“Did you cry?”
“I cried four times. Just hearing the song makes me cry.”
Such was the conversation of thirteen-year-olds following the release of Titanic in December of 1997. The song of course, is “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, and reactions to the film somehow became a mark of status among my classmates in our tiny landlocked Montana town. Leo was a heartthrob to wallpaper your bedroom walls with; Kate was a picture of feminine beauty for us to aspire to.
I haven’t seen Titanic in over a decade. The last time I watched the movie all the way through, we had to change the tape halfway through — which ought to clue you in on the year that happened. So this year, with the film being re-released in 3D to honor the centenary of the unsinkable ship’s sinking, I felt a driving need to see it.
It’s strange to re-live a childhood memory through an adult perspective.
It’s strange to watch something so iconic with the eyes of someone who has experienced loss.
It’s strange to allow yourself to let in the reality of what happened that night one hundred years ago, stranger still to experience it through fiction knowing that in the background, the horror of the backdrop pales in comparison to the reality.
I couldn’t start to understand my desire to re-visit Titanic until the arrival of my April issue of National Geographic. The featured articles? All about Titanic. The ship, yes, but also the film. What I didn’t know before then was that James Cameron, aside from being a multi-bazillionaire and one of the most absurdly high grossing film producer in history, is a science buff and an historian. Specifically, it was his personal draw to Titanic that led him to visit the wreck in 1995 and film it, and it was that sense that made him make the film.
In my April issue of NatGeo, James Cameron wrote a piece entitled “Ghostwalking in Titanic.” He wrote it about visiting the wreck, about his emotions and fears, revelations and awe. Some new images of Titanic showed where Hollywood had to improvise; others mirrored the re-creation with eerie accuracy, down to the gold-plated mantlepiece clock in the suite of Ida and Isidor Straus who were known for their refusal to separate and instead opting to ride the wreckage of the ship to her final resting place together. Their suite was the inspiration for Rose’s suite in the film, the clock and the rest of the decor modeled after archival photos of the ship.
Perhaps Cameron sought only money, but in his words I sensed passion. Passion for what exactly, I am unsure. Whatever fire drives him beneath the waves of the North Atlantic time and again to search out the secrets of one of the greatest mechanical tragedies in human history has uncovered just that: secrets and images of the last moments of 1,500 human beings who lost their lives in the frigid cold.
And so this morning I set an alarm and got out of bed to catch the earliest showing of Titanic, unsure of what to expect.
Adult eyes catch more than the eyes of children, even teenagers. Of that I am now even more convinced than I was before I set foot into the theater. I understood a little of Rose’s situation as an adolescent — a young woman forced into an unwanted engagement for the financial gain of her family. That much I got even then. What I missed was the nuance and the insidiousness of Rose’s fiance.
This time around, I was able to understand Molly Brown‘s impudence in asking Cal if he planned to cut Rose’s meat for her. I understood Cal’s gift of the diamond necklace for what it was: a bribe for sex, as clear and naked as that sparkling blue stone. I understood his statement, “I thought you would have come to me last night.” Translation: “I gave you the diamond. You owed it to me to sleep with me.”
And I understood Rose’s character much better for the words in voice over, “Inside, I was screaming.”
I understood for the first time her heroism in rescuing Jack, how her bravery saved his life. I could respect her decision to stay with him and recognize that as a moment that also showed his worth as a character because he didn’t question her choice to do so.
The fictional story captured me again. With an almost Romeo and Juliet sort of naivete, you cannot help but love Rose and Jack. As he takes her from the stilted steps of high society to the pounding bodhran and uillean pipes in the steerage dance, you cannot help the exultation. Their love is unfettered and bright. Even though you know it’s doomed.
Even though their story is fiction, the backdrop against which it is set is not. Watching the film in 3D — well. The sound of the iceberg’s impact thundered through the theater, and I couldn’t help imagining it ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times louder. Feeling it shake the ship, hearing the crunch of thick steel.
Over two thousand souls trusted to Titanic to bear them across an ocean. And as she foundered on the calm midnight seas, some of the most horrific moments were not nature versus human, but human versus human. Locking the lower class passengers in their quarters. The panic that made officers launch life boats half-full or less when there weren’t even enough boats for half the souls onboard. The chaos and the scrambling.
When the water began rushing in, creeping from deck to deck, I felt the panic. As it encroached upon the higher levels of the ship, I had a sense not of the ship going down, but of the sea reaching up to claim it.
Claim it as what? A sadistic tribute in response to the pride of humanity, taken hungrily by an implacable sea? A reminder of the respect we so seldom afford to the earth? A frightening testament to human nature? There are parts of this history that are sickening. How only two of the twenty lifeboats returned to collect survivors after the Atlantic claimed the ship for good. How the arrogance of the shipbuilders led to allowing aesthetics to trump safety. The cost was almost 75% of the lives on the ship.
As I watched the final moments of the Titanic’s sinking in the film, I was reminded of the National Geographic article once more. In it, they described how the ship’s stern (the rear part that broke away from the bow once the waterlogged front portion sunk beneath the waves) corkscrewed to the bottom of the ocean. It’s the part of the wreck you don’t see images of. The bow in all its aerodynamics survived in a rather picturesque state; the stern took a tumultuous and violent spiral downward, and it took hundreds of terrified people along with it.
The end of the film shows those touching moments: an elderly couple meant to be Ida and Isidor Strauss holding one another, an Irish mother telling her children of Tir na Nog. What it doesn’t show, what it cannot depict, is the scream of strained steel, the terrible crush of the in-rushing water, and the darkness when the sea snuffed out the lights leaving people inside the belly of a sinking ship.
It was that that pulled the tears from me this morning. The adult knowledge of people, stuck and helpless, being dragged downward to the bottom of the North Atlantic.
So today, nine days after Titanic’s centenary, I’m remembering not Kate and Leo as Rose and Jack, or even the unsinkable Molly Brown. I’m remembering those who died faceless for human folly, because when people in power err — whether in building a ship and naming it unsinkable or invading a country — it’s the faceless who bear the brunt of it. And that is heavy enough to sink a ship.
I’m reminded also that nature isn’t to be trifled with. Perhaps that is what Titanic should remain: a lesson in humility, and a reminder that the swiftest and most brazen among us can be brought low.
And yes, I wept.