December 18, 2008

Theater Seens: Titanic

I know it may be hard to believe, but it's entirely a coincidence that I'm posting about Titanic on December 18th for the second year in a row. The date holds zero significance in my memory of the movie (I first saw it on Christmas Day in 1997), but this just happens to be the day on which this edition of Theater Seens falls. Go figure. I'm not sure I have another post in me for next year, but now that this is a tradition I just might keep it going. It's not even one of my favorite movies or the best movie I've ever seen, but considering nothing approached its magnitude for 10 full years, Titanic always loomed large in my head. The crown has been passed, of course, to The Dark Knight, which is the only movie I've observed to dominate the box office and the popular culture in the same way, despite lacking catch phrases and a record number of Oscar nominations.

Anyway, I think it was a 7:00 or 8:00 PM show that Christmas night that we saw Titanic. Along with another friend, my family and I bundled through the snowy night to the (now closed) Har-Mar Theaters in Roseville. It's pretty funny to think of some of the epic movies I saw on those Har-Mar screens, including Titanic and The Lord of the Rings a few years later. There was no stadium seating at Har-Mar and the theaters were arranged like airplane cabins - 50 rows of three seats on each side with an aisle down the middle. Well maybe that's a stretch, but either way the experience was like watching a 13" TV from the opposite end of a dark tunnel. Of course I hardly knew better at the time since most of the current multiplexes didn't exist, but when I saw my last ever movie at Har-Mar before it closed (an exclusive engagement of the locally-produced Sweet Land, in December 2006), I found myself almost laughing at how theaters had evolved in the decade prior.

Considering the t
heater in which I saw Titanic, then, it's amazing that my first experience with the movie was so memorable, especially the scene featured below. During the last panicked scamper to the highest point of the ship, I felt a rush of emotions as I watched many of the passengers give in to their fate, praying, jumping, and holding each other, all while the first-class passengers sat in their lifeboats and watched in silent horror.

By the time the electricity on the ship failed, we in the theater were stricken silent as well, a horrible feeling rising as a deep groan emanated from the innards of the ship. The rest of the scene is sheer terror as the Titanic splits in half and thousands of passengers fall to their icy deaths. It was hard for me to watch the bodies falling and hitting railings and propellers on their way down - an image that unfortunately now brings to mind those who jumped out of the buildings on 9/11. The look that Kate Winslet shares with the man on the railing next to her is also profound - he offers no guidance, no last words of hope. How often do people know that they're about to face certain death, and what can they say at that moment?

For many people I imagine Jack's drowning (which my brother memorably alerted me to right before we left for the theater) turned their sobbing into outright wailing, but I've never been very moved by the love story in this movie. Rose always seemed like she was just slumming it to have fun on the way to America, and Jack didn't appear to be someone who could ever settle into a relationship. Would they have lived happily ever after? It's romantic to believe so, but I don't think I bought into the emotions until my eyes welled up a little bit when Rose eventually joined Jack on the stairway landing.

I know there are a wide range of thoughts about this movie, the majority of them quite negative (you can read my thoughts on the movie's influence here). Even if you didn't enjoy Titanic, did the grand scale of the production leave any impression on you, especially if you saw it in the theater?

Without further ado, here's the scene (I love the irony of watching a scene from a movie this big on a screen this small):


  1. I was so obsessed with this movie when it came out. I was in the 6th grade, and I saw it 3 times. I LOVED it. Still do, even though I haven't seen it in ages. But I could probably still quote the entire thing. It was a landmark in my childhood, no doubt about it.

  2. I'm not the world's biggest "Titanic" fan but I do remember being awed by the film's scale, lavish sets and impressive special effects.

    I remember being fiendishly annoyed by Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On," and mystified by the apparent hold that Leo had over thousands of teenage hearts. I never understood the attraction.

    Rose (Kate Winslet) is clearly a prize. She's rich, smart, feisty -- and a total babe to boot. Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), on the other hand, always struck me as a short, skinny twerp who was a bit too baby faced for our Kate. She deserved a real man, and I don't mean Billy Zane.

  3. A few comments from someone who was sitting next to you in the theater: First of all, it must have been Christmas 1997, not 1998. I haven't seen this movie all the way through since then, and I'd forgotten the scene you highlighted--I do remember how reverently quiet we were. Hm. It occurs to me that often, the climatic scene in action movies is blastingly loud.

    I also remember (but this might be a faulty memory) that "Titanic" was also showing on a screen in the next theater, about 30 minutes advanced, so while we were watching Jack and Rose scamper around, we could hear the sounds of disaster going on in the other theater. I also remember filing out of theater, hearing Mom say, "This will definitely be nominated for an Oscar" and being genuinely surprised, because I just hadn't been that impressed.

    And finally, I will once more suggest "A Night to Remember" (1958) which has all the fascinating details about the ship and its passengers, and none of the ridiculous love story or cheesy undersea-exploring scenes.

  4. Interesting, Matthew - no doubt it spurred your future interest in movies. As I said in the post last year, in many ways it's everything a movie should be (and in other ways everything it shouldn't...).

    Thanks for the honest opinion, Sarah. I doubt even the biggest critics of the movie can deny the power of the scenes like the one shown here. Cameron, as in The Abyss and The Terminator movies, knows how to inspire awe in an audience like almost no other director. He may drive studios crazy with balooning budgets, but at least he makes it look like the money was well spent. I actually think Titanic has never received enough credit for its LACK of visual effects - constructing a scaled version of the actual ship makes it look SO much better. Nobody would do that nowadays. We'd be lucky if they even used real water.

    Ha, whatever happened to Billy Zane, anyway? He showed promise as a dependable villain here.

    Um, hehe, whoops. Thanks for the correction, Vreni. I should have realized as I was noting the 10th anniversary last year. Corrected.

    The sounds next door definitely sounds familiar! That was pretty funny, actually - a result of the theater screens being jammed so close together, no doubt. That doesn't happen very much these days, but my ears always perk up when things are exploding next door.

    Yeah yeah, OK, I should really see A Night to Remember, especially because it's really considered an excellent movie. Reading about it just now I see that it depicts the sinking of the ship in one piece. Apparently this has always been a mystery - whether it broke in half underwater or, as in Titanic, before it went down. Interesting, and horrifying. The more you think about it the more unbelievable it becomes that this disaster actually happened.

  5. "the majority of them negative" ... and yet when it came out, it was a cultural phenomenon, sitting atop the box office for, what, 5 months? (At the time - but no longer I promise-, I followed such stats religiously and this was truly an astonshing feat - most films stayed at the top for, at most, 3 weeks.) What gives?

    Methinks there has been a fair amount of bandwagon-jumping. I actually haven't seen it since '97, but I remember it as a thoroughly entertaining, sweeping spectacle.

  6. I guess I'll be the downer. I saw this opening day with a gaggle of eager gamers. I knew Cameron was brilliant and the film make bank when Leo entered one scene in his tuxedo and the entire theater sighed.

    But the obvious script and silly sops to the audience (the middle finger and a SHOOT OUT on the Titanic cos it wasn't dramatic enough...) wore me down. I wasn't impressed by the effects until the end which is what Cameron really wanted to film. Probably the film's most striking and poetic image is the lady floating through the submerged ship...And that faux-Enya song!

  7. Daniel -

    A nice, nostalgic remembrance. Overall, your experience with seeing "Titanic" was more positive than mine. I clearly remember being seated across the aisle from a mother with too bored, misbehaving, very young kids who kept talking, running in and out and so on. Not only was it distracting and annoying - these kids were WAY too young to be at a movie that long and that intense.

    Nevertheless, I really enjoyed "Titanic" that first time I saw it. A couple of repeat viewings on TV have made me realize just how silly it is.

  8. MovieMan, I mention that in my post from last year. 15 weeks at #1. In 2007 the longest run was 3 weeks. I would imagine the same was true for this year, probably TDK at 3 weeks. Maybe, I haven't checked. Either way it speaks to the complete shift in marketing and release strategies. Even Indy 4 this year was only on top for a couple of weeks. The goal is to open in as many theaters as possible on as many screens as possible (I also wrote about TDK's release this year). Only the opening weekend matters any more, which is why those opening records are broken every year - and why half of the releases in August opened on WEDNESDAYS of non-holiday weekends. Outrageous.

    Haha, Christian, "the entire theater sighed." That sounds about right. And you're totally on about the shoot-out. I forget about that. At least we can agree that this scene was signature Cameron. Considering the success of Titanic, it's ironic that Cameron never recovered from this movie.

    Pat, I would have lost my head in that theater. What a nightmare. I'm all for kids being introduced to movies early - but only in the comfort of their home, until they're old enough to understand the meaning of silence.

  9. I still remember the two older middle aged women behind us in the theater behind us saying "Turn! Turn!" as the ship was about to hit the iceberg.

    And here I am, 11 years old thinking " do know how this ends, right?"

  10. Haha, Matthew.

    I agree with Christian and others about this movie. I completely understand the argument about it being in no small part a tip of the hat to DeMille and classic Hollywood. I just wish it had been much better. A well-related personal piece, Daniel.

  11. That's hilarious, Matthew. Not that I don't appreciate people getting caught in the movie and all, but um, yeah, the ending to this one was pretty well documented.

    Thanks, Alexander. I'm not sure what Cameron's motives really were (part of me always thinks the guy is only out to show off his flashy yet impressive special effects), but apparently he was pretty obsessed with the underwater ruins of the Titanic, hence the whole set-up. I'm torn about it. Part of me thinks it's ridiculous, but part of me loved the transitions that showed what all of the rooms used to look like.

  12. I have no idea how old I was, I guess I was 6, but I am pretty sure I was one of those people who BEGGED for the ship to steer clear of the iceberg, and my in a few moments of deep naiveté, I thought my wish would be granted. Oh well. I didn't even get to see it on the big screen, and that still bugs me.

    Titanic is a film I love as well, and I can identify with your charming post quite a bit too. I saw Titanic again last year on TV, and instead of being wowed like I was when I was younger, the simplicity of the nostalgia I felt was comforting. Titanic comforts me. Which is strange, but it's enough for me to ignore its epic flaws and whatnot.

  13. Hehe, well you were just a young'un, Nick. If you get a chance you might want to check it out on the big screen, but I can't imagine that will happen for another couple of generations, in some Best Picture retrospective screening. Nobody otherwise cares about this movie anymore except for, as you say, a comfort food of sorts, haha.

  14. Comforting - I like it. That's EXACTLY how I feel about this film.

  15. Like hot soup on a freezing winter day. That's all anybody eats around here.


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