In Defense of Titanic

Titanic is a movie about what it means to save someone and what it means to be saved.  It’s a cartoon, yes, the characters archetypes, if not quite caricatures.  And it’s otherwise easy for some to hate.  In fact, it seems fashionable to show disdain for it.  Doing so misses something important about our openness to art, defined simply as the portrayal, rather than raw transmission, of ideas.  For me a film is a success if it’s authentic and provides a new space, or maybe a new reason, to turn over thoughts.  Is someone actually trying to tell me something, and have they provided space for me — emotionally, intellectually, whatever — to think and feel?  Titanic does.

It wouldn’t be hard to describe the film in an unflattering way:  “A teenaged brat, who all too typically has issues with a controlling mother, gives everything up for a dashing young free spirit who could be a boy-band member and who takes her innocence and saves her life.  The tragedy of the Titanic itself is both eye candy and a mere backdrop for teenagers in love.  There is a ridiculously stereotypical and unredeemable villain and even a chase scene involving a gun.  The dialogue fails to develop instances of complex and real human beings.”

All these things are somewhat true but miss the point.  The cartoon characters that compose the plot are isolations of human tendencies — not false so much as incomplete.  The film is a sketch of emotions and our own conflicting ambitions cast over a transformative event.  The sinking is this one, small funnel through which everything that was before swirls downward to a point, and from which everything emerges as a gift and a matter of pure choice.

It’s not that Titanic makes us actually fret over how to balance comfort and security (Rose’s beginning) against daring, truth, and intentional living (Rose’s end).  No, Cameron never makes us really feel that Rose is throwing away anything important when she leaves wealth and status behind.  Even when she climbs back on board the sinking ship, we surely admire it.  Internal, ethical struggle is not what this movie is about.

One could make a wonderful film that captures the essence of that dilemma, that makes the viewer feel the torment of trading away comfort for freedom.  An easy lesson in the abstract, the singular nature of life and the importance of mustering the courage to throw off our shackles could, in the hands of committed actors, writers, and a director, be felt as horrifically difficult and agonizing.  The obvious abstract lesson, glorified in many lesser films, could be cinematically rendered to show the internal conflict of fear, logic, hope, and desperation that rages in our meat-bound brains.  But Titanic is not a lesser film for not doing this.  

The beauty of the film lies in the passion of its large scale historical depiction and in the very small scale revolution it worked in the lives of Jack and Rose. Rose saved Jack as much as Jack saved Rose.  And against the epic backdrop of the sinking of a massive ship, the event that just makes you wonder what you’d do at the end of all things when all the usual rules die away, we appreciate a life well-lived as consisting both of freedom and of freely chosen but deeply felt obligation.

Freedom and obligation, each seems to be the other’s absence.  That’s true of course. I’m free to choose if I’m not obligated to make a particular choice. And I’m obligated if I’m not entirely free.  But as the opposing forces of the electron and proton draw them together to create the matter of our world, simultaneous obligations and freedoms are essential to the complete human being. 

Our main characters arrive on Titanic as distillations of these pure states.  Jack, seemingly very happy to drift through life beholden to no one, relishes adventure and not knowing even where he will next sleep.  He is the embodiment of the spirit we long for when obligation piles up into a twisted mass of metal, looming large as fully ground and seized gears.  Who wouldn’t want to be absolutely free of obligations?  Happiness, as Hitchcock said, is a “clear horizon.”

Rose arrives with the opportunity to want for nothing.  She is unburdened of choice.  She need have no fear of the panoply of acute and very real dangers that have threatened all the beings from whom she is descended, the poverty, the not knowing, the struggle, the warring tribes, the famine, the battle for survival and violence of the primordial pools.  Her unprecedented security would come at the price of an obligation to accept her place in the complex social structure that makes it possible.  The Jewel of the Sea is everything most people seem to desire all their lives, but it is locked in a box, the manifestation of the quid pro quo. (And the jewel, like the unobtainium in the equally misunderstood Avatar, changes its meaning as the characters change.)

Jack and Rose are incomplete.  Anyone who has experienced the joy of children, of family, of the best of friends, and of honest love can intuitively understand how obligation can enrich a life.  It’s the awesome power of voluntary obligation, to live in part for someone else, that Rose gave Jack.  The special kind of saving that we provide one another in little bits over the course of our lives, it was all channeled into a few hours during which Jack was himself saved by saving Rose.  It probably sounds corny, but I was moved watching Jack find the worth of that something worth dying for.

So too, anyone who has spent weeks in the wilderness, climbing high peaks, crossing deserts, or even lounging on exotic shores understands the kinetic energy of freedom felt in the gut.  As I write this, I’m flying over the Arizona desert, desperately longing to be exploring canyons and climbing mountains, to be in my sleeping bag with hood drawn and looking up at my own breath and the slow stars that are satellites in the pure, dark sky.  One image I always remember from Titanic is the photograph of a young but emancipated Rose in a pilot’s outfit, standing next to a plane.  Also, in that postscript of a scene, ranging over Rose’s memories, there are all around reminders of the family she later made and the implicit constraints and obligations that came with that.  Not least of all these is her own aged body.  Sure, these are symbols, and they are cliché.  But that doesn’t make it false: “This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth.”

That is my Titanic.  Yes, it’s the backdropped story of hubris, adventure, and terror.  It isn’t Shutter Island. But there at its core is an opportunity for me to think, on a more emotional level, of the integral values that make this precious and all-too-short life worth living.