Thursday, April 12, 2012

"That's an idiom!" And other new thoughts on Titanic

I sat in front of possibly the smartest children ever last night at Titanic.

And when I say "children," I mean they were young. Two girls. Couldn't have been more than six and eight. And it's possible they were only four and six. (I'm better at judging the age of toddlers than little kids.)

I was worried at first whether I'd regret my choice of seat. This movie was set to run three hours and fifteen minutes, which could be anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes longer than these girls wanted to sit still. And when they talked a couple times at the start, I thought I might be in for a long night. Unless I moved, which would probably make their parents feel bad.

But they were extremely well behaved. They only got antsy around the time that (spoiler alert) Rose is floating on top of that ornate wooden door, with Jack fused to her in a frozen death grip. At that point one of them actually had to be taken out of the theater -- she was just done. But before that, they spaced out their random expulsions of commentary quite well, and never fussed.

And one of them may have said just about the most brilliant thing I've ever heard a child that age say.

Brassy Molly Brown (Kathy Bates) has realized that Jack can't show up to the fancy dinner in his steerage clothing, so she outfits him in her son's tuxedo, which is almost the perfect size for him. (Really, it's perfect -- you can't have the dashing Leo DiCaprio wearing a monkey suit that doesn't fit right.). When Brown admires her work in the mirror, she says "You shine up like a new penny!"

The little girl behind me said: "Dad, that's an idiom, right?"

Her dad: "Right."

Mind = blown.

One thing I did wonder was whether they were emotionally mature enough to watch the movie. Not only are there Kate Winslet's boobs and the mostly implied sex scene, but don't forget the little matter of the fifteen hundred people who died on the ship -- many of whom were left as floating corpses in the water, including a dead mother grasping her dead baby in her arms. That's heavy stuff. But the most I heard in terms of real trauma from them was afterward, when one of the girls proclaimed "Mommy, that was a very sad movie."

I have plenty of other thoughts on my viewing of Titanic. Do you have a couple minutes?

The only way to watch a 195-minute movie

I must admit the only thing I really dreaded about watching Titanic again was the length. I'd seen it twice in the theater and a third time on VHS. But that was when I was in my 20s, before the internet had truly destroyed my attention span.

How would I fare in a 195-minute movie at the ripe old age of 38?

My recent experience with watching very long movies is limited. The last two I've tackled have had very similar themes: Ben-Hur and Spartacus. When I watched Spartacus, it took most of the morning and early afternoon on a Saturday, maybe 5+ hours. But that's nothing compared to Ben-Hur. In part because of my circumstances watching it (later at night, after my wife went to sleep), I watched the damn thing in four consecutive 45-minute sittings from a Monday night to a Thursday night.

After last night I realized: The only proper way to watch a movie of such impressive girth is in the theater. There's no temptation to pause and check your email, to make yourself a snack, to go to the bathroom, just to take a breath. The movie doesn't allow you a break. You've got to do it all in one shot, which means you are certain to accomplish the feat (unless you fall asleep, that is).

With Titanic, it was all the better because I didn't have to worry about my bladder, nor falling asleep. If I needed to go to the bathroom, I'd just leave and go to the bathroom. I've seen this movie before. I know what happens and when there are slow moments. (Not many, really.) If nature calls, I can answer. And if sleep calls, I can oblige.

And, psychologically, because I had these options open to me, I didn't have to go to the bathroom and I never came close to nodding off. Well, I had to go to the bathroom by the time I left, but I was even considering holding it until I got home.

James Cameron does nothing halfway

Another big fear many people had about this 3D release of Titanic was the dreaded c-word: "conversion." Namely, in the short history of converting 2D movies to 3D, the process has been almost universally derided as unsuccessful and in fact pointless. The extra dimension derived from this process has, traditionally, been paper thin and utterly perfunctory.

But those people didn't remember that James Cameron does nothing halfway.

If he was going to convert Titanic to 3D, he was going to do it in such a way that the naysayers simply had no ammunition. And by golly, he pulled it off.

I heard Cameron interviewed the other day on NPR, and he said that $16 million went into the 3D conversion of Titanic -- which must be three times the cost associated with converting most movies. (And it made that total back immediately on its $17 million opening weekend.) He also listed some number of years it took them to do it, which could have been anywhere from three to eight. Needless to say, he was involved intimately in every step of the process.

So did you really think he would not pull it off?

I would say that the 3D ranged from more than competent to simply astounding. He achieves an incredible depth of field, which was also an inarguable strength of Avatar. The same technology was doubtless involved. (Yes, I know that Avatar was shot with special cameras, but some of the same revolutionary principles of 3D were no doubt utilized here.)

One thing I wondered was whether watching a 3D movie for over three hours would give me a headache, but the only lasting physical remnant of the experience was a dent on the bridge of my nose where the glasses had rested. It stayed there for at least the next two hours until I went to bed.

James Cameron can also draw out the tension

One thing I noticed on this viewing is how well Cameron milks the sense of tension out of every scenario. There were a couple times I noticed my body rigid with uncertainty about how a scene would turn out, even though this would be my fourth viewing of Cameron's epic.

One scene in particular that really stressed me out was when Rose seeks help to free Jack of his handcuffs. I really noticed how Cameron draws that scene out, demonstrating the couple false starts she makes before finally happening upon the axe as the only way to snap his bonds. You can really see the way her mind wants to collapse under the strain of trying to figure out what to do under the intense pressure of the situation. And even though I knew the waters below deck would not drown Jack, for a tense ten minutes or so, Cameron convinced me it might be otherwise.

The one Michael Bay moment

People who really want to hurt Cameron's feelings might compare him to Michael Bay, which most everyone else would agree is unfair. However, there are some similarities in the scope and themes of the projects they take on, and neither is known for working with particularly subtle dialogue. In fact, there's even a parody trailer for something called Titanic Super 3D going around right now, where the joke is that Rose's loogie literally flies out into the audience, and other creative talents (George Lucas, J.J. Abrams) teamed up with Cameron to make the movie more "super." The segment detailing Bay's contribution shows explosions everywhere you look on the boat, from plates falling to the ground to people bursting into flame as they hit the water.

But there was one single shot that reminded me of something you would see in a Michael Bay movie, and it's that scene where Rose and Jack turn a corner down a new hallway, to escape the wall of water that has just consumed the man and his son behind them. It's done in slow mo and you can see the water crashing behind them, almost as though they were running from an explosion. You know the shot I'm talking about. And it doesn't really help that their running doesn't look particularly urgent in this shot -- that's the kind of thing Bay would miss, not Cameron. (Then again, with that water crashing behind them, maybe they couldn't afford to do many additional takes to get it right.)

An impressive use of extras

One thing that unfailingly impresses me about older epics is how amazingly they choreograph the extras. If Titanic had been made today, it wouldn't have needed all those real people. A lot of those extras would have been digital, and we would have been the lesser for it.

By being forced to go old school -- because the new school hadn't been invented yet -- Cameron gives us a living, breathing sense of being there.

Yes, there are digital effects in Titanic. The sweeping "helicopter shots" of the boat are often done on the computer, and you can really tell sometimes. But there's an impressively small reliance on digital imagery in general. Most of the scenes of people clambering all over each other involve real people, each with their own "character," each with their own set of motivations and back stories, even if only because the extras themselves chose to work out those motivations and back stories. You really notice a thing like that. There isn't some extra off in the corner of the frame who's been programmed on a repeating loop of random, slightly robotic panic. Those panicked people are real.

The framing device

One of the brilliant things about Titanic that gets overlooked is Cameron's decision to set the action in the present and have Rose tell the story of what happened in flashback. It would have been incredibly easy to just tell a straightforward Titanic story that all takes place within those three days in 1912. But it's 20-25 minutes before we even see our first images of the boat in its initial majesty, rather than just existing as a rusting hulk at the bottom of the ocean.

It never occurred to me before to actively think about this as one of the movie's strengths. Since I was so smitten with this movie when I first saw it -- and my opinion of it hasn't really changed much in 15 years -- I tend to think of everything about it as a strength. But on this viewing I specifically pondered the effectiveness of that framing device. No, you can't really say that Bill Paxton's character undergoes a very complicated growth over the course of the narrative. He's really just a guy who's only in it for the money, then does a 180 and starts to really "see it," as he says. But it's great to have that part of the story there to ground us in the present. (Besides, without that, we wouldn't have had Gloria Swanson's wonderful performance.)

DiCaprio ages, Winslet doesn't

I couldn't help thinking as I watched this movie that the 2012 Winslet looks almost exactly like the 1997 Winslet, yet DiCaprio looks quite a bit older. That's even while acknowledging that he still has a baby face.

The whistle

As moved as I tend to be by Winslet meekly mustering the words "Come back! Come back!" to the lifeboat at the end, what really moves me about that scene is the strident look on her face as she blows into that whistle she grabbed off a nearby corpse. This woman was bathed in doubts only two days earlier, but in this moment, she's choosing life, and wants the whole word to know it. She really will never give up.

The old couple lying in bed

Is once again the thing that got me the most.


Nick Prigge said...

Sigh. A joy to read. So many thoughts. Let's see.

The "Bay" shot you mention. That was the first time I'd seen it on the big screen in 15 years - obviously - and it seemed to me you could really tell those were stunt doubles. Right? Or am I crazy? (Not that I care if they were. Not at all.)

Love your thoughts on the extras. You're totally right, because those are the sorts of things we lose with computer imagery. The URGENCY. Oh, how I miss the URGENCY.

Love that you loved the freeing Jack from the handcuffs sequence. I cannot get enough of that sequence. Means the world to me. And that look on Kate's face when Andrews is giving her the labyrinthine directions is just brilliant. AND I love when she punches the steward in the face. Desperation.

Speaking of which, the meekly mustered "come back, come back" line you mentioned -

Is it crazy to think I kind of want to go watch it again this weekend?

Vancetastic said...

Best part about the handcuff scene:

Jack: Okay, let's practice.
Rose: (hits bureau with axe)
Jack: Okay, now try to hit that same spot again.
Rose: (hits completely different spot)
Jack: Okay, enough practice.

It's a great set of choices. In three minutes, I will drown. Or in one minute, my hand may be chopped off. It's win-win.

I noticed that look when she's getting the directions, too. It's like "Wow, in this exact moment I have to pay perfect attention and not get confused, or Jack dies. I really wish I had a pen and some paper." I also feel that there is a subtle little joke here about women and their sense of direction -- however, the joke is completely undercut by the fact that she actually gets there and finds Jack.

I don't know that it's stunt doubles in that Bay shot. I mean, they're shooting Leo and Kate head on in the shot I'm talking about, so how could it be? Maybe in some of the other shots from other angles.

It's kind of crazy that you want to go see it again. But only kind of. For me, I just don't usually like to see the same movie twice in the same week. Want to space out the viewings so the movie will have fresh impact on me the next time I see it.