It was recently Valentine’s Day, or as the more fabulously free members of our great society would say, “Single’s Awareness Day” but it was a day filled to bursting with painted-on bedroom eyes, and an extra tolerance for the intolerable. I know I should be nicer, but taking aim and firing blistering snark is my thing. In any case, maybe you too were suckered into participating in the most insidious of the Valentine’s “Customs.” No, I’m not talking about wine, wine’s pretty great. Instead I’m talking about Romance Movies. The sort where good looking people do silly crap before getting together in time for the credits. There’s tears, and kisses, and more kissing but this time with happy tears, and the mandatory make-out in the rain. Occasionally somebody dies, and then all bets are off. The worst of these will simultaneously make your relationship look like spoiled haggis by comparison while making your SO cry. I don’t care how you try to reprogram the computer, you are going to lose.
Which is a roundabout way of getting to another unavoidable human disaster – Titanic. This thing somehow made 2 Billion dollars at the box office. Oh yeah, that’s right, that’s Billion. That means that this film was seen by millions of people theatrically, and untold legions afterwards on TV or streaming or whatever. That means that Titanic is a cultural touchstone, and the example that many people have when they imagine their perfect romance film. The issue of course, is that the movie is awful. The characters are just shadow puppets pulled along by flimsiest of plot threads and it has characterization that is crafted of equal parts cliched crust and cartoonishly caricatured filling. Worse, the romantic elements seem like they’re written by somebody who knows what a relationship is purely on a theoretical level. Near, far, wherever you are, let’s ditch this movie in the North Atlantic until it freezes to death – this is the Takedown.
Alright everybody, the sooner we get started the quicker all these people are going to drown. Right, so Titanic starts off en media res as a treasure hunter with the impossibly goofy name of Brock Lovett is searching the wreck of the RMS Titanic. His prize is a MacGuffin called the Heart of the Ocean, a blue diamond of such value and beauty that it disrupts the natural flow of the plot all around it, like an azure singularity. Along on his fun filled adventure Brock brought along 80+ year old Rose Dawson, a survivor from the sinking of Titanic and the last person to see that diamond shaped plot device.
Anyway, the woman’s crazy old musings take us back to the good old days of 1912 before universal suffrage was a thing. On a fateful day in that fateful year, Rose, her mother, and Cal Hockley (AKA, Douche McGee Esq.) board the RMS Titanic for a trip to New York to start a new life. Once there she’s destined to be married off to Cal in order to solve her family’s money troubles, because that’s what you could do before the women folk had the vote. Shortly after the ship sets sail, Rose decides that she doesn’t want to marry the Phantom, and instead goes to kill herself off the edge of the boat. She is stopped by intrepid stowaway Jack Dawson, who convinces her that there’s no need to kill herself.
For reasons that remain unfathomable, she instead decides that young Jack has a concise and sound rhetorical strategy and gets on the safe side of the railing. Almost at once, Cal catches her with Jack, and Rose lies to him. Apparently, unlike the Shadow, the Phantom doesn’t know dick and believes her. This leads to Cal inviting Jack to dinner in the fancy
VIP Lounge 1st Class Dining Room. While everybody hates the charming poor dude, Rose thinks Jack is great and has good hair, so she sneaks away to the poor people side of the ship to engage in a little Irish folk dancing.
The next day we join them again, only now Rose has a request of Artist Jack – nude sketches. Remember kids, back in the day before Snapchat, this was how you sent sexts. Since the writer never met an easy connection that didn’t make him positively engorged, she’s wearing the Heart of the Ocean in the picture. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s how the Brock of the Frame Story knows it was her.
They then run away and, of course, leave it to 17 year olds to be on a cruise ship and still figure out a way to bang in the backseat of Ford. Although if you think about it, since this is told in a frame story it means that the elder Rose told a boat filled with sailors the explicit details her rumble seat rendezvous. It’s like a Red Shoe Diaries episode that makes you ill.
While the car’s a rockin,’ the Titanic does that thing it’s famous for and takes an order of “More Ice” just a skosh literally. Meanwhile, as the iceberg hits the actual boat, the shit hits the figurative fan. as he searches for Rose, Cal discovers those sweet nekkid pics. He of course, then uses the Heart of the Ocean to frame Jack while the boat is still sinking. Rose realizes that something is amiss, and rushes from a lifeboat to go save Jack. She manages to, and once she and Jack return, Cal tells her like, “Oh, yeah, we got this. You go ahead and we’ll meet you. It’s all good baby.” I assume that’s what he said, although it may have just been, “Sinister, sinister, lies, smarmy sinister, it’s all good baby,” but we’ll have to check the script.
Cal then tells Jack, “Did I say “We’ll meet her? I meant I’ll meet her.” Rose, using her Spidey-Sense hops out of a second lifeboat and because he is a rational human being with a will to survive and equipped with the rationality of man, Cal grabs a pistol and chases them into the bowels of a sinking ship. Halfway down, and once all out of ammo, Cal realizes what the audience already knows – that he’s a stupid ass hat, and hops a lifeboat instead.
What follows is a lot of very expensive things getting waterlogged. A bunch of people die in exciting ship based ways, and some violin players don’t understand the concept of skipping the encore. Eventually, our intrepid heroes wind up clutching a piece of driftwood, and Jack ends up in the freezing water. Shivers and parting words are exchanged, and then Jackie Boy does a spot-on impression of an Otter Pop and exits stage down.
Back at the frame story, the elderly Rose concludes her tale, while Brock sits stunned, trying to figure out the physics of getting 2 people onto a broken piece of wood. Later that night, while nobody else is looking, she reveals that she had the Heart of the Ocean all along and tosses it into the ocean over the Titanic. Then she dies or something, “reunited” with her lost love Jack as the lunch of people everywhere was “reunited” with the bowl.
Alright, now that that has finally sunk out of view we can ask ourselves the all important question:
Well, to quote our boy MacBeth,”It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” So a bunch of people died, and Jack died, and Rose died, and nobody living or dead cared about any of it. The reason is that none of the things that happened were character based. This is especially true in a movie that is supposed to be a romance.
“But,” I can hear the internet and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences say, “This is a love story! I cried!” Well, of course you cried, but that emotion is built on more cheats and lies than an Ashley Madison account. If you put attractive young people in the middle of a star crossed tragedy it short circuits the part of the audience’s brain where the cynicism lives. It is basically a shortcut to make you cry. But when you try to point out exactly what was so heartfelt, and what aspect of the core relationship was so fulfilling, there’s nothing concrete. Yeah, Cal is less likable than a peptic ulcer, but he’s not a member of the relationship the story is supposedly based around. So when they do dumb shit, it hasn’t earned the emotion that the movie wants you to feel. It’s just a parlor trick and you, dear audience, deserve better.
A rule that helps avoid such simple illusion, is that the characters must always drive the plot. James Cameron even knows how to do it. Avatar was, like your ex, pretty and dull but at least the development of the characters led the action of the movie. Since that was the driving force from scene to scene it made sense for a character to be doing what the plot was asking them to do. Like, of course Jake wants to protect the Na’vi – he’s spent a lot of time with them and learned the basics of the categorical imperative. It’s easy to see the logic of the characters and the screenplay uses that as the motivation to drive the plot.
In Titanic the character beats that move the plot are as follows: Boy prevents English Girl from taking an inadvisable swim. Boy is invited to dinner. After that everything is driven by Captain Plot and it’s heading for the berg. Cal basically becomes an employee of the screenwriter’s plot. He finds tastefully sketched nudie pictures, frames up Jack, leaves him to die on the Titanic, then tries to kill both Jack and Rose with a pistol because he can’t fuggin wait 10 more minutes. Any possible sympathy or humanity the character may have ever had was disintegrated with the stroke of a pen, leaving in its wake a cartoon in the form of Billy Zane.
Then there’s that iceberg that renders the whole thing moot. Look, you can have a MacGuffin based plot, Hitchcock was so famous for it he got to coin the phrase, but not if the object is worthless in the face of everything else. A diamond, and the petty feelings of a turd sprinkle named Cal don’t amount to much if everybody is going to die. Reservoir Dogs doesn’t work if it’s the B-Story in Armageddon. Coincidentally, any cute set up or character development got swallowed whole by the impending disaster and the plot roller coaster that the final half of the movie felt compelled to make us all endure.
This movie makes the romance elements in Gray look like The Princess Bride. The question that any romantic movie needs to answer is why? It doesn’t matter if the film as a whole makes sense provided that the elements of love and romance do. Case in point, the plot in Enchanted doesn’t really work and in the long run that relationship is failed to flame out spectacularly. However, I can understand that Princess Giselle sees something noble in Robert, and his cynicism wants to believe in her innocence. These are facts, and the relationship in based on them. Coincidentally, it makes it easy for the audience to understand the relationship and why the characters find it worth fighting for.
This “why” doesn’t even need to lead to a decent resolution. In (500) Days of Summer the needs of the characters are laid out in such a way that we know what the characters see in each other – namely that neither wants to be in a relationship. The crux of the conflict comes from the change of heart that they have, and how the evolution of their characters leads to the failure of them as a couple. If the audience didn’t understand what makes the relationship work, then they certainly won’t care if the relationship survives.
Which gets us back to Titanic. Rose likes Jack because of what exactly? Because he’s a good dancer? Is it because he didn’t pull her hair while getting weird in the backseat of a late model automobile? Over the course of the story there is neither character development nor is there sharing of deep personal details. For the same reason on some level you could argue that Jack likes Rose because she’s rich and puts out in sexually adventurous places. The only thing that they have in common is that Cal has shot things at both of them. Basically, the movie wants us to believe that Jack and Rose love each other because it is a cheap shorthand to raise the stakes. Or, if you want to be cynical, it’s to get people in the theater who would not pay to see a disaster movie otherwise.
Which is what this movie is – a disaster. Yeah, I know it won a bunch of awards, but in what Quaalude frazzled universe can anybody say that this is a better move that LA Confidential, Good Will Hunting or even As Good As It Gets? I ask because those were movies this waste of celluloid beat out for Best Picture that year. Unlike any of those (much better) films the characters still don’t work as people and if it weren’t for an oversized ice cube the plot would have less forward momentum than Billy Zane’s career. But the worst part is that the central “relationship” is considered by many people to be good. These are the same foolhardy folks that missed that the central thesis of Romeo and Juliet is that teenagers are stupid. So if Jack and Rose what are a whirlwind romance is supposed to be, I’d rather go down with the ship.
And that, is the Takedown.
As is par for this particular course, if you think I’m way off base and should be beaten with sticks for my apostasy, go ahead and make full use of the CAPS LOCK in the comments. On the other hand, if you’d rather be a defender of virtue, honor, and exceptional taste feel free to charge ahead and engage in some critical hits of your own. Either way, I highly recommend that you be firmly on dry land when you do so.
Until next time.