17th 04 - 2016 | 4 comments »

Knight of Cups (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Terrence Malick

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By Roderick Heath

Terrence Malick’s late period has seen him more productive than ever at the cost of robbing his output of the almost magical allure it once had through scarcity. Once he was easy to idealise as an emissary of artistic stature redolent of a very different time and cultural frame, the reclusive poet broadcasting occasional, deeply considered artistic happenings from on high. But when he brings out three films in five years, he becomes just another filmmaker in the marketplace. Yet his work has defied the usual crises and swerves that befall aging auteurs to become ever more personal, rarefied, and bold, charged with a sense of questing enthusiasm and expressive urgency. Whereas in his early work I tend to find what Malick wants to say a bit obvious even as he laboured to say it in the most ravishing way, his later work suggests an attempt to articulate concepts and emotions so nebulous and difficult they cannot be conveyed in any meaningful way except when bundled up in that strange collection of images known as cinema, gaining a sharpness and urgency that risks much but also achieves much. This is a large part of why I’ve been moving against the current and digging what Malick’s been putting down all the more since The New World (2005). The New World marked a point when Malick really first nailed the aesthetic he’d been chasing, apparently formless in the usual cinematic sense, but actually fluidic and dynamic, more like visual music than prose, his stories unfolding in a constant rush of counterpoint, the visual and the verbal, each nudging the other along rather than working in the usual lockstep manner of standard dramatic cinema.

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By comparison, I recently revisited Days of Heaven (1978) and find it gorgeous but inert, like a fine miniature in a snow cone. The pursuit of a horizon glimpsed in a dream, at once personal and lodged in a folk-memory, admirably articulated, but too refined, too stringently, self-consciously fablelike to compel me. The New World finally set Malick free because it allowed him to alchemise his preoccupations and poetic ideas, his obsession with the Edenic Fall, into the simplest vessel whilst still engaging with concrete history and a very solid sense of the world. Somehow Malick has become, in his old age, at once the wispiest of abstractionists and the most acute of realists. Knight of Cups feels like another instalment, probably the last, in an unofficial, but certainly linked cycle he started with The Tree of Life (2011) and followed with To the Wonder (2013). Malick has been translating his own life into art for these films, albeit tangentially, through a mesh of disguise, displacement, invention, and simple reflection. Knight of Cups completes the sense of journey from songs of innocence to songs of experience; the depiction of childhood’s protean possibility rhymed with adulthood’s regretful mourning as depicted in The Tree of Life has given way to the specific portrait of love found and lost in To the Wonder, and now, hedonistic abandon and the open void of modernity amidst the elusive promise of the land. It’s a report in the moment that rounds off the tale Malick’s been contemplating since The New World, a portrait of what’s become of that innocent land the white man conquered.

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Christian Bale inhabits the role of Rick, a screenwriter living it large in Los Angeles, but dogged by a lingering inability to form real emotional connections and the gnawing onus that is the fate of his family. That’s just about all the plot there is to Knight of Cups, which unfolds like a fever dream of recollection, pushing the flowing, vignette-laden, high-montage style Malicks’s pursued since The New World to a point that is both an extreme and also a crescendo. In compensation, Malick adopts a very simple, but perfectly functional division into chapters, each named for a card in the Tarot and dominated by a depiction of one of Rick’s relationships, whether passing or substantial, with various women and family members, or turning points in his experience. “The Moon” recounts his grazing encounters with dye-haired young wannabe Della (Imogen Poots). “The Hanged Man” depicts his uneasy relationship with his father and brother. “The Hermit” follows Rick through the indulgences of Hollywood, attending a party hosted by mogul Tonio (Antonio Banderas). “Judgment” sees him briefly reconnecting with his ex-wife, medical doctor Nancy (Cate Blanchett). In “The Tower,” Rick is tempted by Mephistophelian manager Herb (Michael Wincott). In “The Sun,” he becomes mesmerised by a fashion model, Helen (Frieda Pinto), who embodies pure beauty and practises tantric yoga. “The High Priestess” sees him hooking up with stripper Karen (Teresa Palmer), and visiting Las Vegas with her for a dirty weekend. In “Death,” he becomes involved with a married woman, Elizabeth (Natalie Portman), who falls pregnant and doesn’t know if the father is Rick or her husband. Finally, “Freedom” depicts his ultimate decision to leave Hollywood and finding happiness with Isabel (Isabel Lucas), a girl he often sees dancing on the beach.

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The Knight of Cups is also a tarot card, of course, one that notably changes meaning according to how it’s looked at, encompassing the alternately quicksilver brilliance and inane nature of the young adventurer and will to disorder, a reminder of the closeness between the two. Rick is evidently the Knight, one who is not so coincidentally often in his cups. He’s also correlated with the prince in a fairy tale his father is fond of who travels to a distant land on an important mission but is bewitched by a magic potion and forgets his identity. Near the start of the film, Rick meets with two agents (Patrick Whitesell and Rick Hess) who have orchestrated his transfer off a project on which he was floundering and attached him to a top comedy star, a move that brings Rick to the peak of his profession. Rick lives nonetheless in a small apartment that barely displays any sign of real human habitation apart from his bed and laptop, as two thieves find to their chagrin when they break in and try to rob the place. He is shaken by an earthquake close to the film’s beginning, the first momento mori that jars him out of any sense of confident self-satisfaction. Soon, Rick wanders the city gobbling up sensations and distractions. He cavorts with models, actresses, and scenesters he can now pull with his growing wealth and freewheeling enthusiasm, but is nagged at by the omnipresent evidence of a concurrent reality, represented by the down-and-out folk he brushes against on the streets of LA.

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The film’s prologuelike opening scenes see Rick on the town, riding the streets with models and partying hard in scenes of ebullient, carnivalesque high life, where geishas and costumed artistes frolic and life seems utterly ripe. An experimental film being projected on the wall invades the film itself, a beautiful woman shifting through guises, masks of cardboard and make-up floating around her face, identity turned protean and cabalistic—essentially introducing the basic theme of the film around it. Then, the earthquake shakes the town. In the first “chapter,” Rick meets Della, who describes Rick’s problem as one commonly diagnosed in writers by those close to them: “You don’t want love—you want a love experience.” But she also recognises that he’s a man who’s been switched off on some fundamental level for some time. She begs him not to return to such a state again, and the rest of the film depicts his struggle to really feel and open himself up. Rick’s deeper spiritual and emotional maladies are soon revealed as he visits his father Joseph (Brian Dennehy) at his offices, in a strange sequence that might be memory, dream, or a blend of the two, as Joseph seems to be alone in a vast building and washes his hands in filthy water. Joseph’s health and sanity become niggling sources of worry for Rick, whilst Joseph boils over with Learish anger and sorrow. Rick also maintains an uneasy relationship with his brother Barry (Wes Bentley), a former junkie turned street minister, often submerged in the shoals of human wreckage Rick contends with. These three beset survivors are closely bonded by rivets of love and wracking pain because of the suicide of a third brother, Billy. When any of the three come together, they often clash, sometimes in heated and physically eruptive manner: a dinner the trio have together devolves into Barry hurling furniture around.

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Rick’s success has been achieved by remaining switched off because of a fear he admits in contemplating his failed marriage to Nancy. Nancy, in a motif reminiscent of Javier Bardem’s minister in To the Wonder, is glimpsed treating broken and sickened individuals from the fringes of society, contrasting Rick as he eddies in a zone where he’s aware of his inconsequentiality even as he experiences a very real sense of burden. Joseph’s thoughts are repeatedly heard in voiceover, as if the ailing father is trying still to guide his Rick, who, nominated as the successful progeny, wears the double burden of fulfilling the familial mission and holding up, psychically if not financially, the remnant of their pride and prospect. But Rick’s perspective is not just one of fashionable ennui: it’s one that touches everything he sees with a sense of charged fascination and transient import and meaning. One of the film’s high points is also one of its seemingly most meandering and purely experiential, as Rick wanders Tonio’s estate surrounded by a boggling collective of random celebrities and pretty faces. Rick explores the gaudy environs of Tonio’s manse, a gigantic placard advertising tasteless wealth, a neo-Versailles, whilst on sound we hear Tonio’s explanations of his love life, comparing his womanising habits to daily cravings for different flavours of ice cream, the confession of an easy sybarite.

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At first, the smorgasbord of flesh and fancy is bewildering and entertaining, the perspective that of a professional rubbernecker, but as the day goes on, booze is consumed, people dance and cavort, and eventually start plunging into the pool. Malick commences this sequence with shots of dogs chasing balls in the water, and then models dressed in haute couture similarly immersed, complete with giant heels digging at the water. He sees something both beautiful and highly ridiculous in visions where rose petals flitter through the air to rest on the shoulders of the anointed, straight out of some neoclassical painter’s concept of decadent pleasures in the days of Rome. By the end, everyone’s in the water, squirming in the liquid, a crescendo of absurd yet affectionate observation of the desire many have to exist within a perpetual party. The LA setting robs Malick of his usual places of meditative peace, the wavering grasslands, the proud sun-scraping forests. Swimming pools, the omnipresent symbol of prosperity in LA, become under Malick’s gaze numinous portals aglow with fervent colour, places where the moment anyone enters they instantly transform into a different state of being. They’re tamed versions of the ocean, a place Rick constantly returns to with his women or by himself, the zone of transformation and grand, impersonal force. Something of a similar insight to one Sang-soo Hong explored in his The Day He Arrives (2012), charges Knight of Cups, if in a radically different fashion, as Rick’s various relationships, whether brief or substantial, see him constantly returning to the same places and sights to the point where they seem both interchangeable and looping—going to the beach, driving the streets, visiting his girlfriends’ homes—evoking the evanescent rush of the early phases of love, but then each time seeming to reach a point where he can’t go any further. At one point he’s visited by old friends who knew him as a kid and have kids of their own, a zone of experience he hasn’t yet penetrated, emissaries from an alien land.

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One noticeable lack from most of Malick’s earlier films was real, adult sexuality. After finally delving into that with To the Wonder, Knight of Cups is frankly sexy, as it portrays Rick’s successful entry into a zone that would strike a lot of young people as paradise. But there’s still a fascinating, childlike sense of play apparent in the film as Rick cavorts with naked nymphs he picks up. Malick moralises none of this, seeing it merely as the inevitable result and pleasure of putting a large number of good-looking, well-off people into a similar environment and letting them have at it. Knight of Cups brings the implicitly autobiographical narrative Malick wove through The Tree of Life and To the Wonder into a new phase, patterned seemingly after Malick’s time spent as a screenwriter in the early 1970s and leading up to his eventual self-exile from the movie industry. Again, of course, there’s good reason not to take all this simply as memoir, but rather as a highly transformed, aestheticized attempt to convert experience into poetry. That aesthetic is one of memory—fallible, fluidic, selective, associative. But there’s no hint of the period piece to the result, which is as stylistically and sociologically up-to-date as anything I’ve seen lately, engaging contemporary Hollywood and indeed the contemporary world in all its flailing, free-falling strangeness, the confused impulses towards meditative remove and hedonism apparent in modern American life.

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Knight of Cups is, as a result, one of the most daring formal experiments I’ve ever seen in a feature film, an attempt to paint entirely in the mode of reminiscence, a tide of epiphanies. Malick’s early films were obsessed with the exact same motif of clasping onto a mood, a way of seeing, an impression from the very edges of liminal experience. But his techniques have evolved and transformed those motifs and are now inseparable from them. Knight of Cups seems random and free-form, but actually is rigorously constructed, each vignette and experience glimpsed as part of a journey that eventually resolves in some moderately traditional ways. Amidst Malick’s now-trademark use of voiceover to give access to the interior world and thoughts of his characters and music to propel and define various movements, he also adds snatches of recordings of poetry, recitation, and drama, including John Gielgud’s Prospero from Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991) and lines from The Pilgrim’s Progress. With such hallowed, high-culture refrains snipped to pieces and rearranged into mantralike capsules of eerie wisdom ringing out, Knight of Cups finds a way to deal with the cornucopia, enfolding and smothering, that is modern life, as well as with Rick’s immediate personal concerns. Tto a certain extent, Rick is merely a scarecrow to hang it all on, the vessel of perception whose journey through life is, like that of all artists, one of both immersion and detachment.

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And yet Rick is hardly a nonentity, or a cliché emblematic of Hollywood shallowness. If The Tree of Life and To the Wonder were overtly concerned with spiritual and religious impulses as well as the worldly matters of growth and love, in Knight of Cups, that has faded to background noise. Here Malick suggests constantly that in the modern world, the divides we used to be able to set up to corral zones of experience—enterprise, spirituality, sexuality, intellectualism—cannot be maintained in such an age. The urge of the spiritual seeker is still lodged deep within Rick, perhaps all the more powerful when stripped out of the pieties of childhood and small-town life and set free in the louche embrace of worldly plenty. Armin Mueller-Stahl appears briefly as a minister advising Rick on how to try to engage with life as he moves closer to making a real break. But the matter here is the allure of the profane, and indeed, an attempt to create a truly modern definition and understanding of it—the intoxicating, but also dispiriting effects of superficialities, the strange hierarchies that turn some people into the tools and suppliants. Some have seen this work as an anti-Hollywood moan, but it’s not the usual shrill satire or snooty take. The narrative does infer that Rick’s role in the film world is so inane that it barely registers in his stream of consciousness. The essence of Malick’s complaint seems to me that although the movie industry attracts, employs, and sometimes enriches artists, it so rarely asks them to truly stretch their talents, like making Olympic-level sprinters compete in three-legged races.

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Malick actually seems to see Hollywood as rather comical, a candy castle for perma-adolescents. Rick’s dabbling in decadence is far from extreme: sometimes he gets blotto and has a lot of sex. Malick maintains much the same goggle-eyed, wide-open sensibility towards the strange places where Rick finds himself, from Tonio’s party to the pornocratic sprawl of Vegas and the strip club where he meets Karen. The placidity of a Japanese shrine offers the balm of calm, but Rick’s real transformative visions come amidst the partygoers of Vegas, a place that counts as some gigantic, if tacky, work of artistic chutzpah. There he gazes up at dancers dangling from the ceiling enacting a visualised myth of birth, slipping out of a chrysalis above the swooning, frenetic joyfulness of the people on the dance floor, an event of communal magnitude, something Rick is happy to exist within but cannot entirely join. Malick comprehends the magnetism of a place entirely dedicated to immersion in sensuality, a place where Rick lets the strippers lock him in a cage. Malick sees something genuinely telling here—that in the most adult of activities are the most profound expression of a desire to devolve back into the childhood, a place of play and free-form existence. But it’s also another stage for Rick to study to reveal his own persistent problem. It’s entirely logical then that in Malick’s mind, Karen, a bon vivant with a gift for moving freely and easily in the world, is probably the most complete and easy person glimpsed in the film, capable of chatting amiably with both pimps out in the surreal wilderness near the city and moguls ensconced in its gilt chambers.

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Rick’s fascination with all his women encompasses their ways of interacting with the world and their individual identity, and also their commonalities, their mirroring points of fascination and ironic disparities. The faint, but definite glint of hard, ambitious intent in Della’s eye as a wanderer far out of her zone both rhymes with and also contrasts Karen’s similar status as a wayfarer, but one who has no programme in life other than giving herself up to experience whilst making a living in the profane version of Helen’s job. Rick’s regret at never having a child with Nancy segues into Elizabeth’s bitter, crucifying pregnancy. Rick’s own internal argument is actualised in glimpses of characters who bob through his life. Cherry Jones appears as a wisp out of his past, someone who knew him and his family way back and who recalls how he once told her he felt like a spy in his own life. Wincott’s Herb declares he wants to make Rick rich, but Rick contemplates his ruined father, who remembers that “Once people envied me…” and measures the ultimate futility of success as measured in exclusively worldly terms. The Tree of Life evoked Death of a Salesman in certain respects as it analysed the figure of the American patriarch, and here Malick’s casting of Dennehy, who found great success playing Willy Loman in a recent revival, is another tip of the hat to Arthur Miller’s work. At one point, Dennehy is glimpsed treading a stage before an audience, one of several fragments scattered throughout the film of a purely symbolic reality and glimpses of oneiric netherworlds buried deep in Rick’s mind, as his father has become an actor, a seer, a fallen king, Lear on the heath or Prospero with his magic failing on his lonely isle.

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Malick’s methods chew up the talent he hires at stunning pace, but also presents an entirely democratic employment of them, in service of a vision that tries to encompass a sense of nobility in every individual. Knight of Cups is at once a display of Malick’s solipsism in this regard, his casual readiness to use a raft of skilled actors simply to inhabit the free-floating, sometimes barely glimpsed human entities that graze the camera in his films, and yet invigorating and reassuringly uninterested in the usual caressed egos of Hollywood film. Every performer is ore, mined for their most precise gestures, looks, words. Malick’s use of voiceover allows him to grant all characters their moment of insight and understanding as if gathering the fruits of years of contemplation, rather simply relying on what they can articulate in the flow of the banal.

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Whereas To the Wonder suggested Malick’s intention was to incorporate aspects of dance and particularly visual art into film, here Malick’s artistic arsenal is rooted securely in the language of modernist literature, likewise reconstituted in cinema. The rush of images has the ring of Joyce’s technique and the very last word heard in the film, “Begin,” evokes the famous affirmative at the end of Ulysses, whilst the visual structure recalls John Cage’s take on Joyce’s aesthetics, “Roaratorio.” But Malick also shouts out to some of his filmic influences. Della is initially seen wearing a pink wig, recalling a Wong Kar-Wai heroine, a nod that acknowledges the influence on Wong’s free-flowing style and obsession with frustrated romanticism on Malick’s recent approach. Malick also reveals selective affinities with some signal cinematic gods for filmmakers of his generation: as with To the Wonder, I sense the imprint of David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965) in presenting the main character as both actor and viewer in his life. The narrative, like many artistic self-contemplations in film, recalls Fellini’s (1963) whilst other motifs evoke Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) as Rick circles photo shoots, fascinated and knowing about the arts of creating illusory beauties whilst confronting interior voids. But Malick ultimately rejects the roots of their works in a pernickety moralism that blends and confuses Catholicism and Marxism, chasing more a Blakeian sense of life and existence as a polymorphic surge that must be negotiated and assessed, but cannot be denied.

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Rick’s late agonistes with Elizabeth signal the end of the process Della identifies at the start, of Rick coming to life again but also facing the sort of emotional crucifixion from which his detachment spared him, both a price exacted and a perverse kind of reward found in genuine suffering: “It binds you closer to other people,” Mueller-Stahl’s priest notes. This event finally drives him out of LA, and he hits the road, exploring an American landscape of his youth and dreams that has forgotten him and that he, too, has forgotten. He seems to reconcile with his father and brother in a scene of violent catharsis, and takes his father to visit a former workplace, a heap of glowering, indifferent industry. By the very end of the film, Malick signals that Rick escapes LA, settles down with a woman, and finds a certain level of peace and healing living in the desert. Isabel seems deliberately filmed more as an entity than a person, the archetype of the type of woman who has flitted right through Malick’s work, a dancer and a priestess who leads Rick into caves for candlelit rites whilst the mountains that Rick has envisioned as symbols of everything his life wasn’t now soar above him. It’s arguable that in such imagery Malick finally retreats into a safe zone of symbolism, where much of the value of Knight of Cups is that it’s a work well outside his regular purview. But the truly radical quality of Knight of Cups is how completely untheoretical it is, the power of lived experience blended with urgent need to express in the most unfettered ways welling out of that experience. It’s both an explanation and a blithe feat of expressive legerdermain, not caring if we keep up. It’s cinema, stripped to the nerve.


18th 01 - 2016 | 6 comments »

Titanic (1997)

Director/Screenwriter: James Cameron

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By Roderick Heath

To say that pop culture in the 1990s lacked in romanticism would be an understatement. The decade that gave unto us grunge music and the indie film craze can still be aptly celebrated for general dedication to grit and eccentricity, but it also left a vast audience desperate for classical cinematic values of arresting spectacle and star power purveying high-flown passion. James Cameron’s sixth feature rode in on a wave of publicity over its colossal expense and often worrying buzz: the production had been troubled, the test screenings negative. Cameron had, until this moment, been a hero for many younger movie fans, the man who perfected, if not invented, the scifi-action film and brought a walloping, sophisticated intensity to all of his projects a legion of wannabe filmmakers wanted to emulate. But True Lies (1993) had been an awkward attempt to blend his high-powered template with relationship comedy, and for a fateful moment with Titanic, it seemed like he might have his Heaven’s Gate (1980). Then, of course, the opposite happened: Titanic became, in unadjusted terms, the most successful film of all time. As Star Wars – Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015) might become the first sequel to ever become the top-grossing film of all time, and with star Leonardo DiCaprio heading for a possible Oscar win at last, I thought about Titanic again.

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Titanic’s place in the psyche of the moment was, like other record-breakers before it, including Gone with the Wind (1939), The Godfather (1972), and E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), unavoidable, whereas Cameron’s own successor, Avatar (2009), faded swiftly from the collective eye, and The Force Awakens represents total surrender to the age of franchise cinema, solid but almost instantly disposable, a copy of a copy. It seems that our most officially beloved movies don’t have the same aura of specific gravity anymore. For this reason and others, revisiting Titanic nearly 20 years after its release felt like a fraught proposition. It seems wedded to its time, in spite of the fact that, superficially at least, Cameron’s work seemed closely related to the epics of Cameron’s old Hollywood forebears as an evergreen example of supersized cinema, and aims to be essentially timeless. Like many pop movie hits, Titanic left some totally cold, but charmed so many others that it felt like a communal trance. There was a price to be paid for this, of course: Cameron conquered the moviegoing world, but lost his cool in the process. Although Titanic’s glitz and gilt seemed contrary to the pop cultural mood in the years preceding it, the storyline’s essential thesis that the moment of passion must be seized before everything goes to hell was perfectly in tune with the time. The insistent concentration on the impact of burgeoning modernity and catastrophic epochal shifts also presented a perfect simile for another looming pivot, the approach of the millennium.

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Similarly, the film’s flashback structure and nudging contemplation of the present’s relationship to a radically different past still somehow within living memory also tapped the zeitgeist, the way nostalgia was ceasing to be a quirk merely of the aging and transforming into a new cultural state. Cameron, a fetishist both of the ritual structure of melodrama and of technology as a mode of expression and mediation rather than mere facility, found in the Titanic story a way to bundle his obsessions together with symbolic force. But for Cameron, as for many of us, that pseudo-romanticised past was one seen chiefly through the lens of old movies. Titanic is, amongst other things, a relentless remix of dozens of ancestors, harking back not just to 1930s movie melodramas and comedies, but to Victorian stage thrillers, penny dreadfuls, and silent cliffhanger skits. Titanic is blatant in trying to position itself in a grand tradition of big cinema. Cameron’s showmanship often wields tremendous visual acuity, right from the stunning opening shot of submersibles sinking through the endlessly black sea, describing highly realistic detail and yet charging the moment with a note of eerie, numinous adventure, penetrating the sunken graveyard of memory and times past. Cameron quickly contrasts this otherworldly note with the tyranny of the mundane, as he introduces treasure hunter Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) and his boorish assistant Bodine (Lewis Abernathy). Brock makes self-dramatizing pronouncement for a video record, only to be made fun of, before invading the Titanic’s wreck on the hunt for the legendary lost necklace called the “Heart of the Ocean.” Brock thinks he’s found a safe containing the necklace, but instead proves to enclose a sketch of a beautiful nude woman. Brock is furious, but he tries to use the find for publicity on TV and attracts the attention of 100-year-old Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who quickly snares Brock’s interest by revealing she knows what he’s after.

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Brock has Rose and her granddaughter Lizzy (Suzi Amis) flown to his vessel, and after suffering through an instructive, but abstract lesson in how the Titanic met its end, Rose begins recounting her own history of the ship’s ill-fated maiden voyage. Like many highly successful filmmakers, Cameron’s work arrives in a mass of contradictions, affecting to encompass the tragedy of the Titanic’s victims whilst turning their fates into a kind of fun fair, showing off the paraphernalia his budget can offer whilst offering a theme that money doesn’t matter, and evoking the tone of a certain brand of cable television documentary whilst lampooning them at the same time. He presents Brock and crew as a bunch of slick-ass adventurers indifferent to the real history of what they’re exploiting. Cameron writes an unstated mission statement as Bodine shows off his goofy computer-animated version of the disaster, only for Cameron to reproduce it in it exact, bone-shaking detail later. The crassness of the modern is soon contrasted with the splendour and legendary aura of the past, though that past is soon ransacked for inequity and snobbery. Rose’s narrative begin at age 17, a porcelain beauty and poised aesthete (Kate Winslet) silently enraged that she’s been contracted to marry Caledon “Cal” Hockley (Billy Zane), son of a Pittsburgh steel tycoon, because her father lost all her family’s money before dying, and her mother Ruth (Frances Fisher) was anxious to make the match to halt a slide into poverty. Cal’s possessive, dictatorial streak is immediately apparent as a self-appointed neopharaoh of the transatlantic sphere.

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Meanwhile young, footloose artist Jack Dawson (DiCaprio) wins steerage-class tickets for himself and Italian pal Fabrizio (Danny Nucci) in a poker game, and the duo just manage to get aboard the liner before it sails. Jack, of course, thinks he’s one lucky guy. Soon Jack is gazing at Rose from afar, emblem of the impossible world of first class, even as fellow passenger Tommy Ryan (Jason Barry) boasts proudly about the Irish labour that built the ship: the picture of Rose’s floating beauty and her world based in skilled toil of working people. It’s all headed, of course, for the big crack-up, both on the personal level, as Rose flees her impending fate in a momentary fit of suicidal intent, and the impersonal, as the ship nears its rendezvous with the iceberg. Jack’s gallant attempt to talk Rose off her precarious perch on the ship’s stern turns into more physical heroism as he hauls her back over the railing, and, after a brief but telling moment where he’s mistaken for a sex fiend, is thanked by Cal, who asks his manservant Lovejoy (David Warner, nicely mean) to pay him off. When Rose protests, he adds an invitation to dine in first class the following day. Jack is taken under the wing of the unsinkable mining millionairess Molly Brown (Kathy Bates), who loans him her son’s tuxedo. Suitably armoured, he proceeds to charm the hoity-toity guests with his enthusiasm and philosophical take on fortune’s perversity, whilst trying his best to deflect the barely veiled contempt turned his way by Cal and Ruth. Then he entices Rose down to steerage to enjoy a “real party” amongst the buoyant, hard-drinking, melting-pot folk of the lower decks, and Jack and Rose’s attraction combusts on the dance floor. Cal, catching wind of this, thanks to Lovejoy’s patrolling, releases a squall of rage the next morning to Rose’s shock, and Ruth uses emotional blackmail to ensure Rose stays the course.

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From the shift into flashback and up until nearly the midway mark, Titanic essentially plays as a romantic comedy with a dash of screwball, one with many motifs in common with 1930s and ’40s versions of that genre in which class versus love fuels such stalwart works like Love Me Tonight (1932), My Man Godfrey, (1936) and Holiday (1938). The diamond that is both the film’s McGuffin and central symbol also recalls the kinds of prized shiny things at play in many a screwball work, like Trouble in Paradise (1933) and Hitchcock’s tribute, To Catch a Thief (1956), both films in which those jewels were both plot motivators and metaphors for sexual frisson. Titanic even has connections with more overtly farcical works, like the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business (1932) and A Night at the Opera (1935). As the comic brothers did in those films, Jack dashes through a luxury liner upturning the microcosmic social mores and wielding outsider, underclass energy to a point where try as the snobs might to ignore him, they find him an unshakeable, even necessary nuisance. As in A Night at the Opera, the working-class passengers’ celebrations are viewed as an eruption of positive life force that dwarfs the pretensions of the upper classes, and the polygot immigrant tide promises an upset to the familiar ways of life the forced structuring on the vessel is nominally erected to exemplify. For a more elevated reference point, one could also say there’s a hue of Henry James in it all, as Cameron explores his schema through strident contrasts: Old World and New, high class and low, male and female. Notes of menace and impending danger contradict the droll tone, partly because everyone is heading for an inevitable disaster and also articulated meantime by the signs of danger apparent in Cal’s behaviour and the looming threat of irrevocable emotional (and physical) damage to Rose.

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One crucial element in Titanic that makes it stand out is the way art is crucial to both the story and its very structure. Jack’s artistic ability services the story, as Rose, who partly defines her intellectual independence through her own critical interest in art and Freudian psychology, is fascinated by his talent. In one of the film’s most famous and oft-lampooned passages, Jack sketches a nude Rose in a scene that works on several levels. The lush but also suppressed eroticism arcing between the pair finds its perfect iconographic expression, whilst reflecting Jack’s ability to transmute that eroticism into artistic purpose and a higher-minded ideal, whilst Rose uses it to declare independence from her class and her fiancé. Jack’s status as a bohemian protomodernist whose journeys and experiences anticipate the Lost Generation and the Beats emphasises the notion Cameron purveys of an oncoming world, just as Rose’s fumbling move towards liberation contains feminist rumblings, and their nascent modernity as the couple is spotlighted by this complementary and equivalent intellectual passion. The level of respect Cameron offers art in the film is evidently personal—he made Jack’s sketches himself—and defiant in some ways: usually, the passion of the artist is transmitted through some more metaphorical device in Hollywood. Of course, it’s “art” in a corny and reductive sense, with the ready-made signposting of Rose’s early modern collection and Jack’s embodiment of the artistic spirit as above all a sexual-romantic one. Dig the careful way Cameron both presents him as an unashamed eroticist with his sketch book full of naked chicks, but also reassures us he not merely some perv by noting how a prostitute’s hands obsessed him above all. Yet, another interesting facet of Titanic was the relatively unabashed championing of a little pulchritude and buoyantly portrayed, unashamed youthful sexuality, at least by the standards of the increasingly timid Hollywood of the day, leading up to Jack and Rose perhaps being the first teens to ever have their first screw in the back seat of a car.

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Jack’s way of feeling and seeing pervades the film’s visuals. The other most famous moment in the film, coming much earlier, is the one in which Jack stands on the Titanic’s bow and loses himself in ecstatics at the limitless promise of the future, whilst the ship’s captain, E.J. Smith (Bernard Hill), lets the brand-new product of human ingenuity and vision off the leash to sprint across the ocean. Cameron’s camera sweeps over the ship and explores the process by which Smith’s order becomes mechanical fact. Machinery and personal vision, the best products of the human world, combine in a moment of transcendence, one that visualises Jack’s artistic fugue that climaxes with his cry, “I’m the king of the world!” The filmmaking, blending special effects and expansive emotion, creates the experience and also rhymes with it, Cameron’s purest expression of his delight in the showmanship of cinema.

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One of Cameron’s defining traits as a filmmaker had been a fascination with technology, and his depictions of the minutiae of the Titanic’s working parts recalls filmmakers like Dziga Vertov, John Grierson’s GPO film unit, and Howard Hughes in his desire to lay bare how things work, to get at the very guts of an industrial society’s relationship with its works and wares. Utilising the near-limitless freedoms allowed by modern special effects, he takes time out to note things other filmmakers would scarcely consider —the ship’s great propellers starting up and stirring a vortex of mud as the ship leaves harbour, the desperate effort of the chief engineer to reverse the engines during the iceberg collision—in his desire to encompass the nature of the Titanic as a technological creation that is also a near-animate, but vitally flawed, expression of its creators’ dreams and blind spots. In a naïve, but very real sense, he includes the mechanics of the human world aboard ship in the same regard: his sociology has a similarly mechanical sensibility. When the ship does hit the iceberg, the smooth functioning of both the machine and its human parts begin to break down, both essentially becoming a cage Jack and Rose try with new desperation to escape.

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The Titanic’s history has long retained a specific gravitas and mystique as the apotheosis of a certain brand of ethic, an ethic that would soon be tested to the limit and finally shattered, along with whole social structures and institutions, during the Great War, carried down to us by tales like that of the ship’s band playing right until the end, and Benjamin Guggenheim sitting down with his valet to calmly await the end. Variations on the history had been filmed many times before Cameron took it up, most stacked with their own microcosmic studies. A 1943 German take, made as a Nazi propaganda film, turned it into a parable of British decadence. 1953’s Titanic, directed by Jean Negulesco, presented similar tensions to Cameron’s, emphasising the looming divide between nascent American motivation and Old World loucheness, with some cross-class romance. Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film A Night to Remember, usually regarded as the best Titanic film, took a cool, docudrama approach and supplied a very British sense of intense fortitude, but also, underneath that, regarded the human failings as well as the sad beauties revealed by the tragedy, including portrayals of the repression of the steerage passengers in a way more biting than Cameron’s. The little-remembered, but excellent miniseries SOS Titanic (1979; David Warner also costarred in that) similarly emphasised realistic detail. But Cameron’s film arguably goes further than any of these in encompassing the event on a metaphorical level, becoming something like a myth of the death of the Old World two years before the start of World War I, and the birth of the New World. Cameron, naturally, finds a telling detail in naval architecture: the great ship, the embodiment of newness, has a rudder too small to allow it to miss the iceberg. In a similar way, the rituals of gentility can’t stand up to the eruption of the repressed when push comes to shove. Cameron interrogates the stoic mystique by refraining obsessively to the survival will of the steerage passengers, kept at bay by the reflexive containment of the crew, and offering noisy, declarative, proletarian wilfulness as the only thing that can keep them alive. In short, Cameron attacks the Titanic myth’s very British aura and remakes it as very American. This mediating idea probably explains why Cameron was mostly spared greater ire from U.S. conservatives, in spite of the relentlessness of his class-war message.

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As filmmaking, Titanic feels like it has at least one foot planted in John Ford’s oeuvre, particularly the phase in Ford’s cinema that climaxed with Stagecoach (1939), packing a socially diverse lot into a vessel and sending it where death and disaster await, with a refrain of outlaw romance, one Ford brought over from The Hurricane (1937), which was, of course, a disaster film like Titanic. At the time of release, some compared Cameron’s labours to David Lean in his sweeping, screen-filling vistas and gifts for orchestrating massive events. Cameron’s visuals do sometimes wield the mimetic quality of Lean’s, particularly the “king of the world” sequence in rhyming Jack’s inner world to the outer, whilst the film’s focus on an artist in love amidst turmoil recalls Doctor Zhivago (1965). But it almost goes without saying that Cameron lacks the often irony-spiked intelligence and sophistication of either director, who based themselves solidly in strong screenwriting and the divergent qualities of old Hollywood and British dramatic styles. DeMille is a more obvious relative, with his gift for manipulating massive elements and tying them to large dramatic ideas. Another close relative, it strikes me, is Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)—like Lang’s supercity, the RMS Titanic is conceived as a doomed social vessel upon which the tensions of the turn-of-the-century zeitgeist are projected, climaxing in flood and ruination, images of squirming masses desperately trying to hold on. Lang also squarely rooted his parable and more sophisticated ideas in raw morality-play schemes of Victorian pulp fiction.

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The problem with Titanic is that whilst its themes and imperatives are beautifully visualised and intelligent, if obvious, they are conveyed on a dramatic level by strokes so broad they border on crude. Cameron had energised big-budget genre cinema by entwining unexpectedly emotional stories with crashing hardware and conceptual fancies, but stepping out of his comfort zone in hypermodernity, he sold his period fantasia not simply by presenting his heroes as frustrated, nascent citizens of a world yet to be created, but by leaning on clichés and caricatures to evoke the era. Writing period dialogue, especially for an era like the 1910s that lurked between the familiar and the alien, can be tricky, and Cameron barely even tried: Jack and Rose often interact in the same slightly provoking, sarcastically aping manner as a pair of ’90s teens. As exacting as he is in his recreation of the visual textures of the past, Cameron remains often oblivious to the ear. The comedy, far from being as witty as the stuff he references, manifests instead in gauche moments like when Jack challenges Rose to engage in a spitting lesson, like someone let young Huck Finn on the ship. Cameron’s dogged evocation of class rage is admirable on some levels, but facetious on others: at its worst, the film is less 1930s screwball than 1980s slobs-versus-snobs farce with pretensions. One heralded aspect of the film that has dated awfully is James Horner’s Oscar-winning score. The pompous theme song, “My Heart Will Go On” got old very quickly back in the day, but the whole score sounds misjudged now, with its cheap-sounding synthesiser chords and excessively lyrical passages that sound like background music for a John Tesh album. It’s a pity that Horner, a great movie composer for the most part, was most remembered for this pap.

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The dialogue is littered with egregious anachronisms, and many smaller roles are overplayed. Paxton, usually a reliable presence, hits an annoyingly overripe note early in the film and holds it right through. That said, most of the leading members of the cast labour to give the film vitality it might not have had otherwise. Fisher’s lethal jade gaze wields more violence than any of Cameron’s Terminators, and Victor Garber’s performance as the ship’s tragic designer Thomas Andrews is deft, capturing the pathos in a warm-hearted, brilliant man living just long enough to see his own worst nightmare and failure come to pass. Zane’s performance as Cal is usually targeted as a weak point, but upon returning to it, I found him one of the chief pleasures. Zane grasps Cameron’s bull by the horns in presenting Cal in all his unregenerate, Snidely Whiplash-esque caricature: clasping, possessive, snotty, bullying, with an apparent streak of intense neediness that makes him all the worse, delivering Cameron’s lines like, “What made you think you could put your hands on my fiance? Answer me, you filth!” with glee. By the film’s later stages, he becomes entirely splendid in his awfulness amidst all the noble behaviour, using a random lost child as his cover to enter a lifeboat, like some Terry-Thomas character at loose in an Arthur Miller play. I almost find myself wishing there exists a cut of the film composed purely of Cal being awful. DiCaprio and Winslet had harder jobs in making their characters seem nuanced and lifelike, and in conveying the necessary passion to ensure Jack and Rose emerged as more than mere puppets amongst the set design and screenplay determinism. They rose to the job with performances that set both solidly on the path to long and interesting careers. But time has dimmed the lustre of their chemistry, at the mercy of Cameron’s sometimes laborious signposting and cardboard approximation of classical romantic themes, to the point where patches of the first half are a bit hard to sit through.

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Winslet was awarded an Oscar nomination, whilst DiCaprio was not. Winslet’s intelligently layered performance is still admirable, if beset by a period mid-Atlantic accent often brittle in its fastidiousness. With her cascading mane of wavy red hair, she seems to have stepped right out of some John Waterhouse painting, whilst belying the passive images of femininity her looks evoke, evolving by the last act into the kind of robust, gutsy lady Cameron likes so much. DiCaprio meantime offers the height of quicksilver matinee appeal. Underlying his superficial embodiment of a kind of boy-man dreamboat ideal of ’90s stardom and the broadness of the cowboy poet character he’s asked to maintain, he still comes on in Titanic like the nexus of a half-dozen Old Hollywood star archetypes—here a flick of Gable’s roguish charm, there a shot of Jimmy Stewart’s gangly wryness, the physicality of Flynn, the impudence of Cagney. By comparison, many of Winslet and DiCaprio’s subsequent performances, mature, intense, artistically committed, and often punishingly dour as they are, feel like weird cheats in looking back to the way Cameron unleashed them as pure movie stars. Cameron nods to the Twelve Oaks ball sequence in Gone with the Wind as Jack beams up at Rose on the ship’s grand staircase with knowing amusement, and again when the two kiss in the fiery sunset on the ship’s bow. The steerage dance sequence is one of the film’s silliest interludes, working on one level to reduce the pains of the immigrant journey, which Titanic affects to champion, to a dinner theatre experience. But it’s also the most enjoyable, particularly as Jack and Rose swap dance moves, delighting in physical release. Cameron tips his hat to another pop movie smash of years past, Saturday Night Fever (1977), when the romantic couple on the dance floor spin, the camera alternating viewpoints of each in the centrifugal rush.

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In some ways, Titanic as a film represents a blend of impulses Cameron wasn’t a good enough screenwriter to make work in tandem. The melodrama framework is too slender to stand the full weight of his ambitions. Then again, Titanic’s occasional lapses into cartoonish broadness are perhaps partly the reason it was so successful—its transmutation of history and ideas into an artefact anyone can comprehend. But a true classic epic has finesse in its bold strokes, a finesse Titanic often lacks. Jack and Rose never have the unruly life, straining at the edges not just of social obligation but also the limitations of their own storyline, that Rhett and Scarlett obtain. Once the ship collides with the iceberg and begins to sink, Cameron’s filmmaking rolls on with the force of a freight train, if still with some notable problems. Cameron’s already familiar habit of presenting his action finales as nested events with surprise second and third movements here has him playing the same tricks a couple of times too many. He sets up a wonderfully tense situation in which Rose must venture deep into the sinking ship to find and free Jack, one which obeys the classic cliffhanger rules straight out of a Pearl White or Tom Mix two-reeler, except with the familiar genders of the trapped and the rescuer purposefully reversed.

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But Cameron can’t help but contrive to send the pair back down into the ship again to repeat the sequence. Also, Cameron’s relative uninterest in most of the crew and background characters during the early parts of the film mean that as he starts ticking off the familiar vignettes of the sinking, many of the people enacting them seem vague and random. The film took flack for the portrayal of the ship’s first officer, John Murdoch (Ewan Stewart), usually acclaimed as a hero. Cameron depicts him fraying under the intense pressure of the moment, flabbergasted when Cal tries to bribe him for a spot in a boat and later throwing the money back in his face but, after accidentally shooting Ryan in a bid to keep order, finally killing himself. I can see the offensive side to this, but on the other hand, it’s one of the film’s more dramatically interesting aspects, offering moral ambiguity and a sense of personal catastrophe underneath the plaster saint aspect of the ship’s legend with a purpose that otherwise Cameron tends to slip by in favour of less subtle effects. I find myself more irritated by the way Cameron heedlessly perpetuates a few bogus canards about the disaster, reducing the White Star Line manager Bruce Ismay (Jonathan Hyde) to a cheesy villain (both upper-crust Limey and corporate honcho, the perfect twofer), and particularly the idea that the ship was speeding for the sake of some kind of glory.

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And yet, despite his hesitations, Cameron still delivers his climactic sequences with incredible force and no small amount of true visual artistry,with Russell Carpenter’s photography a great aid. Indeed, Cameron’s eye decorates the film throughout with cinematographic coups. The sight of Jack and Rose dashing through the boiler room, Rose’s dress floating amidst stygian surroundings like a visiting angel in hell. The dolphins leaping before the Titanic’s knifing prow. The repeated dissolves from past to present seeing the glorious ship turn into the rusting hulk in sonorous depths. The last hour of the film counts, in spite of Cameron’s repetitions, as one of the great cinematic set-pieces, depicting the ship’s slow and monstrous transformation into exterminating leviathan, its sturdy and stable forms suddenly collapsing on hapless passengers and rearing up like a dying beast to dump them all in the icy ocean. Cameron alternates perspectives godlike and immediate, at one moment observing the ship and its distress flares from a distance, revealed suddenly in its remoteness and failing, and next offering a close-up of Rose’s face as she cowers in a flooding corridor, lights momentarily fading, the sounds of the dying ship like a growling belly, capturing her own isolation and terror. Anarchy falls hard upon this floating world; even Cal is momentarily left astounded as he beholds a funnel collapsing upon Fabrizio and other hapless swimmers, Captain Smith pummelled by gushing green waters as the bridge floods. Rose’s paintings drifting in the rising tide. A drowned woman with diaphanous clothes swimming around her, a shot that quietly answers the rhyme of the earlier shots of Rose in the boiler room, the spirit of genteel old femininity lost and gone.

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In such moments, Cameron is a man in unrivalled control of his medium, able to pivot between styles and affects with casual ease. The sinking stands comparison with DeMille’s fabled moments of cosmic-scale, orchestrated spectacle, most particularly the collapsing temple at the climax of Samson & Delilah (1949), a sequence with a similar sense of awe in destruction and an overtone of punishing judgement falling upon the iniquitous. Yet Cameron doesn’t quite make the jump to such a level, in part because of his fastidious technique. Whereas the last reel of A Night to Remember starts to feel like a horror film as it depicts the same events with far cruder special effects but with an exacting eye and ear for individual desperation amongst collective terror, Cameron’s showy stunts and special effects that delight in depicting people crashing and spinning to their deaths from the ship’s stern evoke no horror, whilst the audience can take refuge in concentrating on the heroic couple, at least one of whom is guaranteed to survive. Upon this revisit, I noticed how incidental the fictitious Jack and Rose seem through all this, whilst the depiction of Wallace Hartley (Jonathan Evans-Jones) and his band sticking out their job to the bitter end still pierced me.

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Action tends to describe symbolic meaning better than dialogue in cinema, and yet the more he tries for import here, the less Cameron gains it, at least until the ship finally disappears and he stages a bloodcurdling pullback shot from Rose alone in the water to reveal hundreds more thrashing in the water. The eerie, expressionistic passage where a would-be rescue boat searches the expanse of people turned to icy statues, with Rose croaking desperately for aid, is similarly excellent, at last pushing again at the veil between life and death, heaven and earth, Cameron tested at the start. Jack begging Rose to go on with her life as he slowly freezes to death gilds the lily more than a little, but there’s still an authentic whiff of the kind of heightened Victorian romanticism Cameron’s been chasing all along, particularly as she bids farewell to his ice-daubed, cherub-lipped corpse and watches him sink into the black. But Cameron can’t help but overplay his hand as he returns to the present, reassuring us that Brock has learnt a lesson, whilst Rose drops the Heart of the Ocean into, yeah, the heart of the ocean, and dreams of a reunion with Jack to the applause of their old shipmates. Titanic hasn’t aged so well, it’s true. Yet it still leaves you with the sense that, for better and worse, you’ve just had the kind of experience for which the movies were invented.


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