The other day, I watched Titanic for what was, incredibly, only the first time – I was a little too young for it when it came out in theaters, and I guess I’ve avoided it since then because I was convinced that it couldn’t possibly all that good. However, following my negative feelings about Avatar, and being sick and tired of being constantly told that I just had to see Titanic, I thought it was time to give it a shot.
Surprisingly, I didn’t hate it, though I have a feeling that I could pretty easily talk myself into hating it if I spent a couple solid hours thinking about it. More interesting than any review of the film, though (because, really, what is there to say about it that hasn’t already been said?) is how it reflects, and is reflected by, Avatar, which shares fundamentally the same preoccupations. That in turn reflects the interests and efforts of writer / director Cameron, and – maybe – can tell us something about what about these fundamentally mediocre efforts so connected with audiences.
On the face of it, saying that Avatar and Titanic bear the same fundamental structure will probably seem like lunacy: the former is a space opera about exploitation and traditionalism, while the latter is a period drama about forbidden love on a really big ship. Ostensibly, the only shared elements are huge budgets, even huger grosses, and spectacular special effects.
If we move beyond this, though, I think a more essential connection between the two movies is in what becomes the central theme of both: the transformative power of love. Corollary to that is the way that Cameron develops that theme. In some way, both Avatar and Titanic are about encounters with other worlds and resultant loves that are forbidden. And, ultimately, the thing that interests Cameron as a filmmaker the most is not the love story but the vessel which allows the love story to take place. The Titanic itself – the physical ship – is what allows class structures to be condensed and, therefore, causes Jack and Rose to collide, like two molecules which, suddenly placed into a constrained space, may bump into each other quite unexpectedly. In the same way, the need to explore and understand Pandora in Avatar is the only reason that Jake ever encounters Neytiri. The developing romances, in turn, allow Cameron to explore these literal and figurative worlds in greater detail.
Maybe this, then, is the central problem: Cameron’s stories serve his world, not the other way around, and his interest is primarily in inhuman operations rather than human relationships. It’s a credit to his talent as a director that he’s able to make the movies work as well as he does: certainly, during Titanic, I was never bored, which is no small feat for a three-hour movie. Still, in both cases, his interest in creating the world causes the truth of his stories to take a backseat, where they are condensed down to their simplest forms optimized to produce the maximum possible emotional effect.
What do I mean by this? The simple fact is that, in both movies, Cameron wants to make love into a singularly transformative force – one so transformative that a person can be figuratively (and, in the case of Avatar, literally) reborn. In order for this to be possible, he turns conflicting parties into monolithic objects, immutable and unmixable, where choice is binary: you can be one or the other, and if you leave one behind, it’s so different that you neither want nor need to look back.
In a certain way, the problem is worse in Avatar, because the plot is structured such that there’s no pain whatsoever in Jake’s decision to go native. Still, I was more frustrated at Cameron’s monolithic portrayal of class in Titanic than I was by anything in Avatar, perhaps because as a period piece there was some promise of a realism that, in the end, wasn’t there.
It isn’t that I objected to the portrayal of Rose’s upper-class upbringing as an entirely different world from Jack’s live-as-he-will poverty: that is a dichotomy that has been suggested, with success, in other films and other stories. No, the problem is Cameron’s clear-cut favoring of one of these worlds over the other – his populist portrayal of life below decks as vibrant and warm, while that of the wealthy as sterile, contemptuous, and cruel. When Jack rescues Rose from jumping over the side of the ship, he also rescues her from the life of the wealthy: a life, it is suggested, that is no life at all. And, indeed, other than Rose, the only one of the wealthy that we encounter who appears to have any shred of humanity is Molly Brown, who we are told at the beginning is ‘new money.’
And so, Rose is rescued from her wealth and learns to ride like a man; her love for Jack is a transformative power, just as Jake’s love for Neytiri is transformative (albeit in a much more literal way). It is so transformative, in fact, that she never even considers looking back at her own life; as far as we are aware, for instance, she never sees her mother again. But the transformation is so extreme – as it must be, given how Cameron paints his picture of class and lifestyle – that we cannot help but see it as false, just as Jake’s transformation is false, and that is because there was never really a choice in the first place. The former life was hollow and cruel, the new one bold and beautiful and adventurous. Which would you take?
This may be precisely what so endears Cameron’s films to audiences, however. Film is, after all, a visual medium, and there’s no denying that Cameron creates visually awe-inspiring movies. At the same time, there’s something beautiful in his desire to be able to transcend that which we are. This, perhaps, is where Titanic succeeds and Avatar fails: in Titanic, at least, that transcendence is paid for; the ship sinks, Jack drowns, the band plays until the end. All of us, I think, have had moments where we long to slough off all that we are and rise newly-made. Cameron’s films allow us to believe that it could even happen. There may be something beautiful in that.
None of that, however, changes the fact that Cameron’s movies are fundamentally inhuman, and their portrayal of transcendence false. Strive as we might, there is always a cost, and we can never leave everything fully behind; as we go forward, the desire grows in proportion to the things preventing us. In Brief Encounter, Laura indulges this fantasy, but in the end she realizes that it is just a fantasy, and that is what makes that film so sad at the same time that it is so true. Titanic and Avatar are more like fantasies, that try to eat their cake and have it, too. That may make them the ultimate form of the popcorn movie – but it’s still just popcorn.