The disaster movie was well out of vogue by the time that James Cameron released Titanic in 1997, thanks to the endless parodies of the 80s and early 90s. In response, Cameron had to go big – and he went bigger than any disaster movie before or since, drawing on melodrama and science fiction to withstand and absorb any future parody. On the one hand, he crafted a narrative and a spectacle that was every bit as monumental, for its time, as D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance; on the other hand, he drew on his own work in Aliens and The Abyss to capture the science fictional scale of the Titanic disaster as it must have been experienced at the time.
Along with Martin Scorsese’s television series, Titanic also feels like the defining text of the century of cinema in the mid-1990s, and operates partly as a summative sweep of the first hundred years of the medium. When we meet Rose (Gloria Stuart) in the present, she’s 101 years old, while the opening scenes shift vertiginously between the underwater footage of the Titanic, shot from a submersible camera that presages the murky future of digital cinema, and the luminous classicism of the narrative proper. Even within the main narrative, however, Cameron shifts between painstaking period recreations, and the attention to set design that typified a more classical cinema, and groundbreaking CGI footage, blending the two in ways that were quite revolutionary for the mid-90s. In that sense, Titanic feels like a documentary recreation of cinema itself, as it was experienced for much of the 20th century, and a tribute to melodrama as one of the most enduring cinematic languages – already full-formed enough, by the Titanic disaster in 1912, to shape the way in that it passed into the popular imagination.
The first part of the film thus captures the uncanny ways that cinema has changed, but also remained the same, over Rose’s lifespan – encapsulated by her first glimpse of objects and spaces she hasn’t seen in 80 years through the grainy underwater footage of the submersible. As we shift from the cold blue light and the whirring recording equipment of Brock Lovett’s (Bill Paxton) ship back to the launching of the Titanic, Cameron discovers a technological sublime in the sheer act of historical recreation, which only heightens as the film proceeds. In order to evoke “the largest moving object ever made by the hand of man in history,” Cameron has to create, in some sense, the largest and most summative film in history, which means evoking the entire history of cinema, and both its continuities and its discontinuities, from the baldest melodrama that brings Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) together in the past, to the digital footage that testifies to their historical relationship in the present. Neither of these two registers are complete without the other, meaning that Cameron has to forge an analog-digital convergence that paved the way for his next film, Avatar, 12 years later.
While Titanic is very much a period piece, then, it’s equally interested in the 1990s as a kind of summative or sublime end point of cinema as we know it, trafficking in the mystical globalism, the yearning for totalising experiences, that typified so much big-screen experiences at this time. The action is overlaid by synthy panpipes that gradually crystallise into Celine Dion’s smash hit during the closing credits, while Brock’s investigation, and Rose’s story, also (literally) crystallise around the Heart of the Sea, a mystical sapphire that Rose was carrying when the ship sunk. This gemstone exudes the same blue as Enya’s “Caribbean Blue,” much as Celine Dion’s single, and the soundtrack, is always on the verge of completely ripping off Enya, whose cosmic mysticism filters into every beat and exchange here. It’s not surprising that the film received a second life on IMAX, since, in its sweeping search for a new global harmony, and a totalising cinematic address, this is already an IMAX aesthetic avant la lettre.
All of that adds up to a profoundly mystical sense of cinema, and the vitality of visual experience – the same wonder in looking that you often find in science fiction. Jack is drawing when he first meets Rose, who loves art, while he’s gazing at the stars when they first meet. Similarly, we first sense Rose’s dissonance with her fiancée Cal (Billy Zane) when they disagree about art, while the first item that Brock’s submersible discovers is a nude drawing that Jack composed of Rose – an indication that aesthetics and erotics, looking and lusting, will be utterly indistinguishable in the film, which sets out to arouse the eye like no other. At times, this visual intensity draws heavily from the extravagance of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet – especially when Jack and Rose make their first trip from the upper-class dining space to the lower-class dining space, in a fugitive passage from the social mores keeping them apart. As they dodge past parents, guardians and crew, along corridors, elevators and stairwells, they conjure up the Capulet Party, the heart of Luhrmann’s breathless vision – and they might as well be Capulet and Montague here, since the thresholds between classes are just as severe.
While this mysticism is very of its time, Cameron also draws on a much older theme of American epic cinema – namely, the process of becoming America. Not only is the Titanic’s destination America, but it’s her maiden voyage to America, meaning the very process of reaching America will testify to a new threshold for the technological sublime. In the past, Rose is thoroughly English, enmeshed in the intricacies of social class, but in the present she’s thoroughly American, and lives a normal suburban middle-class life. These two versions of Rose seem utterly incommensurate, until we learn that Jack is American, and that his American identity prompts her to betray her class origins. Together, they dream of extending the Titanic into a more epic westward expansion, ending with the Pacific Ocean, where they will walk embark on the roller coaster at San Francisco, and bask in the very precipice of the American continent. This epic expansion generates the most famous scene – “flying” together on the prow of the ship, as if the Atlantic and the American heartland are already behind them. When they have sex for the first and only time, they automatically gravitate to an automobile in storage, yearning for a mobility that transcends even the Titanic at full speed.
More generally, the two key Americans in the cast – Jack, and Molly, played by Kathy Bates – feel very different from the rest of the actors. While virtually all the English actors are playing upper-class characters (or the crew), Jack and Molly embody the working-class and middle-class respectively, which gives their acting a different kind of naturalism. From the outset, neither DiCaprio nor Bates quite fit with the melodrama, even as their characters inextricably shape Rose’s trajectory – Jack, by inducing Rose to jump back on board when the Titanic sinks, and Molly, by insisting that the survivors row back over to the people still floating in the water, where Rose is eventually found. Over the course of the film, these two American characters gradually shift melodrama in the direction of naturalism, paving the way for Paxton’s crew in the present, who are much more in keeping with the naturalism of Cameron’s other features.
Like so many historical epic protagonists, then, Rose’s destination is America – in a roundabout way. Through her story, the trauma of the Titanic becomes the birth pains for Europeans becoming Americans, as Cameron draws deep on one of the most pervasive tropes of these epics – the idea of American history as a third testament, the last iteration of Moses’ escape from bondage. In most of the great mid-century epics, in particular, directors presented America itself as a way of escaping slavery, rather than a nation founded on slavery. We see the last echoes of that figurative turn here, since both Jack and Rose refer to themselves, at different points, as slaves. Early on, Rose, who is unhappy in her engagement to Cal, refers to the Titanic as a “slave ship, taking me back to America in chains,” while Jack invokes slavery, more comically, during his first foray into first-class quarters, where he meets Rose for dinner after saving her life. Both these allusions to slavery indicate that Cameron is repeating, but also revising, the trope of American history as a cathartic birth from bondage.
In Cameron’s version, however, the religious overtones of earlier American epics is replaced by a more pragmatic focus on class, which he presents as the rationale for America, the main difference between America and Europe, and the main reason why there were so few survivors from the Titanic. The film takes pains to point out that there was ample time to clear the ship if lifeboats had been provided for steerage customers, especially since many of the lifeboats that entered the water were underpopulated, due to the compulsion to keep upper-class and working-class passengers separate until the very death. Rose somewhat personifies this situation, and the ship as the whole, since she finds herself in a precarious class situation – divested of her fortune, but still assured of her aristocratic name if (and only if) she agrees to marry the repulsive Cal, who exudes everything she’s come to hate about class entitlement.
This focus in class is encapsulated in and enhanced by the structure of the ship itself, which was unique, at the time, for how compactly it condensed members of different classes. As the largest object made by humans, it was also the smallest self-contained space occupied by all classes, meaning that class hierarchy had to be both accentuated and disavowed. The result is an intensified normality of class relations, which Cameron captures in two distinct trajectories that introduce us to the ship during the opening act. In the first, we move up and down the different strata, from upper-class, to working-class, to the actual workers in the bowels of the vessel, as Cameron emphasises the utter incongruity and incommensurability of these separate worlds. However, in the second trajectory, which occurs laterally, from prow to stern, Cameron provides us with a line of flight from class that corresponds with the ship’s own movement from Europe to America. When Jack first meets Rose, he saves her from committing suicide by jumping off the stern of the ship, while they consummate their love by “flying” out over the prow. In other words, Jack saves Rose from giving herself back to the European world behind them, and galvanises her into looking ahead to an American future.
By the time the crash occurs, the ship itself is so collapsed into its own class structure that the iceberg seems to arise directly from Rose and Jack’s trangsressions. The collision occurs right after they have sex, which actually seems to enhance it, since the lookouts are so distracted by seeing the couple emerge, sweaty, from storage, that they underestimate how close the iceberg has actually become. As a result, Rose and Jack have the most intimate vantage point on the ice, watching its textures as sensuously as they’ve just caressed each other’s bodies, before heading below deck to announce their romance to Rose’s family at the precise moment the captain announces an emergency. Both Cameron’s trajectories are condensed and fused in this exchange – the rapid movement of Jack and Rose above and below deck, and the lateral movement of the iceberg along the length of the boat – suggesting that the couple’s transgression of class cannot produce America without some serious birthing pangs.
This ushers in the second act of the film – and the most resonant act of the film, since it both raises and subsumes the intensified normality of class to an unbearably uncanny pitch. The more chaos and violence occurs to the workers in the bowels of the ship, the calmer things grow on deck, as the film splits into two incommensurate timelines – one in which the upper-class conducts business as usual, and the other dictating that “in a few hours all this will be at the bottom of the Atlantic.” To rephrase Mark Fisher’s work on capitalist realism, this produces something like aristocratic realism – an inability to conceive of reality outside the supremacy of the upper-class, who seem to both know and not know that their class privilege cannot command the catastrophe here. They can’t know, really, that the ship will sink, and yet they can know, just as authentically, that they won’t perish, since the Titanic’s first step in preparing for disaster is to double down on class thresholds, and shut the poor below deck.
The sheer strangeness of this intensified normality subliminally shifts the film in the direction of science fiction – the cue for Cameron to draw on the claustrophobia that animated Aliens and the choreography of water that animated The Abyss, as Rose heads to the depths of the ship to recover Jack. That might sound like a stretch, but the sinking of the Titanic was the early twentieth-century equivalent of trying to escape a spacecraft, or a submarine, at least as Cameron paints it, periodically pulling back to long shots that reiterate the mid-Atlantic as remote and inhospitable as outer space. In fact, these disestablishing shots often seem to be occurring in outer space, as Cameron reduces the largest manmade craft in history to a pinpoint against a sea so dark, and a sky so studded with stars, that we appear to be drifting through the most distant galaxies, with only the occasional flare to reiterate the blank dark.
The difference from both Aliens and The Abyss is that the monster in the depths of this ship is class relations. The more the brutality of class emerges, the more the aristocrats on deck try to normalise it – and the more they try to normalise it, the more it already seems to have colonised the entire film, and the history of cinema itself. To capture the century of cinema as a hundred years of class relations, it’s not enough for Cameron to simply summarise it – he has to turn it awry, break it down and spin it at an oblique angle, which he does quite literally through the slow-motion slant of the Titanic as it gradually moves from a horizontal to vertical orientation. As the ship keels, the entire field of Hollywood period drama, and its capacity to naturalise wealth and class, is gradually turned awry, even as the wealthy try to naturalise mise-en-scene to the last. Cameron responds with a perfectly pitched escalation of literal suspense – intensifying degrees of suspension as the ship starts to angle up. Precisely when the water finally reaches the upper-class quarters, and the working-class break on deck (or drown), Cal assigns himself the role of director, leaping up on ropes, and standing on top of the lifeboats, to command the scene from afar – and to determine what constitutes realism.
In this second act, Cameron thus complicates the epic passage to America, suggesting that wealth and class are intractable in the very cinematic vehicle, the American medium of cinema, that Cameron is using to critique them. Cameron seems to intuit that class was never destroyed by America – it was just naturalised further – meaning he has to move the film even further away from “respectable” modes of realism, and towards ever greater extravagances of spectacle, as the ship sinks. The horror here thus depends on the melodrama of the first act, as does the recourse to science fiction, while anything less than the baldest and broadest melodrama would have been a disservice to this class catastrophe as Cameron conceives of it. Along with this reliance on the “low” modes of melodrama, science fiction and horror, Cameron sets out to finally rival the enormous vertical edifices of Intolerance, as if to create a representational caesura, a surface so massive it prevents us automatically siding with Rose’s kind, despite our individual affinity for her, and to offset our seduction by the décor.
This escalating vertical edifice ushers in the third act of the film, which depicts the sinking proper, and starts with the last lifeboats being lifted down the side of the boat, whose verticality becomes more pointed and pregnant during these critical moments. As the working-class try to board these lifeboats from the steerage windows, Cameron reserves the longest gaze between Rose and Jack for when she descends over the side with her family, fireworks exploding in the background and panpipes peaking on the score. Yet Rose also becomes the only person to reverse (but also reiterate) this vertical trajectory by leaping back on the ship, at a lower level, which identifies her anew with Jack, who finds himself higher than her for the first time in the film, as he now has to return below deck and reprise his own quest for safer quarters and upward mobility. No surprise that this ultimate moment of class betrayal (and class solidarity) propels Cal into fully-fledged class warfare – firing a pistol at Rose and Jack, forcing them below deck, even as the water has now reached the first floor.
From here, the entire ship turns vertical, as people flee to the tip of the boat and try to stay on board as long as possible to avoid the freezing water. The pinnacle of the prow, which was once the point of greatest mobility for Jack and Rose, now becomes the point of greatest precarity – a limit to class mobility, at least while Rose is still identifying as a European. For, while she may have figuratively jettisoned her class (“Jack – this is where we first met”), she’s still speaking with an English accent here, suggesting that only the most profound trauma can truly make her American. That trauma comes when the ship turns into one giant vertical surface, and we’re presented with the peculiar horror of the propellors ascending, like something that must never be seen – a vision of the class system assumed and subsumed into the ship’s very structure. These final moments feel like a kind of ultimate spectacle in American cinema, beyond even Apocalypse Now – the last great physical and logistical feat of Hollywood before the CGI Revolution, which is already well underway in Cameron’s visions.
From the vantage point of the present, this ultimate spectacle is also eerily prescient of September 11, especially when Cameron cuts to the survivors in the lifeboats, horrified yet transfixed, as body after body chooses to jump (or falls) from the crumbling vertical structure of the ship. We know the architects of 9/11 were partly inspired by American blockbuster cinema, so you have to wonder whether they took some of their cues from these traumatic witnesses in the lifeboats, co-opting the most epic film ever shot about becoming American into the most complete terrorist spectacle ever launched on American soil. This synergy between the film and September 11 ushers in a space beyond spectacle, at least as classical film can conceive it. The lights go out, the ship collapses into a cosmic field of stars and water, and Jack and Rose turn out to be the very last people on the prow, the final people to hit the water, encapsulating the entire class drama in shifting from Europe to America, which now becomes a descent narrative, an inchoate echo of the slaves thrown off Atlantic vessels during the Middle Passage, as Jack cautions Rose to hold her breath for as long as humanly possible.
They do survive, for the moment, but only to find themselves in a surreal space that stretches this vertical field beyond all conceivable spectacle. Floating together in the water, Rose looks up at the Milky Way stretching unimaginable distances into the ether, before looking down at Jack’s frozen body as he sinks to equally unimaginable distances between the surface of the ocean. Between the Milky Way and the bottom of the ocean, the film’s verticality reaches a sublime pitch, beyond even the “distances and spaces between us” that Celine Dion invokes.
That’s not so say, of course, that Rose doesn’t arrive in America, or become American, but that the process is more tortuous, incomplete and elliptical than occurred in earlier historical epics. She arrives at the mouth of the Hudson as rain is falling – the first rain we see in the film – as if she’s emerged from Jack’s underwater grave, in another distant echo of the Afrofuturist mythologies that emerged around slaves thrown from ships. She enters America under Jack’s name, leaving her own relation to her mother ambiguous, especially since we never see them together again. Throughout this arrival, there’s no sense of catharsis, for while Rose may see Jack as a salvational figure (“he saved me, in every way that a person can be saved”), that salvational role doesn’t extend to America, which has “nothing to do but wait- wait to die, wait to live, wait for an absolution that would never come.” If the film starts in the tradition of Intolerance, it cannot summon up D.W. Griffith’s conviction in these closing scenes, displacing its destination as it proceeds, such that we never see Rose return to America, or to suburban normality, as Cameron chooses to end the film on Brock’s vessel. It’s as if America was embodied in Jack’s presence, and can only live on as a fantasy in his absence.
This fantasy produces three inchoate gestures of class yearning in the closing stages of the film. In the first, Rose stands at the back of Brock’s ship, recalling the scene where Jack saved here. Launching her fragile frame up on the fence, and gazing out at the waves, she seems to question just how much of Europe she really left behind. Second, she drops the Heart of the Sea into the sea, a talismanic gesture that relinquishes her last token of class privilege to join Jack in the deep, wherever he may be. These two gestures – feeling Europe is still near, and dropping the necklace, speak to the film’s inability to properly differentiate American identity. They segue into the third gesture, the extraordinary shot that brings us to the end of the film.
This shot starts as a pan through the wreckage, and segues into a pan through the actual Titanic that’s unlike any other shot in the film. That’s partly because it splits the difference between real and CGI footage better than any other shot so far, as if already inhabiting the cinematic future. Yet the key ingredient here is the dramatically canted perspective – the combination of tipsy precarity and Steadicam calm, which internalises and naturalises the awry angles of the second act, as if to envisage a world that we can comfortably and sustainably inhabit in a state of class incoherence, or without any investment in class whatsoever. Cameron here seems to be reaching beyond mere tracking-shots for an inchoate drone aesthetic, to fantasise that the future might still become American by disregarding class – that we might yet tip, offset and distort economic hierarchies as a permanent way of being.
Sure enough, this track-pan-drone shot reprises one of the key scenes of the film – when Jack meets Rose under the clock in the first-class dining area – but as a dissolution, rather than an affirmation of class, as every major figure in the film stands around congratulating them, challenging the audience to conceive of themselves as a cross-section of social classes in the same way. Beneath that clock, America’s time seems to have run out at the very moment we arrive at it, meaning we can only experience it retrospectively, as a fantasy, even or especially as the film enjoins us to do more, imagine more. I still remember the deep sense of belatedness when I watched this, my first (and in some sense my last) ever American epic, at Chatswood Hoyts in 1997. For the first time in a movie, I burst into uncontrollable tears, overwhelmed, like Titanic itself, by everything that cinema must and yet cannot achieve.