17 Apr 1998

Titanic

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Note, this was written before I had a blog. I recovered it from the Internet Archive. Back in graduate school I had a “musings” section of my site and those essays are in the same spirit as this blog so I’ve added them with retroactive datestamps.

I recently saw the movie Titanic, directed by James Cameron. It provoked thoughts of many kinds, and I’m not entirely sure why. Part of it had to do with the moviemaking itself, which I’ll get to last. But part of it had to do with the story, as it was told, and the problem of negativity in our society.

As many people will tell you, Titanic can be broken down as follows: an hour and a quarter of plot to get you involved, followed by two hours of sinking. The first part was very enjoyable. Basically, if you remember Romeo and Juliet, then you get the idea. Upper-class girl (17 years old! practically statutory rape) meets lower-class boy during suicide attempt off back of ship, where lower-class members of society hang out. Desperate for personal attention and true human interaction, she falls madly in love with him. He draws a picture of her naked, they become the first to do it in the back of a car, then the ship sinks and he dies.

Anyway, during the actual sinking, our young couple no longer form the focus of the movie. Instead, we are shown, in a style of moviemaking deliberately intended to smack of realism and documentary, how 2200 people from different segments of society would react to a crisis of this magnitude, as they scramble to get aboard enough lifeboats to save 1100 of them (but which end up only filled with 700). As Cameron (who also wrote the screenplay) shows us personal failure after personal failure, I found myself clicking my tongue along with it saying “Christ, what an ass,” or “I can’t believe that guy did that,” or “Yep. That’s how people would react all right.”

But it’s not true.

Cameron shows too many negative moments, and almost no positive ones. I believe that there was just as much generosity and heroism to be found during this hell as there was animal behavior. Yes, people probably did keep others out of their lifeboat with an oar. Yes, the crew probably did tend to buckle under the pressure, but is there evidence that one of them started shooting people? (Of course, then that crew member blows his own head off in a grisley scene meant purely to shock. Shame on James.) Were there only cowardly men like the one that snuck onto a boat, praying he wouldn’t be noticed, or were there also men who would have gladly sacrificed their place for another?

Cameron did provide counterpoint to these regrettable acts. He shows tender moments of parting between loved ones. And more parting between loved ones. And more. But no acts of bravery, no acts of self-sacrifice, no true human spirit coming through. The conclusion: James Cameron thinks there are no such people, except the fictional ones like Jack Dawson (our hero) who reside in a special world carved out for those who love like only fictional characters can do. No less than Romeo himself (no coincidence that whats-his-name was also in the recent MTV-videoesque version of Romeo and Juliet) could give of himself to save the life of a loved one. Bullshit. Lots of that was going on, I’m sure. Why aren’t we being shown those stories too? Not just the brave goodbyes, but the ones who stopped to help a panicked woman get on her boat, the ones that offered solace and hope when there really was none, the women that chose to stay with their loved ones instead of being rescued. (Incidentally, wasn’t that Irish woman (from Terminator 2) with her two kids both on a lifeboat and in her cabin when it finally sank?)

Why was the movie made that way? Why is it so negative? I am not sure, but I bet it has to do with making as much money from the movie as possible. That was obviously their motivation for doing every single thing they did. James Cameron is famously obsessive as a moviemaker. But take a look at his movies: they are pure candy. No grand themes, no elevating stories, no lovable characters. Just two-dimensional everything. Grab-your-attention, edge-of-your-seet, nonstop action. But in the process, he manages to beat every last shred of humanity from the story. The only reason for showing tenderness or real compassion is to set us up for the big disappointment when whoever it was gets blown away, or drowns, or freezes to death with her frozen baby in her arms (especially inappropriate, I thought).

It doesn’t seem such a great idea to use base ideas such as these to make a movie. It tends to make us unhappy, and who needs that? I don’t want to go see someone tell me that people suck, that we’re a bunch of bastards, to show me how he thinks I’d react when placed on a sinking ship. Cameron has lowered our expectations of ourselves, and yet the movie will sell very well. We are used to seeing ourselves lowered in this way: take a look at the local news, or take a look at the way we act towards strangers, or take a look at how no one seems to stop bringing up the Holocaust, or even worse, bringing up the fact that that’s nothing compared to the number of Russians killed. “But if we forget about it, we’re doomed to repeat it one day,” they say. Exactly my point. Nice positive outlook on humanity, isn’t it. It’s not hip to be down on people, it’s the most negative possible activity.

As for my opinions on the moviemaking itself (from a technical standpoint), something really jumped out at me as I made my way home on the subway. As you may know, computer animation was extensively used in this movie. How else could there be complete fly-bys of a beautiful model of the Titanic, complete with actors moving about on deck? A flyover by a nonexistent camera over a ship that sunk 84 years ago with people that were never there walking around on it. This concept is so striking that there were, by my count, at least 10 of these scenes in the movie.

The point is clear: with the aid of computer technology, absolutely anything you could possibly imagine can be convincingly placed on film. Did you see Mouse Hunt? You actually felt like you were the mouse running around in the nooks and crannies of the house, something that would have been impossible with a real camera (or a real house, for that matter). Or Star Wars: Special Edition. George Lucas even says in an interview that things that were impossible in 1980 were doable now, even easy (I added the easy part).

Computer animation is not easy, but it is straightforward. Interfaces for 3D software is constantly growing more sophisticated. And this same software (Infini-D, Strata Studio, Ray Dream Studio, 3D Studio Max, Lightwave, SoftImage, etc.) is getting cheaper. You can get your hands on powerful 3D software for doing simple animations for $100.

Wait a minute. Say that again? You mean millions of people have access to software only mildly crippled compared to what they made Titanic with? That’s right. And just think how much cheaper and better this software will be in a few years. It’s inevitable in the computer industry that price will drop while ease of use and power will increase.

That’s when it hit me.

I imagined a software program so easy to use that in a matter of moments I could have a 3D animation of exactly the idea in my head. Or a dream I had. Or something I saw. I could wake up, say “What a nightmare,” and show my wife exactly what the dream was. I could immediately show the person I was talking to the geometric shape I was studying. I would no longer have to wave my arms saying “big purple blobby thing with whiskers sort of and spots around the outside with a lever coming out crosswise from the center.”

What I’m having a hard time explaining here is that we might one day have a vehicle for showing exactly what’s in our minds, in 3 dimensions (4, including the potential for animation), instantly. What will this do to moviemaking?

Regardless of whether I end up being able to show everyone my purple monster, sooner or later the folks that make movies will get fed up using their new power to just make things that look real. Enough dinosaurs, Godzillas, apes, mice, Titanics, explosions, space ships, and shields that come out of nowhere to encase a hero in metal. They’ll get more abstract. More creative. They’ll be able to express more subtle ideas than mere realism. They’ll be able to use the new medium like artists have been doing for millenia: they’ll be able to speak directly to our emotions.

I just hope it happens after James Cameron retires.