EMPIRE ESSAY: Titanic Review

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In his search for a blue diamond once owned by Louis XVI that was believed to have gone down with the Titanic, Brock Lovett discovers an intriguing sketch of a beautiful woman wearing the diamond on her neck. When the sketch appears on a news program, an old lady steps forward, claiming to be the woman in the drawing. She then recounts a beautiful story that took place on the ill-fated ship, a story of love that knew no boundaries.


For your consideration: a couple of stories regarding directors, budgets and Hollywood executives. On the set of one of his productions, Alfred Hitchcock was confronted by a studio exec panicked by spiralling costs. "What are you going to do about this?" he demanded of the director. Hitch turned to the upstart and said, "I shall do whatever is necessary to make what, in the due course of time, you will come to refer to as our film."

A good three decades later, on the set of one of his larger productions, James Cameron was approached by a similarly anxious suit who asked pretty much the same thing. Cameron turned to the upstart — and shouting, "shut the fuck up" promptly attempted to asphyxiate him. Different reactions maybe, but to the same problem. Huge productions attract the attention of first the money men desperate to slash scenes, but shortly after that, the press. Knives are drawn, the dreaded words "troubled production" raise their ugly heads and, when it comes to release time the movie has to battle against a positive lynch-mob of hacks out baying for blood.

Had he had the decency to deliver the expected flop, to play to the critics' and industry-watchers lust for a truckload of hubris dumped over a director playing fast and loose with hundreds of millions of dollars, then the reviews might have read differently.
Titanic wears its flaws as boldly as it does its abundant strengths. Sure, the dialogue is often nearer to teen soap than Merchant Ivory (leading Beverly Hills 90210er Jason Priestley to remark that the verbiage was so dire that, "I half expected myself to walk through the door.") James Horner's score often lists towards faux Celtic parpings and all Billy Zane needs to complete his personification of silent-movie villainy is a top hat and a waxed moustache to twirl. But then, ironically, Titanic was never meant to be a "deep" film. It is, however, like the ship itself, a bloody big one.

At heart Cameron is a kind of celluloid engineer; his films habitually act as showrooms for the latest technology (and thus his keen interest in the cutting-edge maritime engineering — witness the loving shots of the ship's engine room: no character ever goes there and the hugely expensive sequence was an obvious candidate for cutting, but Cameron just couldn't sacrifice the pounding pistons) and his screenplays are masterpieces of structure rather than style. Titanic is no exception, masterfully employing match-dissolves backwards and forward from the salvage operation to the sumptuously designed sets of the ship herself and thus engrossing an audience whose previous dramatic stamina had probably been 50 odd minutes of Dawson's Creek. Equally Cameron turns what could have been a major flaw (notwithstanding current educational standards, even the thickest teen is dimly aware that the ship sinks) into a strength, teasing the audience for over an hour and a half, and losing some in the romance, before the iceberg actually hits, and sacrificing no opportunity to ratchet up the sense of grim inevitability.

The casting of DiCaprio was visionary. At the time the studio had demanded Matthew McConaughey but Cameron, who had seen early cuts of Romeo + Juliet, shrewdly saw a matinee idol in the making, and resisted his star's attempts to deepen the character — Leo apparently at one point demanding a lisp or a limp or something to engage his acting gears. Cameron though realised that it wasn't Leo being anyone else that was going to have women swooning, it was Leo being Leo. And then there is the sinking...

There simply is not, and never has been, any filmmaker who can direct prolonged dramatic action with such exuberant flair. Unlike his imitators, Cameron never loses sight of character in the midst of spectacle; thus a sustained action sequence of well over an hour doesn't even approach longeur. The traditional directors' nemesis, water, is literally putty in his hands. As in The Abyss (1989), he turns it into a living, almost breathing monster. It crashes through corridors, seeps through doorways, gushes up stairwells, and in one of the movie's best shots, trickles along the floor like the mildly inconvenient product of an overflowing bathtub. And the money shot, of Jack and Rose perched on the upended stern as passengers plunge into the boiling brine is as spectacular as anything in action cinema.

Titanic may have left many of the jaded critics unimpressed, but there's a fair chance that if, in a decade or so's time you ask the generation then producing, directing or hacking out reviews what turned them on to movies in the first place, more than a few will answer "Titanic." And only a very few directors who leave a legacy like that.

It should be no surprise then that it became fashionable to bash James Cameron's Titanic at approximately the same time it became clear that this was the planet's favourite film. Ever. Them's the facts.