Can there be a clearer example than James Cameron of a film director diminishing creatively as their artistic freedom expands? Technically, his work is as accomplished as ever, and he continues to innovate in the effects field. But his output has become cruder and cruder. The worst thing that could have happened to his ego was topping the most successful film ever (needless to say, not accounting for inflation) with wall-to-wall Oscar glory. Because Titanic is an infantile, vulgar affair, so clumsy in its attempts at depicting heartfelt romance and capturing tragic resonance that you’d be forgiven for thinking it was intended as a parody.
In retrospect, the writing was on the wall when Cameron went back to the well and made Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It’s an effective, propulsive thriller, but also a bloated, glossy repeat of the precise, economical original. Prior to this, Cameron made what ought to have been his best film (and is still very good, in extended form, at least). An expensive, watery love story called The Abyss, it was a commercial disappointment for Fox. Cameron’s weakness for bombastic dialogue and heavy-handed emotional beats were filtered by the extraordinary efforts of a cast led by Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio; they make you believe in the scenario, and the rekindling of affection between an estranged couple. It’s this, rather than Titanic that should have been feted. T2 saw Cameron claw back his commercial clout; it was an understandably cynical exercise, but the challenge of employing cutting-edge special effects got Cameron’s creative juices flowing. His follow-up, True Lies, an ill-advised flirtation with action comedy, exposed the director’s weaknesses at their most unflattering yet. Known for being a humourless tyrant on set, perhaps he felt the need to show people he had a funny bone. In which case, he failed. The comedy is either limp or unsettling, with a plot revolving around Arnold Schwarzenegger’s spy who, suspecting his wife of having an affair, employs his craft to keep tabs on, and then scare the shit out of, her. And then he made another expensive, watery love story.
Tellingly, it wasn’t the chance to flex his romantic muscles that attracted Cameron to Titanic. Rather, it was his fascination with shipwrecks. Don’t get me wrong, the guy is good with story structure; he should be, as he ardently follows the template for the hero’s journey. It’s why his tales invariably connect with audiences. But the manner in which he fleshes out those bare bones highlights his limitations. His characters usually amount to little more than crude stereotypes and, unless he’s dealing with hardboiled military personnel (an endless source of fascination for him), their dialogue is similarly impoverished. Even then, look at the laughably demonic Colonel Quaritch. Titanic and Avatar employ a string of clichés in place of well-rounded characterisations. The director himself accused critics of Titanic of mistaking archetypes for clichés, but the former becomes the latter when rendered without flair or imagination.
I’m not going to malign the tastes of those who connect with Titanic; I just genuinely don’t derive the pleasure from it they do. And not out of some fashionable backlash. I found the romance clumsy and the characters shallow when I first saw it in 1998. And the telegraphing of important plot points is so lazy, you’d think this was a first draft script. But I do have to credit Cameron with understanding his audience; you must be doing something right to mount a hit of this scale. Obviously, “Leo-mania” was a key factor in the film’s success, with women making up the largest section of the audience. But the same audience didn’t flock to see The Beach or The Man in the Iron Mask. It was the specific combination of his boyish good looks and Jack’s noble self-sacrifice in the name of love that ensured all those repeat visits to the cinema.
Left to his own devices, Cameron might have been expected to fashion a plot more akin to The Hindenburg; someone puts a bomb on the Titanic and the plot involves a race against time to defuse it. It wouldn’t surprise me if he’d considered something along those lines and warned himself off, after noting the money that film didn’t make. Lest we forget, Titanic was widely predicted to turn into a prize turkey. Even its director foresaw significant losses before the test screening raves began flooding in. History repeated itself with Avatar, so I doubt anyone will be second-guessing Cameron for a while now.
He took the plot of Lady and the Tramp, set it aboard a doomed ship, and added a tragic twist (what if Tramp had snuffed it at the end?) DiCaprio’s poor, itinerant artist Jack (he was sketching prostitutes in Paris, don’t you know!) meets up with Kate Winslet’s spoiled posh totty Rose (but she’s cutting-edge cultured; she buys Picassos and reads Freud – what a gal!) and love blossoms across the class divide. Alas, quite aside from the soon-to-be-sinking ship, there are numerous obstacles in the way of their happiness.
Jack is Cameron’s idealised version of his younger self, full of life and adventure and pulling the ladies by virtue of the enormity of his creative chops (Jimbo himself drew the sketch of Rose in the film). Rose is the director’s perfect woman (in real life, he married Suzy Amis, who plays Rose’s granddaughter); intelligent and outspoken, an action chick who nevertheless needs rescuing (and teaching to spit) by a strong man. Cameron likes his strong women, and particularly likes having them pick up arms (be they guns or axes) in the course of their duties. Mirthsome closing photos show Rose as a qualified pilot and an equestrian who eschews side saddle. Rose is a proto-feminist, of course, but what Cameron is really looking for is a man with tits. The love story is the sort of thing the Zucker brothers and Abrahams would have mercilessly ripped the piss out of, if they’d had an Airplane! or Naked Gun in the offing.
The framing section is an unnecessary device borne of Cameron’s desire to show the actual wreck (which he actually went out and shot, making a big thing of this being important to Fox). Bill Paxton is uncharacteristically at-sea with his treasure hunter, while his boorish technical expert, who shows overwhelming insensitivity towards the centenarian Rose, sets the scene for what will follow with his witless cartoonishness. This is a writer-director so crass that he calls Rose’s jewel “Heart of the Ocean”. Next thing you know he’ll be inventing a rare mineral called, oh I don’t know, “unobtainium”.
Some of the most cringeworthy moments are those where Jimbo imbues his characters with remarkable prescience. Not only does Rose recognise the genius of Picasso but she is so schooled in the theories of Dr. Freud that she can make jokes about massive boats being penis substitutes. Good gags never get old, eh? Especially when they’re ahead of their time. She is also so observant that she spots the shortage of lifeboats well in advance of needing one. Cameron is just as blundering in his pointed references to the ship’s unsinkability and the dangers of going at full speed (at one point, there’s a vague possibility that Jack and Rose canoodling might distract the lookouts from spotting the iceberg.; alas, it’s not to be).
DiCaprio and Winslet are fine, but their characters are paper-thin. As such, they’re quite atypical roles for such “serious” thesps (DiCaprio took some persuading to take a part he had no interest in, but Winslet really chased after Rose). You might charitably think Cameron was paying homage to cheap romance novels, except that this kind of one-dimensionality is increasingly evident in his screenplays (as if he is slowly regressing). The clichéd motivations and dialogue are stacked up, to the point where each new declaration elicits exasperated laughter. He utterly fails to convey the depths of feeling they have for each other. The great “moments” fall flat, be it Jack’s “I’m king of the world!” or his repeat run with Rose at the prow of the ship. No level of tackiness is beyond the director, such that he even resorts to an outstretched hand on misted-up glass when Jack and Rose have sex. The occasional moment undercuts expectations, such that the rescue of a small child is prevented when the father arrives. He heads off in the wrong direction with her and they are engulfed by water. If we didn’t know Cameron has no funny bone, one might think a sick sense of humour was coming to the fore.
The cast is replete with fine actors (and Billy Zane, but he’s a cool dude) used abysmally. Billy Zane at least seems to be enjoying himself as the most hissable cad imaginable; an “unimaginable bastard”, even (you have to love him for the moment where he seizes a child as tender in obtaining a seat on a lifeboat). Just as well, since he hasn’t had a role of this profile since. Kathy Bates plays the real-life Molly Brown; she married money, and because she’s not posh, she’s a thoroughly good salt-of-the-earth type. She even lends Jack a tux. Bates could sleepwalk through this sort of part, so credit to her for bringing a necessary gusto and trying to make Brown more multi-faceted than she is. David Warner is Billy Zane’s valet, Frances Fisher is Rose’s mum; one’s a one-note villain, the other a one-note snob (who is saddled with a hackneyed speech justifying trying to marry off Rose, because of the terribly unfair second-class status of women in society; Jimbo wants you to know he knows his history of injustice!) Bernard Hill has one decent moment, even if it’s as predictable as they come; his captain goes down with his vessel, dazed and disbelieving.
Cameron ensures there are no shades of grey to be found on his ship. Anyone poor is noble. Or rather, anyone poor, working class and American/Irish/Italian (as James Horner’s cloying score emphasises, the Irish are a lyrical, dreamy, romantic bunch). Rose is okay because she rejects her privilege for love (so she’s noble too). But if you’re rich (working class Molly Brown excepted) or English, you’re a dreadful person. And likely as not the sort who will shoot down third-class passengers with impunity (a scene reported by some eye-witness accounts, but nevertheless delivered by Cameron with gleeful relish).
Ironically, given the references to penis substitutes, what actually gets Cameron going is the hardware. He may have Jack attentively drawing Rose, but one only has to see his loving depiction of the engine room to understand where he’s really smitten. It’s strange to note that, for all the impressiveness of his undertaking and the seamlessness of the majority of the special effects, Cameron’s skies never look less than artificial.
When the action begins, there is consistently strong staging, in particular the depiction of the gradually flooding ship, but the director has to overdo everything. Rose rescues Jack from his imprisonment, only for them to pursued back into the bowels of the ship by gun-wielding Billy Zane. It’s not just the cynical manoeuvring to show off more destruction, complete with for-the-sake-of-it slow motion (which feels out of place, but it’s one of Cameron’s action tools); it’s also tiresomely coarse in design. The relaxed quality of the passengers in the early stages is a nice touch, but repeatedly cutting back to the musicians becomes an ironic cue beaten to death. It’s the technical virtuosity alone that prevents me from completely writing off the film; the characters may be silly and/or irritating, but the spectacle in the latter half is at times undeniably compelling (the closing stages of the submerging especially so, as the ship breaks in half, then rises ninety degrees before resuming its descent).
Is there any need for Titanic to last three hours? Bloat has been a problem for the Cameron ever since Aliens, but he has usually managed to justify it by manufacturing relentless thrill rides. Here, he spends an inordinate amount of time trying the viewer’s patience. Of course, he frontloads the tedium such that, even though the film moves at a crawl, there’s inevitable momentum once the iceberg has been struck.
Cameron’s talk of honouring the dead is ultimately undermined by his manipulative thrill-seeking. And further so by his Oscar acceptance speech. Without a trace of irony, he proclaimed himself king of the world, led the attendees in a minute of silent remembrance and then invited everyone to party all night. What a chump. Still, it makes an appropriately fatuous send-off to an elaborately fatuous film.
Addendum (18/06/22): Obviously, Cameron is, besides providing a tragic romance, delivering a Hollywood version of history, one that can lay to rest any disputes over authenticity. So banish from your mind any and all doubts as to what really happened with the ship, or that the Olympic and Titanic were swapped for an insurance scam, or that there was no iceberg at all, or the various JP Morgan rivals conveniently perishing with the vessel.