Rats From a Sinking Ship II

illustration by Jason Stout

James Cameron, the director of Titanic, presented himself with a major problem when he cast the pretty Leonardo DiCaprio. He must cast a female opposite DiCaprio who, a) can act (somebody's got to), and b) won't threaten all those gals drooling over DiCaprio – an actress young women will accept while still imagining that they could take her place. So it was cunning to cast the superb Kate Winslet. Fleshy enough not to threaten the slim-is-divine mindset of most American women, she allows them, by this alone, to imagine themselves in her role. In terms of acting, all the heavy lifting is up to Winslet. She is the only character called upon tochange, and she is the prime mover in every scene. Since DiCaprio has only about three facial expressions, all of them dripping with self-love, and since he bestows those unchanging expressions upon everyone he looks at (even his enemies) – then we can't really believe in their romance unless we look at her. Winslet calibrates her face meticulously and looks at everyone just a little differently, depending on what her character's relationship to them is at that moment (it's called "acting"). Thus, when she looks at DiCaprio, we see she feels something. But what?

Watching Winslet's fine Ophelia in Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, you see an utterly vulnerable and absolutely obsessed love. She can't afford that passion in Titanic because Cameron isn't interested in its complications. So what passes for lovein Titanic is fascination. Mere fascination. Winslet looks at DiCaprio as though she's amazed he exists and wouldn't be surprised if he disappeared at any moment with a "Poof!" In other words, she looks at him exactly the way the audience does. Sly fascination, concerned fascination, sexual fascination, whimsical fascination – her look always radiates fascination. Anything deeper would sink this ship faster than the iceberg.

Titanic would have us buy the assumption that fascination is enough to transform a life – for Winslet's Rose is transformed by her fascination, rather than by surviving the disaster. Fascination is thus presented as an emotion sufficient in itself to be transcendent. (And who would say categorically that it ain't? Thankfully, it's not up to me to make the rules about how you transcend.) Titanic, then, is the epitome of an America that flits from one fascination to another. Our advertising industry – if not the engine, at least the instigator, of our economy – isbased upon igniting fascination after fascination, fascinations urgent enough to make you spend your hard-earned wage. Such fascinations, while urgent, must also be temporary, for if any single purchase fulfilled our fascination then the economy would dead-end. A root reason for Titanic's success is that it equates this same flimsy fascination with the most profound transformative love. It says what many Americans love to hear: "You needn't go any deeper than this. Love is not a mystery that will shake your very soul. Who wants to be Ophelia anyway? It's enough to be fascinated. The ship may sink, but not you. A little infatuation, and you'll be fine."

But one actor has gone unmentioned: the ship itself. Big ships were to that era what computers are to ours: the cutting edge of technology. Much of the engineering that made skyscrapers and the modern city possible was developed and/or perfected for ocean liners and battleships: air conditioning; central heating; structural steel; methods of riveting that could withstand tremendous pressures; elevators; many innovations in insulation, wiring, piping, and vents; wireless communications (the beginnings of our electronics) – to name only the major contributions. The Titanic was to be the greatest of ocean liners, the zenith of progress, the modern world encapsulated in a single floating edifice. People believed the claim that it was unsinkable because progress itself was thought to be unsinkable. The Titanic is the most famous sunken ship because in its day it symbolized the Western world. If the Titanic could sink, maybe everything, progress itself, could sink.

Today America often feels like it's sinking even though statistics say it's stronger than ever. But who really trusts the stability of the ship? Is what we perceive as a mere series of thuds really the ripping of the hull below the water line? Which brings up haunting questions: How are you to behave on a sinking ship? Can you still find love, transcendence, transformation? Can you survive? Are you that worthy, or lucky, or ruthless?

In Titanic, a young woman of substantial potential is trapped by the strictures of her world, and just as she begins to escape her bonds the ship starts sinking. This is, to put it mildly, an easy situation to identify with; in the deepest sense, it's a mythic situation for our time. But the film being what it is, it is exactly as the ship starts to sink that drama turns to farce. These filmmakers cannot allow their audience an inkling of the notion that the sinking of the ship may be more important than, or even equal to, the fate of the lovers. We do not want to believe our ship is sinking, but if it's sinking we don't want to accept much responsibility in the matter, or let the fact of its sinking lessen our self-importance. OK, let the ship sink, just so that before it sinks I get what I want!

Therefore, as soon as the ship begins to take on water, we're distracted by one silly plot device after another. DiCaprio's Jack is accused of theft and confined somewhere far below deck. Winslet's Rose hunts for him through passageways filling with water. This water, which she wades in for the better part of half an hour, is just as cold, is the very same water, as the water that will soon freeze Jack and hundreds of others to death. But for the sake of the farce, neither she nor we are supposed to notice. Jack, of course, now completes his transformation into Tom Sawyer and is up to every crisis, knowing exactly where to go and what to do, wisecracking all the way. The panic and horror of everyone else is played as a foil for Jack's ingenuity. Our lovers don't display one instant of serious fear. Their earnestness and love are enough to overcome all obstacles. The message is clear: If you too can summon up such earnestness and love you will intuitively make all the right moves no matter what, even on a sinking ship. Who doesn't want to identify with that?

If you're in love even the rats will help. For a few seconds we see a dozen or so rats running up a passageway, and this is taken as a sign: Follow those rats, they know the way! And that's the last of the rats, as far as the film is concerned. We never have to be aware that there were at least as many rats on a ship that size as people – a couple of thousand? – and that the rats would have been crazed, running in packs all over the place, rats biting fiercely at any foot or leg that got in their way, swarming over any child or adult who stumbled and fell, floating dead in the watery halls that Rose wades through to free Jack, and finally dead rats, hundreds of dead rats, bobbing on the waves among dead voyagers in the calm after the great ship sinks. That might have gotten our minds off the invincibility of love.

At the very end, we do see the floating corpse of one dead child in her dead mother's arms, but we don't see any children in the act of dying, much less dying in horror when the confusion and the waters have separated them from their parents. In the film, the screams of terror heard and ignored by those in the lifeboats are not very loud, and are not the screams of children. As long as one of the lovers survives, our illusions are permitted to survive. And if our illusions are permitted to survive, we've taken a journey for nothing.

But Titanic has one soggy claim to significance. Let us never underestimate how subversive the search for love is. Even when it begins as mere fascination. Young people are receiving the message that to compromise their search for love is to lose their souls. And they are so eager for this message that they return to soak themselves in it over and over. I can't help but feel that this speaks well of them. They hunger to be told that there is something precious which, on pain of death, they must not lose, and love is its secret.

Give this audience credit for that much. They may be numbed, but they're not dead. They may want to be fooled, but they don't want to be dismissed. What they demand for their money is a call to love. Not nice-nice secure love, but disruptive love. Passion. They want to be told that passion matters, and that it can save souls, even on a sinking ship. Many of the young will look at this film when older and feel sick at what they've failed to find and what they've compromised; others, a few, won't have stopped their search, and will look at Titanic in later years to help remember and renew that search. A very fewmight, because of its inspiration, even find something. In a world as full of lies as ours, one takes one's epiphanies where one can – in the midst of nonsense, if onehas to. And who can blame anyone for that? Like those musicians who really did play on that deck for as long as they could, and who displayed a code of conduct appropriate to a sinking ship or a botched civilization, a few will play their music come hell or, yes, high water.

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