The first time we saw Titanic was in 1997. This was before the Internet really took us over with all of its terrible and wonderful qualities. Before 9/11. Before we grew up and loved, got hurt, loved, and got hurt again. Back then it made us laugh but mostly cry, and taught us important historical lessons, and maybe some lessons about relationships, too. We saw it again, in 3D. Could it possibly be the same to us now? Let's discuss.
The length: This movie is more than three hours long. Pee first.
Jen: A terrible confession: I never saw Titanic the whole way through the first time. I couldn't bear to watch it knowing the spoiler as I did (you know, history), and the idea of watching people dying continuously throughout the last hour really stressed me out. So I basically, in 1997, watched the first 2 and a half hours, and then just stopped and went and did something else while my roommates finished it. Or I went and hid in the bathroom at the movie theater. Who knows, but I didn't see the whole thing, even when later I was given the 2-tape VHS collector edition tapes from my then-workplace. I loved the beginning, the set-up, the pristine ship, the idea of going on a long boat ride. But the dying part—the tragedy—I wasn't prepared to watch all that back then. This time, I sat through it. I was shocked to find out how it ended! The floating headboard scene: Why don't they try to fit on it together more than once!?
As for the length, and whether current Internet-era 24-hour-news-cycle-obnoxious types can sit through it, that's as moot a question as it was back then, I think. The thing is, you barely notice that it's more than three hours, even though time and the ticking clock is a major element throughout the film. What's most concerning about time, for me, was knowing when the "bad part" would start (I admit, I'm a child). But once it did start, once the water is creeping up, slowly but surely, and then much faster, once the ship begins to creak morbidly, and once it finally breaks in half and the chaos is ratcheted up once again, well, you're pretty tied to the screen. I did have to get up to go to the bathroom during a key moment. Fortunately, Richard recapped it for me when I returned. Even the small Diet Coke at the movie theater is too big these days. Was it always like that?
Richard: Jen, unlike you, I saw Titanic three times in the movie theater when it first came out. At the tender age of 14 it seemed like the most profound thing ever created by humans. (I had not yet been to the St. Louis arch.) The movie's length — I've now, with the 3D version included, spent some 13 hours of my life in the dark with this thing — was part of that spectacle and awe, of course. There's such an adventure to it, a long and involving process. By the film's end when (spoiler alert? Good grief, is it possible to spoil Titanic?) Rose enters that great staircase room (staircase room is not a thing, what word am I looking for here?), we really feel like we've been on this incredible journey of the heart, when in reality the whole thing takes place over like three days. It's long-form cinema done expertly; nothing feels drawn out or unnecessary. It's strange to say that a 3-hour-plus movie is efficient, but it really is. Titanic has made me a life-long fan of the long movie, the longer the better. The English Patient isn't long enough! Give me another hour of Heat. I like the big grand experience of it. Movies these days can feel so flimsy and ephemeral. If I'm plopping down $18 for a ticket, the show better be longer than 90 minutes.
Thoughts about women
Jen: Two things here. One is Rose's mother's statement, "Of course it's unfair, we're women. Our choices are always hard." (Or some such). Second, as Richard pointed out after we watched the movie, is Rose saying to her fiance, Cal Hockley, played by Billy Zane with oh so much eyeliner, "I'd rather be [Jack's] whore than your wife!" Alas, this part happened while I was in the bathroom line. But it underscores a couple of things. With the character of Rose, we get a girl who's trapped in her day, where female freedoms were less and one was under the apparent pressure to marry properly and in the economic custom that would benefit your family, meaning that her dalliance (and love) with Jack was entirely unsuitable and would also get her slapped in the face by her psychotic husband-to-be, if not pushed over the boat entirely by her wretched mother. Yet she perseveres and follows love, and, despite some deep inner reckoning, doesn't commit suicide or submit to her fiance's whims. Rose is a pretty tough lady. You have to admire and also connect with that, whether as a woman in 1997 or now.
Richard: I think it's great and kind of funny and weird that amidst all this technical wizardry and sweep and scale and all that, James Cameron managed to squish a little feminist bit of business into the movie. Sure it's pretty basic stuff — women are not possessions, corsets as representation of society's strictures, etc. — but I can't see anything to snark about here, really, especially when you consider all the impressionable blubbering teenage girls who saw this movie back then, and will likely see it now, if the pack of young sobbers we saw yesterday are any indication. There's some good, if easy, stuff in there for them. Ain't nothing wrong with a little girl power, not in 1997, not now. Though, if you wanted to get really into the nitty gritty of it, Jack is the one who "saves" her in the end. Sure she saves him at one point too, but ultimately she's willing to die for love but he won't let her. Might we have seen that trope in another popular bit of fiction recently? Hint: what comes after day but before night? When the stars come out? Yeah. And any comparisons to that mess is when things start to get hairy. So let's not over-analyze.
Thoughts about water (and fire)
Jen: The elements were where 3D really sang in this film. The pistons (or whatever they are) firing down below as the men keep the ship's engine's going. The water, so much water. It's everywhere, and you realize how consuming and destructive it can be, which is something you generally don't think about in the shower. The ticking of the clock (is time an element? For our purposes, yes) also had such a role in this. The stars are bigger and brighter. The bergs. The bergs! The water is so cold. So tragically cold.
Richard: I'm telling you, I think they sneaked in an extra bit of sensory immersion yesterday by lowering the temperature of the theater gradually. By the time the string quartet was jamming on the deck and that poor sad Irish lady was sending her kids to Tír na nÓg, I was pretty freezing. Well done, movie theater! But yes, sparks and ice and everything else did pop with that extra dimension, and the chilly blue of that water never looked better.
Thoughts about Leonardo DiCaprio
Jen: Be still my heart. Remember when he was so young and perfect and perfectly beautiful? Remember when he had that role in Growing Pains? The cult of Leo reunited for a brief moment last night, and it was good.
Richard: It's really hard for me to believe that a human being ever looked like what Leonardo DiCaprio looked like in the mid-late '90s. It just seems like some sort of myth that's only whispered about in the hallways of Teen Beat magazine. It defies all reason and logic that such a being ever existed. That's all I'll say about that.
Does 3D make it better?
Jen: It actually does, I think. From my notes: Crusty barnacles! That was the first thing I saw flying at me from the vantage of my overly large, overly expensive 3D glasses. Sure, it took nearly 40 minutes to get out of the frame story and into the Titanic (Rose and Jack) story, and yet I was pretty entranced, despite no main characters or love story being introduced, despite being taught what was essentially a history lesson for nearly the amount of time of a social studies class. And then when things really get going: My heart was beating rapidly though the final hour of this movie. Is this different from how I felt seeing the movie on the big screen in 1997? Maybe not. But there were more crusty barnacles coming at me. And from "The china had never been used" to "somebody's life's about to change" to "make it count," this movie in 3D was worth the extra price for the glasses, and the Diet Coke, if only to feel young and in love with Leonardo DiCaprio again. This, after all, is why we have movies: To transport us to another time. Even if it's a time we ourselves lived 15 years ago. How perfectly meta and 2012.
Richard: I think the 3D worked because it wasn't overly intrusive. It wasn't things flyin' atcha the whole time. The picture just seemed a bit denser or lusher or something. It pushed you into the movie. I have a hard time with 3D because I have to wear glasses over glasses, which is not only the saddest and nerdiest thing probably ever, but also I think it muddies the picture. I never get the full wow of 3D because, I don't know, the glasses aren't close enough to my face or something. But yeah, Cameron has done no disservice to his great work by enhancing it with 3D. It doesn't feel like a reinvention, it's just a gentle tweak.
Then vs. now
Jen: Look. This is a corny movie. Of course it is. It is accessible. It is based in a history that we all know, or should know, and therefore, you don't have to work too hard to get it. The accents are often cheesy (poor Leo's ill-fated Italian companion is just a disaster), the dialogue is canned at times (Picasso? He's never gonna amount to anything!), the water seems to ebb and flow depending on what the characters need to be doing. I have doubts about various facts and plot points (was there really a one-legged Parisian prostitute? How did Leo get his hair to look so good, down in steerage?), but they don't matter, because it is entirely consuming. Afterward, I felt like I'd been through the wringer. I'd laughed, I'd cried (yes, I cried), I'd loved Leo all over again, I'd hoped in vain for them both to survive; bent on vengeance, I'd wanted a more dramatic demise for Hockley and his horrible henchman.
It's possible, of course, that I've changed and become easily pleased and impressionable since the initial time I watched (most of) this movie, but that's doubtful. I think it really does have the power to transport you to the time when you first watched it, to in some weird way, make you exactly that person again, that naive young soul who thought she'd grow up to become a lawyer, or whatever the case. But it's bigger, more sweeping, and, well, 3D. So it's like living your most harrowing and wonderful night all over again, but knowing what you knew then. Of course, the ending is still the same. Also, I feel different about the Geraldo reference in the beginning, when the boat guy's nerdy assistant is like, "this ruined Geraldo" (referring to finding nothing in the safe when they bring it up from the boat in the frame story). This movie reminds us, if nothing else, that Geraldo can be ruined over and over again.
Richard: It must be weird to be the butt of a joke in the (second) biggest movie of all time. But yeah, like I said up top, Titanic's original run was a big cultural phenomenon for me. I cut school once to go see this movie. (My third viewing, I believe.) I was pretty significantly into it. My sister and I listened to the soundtrack to what must have felt like a punishing degree to our parents. I wasn't swooning over Leo yet, at least not out loud, but there was enough else in there to keep me talking about the damn movie for weeks and weeks.
I wish that, in the years since, I hadn't caught parts of it on TV so many times. I wish I could have gone to the theater yesterday after having not laid eyes on Jack and Rose for fourteen or so years. But, alas, they've been around, we visit each other once in a while on Sunday afternoons when I'm flipping through the channels. So the movie didn't initially have the punch of nostalgia I was hoping it would. I also felt old and cranky in the theater, getting annoyed by people talking and taking pictures with their cellphones (this actually happened), but soon enough Cameron's really altogether masterful film (it's brilliant, it's really just a very well-made movie) had wrapped me up in its aching spell once again. Unlike catching bits of the movie at home, in the theater I was captive, with nothing to look at or distract me but the events on the big screen in front of me. So I fell in love with love again, cried at the old couple on the bed again, felt the choke and lump in my throat again in that last heaven-set dream scene, one I hadn't felt, yeah, for fourteen or so years. I took different things away from it yesterday than I did when I was a lad — frankly I'm not sure the ornate foreplay of the portrait drawing scene really registered with me back then the way it does now — but the general experience is still the same. It's a transporting movie, a great thumping rollercoaster of a movie. Yes it is beyond silly in (many) parts, but that's part of the fun. They didn't make movies like that anymore until Titanic came along and they haven't made them like that since. (No, Mr. Bay, Pearl Harbor does not count.) It's a special kind of movie that can be both rooted in a particular time but also timeless. Titanic is me giddy and overwhelmed and overcome at 14, but it's also forever. It's both. I like that such a big movie can still feel all mine.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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