'Titanic' is a great film. It's also the movie that gave rise to hater culture

titanic

Image Credit: Everett Collection

James Cameron’s Titanic is one of the most successful movies of all time, and I have no problem saying that it’s also one of the most beloved movies ever made. (We’re now in the era when success doesn’t always hinge on deep fan love; witness The Phantom Menace, the Transformers films, or Khloe Kardashian.) Where Titanic may well be unique in the history of cinema is that it is also, arguably, the most hated beloved movie ever made. Any number of celebrated films, of course, have provoked backlashes. Just think of the strain of carping snootiness that has always gathered, like a pesky mosquito army, around the work of Steven Spielberg (“He’s too sappy! And manipulative!”), or the routine bashing of famous Oscar crowd-pleasers like Marty or Ordinary People or Shakespeare in Love, or my own persistent impatience with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a wandering-through-the-woods saga that I’ve always found to be as ponderous as it is majestic.

What’s special about Titanic is that the backlash happened so quickly, and became so widespread, and grew nearly as mythological as the movie itself. The film was released in December 1997, and a few weeks later, when it started to play around the country to surging, off-the-charts crowds, the voices of dissent had already begun to coalesce. For everyone who adored Titanic, and even (like me) thought that it was a heart-swelling masterpiece of old-fashioned Hollywood audacity, it seemed as if there was someone else who thought it was overrated and overblown. And you’d better believe that they were going to make sure that ship sank! According to the counter-myth, the movie was a cliché love story on steroids, brimming in every scene with terrible and even embarrassing dialogue. No one denied that the ocean-liner-split-in-two, deluge-in-the-corridors, crowds-falling-like-rats special effects were amazing, but in a funny way, Cameron’s indisputable virtuosity as a creator of doomy technological spectacle became the anvil of criticism used to drag down his skills as a storyteller. A lot of what the naysayers thought boiled down to this: Who does James Cameron, the man-machine auteur of the Terminator films and Aliens and The Abyss, think he is trying to pretend that he can write a real script…with dialogue out of some period costume drama…as if he were now trying to be the Merchant-Ivory of historical disaster films?

Then, of course, there was the teeny-bop factor. Titanic was a record-breaking smash because it drew from every demographic there was (do you know anyone who didn’t see it?). But its most feverishly publicized demo were the swarms of girls in their teens and early twenties who went to the movie to swoon, and weep, and gawk at Leo, who instantly became the biggest star on the planet, in the galaxy, in the universe. I had the privilege of meeting Leonardo DiCaprio at a party in New York a couple of months after the movie’s release (he was very smart and very nice — a playful dude free of bad energy), and I can testify that of all the occasions, in the years that I’ve done this job, that I have ever gotten to chat with a celebrity, this was the one time when I almost felt like I was meeting one of the Beatles in 1964. That was how electric the aura was that surrounded Leo.

For the critics of Titanic, however, that Leo-as-pinup element rendered the film a kind of Oscar-bait version of Twilight. The movie, in their eyes, was something cheesy and all too marketably romantic, a teen-idol bedroom poster in movie form (its most famous image — Leo embracing Kate, arms outstretched, on the ship’s bow — was that poster), something for the kids to swoon over. And so to take it at all seriously, to say that you actually got drawn into the love story, to say that it achieved the universality that great love stories do, would be the height of un-coolness. It would have seemed, at least to some, like saying that the Backstreet Boys were the equal of Nirvana. The Celine Dion theme song, as haunting a pop epiphany, in its way, as “Moon River” in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, was, of course, deemed so officially un-cool that it was recently dissed by no less than Kate Winslet (who said that it made her want to throw up). And for those who couldn’t stomach “My Heart Will Go On,” the final nail in the coffin of Titanic may well have been James Cameron’s “I’m the king of the world!” Oscar speech, a moment so nakedly nerdy that it really did deserve to be mocked. For the crucify-Titanic crowd, though, it was more proof that the movie was a sentimental sham built on a false bottom of ego.

Never, for a moment, did I buy that Titanic had a bad script. To me, it was the rare movie that achieved an old-fashioned quality that was classical and wholehearted, rather than starchy and square. But when I went back last week to see Titanic in 3-D, it was the first time I’d seen the movie since its original release, and this time I had my trash-dialogue geiger counter turned up on high. I really wanted to know: Did the Titanic bashers have a point? Was the movie a garishly written youth soap opera? I counted a handful of goofy lines, like Billy Zane’s idiot-jerk dismissal of Picasso (though actually, the real cheeseball element in that scene is the fact that the Picasso painting Rose has purchased is obviously supposed to be Les Demoiselles d’Avignon; are we supposed to think that that painting went down with the ship, throwing art history for a loop in the process?).

There are other lines you can pick at, but most of the dialogue in Titanic has a sharply colloquial old-meets-new flow. It’s courtly yet very alive. Besides, the real achievement of the script is its ingeniously organic structure — the way that DiCaprio’s Jack, for instance, describes what it’s like to dive into the icy Atlantic water (he says it’s like little knives going through you), thereby setting up the disaster that will happen several hours later and, most chillingly, foreshadowing his own death. Or the way that Winslet’s Rose is shown to be trapped by her status as insidiously as a Jane Austen heroine (if she spits in the face of her fiancé, it will mean that her family fortune will collapse like the house of cards it is). Or the way that Cameron, once the ship hits that iceberg, uses the final hour of the movie to sketch in a hundred little portraits of how people might really act when they know they’re going to die. (The gentility of the musicians is so touching it’s wrenching; the dastardliness of Zane’s gilded douchebag is so monstrous it’s totally authentic.) Or the way that that iconic shot of the Titanic dining-suite door opening up, with the head waiter beckoning us in, works on about four levels at once: It’s Jack being welcomed to the upper-class quarters that he would never, by himself, have had access to; it’s the whole up-and-coming American middle class being ushered into the world of material indulgence; it’s Cameron inviting us aboard his movie; and it’s the movie, at the climax of that miraculous gliding shot near the end, when the rusty wreck of the Titanic morphs into the ship’s creamy former glory, letting us know that the Titanic is now not just part of history but part of Heaven.

In other words: Man, did that script suck, or what? I now believe that the movie the Titanic bashers were talking about — the junky embarrassing one, the one with cringe-worthy dialogue, the one that only a teenager could love — is a figment of their imaginations. Yet the hostility directed toward Titanic, the venom that you will read by commenters on almost any article about the movie, including this one, can’t merely be dismissed. It has to be recognized for what it was, and still is: One of the founding manifestos of hater culture. Titanic came out just as the Internet was starting to rise up and merge into the ocean of our lives, and though, at that point, most of the hate directed at the movie was conversational and anecdotal, in spirit it was computer-viral. It was about fragments of resentment banding together and organizing themselves into a cult, a movement, an anti-fan club. It was Occupy James Cameron’s Unspeakable Dialogue.

What gave the movement its motivating force? What made the fragments band together like angry iron filings? If Titanic was one of the original lightning rods for hater culture, part of the reason that the film made such a perfect target is that what the haters were really attacking wasn’t “bad dialogue” so much as a huge, powerful, ambitious movie, by a geek-god filmmaker, that actually dared to be innocent about love. For if there’s one thing that Internet culture, with its immersion in hipness, control, technology, and a certain masculine mystique that binds all those things together, cannot abide, it is romantic innocence. It can’t abide the feminine spirit entering into the machine. And that’s the essence of what Titanic was. It was a movie that found love in the machine, even as the machine was destroyed. No wonder the haters hated it. Their real identification was with the machine. They didn’t want to see a movie in which the heart — but not the ship — goes on.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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