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Hitting Bottom

The Titanic may have sunk a hundred years ago, but the great ship is still steaming along for the home video industry. Seemingly every cable channel documentary and TV movie about the 1912 disaster has suddenly reappeared in the marketplace (and James Cameron’s blockbuster is returning to theaters in computer-generated 3-D this week), but I think I’ll stick with the 1958 “A Night to Remember,” which remains probably the best known film of the highly accomplished Roy Ward Baker, one of the best of the postwar generation of British filmmakers. Here’s a quick overview in the New York Times, with a few words about Baker’s sharply political “Flame in the Streets,” which was released in a watchable widescreen transfer by VCI Entertainment a few weeks ago. Amusing typo included at no extra charge!

73 comments to Hitting Bottom

  • Robert Garrick

    I just read Mike Grost’s impressive disquisition on “Titanic” and “The Terminator,” above.

    I love “The Terminator” but I find “Titanic” mostly tedious and intellectually uninteresting. Why?

    I think the problem comes with the romantic tension that is at the core of “Titanic.” Rose has to choose between Leonardo DiCaprio and Billy Zane. It’s not a tough choice. Zane is a classically odious villain and he’s less physically attractive than DiCaprio to boot. All you people who don’t like the two-dimensional characters in Kubrick–how multilayered is that DiCaprio and Zane choice?

    Rose’s choice, of course, is politically charged as well. It’s “what the film is all about.” But the obviousness of the choice, from Rose’s viewpoint, undermines its politics, and it also undermines the film.

    There’s no comparable romantic tension in “Terminator.” That film is all about Linda Hamilton’s transformation from “ordinary” waitress to cosmic hero, which transformation occurs as Hamilton falls in love with the man who will bear her child. Her incremental grasp of the situation drives the plot, and it’s quite moving. To me, it’s a lot more moving than Rose’s choice of DiCaprio over Billy Zane.

  • Mark Gross

    That’s interesting, Robert, that Sarris should like EMPIRE OF THE SUN alone out of all of Spielberg’s films. It’s the only Spielberg I like as well. And it was one of his few box office failures.

    Ballard told a number of stories about the Premiere of EMPIRE OF THE SUN. My favorite was that he saw Cher to the right of him, Queen Elizabeth to the left of him, who drawled, “Are you the author of the film?” and assumed it was all a hallucination until he arrived home, turned on the television and saw both Cher and Queen Elizabeth with an out of focus blob between them which was his figure, and then realized it did in fact happen.

  • Oliver_C

    In his Flickers, Gilbert Adair called Cameron the “exact contemporary equivalent” of Michael Curtiz. Is this supposed to be a *bad* thing?

  • Cameron is a maker of techno spectacles, but humans are more important for him than machines (the Bildungsroman of Rose is at the heart of TITANIC), and Cameron takes the drama of nature vs. technology seriously.

    I don’t immediately understand the relevance of a Curtiz comparison, but Cousteau certainly inspired Cameron, and interestingly, Cousteau made a fine tv movie about one of Titanic’s sister ships: The Jacques-Yves Cousteau Odyssey 5. Calypso’s Search for the Britannic (sunk during WW1 in the Mediterranean) (the series was released as a dvd box set in 2006).

  • nicolas saada

    I would rather compare Spielberg to Curtiz: especially the interaction with the composers (curtiz and Steiner, Spielberg and Williams) Also the long dolly shots, the emphasis on reframing with the camera.
    Cameron has much more similarities with Cecil B.DE Mille. I am sure that he watched the underwaters scenes of REAP THE WILD WIND when he was working on ABYSS.
    David D, what you say about younger generations losing ground with “our” cinephilia is so true. But I don’t know how to cope !

  • I also think EMPIRE OF THE SUN is a great film, one of Spielberg’s very best. And like WAR HORSE it is really a silent film, where dialogue is superfluous. There is a King Vidor in Spielberg that is sometimes trying to get out. In the case of WAR HORSE by the way the dialogue is constantly horrible. If Spielberg had had the balls to make it without dialogue it would have been a sublime film, now it is a film that is sometimes sublime and sometimes embarrassingly bad.

    Cameron’s two TERMINATOR films are great and imaginative, and great fun too. There Cameron’s deficiency as a writer of dialogue is contained, whereas in AVATAR (and potentially TITANIC, I don’t really remember) it runs amok.

  • Claude Miller 1942-2012

  • Just got back from 3D Titanic premiere (in Finland). I’m one of those who rarely change their opinion about a movie (perhaps not a good thing!). So, comparing my thoughts about the new 3D version with my original review of Titanic in January 1998 (Finnish premiere), I found little to add or withdraw. And it was full house tonight in Kokkola, as it was in 1998! After the end credits, I nearly shouted “women and children first!”

    I liked Winslet and DiCaprio more than I remembered. I respect both actress and actor, but felt in 1998 that the roles of Rose and Jack were not entirely worthy of them. Tonight they lifted the characters above the romantic sentimentality and sometimes (many times, actually) silly dialogue. They were both beautiful to watch. Titanic made them big stars, but they had both tackled more challenging roles before this.

    The most interesting part in the film is the destruction of the ship. I couldn’t help but think about the falling of the WTC towers, when the big ship capsized and the people had to start jumping off into the abyss. Later in Avatar, Cameron used the association on purpose, with less success. I’m wary about using real life catastrophes for entertainment. Same goes for Titanic itself, too. (The sinking of M/S Estonia in 1994 touched us Finns closely). So the adventure part with Billy Zane’s bad guy hamming and shooting is just silly.

    Bernard Rose was as marvellous as I remembered. Cameron skilfully uses only the hymn (Nearer My God to Thee) playing on the soundtrack when the old captain locks himself in the wheelhouse. (I think that the captain touching the control wheel for support suggested more gracefully the collapse inside him than did Gary Oldman´s touching the handrail of the staircase seeing Ann back home in Tinker Tailor.) And the images of the floating people and the old couple in bed and a mother putting her children to sleep by telling them the Irish tale of Tir Na Nog are also gorgeous.

    As a whole, the big Titanic (in 3D, too) seems also a big compromise. Cameron wants to make his films big and meets problems having to try to please everybody, otherwise people wouldn’t come to see the film and it would be less big, I suppose. So Cameron goes for entertainment, and up to a point even succeeds. But his film is as unwieldy as Titanic was as a ship, and Cameron has not been able to avoid his icebergs.

    But fortunately, he seems to have some self deprecating irony: perhaps the joke is supposed to be on himself too, when Rose snaps back with Freud’s theories to the men who have become too “big” headed with all things big?

    The script has many faults, like in Kathryn Bigelow’s science fiction STRANGE DAYS Cameron seemed to ruin the film with a weak story, even if it was visually arresting. Cameron mixes greatness with silliness, so the end result is a bit of this and a bit of that, a compromise: Man’s hubris against nature and, if you will, God + Romance! Sex! Diamonds! Theatrical villains! Shootings! James Horner! Céline Dion!

    And the dialogue. What has Jack to say, when he sees the iceberg? “This is bad!” And what says he, when handcuffed in to a pipe below deck with the water rising? “This could be bad!”

    Again the Irish dance scene in which Jack takes Rose into the 3rd deck reminded me of Powell and Pressburger’s I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING. In both films the woman character is planning to travel over the sea to marry a man, but is distracted and changes her mind. (In Powell’s film the future lovers go to a “Ceilidh” dance in the village.)

    The 3D did good, I think. Some have mentioned that the ship looks a bit digital, but I didn’t mind that too much: we are seeing a legend, not the truth. Gloria Stuart, the veteran James Whale films´ actress, was now even more the soul of the film. There was weight, too, in Victor Garber’s Thomas Andrews, who designed the ship. And of course the Swede Bjorn Gunderson was played by a Finn: Jari Kinnunen. I just couldn’t tell the difference, because all the various “Swedes” on board said was “Håll käften!” (Shut your mouth!) And perhaps I should.

  • N Vera

    I like what Robert G said in comparing Terminator to Titanic, and add: there are two narratives in the former, and the more interesting narrative–of John Connor living in slavery to the machines, rising up and fighting them–is told secondhand, through Kyle’s testimony. Love the application of the iceberg principle of storytelling here: more is implied than actually shown.

    Whereas the opposite seems to hold true for Titanic: there is less here than meets the eye. Boy meets girl, girl and boy ride ship into the ocean. The end.

    Tossing that necklace does seem rather self-centered of her.

  • Rose is a Rose is a Rose… but of course Titanic’s captain was played by Bernard Hill – not “Bernard Rose”…


  • Robert Garrick

    TCM is showing “A Night to Remember” (1958) on Saturday, April 14.

    Another TCM presentation of interest: Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face” (1960), coming up this Tuesday night (that’s April 10), right after “The Searchers” (1956).

    I can’t resist pointing out that in “The Searchers,” there’s a scene where John Wayne shoots out the eyes of a fallen Comanche warrior, eternally damning him to ‘wander forever between the winds.’ Or so Ethan explains.

    It’s a fairly chilling scene, and I wonder if someone at TCM thought of it when the decision was made to juxtapose these two films.

  • Tom Brueggemann

    N Vera

    It’s fine to not care for Cameron’s Titanic, but your dismissal of the narrative and themes the way you did might suggest you and I saw entirely different films. The one I saw, as I wrote earlier, contains myriad themes and plot threads, in which the central romance between Jack and Rose to me seems to be of lesser importance than several others.

    It’s this sort of dismissal of the film that makes we wonder if, indeed, there is something subversively threatening about it to some viewers that causes this, which for me just adds to what makes it so interesting.

  • Re: Spieberg – he’s compared himself to Michael Curtiz and Victor Fleming, saying that he doesn’t really have a personal style the way directors like Hitchcock and Welles did.

  • Alex

    Nice piece in today’s NYTimes Science section on historical inaccuracies and lacunae in the Titanic myth (and its films).

    Seems there were unusually strong tides and mirages at work –not just human ineptitude– behind that misfortune.

    I’ll take more historically accurate Westerns; but I stand content, where the Titanic is concerned, with the well imagined exploitation. I’d say print the legend –embellished first, or not.

  • N Vera

    “It’s this sort of dismissal of the film that makes we wonder if, indeed, there is something subversively threatening about it to some viewers ”

    I’d love to see something threatening in it! Some kind of unsettling subtext that raises the hair on one’s neck, keeps one riveted to the screen.

    If there was some other story thread hidden away in the 180 minute running time, I’d love to hear about it, and how it’s somehow superior to Baker’s take. The best I can come up with is that Cal Hockley seems more obsessed with Jack Dawson than with his trophy wife, and this should have been developed further. Billy Zane is an underrated actor, and really, this is his meatiest role yet in terms of running time (which isn’t much of a yardstick, actually), but no critic has focused anything but disdain on him.

    All I see is the deterioration of a once-promising filmmaker drowning in his own ego juice.

  • Oliver_C

    I’m far from Titanic‘s biggest advocate, not even especially a fan, but I do feel that the more vituperative attacks it attracted (also the case with, say, The Lion King, of which I *am* a fan) are like Al Gore’s ostentatious exasperation during the first debate with George Bush — such bad-tempered hyperbole just ends up undermining yourself more than the object of your ire.

    I mean, Michele Bachmann remarkably managed to get herself taken even *less* seriously after she called The Lion King “homosexual propaganda”. And remember Ewen McGregor denouncing Titanic as embodying everything that was wrong with Hollywood? Now, which modestly-budgeted, wittily-scripted indie feature did McGregor sign up for not long after? Oh yeah — The Phantom Menace!

  • Alex Hicks

    Doesn’t look like there’s unanimity on the excellence of any Leisen film but MIDNIGHT, though the tilt of opinion does seem pretty strong for EASY LVING, NO MAN OF HER OWN and NIGHT TO REMEMBER – and is accompanied by some enthusiasm for one or another of a half dozen films. (I’m no big NIGHT TO REMEMBER fan, butthat may just be a function of my taste in genres, which tilts strongly toward noir and romantic comedy but not so much toward love stories quite as sentimental as NIGHT TO REMEMBER ( and yet short of ecsattic as NIGHT TO REMEMBER.))

    Any one have ANYTHING to say about TO EACH HIS OWN?

  • Barry Putterman

    Alex, no offense, but this is a fascinating mistake which points out something which had not previously occured to me.

    This thread is about a Roy Ward Baker film called A NIGHT TO REMEMBER. And the next thread is about Mitchell Leisen who made a film called REMEMBER THE NIGHT. And you have gone on the A NIGHT TO REMEMBER thread to talk about the Leisen film which you called NIGHT TO REMEMBER.

    Now, what were the odds of all of that happening?

  • Johan Andreasson

    Since Leisen is the director of confusion – confused identities, confused gender roles, confusion of genres, and now also confused titles – it’s only natural that discussions about his work is a little confused.

    All I can say about TO EACH HIS OWN is that it’s the Leisen film I haven’t seen that I’m most eager to check out. It’s available on region 2 DVD, so I’ll hopefully get around to it fairly soon.

  • Alex

    Barry good, though not as brilliant as your misperceived reference (a week or so ago) to “Grandma Kubrick” seemed right before I realized that you were, after all, writing with proper reverence of “Grandmaster Kubrick.”

  • “Nice piece in today’s NYTimes Science section on historical inaccuracies and lacunae in the Titanic myth (and its films).”

    When the Titanic sank in 1912, 60 percent of the first class survived, 40 percent of the second, and only 25 percent of the third.

    From the Socialist Standard of May 1912:

  • Last night I saw Roy Baker’s INFERNO which we screened in our 3D series. The director has a sharp grip on the triangle story and the desert survival thriller. The 3D enhances the sense of dizziness in the heat of the desert, the vertigo of descending from the mountain, the feeling of mutual distrust among the partners of the triangle, and the profound metaphysical insecurity about our powers of perception. The 3D reconstruction work of the movie as a 2K DCP by the Munich Film Museum is very nice.

  • N Vera

    Cal runs away with Jack. I’d buy that storyline in a second.