Found Footage: “Titanic”


Each week in Found Footage, Nico Lang plays the contrarian game with movies he liked or hated against the grain.

I have a weird relationship with James Cameron. In almost every interview I’ve ever seen with the man, I’ve had the overwhelming desire to punch him in the face for no reason. He’s like the adult Justin Bieber, someone so unctuously confident that the mere sight of them infuriates you. Remember that awkward speech at the Oscars when James Cameron proclaimed himself King of the World? Combine that with the information that Cameron only made Titanic to get the studio to fund a trip to the wreckage, so Cameron could make a documentary out of the trip. (Which he did.  It had a lot of bubbles in it.) Most people found this puckishly clever, but in an age where independent filmmakers struggle to fund films they actually want to make, the thought of Cameron making the most successful movie of all time because he could kills me. Think of what Darren Aronofsky could have done with those Titanic bucks when making The Fountain—like make a movie that wasn’t terrible—and tell me it doesn’t make you want to kill something.

And yet, like the sad dupe I am, I am not much better than the studio that lapped up Cameron’s big-budget tentpole spectacle, one that audiences have grown to widely dislike since initially grossing billions of dollars. When the film was re-released in 3D last year, box office prognosticators expected that it would gross over $100 million and that it might pass Avatar to become (yet again) the highest-grossing domestic film of all time, in current U.S. dollars. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen, and pundits blamed the slew of re-releases in theatres over the past few years, as audiences have grown weary with the onslaught of 3D conversions. With Finding Nemo’s recent underperformance, that makes sense, because you’re serving audiences a dish they just had ten years ago. It’s The Amazing Spider-Man problem all over again: who wants to pay for the same thing twice?

The backlash against Titanic is to be expected considering its box office and Oscar pedigree, winning a still-record-tying 11 Academy Awards. It’s the type of movie designed for a certain segment of the population to hate, and part of that base has always been critics. Titanic opened to love-it-or-hate-it reviews, with the Los Angeles Times and Salon taking particular grievance with its filmsy story, one derivative of old Hollywood romances. Robert Altman called it “the most dreadful piece of work [he’d] ever seen in [his] entire life,” and more recently, readers from The Film Programme called it the Worst Movie of All Time. To account for the increasingly negative backlash toward the film, British film magazine Empire downgraded their initial five-star review of the film to four stars, because of reader complaints—like a posh restaurant being docked a star because of a bad health inspection.

However, I think the problem with Titanic isn’t that the film compares unfavorably to the old Hollywood films it hopes to mimic, but because it’s an example of the pre-millenial irony-free blockbuster people not named James Cameron don’t make anymore. Sure, Cameron Crowe still makes films dripping with earnestness, sincerity and clunky lines, but no one has cared about a Crowe film since Almost Famous, which was made so long ago that Kate Hudson still had a promising career. (No one had seen Bride Wars yet.) Because Titanic is so out of touch with the way we make movies now (which was part of the reason that Avatar was as widely mocked as it was cheered), the film feels not only dated but carbon dated, as much of an artifact as the wrecked ship it purports to be about.

However, despite the poor aging of the film, I continue to respond to Titanic both in spite of and because of those very flaws. Parts of the film have aged horribly (particularly Billy Zane’s unintentionally hilarious impression of Snidely Whiplash), but those features exude the same time capsule charm that Dirty Dancing and Grease do, partially because they are period pieces about another era that somehow transcend it. Although Titanic was ostensibly a disaster picture and a throwback to the cinema of yore, the film married the cinematic charms of the past with the technology of the present, effects that actually feel more impressive today. Some films hide their budgets (especially if you’re The Lone Ranger and bleeding money), but Cameron’s film shows you every dollar onscreen. Even Cameron’s use of light is a testament to his reliance on spectacle and dazzling visuals.

In a decade driven by directors like Christopher Nolan and his insistence on meta-narrative and enough storylines to sustain four different films, a film so insistently lush in visuals and gentle on story can be maddening, but the world needs its Camerons to pop our eyeballs, just like we need Nolan to tickle our minds.  Each filmmaker pushes the limits of what we think we can do in film visually and narratively, and I hope that our ironist canon has a place for both of them in its critical ranks. Even if I don’t agree that Cameron is king of the world, Titanic deserves to stand beside other films of that age that teach us to view that world slightly differently, on a scale grander than we could have envisioned. And maybe one day I’ll forgive him for not wanting to make it in the first place.