Yesterday I paid for a ticket to see director James Cameron’s TITANIC in a theater for the 10th time. My cinematic-viewing record-holder is Madonna’s TRUTH OR DARE (15? 16 times?), a formative film in my coming-out process, for which I snuck out of the house on many a night during the summer of ’91 to drive downtown for the midnight screening at Austin’s Dobie Theater. Two very different films, but these multiple viewings were for the same reason: I loved how the movies made me feel while watching them.
This most recent TITANIC screening, 25 years after its initial release, was no different. But the world, and I, have changed so much in the intervening quarter of a century, my experience of the movie now was a revelation. I was 23 when TITANIC first hit screens, and the youthful love story at its center was understandably what held my focus; not so as a 48 year-old adult.
It’s impossible to overstate what a phenomenon this movie became in 1998 to anyone born after that date. TITANIC was the number-one grosser for 3 months running, earning around $30 million practically every weekend of that run. The media was saturated with all things TITANIC, to the point that my regular radio morning show hosts placed a moratorium on even saying the word, choosing instead to simply refer to it as “The Boat Movie.” It won, like, all the Oscars (except one for Best Actress nominee Kate Winslet, who got bested by Helen Hunt, the only bright spot in the otherwise unpleasant AS GOOD AS IT GETS).
In the midst of all this triumph, however, there was one Oscar for which TITANIC was conspicuously not nominated: Best Original Screenplay. Much of the dialogue has been snickered over in years hence, although I’ll take “I’d rather be his whore than your wife!” over anything that comes from the mouth of Greg Kinnear’s sniveling gay character in AS GOOD AS IT GETS, which was nominated in the category. (The ultimate winner was the Affleck/Damon collab GOOD WILL HUNTING, which, you know, sure, I guess?) After seeing TITANIC today, in the midst of our current national/global chaos and light years from the deceptively prosperous Clinton ‘90’s, I submit that writer Cameron wuz robbed. TITANIC’s screenplay speaks more truth about where western, capitalist culture was headed than we ever knew at the time. And not by accident: there are too many structural, verbal and visual cues in this movie for anyone to argue that Cameron didn’t know exactly what he was doing.
The 2nd half of TITANIC, in which all hell breaks loose for our first-class heroine Rose DeWitt Bukater (Winslet, lit like a Botticelli goddess) and her lower-decks paramour Jack Dawson (baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio) is normally my favorite part of the movie. You don’t get our emotional investment in that upheaval without the first half, but that always felt like Cameron’s usual expert table-setting to me rather than the main course. This time, the first half felt like a whole meal unto itself, as well as a microcosm of what we’re experiencing now: America’s mind-boggling level of financial and social inequality. What Cameron conveys through the collapse of the Titanic is that the center of our capitalism-gone-berserk culture will literally not hold, that the arrogance, selfishness and greed of those in power will ultimately bring the entire system crashing down. None of anyone’s efforts or accumulations will be worth a damn in the end, as all of us – the haves and the have nots alike – will be dragged under by this sinking ship. Religion won’t save us. Money won’t save us. Even a Darwinian concept like “survival of the fittest” won’t save us if all we can do is claw over each other to the top of a wreck that’s “unsinkable” in name only.
What Cameron illuminates – decades before the 2008 financial crash or the Covid pandemic – is the precariousness and fragility of America’s post-industrial economic construction. One unexpected iceberg, and it goes all to hell, never to truly recover; we just become more stratified, more unequal, more self-centered, more divided. There is no saving a broken, foundationally corrupt system, and based on current evidence – our choice of “leaders;” our echo-chamber ideas of community; our narrow, exclusionary definitions of what it means to be American – we seem willingly complicit in our own destruction. There is nothing, Cameron posits, that can change the outcome. This boat will inevitably sink, even as the people who most benefit from the inequality on board order a brandy and try to buy their way onto a lifeboat. Immigrants, laborers and the poor will always be the first to suffer, but everyone’s goin’ down.
Upon its initial release, I recall many comparisons between TITANIC and GONE WITH THE WIND, not just for its massive popularity, grandness of production, and Oscar haul, but also as a hindsight-driven historical epic. Turns out TITANIC is, in reality, the exact opposite of GWTW in spite of any superficial similarity. GWTW is a movie I watched over and over again as a kid, and I gotta say, I was completely clueless to just how racist the film actually is (I know, duh); calling it merely “problematic” seems a laughable hedge. Scarlett O’Hara, like Rose DeWitt Bukater, is a meaty character with an active arc that allows a world-class actress to make constant real-time choices about what she’s going to do with the options presented her. And that’s the best I can say about it today. GWTW bemoans the loss of an era that only served wealthy, white landowners, while TITANIC expresses nothing but contempt for what Rose is willing to die to escape: an exploitative, sexist, rigidly class-conscious society that locks the gates on upward mobility and lets its dogs shit all over spaces belonging to the other 99%. GWTW romanticizes the past; TITANIC is more forward-thinking than I ever recognized or understood.
Is there any hope here at all? Not for the collective, Cameron says with total confidence. The only rescue available here is on an individual level. Rose tells Jack that it’s not up to him to save her, and he agrees: only she can do that (and she does). But if our mercenary-capitalist way of life is ultimately doomed, no matter the deck on which you reside, what’s the point of living? Well, Rose shows us. Examine the photographs of her post-Titanic life that Rose can’t travel without: she was an actress; she flew airplanes; she created a loving family; she was an artist; she rode horses on the beach and the rollercoaster at the Santa Monica pier, just like she told Jack she would; at 101, she still wears hippie jewelry and paints her toenails bright red. Everyone and everything in the world she knew died, but Rose lived. She didn’t waste a second of her time on meaningless bullshit or what a “well brought-up girl” was supposed to do. I used to find it a bit silly that Rose showed up on Bill Paxton’s research vessel just so she could drop that massive diamond into the drink. But now, I understand, as Rose did, that the Heart of the Ocean, along with everything else valued by a materialistic, oppressive, unfair, self-destructive system, belongs at the bottom of the sea.
So, yes, Rose did let go. Of all the stuff she was taught that never made her or anyone else happy, so she could embrace a life she could never imagine before the R.M.S. Titanic fell apart at the seams. At some point, each of us will have to confront the idea that our spiritual survival demands we do the same.