessary and unseemly.
2) The tertiary characters aren’t much better.
The Italian guy who might as well go around the whole movie going “Thatsa bigga pizza pie!”, or Kathy Bates as Molly Brown, the most broadly painted character in history. Or the aforementioned Billy Zane, who may as well have been wearing a Snidely Whiplash mustache he was so fucking evil. There’s no grey area with any of the characters. The Italian guy is merely Italian. Molly Brown is a damned quote machine. Billy Zane is only missing the railroad tracks and rope.

3) The movie is way too long.
I’m sorry… but it is. Three hours and fourteen minutes. We’re not talking about The English Patient, a love story that spans years. We’re talking about a movie that lasts longer than the actual sinking of the ship. If the writing was good, or if the characters were super charismatic, I’d give it more leeway, but it isn’t. Don’t get me wrong… I don’t shy away from an epic. I love all three Lord of the Rings movies, and they’re all longer. Again, though… the justification for that is that the story spans months of time. It takes place in a hundred locations. The books are hundreds and hundreds of pages. What it always struck me is that Cameron was TRYING to make something big and long and epic. It was a show-off thing. It was also a lazy thing, because maybe a couple fewer loving shots of the boat (that look like matte paintings anyway) and maybe one or two fewer annoying scenes between Rose and Billy Zane… You may have yourself the start of a picture. Oh… and the framework scenes with Bill Paxton, at his absolute worst, talking to the old lying lady… terrible. I don’t care.

In the end, the only explanation for it is that Cameron is overly self-indulgent (Also potentially explaining Avatar’s GIANT run time. I mean… learn to use AVID for fuck’s sake.)

4) There are a lot of manipulative movies, none quite as overtly so.
I’ve often said that the movie is manipulative, and I stand by that. There was a counterpoint made that a lot of movies are manipulative, and yes… that’s totally true. The Pianist is a decent movie that loses points because a lot of its emotion stems from it being set during the Holocaust. That’s like hitting a ball off a tee. It’s easy to make people cry about one of the worst things to ever happen on the planet. One of my favorite movies, Saving Private Ryan, includes a scene at the end that is acutely designed to make a person weep. The primary difference is that while there are manipulative scenes in most movies, Titanic seems to be set to manipulate and steer through every scene from start to finish. One would argue that this is called “Directing” and as a theatre director myself, I can see that logic, but sometimes the better choice is to let the material do it’s own talking. Presenting something simply can be just as powerful, and not quite as overtly manipulative. I’m talking about watching Thomas Andrews setting his clock, or the old couple cuddling on the bed as the water fills the cabin, or the all of the lingering shots of the poor people drowning. I get that many of those things happened (poor people dying) or may have happened (nobody fucking knows about Andrews, besides that he went down with the ship, like most men on board, and those old people are pure fiction.)… That leads me to…

5) Something about it feels gross to me.

The Titanic was a real ship. With real people. Who really died.

“But wait, Muchacho… What about: Glory, Gettysburg, Saving Private Ryan, EVERY WAR MOVIE EVER?”

Yeah, that’s true too. Except that I kind of feel like every one of those movies is primarily about those events, or honoring those events in some way. I have always felt like Titanic was James Cameron’s project ABOUT a love story that happens to take place on The Titanic. I just feel like it’s somehow disrespectful. And when you lionize fictional (and unlikeable people) while there are real, and powerful stories to actually tell… it just feels like you’re talking out of both sides of your mouth. On the one hand, you want to show off how historically accurate you made the ship, and how much you care about deep sea archeology. On the other hand, you ignore a hundred compelling TRUE stories and completely make one up about a slick, boyish con artist and a overly privileged rich girl who also cheats on her fiancé.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it just feels icky.

In fairness, I also felt that way about National Treasure when Nic Cage was tossing the Declaration of Independence around, and shooting up Liberty Hall. It just gives me the willies.

So anyway… that’s the primary thrust of part one of my argument that Titanic is not a good movie. I have other, more petty, less reasoned…um… reasons, but I don’t want to like…go on and on when I’m maybe only about halfway through.
Now, on to how I can possibly call this movie, even if we’re all accepting that it’s bad, the Worst Movie of All Time.

This is a more complicated premise, because, well… there are some horrific movies out there, and it’s very difficult to make the argument that Titanic, a movie with undeniable technical prowess, and clear talent can be worse than a movie like Manos: Hands of Fate, or Plan Nine from Outer Space. Both measurably bad movies.
In fact, almost all evidence regarding Titanic would lead me to the counter argument, that it is, in fact, the GREATEST movie ever made. It won Best Picture and Best Director. It made something like 650 million dollars at the box office. Meaning that it was both critically poplular and popularly popular, which I will grant makes my argument possibly silly. Well… it’s my argument, and I’m gonna make it.

Obviously, in order to buy into my opinion that it’s the worst ever, you have to first accept that my primary premise is correct.. that the movie is, in fact, bad. So I’ll assume we agree on that point. Or at least that I swayed you. Hooray!

As I said before, there are a ton of bad movies. My buddy Brawny Hombre would argue that Bad Movies are actually the best movies. He would also argue that movies like Armageddon are bad, and while that may be true, I don’t think he’d argue that it would be in the conversation for worst ever.

What is the difference, then?

Well… in the case of Plan Nine From Outer Space, it’s the sheer, willful, almost GLEEFUL way Ed Wood ignored every facet of the production. Writing. Continuity. Acting. Direction. These were all secondary to “Getting the movie made” and that showed in every frame. When Bela Lugosi died during filming, he merely hired his dentist to walk around with a cape over his face and simply believed nobody would notice. Scenes change from Night to Day to Night depending on what angle he’s shooting from. It’s a train wreck. It’s really, really bad.
In the case of a movie like… Showgirls, the production value was largely fine, but the writing and acting completely sunk it, as did it being fully lacking in even a modicum of self-awareness. It’s so goofy and weird and badly written and acted, but you know that they believed they were making art. It’s the obtuse self aggrandizement that makes it especially bad.

For Titanic, I believe that it boils down to 2 major things.

1) James Cameron fully believes it is the greatest movie ever made, believed it when he was making it, and made it with the intention of it ultimately being that. The mere fact that he set out to do it, and it ended up being bad (as we accepted) puts it in the conversation. I have a problem, as a director, with directors in general overstating their own importance, brilliance, talent, genius, etc… The sort of shameless self promotion turns me right off. Even 15 years later, James Cameron re-released Titanic and acted like he was gifting it on us or something.

I can just picture him saying something like : “I know you’ve been slogging your way through year after year of marginal movies by marginal directors… you know.. aside from my very own Avatar, but not to worry… I’m here to solve your boredom and lift you out of the doldrums of film watching by presenting you… with a movie you’ve already seen a million times. You’re Welcome.”

The whole attitude is off-putting. Michael Bay makes explosion vehicles. He knows it. We know it. He accepts that’s his lot, so when he makes a clunker, we laugh and it goes away, and then he makes another movie with explosions, and we either like it better or worse than the one before. Michael Bay knows who he is. James Cameron insists on telling us what kind of genius he is, and it pisses me right off. The primary vehicle for him touting his genius is Titanic, which… as I already explained, isn’t even any good.

2) The main reason I believe it’s the worst ever, is because “Worst’ is relative. And Titanic has the greatest (by a country mile) disparity between actual quality, and purported quality.

Ed Wood liked Plan Nine, but he never said it was a masterpiece. Oliver Stone would never call Alexander his best film, unless he was just being belligerent (a real possibility).

There are many movies that, in a vacuum, are far worse than Titanic, but the claims to greatness… the utter insistence from the legions of fans that it’s the BEST MOVIE EVAR, the willful ignorance of any type of disputation, the OUTRAGE and SHOCK when a person even deigns to suggest it isn’t the GREATEST movie ever made automatically makes the chasm between actual quality and purported quality so great that no other movie can match it.

So that’s my argument. Titanic is the worst strictly in terms of proportion. If Titanic had simply been presented without comment, and had lived a fairly quiet life, I may have very different feelings of it. Even if it wasn’t quiet, and still made a crapload of money, like Avatar, but didn’t hold itself out there as being so fucking fantastic…

You could say that part of this argument is that the popularity of it makes me not like it, but that’s a real oversimplification, because there are tons of movies that I love that are also popular. And books. And TV shows. I love Pirates of the Caribbean. I love DISNEY movies. I love The Hunger Games. None of those would lose a popularity contest.

I hate that Titanic is so popular because it is bad. I don’t think Titanic is bad because it is popular. So I dunno… Maybe it is exactly what it looks like.


Chris Dunn said...

While I can not argue against your true premise which seems to be: "I do care for this movie". (That is an irrefutable, qualitative statement, to which you are completely entitled.) I would like to offer that in your plans to rewatch the film. You concentrate on the following exchange early in the film and the scene which surrounds it:

Bodine: Okay. Here we go. She hits the berg on the starboard side, right? She kind of bumps along, punching holes in it like Morse code--dit-dit-dit, along the side, below the water line. Then, the forward compartments start to flood. Now, as the water level rises, it spills over the water-tight bulk heads, which unfortunately don't go any higher than 'E' deck. So, now as the bow goes down, the stern rises up, slow at first, then faster and faster, until finally she's got her whole ass stickin' up in the air. Now, that's a big ass. We're talkin' 20, 30 thousand tons. Okay, now the hold's not designed to deal with that kind of pressure, so what happens? She splits, right down to the keel, and the stern falls back-level. Then, as the bow sinks, it pulls the stern vertical, and finally detaches. Now, the stern section just kind of bobs there like a cork for a minute or two, then floods and goes under about 2:20 a.m. two hours and forty minutes after the collision. The bow section planes away, landing about half a mile away, going abouit 20, 30 knots when it hits the ocean floor. Pretty cool, huh?

Rose: Thank you for that fine, forensic analysis Mr. Bodine. Of course the experience of it was, somewhat different.

This scene deconstructs Cameron's challenge in making the film. That being that we all "know the story" already. It underlines his desire to bring those sterile facts to life and place you IN the midst of the event. I would argue that Cameron attempts to do this by placing a character we like (yes, even the stereotypical Italian kid) at these pivotal moments. Now you can aruge about whether he succeeded or not, if you like, but you're just admitting then that the film is worth arguing about. I'm sure as a director you could have done a much better job.

Oh, and you honestly found "likable" characters in Gladiator?

Beefy Muchacho said...

Upon my re-watch, I will approach it will a completely open mind, so if my current opinions are nothing more than the ravings of a 17 year old that have bloomed into full-on hatred over time... I'll admit it.

I do believe that my argument is somewhat more involved than "I just don't like it."

As for Gladiator... The film has undeniable issues. (Also too long, overly violent, mostly unpleasant characters, highly overrated performance by Crowe) it has an elegance to it's primary arc that I do happen to enjoy.

The Original Burly Faux Hispanic said...

I'll add my two cents only because I HATE that device so, so much, the interjecting of our characters into key historical moments thing. I especially hate that in Titanic (which, in my opinion, is an awful movie that I love).

For example, while being given a tour of the ship by designer Victor Garber, Rose, who'd been counting the lifeboats as they walked and doing the math in her head (for some reason), brings it to the attention of Garber that there aren't enough for everybody. Why did it have to be Rose who noticed that? Doesn't she get enough important lines or screen time? Why couldn't second officer Lightoller - a real person whose name goes virtually unmentioned in the movie - get a throwaway line to the captain after the collision? Or the captain himself, who definitely knew the entire time, could've said it all dreadface-like. (Little known fact: the Titanic was actually carrying more lifeboats than was required by maritime law, despite the fact that it still didn't have enough for everybody.) Why must a key fictional character be involved in every important moment in a film about real historical events?

A second example is the implication that Rose and Jack's post-coital canoodling below the crow's nest distracted the lookouts on iceberg patrol. (It's a very subtle implication, but it's there.) Again, why the need to involve those two, no matter how indirectly, in such a pivotal moment? For me, such things ruin historically set movies.

Contrast that with, say, Quentin Tarrantino, who, if he's going to mix the fictional with the historical, just up and changes history. That's creative film making.

Annie said...

How on earth is it implied that they distracted the lookouts?

I would think the fact that they didn't have any binoculars was the reason. I have never heard anyone say that nor have I ever thought that watching the movie.

Cindy said...

I enjoyed your review of Titanic and never got the overzealous popularity of it. My biggest complaint with it is the lack of chemistry between young Rose and Jack. I never believed their attraction to each other. And I am a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio (but I prefer the current older Leo to the younger skinny Leo). And I too hated the Old Rose character. And I wish Debbie Reynolds had played Molly Brown, just for fun.

Unknown said...

Out of curiosity, what were thoughts on the 2001 Pearl Harbor movie? Another fictional storyline set in a non-fictional, famous event.