Saturday, April 14, 2012

Titanic Week, 3: In Glorious 1-D

A series of daily posts to commemorate the centenary of Titanic's only voyage

I didn't see the 3-D revival coming.
When I first heard that it was all the rage again I assumed it had returned via some striking new technology, that enabled a stereoscopic image to be appreciated in some entirely new way, perhaps without the cumbersome glasses, or with a truer, genuinely three dimensional image.
But no - old style Jack Arnold, cut-out theatre 3-D it is, just as they enjoyed in the ballyhoo-hungry 1950s, and just as I remember being briefly revived in the early 1980s. It didn't cause much excitement that time, I recall; the general feeling was that it was yesterday's gimmick. Indeed, both periods were instances of desperation, as cinema fought off what it saw as existential threat, from television in the fifties and home video in the eighties.
The current revival seems apropos of nothing much at all. Perhaps gimmickry is just an easier sell now, but clearly the 21st century 3-D boom is exactly the same as the 20th century one, except that this time they expect you to pay for the glasses.
Either way, gimmick it most certainly remains: exhilarating and fun for as long as it seems novel, but clearly no way to tell a story you might seriously be expected to follow or give a damn about, and in no real sense offering a three-dimensional image equivalent to the way in which you perceive everyday life.
A 3-D film does create the illusion of distance between objects, but each object in itself has no depth at all: people seem to have the thickness of paper, whereas the eye in reality is able to discern something of their substance as well as their outline. In all, a uniform 2-D image is, I think, a better compromise than the selective, often counter-realistic image-division of a 3-D film.
In Titanic, for instance, we have images on hazy video monitors translated absurdly into the process, the onscreen graphics leaping from the transmitted picture in a manner with no real-life correlation whatever, whereas shots of helicopter pilots through their windscreens as they land are left as two-dimensional, so they actually do look like video screens.
I'm not sure the cinematic convention of having unfocused images in the frame, including people, makes much sense in 3-D either, given that at any time the blurred information might be in the distance or at the extreme foreground, and left, middle or centre of the frame, depending on where our point of interest is deemed, shot by shot, to be. (It also makes this guiding of the eye to the key points of the frame seem far more intrusively authoritarian than in a 'flat' film.)

Where it works best, oddly, is in two-shots and close-ups, where instead of a vast panorama of paper cut-out information, the screen is close enough to actually give depth and contour to a single object, such as the features of a human face.
Or, indeed, a human body. There was a story I saw online yesterday that Chinese censors have cut the shots of Kate Winslet's breasts in the life drawing scene, for fear that audiences would "reach out for a touch".
"Fury as Kate Winslet's Breasts Cut From China's Titanic 3-D" screamed the headline in the Belfast Telegraph, where a Chinese blogger is quoted as lamenting: "I didn't wait fifteen years to see a 3-D iceberg!"
Quite what the negative consequences of hopelessly optimistic Chinese audiences 'reaching out for a touch' would be I don't know - there's some vague talk about it spoiling the film for the rest of the audience, in which case they should try watching a film amidst the myriad barrage of distractions routine in a British cinema - but for the reasons given above, that was one of the more satisfactorily rendered 3-D sequences... or perhaps I was just more inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Who knows? The jury - that's to say, my wife - is still out.

The film itself was exactly as I'd remembered it.
The only thing that actually dated it was the ghastly music score - an utterly irrelevant mix of fiddly-diddling and ethereal whoo-whooing that fed opportunistically into the obsession with all things Irish especially prevalent in American culture at the time and now just sounds bizarrely inappropriate. And much of the casting, which always seemed quixotic, now looks eccentric in the extreme.
Otherwise, it's the same film, just as you left it.

I noted in the last post that my disenchantment with the film was gradual, and so it was. I saw it twice at the cinema on its original release, and had seen it twice since on DVD. If you are old enough to be reading this but too young to remember the original release, as I must accept might now be the case (damn you, passage of time!), do try to ignore the airbrushed retrospectives: there was great deal of negative press, and box-office disaster was confidently predicted for it during production. In the event, it was a film that only audiences loved unequivocally, and the Oscar success was a genuine surprise.
But there's no question that when I first saw it I thought it truly magnificent, and predicted that the critical sneering at its vacuous script and reduction of the true events to the level of mawkish soap opera would come to seem as hollow and petty as the initial sniping at Gone With the Wind.
Why I thought that, and just what it was I found so impressive in the film, other than its spectacle, I no longer recall, but with each subsequent viewing I came more and more reluctantly to the conclusion that this time the cynics were right, and this is a film unworthy of its subject, unable to engage with it on any level higher than a teen romance photo-strip, and assuming insultingly that audiences of all ages will be similarly ill-equipped.

Fifteen years on, much of the physically staged flooding and destruction still looks amazing - the CGI, now as then, vastly less so - but even these moments are compromised by their being played for thrills, rather than tragedy and awe. (Interestingly they are not conspicuously affected, positively or negatively, by their transformation into 3-D.)
I remember being impressed at the time, in the age when Star Wars films were being reissued with new special effects, that here, at least, cutting edge technology was being used not to make idle fantasy real but to recreate a hitherto impossible-to-realise reality. Now I think I prefer the more imaginative approach of the earlier versions anyway, but there's no denying that the climactic destruction and chaos is brilliantly and often terrifyingly filmed.
Even so, it's still a job of staging rather than direction, a technical rather than creative or aesthetic exercise. And the rest of the time vulgarity reigns supreme. Young lovers running in slow motion past romantically illuminating furnaces, prancing dolphins, fruit salad skies, and excuse upon excuse upon excuse found to cut to a close up of an adorable big-eyed moppet, Cameron's eye for the tritest image imaginable is unerring and peerless. If you take Academy Awards at all seriously, which I do not, then it is surely Cameron's personal citation for best direction that must rankle most.

What becomes obvious when coming to the film after watching so many earlier versions is that Cameron had clearly done the same: the film is full of images, details and ideas - from central to tiny - taken from the other movies. He borrows the integration of technical information into dialogue scenes and the drunk steward from A Night to Remember, the central device of fictitious star-crossed lovers from Barbara Stanwyck, and the climactic last-minute rescue of a passenger held below decks as a thief, the bilious condemnation of the British class system, and the obsession with characterising all first class passengers as either effete or unpleasant from Hitler. J. Bruce Ismay may be nobody's idea of the hero of the hour, but his presentation here - cowardly, reckless to the point of idiocy and almost knowingly villainous - is embarrassingly akin to that of the Nazi film. He just, and only just, stops shy of twirling his wax moustache.

I'm not sure why audiences don't roar with laughter at Kate n' Leo's steamy sex scene, set, you'll recall, in the back of a parked roadster in the ship's cargo hold. It's always hilarious, apparently, when characters in old films, against all reason but purely in deference to the censorial standards of the time, don't have sex with each other, but not, it seems, when characters in new films, against all reason but purely in deference to the censorial standards of the time, do.
Needless to say, the idea that in 1912 Winslet's character would actually have sex with anyone she had met that day, even if she thought the ship was sinking (which at that point she does not) is way, way beyond ludicrous, and all too symptomatic of the film's cynical, button-push construction. (As is the manner in which it insists on telling us how to feel, rather than trusting us to make our own way. The worst example of this is when the sinking cuts back to the silly modern wraparound story - which I wish I liked more, because it has Gloria Stuart in it, but it really is awful - and we are treated to a nauseating slow pan around all the characters listening to Stuart recounting the events we have just witnessed, all of them with thick, fat tears rolling down their cheeks.)

More pernicious are the scenes of third class subjugation, with fleeing crew members delaying their own rescue so as to be nasty to the poor folk, locking non-existent metal gates against steerage women and children, brandishing and even using pistols. And while the incredibly orderly scenes of evacuation and death in the 1953 version may be too extreme in one direction, this goes far more incontinently in the other, with endless scenes of screaming and desperate, aggressive behaviour.
Lieutenant Murdoch, recalled by survivors as working ceaselessly to save as many passengers as he could until the very end, and still alive in the water after the ship was lost, is shown shooting two passengers and then blowing his brains out on the deck. The producers refused to remove the scene - despite protests at the preproduction stage - but they did send some lackeys to fly pointlessly to his home town and apologise.
The decision reveals the difference between true integrity and the lip service that can be paid to it with money: the very villainy their silly film was purporting to condemn where it by and large did not exist, made manifest in their own actions.

In the film's favour, it should be noted that its extreme length, if self-indulgent, never seems counter-productive: though long, the film doesn't seem to drag. In fact, it could be the most snappily-paced three-and-a-quarter hour movie ever.
Further, the length means that the focus on the fictional main plot does not compromise the film's ability to show the vastly more interesting iconic elements of the real story. While the 1953 Titanic was forced to jettison much of the latter to make room for the fiction, and A Night to Remember seemed a slightly academic enterprise for being so full of facts it left little room for personal drama, here we are able to balance both, and it's great to see so much attention given to Smith, and Andrews, and Wallace Hartley, and indeed to Titanic herself.

It's just a pity that the fictional thread is such a dead loss. Try to imagine the love story played out with only itself for context and it should be obvious that so wheezing a collection of cliches would never have been given the time of day. And just as fatal an error for me is the film's childishly one-dimensional portrayal of Edwardian society, that plays every bit as cartoonishly as the endless series of diminishing cliffhangers - Will Kate find the keys in time to open the gates? Will Kate's swing with the axe be true? Will her fiancee shoot or miss the fleeing lovers? - that reduce the awe-inspiring real events to the level of mere backdrop.

Not that any of this should have come as any great surprise. As Cameron explained prior to launch: "Accuracy is a big challenge for us. Wherever possible we want to tell our story within an absolutely rigorous, historically accurate framework, complementing history rather than distorting it."

Perhaps he was joking, as he was when he opined that the script was "holding just short of Marxist dogma," though that too was a joke with both feet firmly planted in the ground  
The film could hardly be a cruder cocktail of unhistorical class war fantasy and foaming anti-English bias. What I had missed on all previous encounters with it is that the real hero, whom Cameron lingers over at every possible opportunity, is neither of the wooden Indian leads, but 'Tommy Ryan', the absurd fictitious Irishman from steerage. Even the name gives you an idea of the level on which he has been conceived and created. He’s good old Tommy Ryan, cheeky chappie, everybody’s pal, salt of the Irish-American earth, distilled in equal parts from the bedtime fantasies of John Ford and Ken Loach. Tommy Ryan! Merciful heavens!
Without ever losing his wry sense of anachronistic irony and essential cheeky loveableness, it is Ryan who makes all the acidic comments about the iniquities of society, who leads the peasants revolt below stairs, and, in one of the film’s most repulsively manipulative moments, punches hard in the face the steward who tries to stop them, leaving him to die unconscious in the rising water. This moment is delivered like a comic (literal) punchline by Cameron, (with that usual sound effect insisted upon by all Hollywood films that in fact sounds nothing like someone being hit in the face at all) and invariably receives a big laugh and even a ripple of satisfied applause from audiences, just as its barbarian director knew it would. 
Ryan’s death, shot by a non-fictitious character (Murdoch, libellously fictionalised as a murdering coward, as mentioned above), is supposed to be a vast symbolic tragedy, but for many of us comes not a moment too soon. In fact, it almost makes putting up with the gurning idiot for the previous three hours worthwhile.
I’ll let common sense be the final arbiter of whether the film tells its story "within an absolutely rigorous, historically accurate framework" or not, but on one point at least Cameron and I are happily in agreement: accuracy is a big challenge for him.

Coming from this rubbish to A Night To Remember (1958) is like opening a window on a spring morning. 
It is this film, not Cameron’s, that deserves the title given it by Professor Jeffrey Richards’ excellent book on its production: The definitive Titanic film.
Here is a film that is moving without any fictitious love stories to drag us by the lapels into the drama, that is scrupulously accurate without, apparently, finding it 'a big challenge' to be so, and which above all neither romanticises nor demonises any of the characters, but instead shows pragmatically and sympathetically how a collision of attitudes and personalities led to the disaster every bit as surely as the collision of ice and iron. It is a sober film from a sober age, a recognition that all documentary needs to become drama is great and fascinating events, and that characterisation will take care of itself if the context is drama enough. 
Of course it invents and elaborates characters, as how could it not. But it does not attempt to spoon feed emotion, or to reduce complex motives and personalities to the level of a Hanna Barbera cartoon. That is why the climax, when it comes, is so extraordinarily powerful, so profoundly moving, and so dramatically effective, without ever once becoming tearjerking. 
It’s not difficult to suck a sentimental tear from your audience, and when Cameron does so it is not a demonstration of cinematic or narrative skill. All it takes is a willingness to use vast, impersonal tragedy as an insulting backdrop to a banal romance. The true tragedy of Titanic is not that there might have been a couple of star-crossed lovers on board but that there were over two thousand people on board, and over half of them died. 
It seems revealing as well as ghastly that the facts are not deemed tragic enough for modern audiences, and only a Disney romance is capable of cutting through the accumulated encrustation of cynicism and self-regard which modern culture incubates  like germs.