Remembering Titanic

Star-crossed lovers. The poster was fashioned ...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Did you cry?”

“I cried four times. Just hearing the song makes me cry.”

Such was the conversation of thirteen-year-olds following the release of Titanic in December of 1997. The song of course, is “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, and reactions to the film somehow became a mark of status among my classmates in our tiny landlocked Montana town. Leo was a heartthrob to wallpaper your bedroom walls with; Kate was a picture of feminine beauty for us to aspire to.

I haven’t seen Titanic  in over a decade. The last time I watched the movie all the way through, we had to change the tape halfway through — which ought to clue you in on the year that happened. So this year, with the film being re-released in 3D to honor the centenary of the unsinkable ship’s sinking, I felt a driving need to see it.

It’s strange to re-live a childhood memory through an adult perspective.

It’s strange to watch something so iconic with the eyes of someone who has experienced loss.

It’s strange to allow yourself to let in the reality of what happened that night one hundred years ago, stranger still to experience it through fiction knowing that in the background, the horror of the backdrop pales in comparison to the reality.

I couldn’t start to understand my desire to re-visit Titanic until the arrival of my April issue of National Geographic. The featured articles? All about Titanic. The ship, yes, but also the film. What I didn’t know before then was that James Cameron, aside from being a multi-bazillionaire and one of the most absurdly high grossing film producer in history, is a science buff and an historian. Specifically, it was his personal draw to Titanic that led him to visit the wreck in 1995 and film it, and it was that sense that made him make the film.

In my April issue of NatGeo, James Cameron wrote a piece entitled “Ghostwalking in Titanic.” He wrote it about visiting the wreck, about his emotions and fears, revelations and awe. Some new images of Titanic showed where Hollywood had to improvise; others mirrored the re-creation with eerie accuracy, down to the gold-plated mantlepiece clock in the suite of Ida and Isidor Straus who were known for their refusal to separate and instead opting to ride the wreckage of the ship to her final resting place together. Their suite was the inspiration for Rose’s suite in the film, the clock and the rest of the decor modeled after archival photos of the ship.

Perhaps Cameron sought only money, but in his words I sensed passion. Passion for what exactly, I am unsure. Whatever fire drives him beneath the waves of the North Atlantic time and again to search out the secrets of one of the greatest mechanical tragedies in human history has uncovered just that: secrets and images of the last moments of 1,500 human beings who lost their lives in the frigid cold.

And so this morning I set an alarm and got out of bed to catch the earliest showing of Titanic, unsure of what to expect.

Adult eyes catch more than the eyes of children, even teenagers. Of that I am now even more convinced than I was before I set foot into the theater. I understood a little of Rose’s situation as an adolescent — a young woman forced into an unwanted engagement for the financial gain of her family. That much I got even then. What I missed was the nuance and the insidiousness of Rose’s fiance.

This time around, I was able to understand Molly Brown‘s impudence in asking Cal if he planned to cut Rose’s meat for her. I understood Cal’s gift of the diamond necklace for what it was: a bribe for sex, as clear and naked as that sparkling blue stone. I understood his statement, “I thought you would have come to me last night.” Translation: “I gave you the diamond. You owed it to me to sleep with me.”

And I understood Rose’s character much better for the words in voice over, “Inside, I was screaming.”

I understood for the first time her heroism in rescuing Jack, how her bravery saved his life. I could respect her decision to stay with him and recognize that as a moment that also showed his worth as a character because he didn’t question her choice to do so.

The fictional story captured me again. With an almost Romeo and Juliet sort of naivete, you cannot help but love Rose and Jack. As he takes her from the stilted steps of high society to the pounding bodhran and uillean pipes in the steerage dance, you cannot help the exultation. Their love is unfettered and bright. Even though you know it’s doomed.

Even though their story is fiction, the backdrop against which it is set is not. Watching the film in 3D — well. The sound of the iceberg’s impact thundered through the theater, and I couldn’t help imagining it ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times louder. Feeling it shake the ship, hearing the crunch of thick steel.

Over two thousand souls trusted to Titanic to bear them across an ocean. And as she foundered on the calm midnight seas, some of the most horrific moments were not nature versus human, but human versus human. Locking the lower class passengers in their quarters. The panic that made officers launch life boats half-full or less when there weren’t even enough boats for half the souls onboard. The chaos and the scrambling.

When the water began rushing in, creeping from deck to deck, I felt the panic. As it encroached upon the higher levels of the ship, I had a sense not of the ship going down, but of the sea reaching up to claim it.

Claim it as what? A sadistic tribute in response to the pride of humanity, taken hungrily by an implacable sea? A reminder of the respect we so seldom afford to the earth? A frightening testament to human nature? There are parts of this history that are sickening. How only two of the twenty lifeboats returned to collect survivors after the Atlantic claimed the ship for good. How the arrogance of the shipbuilders led to allowing aesthetics to trump safety. The cost was almost 75% of the lives on the ship.

As I watched the final moments of the Titanic’s sinking in the film, I was reminded of the National Geographic article once more. In it, they described how the ship’s stern (the rear part that broke away from the bow once the waterlogged front portion sunk beneath the waves) corkscrewed to the bottom of the ocean. It’s the part of the wreck you don’t see images of. The bow in all its aerodynamics survived in a rather picturesque state; the stern took a tumultuous and violent spiral downward, and it took hundreds of terrified people along with it.

The end of the film shows those touching moments: an elderly couple meant to be Ida and Isidor Strauss holding one another, an Irish mother telling her children of Tir na Nog. What it doesn’t show, what it cannot depict, is the scream of strained steel, the terrible crush of the in-rushing water, and the darkness when the sea snuffed out the lights leaving people inside the belly of a sinking ship.

It was that that pulled the tears from me this morning. The adult knowledge of people, stuck and helpless, being dragged downward to the bottom of the North Atlantic.

So today, nine days after Titanic’s centenary, I’m remembering not Kate and Leo as Rose and Jack, or even the unsinkable Molly Brown. I’m remembering those who died faceless for human folly, because when people in power err — whether in building a ship and naming it unsinkable or invading a country — it’s the faceless who bear the brunt of it. And that is heavy enough to sink a ship.

I’m reminded also that nature isn’t to be trifled with. Perhaps that is what Titanic should remain: a lesson in humility, and a reminder that the swiftest and most brazen among us can be brought low.

And yes, I wept.


About Emmie Mears

Saving the world from brooding, one self-actualized vampire at a time.

Posted on April 24, 2012, in Terror Tuesday and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I’ll always remember how she said “I’ll never let go” then had to pry his frozen, dead hands off of her so he could sink to the bottom of the ocean lol

  2. James Cameron is a pretty cool guy – yeah it was a bit of an egotistical moment when he declared himself King of the World upon winning the Oscar, but he truly is passionate about the science behind the film. He is also the director of The Abyss, a sci-fi flick from the ’80s. He wanted his underwater filming to look realistic so he helped invent better diving gear that actually worked – not just movie stunt suits but legit diving gear. He has the luxury of all the money he needs to do what he wants, but it’s noteworthy that he uses his money to fund expeditions and for charity. So, not so bad a guy.

    I might need to pick up that Nat Geo issue if it’s still available. My parents used to subscribe but I haven’t read an issue in years. And as corny as some of Titanic is – the song, the scene in the car – it’s still a decent movie.

  3. Well put Emmie,
    I have always been intrigued with Titanic and her story. I loved the movie and wow! Ten years! I had the two taper and had a crush on Leo. I have read up on the history of Titanic and as well as the night was captured in the movie, it was only a tid bit. This ship is in fact what you stated… a reminder of humility. That even the biggest most powerful things can come down in one swift blow, wether it be by ice or even by the achilles. Loved it!

  4. Ooooh, the Titanic! I remember watching that in the theater when it first came out and being moved to tears at the end. 😀 Great discussion–I gobbled it up!

  5. Holy crap, can you write or what?! You actually had me gripping on every single word and I couldn’t help but sigh a little once I had reached that final period. My goodness. Thank you. For your sentiments, thoughts and quiet remembrances of a tragic day that, despite its many years passed or the fact that worse tragedies have been seen to this day, will always be looked upon with regret, sorrow and disbelief.

  6. What a wonderfully detailed post, Emmie. I was much older than you when I saw the movie, but I also focused on the Romeo and Juliet theme. When I saw the 3D version (a movie screaming out for it) I was focused more on the nameless souls and the terror of the thing. Perhaps that’s because just the night before I had watched the great “A Night To Remember” on tv. Without all the special effects they managed to capture the drama and terror by focusing on the innocent and the arrogant. There was hardly a blockbuster star among the cast, but it was fantastic.

  7. Great writing, Emmie. Like everyone else, I’ve always been captivated by the Titanic story. Both the original “Night to Remember” and the newer “Titanic” are fascinating studies in human nature. I had an opportunity to interview Charles Haas, the President of the International Titanic Society, several years ago. He’s been down to the Titanic twice and his descriptions were fascinating. He also knew and had just met with Millvina Dean, the last survivor, who died a week or so later, which made his stories about her very touching.

    • Thank you!

      That would be such an honor to get to meet someone who has had those experiences. I feel so thankful for the opportunities I’ve had to meet Holocaust survivors, because my future children won’t have that chance.

  8. The fellow in the cooks uniform standing on the stern of the ship with Jack and Rose as they prepared for the final sinking, nipping from a flask, was a portrayal of an actual person in history. There was an actual cook on the ship who was able to swim out to the boats (and not get hypothermia) because he was so inebriated. I loved Cameron’s attention to detail. After I saw the film in 1997, I finally “got” what happened that night and did some research on my own. There’s a book called “A Night to Remember” that is a compilation of stories taken from the actual survivors of the Titanic. Very sobering, and yet deeply touching. Great article Emmie!

    • I really want to read that book — I think James Cameron’s attention to detail is commendable for sure. I also love how much he has invested in research and creating ways to explore our world, both its history and nature.

  9. Great post. I kind of wish I’d gone to see it in 3D when it was in the cinema last week. I remember going to see it on a school trip 15 years ago and trying desperately not to cry at the end when Jack died. I don’t know why I tried to hide my tears, most of the girls in my class were bawling, more for Leo DiCaprio than for the character though.

  10. A wonderful post! I felt exactly the same things as you did when I saw it. I was struck, watching the boat tilt. It reminded me of watching all of those bodies fall out of the Twin Towers ten and a half years ago.

    I also think that Rose and Jack’s love for each other would have been doomed had he lived. It’s very difficult to come together as a couple from a similar world. How much more difficult would it be trying to unite with conflicting backgrounds and ideologies?

    Overall, it was a strange and wondrous experience watching Titanic in theaters. I don’t know quite what to make of it, but I know that it’s significant.

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