Great movies we appreciate but also rightly mock
Happy Oscar week, you third-class stowaways. Quoth the thespian Bill Paxton, “Are you ready to go back to Titanic?” The point is you’re not. It’s 2011 and we’re still 192 years away from comprehending Titanic’s world-paralyzing success, its Best Picture win, and Jack Dawson’s hack drawing skills. He’s just never going to get into Oberlin at that rate. You won’t find explanation for James Cameron’s sorcery here, but near, far, wherever you are — you will remember and recoil at the royal badness of Titanic. (Louis Virtel, “Bad Movies We Love, Oscar Week Edition: Titanic,”Movieline, 23 Feb. 2011)
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I have never understood why people liked this movie. James Cameron has never been the greatest at dialog, but this was by far the worst script he's written. You know it's bad when Billy Zane plays a one-dimensional character that would actually have been more complex and nuanced if they had given him a mustache to twirl. And I never understood the concept of a rich woman falling in love with an eleven-year-old boy that likes drawing boobies. And what makes it so much more disappointing for me is that many of his other movies (Avatar, True Lies, Terminator 1 & 2, Aliens) rank among my favorites. (Tommy Marks, response to post)
Whatever the dialogue, Tommy -- and I don't dislike Cameron's dialogue as much as so many others seem to -- the situations the characters are in play out very real. I guess I'll take as genuine that many discerning were wholly uninvolved in the movie, owing to its stereotypical characters and embarrassing dialogue -- though I don't buy it, really -- but however one-dimensional (rigid? uncomplicated?) Billy Zane, when he slaps his wife-to-be around for making him a fool: that was real. He was beyond pissed off, and you felt it: he was a terror. I think most important, the film got at -- with the mothers' constant watch and difficult-to-rebuff moral code -- how difficult it was going to be for someone with a lot of natural spunk -- Rose -- to ever really free herself. I believed that even given how considerable she already was, without Jack, she was for-sure caught and done for life. But with her constant dialogue, interaction with him, you believed she could slowly come to free herself from a whole upbringing of duty, move beyond insufficient truculent rebellions -- like a preference for the New, like Monet -- to untether herself for good, even without the facilitation of a dislocating disaster. People could say that the reason this romance works so well for so so many people, is because they're just filling their own expectations and dreams onto what is really so thinly put before them, but for me at least, this just isn't true here. Cameron's magic isn't just in his action and exempt everywhere else; his genius owes to his really understanding what breaking free is, what romance and play is, and he wouldn't tolerate creating films where you couldn't hope to realize it some for yourself as well.
The problem for me with Cameron is that though he clearly got somewhere really good, it certainly wasn't SO good he shouldn't have moved on a considerable some from there. I think it's false to say he's a forever adolescent, because I would cheer if adolescence actually meant even for a brief while feeling as uninhibited as he is. But still, once you yourself have made passage from being the trimmed rose to being the wild one -- and most of you blessed discerning, haven't -- you really only need revisit him now and again out of friendship, to say thank you. He's set, in a fairly good place, but further progress lies with you.
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This film, though, does deserve to be in the "great movies we however rightly mock" category, however. A service is done, by pointing out the numerous things in this film that really are problematic, that if viewers weren't onto, they're not a sufficient number of steps away from stupid.
Most central for me is that it helps keep the truly ignorant and stalled feeling smugly enlightened. If YOU know who Freud or Monet is, this knowledge doesn't mean you're in the same position as Rose ostensibly is: she is supposed to be an early appreciater of the New, possess sufficient sense of independent judgment that she is on to quality from the start, while as someone alive now your knowledge of these folks only means you're in the same position the Edwardian mundanes were when they'd long accustomed themselves to once rabble-rousers, now ho-hums, such as Darwin or Dickens. That is, your being onto Freud or Monet could easily mean that you're really just the prosaic Cal, who actually has no appreciation for new genius, not the avant-garde Rose -- and given how the not-especially-inspiring mass went for it, probably does. The question you fairly ask yourself as you remember those who found such meaning in "Titanic" (including yourself, if you, like me, are one of them) is how many of them could pass over the film's knuckleheadedness out of fair faith to its mighty spirit, and remain those of praise-worthy, TRULY sophisticated taste? It's a question which would have you juggling around greats like Ebert and Zacharek, ultimately deciding to let one or the other -- or even both -- "fall."
Knuckle-headedness isn't always damning, though. Sophistication isn't always a sign of elevation. The '60s generation were not sophisticated, and its elders constantly hoped to blast them back into supplicants for their untutoredness, their lack of refinement, their "stupid" discare for how things had been and "really were," but were spiritually evolved and Good. Late 20th/early 21st-century products like Franzen and Martel are hugely sophisticated, smart, aware, but maybe in the end mostly deferent and perhaps defeated and warped -- not so good.