Jieun and I watched Titanic on 3-D IMAX over the weekend. It was awesome. I’m still thinking about the movie now, days later. A lot of people make fun of me for liking Titanic. I don’t get it. I mean, I do get it – the movie has some cringeworthy dialog and overdrawn characters. But really, there are only 10 lines in the whole movie and 2 characters that suck. And those criticisms overlook the movie as a whole, which is really a great – even genius – movie. You also can’t deny that Titanic tapped into something almost universally – when it was released, it became the all-time highest grossing movie in virtually every country in the world. Even the 3D re-release has been nuts – it’s grossed $200 million in two weeks, including a crazy, record-breaking $58 million debut in China. Titanic hits something universal in people, and I’ll make the bold claim that if you don’t understand Titanic’s appeal, you don’t understand people.
Anyway. I don’t much care what other people think – to me it’s an all-time great movie. And in my opinion, it’s a movie that has to be seen in theaters. What makes the movie brilliant is that it takes a story most people vaguely know about, and gives it humanity and scale. The explorers in the beginning are stand-ins for us: we can clinically dissect the events and not have a clue about what happened. Rose’s story gives it a face and scope. Seeing it in the theater magnifies the scope (on IMAX, even more so). The movie’s pretty diminished without that. I remember watching it with Esther Ch7n and the rest of our OEX team in China during the summer of ’98 on VCD. It was her first time seeing it and she thought it sucked, and it did. On a small, crappy quality TV, there was no scope, just the clunky love story, which isn’t compelling on TV. It’s a different movie in the theaters. I had just seen the end recently on TV, but on a huge screen, it’s different. Moving. The 3D was surprisingly good. For the most part, it was pretty subtle, not showy or annoying, just used to add depth, which adds to the feeling of scale. Not mind-blowing though. Seeing it on IMAX was a bigger deal than the 3D. But yeah, for me there’s something powerful about seeing it on the big screen.
As for why I love the movie – it’s kind of captured by the scene where the band starts playing Nearer My God To Thee and it goes to a montage of different people facing imminent death in different ways. I love that. This may sound odd, but I love Titanic for the same reason I like Survivor. People criticize Survivor for not being “real”. I disagree. The situation is entirely contrived and artificial. But within that, the human reactions are real. I’d actually argue that the more extreme a situation gets, the more real the people become. You strip away all the artifice and are left with humanity. On Survivor, it doesn’t matter what your job is in the real world – you’re all on equal footing and have to prove yourself by what you do. How you react to the conditions, people, and competition in that extreme environment reveals a lot of who you really are. That’s what I like, not the setup, which is fake, but the reaction, which is to me, more honest and real than normal life.
And there’s no extreme greater than the prospect of imminent death. Once you have that, everything else is cast aside; there’s no class, there’s no status, no wealth (as that one guy says to Cal, “your money can’t save you any more than it can save me”), just humanity. And it’s fascinating to me how people deal with that.
I like how Titanic explores that. Some accept their fate heroically. Some scramble to survive every minute they can. Some screw others, some sacrifice themselves, some throw all their morals out the window, some find themselves disturbed at what they’ve done. It’s fascinating. There are a few shots I especially like. Captain Smith retreating to the helm when someone asks him what to do and the shock of his responsibility hits him. Fabrizio taking the life jacket off of Ryan’s dead body, how in time of desperation, there’s no time for respect, just survival. The crewman shooting himself. The couple in bed accepting death together. The mother telling a story to her children as they’re about to die.
Honestly, it made me think a lot about 9/11, as everyone in the towers faced a similar choice. I find myself wondering what they were thinking then, as they realized that death was near. Especially those who jumped, what their thoughts were when they decided to do that. I also wonder what I would do in that situation. I really have no idea.
This gets to one of my life beliefs. Most of how we live isn’t “real”. Our status, our positions, our wealth, our class, all that stuff. It’s just artifice. A game, almost. Game Of Thrones had a great exchange related to that in the last episode:
Varys: 3 great men sit in a room. A king, a priest, and a rich man. Between them stands a common sellsword. Each great man bids the sellsword kill the other 2. Who lives, who dies?
Tyrion: Depends on the sellsword.
Varys: Does it? He has neither crown, nor gold, nor favor with the gods.
Tyrion: He has a sword, the power of life and death!
Varys: But if it’s swordsmen who rule, why do we pretend kings hold all the power? When Ned Stark lost his head, who was truly responsible? Joffrey, the executioner, or something else?
Tyrion: I’ve decided I don’t like riddles.
Varys: Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick. A shadow on the wall.
Fascinating discussion that’s worth thinking about, and so true. Power is an illusion, a trick. So, really, is wealth. None of it is real; it’s only real as long as people agree to make it real. In times of desperation, it vanishes. None of it is fundamental to who you are. To me, what is real is who you are, what matters to you when you’re pushed to the extreme, especially when you’re faced with the realization that you will die. And the thing is, we will all die. So how will we deal with that? We spend so much time in life worrying about the artifice. So anything that examines the fundamental, how we act when that’s all stripped away, be it death or extreme circumstances, I find that really interesting. And that’s why I love Titanic.
2 other notes about watching the movie, both related to watching it now versus in ’97. Even back then, I didn’t find the love story super compelling. However, I did find the emotion behind it compelling, of wanting to find a love so desperate that you’re willing to risk death for it. Back then, it was all theoretical, and I remember hoping that I’d someday feel love that extremely, that desperately. It’s different watching the movie now that I’m married, now that I have someone I’d risk death for. I can’t resonate with the desperation anymore. But as romantic as the notion is, I don’t miss it. I feel more peace now.
The other thing is, back then, I only thought about what I would do to survive. This time, I could only think about my kids, and every scene involving a kid was heart-wrenching. Also an interesting perspective-shift.
Anyway, Titanic. Big fan.