Thursday, September 10, 2009

Titanic: A Big Big Love

Earth Capitol has a short but amusing post about the Titanic. I enjoyed this not only because the featured poem is so fabulous but also because I share EC's obsession with the Titanic disaster itself. Shamefully I have to admit to having seen every single film about it. As a consequence I can say that - contrary to what one of the post's comments asserts - James Cameron's Titanic is not the worst film ever made. The worst film ever made is in fact Lew Grade's Raise The Titanic.

Why this tragedy should have given rise to so much bad art is a mystery, but Raise the Titanic really is worth a look should it ever rear its head on terrestrial TV again. It concerns a bizarre cold war plot to find a mysterious substance ("Byzanium? That's absurd", says a character at one point, accurately) which has gone down with the ship. At the end Titanic is raised to the surface and sailed triumphantly into New York harbour, a wobbly toy boat covered in sea weed bobbing up and down against a badly painted backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. The plot summary is here, if you have the stomach for it.

Clearly Cameron's Titanic is equally bobbins, but the sinking scenes are technically phenomenal and actually quite thrilling. My colleague over at Strange Harvest has noted too that the CGI recreations of the ship can be seen as an inverted homage - or a strange endpoint - to modernism's obsession with maritime imagery. In Cameron's Titanic the awesome processing power of digital technology is utilised to recreate an Edwardian ocean liner, albeit with thrilling verisimilitude.

For all its technical prowess - and let's face it that's the only permissible reason to watch it really - the film sticks rigidly to the cliches of the Titanic story: the jigging Irish in 3rd class forever enjoying the craic, stoical band members playing as they descend into the waves, caddish upper class men stealing into the lifeboats etc.

It also contains a number of narrative absurdities and anachronisms. Chief amongst these is the fact that Kate Winslet's character is carrying several early modernist masterpieces in her luggage including Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. This is currently to be found in the Museum of Modern Art and not, as far as anyone is aware, at the bottom of the Atlantic. The film also includes one of the most exquisitely terrible bits of art criticism ever seen on film when Leonardo Di Caprio gazes at Picasso's painting and says "The colours, they're just so....intense".

Less facetiously I owe my obsession with Titanic to reading about its discovery in National Geographic as a child. Titanic was discovered by Dr Robert Ballard in the early 1980's and the magazine followed this story over several issues leading up to the incredible photographs of the submerged ship. I found it both moving and terrifying in much the same way that Earth Capitol describes. Amazingly, Ballard's discovery - achieved with state of the art submersibles and seabed scanning equipment - was actually a by-product of the cold war too. Ballard had been contracted by the CIA to search for the wrecks of nuclear submarines and, at the end of this period, had been allowed to spend a few extra days looking for the titanic. No mention of Byzanium though. Suspicious that.


Murphy said...

three things come to mind, mostly concurrent with the EC's post...

a) I recall, as a child, seeing in an old national geographic magazine a full page spread with an illustration of the titanic as it was nearly fully underwater, and splitting in two. The picture was terrifying; the scale of the ship and then the emptiness of the water was really scary...

b) Somewhat linked; my favourite shots in the film were the little cutaways to an aerial view of the ship from a distance. Absolute blackness apart from a tiny speck of light, in total silence (i think). Again, the vastness is somewhat daunting.

c) Gavin Bryars' 'Sinking of the Titanic' - an absolutely phenomenal piece of music, bucking the trend of shite art coming out of the disaster.

owen hatherley said...

You lot want to come down to Southampton, it has loads of shite Titanic art. At least two fantastically kitsch Edwardian Titanic memorials - one to the engineers on the ship, which seems in the process to have become a Victorian clipper; one to the ship's band; and a permanent exhibition on it in the local museum; and, if the City Council manages to sell its art collection, it'll soon have a walk-through scale model in special Titanic galleries designed by Wilkinson Eyre. Wonderful.

Charles Holland said...

Owen, not coming from Southampton I can't imagine how annoying anything about the Titanic must be!

Murphy, I remember the fold out spread of the boat cutting in half very well. Looking at them you could almost hear the appalling noise as it did so.

Will said...

I remember the stories in the National Geographic as well - and I was given a lavishly illustrated copy of Ballard's book after the Titanic was found. The pictures of the ship, encrusted with rust and the lifeforms of total darkness, had a very profound effect on me as well. There was another picture that I remember to this day - a scale diagram of a tiny Titanic on the ocean bed, and the height of a page showing the great depth of the ocean, with a tinier Wood's Hole vesseel at the top. I am unaffected by heights, but the sense of all that depth and water gave me a sense of sickness like vertigo.

Only once does Cameron's Titanic really move, at the moment Murphy mentions. As the ship is sinking, with chaos and panic on board, there's a long shot, from a great distance, with the ship a lighted speck on the black ocean - a tiny spark in a vast expanse of icy silence. It gives a sense of the loneliness and the helplessness of the stricken ship. Beautiful. Almost all of the rest of it is rubbish.

Belfast is coverting the yard where the Titanic was built into luxury flats, called Titanic Quarter. From the Guardian:

The [Titanic Museum], which is due to open in 2012, will be modelled partly on the shape of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao. "If you think of the value of the brand name Titanic, it's enormous," Smith says. "It must be one of the largest brand names in the world. So it makes so much sense to create an attractive visitor centre in the heart of this quarter."

As for Raise the Titanic, one critic said "it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic".

Markasaurus said...

Almost as interesting as the model of the Titanic is the full size set of the ship located next to the beach in Rosario, Mexico. You can see photos here:

It was a one-sided set where all the shots could be taken with the ocean behind the ship. It appears on a few tourist websites as well, apparently you can visit it if you're in the area.

things said...

It wasn't a critic who said 'it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic,' but rather Lew Grade himself, allegedly.

Will said...

Lew Grade eh? My anecdote was better than I knew.

Kosmograd said...

I came home the other day to find my kids watching Titanic. "I don't want to give the plot away", I quipped, walking around the room in my best Groucho Marx impression, "but the ship sinks."
"Aw Dad!" they cried out in unison. Turns out they didn't know.

Anyway, if you watch it backwards at about 10x speed, it's the feelgood movie of the decade.

Charles Holland said...

Kosmo that's a lovely snapshot of your family life!

Will & Things, yes Raise The Titanic was a total failure, commercially as well as artistically. He was also responsible for The Persuaders with Roger Moore and Tony Curtis, a show I loved as a child but which also cost the earth to little effect.

Mark, thanks for the link.