Titanic: A Rich Tapestry of Excellence

Released before Christmas of 1997, James Cameron gave the world one of the greatest gifts imaginable. Unbeknownst to some viewers, Titanic would prove to be just as beloved as Gone With The Wind for many people. But those glory days of this cinematic masterpiece are long over.

Titanic (1997)
Director: James Cameron
Writer: James Cameron
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet ..
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120338/
Titanic (1997)

People today look back on Titanic, and they probably wince. They probably think the film is stupid. They probably don’t see what’s actually in front of them. Or, perhaps they don’t know how to see the greatness of this highly misunderstood masterpiece.

Future film historians may look back and scoff at the amount of negative backlash Titanic has received. They may consider us infantile for not being able to see between the lines, to see past the so-called “corny,” “clichĂ©,” and “banal” dialogue, and recognize Titanic for what it is.

There are too many layers of brilliant storytelling in Titanic for most people today to comprehend. Once you dig deeper, you find an amazing tapestry of art and skill at work. James Cameron has been called a “master craftsman,” and an “auteur” in the field of action filmmaking. But, what’s unfortunate is how action filmmaking is far from respected in film today. They don’t even consider it an art form.

James Cameron’s Cinematic Gift

From The Terminator to his recent smash hit, Avatar, Cameron has delivered some of the greatest memories in cinema for the last 30 years. Some fans of the filmmaker – me included, can’t stop watching his films. They are addictive. There’s got to be an artistic reason for audiences to have such strong feelings toward his work.

Action is judged on the surface. There’s hardly ever any depth past the sights, the sounds, the effects, and the explosions. What Cameron has done in a lot of his work so far is create depth through his camera, the actions of his characters, sounds, and even set designs and colors.

James Cameron has continually approached each film, thinking that audiences are smarter than Hollywood gives them credit for. He talks about how audiences don’t need to know this or that. To some people, this attitude makes Cameron look arrogant. But these same people aren’t giving this master filmmaker the credit he deserves.

Despite the incredible amount of work put into the design of each film, Cameron has always put his characters and stories first. He doesn’t consider the effects to be as essential as the living, breathing human beings he fleshes out on screen. He has been considered more of a special effects guru than a masterful storyteller. His characters are not openly deep. Hardly any of them have long speeches. However, Cameron gives audiences a full education of certain characters through his camera, his actors, and his screenplay, regardless. It’s all in the execution of the film.

Sarah Connor in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is a perfect example of Cameron’s character development. At first, we see her isolated in her cell at the mental hospital. We see her isolated and isolating herself throughout the entire film. The desert terrain used in the middle of Terminator 2 provides audiences a way to look deeper into Sarah’s troubled soul. Later, we watch Sarah attack a brilliant scientist who may create the disastrous future that haunts her. The scientist, Miles Dyson, is shot in the shoulder. Sarah finds herself looking at Miles’ face down the barrel of her gun. She stops herself from terminating him.

Most people at the time of the release of Terminator 2 considered her to be a truly offensive hero. But, a lot of us knew we were looking at greatness. We just couldn’t define why or how it was great. Finally, James Cameron recently revealed that he never intended Sarah Connor to be a heroic character. He wanted audiences to simply understand and sympathize with her. In many master strokes of storytelling, the Canadian-born filmmaker pulled it off.

To list all of the layers might take me forever to write, but I can say that Sarah Connor wouldn’t stop herself if she wasn’t truly good inside. She basically educated her son that killing fellow humans is dead wrong. She weeps at the idea that she almost took Miles’s life.

The Misunderstood Layers of Titanic

Getting back on track, let me just say that I saw Titanic for the millionth time tonight. I saw something in the film I’d never seen before. A completely beautiful tapistry of art was lying under the surface, so to speak. And, that could be the best way to describe this treasure chest full of genius.

I’m not sure if the Academy members could see what I see now, but Titanic was truly worthy of all 11 Oscars. You could even speculate that Titanic deserved more awards. But, to find the genius in Cameron’s work, you need to know how to look beyond the bells and whistles, so speak.

In a masterstroke, James Cameron has brilliantly been able to keep the audience’s attention fixed on his characters. He is able to somehow convince audiences that what they’re looking at is important. But what they’re really looking at isn’t the effects or the action sequences. They are looking at the characters in the film. This is exactly what the master filmmaker wants.

Hitchcock did this when he made his mark. It took audiences several viewings and several years after Alfred Hitchcock’s death to figure out the full spectrum of his genius. Well, I don’t want to wait until James Cameron’s death to tell you why he truly is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.

First, you can speculate that Cameron wasn’t a master filmmaker when he released The Terminator in 1984. Every filmmaker has his or her beginnings. However, The Terminator still proved how skilled James Cameron was at directing the action. For some reason, audiences felt compelled to love relatively corny characters. However, they ended up clinging to the villain, the Terminator, most of all. Whether Cameron intended to do this or not will always be left open for debate, but it worked in the film’s favor. The Terminator became a massive cult classic, launching Arnold Schwarzenegger into stardom.

What has impressed me most about James Cameron is his ability to learn from his fellow filmmakers and his own work. He adapts better than most filmmakers today. What he learned to do after Terminator 2 is astonishing. With the exception of True Lies, which is another one of my absolute favorite films, James Cameron crafted a film to truly honor the lives and deaths of everyone on Titanic.

By using Titanic as a backdrop, James Cameron tells the perfect tale of two teenagers who fall in love with the doomed ocean liner. Told from the perspective of a survivor, Titanic literally lets audiences connect with the past, connect with the people on the ship, and most of all, the star-crossed lovers responsible.

Old Rose, as played beautifully by Gloria Stuart, is an artist who learns of a drawing that has just been discovered from the Titanic wreckage. She decides to go to the drawing and reconnect with Titanic.

Forgive the way I’m writing this, but I’m not going to just spell out the magic of the film. Here’s a hint: If you want to fully appreciate the brilliance of Titanic, take a look at the film’s “Heart of the Ocean.”

I bet you’ll look, but you won’t actually see the connection(s).

Titanic is one of the most perfectly crafted films ever made. But, no one should approach this masterwork as they might approach a Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick film. Just as those masters made their marks in their own way, James Cameron is making his artistic mark in the history of film. Hitchcock and Kubrick were both psychological and cerebral in their brilliance. James Cameron has found something else to master.

None of Cameron’s previous films showcased this astonishing ability better than Titanic. With a wave of his camera, James Cameron opens up an entirely new world of depth. But, the master director doesn’t make it easy to see the strengths of his masterpieces. He seems to relish hiding behind filmmaking conventions. And that is probably what Alfred Hitchcock did.

On the other hand, Stanley Kubrick was extremely revolutionary. He took an upfront approach, risking the love, attention, and respect he deserved. He was openly weird. He took convention by the throat and shook the apples from the tree, so to speak. He didn’t care if audiences or critics loved his work. He just put his vision on film. Hitchcock wanted the audience’s approval. He wanted to scare audiences with Psycho. And that old chestnut masterpiece of horror still has the ability to scare people. However, critics couldn’t see the forest through the trees, so to speak, and the full range of Hitchcock’s brilliance remained unnoticed for years.

About James Cameron and his abilities, I think it would be beneficial if audiences turned their hatred around. Perhaps everything audiences are complaining about is not actually a mistake by James Cameron. Maybe they are all intentional, finely-tuned storytelling devices. Given the full range of depth, I’ve discovered in Terminator 2 and Titanic, almost nothing he does is accidental. They just don’t adhere to the ‘Bible of great filmmaking,’ so to speak.

I mean, there are no rules. The only thing that has ever mattered in film is whether or not something works. And, judging by box office receipts for both, Titanic and Avatar, James Cameron knows what works and what doesn’t. It’s as simple as that.

But, that’s not to say James Cameron is doing everything on a whim. He blends elements together so well, it may take years for some people to fully understand what made Cameron’s films work so well today. They may not realize it now, but Titanic truly is as brilliant as Casablanca or Gone With The Wind were in their day.

Back then, the film was still in its infancy. True, you could say it was the golden age of film, and any film made thereafter would be judged by those old classics. But that didn’t stop Hitchcock or Kubrick from later making films that were arguably just as brilliant. In the 30s and early 40s, they didn’t pack a lot of dynamic camera angles into the film. That is why Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane is now considered to be the greatest movie ever made.

The dynamic masterpiece Citizen Kane was that far ahead of its time. People might have known it then, but they felt too comfortable with what worked at that time. So, Citizen Kane didn’t turn out to be a massive hit or even a Best Picture winner. Instead, it stayed in the shadows and collected so many fans over the years that people, including Stanley Kubrick, started to use and abuse Orson Welles’s techniques.

When we trashed Titanic, we put it in the shadows. One day, some future filmmakers might figure out exactly what James Cameron did. Whether they decide to use his techniques for their own benefit is another story. Maybe future filmmakers will consider Titanic to be a jewel you don’t mess with. They might not want to end up like Titanic’s own Brock Lovette and his team of treasure hunters, defiling such a beautiful work of art.

That may be why we haven’t seen anything like Casablanca. It’s a jewel that everyone considers untouchable. In fact, just as they did with Gone With The Wind, Hollywood tried to cash in on the popularity of Casablanca. They created a remake, a TV show, and a Bugs Bunny cartoon. None of them could hold a candle to the original masterpiece. Something was missing that they just couldn’t put their finger on. When Hollywood tried to capture the brilliance of Gone With The Wind, we ended up getting Cleopatra in 1963. And if you ask me, aside from costume and set decoration, there really is nothing truly artistic in that film. The closest thing anyone has ever come to making Titanic is that black eye on film by Michael Bay, Pearl Harbor.

James Cameron may have pitched Titanic as ‘Gone With The Wind on the Titanic,’ but to be honest, there are not a lot of correlations, especially after looking deeper into the film. Titanic looks, feels, and acts more differently than any other film. As James Cameron approached sequels, he approached Titanic as its own entity. He made the film his own. What Cameron ended up giving us is something that might be examined and speculated over for generations. I mean, there has to be some reason why it became one of the most popular films ever made. If audiences were that stupid, Gone With The Wind must not be the masterpiece we’ve been led to believe.

To best understand what James Cameron has done with his art, think of a picture or a painting. Imagine the Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. You can stand there, speculating as to the brilliance of the painting until you’re blue in the face. But it’s not a moving picture.

If you’re going to make art from moving pictures, you’ve got to have more in-depth brilliance behind it all. One character is moving one way or another. The camera is shooting from this direction or that direction. The camera angles you use, or your character’s movements, have to be important to the themes of the moving art you’re creating. This means that moving pictures or filmmaking can actually be just as artistic as the Mona Lisa – if not more so. Cameron has literally captured the essence and the art of motion pictures. Film and art seem to have sped up over the years.

Now, flashy toy commercials are literally made to make money for studios and toy companies. It’s very arguable whether those toy-based movies have any art in them. But, James Cameron took the Mona Lisa, made her smile come to life and walk out of the painting.

Of course, you can speculate that most great filmmakers have done similar things with their art. Some have repainted the Mona Lisa in a dark way. Some have given her a moody, suspenseful background. But in the end, she still wouldn’t move as fast as she would in a James Cameron representation. And given the speed at which Cameron’s art is moving, it’s become hard for film lovers to isolate and study each of his films.

Citizen Kane was a true landmark for film because Orson Welles saw the full potential of the craft. Since then, only a handful of filmmakers have been able to fully understand the film. You can look at Titanic, but you may not actually see it. That’s because Cameron’s art lies in every moving frame, scene, and shot. It’s not a still shot of a character telling a story. Any great director today is not going to make it that easy for you.

Everything from the use of the camera to the actions of the characters and even the sounds of their voices are used to tell the story of Titanic. You might say that James Cameron has made Citizen Kane of romantic epics like Gone With The Wind. The David O’Selznick classic with Vivien Leigh has never been as dynamic as Citizen Kane, in my opinion. But in its own simplistic way, Gone With The Wind’s brilliance is still rich today.

Now, I can understand the impulse to not actually look deeper into a film like Titanic. It’s hard not to feel a little put off by the surface art. I mean, you’ve got characters openly saying, “This is bad,” and “I’m flying.”

I find it particularly hard to see the artistry in The Godfather or Raging Bull because I don’t particularly care for anything on the surface. I see despicable people doing awful things to other people. And, yet, the film seems to expect me to care about them. And that’s probably where some people might get the misconception that movies like The Godfather insist upon themselves. However, I’ve learned to look past all of that and see all of the art that is there. Now, I can totally understand why people love those movies so much.

Instead of fighting Titanic, all a film lover has to do is accept what they’re seeing and hearing as brilliant or artistic. Throw away conceptions of what makes art. Realize that you are actually in the hands of a master filmmaker and truly capture the brilliance of Titanic. Or, you could simply ignore the blemishes on this jewel of a film and try to look deeper. Open the door for yourself and connect with Titanic, and I guarantee that you’ll never look back.

This goes against my better judgment, but I’ll reveal to you one of the many great layers I’ve found in Titanic. Unfortunately, it’s a little like opening Pandora’s Box a bit too early. But, here goes.

After watching Titanic with a fine-toothed comb, I have discovered the theme of connection. Everyone who ends up dying is connected to each other and to the great ship. Hard to believe? Well, it shouldn’t be. James Cameron intentionally mirrors certain shots to increase the meaning behind every scene. Such a storytelling device creates a connection.

Even James Cameron himself has openly admitted that Titanic has wonderful bookending. So, any and all connections or reflections from one scene to another aren’t accidental. Going back over the film, looking for connections can lead a viewer into an intellectual freefall. It turns out to be that stimulating once you get started. And, when the film is done and you’re done making the connections, it’s like Christmas all over again.

What is remarkable to watch during Titanic is how James Cameron uses every variation of connection. The term “making a connection” is thrown around Titanic quite a bit, actually. No, the characters don’t actually say it, but the idea is clearly demonstrated through reactions and expressions. They usually have this blank stare if they can’t make a connection. In one scene in particular, Mr. Andrews is trying to explain to Rose how to get to Jack in the Master at Arms office and pass through the maze of the lower decks. You can see Rose trying to connect the dots, so to speak.

The most abundant use of the term ‘connection’ is by our star-crossed lovers, Jack and Rose. She is basically the catalyst for all of these connections. She is telling the story. But the connections don’t stop there. When Jack and Rose make their connection, everyone and everything they come in contact with is connected – or not in some cases.

In a very fast shot, following Rose as she is crying and running to the aft section of the Titanic, she roughly bumps into an elderly woman. For a split second, we stop to see and appreciate the stunned lady. But the question remains: what do certain connections have to do with Rose?

It doesn’t take much. Even Rose’s cry for help unintentionally connects us with several loitering stewards who come running to her rescue. They discover Jack kneeling over Rose with her dress pulled up, exposing a little leg. This does not look good for Jack. The stewards and their misunderstanding separate Jack and Rose’s newfound connection.

Cameron uses the theme of connection more than once throughout the film. When Jack and Rose are spinning at the steerage party, their connection to each other is tighter than ever before. As Rose throws off her shoes, her connection to the ship itself is closer than ever. Only a passing drunk seems to break their connection for a moment when he hurls his beer all over Rose. Jack is outraged, but Rose just laughs.

This theme even helps to appreciate each character psychologically. In one scene in particular, Rose is confronted by her mother, Ruth, about her newfound infatuation with Jack. She ends up lacing Rose’s corset while psychologically and metaphorically putting her daughter in a tighter cocoon. In this scene, a certain set piece connects beautifully with the narrative.

The way Rose looks to her left when she says, “It’s so unfair,” is an intricate part of the scene. If you notice carefully, you’ll find the painting of the ballerina in the background is somewhat visible in a few key shots.

The use of the painting connects back to the steerage party when Rose demonstrates to Jack that she was once a dancer herself. And, in the most key moment, you’ll be able to see the full painting over Rose’s shoulder when she barks, “I’m being selfish?!”

In a touch of genius, Rose’s snarky fiancĂ©, Cal Hockley, was shown over Rose’s right shoulder in an earlier scene. So, both the ballerina painting and Cal Hockley are connected and metaphorically placed on Rose’s shoulders in this one scene. These images, divided as they may be, can give audiences an understanding of what Rose must be thinking.

You might be interested to know that there are connections to the term ‘connection’ in every scene and every shot in Titanic if you know where to look for them. Watch the hands of everyone in the film and what they do with their hands. It can be quite revealing. When a character touches someone or something in different ways, you’d be surprised what that could mean. The connection is either strong or weak, depending on the reactions of the characters.

By watching little, inconsequential things like hands or connections to certain people and objects, you might find yourself becoming more connected with the film than ever before. I first saw Titanic when it came out in 1997. I was 15, and I couldn’t care less about these nuances of brilliant storytelling. I was mostly interested in Cameron’s narrative. It blew my mind when I first saw some of these connections and what they could mean. I never imagined that these references were actually all of the film.

I can’t stand the fact that I have to keep the genius behind Titanic quiet. So, allow me to illustrate what I’ve found while digging or swimming deeper into the heart of Titanic.

People may not like the film. Some people may never like the film, simply because of the surface art. But, then again, you might say the true brilliance within Titanic’s decks is just too much for people to understand at this point in time.

In fact, you could say Titanic is so perfectly crafted that audiences could drown themselves if they tried to reveal all of its secrets. The beautiful thing is that it’s by design.

After giving Titanic another gander, I was on the verge of literally drowning. I had to resurface. James Cameron has given us a true, undeniable work of art in Titanic’s absorbing visceral brilliance. I don’t even think ‘brilliance’ is strong enough of a word to describe all of Titanic.

As I mentioned earlier, you really have to look at the Heart of the Ocean to fully understand the greatness of Titanic. Also another clue is Rose’s own comment, “A woman’s heart is a deep ocean of secrets.” It’s almost too much on the nose. But trust me when I say that’s only part of the beautiful tapestry of Titanic’s art.

Now, I know why Titanic seems to look perfect next to the likes of Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, and even The Godfather. In its own way, Titanic reshapes how movies should be made. But, to be able to do what James Cameron has done, audiences, or, should I say, future filmmakers, would have to get over their hatred of the film. I’m not fooling or exaggerating when I say that James Cameron’s style of filmmaking is the future of film. And it’s a beautiful future if those filmmakers can understand what they’re doing.

As it is, we get nothing but half-assed knock-offs and wannabes like Pearl Harbor or even some of the smaller, darker films like No Country for Old Men. Until audiences or filmmakers can fully appreciate the splendor of what James Cameron, the greatest director of our time, has done artistically, we won’t be seeing anything close to his brilliance in the near future.

But, then again, I’m not sure if anyone in the industry knows what I know. If they did, I highly doubt Titanic would have been placed so low on AFI’s latest ‘100 Greatest Films’ list. As I’ve always contended, Titanic deserves to be put on the top ten list, along with the most beloved films ever made. If critics and film lovers understand James Cameron’s brilliance, I can’t understand why they’d keep it quiet.

Again, I think it could be because they want it to stay untarnished. If mass filmmakers can easily understand James Cameron, his brilliance will be defiled by the likes of Michael Bay. It could be like taking a dump on the most beautiful diamond you’ve ever seen, literally. So, I bet you’re wondering why I’m spilling the beans now.

Maybe James Cameron is too good at his own craft for audiences and critics today. For 12 years now, I personally haven’t been able to connect the dots and really connect with Titanic. And, I’ve seen the film more times than I can count. So, I imagine Titanic’s true greatness could take some folks many years to decipher.

Personally, I would rather watch the so-called “shallow” surface art of Jack and Rose than swim even further into Titanic’s heart of secrets. It gets so complex in its artistry that Titanic becomes hard to watch. The doors open up so fast, you literally feel like suffocating if you try to figure it out too fast.

However, once you identify some of the greatness in the film, you’ll never make fun of it again. There’s too much greatness within the construction to call Titanic a bad movie in any way. I’m not just talking about James Cameron’s splendid attention to detail. I’m talking about those references to connection, the references to hands and clocks, and basically many more levels that haven’t been revealed yet.

For another hint to all of Titanic’s greatness, have you ever stopped and wondered why Rose’s gown in the final scene is, in fact, white? Have you ever noticed that Jack’s shirt is, in fact, lavender?

Again, judging by the amazing box office success, James Cameron knows how to make his artwork work for everyone on the planet. The question remains: does such ability make this tour de force filmmaker the greatest in film history?

Personally, I think so. There haven’t been many filmmakers who could manage the technical side of making a true work of art on this scale. Despite my appreciation for their masterworks, Cecil B. DeMille, with his Ten Commandments, and David Lean, with his Lawrence of Arabia, were still too vivid. Not even Hitchcock or Orson Welles could do so much on such a huge scale. And that is why we haven’t seen many James Cameron films.

The skill and craftsmanship of this size could be staggering for any filmmaker, let alone a filmmaking god-like Cameron. Of course, you’re probably asking why I’m regarding James Cameron so highly. I mean, you’re probably thinking along the same lines as all of those ‘professionals’ when they say action films are not artistic. You’re probably thinking dramas like Citizen Kane are art, but a film the size of Titanic could never be as ingenious in design. You could even be closing yourself off to everything I’m saying, considering me to be a deranged fan or something because I’m making such a big deal out of an action film director.

But rest assured, I wouldn’t be going so far out on a limb if James Cameron didn’t actually deserve to be called “The greatest director of our time.” Film scholars and professors have already taken a deeper look into the magic of Cameron’s sci-fi classic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. For this artist to do what he did in what could’ve easily been just another B-movie science-fiction film says a lot. By demonstrating talents previously demonstrated by Stanley Kubrick in The Shining, James Cameron wove a tale so intricate that it is now hailed as one of the most perfect examples of storytelling on film. It makes no sense for James Cameron to do what he did in T2 and then half-ass a big, powerful story like Titanic.

I mean, why put so much effort into a science-fiction action film and put so little effort into a retelling of the sinking of the Titanic?

Again, I strongly believe that Cameron is simply relishing in the fact that so many people are judging and misjudging his genius by everything on the surface. Yes, these action films are amazing thrill rides. They are even profound dramas at times. They showcase a master of his craft unseen since the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. But, there are hidden layers in films like T2 and Titanic and maybe even in Avatar that Cameron is intentionally hiding from everyone.

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