In 1971, the year I was born, the United States discontinued its policy of inoculating newborns against smallpox. Consequently, I have no scar on my upper left arm to signify my body's ability to resist the virus. I am—and so is everybody born with and after me—instead a child of a world in which even the most elusive of our enemies can be systematically starved out of existence, or, in the case of the last few samples of smallpox known to remain on the planet, be imprisoned in government-sponsored medical facilities, heavily guarded, to await extermination. We are the beneficiaries of modernity, separated by our need not to be resistant to things that once were something to be feared. Of course, there were only a few years separating the last reported cases of smallpox in 1978 from the first time we identified HIV and now we have strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This is the apex of human pride: our technologies have backfired, leaving us vulnerable once again to what ailed us. Nature laughs at us: it took the human species countless generations to develop the technology to prevent these diseases, and only forty years for evolution to render bacteria resistant to that technology.
Such human vanity has produced a number of tragedies, and God only knows what it will produce in future. By "tragedies" I don't mean events such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki—those moments in human history were premeditated; a number of people knew the consequences of their outcome, and they had much to do with policy, racism, and power and nothing to do with pride. By tragedy I mean those events in human history brought on by blind human confidence that technological experiments would not fail. The story of Titanic provides a perfect example of such confidence in human powers— a ship that cannot sink is like a body resistant to deadly disease—and James Cameron, who previously directed the technology-wary film Terminator 2, appropriates the story for himself in his most recent film. Christened Titanic, the film presents the end of a world in which all confidence rests in spectacular feats of engineering, and it does so on both a physical and moral level, by examining its ethics and their consequences.
Now, Titanic is a conservative film. It came from Hollywood, and the pleasures it affords us as viewers stem from its very conventionality. Titanic is a genre film; even if we didn't already know Titanic's fate we could predict the destiny of the protagonists from having seen the previews. We enter the theatre knowing who is poor and who has wealth, who dies and who lives. An audience takes comfort in watching a familiar narrative unfold. And what narrative is more familiar than Romeo and Juliet's? Titanic is a romance commingled with a disaster, both of which satisfy.
Titanic may be conservative but it isn't mindless, and during its long climax it does momentarily reach beyond the boundaries of Hollywood romance and disaster film conventions. At points the narrative dissolves. The eye of the camera moves well beyond the narrator's eye and shows us what she cannot see. As the ship begins to sink we see it from far away, sending up its tiny flare—a "God shot," I call these, because they are so surprisingly full of judgment and pity. They are frequent in Bergman's films, though usually they judge and pity only a handful of people. A little while later we see momentary vignettes that approach a sort of visual poetry: a man and a woman embracing on their bed as water engulfs their stateroom; a mother tells her children a bedtime story.
The rest of the narrative looks as if it had been structured by Mary Shelley. The interruption of one story by another in Titanic mimics Frankenstein's structure. Where Frankenstein's cautionary tale postpones (both literally and figuratively) Walton's adventure in the arctic, Rose's story similarly interrupts another maritime adventure. The drawing of Rose as a young woman waylays the explorers' plot, turned as it is by fame and greatness—the same forces driving Victor Frankenstein's plot. When Rose boards the ship, presumably to advise the adventurers on their search for sunken treasure, she assumes control of the story with a few dismissive words: "Thank you for the fine forensic explanation of that night." You could write off this sea-change in the plot by reading it as one of the film's many conventionalities—the use of a small scene or sequence to herald the arrival of the object or person who sets the story in motion (Stephen Spielberg, who got rich and famous by exploiting convention, uses this in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and ET)—if not for occasional interruptions in Rose's story that double back on each other. Shelley associates interruption with the creative process, and the quest for "greatness." In her contrived introduction to Frankenstein Shelley recalls the circumstances of that novel's conception, the competition between herself and her companions. Byron, the great poet, produces only "a fragment;" Shelley's husband, the other "illustrious" poet, abandons his story also. Only Mary, a pregnant teenager, finishes hers. Keats' gravestone— "humbly" asserting that his name is "writ on water" when he completed what he did before he died in his twenties—describes the Romantic understanding of "greatness" that Shelley attacks. (It is interesting to note that Kenneth Branaugh in his version of Frankenstein shows no understanding of interruption. Instead, he concerns himself with Frankenstein's potency, leaving nothing to ambiguity regarding the mate that the monster demands Victor Frankenstein build for him.)
Mostly, Cameron uses interruption as a plot device. Why does Rose insist that Jack draw her when her metamorphosis as a person has already been established? The drawing gives her a chance to tell her story. Cameron comes closest to understanding interruptions in the way that Shelley does when he uses them to subvert the film's most conventional moments. In the drawing scene Rose subverts convention by appropriating the male gaze. It is Rose's erotic fantasy, and her acting it out—to the point where she "pays" Jack—solidifies her control. Why does Rose allow herself to believe that Jack has betrayed her? (Indeed, why do all heroes of romance call themselves Jack?) We have seen this moment before in every film of this genre, but in Titanic it is the film's least believable event. It simply isn't needed; enough resistance to their union exists in the first place, and you wonder why such a thing comes between two people whose very meeting depended on mutual trust. Cameron utilizes this convention to delay a revelation of truth, and we finally see it when Rose hacks at Jack's handcuffs with an axe. The conventional moment makes room for the characters to represent something beyond themselves, and sends forward a plot that both intersects with and becomes their own. At the moment that Rose frees Jack, we see Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio enacting the liberation of the oppressed, confirmed by the shot of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the movie and its visual connection to Rose.
And what of that huge, conspicuous diamond? What more interruption could there be than to create characters on the verge of discovery, only to frustrate them? To send them on a search for fame and riches and to instead give them an illustration of the object of their endeavors?
Male and female Romantics divide neatly on the subject of passion. Jane Austen captures, reroutes and "improves" passion as if it were a small stream flowing though a part of Pemberly, while Keats and (the other) Shelley resist such cultivation, and extol passion's virtues. Mary Shelley understands passion's consequences, and tortures Victor Frankenstein for indulging his. The same dangerous passion that propels and then ultimately pursues Frankenstein leads to tragedy on Titanic, the film suggests, and occasions its fall from grace.
The creators of Titanic, represented in the film by figures from real life, bear a guilt like Frankenstein's. The three representatives, Andrews, who built the ship, its captain, and an official of the White Star Line that owns Titanic, all look to this marvelous invention to propel them to greatness. Titanic's captain allows himself to make mistakes in his seafaring to crown his career. The White Star official suffers from perhaps this century's other fatal flaw— believing one's own press. Andrews by far is the most artist-like of the three; he delights in his ability to bring the idea of Titanic to fruition, and in this sense is most like Frankenstein, or (the other) Shelley or Byron. "Writ on water," indeed, I thought as I watched water covering the Picassos that Rose brings with her from Paris. The consequences of greatness extend well beyond the personal lives of those who strive for it. Director Cameron, like few of his other colleagues in Hollywood, is quick to examine the economics of ventures that lead to greatness. He draws a sharp contrast between the privilege of the passengers in the ship's first class cabins and the cramped quarters that steerage affords the poor. Rose and her entourage board the ship with little trouble, while in the foreground the lower classes submit themselves to the indignities of "medical" examinations before they are allowed to use the tickets for which they presumably have paid. We see the men who tend the engines that power the ship in a scene that reminds us just whose bodies fuel the pursuit of greatness. At a particularly grisly moment the film reminds us that the crux of Titanic's ingenious design—compartments that seal off, protecting the rest of the ship from water penetration—requires human sacrifice when one of the engine-room workers ends up unable to escape from one of those wonderful, salvific compartments.
Titanic does not go where other movies, (notably Boogie Nights and The Full Monty) do in exploring the connection between the exploited bodies and personal dignity. In Titanic there are elements of Brecht's Epic Theatre, as "background" comes to the screen. This film would have worked just as well as spectacle had the lower classes stayed in the background where they usually belong in costume pictures, but in that early shot of immigrants sticking out their tongues to have their teeth checked, Cameron commits Titanic to bring class issues to the foreground. Poor Mollie Brown, thousands of miles away from Denver's Sacred Eighty-Something, withstands fresh discrimination (though indeed, in terms of accent, actress Cathy Bates is a few hundred miles to the south—somewhere in New Mexico.) But where Brown for all her new money attempts assimilation into the world of perpetually moneyed families, Jack plays up his origins unapologetically.
Once the ship begins to sink class tension escalates into class warfare. Cameron borrows heavily from Potemkin, recreating a number of shots, and triggering the viewers' memories to remember earlier moments in Titanic, in which he has shown us machinery at work. He does not attempt to recall Eisenstein's sense of rhythm in Potemkin, but the connection between machinery, workers, and revolt nevertheless remains continuously present in the evocation of the earlier film. As the ship pitches, equality between passengers in steerage and passengers in first class levels out. Money becomes worthless in the face of death, as Cal learns when his bribe to secure a place for himself and Rose on a lifeboat is thrown back in his face. A Guggenheim who announces that he will die like a gentleman ends up dying like a thousand laborers that night. The attempts of passengers and crew to uphold class difference as the ship sinks are simply ridiculous: that same Guggenheim, after he announces his intentions of how he will leave the world, orders a servant to fetch him a drink. As all of this unfolds you get a sense of Titanic as a metaphor of wealthy Americans before the advent of income tax and the stock market crash. They fancied themselves like the ship— unsinkable.
The camera definitely identifies with the proletariat, and the only really bad guy—the one whose motives have nothing to do with vanity or love and everything to do with income—is a class traitor. But while Titanic exposes all of this through juxtapositions of life in the sweatshop with life in the drawing room in one vessel, it fails to connect gender and technology issues as successfully as it does those of class. By assuming that Rose has the power to choose her path in life, rather than admitting to de facto conditions that limit her, it falls short of the insight of Cameron's T2. Contrast Rose's unbounded future to the future that Sarah Conner faces in T2. Where Rose's voyage on Titanic becomes an experience that revives her soul, Sarah's experiences steal hers. She is nothing but a shell—a concept that Linda Hamilton's overbuilt body communicates powerfully—a human image of the machines that she dedicates her life to destroying. This she does in the name of motherhood, though it keeps her from being able to raise her son. Technology has inverted nature. The creative energy inherent in parenting finds its expression only in destruction. Sarah Conner becomes a personification of a number of issues related to women's issues: abortion, surrogate motherhood, other reproductive technologies. Shelley wrote about this: Frankenstein is about parenting and reproductive technologies, about appropriating nature's functions. But Rose remains a passenger on Titanic rather than its product. The horror of that disaster is more like a terrifying dream than an experience that leaves her, like a Romantic hero, sadder and wiser. Her story is the story of an individual rather than the story of a collective; floating above the proletarian story line, it intersects with, but never fully dissolves into it. The moments in her life that Rose commemorates with photos celebrate the small triumphs of an individual spirit over her circumstances. It is essentially a capitalist plot, pushing class struggle to the background once again. The Titanic disaster preceded women's suffrage in the United States by ten years, yet we see no photograph of Rose demonstrating or casting a ballot.
All of this makes me wonder why Hollywood can't create fresh ways of portraying liberated women. When we first see Rose, she's at a potter's wheel. What is it about pottery that lends itself to hackneyed images of vibrant women? At best it reminds me of the dessert dishes my mother made in the seventies when she was a bored and frustrated housewife; at worst it brings back memories of the schmaltzy eroticism of Ghost. You'd never catch Sarah Conner mixing glazes.
Film itself is an exploitive technology, a fact that Titanic admits. In this movie there is no chain of special effects to gratify our need for spectacle only. The film does gratify in this way—please do not misread me—it simply uses its full bag of tricks to push forward the plot and to deepen its meaning. Consider the opening sequence of shots in which we watch a small submarine descend through opaque ocean to meet Titanic. It's such a conventional sequence that you see it in all Spielberg movies that have to do with aliens. It looks like a flying saucer from a '50s movie—one of those movies both frightened by and obsessed with technology. Only this submarine penetrates the depths in our lifetime. Our capabilities have caught up with our dreams, but still elude our control.
Think of what film has given us as a warning: Frankenstein struggling to right his creation in the Branaugh version; Sarah Conner's compulsive chin ups; the soundtrack of 2001, and everything Hal's voice conveys—omnipresence, omniscience, insidious-ness, paranoia. Hal's is the voice of cloning, of mad-cow disease, of smallpox inoculations. He reminds us how hideous our progeny can be.