Historians sometimes speak of something called the long nineteenth century, beginning in 1789, ending in 1914, and bookended by the French Revolution and the beginning of the First World War. It can be a useful conceptual aid, and not unduly harmful, since, in any event, the idea of “the century” as an important unit of time is relatively arbitrary. And if, as an Americanist, I would choose to push the beginning of “the nineteenth century” up to 1814, I still concede that World War I appears to usher in a new age. All of this is simply to say that the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of Titanic, which is hereby observed, is of peculiar interest to me.
Consider the popular image of the ship as a floating palace, with opulent ballrooms, elegant dining halls, grand staircases, and vast promenades, where passengers of different classes were kept separate, and where your class largely determined whether you survived the voyage. Almost all of the first-class female passengers survived, while many, if not most, of the female third-class passengers perished. Consider the spirit of hubris and optimism that caused its builders to provide lifeboat capacity for fewer than half the passengers under the best-case scenario. Given that some lifeboats were launched with as few as a dozen passengers, the picture becomes much more bleak. The same irresponsible forces were at play in other disasters of the era. The Iroquois Theatre fire comes to mind.
Titanic fascinates us because, in some ways, it stands as a metaphor for nineteenth century society. Beneath the ship’s splendid exterior were men and machinery, making it all work. And the photographs of elegantly-dressed passengers amid the splendor of Titanic’s luxurious rooms belie the tremendous danger that all were in, though they didn’t know it. Plus, shipwrecks are just fascinating in general. In 1750 Samuel Johnson wrote that “almost all the fictions of the last age will vanish, if you deprive them of a hermit and a wood, a battle and a shipwreck”. Shipwrecks make for good stories, and, as it has been commonly observed that nothing is more dramatic than real life.
I remember reading or hearing about Titanic when I was a small child. But I recall being spellbound when, in the mid-1980s, the wreck was located. National Geographic made a television special about the discovery, and I watched it with tremendous interest. They showed images of the wreck at the bottom of the sea, and it was like seeing a ghost. The ship’s bell, its wheel, the rail above the bow – it all astonished me.
Ten years after Titanic was rediscovered, I had largely forgotten about it. I mean, if I was asked a Jeopardy question about it I am sure I would have answered correctly, but I didn’t think about it often. So, when the film Titanic was released in 1997, I didn’t really care. All my friends went to see it. We refered to it as “Crytanic”. Mostly I just thought Leonardo DiCaprio seemed like a terrible over-actor. Then, in 1998 or 1999, I went to see the band NRBQ play a show in Tampa. They played a song that sounded made up on-the-spot, but that I remember to this day. It was a sort of list of all the stuff that was making headlines—indeed, the stories that wouldn’t go away—at that time. Prominently mentioned were “el Niño”, “Year 2000 Computer Disaster”, and, of course, Titanic. The verse went like so:Monday, Titanic. Tuesday, Titanic. Wednesday, Thursday, Titanic. Friday for a change, a little more Titanic. Saturday, Sunday, Titanic.
That was a pretty accurate summation of public consciousness at the time.
I did eventually see the film, and my opinion of Mr. DiCaprio’s performance was confirmed. But Kate Winslet was fair of face, and the story was gripping. Friday night we went on a double date with a lovely couple, Michael and Mandy, and we saw Titanic in its newly-engineered 3D format. (I will say, for the record, that I do not like 3D movies. It never looks like real life because photography itself cannot mimic what the eye sees. That is, 3D films rely on a standard formula of shallow depth-of-field and selective focus. The director chooses an object in the frame to focus on, and the rest goes totally soft from the wide aperture. Often, he will adjust focus so that the a new object becomes the subject, while the other goes soft. Granted, our eyes do this all the time, but they do it instantly. What the human eye can accomplish the lens cannot, and, too often, the 3D film looks like a Viewmaster slide.) Though it was not originally shot in 3D, the transfer was skilfully handled, by which I mean it was not obnoxiously done, with silly gimmicks, like chunks of iceberg seeming to fly out of the screen. With so many distant-perspective shots in Titanic, it seems like a logical choice to give it a go, and I admit it could have been a lot worse. My opinion of Leonardo DiCaprio has not changed. Why does he always seem like he’s acting in a high school play? And while Kate Winslet remains beautiful, I did not realize before that her character is supposed to be seventeen. I was not convinced. Though I still found the story compelling, many of the special effects look awful. I have criticized CGI for years, and in spite of substantial improvements in computer technology, CGI still does not look as good as traditional special effects with models. Nearly every film I have seen that uses a considerable amount of CGI has disappointed me. Both Incredible Hulk-inspired films looked terrible. Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films looked fake. Not quite Elliott in Pete’s Dragon fake, but close. And last night we watched Rise of the Planet of the Apes and it looked so cartoonish that I couldn’t decide which was worse, the special effects or the story. Both were nearly unwatchable. I am not exaggerating when I say that Dr. Zaius looked far more realistic in 1968 than Caesar did in 2011. The Titanic filmmakers used lots of models, and those look great. But the CGI effects, especially long sweeping shots of the ship’s deck and surroundings, look cartoonish. Indeed, in several instances, the computer-generated passengers walking along the decks looked like a video game. Grand Theft Auto: Titanic. Considering the film’s budget, that is disappointing. They would have done better to build a model on a set and use cranes to shoot it.
All that said, we had a splendid time with Mandy and Michael, and the sinking of Titanic is still fascinating, even a century after it happened.