So The Onion headline wryly read, “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-Berg.” Agreed. As Kate Winslet’s own Freud-referencing character snips, Titanic is epic cinema’s grandest erection, and when James Cameron’s near-scale model set of the towering hulk of steel that was, at the time, the largest ship in the world severs down the middle, it then becomes the most vulgar representation of castration to ever cause millions of heartwarmed teenage girls to choke sobs into their fists. It’s a ready-made sarcophagus for everything that’s vulgar in mainstream cinema. Titanic both embodies and validates the excess that is its own subject. And it’s arguably the most artlessly touching disaster movie of all. No, really. Time and a number of equally irony-free blockbusters in the interim (including Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and the entire Lord of the Rings weep-cycle) have dulled its impact somewhat, but Titanic was Cameron’s strike against technophiliac hyper-masculinity in adventure features and a splashing, pre-millennial introduction to a premonitory brand of earnest, new-age spectacle.
It’s as perverse as it is completely guileless; it’s Cameron stripping off his boxers, winning the $200 million bet he placed on the incomparable, record-setting size of his own plumbing, and then slicing off the jewels at the nub to let them sink to the bottom of the ocean, just because he’s that much a stud…but sensitive. Jocks, who had spent the previous decade slapping each other on their backs and paying lip service to Cameron’s brand of “feminism” (i.e. forcing Linda Hamilton and Sigourney Weaver to suck it up and learn how to do chin-ups) suddenly went apeshit at the perceived sellout found within Winslet’s gorgeously-curved, indolently feminine form, to say nothing of Leonardo DiCaprio’s own willowy dimensions. (Apparently, a single girl spitting a loog in a cad’s face doesn’t quite hold the same psychosexual, xy appeal as a sweaty Amazon ripping an android in two while protecting her surrogate child.) Ludicrously, they turned Affleck-Damon’s shallow, self-absorbed Good Will Hunting into the dude movie of the moment, proving that there are times when it’s alright for a guy to cry like a little bitch…preferably when women aren’t actually the ones who bring down their defenses. When I first saw Titanic, it was at an employee showing in the multiplex I worked at during my breaks from college. After the film finished, one of my hardass co-workers quipped, “That ship should’ve caught fire when it went down!” (Apparently, death by liquid doesn’t quite hold the same psychosexual, xy appeal to anyone who has never performed cunnilingus.)
Cameron’s corny screenplay rightly earned raspberries from even the film’s most ardent supporters, as though it even mattered. Even still, the wraparound structure invited grudging respect for clarifying the dispassionate physics of the ocean liner’s foundering. In other words, it gave everyone who couldn’t warm up to the film’s poop-deck love fantasy a dispassionate out. The more significant residue of the jewel-hunter storytime interludes is how, in their clumsy, irritating obviousness, they highlight Cameron’s vendetta against latter-day pop culture, his endorsement of naïveté. Surely that has to be the reason he plopped a Harry Knowles lookalike in a bullet-splattered happy-face T-shirt next to Bill Paxton, right? So his grotesque, bubbly-guzzling, “fuck”-shouting, hipster quip-spouting crudity could cast even the Snidley Whiplash-as-fop dastardliness of a queenly Billy Zane in a complimentary light? He may break every code of moral etiquette, but at least he respects the mores enough to realize he’s breaking them. In contrast, Paxton and his band of deep-sea pirates show no scruples about robbing a graveyard. (Neither, for that matter, does Cameron, who commissioned a series of similar dives—not necessarily to steal jewelry, but film footage.)
Titanic‘s class-conscious romantic leads were described by more than a few critics as representations of turn-of-the-century optimism, a concept pilfered from Walter Lord’s highly romanticized historical documentation of the disaster (in A Night to Remember and other books), only Lord’s ingénue was Titanic herself, the Promethean manifestation of the Industrial Age’s hubris, fresh out of the showroom and promptly felled by the same confidence that birthed her. In Cameron’s film, DiCaprio and Winslet play an unwitting role in the ship’s collision with the northern Atlantic iceberg, as their discreet midnight smooch session distracts the crow’s nest’s blue-balled lookouts. As though their brand of post-Victorian romance can only succeed with the sacrifice of the Gilded Age’s golden calf, they sex it up and bathe in post-coital glow as the ship plows toward its hemorrhaging finale. It’s something of an ingenuous revision of the standard disaster-movie tenet: that the cataclysms are, in some small metaphysical part, extensions of either the characters’ own subconscious social negligence or misanthropy. Here, fate. Maybe that’s to explain for Cameron’s decision to completely excise any mention of the notoriously unresponsive nearby Californian.
Which, of course, is where Cameron really gets turned on. The film’s second half is an unparalleled blitz of organized, systematic destruction, a Griffith-like montage of crosscutting effects sequences (farmed out to nearly every graphics house extant to varying results, some ridiculous, others jaw-dropping CGI-enhanced verité). The ingenuity of Cameron’s compassionate sadism is unrelenting—rivets and panels groaning like the foundation of the house in Poltergeist, mooring lines of the ships funnels snapping like lightening and picking off flailing bodies in the ocean, walls of water cascading through the gleaming white hallways of the lower decks and rushing underneath the beds of elderly couples too infirm to try to swim for it. Again like War of the Worlds, the brutal efficiency with which disaster is meted out (two words: propeller guy) is terrifying, relentless and, in the absence of the sort of grand themes—war, injustice—that usually “excuse” violence, oddly dignified. To call the film’s crème brûlée mise-en-scène pure or elemental is to invite the vitriolic label “simple-minded” of its contemporaneous backlash (roughly the moment it won 11 Oscars and Cameron demanded a moment of silence or, even worse, when the soft rock-guitar theme song won the Record of the Year Grammy a full year later). But that’s kind of the point.