Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Titanic (dir. James Cameron, 1997) (in 3D)

There's a decent risk that the following admission will lose me a whole pile of blog readers on the spot - Titanic is one of my favourite movies of all time. This isn't like the equally-worrying admission that I'd read Twilight, I'm afraid - that was a guilty pleasure, a piece of candy as Cleolinda Jones would say, the demerits of which I am more than happy to discuss at length. No, this is more like my well-publicised love for Star Trek: Voyager. Except even that, I am willing to admit, might have a few flaws. Titanic, however, was my very first cinema love, that film that blew me away, that turned me into someone who goes to the cinema any week she can rather than someone who'd only seen five films at the cinema in her entire life up to that point. I genuinely believe that Titanic is a great film which suffered an unfortunate backlash thanks to excessive success (no one likes to see someone else doing that well, except perhaps Star Wars fans) and, in my generation's case, a certain level of embarrassment among the girls because this film was the high point of Leonardo DiCaprio-mania, and among the boys, at the very idea of a soppy film starring Leonardo DiCaprio having any merit whatsoever. (DiCaprio himself had to more or less disappear for a while, poking his head up only to make The Beach, though all is forgotten now thanks to Gangs of New York, Inception et al).

Anyway, with the 100th anniversary of the sailing of the Titanic yesterday and the centenary of the sinking coming up on Saturday/Sunday (officially the 15th, but who really thinks of 2am as belonging to the following day?!), Titanic has been re-released in glorious, slightly colour-desaturated 3D. I'm not entirely convinced of the merits of 3D, but I thought Cameron had done a pretty good job here (hardly surprising from the man who made Avatar). All those fabulous shots of the ship sailing/sinking on the ocean look much the same, but smaller scenes made an impact, and there was one especially dizzying shot from the stern as it bobs about at right angles to the water, looking down past the rail to the propellers, the falling people and, eventually, the water that was especially impressive.

For me, though, it wasn't the 3D that especially drove me to the cinema to see it, though I enjoyed it and was curious about it - it was simply the chance to see the film on the big screen again. Titanic is a truly cinematic film and, as much as I love my well-worn DVD (replacing an even-more-worn VHS tape) it just can't compare to the cinema. The sound is something I'd forgotten about over the years - I don't have surround sound at home and the sheer immersiveness of hearing the ship creak and groan around you in the cinema is fantastic. The huge size of the ship is that much more impressive on the big screen and once it starts sinking, you become totally captivated in a way it's hard to replicate at home. Some of the individual shots, particularly of people drowning as the glass ceiling at the grand staircase crashes in, that I've become so used to from basically memorising the entire film over the years, regained a power and effectiveness they don't have in my living room. And when it's dark and you're wearing 3D glasses, it's harder for people to see you bawling like a baby at the screen.

They should really hire me to make those anti-piracy adverts for the wonder of cinema they keep showing before every film, huh?!

Anyway, the, ahem 'reason' (for which read, 'excuse') for blogging this film comes from the music the band play while the ship is sinking. Not 'Nearer My God To Thee,' which Brother reliably informs me is the wrong tune in this film (they play the American melody for the hymn, not the British one, which is featured in A Night to Remember and in our grandmother's old hymnal from the 1920s or 1930s). Earlier on in the film, while the boats are being loaded, the band play more upbeat music, to keep themselves warm and try to lighten the mood. One member wonders if anyone's listening and their leader, Wallace Hartley, encourages them to keep playing anyway. He tells them what to play next - 'Orpheus'.

The full title of the work this music comes from is 'Orpheus in the Underworld', by J. Offenbach, an operetta (which is, um a short opera. I think. Brother is currently unavailable to ask!). I'm not familiar with the operetta, though a quick glance at Wikipedia makes it look fascinating (there's a character called Public Opinion, and Orpheus and Eurydice hate each other). This specific section, 'the Gallop', is better known as the music for the can-can, and is lively, upbeat and cheerful, as all the music the band played except the last hymn was, to keep people's spirits up. There's a reason, though, that Cameron chooses this piece of music to be named by Hartley in the film, to draw attention to this piece among all the others (even 'Nearer My God To Thee' doesn't get name-checked, though perhaps it was thought to be famous enough anyway). And that reason is, of course, the myth of Orpheus.

I don't think the plot of the operetta is relevant here. The music is famous and the myth is famous but the specific plot of the operetta is not, so I don't think we need to worry about that too much. This is a clear reference to the broad outline of the myth of Orpheus, who goes down into the underworld to save his wife, but fails at the last hurdle. As well as being appropriate to the moment it occurs in the film (referred to as 'music to drown by' by Tommy Ryan as our heroes rush past the band) this has obvious thematic similarities with the overall story. Going down to the depths to retrieve someone you love, or pulling someone back from death, happens so often in this film it's almost a motif. When Jack and Rose meet, she is about to plunge down to the underworld, but he pulls her back. During the earlier part of the sinking, Rose descends into the bowels of the ship to retrieve Jack (though she will ultimately be unable to save him). Even Cal walks away from a boat and assured survival to go and get Rose, though possibly with slightly different motivations, and he dooms his valet rather than himself by doing so. And Rose is finally saved by the one man who comes back into the realm of the dead, surrounded by floating bodies, to pull her out and take her back to the living. The attention drawn to the fact that the music the band is playing was written for the story of Orpheus is not just a one-off joke, but a statement about one of the main themes of the film.

If you've never seen Titanic, give it a go while it's back in cinemas. OK, I'll admit, it's rather long (I went to the bathroom during Cal and Rose's fight, Brother during the discussion of lifeboat numbers shortly afterwards - just don't miss the soppy but iconic 'flying scene' right after that!). And it's deeply, melodramatically, romantic, and despite the film-makers best efforts, peppered with historical inaccuracies like the tune of 'Nearer My God To Thee', deliberate practical inaccuracies like the use of electric torches and dubious bits of artistic licence like the death of First Officer Murdoch (which Cameron actually said on the DVD commentary he slightly regrets, due to the hurt caused to Murdoch's family). And I was obsessed with A Night to Remember as a child, so maybe I just have a strange, morbid fascination with sinking ships and icebergs. But whatever you think of the film, it can't be denied that in the late '90s it was a cultural phenomenon and is therefore of some concern to anyone with an interest in popular culture, and you never know - you might be pleasantly surprised!

More film reviews


  1. I will confess to actually liking this film, too! I never really did understand why some people hate it so much. It's romantic and tragic (in a grand, wonderful, doomed, Cyrano de Bergerac way), has a very nice sex scene (with a very nice Kate Winslet), fabulous special effects, and -- and here I'm really going to catch it -- a lovely, sad song by, yes, Celine Dion (I am neither a fan nor a hater of Celine Dion, but, honestly, how can one not like this song?).

    I also never figured out what people had against Leonardo on this one. Or in general, really. I always thought he did a decent job. And he's cute, so I don't know why women would be embarrassed to admit it.

    And, yes, I count 2am as the next day. What on earth else would it be?

  2. For me, my dislike of DiCaprio stems from the fact that he'd been in an awful adaptation of Romeo and Juliet the year before, which I absolutely despised (first rule of adapting Shakespeare: respect the words of the Bard. That film came off as a drug fuelled MTV video). I did like the film overall, largely because of the performances of Kate Winslet and a good number of the supporting cast, the production values, and the meticulous way the sinking was carried out.

    Good review, and while I do know the Orpheus story from mythology and remember that line, I hadn't really thought more beyond it of the way it sub-texted that moment in the film.

  3. I like the song too! Perhaps the 2am thing is just me then - to me, 2am still belongs to the previous day, as if you're seeing it, you probably haven't been to bed yet...

    William I have to disagree on Romeo + Juliet I'm afraid, I love that film. It was a great, frenetic, emotional adaptation (with original Shakespearean dialogue, so the words haven't gone anywhere). Titanic does have a great cast in general, Kathy Bates as Molly Brown is perfect casting!

  4. For me the real gem among the supporting performances is Victor Garber as Thomas Andrews.

  5. He's great too - though ever so slightly in the shadow of Michael Goodliffe in A Night to Remember. But my family are from Co Down so I appreciated Garber's very decent rendition of the accent!

  6. Watching the TV version of Titanic I suddenly realised how well the film had done purely from a storytelling point of view. It's not an easy tale to tell and Cameron did it. Now off to see it in 3-D!

  7. Hope you enjoy it! I think the 3D actually was worth it this time, to an extent

  8. I'm a huge Voyager fan (well, apart from one or two episodes). I enjoyed Titanic but won't be rushing out to see it again, 3D or no 3D. Only recently some friends missed their flight because they didn't think of 12:30 am as early in the morning rather than late at night.

  9. Oh dear! At least I know it's not just me...


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