Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Titanic at 100.

At this exact moment – 11:40 PM, April 14 – exactly 100 years ago, the Titanic struck the iceberg…and the modern world began.

I commemorated this event, as I had been planning to do all year, by watching A Night to Remember – a “real” Titanic movie, as I told my wife, as opposed to the dreck that James Cameron’s great-grandchildren can live off of until the Titanic’s 300th anniversary. We watched the movie (my apologies, I mean film) and were both moved and amazed, but as we talked about the events it portrayed, we kept going back to the Cameron film. Love it or hate it, like the Titanic itself, it had become an impenetrable fact.

Ironically, A Night to Remember was originally made as a response to an over-the-top Hollywood smash called Titanic. This was the 1953 Clifton Webb film Titanic that everyone thinks they mean when they see A Night to Remember but are deeply mistaken. I remember watching the 1953 Titanic on TV with my grandmother back in the Reagan administration and watching all of the cleanly-scrubbed men go down on the ship singing “Nearer My God to Thee” in brave unison. It was on that day that I learned the concept of “women and children first,” which was a foreign notion to my post-feminism upbringing, but I digress.

When A Night to Remember was made five years after the 1953 Titanic, its makers strove to make their film everything that the earlier film was not, which is to say, they strove for that elusive beast of “authenticity” over story. As much as possible, things were based on personal testimony, and any one lead character or storyline was sacrificed for a constantly shifting ensemble narrative that in some respects was closer to a documentary than a romantic epic. It is strange to think that the film was made only about 45 years after the initial tragedy, which is as far away from its day as the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club was from the time that I write this. And I grew up on that album. That record was part of my parents – and in turn, our – lives.

This firsthand approach must be what gives A Night to Remember its excitement and energy; I literally spent the entire second half of the movie waiting “just two more minutes” before getting up to refill my water glass because the idea of pausing the film didn’t cross my mind as a possibility.

My wife pointed out the one major aspect of the film that is not accurate – the boat doesn’t split in two when it sinks, because nobody would realize that until Alvin the submarine (named after a chipmunk created for a novelty Christmas song the same year that A Night to Remember was released, but I digress) stumbled upon it in the mid-’80s, finally pinning its exact location down after some 70-odd years and correcting the story of how it sunk.

One feels like James Cameron must’ve began sketching out the storyboards to his 1997 Titanic the minute this discovery was made in an effort to make a perfect “unsinkable” film about the boat. He had the one thing that previous filmmakers did not: The hindsight of history.

I’ve only seen the Cameron Titanic once – I initially boycotted it as I do most films that present themselves as The Greatest Thing Ever (hence I still have yet to see a Lord of the Rings movie) – but I relented when they were showing it for free while I was in college. I must’ve had absolutely no homework left to do that night.

At any rate, I finally saw it and found it to be one of the funniest movies I’d seen in a long time (my favorite bit of dialogue being where Rose tells the ship’s architect she knows what was troubling him because she could see the iceberg in his eyes), down through to the drawn-out, ridiculous finale. I felt bad for the main character, I thought during it’s second half: The boat. What a beautiful boat, and amazing visual effects achievement, and now it’s wrecked and gone.

It wasn’t until recently that I figured out what it was about the Cameron Titanic that made it tick: It was a movie disguised as a film for teenage girls who thought that they were experiencing a film that was really a movie; in this regard, it was the cinematic equivalent of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind – it seems like such “adult” stuff when approached in adolescence, but pretty quickly it reveals itself to be kinda dumb once one experiences the onset of adulthood.

That, and I couldn’t get past the fact that, if the movie was supposed to take place in 1997, the “old Rose” character would’ve had to have been around 120 years old. Maybe that’s a technical gripe, but all Cameron had to do was set the movie in the mid-’80s – and you could do that by setting the story around the ship’s rediscovery that revealed where it actually was – and get a much tighter, more realistic film. Oh wait, I mean movie.

But at the root of all of the things the Titanic story can tell us about nature, technology, and class, it remains the simplest story imaginable: Man builds machine, flies too close to the sun, and pays the hefty price. The fact it was also the first “modern” media event only cemented it in our collective unconscious, seeming much more immediate than, say, World War I, which was much bigger, costlier, and more important.

I used to have a professor who said that historical films tell you more about the time in which they were made than the time they try to depict, and somehow I feel like that’s relevant when thinking about the Titanic. Only, somehow, it feels as though it’s the Titanic that has stayed the same and we who have changed, challenging us to measure ourselves up against its burden.

It is this element that keeps the story fresh and fascinating, and bigger than ourselves, yet eerily intimate. In other words, it’s a story that reminds us what it means to be human.

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