James Cameron's "Titanic" is back in theaters and atop the box office charts. It's doing respectable business in the United States — $45 million and counting — but it's doing astonishingly well overseas; according to Box Office Mojo, it made almost $100 million internationally last week, including a staggering $67 million in China. Fifteen years later, the film maintains its powerful hold over audiences. Which means it's an interesting time to reexamine what, exactly, that powerful hold is.
Most assume "Titanic" is a female-driven cinematic phenomenon, with teen girls going over and over to the theater to repeatedly fall in love with Leonardo DiCaprio and his impossibly perfect bangs. To some extent, that stereotype is true — just the trailer for "Titanic 3D" brought tears to my wife and her girlfriends' eyes like some sort of bizarre Pavlovian flashback — but Cameron's appeal extends beyond that core. At his blog They Live By Night, Bilge Ebiri has a wonderfully personal reflection on his own enduring fascination with 'Titanic,' which has less to do with Leo's beauty and more to do with the film's complex representation of the ocean's beauty — and its horror. He writes eloquently about the film's most famous shot, in which DiCaprio's Jack and Kate Winslet's Rose stand at the bow of Titanic, enjoying the exhilarating sensation of flying and first love:
"Dissolving slowly, the young lovers seem for an instant to be caught underwater before they disappear, their final relic Rose’s windswept shawl, a vague phantom fluttering in the depths before it too vanishes. The shot doesn’t end, however, as we now see that we’re watching the wreck in a monitor, and the camera pulls back to reveal aged Rose, looking at the bow where she enjoyed that first passionate kiss. Here, in one camera move, Cameron conveys not just the relentless passage of time but also the monstrous wonder of the ocean — how it becomes for Rose, in that one century-spanning moment, both an expression of the open, endless possibility of life and the colorless graveyard of her most cherished memory. We understand then that infinity means something different for a dying woman than it does for a girl of sixteen. And I can think of no better scene to encapsulate the awesome power of the sea. Coincidentally, I can also think of no better scene to encapsulate the awesome power of cinema."
This is the very best kind of criticism; criticism that conveys the passion that someone feels for a piece of art, and makes you feel a little bit of it too. As someone who's not particularly fond of boats — not quite phobic, but close — I don't share Ebiri's obsession with the sea and watching "Titanic" in the past has never given me any palpable sense of its allure. But reading Ebiri talk about what it makes him feel, I understand Cameron's own need to tweet from the bottom of the ocean a little better. I'm not going to run out buy a ticket for a cruise to the Caribbean just yet — the ship still sinks, after all — but i get it.
When I see "Titanic" I see the same thing I see in "The Terminator" and "Aliens" and "The Abyss" and "Avatar": a man working through a deeply conflicted opinion of technology. Technology enables man to exceed his physical limitations; to travel the world, and to explore the oceans and space. But exceeding those physical limitations presents dangers too. When that technology advances too far it becomes a robotic killer or an ocean liner so oversized it sinks like a stone. When you combine these films' themes with the fact that their creator can only make them with the benefit of state-of-the-art special effects, you get one very complex representation of technology.
My take on "Titanic" isn't more profound than Ebiri's, and neither is superior to the one held by my wife, who was repeatedly moved to tears by Jack and Rose's love story. And perhaps that is the true secret of "Titanic"'s power. Many of us see different things on that big boat. But we all see something.
Read more of Bilge Ebiri's "Titanic: The Chaos Dark and Rude."