Titanic sets human tragedy apart from Hollywood gloss


Titanic (M). Director: James Cameron. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett, Gloria Stuart, Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, Bill Paxton. 194 minutes

Legend has it that upon its original theatrical release in the US 15 years ago, James Cameron's epic Titanic was listed as running for two hours and 74 minutes. The reason was a perceived aversion among American audiences towards films that ran for longer than three hours. It's probably an urban myth, propagated at the expense of 'dumb' Americans. But said Americans may have had a point. Titanic is too long.

I have nothing against long films per se. But to me Titanic's running time is needlessly bloated by an unnecessary framing narrative, in which an elderly Titanic survivor (Stuart) shares her story with a boatload of high tech treasure hunters; and by an overly drawn out 'lust story' in which beautiful youngsters Jack and Rose (DiCaprio and Winslett) grope each other across the class divide.

At a recent screening for media, held to promote the revamped 3D conversion of Titanic that arrives in cinemas today, in time for next week's 100th anniversary of the ship's historical demise, we were shown 45 minutes of selected scenes: the 'reader's digest version', quipped producer Jon Landau prior to the presentation. For me, 45 minutes is about enough, especially after several viewings of the entire film in years past.

It was sufficient to remind that, despite its failings, Titanic is an excellent film. Its great strength is its portrayal of small human stories against the gargantuan disaster of the doomed ship's final hours. Yes, the sight of the massive ship sloping, snapping, and finally sinking beneath the waves is spectacular. But the tragedy is the loss of life, not of vessel, and the film doesn't lose sight of this.

If images of a weeping elderly couple embracing on their bed, awaiting death together as their cabin fills with water, and of a mother reading to her children to offer them the small gift of love and comfort before the end, are shamelessly trite, they are also effectively emotive. I remember choking up as a 15-year-old cinemagoer at the melancholy dignity of musicians who continue to play even as the deck beneath them lists treacherously.

We feel the stab of injustice as third class passengers are barred below deck to face certain death; qualified outrage at a villain who rescues a child in order to secure his own place on a lifeboat; sorrow for a remorseful captain going down with his ship; shame and sympathy for huddled escapees who refuse to return to rescue others who have been left bobbing in the ocean, for fear that their lifeboat might be overturned.

During its long climactic sequence Titanic accumulates images of panicked individuals perishing upon the deck amid falling debris or gushes of icy water, or drowning or freezing in the ocean itself. Some of these are familiar characters; others are extras. But the film manages to evoke each loss of life as if it matters. Titanic is noble in its tribute to these individuals. Jack and Rose's story, by contrast, is pure Hollywood.

This re-release is an artistic as well as commercial endeavour. Cameron and co. are the most skillful practitioners of 3D technology working today, and their conversion of Titanic is immaculate. 3D is best when used not as a gimmick whereby gags fly off the screen at a flinching, giggling audience, but rather as an immersive technique. As Landau puts it, the enhanced depth of field makes of the cinema screen a window onto another world.

 Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett



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Existing comments

wholly agree. would have been a great 90-minute movie. a cinemaphile friend of mine says, correctly I think, that almost every movie can be cut profitably by 30 minutes at least; and many movies have seven great minutes. He's editing The Greratest Bogart Movie ever together, using seven-minute clips; a project that often reminds me of the last great scene of Coinema Paradiso.
brian doyle | 05 April 2012

I thought the film was too long when I first saw it, even with the unforgettable moments. I read in the SMH this week that Kate Winslet was asked what the differences were between herself and Leonardo di Caprio now. She replied, "He's fatter, I'm thinner". Raised a laugh with me!
Pam | 05 April 2012

A follow-up to Brian Doyle's comment. I've often wondered why they don't have an Oscar category for 'Best Scene'. You could keep it to scenes under 10 minutes, and have a limit of one per movie. There are some great scenes from films that definitely deserve attention, even if the films themselves aren't really worth sitting through.
Michael McVeigh | 05 April 2012

Coming up next: your nominations for 'best scene from a film which otherwise was not all that great' ;)
Charles Boy | 05 April 2012


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