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How I Learned To Surrender And Love 'Titanic'

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in James Cameron's 1997 film "Titanic." (Courtesy Paramount Pictures/Photofest)
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in James Cameron's 1997 film "Titanic." (Courtesy Paramount Pictures/Photofest)

I first saw “Titanic” on a family outing during its opening weekend back in December of 1997 and spent three and a half hours rolling my eyes so hard they were sore the next day. Everything about the movie annoyed me to no end: the cardboard characters, the cheesy dialogue and, most of all, the egregiously bloated running time during which writer-director James Cameron dawdled with his dippy young lovers while we all just wanted to watch the damn ship sink already. My hatred of “Titanic” — which screens on 35mm Monday night as part of the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Big Screen Classics series — was so intense it became a running joke among my friends, as did my prediction that the movie would be a massive box office bomb.

Adding to the ire was that I’d just finished college and found myself back at my old summer job as an usher at a suburban multiplex, one that showed “Titanic” on its four largest screens during the first 16 weeks or so of the astonishing nine months the movie spent in theaters. This meant that about once every hour I had to grab a broom and go sweep up popcorn, candy wrappers and used Kleenex while stepping over sobbing teenage girls, all to the tune of that cloying, ubiquitous Celine Dion song. (To this day I suffer from a sort of “Clockwork Orange” Ludovico conditioning and compulsively start looking for trash on the floor whenever it comes on the radio.)

A still from "Titanic" (1997), directed by James Cameron. (Courtesy Paramount Pictures/Photofest)
A still from "Titanic" (1997), directed by James Cameron. (Courtesy Paramount Pictures/Photofest)

So it was for a laugh more than anything else that after a decade-and-a-half spent relentlessly mocking “Titanic” and all its fans I decided to give the movie another shot when it was re-released in IMAX 3D back in 2012. I had a few hours to kill downtown between press screenings and was curious to see how the IMAX blow-up and 3D conversion had worked out, but if I can be brutally honest with you folks, I had no real intention of sitting through the whole movie again and had kinda planned on bailing out and heading to a bar after the nude scene.

Cut to 194 minutes later and I am bawling. I mean, like, inconsolable, shoulder-heaving sobs. What the hell had just happened? It was the same cornball, embarrassing “Titanic” with its tin-eared dialogue and one-note characterizations, yet now I was one of those weepy human puddles that ushers like me had to sweep around at the end of the show. How could this be? I love “Titanic” now?

The movie hadn’t changed at all, but I sure had. When I first saw it, I was fresh out of film school — a chain-smoking know-it-all who dressed in black and shouldered a Gen Xer’s bone-deep suspicion of anything that became too popular or was otherwise accessible to a mass audience. I’d also just spent four years at an extremely expensive university learning how to go to the movies, so naturally I assumed I was better at it than everybody else.

What I hated most back then was when a movie was quote-unquote “manipulative” — as if manipulating an audience’s emotions isn’t the whole damn point of the art form in the first place. I resented the melodramatic button-pushing of filmmakers like Cameron or Steven Spielberg, and thought that people who fell for their tricks were suckers. I watched films with my guard up, over-analyzing and intellectualizing shot selections and aesthetic choices while trying to keep the actual emotional experience of the movie at arm’s length. Yeah, I was a lot of fun at parties.

Shown second from left, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Titanic." (Courtesy Paramount Pictures/Photofest)
Shown second from left, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in "Titanic." (Courtesy Paramount Pictures/Photofest)

Also it was the ‘90s and we were all really into postmodernism and irony, which are the last two things one would associate with the straightforward schmaltz of “Titanic.” I’m taken aback every time I watch it now by just how guileless the movie is in its depiction of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s star-crossed lovers. There’s no layer of self-protective sarcasm. They’re almost goonishly sincere in a manner that maybe only the two most charismatic actors of their generation could get away with. DiCaprio’s unique ability to forge a conspiratorial relationship with the audience somehow carries off his brazenly ridiculous peasant-artiste character, while Winslet’s canny knack for projecting intelligence and her earthy sensuality manage to make even the absurd sequence in which he teaches her how to hock loogies off the ship deck into something genuinely stirring and romantic.

Some of these lines are indeed famously, groan-inducingly wretched, but screenplays are more than just dialogue and Cameron’s script contains a rather ingenious feat of construction — showing us a computer model of exactly how the boat is going to sink right at the outset, then carefully threading scenes through different levels of the ship, sneakily laying out the boat’s geography so we’ll know exactly where our characters are and where they need to go once the iceberg hits. The chaos in this movie is always agonizingly, terrifyingly coherent.

I’m excited for the Coolidge screening because I don’t think “Titanic” quite makes sense on television, no matter how fancy your set might be. The obviousness of the writing and oversized performances feel more at home in an enormous presentation. You need to let yourself be swept up in the massive grandeur of the ship, the soaring music and heightened emotions for it to all really sing together as a piece. In recent years I’ve come around to thinking that a more nuanced version of the tale with better-rounded characters wouldn’t resonate as powerfully as Cameron’s shamelessly bold, sometimes silly strokes. You don’t watch “Titanic” so much as you surrender to it. That’s something that took me a long time to learn how to do.


Titanic” screens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Monday, June 24.

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Sean Burns Twitter Film Critic
Sean Burns is a film critic for The ARTery.

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