Titanic - James Cameron
Credit: Paramount Pictures
by Esmé Holden Essays Feature Articles Featured Film

Titanic: Courting Disaster

February 10, 2023

There’s a contradiction at the heart of James Cameron’s work, and the reason he’s such a quintessential Hollywood figure is because of, not despite, that contradiction. Cameron is an artist, but he’s also a technician; cinema is an art, but also a technology. The medium has become inextricable from commerce and popular culture partly because of its unique expense, but also Hollywood has made a conscious effort to promote this idea: Going all the way back to the silent era, the industry ballooned costs to maintain a feeling of inaccessibility. When Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922) went wildly over budget, that frustration was spun into a virtue by an advertising campaign that called it “the first real million dollar picture,” sometimes citing the specific cost of $1,104,000.

Cameron is part of a lineage, then. Avatar (2009) was developed alongside the technology needed to make it, and its sequel cost so much that, according to Cameron, it needed to become “the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history” just to break even. Yet both Avatar films are about escaping the world of industry and capital, returning to a simpler, more natural mode of living that’s rendered entirely in cutting-edge CGI; the contradictions between art and technology are immediately established at their most obvious but also at their most deeply entangled.

On the other hand, Titanic (1997) establishes these two forces clearly and separately in its opening scenes. First, there are the researchers exploring the remains of the famous vessel — as Cameron did himself, for his rendering — trying to understand every forensic detail of the sinking. And then there’s Rose (Gloria Stuart), the survivor now nearly 101 years old, who dryly remarks after seeing the researchers’ digital recreation: “Of course, the experience of it was somewhat different.” It’s this human perspective, rife with deep feeling, that turns a cold copy into art; those emotions are really what bring the Titanic back to life for the screen, not all of the precise technical detail.

But when Rose tells her story to the researchers, it doesn’t exactly transcend that contradiction; her recreation, of course, is still quite bound up in the conventions of Hollywood storytelling. Titanic evokes other, “higher” arts both generally — in the broad idea of Romeo & Juliet that it borrows — and specifically — as when Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Romeo to Rose’s Juliet (Kate Winslet, in the past), admires a Monet recreation. But both speak to its insularity, and all that Jack can say about the painting is that it has a great “use of color,” but without commenting on how it is used or to what end. It’s the received wisdom about art compressed through layers of Hollywood language. This dedication to “movie-ness,” which runs deep in Cameron’s work, might reflect a serious limit to his imagination, and at the very least, caps what he’s able to do. It might seem novel here that the man is the figure of fantasy for the woman rather than the other way around, for example, but one character is still reduced to their function in the emotional life of the other. It’s the same structure with a few pieces superficially moved around.

Still, Cameron’s use of conventions and tropes is quite conscious, and he’s found more use for them as his career has gone on (though their use hasn’t quite reached the point of abstraction in Titanic that it will in Avatar, where a character is never more than a loose sketch of a certain type). This could quite easily be regarded as a cynical move, as thinking in four-quadrant terms and patronizing his audience, assuming they need the comfortably familiar story at the core of Avatar to hold their hand through its digital fantasy world. And while that might be true to a certain extent, it’s largely because Cameron looks at storytelling from the vantage of a technician: he builds with the parts that have been proven to work. The fact that there is still life in Titanic, that it feels less mechanical than its functional parts, is surely in some part due to the chemistry between DiCaprio and Winslet, but there’s more to it than that.

And this is the miracle of Hollywood: that art can form within, against, the great commercial forces and highly formalized and abstracted language (which was at an even further remove in the so-called Golden Age, when Hollywood was creating more masterpieces than ever). The famous “draw me like one your French girls” scene evinces some of how this actually happens, beyond pure mythology. The scene is both obviously sexual — Rose asks Jack to draw her naked — but it’s also tasteful, one breast obscured behind the sketchbook, so that it can play as an awakening of sorts to (generally speaking) young boys without upsetting parents’ sensibilities. It’s also genuinely erotic for both parties — and so too for the adults of both genders whom Cameron imagines watching. Jack looks but can’t touch, and Rose not only gets to be seen as desirable and beautiful, but also gets to feel powerful through her initiation of the act, clearly the one in control of the situation. All of these threads are playing to different audiences at once, executed perfectly and woven together seamlessly so that they create something like texture; it’s an undeniably dense scene. So even if it’s targeted, to target is to interpret desire, which in turn says something about people and society at large, which is the scale such a scene is aiming for.

Even though Cameron is attuned to his audience, though, he isn’t bound by their expectations. The “French girls” scene ends with a fade from a close-up of Rose as she lays naked to a close-up of her in the present day, bringing an elderly person far closer to sex than taboo usually allows. She even here expresses her sexuality — it’s she who describes the scene as erotic. This isn’t exactly something that a studio head or anyone who’s thinking only in commercial terms would suggest — it’s likely not even something they’d be capable of considering. This is just another element of Cameron’s auteurist vision. But as we’ve stated, that vision tends to stay primarily focused on the technical side of things, and as such, his most obvious Titanic stand-in is lead researcher Brock Lovett (played by Bill Paxton).

Titanic is arguably told from Brock’s perspective as much as Rose’s; her character offers an enrichment of his technical understanding of events, the flashbacks being a combination of the two. This is likely why there’s so much slippage in Rose’s telling; from the beginning, she’s describing things that only Jack would have seen, but that feels like a gentle enough stretching, or at least a reasonable extrapolation of known narrative. It’s as soon as the ship hits the iceberg that the film becomes meaningfully untethered from her perspective, as it’s the details of the sinking that truly fascinate Cameron. This imposes an order on even the most chaotic moments: When the last bit of ship slips beneath the water and hundreds of passengers are crowded together, trying desperately not to drown, only a few fleeting seconds are given to panic before Cameron cranes the camera outward. Mathematical certainty hangs over everything, slowly and precisely unwinding in the way that it already has; it’s Cameron’s distance rather than Rose’s proximity that drives the film, that makes it exciting and, at points, even terrifying.

From his earliest films, Cameron’s interests found him aligned with strange forces. The Terminator (1984) is crafted exactly in line with its lead character: ruthless, efficient, and violent (so it’s not surprising he became the good guy in the sequel). This is most concrete in Titanic, where the director’s passions, the things that he’s most excited to commit to film, are quite literally trying to crush that which is supposed to give them life: Rose and the love story. Cameron is unable to escape his own literal-mindedness — in Avatar, Pandora is compared to Oz, it’s supposed to be an escape into the pure fantasy of movies, but everything within it has a one-to-one real-world analog; the religion is proven to be scientifically accurate, and that’s what turns the ship of dreams into scrap metal.

Underneath Titanic lies a tangible, powerful death drive. This is a story of hubris, of a technical marvel too big and too ambitious. It’s not only that the shipping company’s director (Jonathan Hyde), for the sake of better press, pressured the Captain (Bernard Hill) into making the ship go faster, which caused it to sink; in some sense, it’s the idea itself that the Titanic was unsinkable, most explicitly seen in its lack of lifeboats. They tried to create something that transcended the material reality of its construction, which is as good a description of art as any, especially art made in a commercial context like Hollywood. The biggest movie and the biggest ship, both courting disaster, both flying too close to the sun (or, more aptly, sailing too close to the ice). It’s an irresistible parallel, and one Cameron surely wouldn’t miss in such a metatextual film. It’s easy to imagine his famously huge ego seeing this as a challenge to overcome, but the film can’t help but face failure by the facts of its story. That’s why the scene where the musicians keep playing through the destruction and the terror is so moving — it imagines the worst-case scenario, where the ship or the movie starts to fall apart entirely, and decides to keep going for its own sake.

Of course, this Titanic didn’t sink — the film became the biggest Hollywood movie since Gone With The Wind (1938). And it’s maybe for that reason that the excesses indulged in Cameron’s Avatar films merely embrace the concept of contradiction without demonstrating much urge to interrogate it or any sense of possible failure. Yet some part of Cameron can’t quite let Titanic go, as we’re here writing this on the eve of the film’s third re-release, this time updated with 4K HDR and HFR. And in the intervening years, he’s featured in several documentaries poring back over the details, updating his model of the sinking with all the discoveries made since (another was announced only a few days ago). In the ironically titled Titanic: The Final Word with James Cameron (2012), he and his team quite crassly speculate on hypotheticals where everyone could have survived; Cameron’s idea is to put them onto the iceberg since that wasn’t going to sink. The event is stripped of all the weight and reality the film was supposed to imbue the catastrophe with. At the end of Titanic, Cameron’s stand-in Lovett says: “[For] three years I thought about nothing but Titanic, but I never got it; I never let it in,” yet he seems to be trying to push it back out.

There’s some sense that not only could Titanic fail, but that maybe it did; and these contradictions can only lead to implosion. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) is all about fluidity and transformation: emotionally, as the Terminator learns to be more human, and technologically, with the liquid metal villain demonstrating the new possibilities of CGI. But even then, the Terminator can only understand why people feel — he can’t feel himself, and there’s no promise that the apocalyptic future that these characters have come back from has been prevented, even though the material conditions that created it have been changed. Cameron could only locate a small glimmer of hope. And so in Titanic, which is bound by history, trying to reach back and in some way bring this long-dead past back to life seems totally insurmountable.

Maybe that’s because Cameron holds himself to the standards of Hollywood, limiting himself to what works within a false hegemony. But by speaking through that language — and drawing attention to it through the friction of the framing and central story — he shows its limits; he shows a film fighting against itself and losing. The past escaping into the void. The film’s final shot starts as a POV, winding through the Titanic, toward Jack, as if we’ve finally gone back. But then Rose walks in front of the camera, and we’re put at a remove, showing whose perspective we’re seeing. And anyway, this isn’t even a memory but a dying dream, one that soon enough fades into white forever. For someone who sees the world as literally as Cameron does, there is a deeper tragedy to the end of living memory. Experience and emotion exist in the cracks of material reality, and so once they are gone, they are profoundly so — there is no wreckage left to search through.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 6.