the film snob

A cyberspace journal about my experiences as an NYU film school grad student, reviews of current and classic films, film and TV news, and the rants and raves of an admitted (and unapologetic) film snob.

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Esse Quam Videri -- To be, rather than to appear

Friday, May 05, 2006


For the past year or so, I have been writing film and TV reviews at Here are synopsis' and links to those reviews.

When the theatrical release of James Cameron’s Titanic was delayed from July to December of 1997, media pundits speculated that the $200 million disaster epic would cause the director’s downfall, signal the end of the blockbuster era and sink the producing studios as quickly and ferociously as the film’s ill-fated namesake had sunk some 80 years earlier.

It soon became apparent that the doomsayers would have to exquisitely eat each and every one of their words.

Due largely to repeat viewings, Titanic would surpass $1 billion in global box-office receipts, go on to win 11 of the 14 Academy Awards for which it was nominated, produce the best-selling movie soundtrack of all time and make a global superstar of lead, Leonardo DiCaprio.

A bona-fide pop-culture phenomenon, Titanic had all the ingredients of a blockbuster—romance, passion, luxury, grand scale, a snidely villain and an epic, life-threatening crisis—but James Cameron’s alchemy of these ingredients proved more popular than anyone could have ever predicted.

Say what you want, Titanic was more than just a smash success because of the financial buying power of teenage girls. Whatever its faults, Titanic had a devastating emotional impact on its viewers, many of whom would later criticize it after its popularity reached uncomfortably titanic (pun intended) proportions. Although many viewers denied the effects of James Cameron’s emotional manipulations, few can deny the production’s impressive achievements. Anyone over 15 saw right though the film’s weak points but were generally swept away by the story despite themselves.

Notwithstanding the fact that it became fashionable to bash Titanic, the film struck upon the perfect balance of fetishistic historic accuracy and utter emotional authenticity, seamlessly blending truth and fiction into a spectacular, moving, utterly engrossing three-hour epic the sort of which they rarely make anymore.

This isn’t to say that the film didn’t have its faults. The script is a hackneyed, derivative copy of old Hollywood romances best forgotten and populated primarily with melodramatic, one-sided characters. What’s perhaps most interesting is that this was Cameron’s intention all along. After all, you don’t pick the most expensive movie ever made to begin reinventing the wheel.

Whether Titanic’s love story, or the couple inhabiting it, is believable is beside the point. Cameron wasn’t interested in telling a plausible love story; he was interested in telling a remarkable love story. Overshadowed by the behemoth that was Titanic’s cataclysmic loss, Cameron intentionally chose to make his characters more formulaic than fully fleshed-out personalities. Relying on the staying power of old-fashioned stereotypes, Cameron let his characters’ lack of specificity and detail make them more accessible than if they had not been simplistic caricatures. By dealing in timeless universals, he surmounted cliché with archetype.

The staple of dramatists from the Greeks to Shakespeare, there is a reason traditional formulas, such as those found in fairy tales, have worked for so long. They allow instant identification with audiences. By keeping his characters remarkably free of three-dimensionality, Cameron realized that audience members would insert their own lives, their own hopes, their own fears overtop the nearly blank templates provided them, and, in turn, they would become vicarious passengers on the doomed ship, experiencing all of the highs and lows of its brief voyage across the sea of time and space. Thus, a huge disaster—played out spectacularly through the film’s unassailable and unimpeachable special effects laden second half—becomes, instead, a very personal disaster.

Though the film wrestles with some very big themes—technology as master, the hubris of humankind, the ship as a vehicle of social mobility—none are more resilient or powerful as the window into Titanic and its tragedy that Cameron gives his audiences through Jack and Rose.


To read the full review, click here.


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