Tuesday, July 17, 2012

James Cameron Roundtable #8: Titanic

Individual reviews are useful, but film criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of G-Blatt’s Dreams, and we’ve got some things to say in the James Cameron Roundtable.
Max’s Grade: 87 (A-)

Loren’s Grade: A-

Max O’Connell: Titanic. The film that made all of the money.

Loren Greenblatt: Which is a good thing, because it cost all of the money.

MO: At this point, it’s the third time Cameron made the most expensive film ever made (Avatar almost made it the fourth, but the record holder is, for some reason, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Everyone knows about Titanic, but here’s some background. Cameron wasn’t that interested in making a film about the sinking of the Titanic at first. He wanted to make an underwater documentary about the ship, which he eventually did with Ghosts of the Abyss. He funded his journey by calling it “research” for a dramatic film. Now if there’s one thing you have to respect about Cameron is his ability to make his pet interests into films. The way he took his fascination with underwater stuff and made The Abyss, the way he took his fascination with shipwrecks and made Titanic, his desire to push the boundaries of technology and make Avatar…

LG: It can’t have been an easy film for him to pitch. I imagine it going something like this: “It’s a period piece, it costs $200 million, it’s 3 hours long, there’s no laser explosions, and there’s no sequel.”

MO: It was a gutsy move, and everyone thought it was going to fail. Had it not been the smashing success it was, it would have ruined his career and probably taken down a studio.

LG: $200 million is a lot of money for a movie now, and this is 15 years ago. And it wasn’t the original budget. This thing went over budget and over schedule.

MO: This was a hard shoot. Kate Winslet almost quit after she got pneumonia from shooting in the water. She chipped her elbow and later said that while Cameron is a nice man in the day-to-day
life, he’s a monster on set and he’ll never work with him again. Leonardo DiCaprio threw out his shoulder. There were a number of injuries.

LG: We joked that Ed Harris got a call from Cameron and hung up immediately, considering that he nearly drowned on The Abyss.

MO: You can see the influence Cameron had in making this film: earlier in the decade, Spielberg made a full shift into “serious” filmmaker with Schindler’s List: everyone thought the film would fail and that the E.T. guy wouldn’t be able to make a serious film about the Holocaust, and he proved them all wrong. He finally got the Oscar, but not for one of his blockbusters. Then Robert Zemeckis followed him with Forrest Gump, which he won the Oscar for rather than for something like Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (for the record: I love Schindler’s List, hate Forrest Gump). Cameron should have won the Oscar for directing Terminator 2, but they don’t give Oscars for directing Terminator 2. He instead got it for Titanic. In terms of craftsmanship, though, this is about as stunning as movies get in the 90s. It is also a melodrama in the classic sense: you can see the influences of a romantic melodrama like Gone with the Wind, or something D.W. Griffith might have done.

LG: Basically, the story of the sinking of the H.M.S. Titanic is filtered through the romantic story of two passengers: Rose (Kate Winslet), an upper-class woman about to be married to an evil Billy Zane, who basically plays Snidely Whiplash (they call him “Cal” for some reason)…

MO: And they have the great British character-actor David Warner as his own Muttley, no less.

LG: Rose is very sad because she doesn’t want to marry this bastard, and she’s about to kill herself, but she’s saved by Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), a dreamy, dirt-poor artist (though the fantastic drawings were actually sketched by Cameron) who won a ticket on the Titanic.

MO: Plus there’s a framing device in modern day with Bill Paxton basically as a James Cameron surrogate searching for a blue diamond called “The Heart of the Ocean”  (no coincidence!) in the sunken Titanic, and an elderly Rose (Gloria Stuart) might have information because the naked woman in the drawing they find is a younger version of her, and she narrates the movie.

LG: It’s a flashback told from her point of view, even the scenes she wasn’t there for. Eh, it’s a movie. Go with it.

MO: I’ll get ahead of myself, though...Kate Winslet’s Best Actress nomination at the Oscars? Deserved. Stuart’s Supporting Actress nomination? A bit absurd. She’s fine…it’s a tiny role.

LG: She’s a little flat sometimes.

MO: It’s a little maudlin, and she got nominated because she’s an 86-year-old or whatever she was (she lived to be 100 before she died) and she finally got noticed. That DiCaprio didn’t get nominated and she did is ridiculous.

LG: We won’t begrudge her, though. But the two fall in love, it’s a star-crossed romance…it plays out about as you’d expect. I always had a theory that once you passed a certain minute-mark in your running time, you really had to earn that length was narrative density. I forged this theory while watching Goodfellas and Casino over and over again, and you can see someone like Paul Thomas Anderson learning from Scorsese with his movies Boogie Nights and Magnolia. This doesn’t hold up to that theory, but if everyone here was a three-dimensional character it’d be eight hours long.

MO: To be fair, it’s a melodrama. It’s following melodrama conventions with the two great-looking leads from opposite sides of the tracks, the comically evil villain, the rich people who don’t care about the poor, the poor people are…stereotypes, though they’re not as bad as they could be.

LG: DiCaprio has a sidekick we’re told is named Fabrizio, but with his stereotypical Italian-ness we called him, at alternate points, “Meatball”, “Spaghetti”, “Pepé”, and “Chef Boyardee”. “Oh, we’re on the ship-a!. I-a hope it’s okay!”

MO: To Cameron’s credit, it’s not mean-spirited. It’s not a Lucas stereotype.

LG: It’s silly, but not offensive. He basically talks like Mario from Super Mario Bros. I kept waiting for him to step on a goomba. The rich folk aren’t too much better: they wear monocles and eat caviar and drink brandy with their cigars. They talk about the poor and Rockefeller and their tax investments and OH MY!

MO: They’re effective melodrama villains. Billy Zane is pretty fun as Cal/Snidely Whiplash. Rose’s nasty mother isn’t a terribly complicated character, but she does her part just fine. The likable rich people are all played by great character actors (Victor Garber as the architect, the captain, Kathy Bates as Molly Brown).

LG: It’s effective enough. DiCaprio and Winslet are the hook of the film. They have all the chemistry in the world together. They could have been dull stereotypes who are totally vapid and empty.

MO: But the appeal of two great actors doing an old story very well is fantastic. It doesn’t hurt that DiCaprio is incredibly charismatic and charming as Jack and Winslet looks like an Old Hollywood beauty and has that kind of gravity.

LG: They are gorgeous together. One of the things I found curious, though, is Cameron’s dialogue. Because it’s a period piece so he can’t have the ultra-modern one liners…though I noticed Jack has a weird tendency to quote Bob Dylan songs well before they were written.

MO: It’s a bit much. That and the rich not knowing who Freud is or thinking Picasso won’t amount to anything is a bit much.

LG: It’s that scene in Blazing Saddles where the guy goes on about Marie Curie to comically establish period.

MO: But there are some good lines. Bill Paxton and Gloria Stuart’s “I’ll be goddamned” bit is fun. “I’m the king of the world” is rightfully iconic. The romance dialogue is pretty banal, but it’s effective enough, and it’s an old-fashioned melodrama anyway. Go with it, it works. “I’ll never let go” is pretty great as well.

LG: There’s some bad ones as well. “A woman’s heart is an ocean of secrets” is terrible.

MO: Cameron can be awful. But he has some great presences to sell a lot of lines. Now, this film doesn’t have the thematic depth of Cameron’s earlier films.

LG: Nor is the world as deeply thought out. He did a lot of research, and the sinking of the ship in the second half of the film is amazing and filled with some real incidents we know from the survivors. Thematically, it has an interesting pattern. Cameron’s early films have strong women that break through the roles that male-dominated society has picked for them. True Lies and Titanic have women who are forced to navigate male dominated society’s expectations of them. It’s a huge shift in how Cameron depicts women. It’s for worse in True Lies, it works fine in Titanic, but it’s a shift.

MO: Here’s where we’re going to disagree.  I’d argue Titanic is a feminist movie.

LG: I’m not saying it isn’t.

MO: It’s a shift in the pattern, but it’s effective at showing a woman forced to navigate society in a similar way to how Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver were marginalized in the worlds of Aliens and Terminator 2. She does find her independence (through love, but whatever), and she breaks free of societal expectations. It’s similar to the old women’s pictures of Old Hollywood like Gone with the Wind or Stella Dallas. The use of class struggle in this, meanwhile, isn’t terribly deep. It isn’t a Leoné or Coppola movie.

LG: It’s basic movie stuff where the mother forbids the daughter from seeing the cute poor boy, which never works ever. It’s an incentive.

MO: It’s corny, but kind of endearing.

LG: It’s rarely groan-inducing.

MO: What the film lacks in depth, it makes up for in craftsmanship. All of the money is on the screen. He manages to show how technology is both spectacular and limited, and we see how that shows up here. We have a great sense of how the Titanic works, and how it moves, and how its limitations will lead to its undoing. When everything goes to hell, we’ve been given a fair chance to see what’s going to happen.

LG: He does a good job of walking us through how it’s going to go down early in the film with a simulation on a computer graphics walkthrough in the framing device. We know what’s happening, so it’s not just a bunch of stuff that happens when the ship starts sinking. It’s all very well thought out, and Cameron’s a master at set-pieces. The special effects are extraordinary: it feels as if he actually rebuilt and re-sank the Titanic.

MO: And the design is fantastic. It feels like they got the dishes and cabinets and staircases just right on the ship. The details on the actor’s bodies are honestly pretty great as well, like when they sweat during the sex scene or turn pale when they’re in the freezing water. It’s meticulous in a classic Cameron sense.

LG: When you’re given all the money in the world, you better pay attention to what you’re doing. There are some harrowing sequences when the lifeboats go back for bodies. There’s a woman and her infant who are frozen together. It reminded me of how the three-hour-long blockbuster thing has been continued by Peter Jackson. Cameron was absent from films for a long time after this movie, and Jackson’s attention to detail and ability to work on a large scale is similar to Cameron’s. The Lord of the Rings takes a lot of cues from Titanic in pacing out three hours.

MO: Without a doubt. And Cameron’s slow-motion, while sparingly used, is very effective.

LG: He uses it a little differently, though. The slow-motion pans are very effective in the “rich people acting rich while Kate Winslet is disaffected” scenes.

MO: And, as always, his use of contrasting shadows with shafts of light is fantastic. The film has that hard-edged blue is still here. His use of blue-collar characters never feels pandering the way Michael Bay’s films always feel. Bay’s Pearl Harbor (Bay’s worst film) is the film Titanic was attacked for being. It’s pandering where Cameron’s populist instincts are completely in earnest.

LG: Well that film is basically trying to be Titanic.

MO: Titanic’s backlash has been mostly unfair. Some of it is understandable: it was inescapable, and the Celine Dion song is intolerable.

LG: We turned off “My Heart Will Go On”. We weren’t having that.

MO: It’s easy to see why there was a backlash, but the criticisms for it being melodramatic and being about star-crossed lovers rather than the big tragedy kind of shows them missing the point. Cameron earns what Bay does not.

LG: It’s a marvelously made film. I can understand some of the “made up love story against a real tragedy” criticism, but there’s not a cynical bone in this film, which is part of why all the cheesy stuff works. Cameron means every sentence of it.

MO: When the craftsmanship is this good (the sinking ship puts The Abyss to shame), and the sinking of the ship is another one of his great timetables.

LG: Cameron’s use of ticking time-bombs in his third acts of his films are always great. It’s a very effective screenwriting move that makes almost any film more involving.

MO: There are just so many great sequences here. I love the montage with the classical violin piece that everyone seems to remember. The string quartet plays a mournful piece together as we see everyone on the ship realize that they’re going to die. It’s heartbreaking.

LG: It got a little dusty. And then Pepe came back…

MO: But I felt bad for Fabrizio! I really did!

LG: He’ll never get to invent Chef Boyardee.

MO: People complain about that Celine Dion song all the time, and with reason. It’s maudlin and corny. Cameron was opposed to it until James Horner and Celine Dion recorded it anyway, and he ended up liking it.

LG: Why is unclear. Though the song incorporates the melody from the score very well.

MO: The score itself is phenomenal.

LG: Horner did an excellent job, though it does have the unfortunate effect of making you think that song is going to start every five minutes.

MO: I don’t hate “My Heart Will Go On” the same way I hate the Avatar song, though.

LG: When we saw Avatar at the IMAX and the song started, I swear I’ve never seen a room clear that fast.

MO: This song at least has that melody. I think it’s inevitable that we talk about the film’s Oscar success. It had 14 nominations (tying the record held by All About Eve) and 11 wins (tying the record held by Ben-Hur, later equaled by The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Most of the nominations were deserved: I hate the song, Stuart for Supporting Actress was undeserved, DiCaprio got snubbed for actor. But all of the technical awards were deserved, the score is great, Winslet is great, and honestly, I wouldn’t begrudge the film Best Picture, even if it did beat L.A. Confidential. I certainly wouldn’t begrudge Cameron Best Director, this is astounding moviemaking through and through.

LG: What else was nominated?

MO: L.A. Confidential was the best of the bunch, followed probably by Titanic. Good Will Hunting most people like a lot more than I do. As Good As It Gets goes back and forth between being enjoyable, sickly sweet, and unbearably smug. The Full Monty I haven’t seen…

LG: It’s a sweet film, you should check it out.

MO: There were better films that should have been nominated: Boogie Nights, The Sweet Hereafter, The Ice Storm, Jackie Brown. But Titanic’s win isn’t the catastrophe people make it out to be.

LG: No, there’s been much worse…

MO: Forrest Gump, Dances with Wolves, Braveheart, A Beautiful Mind, Crash…but the Oscars don’t matter. No matter the film’s flaws (and it certainly has some), it’s a very affecting film and a very strong piece of craftsmanship, and it’s about as good as modern melodramas get.

LG: I really like this film. Much more than I thought I was going to. I give it an A-.

MO: Same here. It’s his best film outside the big three (The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2).

LG: You forgot about Piranha II, Max.

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