'Titanic 3D' and the Limits of Artistic License

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What James Cameron got right and tragically wrong about the oceanic disaster

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20th Century Fox

I've just returned from the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, where I had a rare double opportunity: to tour a visiting exhibition of Titanic artifacts and to see the 3D version of James Cameron's Titanic in a rare remaining film IMAX theatre, with the largest screen in Michigan, on the premises. (I'll have more to say about film and digital projection, especially in IMAX format, in a later post.)

I've had mixed experiences with 3D revivals in the past, so I wondered how well Cameron's conversion had worked. Professional critics disagree; compare Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal with Roger Ebert. I can't judge Ebert's charge of diminished brightness, since so much of the film depicted shipboard or night scenes that were not supposed to be brilliantly lit in the first place. Cameron is said to have compared his frame-by-frame effort to cutting a lawn uniformly to the millimeter with a nail clipper. I agree with Morgenstern that most of the time the effect is subtle; everything is just sharper and more vivid. Only occasionally does something come at you, for example a few suitcases during the early boarding scene.

The real people and real stories of the Titanic could have made a film every bit as dramatic as the Cameron version. In fact, that describes the book by Walter Lord and its film adaptation by Roy Ward Baker that revived interest in the tragedy in the 1950s after decades of relative oblivion. The exhibition, for example, relates the story of a young globetrotting upholsterer who was kidnapped (shanghaied) in Egypt too late to could join the ship. A friend put a trunk with his tools and souvenirs aboard, and lost his own life; the owner died before his trunk was finally salvaged.

The real people and real stories of the Titanic could have made a film every bit as dramatic as the Cameron version

And there are ironies in the casting of Titanic. The Philadelphia mill-owning WASP villain, Caledon Hockley, with his sneers at the third-class immigrant passengers, is played by Billy Zane, who grew up in Chicago of Greek-American parents. Leonardo DiCaprio may have an Italian name, but his own lineage is three-quarters German—actually a good match for turn-of-the-century Wisconsin.

What remains disturbing about 3D Titanic is not Cameron's imaginary characters or even his mixing them with real ones. It isn't even the overuse of perennial stock types (the evil rich man with his thug henchman, the selfish, downwardly mobile mother), but the combination of meticulously documented fact with sheer invention. How, for example, could Rose have bought a Picasso and a Monet even in 1912, when her evil betrothed hated them and her mother said the family fortune had been lost? They were bargains by today's standards but not giveaways. And how could Rose have teased her fellow first-class passengers, including those cigar-loving men, about the Freudian symbolism of the Titanic when the relevant book, Interpretation of Dreams, was not translated into English until 1913?

As for the evacuation, 3D amplifies both the breathtaking authenticity and the misinformation. The dangers of lowering lifeboats are dramatized wonderfully; it becomes more understandable that ship designers, then and now, were so concerned with keeping a damaged vessel afloat, considering evacuation as a last resort. The most serious is the depiction of First Officer William Murdoch as a murderer and bribe-taker. If Cameron wanted to show panicky, trigger-happy officers, that was supported—probably wrongly—by some passenger accounts and he had every artistic right to create new characters, and probably even to exaggerate the crew's obstacles to third-class passengers' escapes. (Why should working-class men doom their own lives in holding back the masses for the company's sake? I've discussed inequality and the Titanic here.)

This isn't pedantic quibbling with art. Cameron is a genius. The film is completely absorbing even for those who normally hate the disaster genre. I'm more amazed than ever at how some of the scenes were shot. And I'm opposed to laws enabling descendants of the dead to sue for defamation. But the more vivid films become, the more misleading they can be. Think of Ronald Reagan's illusions that he had photographed the liberation of Nazi death camps. Artistic freedom has responsibilities.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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