A Titanic Question

The Titanic re-release in 3D for the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking may have been seen as a money grab for either 20th Century Fox or possibly James Cameron; which it may have been, despite the fact that Cameron, according to IMDB, forfeited his director’s salary and share in the gross to get the extra money needed to finish the film. But the film is a modern classic with amazingly cheesy yet famous one-liners, a thrilling story behind a dramatic love story, all set in an extremely sad historical event.

My fascination with Titanic goes back to my early adolescence when I had a large Nat-Geo hardback picture book depicting Robert Ballard’s extraordinary 1985 recovery expedition. The dark green, ghost-like images of the sunken steam liner miles below the surface evoked some wild feelings in my 8-year-old body. I was so equally terrified and excited. I vividly remember a picture of a pair of boots sticking out from under a large door like the Wicked Witch’s feet, simply freaking me out and staring at them and wondering who wore them, what happened to his body on the way down?

I spent lots of time in the ocean growing up and would open my eyes to test my courage at times. I was always so afraid of the unknown depths and the creatures therein. The power of the sea is both a joy and a terror. It can push you to shore surfing with a stoked smile, or pull you helplessly in a rip tide with flailing arms. Imagining myself in frozen waters, with no land in sight and a thousand screaming people beside me in hysteria was not a pleasant thought. The 1500 people who died that day, many of whom are at the bottom of the ocean, cannot tell their story, so I had to imagine it for them.

Here they were, asleep in their cabins late on a peaceful Sunday night, and suddenly awoken by a deep shudder felt throughout the boat. The largest ship ever built, shamelessly provoking fate by calling it “unsinkable”, had just struck a large iceberg condemning many to inevitable death. In the middle of the desolate, expansive North Atlantic, a ship sat stalled, slowly acquiring the freezing waters into her belly. Many unaware passengers, thinking they were riding an invincible creation of man, failed to realize the seriousness of their predicament. Two hours after striking, Titanic was on its way down, leaving well over a thousand stranded in the icy waters struggling to survive.

The pictures and stories are so well known. We all know the tale. James Cameron just added a love story so that we could somehow place ourselves on that boat, in their shoes. The movie is actually quite accurate; several scenes were lifted right from the pages of history. The docks of Southampton, the first class dining room and quarters, the lifeboat almost crushing the other until cut away by a knife-wielding passenger, the musicians continuing to serenade, the first smokestack falling, and the splitting of the boat were all immortalized in stories or paintings from first hand accounts. Unfortunately, there is no record of the love story, but now we can imagine one.

I first saw the movie in 1997 with my high school girlfriend. It was made for high school lovers, because they hate people telling them who they can date or love. Rose’s mother telling her to marry up just so she wouldn’t have to work as a seamstress feels confining to a teenager, but it seems both selfish and smart to a 31 year old now. Sure, marry the bastard, he gave you heart of the ocean for God’s sake and he told you, “There is nothing I can’t give you and nothing I would deny you.” He seemed to care about you in an abstractly detached, rich guy way until you started bumping around the 3rd class quarters. But, alas, the heart wants what it wants and in Hollywood, things don’t have to make sense.

The movie also has some perfectly placed cheese beside wonderful bites of incisiveness. Leo standing astride the bow exclaiming to the dolphins, Fabrizio and the setting sun that he is, in fact, the king of the world, is pure cheesy Cheetos gold dust. When Jack and Rose escape the jerk searching for them and end up in an old-timey car, he asks her where she’d like to go, she replies, roasting with lust, “To the stars.” The hidden gold at the end of the pubescent rainbow certainly seems as unattainable as the stars sometimes.

Then, when Rose tells her mother that there are only enough lifeboats for half the people on the ship, and therefore, half of the passengers will die; Cal replies, “Not the better half.” To which we get the underrated gem of “You unimaginable bastard.” If you say it out loud, it feels pretty good. With blueprints out, and a full understanding of the damage to the hull, the ship’s designer tells the captain that sinking is, “a mathematical certainty.” Can you imagine hearing that 400 miles from land?

Titanic is perfectly cast, well acted and contains an understated musical score. 21-year-old Kate Winslet was such a delightfully posh red head whose generously proportionate curves were perfectly suited for nude prostrate portraits. Leonardo DiCaprio was the heartthrob and delivered with plenty of romance and seductive eyes to satisfy the ladies. Billy Zane was superb in his unimaginably bastard-like portrayal of selfish self-loathing. Frances Fisher as Ruth, playing the cold, isolated mother aiming to marry off her only offspring to continue her lavish lifestyle without consideration of her daughter’s changing desires. Many characters resembled the true-life persona, creating a realistic glimpse of the past on the big screen.

Whatever you have to say about liking it or hating it, you most certainly saw the movie. Sure, there may be better movies, but how many people have actually seen Citizen Kane or Casablanca? It was a cultural phenomenon and what I now believe to be a symbol of America upon re-watching.

This giant boat, the first of its kind, seemingly invincible and proclaimed by all to be a paradigm of quality for the world, brought down by hubris and misfortune. We see America in this boat. We see the classes, the myriad of backgrounds and races, and the dedicated workers. It’s a ship built after seeing how others were built and designing it to fix the flaws of others.

Thomas Andrews, designer, represents the Jefferson of Titanic, forced to watch the ruin of his creation. I can only imagine T.J. looking at America today, perhaps not thinking it ruined, but maybe unrecognizable from what he imagined. Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Lines, pushing the captain to go faster through icy waters just to make headlines as the fastest ship of the day, may be represented by todays Lobbyists. They are working against intelligence and safety for their own gain. Captain Smith, knowledgeable and experienced, represented by our presidents. They may begin with best intentions but are persuaded by a never-ending line of special interests pulling them in too many directions until they are forced to bend to the will of elections or congressional deadlocks. I may be jumping in a pile of sophistic thought here, but once we ask the what if’s, it makes a little sense.

What if Titanic had left a day earlier or later? What if they had not stopped to pick up more passengers in Cherbourg? What if the captain had been awake and on deck during the iceberg warning, or paid more attention to the warnings he received earlier? What if the crow’s nest had been provided with binoculars to assist iceberg spotting? What if the sea had been choppier providing eye-catching whitecaps against the giant icebergs? What if the Carpathia (rescue ship) had been closer? They are numerous but futile. Now, many years later, we can ask these questions with the clarity of hindsight. Centuries from now, what questions will we ask of the American generations?

What if we had changed Wall Street culture after the collapse of 2008? What if we had not begun two interminable and expensive wars in the space of 15 months? What if we had not fought in Vietnam or Korea or become surreptitiously involved in Iran, Chile, Mexico, or Afghanistan? What if we had not elected Bush or Obama or whomever? What if we had been more concerned with greenhouse gases? What if we had put more attention into alternative energy? What if we had not initiated trillions of dollars of debt to China and Japan? What if Manhattan, Miami and New Orleans had not been completely flooded from climate change’s rising seawater? Will the questions existing in the educated future be filled with the futility of our Titanic questions or will we see the advancing icebergs and steer away in time with our modern computers, intellect and acumen?