Thursday, April 26, 2012

Titanic Week, Day 6: Rediscovered!

A series of posts to commemorate the centenary of Titanic's only voyage
(apologies for the  delay to these final two posts)

Is there room on the lifeboat for E. A. Dupont?
This film-maker needs rescuing!
He ended his days in Hollywood in the fifties, doing The Neanderthal Man ("HALF MAN! HALF BEAST!") and Problem Girls ("Nothing can tame them!"), and doubtless even he had started to wonder if he was the same E. A. Dupont whose Variety (1925) had been one of the last towering achievements of German Expressionism.
Yes, times change, and it's not always easy to keep up, and perhaps he consoled himself that Fritz Lang was over there grinding out sausages too, but at least Lang still had a reputation left to squander. Dupont was kind of a forgotten man, which maybe hurts more than being maligned. His reputation drifted away in the thirties, and Atlantic (1929) was, sadly and unjustly, one of the reasons why.

Of course, you wouldn't expect the first talkie version of the Titanic disaster, shot simultaneously in three languages, to get an easy ride among audiences steeped in the Gospel According to James Cameron. Outside the protective womb of the classic movie blogging community, most old films, and especially the early talkies, can be guaranteed to inspire that befuddled contempt that is the default setting for encounters with early cinema.  (A thousand times will ye encounter that phrase I dread most of all, yet so long to see used in exactly the opposite sense to its habitual one: ‘by today’s standards...’)
But in the case of Atlantic, the contemporary critics were pretty befuddled too. The film was only a mitigated success, praised for some of its technical aspects but often rather haughtily belittled as drama. (Dupont's other great British film, the near-peerless silent masterpiece Piccadilly got pretty sniffy reviews, and very very qualified praise, too.)
It's ironic because we tend now to think of the dawn of talkies as one of the most amber-set and lost-to-time of all film-making eras, and as a kind of naive, cute time. But to be there was to be in a moment like our own: a time of insufferable, thrusting modernity, one enormously condescending to the film-makers and films of the previous epoch, and of course in many cases actively destructive of them.
So, strange as it now seems to us, critics of 1929, anxious to leap into the brave new world where sounds issued every time actors lips moved, accused the more hesitant kind of nascent talkie of being exactly those things you'll hear people calling them today:  ‘old-fashioned’ and  ‘creaky’ and ‘slow’ and ‘unconvincing’. (And don't even get them started on the silent films they're replacing!)
And Atlantic was exactly the kind of production they had their rifles trained on.

Excessive theatricality was the charge, then as now, the film having been adapted from a play called The Berg, and in the then established manner: not by cutting up the scenes, rearranging and relocating them, but by shooting long, dialogue-led, single set interiors, and interspersing them with a few newly-written exterior or location shots as punctuation. It's a method I can't defend against any of the charges made against it, but it is one I just happen to love.
The film was shot in three versions: English (the version I watched), French and German. The non-dialogue scenes are the same in all three editions, and the fact of the same director for each presumably rules out any kind of stylistic differences such as are to be found, for instance, between the English and Spanish versions of the 1931 Dracula. (As might be expected, the dialogue scenes are reportedly a little more naturalistic in the version Dupont shot in his native German.)
The film softens the impact of the play, which sets the real events and various fictional dramas within a dramatised conflict of world views exemplified by two fictional passengers: a padre whose faith is faltering, and 'John Rool', an atheist novelist. In the film, the novelist becomes the main figure, and a kind of surrogate for us; he is unable to walk, and so remains in the bar, watching and interacting as the various characters come and go. He ends up dying in an act of exculpation for his earlier cynicism, while the padre is downgraded to one of several equally important supporting characters. We never get any of his crisis of faith, and neither is Rool's atheism spelled out in block letters; the closest we get is a character telling him, "you make fun of everything that everybody else thinks beautiful".
Various other dramas are enacted for Rool and for us, one of them, interestingly, that of a family estranged from their father who is also on board - the central plot of the 1953 Titanic. (Though it would seem that the father in question is this time a renamed J. J. Astor.) Then there is a young married couple, expecting their first child but threatened with eternal separation as the ship goes down, but saved by the selflessness of Rool himself, who gives up his own place in the lifeboat so they can all have a future together.
Note that the idea of using the disaster as a backdrop to fictional dramas, which swiftly became the standard means of presenting the material, begins here. As befitting a film based on a play, there is very little action; it's mainly dialogue in a seated posture, cutting between two or three spaces – the first class bar, the deck, the main staircase.

As an adaptation of the Titanic disaster, it is more accurate, and strives more for accuracy, than the above might suggest.
The ship is not called Titanic, of course, owing to pressure from the White Star Line, who put considerable effort into protesting and trying to derail the film, but there is a great deal of factual and technical information that reinforces its links with the true story. The other factor, usually cited as anachronistic, that is relevant here is the obviously 1920s setting, as seen in the costumes, stylings and especially the music. But as no date is given, and the ship is not officially the Titanic, presumably the twenties setting is deliberate: it is a contemporary retelling. (This also gave the White Star Line another point of difference as consolation, along with the fact that this time all the real life characters have been renamed.)

The iceberg strikes earlier than any other film (relative to its total length): just 25 minutes into a 90 minute movie. (The berg appears to puncture the ship above the water line, but it does so realistically in terms of the damage created – a series of punched holes, rather than the single gash that had been the orthodox understanding until the ship was discovered many decades later.)
There are some very good effects shots to follow, of the main staircase flooding, and of the submerging deck, and especially of the flooded ballroom, seemingly full-size or thereabouts, certainly not a miniature like the one in Night and Ice. But on the whole, Dupont denies us most of the spectacle we have come to expect, an evident source of frustration to contemporary audiences hungry for disaster movie thrills, judging by the online forums.
Most heretically of all, there is no actual shot of the ship sinking beneath the waves. Debate rages on the internet as to whether this has been cut or was never shot, compounded by the confusion caused by some documentaries which splice together the final scenes of this movie and the submerging shots from the 1953 version.
It seems that such a shot was planned, and possibly filmed, but never included in any release print – the decision being that the final horror should be left to the audience's imagination, perhaps understandable in a British production made less than twenty years after the event.
But what we have instead is enormously powerful, and one of several moments that give the lie to the standard account of Dupont's inability to use sound film effectively. Through the final scenes, the lights continually flicker on and off as the ship dies, with dialogue continuing in pitch black. Just as the final descent begins, they cut out for good, and so for the last few seconds we see only a black screen. We don't see the ship sink, but we do hear it. It is a brilliant idea. Yes, it's a fairly obvious response to the demands of the new talking cinema, and certainly it's a lot cheaper to shoot it that way. But dramatically it pays its way too: it is eerily effective.

And so, for me, is the majority of the film.
'Stagey' acting is not something I have any difficulty with, and this is an exciting cast by anybody's standards: two stunning Hitchcock heroines: Madeleine Carroll, younger than we’re used to seeing her, and Joan Barry; dapper Italian comedian and director (and Mr Gracie Fields) Monty Banks, Valentine Dyall’s father Franklin as Rool (and if you’re familiar with Valentine’s acting style you can just imagine what his old dad’s like) and that grande dame of Edwardian and Victorian musical comedy, the great Ellaline Terriss, aka Mrs Seymour Hicks, who died aged 99 in 1971.
The lifeboat scenes are excellently directed, and some of the editing is also very fine.
The film ends, after the terrible blackness in which we hear the great ship slipping to its doom, on  a shot of the morning sun breaking through clouds; it concludes a film that I personally found to be all the things it is said to be not: entirely engrossing, powerful and moving.
The recent restoration and reissue of Piccadilly did much to return Dupont to the consciousness of cineastes: when the full revaluation comes, hopefully Atlantic, too, will be fully redeemed.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Titanic Week, 5: Filming the unfilmable

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

In Nacht und Eis (Night and Ice, 1912) did not appear with quite the haste of our previous film, Saved From the Titanic, though it did reach screens just before the end of 1912, making it the earliest completely surviving Titanic movie.

It's also a lot more ambitious than Saved, which had squeezed a precis of the events into just one reel, whereas Night and Ice lasts four reels and is quite an ambitious production for its time. Viewed today, though its effects no longer suspend audience disbelief to the degree they must once have done, the film nonetheless seems fascinating in other ways that would not have seemed remarkable to original audiences, and the mere fact that the actors are simulating events that had happened earlier that same year gives it a weird kind of authenticity belied by other elements of the production.

The other interesting thing to note about it is that it's German. I'm not sure if there is a reason why German cinema was so transfixed by the story, but this is the first of three major German productions (with Atlantic following in 1929 and the already-discussed Titanic in 1943).
It is certainly worth noting that there is not  a trace of the anti-English establishment mood, class obsession or blame-pointing that characterises most later versions, most notoriously, of course, the Nazi production of 1943. The crew are portrayed as uniformly heroic, with Captain Smith even shown dragging a survivor over to a lifeboat and then refusing the offer to climb on board himself.

Nonetheless, the film does not have narrative or characters as such, rather it strives to recreate snapshots of the story in a documentary manner. A series of linked sequences show the ship embarking on its journey, various scenes of life on board, then the collision, immediate aftermath and sinking.
The early, pre-disaster sequences have an authentic feel of newsreel reportage that would today be considered postmodern - a fake documentary newsreel! - but is in fact entirely organic. The untrained actors boarding the ship, unfamiliar with the processes of moviemaking, repeatedly look at the camera and assume that slightly selfconscious manner so familiar from early newsreels, and the effect is flawless. These scenes could easily pass for genuine newsreel sequences, but the effect is entirely unstudied and accidental: unfamiliarity creating the exact same results as extreme knowingness.
The documentary feel is further sustained by the captions, which describe characters rather than name them, and are also pre-emptive, for example: "The captain hands over the sentry to his first officer, who drowned later", and "A famous billionaire (in front with slouch hat) goes aboard with his young wife. The woman was rescued but her husband drowned..."
With one exception, the captions are never used to relay dialogue, even though the characters are shown talking to each other in a number of sequences.

The patchwork production was shot in a number of locations, and mixes studio interiors with shots taken on a German liner then docked in Hamburg. A relatively small cast was used, doubling up in various roles, a fact that becomes especially obvious after the iceberg strikes, and we see small groups of people running in panic along otherwise deserted decks.
A rocking platform beneath the interior sets is used to simulate the listing of the stricken ship (this is presumably why what are repeatedly referred to as luxury suites and dining rooms are so cramped and tight in their composition), and the hoses of the Berlin fire brigade can be seen helping to create the effect of the flooding wireless room.
The tilted platform is effectively deployed after the iceberg strikes, but somewhat lessened in effectiveness by having already been used in earlier scenes to simulate a gentle rocking motion, even in interiors. This effect, which does not duplicate the physical experience of being inside a ship, has not become a standard convention of film grammar, and looks bizarre today. On the other hand, it is interesting to see the nonsensical cinematic convention of conveying the view through binoculars via an image shaped like two overlapping circles instead of one is already in place here.

The long shot exteriors, showing the ship cruising along, hitting the iceberg and sinking were achieved with the use of extremely small models, a fact betrayed most obviously during the sinking by the wild bobbing of the even smaller lifeboats. The ship is also shown violently tilting the second it strikes the iceberg.
These moments seem naive to us, but it doesn't take much imagination - or perhaps it does, but it shouldn't - to see how effective this would have seemed to filmgoers of an age at once less cynical, less demanding, and vastly less acquainted with cinema's ability to recreate the unimaginable.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Titanic Week, 4: The silence of experience

A series of daily posts to commemorate the centenary of Titanic's only voyage
Did I mention I'm on Facebook now?
It's a bit late, I know, but it was one of those things I swore I'd never get involved with, like mobile phones, sport or designing women.
But then, about a week or so ago, a still, small voice in my head said: "why the hell not?" No corresponding voice piped up with any counter-argument, and I couldn't really think of one myself, so here we are. 
I'm easy to find, under my real name, so do come along and say hello if you've got the time. 
Don't worry if you fear such easy engagement with the healthy modern lives of so many well-adjusted people might rob me of any of my curmudgeonliness or inability to relate to my present-day cultural surroundings. Your fears are groundless. I spent a sunny afternoon yesterday watching newsreels of World War I bonds drives, interspersed with 1950s editions of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and I'm here to tell you that I predict big things of this fellow George Holmes
Nonetheless, I have also been enjoying all the fun things you can do with Facebook - the stuff most people got over the novelty of  a decade or so ago - like putting little links to the films you like on the personal information page and going "ahhhh" when it tells you that Juliette or Ivan likes them too, looking at photos of old schoolfriends to see how monstrously they've aged, and subscribing to updates from Jennifer Love Hewitt and Angela Gheorgiu. (Jen calls us all 'her lovelys'; Angela's a bit more remote, but they're equally keen to let me know when they're next going to be on the telly.) Great to see my favourite tennis player Stan Smith still going strong and letting us know what he's up to as well.
And it is very nice indeed to catch up again with all the lovelys I've encountered since I started blogging back in 2007, many of whom no longer update their blogs with the zeal they used to (if at all in some cases). 

Two of my Facebook friends posted interesting Titanic links this week.

Kendra posted this extremely interesting piece on the post-disaster life of J. Bruce Ismay which, though far from innately sympathetic, does reinforce my natural inclination to sympathise with scapegoats. I am now even more convinced that this man has been given a very raw deal indeed by pop-culture history.
Though you'd have to be a nut to swallow the characterisation of him as cape-swirling villain in the two Nazi versions of the story (1943 and 1997), I was further converted by the plain note of genuine desperation sounded by his unwillingness to even be reminded of the ship's name, his recurring nightmares, and his rather pathetic attempts in private correspondence and conversation to assuage the obvious feelings of guilt that tormented him. 
To which you can of course add: well, you have to be alive to have nightmares.
True, but there are no good reasons beyond post-disaster propaganda to believe that he compelled Smith to captain the ship recklessly or at excessive speeds (and good reasons for disbelieving it) and neither is it the case that he jumped into a women and children only lifeboat at the last second. He, and many other men, were ushered into the women and children first lifeboats that were being filled on the opposite side of the ship from the women and children only boats. 

We should also remember that while it seems outrageous to us that the ship had insufficient lifeboats, this was not unique to the Titanic but a commonplace at the time. (Titanic in fact carried more lifeboats than she was legally required to.) One of the commenters under the post makes a very good point in comparing this to safety-belts in cars, which had been long-recognised as life-savers, but it took a change in the law to make them standard in all vehicles. Titanic is singled out on this point only because it was Titanic that tragedy struck - it could have been any one of a thousand ships, all equally - or more - ill-equipped, with the same terrible outcome. 

Then there's this piece on the twelve known dogs on board the ship, of whom only three survived. 
It contains a moving reference to a fifty year old passenger called Ann Elizabeth Isham, who had actually secured her seat on a lifeboat before being told her great dane was too large to go with her, whereupon she willingly gave up her place and returned to the ship. Her body was later recovered in the freezing water, still clinging tightly to her beloved dog.

I had an interesting chat with the friend who posted the link about how even these dogs seem to have quintessentially Edwardian faces.
I've often noted the bizarre results of trying to cast modern boy actors, their blank paper faces screaming their complete lack of any kind of life-affecting or character-building experience, as characters from times when everyone's faces showed clearly the lives they had led. Meticulous accuracy of dress and decor only intensifies the inadequacy of the casting, so that Leo in Titanic, or Johnny Depp (a fifty year old boy) as a Victorian detective, or Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, able to convey not a millionth of the experiences his character supposedly endures, look like kids at the dressing up box.
But it had never struck me that the same might be said of the era's non-humans too! Yet am I mad or are these beautiful, tragic dogs striking unmistakably Edwardian poses: one looking nobly out to sea, the other two assuming their most dignified posture for the camera? 
(Incidentally, if you are by any chance annoyed by the attention given here, or at the original linked article, to mere dogs, or even find it offensive that tears should be shed for a dog in light of the event's vast human tragedy, then good. I'm pleased to offend you.) 

The Titanic film I want to look at today, uniquely in this series, is one I haven't seen. But it is one that, in one respect at least, might have the strongest claim to being definitive.
It was certainly among the quickest off the mark.
Saved From The Titanic (1912) was released to cinemas within a month of the disaster, and was shot in New York harbour on a derelict transport vessel.
It was produced by the US wing of French production company Eclair Films, and featured one of the company's regular stars, Miss Dorothy Gibson, who was additionally credited with the screenplay.
It was a screenplay she was all too well equipped to write, and that's where the film's claim to definitiveness lies: Dorothy Gibson really was a Titanic survivor.
She had travelled to Europe with her mother after completing her previous Eclair film Revenge of the Silk Masks (1912) and was returning to America on Titanic to resume her career.
She spoke of experiencing "a long, sickening crunch" when the iceberg struck, and escaped in the first lifeboat to depart the stricken ship.
Back in America she was rushed into this one-reel re-enactment, in the same dress that she had been wearing on the night.
Sadly, the film appears to be lost, barring a small thirty-second extract of slightly dubious authenticity.

Gibson's later life was no less dramatic. The following year she was involved in a fatal car accident, and it emerged that the car she was driving belonged to Eclair Films financier Jules Brulatour, thus exposing their secret affair. As a result, Brulatour was divorced by his wife. He and Dorothy were finally married in 1917, but the marriage was dissolved two years later.
Gibson moved to Paris where, as a Nazi sympathiser, it has been alleged she worked as an Axis intelligence operative. By 1944, however, she had renounced her sympathies, and was arrested and imprisoned in Italy as an anti-fascist agitator. With two other prisoners, she successfully escaped.
She died of a heart attack in her Paris hotel room in February, 1946.

(Tomorrow: Night and Ice, the earliest completely surviving Titanic movie.)

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.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Titanic Week, 2: Be German

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

"Be British", Captain Smith's apocryphal last instruction to the crew before officially relieving them of all duties in the final minutes before the Titanic slipped beneath the sea was, at the time, one of the defining elements of the story.
Symbolising the gentlemanliness under pressure that had characterised the behaviour of crew and passengers alike, it was widely quoted in the aftermath of the tragedy, was used as the title of a popular song, and is engraved on the memorial statue to Smith in Lichfield.
It does not appear, however, in any of the major film versions, perhaps because it was almost certainly journalistic invention, or more likely because it would have been deemed hokey even in 1958, when A Night to Remember established itself as the definitive assembly of facts and legends.
No surprise, of course, to find it absented from Titanic (1943), perhaps the strangest of all the major Titanic movies, directed by Herbert Selpin as a deliberate exercise in anti-British propaganda, under the aegis of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. If this Captain Smith had said "Be British", he would have meant: be devious, unscrupulous, selfish, and happy to risk the lives of countless innocents in the pursuit of prestige and financial gain.

Titanic was one of a series of Nazi films to present famous episodes from British history in a revisionist light, and as such it labours the arrogance, vanity and pomposity of the main characters.
The notion that Titanic is intrinsically unsinkable is used repeatedly to bat away concerns for her safety, which in this version are far more overt and unequivocal than in reality. J. Bruce Ismay of the White Star Line is portrayed as a devious opportunist, forcing Smith to keep the ship to its prescribed course even after ice is sighted, and to maintain suicidally high speeds so as to impress share holders and avert the collapse of the company.
This collapse, what's more, is being engineered by none other than John Jacob Astor, libelled outrageously as a scheming cad - and seemingly English to boot.
Throughout the film, 'British' is presented as a synonym for decadent, class-bound, uncaring and untrustworthy, and to emphasise the manner in which these characteristics are linked indelibly to the British social system, Ismay is given a class upgrade to Sir Bruce Ismay. (Astor, though referred to as Mr Astor in the film, is titled Lord Astor in the official film programme according to author Jeffrey Richards.)
For this reason, the film stresses for the first time on film the iniquitous differences between first class and steerage (second class is, as usual, ignored) and cynically contrasts the decadent luxury on the top decks with the rudimentary arrangements below.
Ironically, this blatantly propagandistic tactic - which absurdly condemns the provision of low-cost accommodation to allow the passage of those who cannot afford to travel in luxury, as if it would be fairer to exclude them entirely - became written into the fabric of the Titanic myth, there to be glibly - and, to be honest, still more crudely - revived by James Cameron, who goes one better even than Goebbels in suggesting that steerage passengers were deliberately prevented from escaping. (In truth, as ever, it was the unhymned second class that suffered the greatest percentage of male losses.)

The only character on board who behaves heroically is the German crew member Petersen, who spends the entire film rushing about trying to warn Smith of the impending danger and hold Ismay to account for his greed and folly. (Why is there a German crew member on board? Another of the officers asks the same thing, and the answer is: "An Englishman was scheduled, but he got a bad case of appendicitis.") He survives after saving a child from a flooding state room and swimming heroically to a lifeboat with her in his arms. In the final scene, set during the subsequent court of inquiry, he is thus able to denounce Ismay and watch impotently as British society closes ranks and conspires to lay all the blame at the door of the late Captain Smith.
There's also a noble German doctor (dismissed by Ismay as penniless and therefore of no interest), some light relief from the German love interest (orchestra violinist Franz and perky manicurist Heidi), and, on the other side of the racial wall, a villainous Cuban, riot-fomenting Jew and sexually-disruptive gypsy girl. 
There are some sympathetic British characters, mainly but not exclusively in steerage: there is a moving shot towards the end of an aristocratic woman (who we had previously seen explaining that she had overcome her terror of ships in order to take the voyage because she had been assured Titanic is unsinkable) watching impotently from the rails as the end approaches (having somehow missed a seat on the lifeboats that found room for 94% of the first class women on board), and another in which the wireless operator is shown freeing a caged bird before stepping out nobly to meet his end. Such characters are allowed a touch of nobility and poignancy because they are the innocent victims, those whose deaths, according to the film's final caption, "remain unatoned for, an eternal condemnation of England's quest for profit."

It wasn't solely its propaganda value that commended the Titanic story to German film-makers. There had already been two previous versions, a prompt 1912 adaptation called Night and Ice and of course E. A Dupont's 1929 Atlantic, an Anglo-German collaboration, filmed simultaneously in English, German and French editions. Indeed it was this familiarity that made it an ideal subject for wartime purposes.
By all accounts, director Selpin was not a passionate disciple of the Nazi cause. Sreenwriter Walter Zerlett-Olfenius most definitely was, however, and when the latter overheard the former making a few off the cuff, disparaging remarks about the German navy (who had proved uncooperative during the shooting of second unit footage on a real German liner) he reported him to the Gestapo. Selpin was arrested and charged with treason, and shortly after found dead in his cell, an apparent but by no means certain suicide. The film was completed by director Werner Klingler.

With its inevitably doom-laden atmosphere - whoever the victims and culprits - the film was judged unsatisfactory as propaganda for the home market and suppressed by Goebbels, who nonetheless attempted to recoup some of the production expense by releasing it in neutral and occupied territories.
It soon gained a reputation as an impressive piece of cinema and was reissued in 1949, receiving its German premiere in 1950. British objections to its content resulted in it being temporarily withdrawn and shorn of its inflammatory epilogue, now missing from most commonly circulating prints.  
Today, it retains its status as one of the more significant works of wartime German cinema. (It was also an obvious and unacknowledged influence on the 1997 version, which borrows a number of arbitrary plot ideas from it, as well as many of its unsavoury attitudes.)
Notwithstanding the blatant and often desperate attempts to make the story an indictment of British greed and a celebration of German heroism, the fact remains that it is an impressive and often powerful piece of work, despite conspicuous model shots. A potent atmosphere of dread is evoked throughout, as the inevitability of the ship's destruction is constantly reinforced (the better to belabour the murderous stupidity of Ismay and his collaborators). The cast, especially the women, are for the most part excellent, and there is striking work from Sybille Schmitz, distinguished veteran of Reinhardt, Pabst and Dreyer, whose willingness to work in Nazi films during the war resulted in a loss of employment subsequently, leading to her own suicide in 1955. 
Just as the Titanic herself is taken as a tragic symbol of human (or British) arrogance and hubris, so then does this particular retelling seem somehow to presage the fall and disgrace of Nazism, the very thing it was designed to endorse. 

(Tomorrow: Kate Winslet in 3-D!)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Titanic Week, 1: Stanwyck escapes, but Waldo Lydecker goes down with the ship

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

The 1953 Hollywood Titanic was a film I had only seen once, a few years ago, and to be honest I didn't remember it all that well at all: watching it again for Titanic Week proved a pleasant surprise. 
My abiding memory of the film had been of a surfeit of soap opera, through which I sat impatiently, and a surprising paucity of special effects and disaster sequences, which had left me feeling short-changed.
This time, prepared in advance for both, I was better able to enjoy the fictional main story, through which the true story of Titanic is threaded, and found the relative absence of disaster movie money shots oddly refreshing, too, in the light of my gradual but now complete disenchantment with the James Cameron film, of which more later in the week.

In many ways, this production anticipates the Cameron film, by utilising the documentary narrative as a backdrop against which a fictional primary narrative is enacted, and in which real life figures and narratives pass and inter-relate.
(Oddly, however, some of the obviously real-life characters are given fictitious names here - most notably 'Maude Young', who is clearly Molly Brown - while others, including Captain Smith, Astor and Guggenheim, retain their real names.)
The invented narrative thread in both films takes the form of an across-the-tracks romance, albeit delivered here at half the length and with a millionth of the self-regard of the later film.
Where the two films differ, however, is in the central tension animating the fictional thread. 
Though it certainly does not ignore the class elements that seem to cling like barnacles to the story, it lacks entirely the crudely polarised social juxtapositions which many viewers will have come to expect. Unlike Cameron's, these star-crossed lovers are both first class passengers, and the distinctions that divide them are not arbitrary ones of wealth and attainment but self-definitional ones of character, worldview and lifestyle. The result, despite the simplicity of the dialogue and the film's obligation (necessitated by the running time and the historical and factual material competing for the audience's attention) to sketch the story in the broadest (and swiftest) of strokes, is a much more interesting drama.
Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman of modest means who has married a millionaire wastrel, played on his usual magnificent autopilot by Clifton Webb. Now after twenty years of living in fashionable hotels in various European capitals she is leaving him and taking her two children back to America. He is also an American, but immersed in European society and scornful of the values that Stanwyck, and the film, take small-town America to represent: sincerity, integrity, community and a fundamental authenticity of living. Robert Wagner's seemingly naive college boy, at first rejected and eventually embraced by their daughter, is considered unacceptable by Webb not because he lacks means but because he lacks sophistication and social ambition. 
In his book A Night To Remember: The Definitive Titanic Film - which, despite its title, is full of useful insights into all the Titanic movies - Jeffrey Richards links this aspect of the narrative to the insular character of fifties American culture, and notes how the film seems to use the disaster - a British ship and crew with American passengers - as a metaphor for the handing over of the custodianship of western culture from an exhausted Anglo-European old world to the vigorous and self-reliant American new world, as seen in such moments as when Captain Smith hears the young American students singing their college anthems, and sits down to enjoy them, a smile of placid resignation on his face as he seems to recognise the transition between two great epochs.
Though contrastingly benign, these details continue the tradition begun by the 1943 Nazi version of appropriating the disaster as a commentary on its historical moment and employing national characteristics as a key to understanding its meaning, and even its causes. 

Stylistically, the film is interesting in that it was shot entirely in the studio and on discrete sets, with no real sea shots utilised at any point. The ship is represented at all times by a sleek and splendid 28 foot model, and special effects are used sparingly. There are only a few of the expected shots of rooms flooding and gushing torrents of water, none of them involving the lead actors, and the final images of the ship sliding into the water (and not splitting in two) are beautifully but transparently designed model shots.
Yet these scenes - all the more effective, I now feel, for being so restrained - are somehow more awe-inspiring than the more detailed and specific effects of A Night to Remember and other versions, creating, as the subtler horror films do, a patchwork effect that obliges the audience to fill in the missing details with their own imaginations, which no special effects technology can ever hope to match.
It also helps elevate the events to the level of myth.
Even in a studio tank, Stanwyck recalled being so moved as she looked up from her lifeboat at the actors playing those who remained on the doomed vessel that she burst into genuine tears, and something of this authenticity of feeling is most definitely retained in the finished film, despite its stock characterisations and telegraphed dramatic trajectory.
Whereas the effect of the wealth of documentary detail in A Night to Remember and the wreck exploration prologue (and subsequent crass psychologising) of the Cameron film is oddly iconoclastic, this more elliptical approach pays homage as if from a distance, mindful of Titanic's status as both icon and grave.

(Tomorrow: The Titanic and the Nazis)