NY Daily News - February 06, 1998


Going Back To 'Titanic'

Why the public still loves this sinking ship


Are you ready to go back to Titanic?" asks the treasure hunter (Bill Paxton) of the old woman (Gloria Stuart) who survived the most famous shipwreck in history. Filmgoers certainly are.

In the seven weeks since it was released, James Cameron's epic romance has taken in more than $600 million worldwide, and seems likely to become history's first $1 billion movie.


Last weekend's business, according to the trade paper Variety, was off only 9% from "Titanic's" opening week a miniscule drop that suggests that, even as the audience for "Titanic" widens, many of its admirers are returning for a second or third look.

Indeed, returning to "Titanic" has its rich rewards. Like any work of art, "Titanic" yields new secrets with each viewing. Standing back a bit from the immediate experience, as you inevitably do on a second visit, you're able to see the thought and care that has gone into its construction to appreciate the engineering as well as the ride.

A Swell Time

Take, for example, Cameron's treatment of time. The movie is built around a single, key moment 2:20 a.m., April 15, 1912 the moment when the Titanic sank beneath the surface of the North Atlantic. Yet two different time schemes are at work in the construction of the story: the linear, objective time of the framing story and the looping, subjective time of Rose's narration.

Once Old Rose has arrived on the salvage ship, the three hours or so it takes her to tell her story roughly coincide with the running time of the movie. But time within her tale is at first compacted the first day of the voyage passes in a single dissolve from noon to night and then gradually expanded as the passing moments become more meaningful and dramatically weighted.

The next three days are vaguely compressed into a handful of sequences, growing in weight and climaxing with the grand dinner in the first-class dining room; the fifth, the day of the disaster, begins with Sunday-morning religious services and moves with increasing detail up to dusk and the moment when Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose (Kate Winslet) first embrace at the bow of the ship.

Suddenly, Paxton's voice interrupts to remind Rose that about 6 hours remain to the sinking, and the narrative time slows accordingly to detail the lovers' growing intimacy. But only when the ship strikes the iceberg does Cameron shift finally and definitively into real time, bringing the two levels of the film into synchronization. When the ship's builder, Thomas Andrews (Victor Garber), predicts that "only an hour, two at the most" remain before Titanic founders, he sets the clock running. Only an hour of "Titanic" remains, but it is an hour so full of incident and emotion that it seems to contain a lifetime.

In the course of the film's transcendent final sequence don't worry, it won't be described here we glimpse the ship's clock, frozen at 2:20. For Rose, that's the time it will always be: the beginning of her life and its end. In "Titanic," time slows down until it stops.

Poetry in Ocean

There are other elegant stylistic details. During the first part of the film, the ship is generally shown moving from the right-hand side of the screen to the left, a movement that corresponds to our instinctual sense of a journey from the old world of Europe to the new world of America. Cameron plays upon this association, . And indeed, the repressed Rose tends to occupy the right half of the widescreen frame; the rebellious, adventurous Jack is generally seen on the left.

But after the lovers embrace in the bow, Cameron reverses the poles of his compositions. Rose, newly aware of her freedom and power, begins more and more to occupy the left side of the screen; Jack, ever the gentleman, recedes to the right.

Return to the Silent Era

Though "Titanic" makes brilliant and extensive use of the most up-to-the-minute movie technology, its references are based in the silent cinema, in a pre-psychological world of shining and pure heroes, of Victorian villains (if he had a moustache, Billy Zane's Cal Hockley would certainly be twirling it) and last-minute, strapped-to-the-sawmill rescues.

The film's sense of class conflict, derided by many of its early critics as naive, is very much that of the early Edison and Biograph one-reelers, which Rose and Jack could have seen at their local nickelodeon. And like a silent-film maker, Cameron seems to have cast his actors not for their expressive line readings, but for the expressive quality of their eyes. For all of its spectacular display, this is ultimately a movie about looking into the depths of a pair of eyes, the sea, a heart.

Old Rose, we are pointedly told, is about to turn 101: She spans the century she is the century and she is about as old as the movies. Cameron has turned back the clock for his audience as well, returning to a time when film was truly a popular art, appealing across age and class lines. There is no irony in his approach, no sarcastic second degree pitched to the insiders in the audience, as has been the case with virtually every mass market hit since "Star Wars." Cameron means what he says, and says what he means.

This guilelessness, this innocence, may be "Titanic's" greatest gift to its audience. From the shipwreck of the 20th century, Cameron salvages a simple, classical love story, told without camp or condescension. If the historical Titanic represented the end of the 19th-century dream of a technological utopia, the movie "Titanic" brings us to the end of another illusion that of a pervasive modern sense of hopelessness, relativism, cynicism.

In art, if not always in life, a great disaster is also a cleansing, an Old Testament promise of a new beginning. Perhaps that is the message that has made "Titanic" seem so meaningful to so many people around the world at this particular moment. Something huge and ponderous is drawing to a close; something small and beautiful might take its place.


Thanks a lot to Treggy !