Rats From a Sinking Ship

Letters at 3 AM

illustration by Jason Stout

When Titanic did its bit to sink our culture last winter, I had to keep my mouth shut because what I wanted to say would have given away its climactic moments. Ruining a viewer's chance to experience a drama first-hand is the one thing a critic must not do. But now that the video is about to swamp our stores, I have the one thing a critic needs — an excuse. So ...

The cruise-ship business is booming like never before, and why? People who've seen Titanic are booking passage on every cruise in every direction. The New York Times reports that a consortium is actually rebuilding the Titanic, its maiden voyage scheduled for 2002. With the film's billion-plus grosses world-wide, they expect their replica to be in virtually infinite demand. Something is being searched for, en masse, upon the high seas.

Excuse me, but — didn't the ship sink?

The film opens with footage of a sunken ship; it ends with crowds of people on an enormous set enacting a cinematic ballet of the great ship sinking spectacularly with hundreds freezing to death in the water while others safe in roomy lifeboats hear their screams and do nothing. Not sights to instigate a rush on sea cruises. Yet Titanic has inspired just such a rush. Clearly, the sinking of the vessel, and the cruel deaths of 1,500 people, are incidental to what viewers feel about this film. They see an "unsinkable" ship sinking, and breathlessly book passage for a cruise. The only possible conclusion:

They didn't see a ship sink. Or rather: The ship and its dead were so peripheral to what they were really watching that the disaster itself carried not one ounce of emotional weight. All they saw, and all that the filmmakers intended for them to see, was what someone, somewhere, in some combined fit of compulsive lying and equally compulsive longing, imagines to be love.

A love in which neither lover discovers, much less has to tolerate, anything seriously objectionable in the other; a love that gives everything and transforms your life; a love that requires only that you be willing to die for it. Who doesn't want such a love? And who doesn't want to believe themselves capable of paying the price? And when we've tried and failed, who doesn't want to try again, someday, with someone? And of those who've never really tried — who among them doesn't secretly feel that they've missed, shall we say, the boat?

So Titanic's manipulative fantasy can't be blamed on its writer-director, James Cameron, because in one way or another most of us have shared it. Cameron is merely drawing from that well, tapping into our desire for love to overcome all obstacles. "You jump, I jump," is as far as his dialogue is capable of exploring this mystique; on the other hand, those four syllables certainly are more specific, and give more sense of love's risk, than the marriage ceremony's "I do."

No, you and I are in no position to feel superior here. For we've often feared, these last decades, that we're on a sinking ship, the great ship America, the flagship of Western civilization, a sinking ship that is our only available setting for love. Like the self-involved folk of Titanic, we too would prefer not to admit that our ship may be sinking. We too ignore the screams of the drowning. We have hardened our hearts enough toward the hopeless and the homeless that we can't feel righteous toward those who don't want to share their lifeboats — most of us won't share ours. Which is to say: Titanic takes America for a ride, or rather a cruise, showing our worst qualities in their best light, while seducing us with our sweetest fantasy. But that's been Hollywood's mission since 1913, two years before the Titanic sunk, when Cecil B. De Mille shot America's first epic, The Squaw Man, on the corner of what is now Sunset and Vine.

To accomplish its mission Titanic must show us a horrible disaster without letting us be shaken, still less overwhelmed, by horror. The filmmakers know we don't want that in a love story, and they can hardly be blamed for accommodating us. This film trades on our desires, after all, and we are at least as responsible for those desires as the tradespeople who've found a way to profit from them.

All that is necessary for Titanic to float as a film — besides first-rate special effects and mountains of money — is that there be no realistic human beings on board. Because fantasies, no matter how cherished, tend to fall apart when we take off our masks. (And in a disaster, masks tend to be ripped from our faces.) There is nothing more challenging than truly recognizing, seeing, another human being — since in that confrontation we are forced to see ourselves. A Moslem proverb goes: You can't read the words that are written on your own forehead. Meaning that to face another without masks is also to watch while they face something in us, something we have not seen. The acceptance or rejection of what the other sees, is nothing less than the acceptance or rejection of love. Our very lives are at stake in this act of seeing and/or not-seeing. So it's not surprising that at the crucial moment many of us, most of the time, look the other way.

The filmmakers of Titanic don't want anybody to look the other way, so they ban human beings from their ship. (The real Titanic also banned some human beings. Ads emphasized that there would be no blacks on board in any capacity. And there were no Jews in first class. The film duplicates this faithfully, without having the courage to say so directly.) Save for the character of the ship's designer, an actor whose name I didn't catch but who manages to bring nuance to an underwritten role, the ship is boarded by stereotypes, actors adept in shtick, who revel in not surprising us. This is crucial to the film's success. If human beings died, or turned away from other human beings, we'd forget the movie-ness of the movie and see the gruesomeness of what happened. If that were the case, young women (the film's major ticket-buyers) would not see Titanic again and again. No one, after all, wants to peer into the darkness of the human heart more often than is absolutely necessary.

The film's essential non-human being, Jack, is Leonardo DiCaprio. Non-humanly beautiful, his beauty is non-threatening precisely because his abilities are minimal: a light but adequate comic touch, counterpointed by a pious I'm-the-Pope's-favorite-altar-boy expression which serves him for any supposedly serious moment. But he's agile within his limits and doesn't try to do what he can't. This is no small thing. In effect he steps back from his androgynous beauty, refusing to embody it with content, which in turn allows us to project anything we want onto him — we supply his content. That, in turn, allows his beauty to command any scene. He shows up, we play the scene. (Somebody has to.) How can the viewer then not be involved?

His Jack is written as the quintessential American boy-man, Tom Sawyer resurrected, intuitive, resourceful, glib, and, above all, charming. DiCaprio is masculine in that he has a cock, but it is clearly (as far as his image goes) a cock made of feathers, a tuft of feathers, like a loosely-wrapped feather duster, and no threat whatsoever to young women who testified to seeing Titanic once a week. He relieves an audience of its sense of consequence. Which is just what American audiences usually beg to be relieved of. He contradicts reality by the mere fact of his angelic-looking existence. His very presence seems to say to these young women, "If I can exist — if I am at least real enough to be photographed — then anything is possible!" And isn't that what everyone wants to hear? That anything is possible? For that is (and I mean this in all seriousness) the message of love: Anything is possible if you love enough.

But let's not penalize DiCaprio for his looks. (His refusal to transmit content in his performance is another matter.) Every culture, everywhere and everywhen, has seen something divine in human beauty — and who would want to contradict that? Divine enough that most religions, in one way or another, tell us we are made in God's image. We are the form of the divine! Like the Greeks, like the Renaissance Italians, like almost everybody, most classic art makes the unconscious assumption that the more perfect the model, the more divinity is revealed. Not looking very perfect myself, I don't report this with pleasure; but being a sucker for beauty (ah, Ava Gardner, why was I born too late?), I am a full participant in this fucked-up attitude. When beauty looks in my direction, I too start to believe, against all my better judgment, that anything is possible.

At least I'm in good company — or lots of company, good or not. Michelangelo had his model for David, DaVinci had his for Mona Lisa, von Sternberg had his Dietrich, and James Cameron has his Leonardo DiCaprio. Those who value the "higher" arts over the "lower" have nowhere to hide as far as this perfection syndrome goes. They are equally culpable.

Continued next time. A much shorter version of this piece appears in Psychology Today.

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