Thursday, September 10, 2009

Titanic: A Big Big Love

Earth Capitol has a short but amusing post about the Titanic. I enjoyed this not only because the featured poem is so fabulous but also because I share EC's obsession with the Titanic disaster itself. Shamefully I have to admit to having seen every single film about it. As a consequence I can say that - contrary to what one of the post's comments asserts - James Cameron's Titanic is not the worst film ever made. The worst film ever made is in fact Lew Grade's Raise The Titanic.

Why this tragedy should have given rise to so much bad art is a mystery, but Raise the Titanic really is worth a look should it ever rear its head on terrestrial TV again. It concerns a bizarre cold war plot to find a mysterious substance ("Byzanium? That's absurd", says a character at one point, accurately) which has gone down with the ship. At the end Titanic is raised to the surface and sailed triumphantly into New York harbour, a wobbly toy boat covered in sea weed bobbing up and down against a badly painted backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. The plot summary is here, if you have the stomach for it.

Clearly Cameron's Titanic is equally bobbins, but the sinking scenes are technically phenomenal and actually quite thrilling. My colleague over at Strange Harvest has noted too that the CGI recreations of the ship can be seen as an inverted homage - or a strange endpoint - to modernism's obsession with maritime imagery. In Cameron's Titanic the awesome processing power of digital technology is utilised to recreate an Edwardian ocean liner, albeit with thrilling verisimilitude.

For all its technical prowess - and let's face it that's the only permissible reason to watch it really - the film sticks rigidly to the cliches of the Titanic story: the jigging Irish in 3rd class forever enjoying the craic, stoical band members playing as they descend into the waves, caddish upper class men stealing into the lifeboats etc.

It also contains a number of narrative absurdities and anachronisms. Chief amongst these is the fact that Kate Winslet's character is carrying several early modernist masterpieces in her luggage including Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. This is currently to be found in the Museum of Modern Art and not, as far as anyone is aware, at the bottom of the Atlantic. The film also includes one of the most exquisitely terrible bits of art criticism ever seen on film when Leonardo Di Caprio gazes at Picasso's painting and says "The colours, they're just so....intense".

Less facetiously I owe my obsession with Titanic to reading about its discovery in National Geographic as a child. Titanic was discovered by Dr Robert Ballard in the early 1980's and the magazine followed this story over several issues leading up to the incredible photographs of the submerged ship. I found it both moving and terrifying in much the same way that Earth Capitol describes. Amazingly, Ballard's discovery - achieved with state of the art submersibles and seabed scanning equipment - was actually a by-product of the cold war too. Ballard had been contracted by the CIA to search for the wrecks of nuclear submarines and, at the end of this period, had been allowed to spend a few extra days looking for the titanic. No mention of Byzanium though. Suspicious that.