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Sinking Sensation: Titanic's Grandeur

December 31, 1997|By Jason Myers

Sinking Sensation: Titanic's Grandeur

Adrift in the cindery silt and seahorse starkness at the floor of the Atlantic Ocean lie the ashen remains of a notorious ship called Titanic.

A Hollywood director with hubris akin to if not exceeding the builders of the "big boat" has exhumed Titanic from the debris and detritus which any number of scavengers have sifted through seeking sunken treasure.

Titanic begins with a crew of such seekers utilizing the latest in multimedia technology to attempt retrieval of a precious stone known as the Blue Diamond, rumored to have first been owned by Louis XV. While they extract from the treacherous depths a safe which is thought to hold the gem-containing necklace, all that empties out is muddy water and bounty-hunter blues.

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A faint flame of hope flickers in the form of a charcoal sketch of a nude woman wearing the desired necklace. The woman is identified as a passenger of first class, one Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), whom everyone presumes to have drowned with the ship for lack of records proving otherwise. So Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton), the leader of this particular expedition, is duly charmed when a spry woman aged 102 (Gloria Stuart) shows up claiming her name is Rose and, oh, yes, that is her in the drawing. Rose proceeds to tell her personal version of the events which now comprise an ineluctable part of history.

Director James Cameron has recreated a vividly authentic ship and appointed it with all the opulence expected aboard such a famously extravagant ocean liner (as well as in such an infamously expensive motion picture). Like so many sparkling studio gems, however, Titanic is as noteworthy for its emotional vapidity as for its visual splendor. In this case, fortunately, the audience sees a film far more splendid than vapid - Cameron's awkward, mawkish storytelling cannot capsize the buoyant energy of his wordless cinematic elan.

The script he has written is wanly conventional and sentimental, so trite and inane that it cannot help but seem frivolous against the grandiose girth of the ship on which it is set. Rose and Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) are stock lovers, emitting the musty odors of motion picture prototype and platitude.

She, Rose, is an affluent, somewhat priggish aristocrat who is unhappily entangled in a romance with Cal Hockley (Billy Zane), an apparent heir to commercial fortunes.

He, Jack, is a raucous and rebellious young artiste who lives in the spontaneous sequence of day.

As Rose recounts the whirlwind romance she tumultuously tumbled into during that fateful maiden voyage, the audience is supposed to be compelled by the thrilling urgency of their tryst; instead it is repelled, not just by it formulaic familiarity, but by the overripe language of the lovers - there are soap opera scribes who would blush at much of Cameron's dialogue.

Also, Winslet is miscast in the role of Rose. She is all together too pallid and placid to suggest the petulance which hides under Rose's tenuous layer of decorum. While Winslet is a fine actress, she does not bring any of the jocular carnality which the part would have been enhanced to have - indeed, Stuart's portrayal of Rose at 102 is more lustful than that of Winslet's at 18. DiCaprio looks handsome, but seems to exist for little additional purpose (as though any were required).

One is much less interested in the outcome of this pair of tabloid-crossed lovers - who are hounded by the simplistically villainous Cal - than by the doom which impends the ship, even though everyone knows about the latter. No cool idiomatic vigor or lucid sentence could begin to convey the spectacular majesty of Titanic, which captivates even in scenes otherwise flat and fetid.

A man noted as a Guggenheim, soon to be stunned by massive destruction, is at one point commenting about how he is prepared to go down like a gentleman. Cameron seems a bit too practiced in observing the intractable arrogance of the ship's affluent passengers, as if he were somehow beyond their nonchalant material security. It is Cameron who so lavishly admires the luxury of the ship; if he is also eager to capture the less than otiose conditions of second-class passengers, this seems provoked by a righteousness rather than any integral storyline.

Indeed, Cameron wants you to believe that those who purported the ship unsinkable were foolish and proud; he wants you to believe that Rose will be happier with Jack because, if he does not have money, he knows how to live life, as Thoreau said, deliberately; he wants you to believe that he did not spend 200 million dollars to provide us with the tremendous textural reality of Titanic.

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