11 April 2012


Carry on.

The hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic is upon us, with commemorative articles appearing already in newspapers and magazines (and blogs like this one), a few days ahead of the actual date (April 15), and the re-release last week of James Cameron’s immensely successful film from 1997, now in 3-D. Moreover, and more happily, the anniversary is also the occasion of a newly updated edition of Down with the Old Canoe, Steven Biel’s landmark analysis of the shifting cultural responses to the disaster.

In preparation for this media mega-event, I watched Cameron’s movie for the first time. I’d always avoided the picture, having been given universally to understand that most of the things I value in a movie — character, dialogue, insight into the human condition — are completely lacking in Titanic. Also, I knew the ending.

Kate Winslet

Despite my misgivings, all of which were confirmed in the viewing, the picture is entertaining enough, and you can’t say it stints on spectacle. It’s probable that certain of the performances make more impact now than they might have if I’d seen them when Titanic was first released. How young Kate Winslet is! I’d admired her already in Heavenly Creatures and Sense and Sensibility, but if it took Titanic to persuade the rest of the planet of her gifts, so be it.

Ultimately, however, I came away from Titanic impressed above all with the beauty of Leonardo di Caprio’s hair. Clearly, the ship provided excellent conditioners and shampoos to passengers in steerage, much better than what one finds even in first-class cabins on cruise ships today — a fact of which I’d been unaware. Will I see Titanic in 3-D? Can I really bear to see Leo’s hair in three dimensions, so real and yet so unreachable?

More rewarding is a return to my old, un-updated edition of Down with the Old Canoe, the central focus of which is the near-universal belief that the ship’s sinking means something: about politics, about theology, about progress, about race and sex and capitalism. Almost any concept you can imagine has been attached to the ship’s hull at one time or another, and that in turn explains why we’re still talking about the Titanic a century after the fact. Dr. Biel (who, among his many other distinctions, was my college roommate) sorts through pictures and pamphlets and old songs — one of which gave him the title for his book — as well as movies, of course, and he writes with wonderful objectivity and good humor.

The real ship…

Thinking about Down with the Old Canoe got me to thinking about the central disaster of my own lifetime, 9/11. In that story, of course, politics and religion were present from the start; nobody needed to project them onto the attack. And yet the way we interpret 9/11 can be as revealing as the way generations of sink-ologists have interpreted the Titanic, whether we use the attack as justification for war with Iraq or for a renewal of religious faith — or for anything else. Our own private agenda are exposed as we reflect on our shared experiences.

There’s no avoiding this tendency, I expect, and we can be confident that, in another hundred years, people will still be looking for meaning in the wreckage — of the World Trade Center, surely, and no doubt the Titanic, too.

…and the movie version.

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