Sunday, January 3, 2021

Titanic: A Metaphor for Our Times?

"When you got nothing you got nothing to lose."
--Leonardo DiCaprio in his opening scene.

"When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose." --Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone

* * * *

The actual Titanic. (National Archives)
Last night I watched James Cameron's Titanic, the 1997 film spectacle starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Jack) and Kate Winslet (Rose). When it was over, an interesting thought emerged regarding this historic event. Yes, it was a story about wealth and privilege in contrast to the common folk in steerage. Yes, it was a love story. Yes, it was a remarkable achievement in special effects and cinematic story telling. 

But at the core of it, it was something still bigger. It was a story about competing narratives. Let me explain. 

Preceding their collision with the iceberg there was really only one narrative: the imagined reality of the Titanic's invincibility. Everyone on that ship full expected to arrive in New York City in a few days. This ship represented one of the greatest achievements of human engineering and thereby a symbol of man's greatness. 

On another level the ship itself could be a metaphor for planet earth, and its passengers a microcosm of the human race. "Nothing can stop us now," seems to be the narrative. Look at us. Look at what we have created. Note how they treat each other--though the rich can't see it, the have nots are conscious of it every minute. 


1912 painting by Willy Stower
The iceberg rips into their reality and shreds it. During the next few hours the narrative that everyone on board had previously accepted must now be exchanged for a new narrative. Celebration--being part of this great first event--must be replaced with a new story: "We could die out here and be just another accident statistic."

The way various characters respond is revealing. Some understood immediately the desperate straits they were in. Others rebelled against it. Some accepted it. Some denied that it was really happening. There were a few who were immediately aware that there was a shortage of lifeboats, that a tragedy had been set in motion. Rose was one of the few who recognized this.

"Something's happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear."

In 2020 a different kind of iceberg hit the human race. The causes and implications are still as yet uncertain. Efforts have been made to craft a narrative, but the narratives are competing. How much of what's happening is orchestrated? How much unnecessary suffering has been caused by the law of unintended consequences? 

* * * *


This event took place in 1912. Rose is part of high society and her mom or fiancee have purchased some fabulous "modern art" while in Europe. One of the paintings is Picasso's Le Demoiselles d'Avignon, which is completely absurd because it sill hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

For several years after Picasso painted it the painting remained in his studio facing the wall. It was radical. Le Demoiselles was first displayed in 1916, four years after the Titanic had sunk. 

This interest in art ties directly to one of the other themes in the film, the discovery of a drawing instead of a diamond in the vault, an artist's rendering of a young nude woman wearing the diamond that these fortune hunters had been in search of for three years.

* * * *

Leo DiCaprio plays the role of a young artist who has been polishing his craft in Paris. He and a friend obtain their tickets by means of a poker game. Leo's first line in the film is a quote from Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone," a song that begins with a drumstick snap on the edge of a snare drum, kicking off his classic Highway 61 Revisited, centerpiece of a trio of 60's albums that formed the foundation of his career. 

Dylan has been occasionally accused of plagiarism. In this case, it was the other way around. The screenwriter borrowed from Bob, an amusing twist for sure.

In the film Jack is from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin and knows how cold water can be. He tells Kate that he used to go ice fishing. He shares how he fell through thin ice once and water that cold is like being hit with a thousand knives all over your body. "You can't breath. You can't think." This is just one of many examples of foreshadowing in storytelling. Several examples can be found in this film.

If you haven't seen it in a while -- I'd not watched it since first seeing it two decades ago -- you might be surprised at its power. Kudos to James Cameron, and everyone else involved in this transcendent tale.

Here is an informative Wikipedia entry on the Sinking of the Titanic.


Anonymous said...

It’s been a long time since I screened that movie. I’d say it was worth the view. Thank you for revisiting this classic. And remember, as the the ship sunk the band still played...


LEWagner said...

Kris Kristofferson's take on the subject:
"Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose,
And nothin' ain't worth nothin' but it's free ..."

Conspiracy theorists say that it was the Olympic, the already-irreparably-damaged sister ship of the Titanic, that was sunk, in an insurance scam, and that the passengers were supposed to have been rescued, but that part went wrong.
Crew members were told to keep their mouths shut.

Ed Newman said...

One reason the band played on was that there were half the lifeboats available that ought to have been. With "women and children first" the odds of getting a seat were significantly reduced. The last song they played, purportedly and in the film, was "Nearer My God To Thee"...