When I found out that they were re-releasing Titanic this spring to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, I instantly thought this was the most heartless, transparently cash-in-y thing I'd ever heard of. And immediately afterward, thought "I can't wait to see it BIG again."
Last weekend, I did. I saw it big, in 3D, and oh good glory, it was the best thing I've seen this year.
For starters, I forgot that Cameron does not take the tragedy of the sinking lightly. I'm not denying that there's something inherently squicky about cha-CHINGing the anniversary of 1,500 deaths, but his camerawork under the ocean, and the words he puts in Old Rose's mouth, are not cheap or trashy, nor are they the smallest part of the experience.
For two, I feel sad that Titanic has become a big ol' joke. I get mad when people don't take pop culture seriously, or when they take Art so seriously that absurdity and fun can't be appreciated. Pop culture is important. It's the place most of us live most of the time, and it's how an alien species or an anthropologist could have any hope of understanding us, of reaching us. These are the things that shape our lives: not just the noble ideals and and masterpieces of great thinkers and artists of the past, but the dialogue in Back to the Future and the music of Madonna.
Point is, a movie like Gone with the Wind, a big epic spectacle, sticks with the culture for decades on end. Whole generations watch it and then show it to their kids, who show it to their kids. People have a place in their hearts for that movie that they feel belongs just to them - but it belongs to everybody, because that's how great pop art feels: ubiquitous and unique. Titanic (despite its weaker script) sits easily on the shelf next to Gone with the Wind, and a critic who fails to see that simply doesn't have the long view.
There were long minutes during the sinking sequence when my mouth didn't close at all. I know this movie pretty durn well; I saw it in the theater three times (my moviegoing companion over the weekend had seen it eight times in '97-'98), and I used to put it on the DVD player in my laptop while I knitted in my little room in Massachusetts. No single line is a surprise, although I don't have most of it by heart as I do GWTW. But it was still completely different on the big screen, just as GWTW had been when I saw it on a rerelease in the mid-90s. (I will never forget that day. It was an irreplaceable experience to see it on a theater-sized screen. I badly want it to go back in the theater again.) It was still all of the best of any moviegoing experience compressed into a paltry three hours and fourteen minutes. We go to the cinema to see something spectacular, that is our only goal, I firmly believe. And that is exactly what Titanic is, no more and no less.
This time around I gave some more thought to the way Cameron writes female characters. I think he tends to veer away from the standard male gaze in ways that I enormously admire, although I don't know if his motivation is because he's a feminist or because he just wants as big an audience as possible. Rose (and all this goes for Sarah Connor in T2, and Ripley in Aliens) is objectified to some extent, but I really want to be her, the same way men want to be Philip Marlowe. She's fully realized, not sketched. She doesn't just behave the way you want her to, acquiesce and trot along with the motion of the plot, but actually follows her own lights and helps to drive it all forward. This is not the way most female characters behave in Hollywood.
There are sexist aspects to Titanic, but they match the period of the piece. If anything, it's anachronistically unsexist in many spots. And it's not perfect, you know, there's a lot of Men Stuff that goes on, but never does it seem (to me) inherently more important than the bedroom drama between Rose and the expectations placed upon her. Which is sort of the whole dynamic between Men Stuff and Lady Stuff in fiction, the boardroom vs. the bedroom, and one of them being necessarily more interesting because it's populated by the masters of the universe. Footnoted to A Room of One's Own.
I could be giving credit to Cameron where it's not due, but I find that, over and over in his oeuvre, he does not falter or dick-swing when he writes female characters, and I really believe Titanic is no exception. Even if Rose does require saving, according to herself. She's just a teenager, after all.
So, upshot: Go see it, if you missed it the first time around, or even if you didn't. Even if you hated it. Try it on for size. It's big enough to fit most everybody.